19 April 2012

Elvehelm: Novaposticum V - Insidiatrix

            “Apologies, patriciana, but I’m afraid I can’t simply take your word for it.”  The commander of the militia troop, a scar-faced warrior of middling years, waved a hand distractedly at the scene.  “I haven’t seen a light-show like that since the Solemnity.  Half the population of the harbour district’s shrieking about skyfire and hell-spawned fiends, and there’s a draconardescus – or most of one, anyway – lying in the water.”  He nodded at the dragon’s neck-stump, which trailed off the shattered stern of the ship.  A spreading slick of red-black, stinking ichor still poured from the great vessels of its severed throat.

            The warrior turned back to the elf-woman.  “This is unusual.  I’m going to need some proof of your identity.”

            “You haven’t even introduced yourself,” the elf-woman temporized.

            “Gorian Retax, Captain of Horse,” the man replied immediately.  “Your turn, my lady.”

            Amorda struggled to maintain her equanimity.  “I understand your concerns, decurio,” she said evenly.  “But I’m afraid all of my belongings were...”

            “...were in the cabin.  Under there.”  The soldier rubbed his eyes wearily.  It had taken him a quarter of an hour to find a shore boat to row him out to the damaged ship.  “Yon roundear told me the same story.”  He grimaced at the foredeck, where Fall was leaning over the railing, shouting at the dockyard hands struggling to cram felled, bark-stripped logs under the ship’s kelson.

            “It was his cabin,” Amorda replied.  “We were merely occupying it for the duration of the voyage.”

            The troop-leader’s ears perked up.  “ ‘We’?”

            “My ancilla and I.”

            “Ah.  And where is your ancilla now?”

            Amorda’s lip twitched, but she showed no other emotion.  She simply nodded at the carcass atop the wreckage.

            “I see,” the warrior sighed.  “My condolences.  Is there no one who can confirm your identity, lady?”

            Amorda thought about that.  “Do you know Tomas Ark?  The jeweller?”

            The captain pursed his lips.  “I know his shop.  Corner of Winterwood and Nightmist Lane, no?”

            “That’s the one.”

            “He knows you?”

            Amorda barked a laugh.  “I should hope so.  I’ve just ordered about ten thousand aureae worth of gold and garnets from him.”

            Nodding, the soldier fished a wax-covered wooden tablet out of his pouch and made a note on it with a stylus.  “That’ll do, I suppose,” he said.  “So long as he’ll testify on your behalf at Milady’s inquiry tomorrow.”

            “He will if he wants to be paid,” Amorda muttered.  Her expression hardened.  “Anything else, captain?  I have a funeral to arrange.”

            The warrior’s eyes grew flinty.  “There are going to be a great many funerals tomorrow, I’d imagine, lady.  All thanks to what transpired aboard this ship. 

            “I apologize if my questions inconvenience you,” he went on heatedly, before she could reply, “but I have a harbour full of floating corpses, one of them a scarlet wyrm, and if you think I’m going to short my investigation because some northern noblewoman’s got her knickers in a twist, then –”

            “Is there a problem?”

            Amorda and the soldier turned simultaneously towards Myaszæron, who had emerged from the forward companionway.  She still had her bow in hand.

            “Who in the hells are you?” the officer snapped.

            Amorda’s lip twitched slightly.

            The princess smiled.  “Princess Myaszæron Æylliana,” she said pleasantly.  “A humble servant of the Forest Mother.  Marchioness of the Eternal Grove, daughter of Szæronýla Spadacódru, grand-daughter of Her Serene Majesty, Ælyndarka the Fair, Queen of Elves.”

            The warrior’s eyes grew larger and larger as the list went on.  Amorda, doing her best to stifle a grin, leaned toward the princess and whispered loudly,  “You forgot ‘Duchess of Eldisle’.”

            “Ah!  Yes, of course.”  Myaszæron beamed.  “Duchess of Eldisle.  I’ve just accepted the rose and the cup from Lord General Kaltas, Primus of House Aiyellohax, and Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the South.”

            The soldier made a slight hissing noise, like a kettle gone dry.

            The princess pouted prettily.  “I’m newly married, Captain.  A gentleman would congratulate me.”

            Amorda barely smothered a snicker.  Fortunately, the captain wasn’t watching her anymore.  His attention was wholly on Myaszæron.  To his credit, the officer squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and said, “Congratulations, Highness.”

