Jianni watched the scene from the comfort of her perch – a branch a score of paces up in one of the morbannon trees that ringed the clearing. Less than a mile beyond the city walls, the forest was all but undisturbed – a wonderful place for rest and contemplation. After the day’s activities, and in anticipation of the morrow’s, she was sorely in need of both.
The placid nothingness of trance, however, refused to come; not even the moonlight and the calming presence of the great deer were able to still the turbulent riot of emotion that jangled up and down her nerves. The interview with Mahaek still resonated with her. His revelation about the betrayal of the Green, possibly by one of the Forest Mother’s own avatars, had shocked her to the core.
The fact that her father’s guests – the grim-faced band of mercenaries that she, at Kaltas’ request, had taken to visit the ancient Mountain-Spirit – seemed to have taken the dreadful news entirely in stride had been a shock of a different nature.
Worse still was what she was going to have to endure the next day. The knowledge that, tomorrow, she would have to say a final farewell to her beloved sister – little Ally, so much fire in so small a package! – was like a fist around her heart. She would get no rest tonight.
A shadow flitted across the grass. The stag’s head came up and he gathered himself to bolt; but it was too late. The dragon crashed into him like an avalanche of fangs and fury, bowling him over. Curved talons tore a long gash in his side, and his hooves flailed wildly.
It wasn’t entirely a one-sided fight. The dragon was about the same size as the stag, but considerably lighter – a gangling assemblage of dark-grey scales, membranous wings, a long prehensile tail, and a heavy, triangular head on a relatively short neck. Struggling for purchase, the attacker clawed at its prey’s haunches, trying to turn in place to bite at the animal’s throat. The stag, who had survived similar attacks (albeit from less fearsome predators, like the great tree-cats of the forest), knew inexperience when he saw it, and tossed his head. The dragon screamed as an antler-point penetrated the tender skin of its abdomen.
That was as far as things got. Twisting its heavy head around, the dragon dispensed with finesse, parting its jaws and exhaling sharply. With a coughing roar, a cloud of billowing fire lit by flashing yellow sparks burst forth, enveloping the stag’s head and boiling away skin and flesh, leaving nothing behind but a charred, sizzling skull. Its struggles ceased instantly.
Disentangling itself from the smoking ruins, the dragon staggered away and collapsed to the grass. There was a brief, sparkling shimmer, and the lizard was replaced by an elf-woman. A girl, really – tall, with silver-white hair and pale grey eyes. She lay huddled on the grass, hissing in anger, one hand pressed to her belly, trying to contain a spreading scarlet stain.
Jianni - who had been frozen in shock since the moment the dragon had appeared in the sky - recognized the girl immediately. She was out of the tree in a moment. She sprinted to the girl’s side, knelt, and said, “Saucius tuus est?”
Valaista blinked. “I’m hurt, if that’s what you mean,” she said in the Traveling Tongue.
She pulled her hand away from her waist and regarded the hole in her gown – an elaborate, stylish thing, incongruously out of place in the forest glade – with some apprehension. There was a great deal of blood already, and more pulsed from the wound with each heartbeat.
“Hold still,” Jianni commanded. She grabbed the shredded edges of the girl’s dress, tore the hole a little wider, and found, as she had suspected, a nasty, circular puncture wound. It looked deep. Placing two fingers across the hole, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath…and to Valaista’s surprise, began humming a light tune.
Jianni kept time by nodding her head, slapping her free hand against her own thigh in an odd, syncopated rhythm. Valaista tried to follow the tune, but it seemed to slip past her conscious mind, refusing to be remembered. Soon, she stopped trying.
The sensation trickling from the elf-woman’s touch was nothing short of remarkable. Compared to the deep, throbbing warmth, the transmitted energy of the unity that she had felt the one time Breygon had healed her wounds, Jianni’s touch was almost a tickle. A thrilling tingle set her nerves alight, making her toes twitch. It was all the dragon-girl could do not to giggle.
The end result was the same, however. Beneath Jianni’s fingers, the wound closed, leaving flawless skin in its wake.
Valaista sat up, prodding at the site of the damage with the same curiosity that she felt in every false body she adopted. “That was amazing!”
Jianni bowed. “Thank you.”
“It didn’t feel like healing, though.”
“The bleeding’s stopped, isn’t it? And the hole’s gone?”
Valaista looked confused. “Oh, yes. But what I meant was…I mean, normally, when…er, the last time I was….”
“Tingling, right?” Jianni interrupted. “Tickling? A sudden urge to dance?”
“Sorry about that. I should’ve warned you.”
“Warned me?” Valaista asked sharply. “About what?”
“I’m pretty new to Shanyreet’s service,” the elf-woman explained. “I haven’t yet learned how to tap into kesatuan…at least, not deep enough to heal the kind of damage you suffered there. But I learned a thing or two as a skald. What you felt was cantormagicus.”
“Excuse me?” Valaista asked.
Jianni sighed. “Yes, that’s what I thought. Look, if you’re going to cloak yourself in the guise of an elf of the First House, you’d better learn to speak our tongue.”
“Thanos is teaching me,” the dragon-girl said defensively.
“Tell him to speed it up. It’s going to cause you problems at court. Half the men are going to be on you like a cooshee on an orc-cub, and you’re going to need to know how to tell them to shove off.
“Anyway,” the elf added, “cantormagicus means the magic of the song. Skald-magic. That’s what I used to heal you.”
“Ah,” Valaista sighed. She couldn’t help but compare the experience to the type of arcane manipulation that Thanos was teaching her. “Can you blow things up?”
Jianni stared at the silver-haired, silver-eyed imposter. “No,” she said evenly. “I’m an entertainer. Or at least, I was. Audiences want to be mesmerized, enthralled, seduced and enchanted. They prefer not to be ‘blown up’.”
“What if you’re attacked?”
“While I’m singing?” Jianni asked, incredulous. “Certainly, I’ve had the odd fruit tossed at me by music critics. But I hardly think a fireball is a suitable response to a rotten apple!”
“Sorry,” Valaista said, looking abashed. “I didn’t mean to anger you.”
“I’m not angry,” the elf sighed. “It’s just…well, we come from different worlds. Let’s leave it at that.”
“I like you, though,” Valaista said timidly.
Jianni laughed. “I like you too, Val. But you would’ve really liked my sister. She was from your world.” She looked the dragon-girl over, and shook her head. “In every sense of the word.”
“I never met her,” Valaista murmured. She plucked a blade of grass and twirled it between her fingers. She wasn’t comfortable talking about death. “How do I say ‘shove off’?” she asked suddenly.
“Politely?” Jianni asked. “Or impolitely?”
Valaista grinned. “How about both?”
“Well, Abi, means ‘Go!’,” the elf-woman said. “That’s a little abrupt, but it’s appropriate when an upper-caste maiden feels put-upon by too many suitors. If you really want to make an impression, though, you could say, ‘Abi in malam rem’. That means, ‘Go to the devil’. It’s a good way to turn down a proposition.”
“A proposition for what?” Valaista asked.
Jianni pursed her lips. After a moment, she said, “Tell you what. Just memorize this phrase: ‘Curator ab tuas conloquor’.”
Valaista repeated the words obediently: “Curator ab tuas conloquor.”
“Excellent. Try smiling as sweetly as you can when you use it.”
“All right,” the dragon-girl said dubiously. “But what does it mean?”
“It means, ‘My guardian will want to speak with you’,” the elf-woman replied.
Valaista’s eyebrows rose. “And that will forestall any…propositions?”
“Trust me,” Jianni dead-panned. Time to change the subject. “Speaking of different worlds,” she said, “what on earth made you decide to wear a wandering elf’s shape?”
Valaista’s eyebrows rose. “Sorry?”
“Well,” the elf-woman reasoned, “you’re…what, a few months old? And you were born in the Deepdark, near Elder Delvin. Right?”
“Hatched,” Valaista corrected. “But yes, my parents’ weyr is near the Dwarves’ great city. I don’t understand the question, though.”
Jianni’s cheeks crinkled in a lopsided grin. “How could you possibly have known what a wandering elf looked like?”
“Ahh!” Valaista smiled. “From my gods-father. He’s First House.”
The elf-woman frowned. “Eh? You have an elf for a gods-father? How’d that happen?”
“His name is Andhra Chitrakhára,” Valaista explained. “He’s a friend of my parents. He’s a wandering elf, who lives in Elder Delvin. They asked him to be my gods-father.” She paused, then added, “He’s really old.”
Jianni’s eyebrows drew together. Surely the girl couldn’t mean...
“And he’s blind,” Valaista added, almost as an afterthought.
Jianni started violently. “Divine Andhra is your gods-father?!” she gasped.
Valaista smiled. “Oh, you know him?”
“Of course I don’t know him!” Jianni cried. “But I know of him! He’s a legend! The greatest minstrel ever to walk Anuru! The man with a thousand names! The one the dragons call Sokea Mahtavuus, Blind Majesty!”
“I never heard that,” Valaista said dubiously.
“Of course not! He just happens - just happens! - to be a friend of your parents!”
Jianni ran her hands through her hair and had to resist the urge to yank some of it out. “Did he show you his harp?” she asked suddenly.
“Yes!” Valaista replied happily. “It looks like a dragon. It’s really pretty!”
“It ought to be,” Jianni grumped, half to herself. “It’s solid mithral. Do you know its name?”
“No,” the dragon-girl shrugged. “Should I? Anyway, who names a harp?”
Jianni rolled her eyes. “The god who made it. Zoraz, in this case – the dwarf-god of perfectionists and artisans. He called it ‘Wyrmsong’. Zoraz gave it to Jawartan, who gave it to his brother Olowartan before he departed for the Vale of Skulls after the Gloaming, with the body of Yarchian, last High King of the Elves, in his claws.” She paused for breath, looking for a hint of recognition in Valaista’s eyes. “Does the name ‘Olowartan’ ring any bells, perchance?”
The dragon-girl shook her head. “No.”
The elf took a deep breath. “Get Thanos to teach you some history, too. Olowartan was the leader of the Argent Three – the three ancient silver wyrms who brought the Book of the Powers to the elves, and ended the Eon of Darkness.”
“Okay,” Valaista said, nodding.
“Andhra was there. At Starmeadow. At the King’s court, when Olowartan and his two sons arrived with the book.”
Valaista blinked. “I thought that was a long time ago.”
“You might say that,” Jianni said expressionlessly. “About twenty-four hundred years. Give or take a century.”
“Wow,” Valaista breathed. “Andhra must be really, really old!”
Jianni started laughing. “He was only a couple hundred years old then. He was king’s-skald at the time,” she said. “He sang a welcome to Olowartan on the king’s behalf. That’s why Olowartan gave him Wyrmsong. As a bard-gift. What the Dwarves call a ‘skaldegav’.”
“It must have been a good song,” Valaista said.
“Actually, according to the legend, it was a tirade,” Jianni corrected, grimacing. “Andhra thanked the dragons for coming in a single verse, thanked them for the book in another, and then spent the next hour heaping imprecations upon them, and upon the Anari for abandoning the Kindred, and locking them under the Dome with the Dark Queen, and leaving them without hope of succour or salvation for nearly ten-score years.” She shook her head in admiration. “It’s a masterpiece. Extraordinarily articulate, eloquent, and passionate. And filthy. It contains curses from all of the tongues known to the elves. All journeymen skalds at Starmeadow are required to memorize it. Olowartan is supposed to have given Andhra the harp because only his passion was worthy of its power.
“And you,” she added, smiling again, “took him as your model? For your kindred form? That’s an auspicious choice.”
Valaista looked stunned. “I just did it because I thought he was pretty,” she admitted shamefacedly. “I had no idea he was so famous.”
She shifted her position. A shadow crossed her face and she put a hand to her hip again.
Jianni frowned. “Does it still hurt?”
“Just a twinge.”
The elf-woman sat back on her haunches. “If you don’t mind some advice,” the elf added with some asperity, “you might consider seeking smaller prey. At least until you’re a little more practised at it.”
The dragon-girl nodded, abashed. “I had no idea he’d be so tough. Good thing…”
Jianni waited a moment. When Valaista didn’t finish her sentence, she asked, “What’s a ‘good thing’?”
Valaista chuckled without humour. “Well, I’d actually been looking for a moose,” she said morosely.
“You’re lucky you didn’t find one,” Jianni replied, all seriousness. “I’d’ve had to drag you back to the castle in pieces.”
“I’ll probably end up in pieces anyway,” the dragon-girl grumped. She smoothed her gown and looked at the result in dismay – torn, blood-stained and flecked with bits of moss and miscellaneous verdure. “Thanos is going to kill me. Do you have any idea what he paid for this?”
Jianni smiled. “A lot, I’d imagine. Dress-makers used to love to call upon my father. They’ve probably done poorly since mother left.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Mother was the social gadfly,” Jianni explained. “A consummate hostess. My girlhood was all balls, dinners, dances…. No more, though. It’s been a quiet place since she disappeared. Not much call for fancy dress. I’ve been away from home for most of the last century, and all Ally ever wanted to wear was armour. And mother’s old gowns.” She fell silent.
Valaista watched her for a moment. “You miss her,” she said hesitantly.
Jianni shrugged. “I miss mother. As for Ally…I hardly knew her. When she was born, I was already apprenticed, and only a few years from my own coming of age,” she added. “She was still young, thwacking pillows with fireplace pokers in the nursery, when I left to study in Novaposticum.