            “Thank you!” the princess squealed, clapping her hands.  Amorda cast her a sidelong glance, wondering whether her companion had gone insane.  “So, are you satisfied, then?”

            The captain’s eye twitched, his professional judgement at war with his fear of the storied capriciousness of the royal family.  “I still...”

            The princess’ face fell.  She looked positively tragic.  “What’s wrong?”

            “Your highness...I’m sorry,” he said all in a rush, “terribly, terribly sorry...but can you prove your identity?”

            Myaszæron tugged a heavy gold signet ring from her thumb and tossed it to the officer, who in a sudden attack of nerves fumbled at it for a moment before catching it.  The man inspected it closely, then blanched. 

            “How’s your heraldry, Captain?” the princess asked brightly.  “You do recognize the crowned mermaid and Larannel’s tree, do you not?”

            The officer passed the ring back as though it were hot.  “Forgive me, your Grace...er, Highness.  Sorry,” he repeated, flushing.

            “ ‘Your Grace’ is fine, Captain,” Myaszæron replied, all smiles again.  “I had to work hard to get Kaltas to marry me.  I take more pride in that accomplishment than I do in a mere accident of birth.”

            The officer, his composure in ruins, couldn’t think of anything to say, so he bowed.  It seemed the safest thing to do.

            “You will congratulate my husband, too, won’t you?” the princess added mischievously.

            The captain, who had turned to depart, paused and threw her a confused glance.  “Excuse me, your Hi...your Grace?”

            Myaszæron smiled, showing her teeth.  “Novaposticum is the district staging point for the Duchy of Imbrium.  He’ll probably be here in a fortnight or so.  Haven’t you had word yet?”

            The officer was blinking rapidly.  “I’m sorry...what?” he said at last.

            “Well, as you pointed out, my new husband is Imperator Maximus.  He’s raising the south,” the princess replied.  “You’ve got about a week to polish your armour and sharpen your sword, captain.  I’d buy a silver tree amulet or two as well, because you're going to war against the Grim Duchess, and in a month or so, I imagine you'll be hip-deep in revenants.”

            She slapped him on the shoulder.  “Good luck, and good voyage.  I hope you live.”

            Turning to Amorda, she took the woman’s elbow, steered her towards the entry port, and said, “Come along.  We need to find some place to sleep ashore tonight.” 

            As an afterthought she glanced back at the officer, still standing gobsmacked on the deck, staring at the ichor-stained water.  “You don’t mind if we borrow your boat, do you?”


            “Don’t take this the wrong way, your Grace,” Amorda mused as the boat pulled away from the wounded ship’s side, “but you’ve a natural talent for shovelling horse dung.  If you’d be willing to consider a different trade, I could find you plenty of work.”

            “I already have a job,” the princess sighed.  “Too many jobs, actually.  Between the White Lady’s ministry, serving as Eldisle’s duchess, and having to do my duty as an ornament of grandmother’s court, I’m either going to have to learn how to stop time, or choose between sleeping and bathing.”

            They both ignored the oarsmen, a pair of lower-class human sailors who, according to their tattoos, ran a shore boat service.  Just to be safe, though, they kept to the court dialect.

            “You could sleep in the bathtub,” Amorda suggested with a grin.  “Besides, you forgot about your other duty.  Marchioness of the Eternal Grove.”

            “The trees don’t need much watching,” Myaszæron laughed.  “Neither do the dead.  Most of the time, anyway.  Although,” she grimaced, “I wish I’d been there a few months back when the Royal Crypts were violated, instead of playing jailor to Kaltas.”

            “Not your fault,” Amorda shrugged.

            “Maybe not.”  The princess shook her head.  “I’m not convinced I could’ve done much anyway.  There’s a whole regiment of the High Guard assigned to the Grove, and Uncle Landioryn let me hand-pick the tribunes and centurions myself.  They’re the best we’ve got.  Anyone good enough to get past them, defeat Kalestayne’s wards, and make off with the Butterfly Crown and great-uncle Bræagond’s bones would likely have been too much for me to handle anyway.”

            “You’ll be able to take a look yourself, I suppose,” Amorda agreed.  “Maybe you’ll find a clue.”