“I came back seldom,” she continued. “Eldisle’s wonderful, and it’s home – but it’s a little off the beaten path. And let’s face it – there’s not much of a social scene. Other than Father’s levees and the ducal court, the nobles pretty much have to entertain each other.” She smiled wryly. “There’s hardly enough of them to get a good scandal going. Joyous Light’s a backwater.”
“I think it’s glorious,” Valaista said, perplexed. “It might not be as big as Vejborg, but it’s a lot prettier.”
“That’s because you’ve never seen Starmeadow,” Jianni laughed. “You don’t know what the word ‘city’ means until you’ve seen Tîor’s siege. Or ‘glory’.”
Jianni blinked. “That’s kind of a long story. Ask Thanos sometime.” She glanced down at the dragon-girl’s ruined gown. “If we can figure out how to keep him from killing you for ruining your dress.”
Valaista sighed heavily. “I suppose, if we can find a stream, I could rinse it out…what are you doing?”
Jianni, ignoring her, pinched the torn pieces of the girl’s dress together between thumb and forefinger. “This I can manage,” she said. “Hutanibu, berilah aku kekuatan memperbaiki gaun ini!”
There was the briefest of whispering rustles. An instant later, Jianni released the cloth. It was whole; the puncture and the tears were gone. “And now,” the elf said, rubbing her palms together and humming an indistinguishable tune under her breath, “Maaginen puhdistus!”
“That one I understood!” Valaista exclaimed. Then she jumped, alarmed, as unseen forces fluffed her gown, making the light cloth ripple as though in a stiff wind. When the invisible breeze died down, the stains of blood and grass were entirely gone.
Valaista clapped her hands, elated. “Wonderful!” she cried. “Thank you!”
“Nec est,” Jianni shrugged. “Although it did feel a little unusual to ply the song-magic and the Forest Mother’s power together like that. I’d never tried that before.” She smiled. “I suppose I should thank you for the opportunity.”
“Hopefully it will be the last,” Valaista replied ruefully. “At least, under these sorts of circumstances.” Her eyes strayed to the carcass of the buck.
Jianni watched her expectantly. “If you like,” she said carefully, “I’ll withdraw, so you can dine.”
Valaista was looking unhappily at the dead animal. From the neck up, there was nothing left but charred, stinking bone. The skull, with its empty, staring eye-sockets, was unnerving. “I’m not that hungry anymore,” she whispered.
It hadn’t been a clean kill. She felt ashamed.
Jianni pursed her lips. “All things die,” she said carefully, “and all things must eat. But purposeless killing is an offence against the green. It saddens Hutanibu.”
Valaista nodded. She didn’t move.
Jianni didn’t press the issue. She stood, and put a companionable hand on the dragon-girl’s shoulder. “It is not easy, is it” she whispered, “being both woman, and wyrm?”
“How would you know?” the dragon-girl asked mordantly.
“I suppose I wouldn’t,” Jianni replied. “Not directly, anyway. But I knew my mother. And my sister. And even if I did not,” she added, “I could still feel for you.”
Valaista shook her head. Then she smiled awkwardly. “You’re very kind to me. Why is that?”
Jianni looked up at the sky, watching the stars. She was thinking of the morrow. Of a mother who had been exalted and tormented in equal measure by the wyrm’s blood that burned within her; and of the little sister who had borne the same blessing and curse, the offspring of a liaison forbidden by the law. A sibling whom Jianni had known scarcely well enough to be able to properly mourn her passing.
“Oh,” she murmured at last, “I suppose you remind me of someone.”
The unexpected query startled Thanos out of his reverie. He had been leaning on the parapet, enjoying the view – the lights of the city beneath him, the watch-lamps of the ships at anchor in the harbour, the play of the moons-light on the waves – and had been lost in thought. The interruption brought him abruptly back to the real world.
He glanced over his shoulder. When he saw who the intruder was, he took his foot off the merlon, straightened up, and sketched a brief bow. “Highness. Good evening. Actually, I was just thinking.”
“This is a good place for it.” Myaszæron strode over to join him at the wall. To his surprise, she had doffed her armour and weapons, and was wearing a simple if severely plain gown of forest-green, with a long, grey cloak over all. Her hair was unbound and nearly waist-length; in the light of Chuadan and Lodan, it looked green rather than black.
His campaigner’s eye picked out a short, heavy dagger suspended from a broad girdle, the pugio commonly carried by high-born elven ladies. Karrick, he knew, approved of it, and considered it an excellent weapon for close-quarters fighting. The princess looked as if she knew how to handle it.
There was something more. Perched on her right shoulder, regarding him with enormous, golden eyes, was a small, grey-brown owl. Its body was no bigger than Thanos’ fist.
The princess saw his stare, and smiled. “This is Lyrie.”
Thanos slowly raised his hand, holding a finger under the creature’s hooked bill. When it neither flinched nor bit, he stroked its feathers gently. “Aspectoconsor tuas?” he asked.
“You have a good accent,” the elf-woman replied. “And you are correct. Lyrie is my familiar. And my friend.”
“So you’re a wizard, too?” the warcaster asked, amazed.
“My whole family is,” she replied. “Grandmother did well at the Collegium, and insists that we all attend.”
Thanos nodded. “How long did you stay?”
Myaszæron snapped her fingers. A glowing ball of light appeared on her fingertip. “That long,” she chuckled, “and not a moment longer.”
“You learned the basics,” Thanos replied, smiling. “That’s something, at least. Before moving on to…?”
The princess glanced over the parapet. She flicked her finger, and the lightball spun off into the darkness, tumbling to earth like a falling star. The tiny owl leapt off her shoulder, catching the wind briefly with its wings before tucking them back and plummeting after the gleaming speck.
She turned back to Thanos. “The sword,” she replied. “I trained with the High Guard for a few years. Mastered the great glaives, the lance, and so forth. Learned to ride. Like a soldier, I mean, instead of just like a lady.
“When I was experienced enough, I was stationed in the eastern mountains, north of Astraputeus. That was before Duncala, of course; before the Hand Knights were exiled from your lands, and established their wretched nation. Back then, the lands between here and Zare were all wild, overrun by orcs and gnolls and what-not. That was when I got lost.”
His eyebrows rose. “Lost? In the wastelands?”
“No, in the woodlands,” the princess smiled. “The forests. The mountains that bound our realm are magnificent. My turma was based at Arx Vespertinus, on one of the great passes. The trees there are glory incarnate. Some of the most ancient and enormous in the world.
“I had spent my whole life in the capital,” she went on, staring dreamily at the sparkling waters. “Steel and stone, light and colour, silver and gold, beauty and bestiality…and banality. It’s glorious, sure and certain. But it’s also wearying. A never-ending assault on the senses. The forests have all the beauty of Starmeadow, and more, but they’re silent. I fell in love. Didn’t want to go back.”
Thanos nodded. He had never seen Starmeadow, but he knew what the princess was talking about. He too had felt confined by big cities. Norkhan was overwhelming. But men were made for steel and stone. “Did you? Go back, I mean?”
“Of course,” the woman snorted. “Grandmother insisted. I had duties, you see. I had to play the great lady. And my brother…ekh.”
Thanos waited. When she did not continue, he decided to prompt her. “What of your brother?”
Myaszæron sighed. “He’s not…responsible, I suppose is the word. Reliable. Actually, to tell the truth, he’s a little…well, flighty.”
“That’s an odd way to describe one of the heirs to the throne,” Thanos said blandly.
“It’s politer than ‘whoremongering imbecile’,” she said. There was a good deal of contempt in her voice.
Thanos grimaced. “It doesn’t sound as though he’d make a popular king.”
“Little chance of that; we’re not that far up in the succession,” the princess shrugged. “I only talk about ‘grandmother’ so much because she watched over Bræagond and me after our mother died up north, fighting the wyrm of Mons Lacrimosa.
“Uncle Landioryn – the Crown Prince, that is – is first in the order of succession. His son, Airæszyllan – he’s a little younger than me, actually – comes next. Airæszyllan has a daughter, too. She’s third. Even if Landioryn’s whole line were wiped out, my brother and I would still be safe. My aunt Cæfalys would inherit.” She made a face.
Thanos wasn’t an idiot. “You don’t think much of her.”
“I don’t think she knows I exist,” Myaszæron snorted. “I lack the necessary…ah, qualifications, to attract her attention.” She pointed surreptitiously at her crotch.
Thanos felt his cheeks redden. He cleared his throat. “I…forgive me,” he stammered. “But I have some small experience in dealing with the Third House. And I’m a little surprised that someone of your status would be so…er…forthcoming, about family matters, with a common soldier.” And a human to boot, he thought.
“Hardly ‘common’,” the princess snorted. “You lot come highly recommended. You popped up in the castle, accompanied by a dragonet, having travelled through a portal that Kalestayne himself established, bearing not only an ancient artefact – and yes, I know what you’ve told Kaltas, we have no secrets – but also news of the fate of his lifemate, his daughter, and his oldest friend. In the few days you’ve been here, you’ve held counsel with mighty denizens of the woodlands, ranging from the personal envoy of the Forest Mother, to Mahaek, a spirit of the mountains who is older than the stones themselves.
“And,” she added, “you managed to find time to kill a trio of vampires sent by a servant of the Grim Duchess.”
Thanos’ eyebrows shot up. “What?”
The woman regarded him darkly. “We’re not entirely without resources in the capital,” she snorted. “We’re not without brains or eyes or ears, either. Limbassor is one of Æloeschyan’s chief servants.”
“Kaltas didn’t know that!” the warcaster exclaimed.
“That’s because he was looking for living names,” Myaszæron replied. “I’ve already informed him. Limbassor is a necromagus. Like the Duchess herself. Except he took things one step further.” A look of disgust crossed her face. “He surrendered his flesh centuries ago, and walks now between the worlds.”
“A lich?” Thanos asked, confused. It didn’t sound like Ergon of Boorn…or Qaramyn, for that matter, both of whom were still distressingly corporeal.
She shook her head. “Some kind of disembodied spirit,” she shrugged. “According to Kalestayne, anyway. I only spent a year at the Collegium, as I said, so his explanations tend to sail past me.”
“So that’s proof, isn’t it?” Thanos breathed. “That Æloeschyan is planning war?”
“Certainly,” Myaszæron replied. “So?”
Thanos blinked. “So...now the Queen can take her head, no?”
The princess laughed. “Do you think it’s proof she needs? Do you think that this is the first ‘proof’, as you put it, that we’ve had of the Duchess’ treason?”
Thanos was silent.
“Do you think,” the princess continued more soberly, “that grandmother would hesitate to take her niece’s head, if she could get her hands on it?”
The warcaster scratched an ear. “Elven politics,” he sighed. “Forgive me, but the way you people live is beyond the ken of a simple soldier.”
“What’s so complicated about it?” Myaszæron shook her head, smiling ruefully. “Æloeschyan has been working against my grandmother for centuries. Ever since she ascended to the throne, in fact.
“At first, it was through innuendo and mischief: stirring up rumours, suborning members of the court, promising favours to disgruntled minor nobles…that sort of thing. Of course, that was before she became Magistatrix. Once she moved to the College and had all of its magi and powers under her thumb, she became much more formidable.”
“I can just imagine,” Thanos muttered.
“Can you?” the princess asked. “Can you really? Tell me, what do you know about scrying sensors?”
“Everything,” the warcaster replied confidently.
“Really? Did you know that Æloeschyan has developed a means of reaching through a scrying sensor, and draining the life from the target she is observing?” Myaszæron said tartly.
Thanos blanched. “No. I’ve never heard of that.”
“I first heard of it,” the elf-woman said crisply, “when she nearly killed my uncle Landioryn with it. Now, all of our quarters are defended by wards against death-magic. As well as a hundred other types of spells. Kalestayne and half the magisters at the
have all they can manage trying to keep my family safe. College of Stars
“Our guards – the High Guard, all of the many thousands of them – must be constantly checked to ensure that they have not been magically enchanted or subjected to controls,” she went on angrily. “Our servants, too. The entire palace must be warded against intrusion, divination, teleportation. Our food and drink must be checked for poison. Even the air and the water! And it has been like this for more than two hundred years.
“And now,” she went on heatedly, “now even the green is under assault. The corruption of kesatuan…do you not grasp how terrifying this is to us? Must we uproot every flower, raze every tree in the city, burn the vines from the walls? How are we to defend the realm against itself?”
“Hang on,” Thanos said nervously. “We’re not even certain that the Grim Duchess is behind the…the…whatever is going on with the forest!”
“Does she need to be?” Myaszæron countered. “How many more enemies can we manage? They do not all need to collude in order to destroy us.”
She rubbed her brow tiredly. “Fractious nobles, dissent in the ranks of the army, untrustworthy names among the duodeci, the Lustroares resurgent and adding men of high station to their ranks…conspiracy, treason, betrayal around every corner…”
She laughed suddenly. “Is it any wonder that I prefer the woodlands?”
“I’ve dealt with the Lustroares before,” Thanos said distantly. “I thought they were a…a phenomenon of the countryside. Of the unlettered folk.”
“Once, perhaps, but no longer,” the princess said brusquely. “They have gained adherents among the nobility. Even in the palace itself, apparently. And worse…some of the clergy have begun to take their side.”
“Which clergy?” Thanos asked, alarmed.