            “Maybe,” the princess allowed.  “Whenever I get around to it.  First I have to report in to grandmother, and then to Landioryn.  I need to let Shaivaun at the Shrine of the Spadacódru know that I’m back, and I have to see Kalestayne.  And Kaltas wants me to see Uncle Ira, and General Nascio too.  And Generals Harrekal and Terbesar.  And my sister-in-law Inscia, my idiot brother’s estranged lifemate."  She sighed.  "And the Traveler.”

            “Busy schedule,” Amorda said, her tone distant.  She was staring out over the water, eyeing with distaste the spreading red-black stains.

            Myaszæron eyed her closely.  “You’re off your game,” she said, uncharacteristically blunt.

            Startled, Amorda swung back to stare at the younger woman.  “Eh?  I beg your pardon, highness?”

            “You need to get your fingers ‘round your troubles, woman, and squeeze them back into line.  I regret your loss, but you stand to lose a good deal more if you betray yourself again.”

            Amorda’s face whitened.  “I...I don’t...”

            “Keep your countenance,” the princess warned.  “And keep to the high speech, for Hara’s sake.” 

            Obeying her own advice, she composed her features carefully before continuing.  “I don’t know who you work for, Amorda, or whatever your name is.  But I know what you are.”

            Amorda blinked, considering her options carefully.  At last she said, “And what am I?”

            “A spy,” Myaszæron breathed.  “A good one, too.  Which tells me that you’re not working for criminals or other picayune operators.”

            “I’m not your enemy,” Amorda said quickly, casting a quick glance at the princess’ hands, and noting how far they were from the hilt of her dagger.  She harboured no illusions about her ability to best Myaszæron in close combat.  Especially aboard a boat.

            “Oh, I know that,” the princess replied easily.  “I can read you like a book.”

            “That’s not possible.”  Amorda’s voice was brittle.  “My concealment is absolute.  If it were possible to compromise it, I’d’ve been dead a dozen times over.”

            “I’m not questioning your professional abilities,” Myaszæron laughed.  “I found you out using a far older power.  One that’s a little less reliable than magic, but that has seen a lot more use.”

            Flabbergasted, Amorda turned her palms up.  “I’m all ears,” she said.  Despite her easy tone, her heart was racing.  If it were true – if there were some means of penetrating her eldritch concealment – then all bets were off.  She would have to flee, and immediately, too.

            “Simple enough,” Myaszæron shrugged.  “I’ve spent the last two months watching you the way a hawk watches a field-mouse.”  She snorted.  “You’ve been flirting with the man I’ve been trying to marry.  It’s been most educational.  I’ve learned more about you by long study than I could have done through a thousand divinations.”

            Amorda was making a mental inventory of her jewellery and the variety of pills it contained.  She wasn’t carrying anything that would help her deal with an angry warrior-priestess, especially one as fearsome as the princess was reputed to be.  “And what did you learn, highness?” she asked carefully.

            “That you don’t love him,” the princess replied, deceptively calm.  “That was a relief.  Although you do like him a good deal – that’s obvious enough – and you certainly respect him.  That you’d do anything necessary to help him. 

            “And,” she added with a wink, “that you’d probably die before betraying him.  That last one was what sold me on you.”

            “Just because I didn’t betray him yesterday,” Amorda said, blushing furiously, “doesn’t mean I won’t betray him tomorrow.  Or you.”

            “I know,” Myaszæron nodded.  “But understand that I don’t come by these judgements swiftly.  I’ve spent my life around the creatures of the woods.  Once you learn their characteristics, they’re fairly predictable.  We elves are a lot like that, too.  I had you figured out a month ago, my sister.

            “Kaltas does, too,” the princess added with her signature lopsided grin.  “He’s the one who put me on to you, you know.  He’s had you marked for years.  Everything he told you that you fed your master – all those secrets, anecdotes, complaints and quibbles, plots and plans – it was, all of it, a sham.  Tidbits of fact with a liberal salting of manure.  All of it carefully crafted to serve Eldisle’s interests.”

            Amorda felt a sudden irrational urge to dive over the gunwale and swim for the shore.  It had been more than a century since she had last come close to having her identity compromised.  Tremors of something like panic were crawling up her spine.  “Is this the part where you knife me and dump me in the harbour?” she asked.

            “Hardly,” Myaszæron snorted.  “If Kaltas wanted you dead, you’d’ve died in Joyous Light, where his loyal vassals could’ve covered it up without an ounce of perspiration.  ‘Died in flagrante delicto with a centaur’, perhaps, or something equally scandalous.  And he’d have done it himself, and told you why,” the princess added with a wink.  “Kaltas is honourable through and though.  He would never back-knife anyone, much less a woman.”  A hint of steel crept into her voice.  “He has me for that, now.”

            “Then...why are you telling me this?” Amorda asked, puzzled.  “You’re showing your hand, you know.  When you uncover a spy, you either feed her false information, or feed her to the fish.”

            “Or you recruit her,” the princess said.  She was all seriousness now.  “This is my lifemate’s offer, insidiatrix: serve the Realm by serving Eldisle.  Reveal your true master’s name, and allow Kaltas – and me – to judge how best to make use of you to safeguard our House, the realm and the Queen, all without compromising your cover.”

            “Or else, what?” Amorda asked blankly.

            Myaszæron raised an eyebrow.  “Or else, nothing.  Except that we know what you are now, which means that we can warn our allies about you, and if necessary expose you.  And it means that we can find out who you really work for, and take whatever...steps might be necessary.”  She shrugged eloquently.  “We don’t have to do anything at all to you, woman.  Either you work for us now, or you’re finished.  Later, maybe, rather than sooner; but eventually, it’ll all be over.  Someone you shafted will find out who you are, and you’ll be worms’ meat on the roadside. 

            “And while I like you a great deal,” the princess concluded with an icy stare, “I won’t lose a moment’s trance over it.”

            Amorda thought about that for a long moment.  She could find no fault in her captor’s logic.  At last she looked the princess full in the face.  “Swear to me,” she whispered, “that your loyalty lies with the realm, and the Queen.”

            Myaszæron help up a cautionary finger.  “Kaltas keeps to the Codex,” she admonished the spy, “and so do I.  My first loyalty is to therefore my lifemate.  After him, to the realm, and only then to the Queen.  In that order.”

            “Good enough,” Amorda sighed.  “Very well, then.  Adsentio.”  She placed her right hand over her breast and held up her left.

            The princess imitated her gesture.  Their palms met.  Placet.”

            Amorda let her breath out in a relieved gasp.  “You terrify me, your highness.  Did you know that?  I hope Kaltas knows what he’s got himself into.”

            “He’ll find out eventually, I suppose,” the princess replied with a narrow smile.  “I’ve had no complaints thus far.  And call me Mya.”

            "Mya, then."  Amorda dipped a finger in the water and watched the lazy ripples follow them as they approached the shore.  “You know,” she said, “the Codex permits a great many things that are no longer in vogue, even among the Duodeci.”

            “Does it indeed?” the princess replied distantly.

            “For example,” Amorda went on, watching her opponent closely, “have you ever considered that, if we three were to pass the rose and the cup together, Kaltas might benefit enormously as bimaritus?  Between my brains and your –”

            Amorda glanced down.  The point of the princess’ dagger was pressing against the hollow of her throat.  “Just a thought,” she said in strangled tones.

            “That’s just what I like in my spies,” Myaszæron grated.  “I like it when they think.  By all means, spy...keep thinking.”

            The oarsmen glanced at each other in a mix of confusion and terror. 

            “Yes, highness,” Amorda said, staring cross-eyed at the razor-edged blade.

            The princess smiled, sheathed her knife, and leaned back against the gunwale.  “Now,” she said calmly.  “Tell me who your master is.”

            Amorda hesitated only an instant.  Then she told her - and the princess, to the consternation of the oarsmen, laughed aloud.

            Befitting its status as a bit of a backwater, the only temple in Novaposticum worthy of the name was the house of the Protector – which, ironically, was only a stone’s throw from Domus Ark, the jeweller’s shop that Amorda had visited the previous day, and whose owner she had cited as a character reference.  There was a shrine to Hara Sophus – there always was, in any Third House town of any size – but while it was suitably opulent and occupied a prime slice of real estate at a crossroads on the other side of the harbour, it was not heavily patronized.  Hara was the preferred deity of the nobility and the patron of the upper crust of high elven society; but Larranel, Defensor Sylvanus, had always been the god of the common people.

            She had never been inside the temple, and though she walked past the structure twice in the past two days, she hadn’t paid it much heed.  After her encounter with the princess, however, she found herself in desperate need of spiritual peace.  Coming now as a supplicant rather than a passer-by, she looked more closely at it, and was touched by its beauty.  Like most of the buildings of the town, it was of half-timber construction, consisting of a sturdy frame of wooden beams with the interstices filled with brick or stone.