“Adepts of Istravenya,” she grimaced. “My own brothers and sisters…they are taking the goddess’ exhortation to defend the forests too far. They believe that we must defend the forests against all but our own house. That we must purge the woodlands of those who are unlike us. Humans, the semiferii, even our Wilder cousins.”
“That’s dangerous nonsense,” Thanos said flatly. “Theology aside, it’s going to split your realm at a time when you need to stand together against the Grim Duchess.”
He blinked then, thinking about what he had just said. “Hang on. This isn’t a coincidence, is it? The Lustroares gaining in power and influence, just as Æloeschyan is pushing her claim, and assembling allies, and building an army?”
“I’ve been pulling a bow too long to believe in coincidences,” the princess sighed. “I just wish more of my countrymen found that as obvious a conclusion as you and I do.”
“So what are you doing about it?”
“Watching them,” the princess snapped. “All of them. Everyone. Constantly and carefully.”
Thanos folded his arms on the parapet. “An unpleasant way to live. Is there no one you can trust?”
“I trust Landioryn,” Myaszæron replied moodily. “Except that he’s blinded by loyalty to my grandmother. He supports her every decision, and some of them haven’t been wise. Or at least, I haven’t been able to see the wisdom in them. Personally, I think we should be mobilizing. I think Landioryn should be lining the army up and questioning them one by one. So far he hasn’t seen fit to do that.”
“Maybe he’s worried about the effect of a witch-hunt on morale,” Thanos speculated. “Due respect, highness, but I’ve served in a regular army. You haven’t. What you’re suggesting could end up doing more harm than good.”
“When half of our troops defect to Æloeschyan’s cause,” the princess growled, “I’m going to remind you you said that.”
“Fair enough,” Thanos replied. “Just remember that you might drive them into her camp by treating them like suspects instead of soldiers. Anyone else?”
“That I can trust?” She sighed. “My brother’s a lost cause. He’s too busy messing about with questionable comrades and dipping his pen in strange inkwells to be of any use. And Cæfalys is worse; she would be a waste of time even if she weren’t busy chasing young rakes a tenth her age.
“Airæszyllan…he’s honest enough, and a decent seigneur, but he’s not a fighter. His sister, my cousin Gyennareen, is the same. She’s newly life-mated now, and with child anyway.” She fell silent.
“And that’s all?” the warcaster asked, incredulous.
“That’s the lot, so far as my family is concerned,” the princess shrugged. “Time was, every child of House Æyllian was born with a sword in one hand and a spell-book in the other. But these days we seem to be desperately short of warriors. Airæszyllan’s daughter, Laranylla, is a case in point. She’s a better mage than I am, but she’s first and foremost an artist - a sculptor, of all bleeding things. I need people who know how to ply the courtblade, not a mallet and chisel.”
Thanos whistled nervously. “What about allies among the nobles?”
“The list changes daily,” Myaszæron said unhappily. “I used to work closely with Sangua Nascio, the Lord Commander of the High Guard, but I’ve started to worry about him. He’s spent a lot of time inspecting the northern garrisons these past months. That’s too close to Eldarcanum for my liking.
“Some I trust, though. The Marshal of the Cæleques – Iracundia Salus – he’s a different story. A professional soldier. You’d like him. Him I’d trust with my life.”
A peculiar look came over her face. “Kaltas too, of course.”
“You don’t just trust Kaltas,” Thanos said, making a shrewd guess. “You admire him too, don’t you?”
The princess nodded. “It’s hard not to. He’s the best man in the realm.”
Thanos grinned. “And…” he prompted.
A tiny smile curled her lips. “And…if he wasn’t still in mourning for Rykki, I’d probably be down on my knees before him, begging him to take me as mate.”
“He’d be quite a catch,” the warcaster chuckled. “I didn’t think your people developed an attachment that quickly.”
“Don’t take me for some starry-eyed, love-struck maiden,” the princess growled. “I’ve known Kaltas of Eldisle for a long time. I’ve always thought highly of him. These last months, though…”
Her voice trailed off. She laughed weakly. “At his side, in his councils, dining, riding together, taking the air, day in and day out...I suppose I was bound to either start hating him, or to fall in love with him.”
Thanos nodded. “Do you suppose your grandmother knew that? When she assigned you as his custodes?”
Myaszæron’s face fell. “What are you saying?”
“Well,” the warcaster speculated, “After Landioryn, Kaltas is the senior general of the realm, isn’t he? And he’s widely respected, not only at court, but also by the army. Yes?”
“Yes,” she whispered. She could see where he was going with this.
“So,” he went on remorselessly, “wouldn’t it be in the crown’s interest if he were to be bound to your family by more than simple loyalty? For example, by marriage?”
“You think the…the Queen sent me here to…to seduce him?” Bathed in the light of the moons, her face was as white as bleached bone.
“I doubt it was anything so crass,” Thanos said clinically. “Kaltas is commander of the Champions. He’s a beacon of honour and right conduct. And you’re one of the Beloved of Valatanna, a mighty warrior in your own right, and sworn to chastity to boot. Neither of you would betray your beliefs just for some sordid liaison. A genuine lifemating, though, one born out of mutual respect…perhaps even love? Might that entice him to put aside his mourning garb, and you to abandon your vows?”
The princess’ face twisted with rage. “I would never abandon my…my…”
“Not even if Kaltas felt about you as you do about him? Not even if he begged you to become his mate?” Thanos asked, eyebrows raised. “Because a moment ago, you said…”
“I know what I said!” the woman snarled. “Do you…” Her voice fell. “Do you really think that’s why grandmother sent me here?” she whispered.
“I know what I said!” the woman snarled. “Do you…” Her voice fell. “Do you really think that’s why grandmother sent me here?” she whispered.
“I think she sent you here to watch over him, as required by the Codex,” Thanos shrugged. “As to what else she might have hoped would happen…who can say?”
“That’s…that’s horribly cold-blooded,” Myaszæron murmured. “I knew that grandmother was a schemer, a manipulator without peer. But I wouldn’t have thought she would…would…”
“She has a kingdom to protect,” Thanos shrugged. “A true sovereign would take a thousand heads before risking the slightest harm to his throne. Do you think the Queen would hesitate to manipulate two hearts to secure the realm?
“But maybe I’m wrong,” the warcaster allowed. “And either way, does it change the way you feel? About Kaltas, I mean?”
The princess flushed slightly. “No, I suppose not.”
“Well, then...” Thanos clapped her on the shoulder. “Go get him, trooper.”
Myaszæron jumped slightly, looking startled.
“Something wrong?” Thanos asked.
“Do not be offended,” the princess said carefully, “but under Dîor’s law, it is treason to lay hands uninvited upon a member of the sovereign’s family.”
“Is it?” the warcaster grinned. “Well, then, that might be your problem. Kaltas is nothing if not a champion of the law. Maybe he’s just waiting for an invitation to ‘lay hands’ upon you.” He laughed.