            Or so she had thought.  On closer inspection, she could see that the ‘beams’ were not, as was usually the case, felled and trimmed logs, but rather growing, living trees – trees that had been purposefully shaped into the frame of a middling-sized house of worship.  And rather than being filled with the local brown brick, the interstices between limbs and trunks had been filled with closely-packed stones set in white mortar.   To her surprise, there were no windows; only high, narrow slits just below the eaves of the roof – which looked to all the world as though it had also been shaped so that overlapping branches would provide all of the coverage the building could ever need, without recourse to shingles or to slate.

            She paused by the great doors and ran her fingers over the stone walls.  To her surprise, the stones were flint – great, head-sized nodules.  Apparently they had been cemented in place, and then the outer, protruding surfaces had been chiselled (or shaped) away, leaving a subtle, muted pattern of browns, golds, ambers and even greens.  It was an odd way to build any sort of structure, much less a temple.  But it was certainly unique.

            The doors, of bronze-bound oak, were more conventional, and opened to a gentle shove.  The instant she stepped inside, she understood the purpose of the building’s construction.  The inner face of the stone walls had been chiselled flat as well, making each of the wall-stones, in effect, into a thick, translucent window.  They transmitted the light of the Lantern, subtly changing its brilliant luminescence into softer, earthier hues, bending the paths of the rays to form glorious, shifting patterns of light.  The lack of windows emphasized the subtlety of the patterns.

            She heard a low, trilling whistle, glanced up, and was unsurprised to see that despite the last gusts of winter outside, the trees overhead were still in full bloom.  Birds decorated the branches like living ornaments, whistling happily, evidently enjoying the light show as much as she.  Their cries echoed softly, reverberating from the walls until they were absorbed by the thick canopy of leaves overhead.  The echoes were unavoidable; the building, though certainly not enormous, was large enough, and apart from a few modest furnishings near the nave (which stood at the opposite end of the structure, between the trunks of two large morbannons) it was entirely empty.

            She glanced around; it was mid-morning, and most of the townsfolk were about other business.  Apart from herself, the temple held only one other occupant – a man.  He was cloaked in the colours of the forest, and knelt near the roots of one of the morbannons framing the nave.

            Grace and stealth were two different things, and she did not want to surprise the fellow.  As she approached, Amorda made an effort to scuffle her feet over the leaf-strewn flagstones.

            Seen close-up, there was something odd about the fellow (she assumed he was the priest).  Although not quite her height, he was a good deal bulkier, and there was a hefty set to his shoulders, as if he were wearing armour – heavy armour, like a breastplate or even a full cuirass – beneath his cape.

            She was still a good dozen paces away when his head came up, cocked to one side.  “Good morning!” he called over his shoulder.  “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

            Curious, Amorda stepped closer.  The man was kneeling between two of the roots, each of which was thicker than her thigh.  His hands were cupped before his breast.  Unable to mind her own business, she asked, “Can I help?”

            The man’s shoulders shook briefly, as if he were chuckling to himself.  “I think I can manage,” he replied, grinning to take the sting out of his refusal of her offer.  “Although a word of praise to the Protector is never amiss.  Here or anywhere.”

            Amorda nodded to herself.  She had never had much use for prayer.  The Powers were capricious and fickle, lending their gifts as they chose, and denying them for their own reasons.  She preferred bending the flux as the arcanists did.  Wizardry left less to chance.

            But she was curious nonetheless; and after all, she had come here seeking divine assistance and a measure of inner peace.  So she whispered a few words under her breath, repeating the invocations that her nursemaid had taught her as a child, centuries before.

            The man seemed to be doing the same.  But the end result was considerably different.  When he had completed his entreaty, there was a brief pause; and then a soft, golden light glimmered between his cupped fingers.  Beams of divine radiance sparkled briefly, ricocheting off the polished flint of the wall-stones, and filling the temple with an unearthly glow that made Amorda’s breath catch in her throat.

            Then the man opened his hands, and a tiny bird – a lark, barely more than a nestling – fluttered unevenly into the air.  Together, they watched the miniscule creature circle the temple once, twice, before beating for altitude, and finally settling somewhere among the leaves and branches of the roof.

            “Fell out of her nest,” the man remarked easily.  “It happens every now and then.”  He pointed up and grinned again.  “One of the hazards of a natural roof.”