The elf-woman’s face turned bright pink.
Hip hip hoorah for elfy girls
Wearing nothing but air and pearls
Hair of black and eyes of green
The prettiest sight you ever seen
Feed’em up and they’ll treat you right
‘Cause they don’t ever seem to sleep at night;
There’s nothing as fine as an elfy lass
‘Cept they got no tits and they got no –
“Operto! For the love of Holy Miros, cease that infernal caterwauling!”
Karrick halted in mid-bellow. Without looking up from his work, he yelled, “Another admirer! Two shillings a head, lovey, and sit you down. Don’t you know it’s rude to interrupt the skald?”
Shoes clattered down the stone steps. A moment later, Kaltas’ house wizard, the Hiarsk woman Kalena, peered around the corner. “Ah. It’s you. Of course,” she said, thoroughly unsurprised.
“It’s me!” Karrick replied grandly. “Come and sit on my knee, my darling, and I’ll sing you another one!”
“Thank you, no,” the elf-woman growled. “If I wish to be tormented, I’ll summon a pain demon.”
She looked him over carefully. “And besides,” she added somewhat waspishly, “you appear to be slightly drunk.”
“Wrong. I am, in fact, magnificently drunk,” Karrick corrected her, holding up an admonitory finger. Or he tried to, at least; the hand he held up had a honing stone clenched in it. He raised the other hand, and found that it held Thanos’ long sword. He paused for a moment, trying to resolve the dilemma. Then he laid the sword carefully across his knees and tossed the whetstone over his shoulder, wincing as it struck a pile of newly-polished greaves.
When the alarming clatter of tumbling metal died down, he turned back to the wizard with a happy smile. “Anything I can do for you, milady?”
Kalena raised an eyebrow. “I am looking for Halpenta Freyos,” she replied. “Have you seen him?”
The warrior pursed his lips. “Little guy? Skinny, black hair, green eyes?” He snickered slightly. “Pointed ears?”
“Yes,” the wizard said ominously. She was beginning to resemble a kettle left too long on the fire – slowly turning red and making muted hissing noises. “He is –”
“…the bladesmith,” Karrick interrupted.
He looked up at the woman from his seat, blinking owlishly. “Hey,” he observed, “you’re looking pretty good. For a wizzy.”
She was, in fact. Kalena had just come from dining in town at the invitation of one of the city’s notables, Dame Excordia of Arx Incultus, and had dressed for the occasion. Her customary linen and leather, comfortable in the laboratory or library, were gone, replaced by a gown of sea-green silk, and she had abandoned her practical pony-tail for a towering mess of braids and nonsense held precariously in place with twisted silver wire. The stylist’s fee had covered construction of her coiffure, but not demolition, and she knew that she was going to have to conjure an unseen servant and burn several cantrips in order to take the ridiculous edifice apart. The fact that she was a little tipsy herself was going to make the operation especially trying.
The evening, moreover, had not gone as planned. She had hoped to catch up on the gossip of the capital, whence Dame (“Call me ‘Amorda’, darling!”) Excordia had recently returned. Her hostess, however, had insisted on spending the evening prying from Kalena everything she knew about Kaltas and his guests. Kalena had returned to the castle with her curiosity unsatisfied, overstuffed with delicacies, and half-sozzled to boot. And she still had preparations to make for the morrow’s ceremonies.
As a result, she was in no mood either for the human’s drunken gargling or his buffoonish compliments. “I thank you,” she said curtly. “Do you know where Halpenta may be found?”
“Bed, probably,” Karrick replied. He belched. “ ‘Scuse me,” he apologized, taking a swig from an earthenware bottle that was standing on the floor next to the barrel upon which he was seated.
“Good wine, this.” He extended the bottle to Kalena. “Want some?”
Kalena tilted her head sideways, reading the inscription on the flask. “That is not wine,” she said, her eyes wide with alarm. “It is not even a beverage. That is faeculerum.”
“Excellent!” Karrick laughed. “What’s that?”
“It is an ardent spirit, distilled from the lees of a failed must,” the wizard replied, clearly alarmed. “The smith uses it for degreasing wagon axles. How...how much of it have you drunk?”
By way of reply, Karrick upended the bottle. A single drop fell out. “Sorry,” he said, surprised. He stood, tottering slightly. “Maybe Hal’s got another bottle around he…here, now, what are you doing?”
Kalena had stepped forward and was frantically waving her hand in front of his face. “Can you see?” she said loudly.
“I can see just fine!” he replied. He could see very well, in fact; three hands were moving up and down before his eyes. He made a guess and caught one of them. “Stop that! You’re making me dizzy!”
The elf-woman plucked his fingers from her wrist. “You have just imbibed enough aqua vitae to paralyze a storm giant,” she said primly. “I, sir, am not what is making you dizzy.”
“Whatever. Didn’t stop me from doing my job,” Karrick muttered, slightly offended.
Kalena didn’t say anything. She held his hand – the one in which he had been plying the honing stone – up before his eyes. His palm and fingers were covered with dozens of tiny cuts, some of which were still bleeding.
Karrick did his best to focus on his gashed digits. When he finally managed it, he said, “Ow.”
“Yes.” The wizard dropped his hand. “I would recommend faeculerum for the cuts, as in addition to its many other useful properties, it is an excellent antiseptic. But I fear that you would drink it instead of cleansing your wounds with it. So I hope you like pus.”
“I dunno about ‘pus’,” Karrick burped. “But I sure like puss…”
“If you value your life,” Kalena interrupted frostily, pointing a slender digit at the bridge of his nose, “I strongly recommend that you not finish that sentence.”
She turned for the stairs. “If you see Halpenta, tell him that I’m still waiting for my solipetrae, please, and that I’ll want them before tomorrow’s ceremony.”
“The little yellow rocks?” Karrick asked, still staring at his bleeding fingers.
“Er…yes,” Kalena said, surprised. “Those.”
“Over there.” Karrick nodded toward the smith’s work-bench. “Next to the marging hammer.” Stumbling slightly, he bent and located the honing stone. Then, with great deliberation, he seated himself once again, and went back to work on Thanos’ blade.
Kalena trotted over to Halpenta’s bench. Next to a wide-faced, heavy hammer, there was a small satchel of fine leather. She picked this up, undid the ties, and upended its contents into her palm. Three yellow-gold stones, irregular as amber but much heavier, tumbled into her hand.
“Excellent,” she muttered, replacing the tiny horns in the bag. “Excellent.”
“Getting ready, huh?” Karrick asked. He clenched his tongue between his teeth, concentrating fiercely as he dragged the stone along the length of the blade.
“The rocks,” he said, nodding at the bag in her hands. “Those’re for a spell, right? Aurinko Puhkesi?”
Kalena was speechless. At last, she said, “Did Halpenta tell you that?”
“Nah,” the warrior shrugged. “I know what sunstones’re used for. Been hanging around the Colonel a long time, watching him toast bad guys. Learned to recognize the spells.” He grinned at her. “Gotta know when to duck, right?”
“Right,” she said agreed, stunned.
“Expecting more vampires, are you?”
She blinked. “Excuse me?” she said again.
He put the sword’s point on a block of wood set between his feet and leaned on the hilt. “That’s what the spell’s best for, innit? Cookin’ vampires?”
“Er…yes,” she said.
“Yes, to which part?”
“Yes, to both parts. It is indeed very good for...for ‘cooking vampires’ ,” Kalena said mechanically. Then she frowned. “And yes, I am expecting more of them.”
Karrick nodded. “Yeah. Me too.” He held up the sword. Despite his advanced state of inebriation, Kalena noticed that the weapon was rock-steady.
“Watch this,” he said. With an imperceptible motion, he did something to the sword’s quillions. A splash of watery liquid jetted from some hidden source, coating the blade.
Kalena nodded. “That is a weapon capsule, is it not?”
“Three, actually.” He grinned. “Works great, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” she agreed. “My people do not normally use them. How did you...?”
Karrick shrugged. “Your Hal’s a right good tinker,” he replied. “I described how the gnomes do it, and he rigged this up in jig time.” He patted the hilt projecting from his own girdle. “Did mine, too.”
“And what have your charged them with? Quickspark?”
“Nope. Holy water for the boss, and liquid flame for me,” Karrick replied, grinning. “Ought to give us an edge in case the blood-suckers get in close.”
“It seems like a desperation measure,” Kalena said dubiously.
“ ‘Desperation’ is my middle name,” Karrick chuckled. “We been in some tight spots before. The Colonel only carries a sword ‘cause I insist. When we first met, he didn’t bother.” He settled the weapon across his lap again. “Asked him why not. His answer...” he grinned nastily at the memory. “His answer was one of the reasons I hung around this long.”
Despite herself, Kalena was intrigued. The warmage was a devastating caster, and while she didn’t share his approach to the art, she respected it. “What was his answer?” she asked, curious.
The warrior grinned. “He said, ‘By the time I need a blade, there’ll be hundreds of’em lying 'round'.”
Kalena didn’t smile. “That’s very pragmatic.”
“Say heya,” Karrick chortled, drawing the whetstone down the length of the blade with a steely rasp. “ ‘Pragmatic’ is his middle name.”
A golden blur sped through the underbrush, legs pumping, fur rippling in the night breeze. Wide eyes scanned the forest floor for obstructions. A fallen log bearing a cloak of vine-flowers rose up out of the darkness, and she cleared the obstruction without slowing, holding her tail high to keep it unsoiled. She didn’t want to have to spend the rest of the night picking burrs out of it.
To her right, scarcely visible in the midnight mist, a black shadow loped through the woods with long, easy strides. It kept pace with her without any noticeable difficulty. Even though the night was as clear as day to her eyes, the enormous leopard was difficult to see; its coat, a dappled grey-black, was vastly different from the midnight coloration of the panthers that hung from the treetops of Gasparr, far to the west. The great cat seemed to blend into the shadows. Despite its size – it had to be twice her weight, at the very least – it moved in absolute silence, flitting between tree-trunks without a sound, its heavy strides muffled by the thick layers of rain-dampened leaves left by last autumn’s dying.
And to her left – amazingly – there was another figure, bipedal like her, but lacking her fur, tail and clawed footpads. It too was running easily, maintaining the killing pace without apparent effort – a feat rendered all the more astonishing by the fact that this companion lacked her eyes, and thus was forced to dodge around obstacles that it noticed only at the last possible moment. Despite her superb conditioning and her best efforts to maintain a stalker’s silence, her own breath was rasping in and out of her lungs; and yet, the man – for that is what he was, a man, a great, galumphing, clumsy human – was running like one of her pride. It was astonishing.
The man noticed her glance, squinting to make her out against the backdrop of the forest. The moons-light was barely adequate for this sort of game. Grinning to himself, he shifted his course slightly. There was a dead tree ahead, leaning against its neighbours in a sharp incline. He ran up this, stepping lightly on the moss-covered bark, the decaying trunk splintering and shaking under his steps. At the crown, where the thin branches began to shatter beneath his feet, he extended his arms for balance and leapt, soaring twenty paces through the air, and landing lightly among the branches of a spreading oak. Without pausing in his career, he continued running through the treetops, leaping from branch to branch.
“Oh, that is enough!” the cat-woman exploded into howls of laughter. Gasping for breath, she halted, bending at the waist and placing her hands on her knees for balance as she panted and wheezed.
The leopard, seeing that she had stopped, doubled back and approached her, sniffing the breeze to ensure that she was still all right, and nuzzling her cheek for surety. She put an arm over his burly shoulders, grateful for the support.
A hundred feet overhead, Joraz stepped lightly off a branch, leaping nonchalantly to another a dozen paces down, and then repeating the feat again and again until he had reached the ground, looking for all the world as though he were merely descending a staircase.
When he reached the forest floor, he took a seat on a convenient stump, airing his tunic with one hand. “Invigorating,” he said happily. “I thank you.”
“And I thank you,” Bertanya chuckled wryly, “for the lesson in humility. Until tonight, I’d’ve wagered my next litter that there wasn’t a son of Esu in all the world who could best me in a foot-race. What manner of man are you?”
“I just like running,” the monk shrugged. “Although I must say, you very nearly did for me with your choice of course. I almost ran full-tilt into one of those…what do you call them, anyway? The big trees, with the smooth bark and heavy branches?”
“The elves call them ‘morbannons’,” the woman replied. “It’s the same word in our tongue. I don’t know what it would be in the travelers’ speech.” Still panting, she collapsed gracefully into a tailor’s seat on the moist humus. The great cat flopped to the ground next to her. Idly, she rubbed the enormous beast’s head, digging her nails into the fur between and behind his ears. Akhir rumbled happily deep in his throat, stretching and pawing at the air like the world’s biggest hearth-cat.
“He seems to like that,” Joraz commented.
“Well, I ought to know where to scratch,” Bertanya said. “That’s my third favourite spot,” she added with a grin and a wink.
Joraz was about to ask where the other two were, but thought better of it. “You feel a kinship with the great cats, then?” he asked instead.
“Hah! That’s a polite way of phrasing it!” the woman laughed.
“Excuse me?” the monk asked, perplexed.
“It’s a common misconception,” she continued. “Because of all the inter-breeding and cross-breeding that the elves have got up to over the years, a lot of folk assume that we – my people, that is – are the result of some ancient hanky-panky between, oh, say, cheetahs, and one of the Kindred races.
“Like the torvae,” she went on, rolling her eyes. “Some of them are more cat-like than us. And a lot more feral. But they got it by mating with their woodland companions, millennia ago.”
Joraz wondered how that had been accomplished, and felt a little nauseated. “And your folk did not?”
“Nec. We were made this way. On purpose, more or less.”
“But you’re not…I mean,” Joraz stammered, trying to get at the point without accidentally offending, “well, you’re not a ‘speaking monster’, but you’re not Kindred either. Are you?”
Bertanya shook her head. “No, we’re not. We can…you know, join, with your kind – that’s a little unusual, by the way, but it does happen – but such matings never, ever produce kits. We’re too different, I guess.” She winked. “That wasn’t an invitation, by the way.”
Joraz couldn’t think of anything to say to that. He cleared his throat uncomfortably.
She grinned, showing her fangs. “I know you can’t tell through the fur, but I’m blushing right now.”
“I’m relieved to hear it,” the monk murmured.
“I suppose you could say that we’re an accident,” she went on. “According to our legends, we were made to be like the other animals. But sometime during the Darkness, something changed us. Up here.” She tapped her temple with a clawed forefinger.
“What was it?” he asked, immensely curious.
“Nobody knows,” the woman shrugged. “It happened up north, though, somewhere in the Great Wasteland. One of the prides – and we don’t know which one – just woke up. It was the power of a place, long since lost. The prideleader could’ve kept the secret for his own people, but he was a visionary, fortunately for the rest of us. He brought other prides to the same spot, and they woke up, too. So they all kept doing it. Took a century or so, but eventually, all of the prides of Erutrei had been roused.”
“Did they…did they ever try it with any other animals? Try awakening them?”
“Don’t know,” she shrugged. “Maybe they did, but it didn’t work. It sure worked with our folk, though.”
“That’s astonishing,” Joraz murmured. Privately, he was wondering where such a miracle might have occurred. The only cause he could imagine was some lingering magic from an ancient battlefield – the remnants of the Gloaming and the Field of Oldarran, perhaps. Or worse – Galdrebjerga, Witch’s Mountain, on the boundary between the Deeprealm and the Drakkeskov, where Mærglyn and the Shadelven had made their last stand against Ekhalra, and where the Wand had been sundered.
“Not half as astonishing as you running through the treetops,” Bertanya grinned. “Most of your kin can barely put one foot in front of the other without going face-down into the furrows. How’d you get so nimble, heya?”
Joraz straightened his back, resting his hands on his knees. “My mind and body are as one,” he intoned.
The catwoman stared at him stonily. He struggled to maintain a solemn mien, but she outlasted him, and eventually he broke, braying laughter.
“ ‘Mind and body’!” Bertanya snorted. “Bear-cac! You’re a spirit warrior, aren’t you? What the elves call anim…animpro…well, anim-something. Right?”
“Animproeliator,” Joraz corrected. “Yes, although I don’t follow any of the elven disciplines.”
“What do you follow, then?”
“A path,” the monk replied, “that was laid out by my master…who died, almost a year ago, now.”
“Angin akan melahirkan pulang,” she said reverently. The wind will bear him home.
“I certainly hope so,” Joraz said distantly.
Bertanya eyed him, puzzled. The man’s good humour seemed to have evaporated. “What’s wrong?” she asked bluntly.
Joraz sighed. “The path I follow has ended, or nearly,” he replied. “I see its terminus before me. It stops in a clearing surrounded by impenetrable brush. It is a blind alley, a tunnel that ends in an uncut rock face.” He clenched his fists in frustration. “If it were a gorge, I could leap it; a mountain, I would climb it. A wall, I would batter until I had broken through, or broken myself. But it is not. It is not. It is an end, and I can see no way beyond it.”
He stared down at his hands. “I have achieved much,” he murmured, “and I am not discontent. I think…I believe that I have done my master proud. But I know that there is more, much more, beyond that which I have already accomplished. I simply…cannot see how to reach it. How to…to go beyond the end of the path.”
Bertanya frowned. “I won’t pretend to understand all of that,” she said. “I serve the white fire of the woodlands, Istravenya. The paths that the powers set before us have no ending, save the Breaking itself, in which all things must perish.
“But I am also a prideleader, or was one, once,” she continued seriously. “When the pride is a-foot, and reaches the end of a path, there are only four choices.”
Joraz glanced up at her. “And they are?” he asked dispiritedly.
The catwoman snorted. “You know what they are. You can go back the way you came. You can look for a path that is there, but that has been hidden from you. Or,” she laughed, “you can sit on your ass and wait for the Breaking.
“Or…” she paused dramatically.
He waited. “ ‘Or’?” he prompted her.
“Or, you can make a new path,” Bertanya said. “Your own. For better or worse.”
Joraz nodded thoughtfully. “Four choices,” he murmured.
“Pfft. Not really,” the catwoman hissed. “Only a coward goes back, and only an idiot sits and waits for the heavens to fall on his head. So there are only two.” She grinned. “And as far as I’m concerned, only one. Nothing in life is as fun as breaking a new trail.”
Joraz wasn’t sure. The idea of finding something…a hint, a clue…that had been deliberately hidden from him…it seemed to strike a chord.
He put his hands on his knees and levered himself to his feet. “I guess we’ll see,” he said. “For now, though, it’s about time we got back. Breygon will be wondering where Akhir’s got to.”
“Actually, I know exactly where he is.” The words floated down from somewhere above them.
Joraz and Bertanya looked up simultaneously. The ranger was squatting on a tree branch a half-dozen paces over their heads.
“I hate it when he does that,” the monk muttered.
Holding his bow in one hand, Breygon swung easily down from the limb, landing on the forest floor with a soft thud, right beside Akhir. He knelt and scratched the cat’s belly. Akhir rumbled happily and stretched again.
“Mmmmmm,” Bertanya purred, her long tail flicking from side to side. “That’s my second favourite spot.”
Breygon glanced up at the catwoman, one eyebrow raised. Standing, he slung his bow, and said, “Come on. We’ve got a busy day tomorrow.” He glanced up at the stars. “Today,” he amended.
He gestured briefly to the enormous cat. With an aggrieved sigh, Akhir clambered to his feet and padded over to the ranger’s side. The incongruously appropriate pair loped off southwards, in the general direction of Joyous Light.
Joraz glanced at Bertanya. “Race you?” he said hopefully.
“Not a chance!” she laughed. “You’re too damned fast!”
“All right,” the monk nodded. “Maybe some other –”
Without warning, Bertanya bolted, sprinting flat-out towards the city.
Joraz laughed quietly. Knowing that she would be offended if he gave her a head start, he broke into an easy trot.
As they passed the ranger and his companion, Akhir, tongue lolling happily from his fanged maw, glanced up at his master.
Breygon sighed and nodded. An instant later the cat was gone, bolting after the sprinting pair like a splash of liquid midnight.