            Amorda smiled in return.  The smile turned into a frown of puzzlement as the man swept his hood back.  He was only half a hand shorter than she, and clearly an elf – but his features were unusual in the extreme.  He had the high cheekbones of all their race, and his skin was as pale as any Third House nobleman’s hide – so pale, indeed, that he seemed to glow in the subdued light of the temple.  Moreover, he was not slender and graceful, like most of her countrymen; instead, he was compact and muscular.  She thought he would probably tip the scales at half again her weight.  His hair was also unusual; an enormous, bushy white-blonde mane that cascaded over his shoulders like a bucket of spilled sunlight.

            Strangest of all, though, were his eyes.  They were as big and as delicately almond-shaped as her own – but they were completely white.

            The man’s smiled broadened.  “A stranger!” he exclaimed.

            Amorda frowned.  “How did you know?”

            The fellow shrugged.  “The townsfolk – those who attend this place, anyway – are used to my appearance.  For my part, I’ve grown accustomed to interpreting pauses such as yours.”  He sniffed delicately.  “And you smell...different.”

            “Plus, you didn’t recognize me,” Amorda drawled.

            “Couldn’t,” the man shrugged.  “I’m blind.”  He waved a hand before his eyes and grinned again.  “Can’t see you.”  His grin widened.  “You sound pretty, though.  Are you pretty?”

            Amorda burst out laughing, her ready sympathy at the poor fellow’s condition transformed into joy by the easy humour with which he accepted it.  “I’ve been told I am,” she replied, struggling for modesty.

            The man held up a hand.  “May I?”

            She frowned again, wondering what he was asking.  It suddenly dawned on her.  “By all means,” she replied.

            The fellow stepped unerringly towards her and held up his hand, fingers spread.  Amorda took his wrist and put his fingertips against her cheek.

            The man ran his fingers lightly over her skin, feeling for her brow, her nose and lips, and even her throat.  She tensed a little at that point, ready to pre-empt any excessive familiarity, but it proved unnecessary.  His touch was tentative, gentle even.

            When he withdrew his hand, she said, “So?”

            “It’s not often I miss my eyes,” the fellow said, his smile baring his teeth, “but there are times...”

            His manner was so outrageous that she couldn’t help laughing.  “I’m sorry,” she gasped, “but you...are you really the priest here?”

            The man nodded.  “Lautitio Visum, an unworthy servant of the Protector, my lady.”

            Amorda frowned again.  “That can’t be your real name,” she protested.  In the court dialect, Lautitio Visum meant ‘vision of splendour’.

            “It could easily be yours, too, unless my fingers are lying,” the man jested.  “It is my name of faith, lady.  I took it when I was called.  My old name has no more meaning.”

            “I understand,” the elf-woman replied.  “I am Amorda, of Arx Incultus.”

            “Your accent says ‘Astrapratum’,” the man frowned.

            The elf-woman ground her teeth inaudibly, cursing herself for allowing herself to become distracted.  “Originally,” she said.  “I moved north to join my lifemate’s family.”

            “Ah.  Well, Amorda of Arx Incultus,” Lautitio said, rubbing his palms in anticipation, “I pray to the Protector that you have come for a laying on of hands.”  As he spoke, he waggled his eyebrows, and Amorda, her irritation forgotten, laughed again.

            “What is it?”

            “You don’t sound much like a priest!” she snorted.

            “We’re not eunuchs,” the man averred.  “The Protector commands fecundity in all of his followers.  The service of the forest is the service of life itself.”

            “So I take it you’re married, then?”

            “Not at the moment.”  Another eyebrow-waggle.  “Do I sense interest, fair lady?”

            “Forsooth, priest!” the elf-woman snapped.  “How do you know I’m not still lifemated?”

            Lautitio didn’t say a word.  He merely raised a finger and tapped his nose.

            Amorda blanched.  “You’re joking,” she said faintly.

            “Not in the slightest,” the man replied.  "Your lifemate is gone to wind, but you are ready to take another.  More than ready, I'd say."  He seemed amused at her discomfiture.  “Perhaps, though, we should save courtship for another time.”

            “Per...perhaps,” she stammered.  Gods!  Could the man sniff his way through her disguise?

            Lautitio smiled at her discomfiture.  “ I presume you came on a matter of divine aid, rather than merely in search of prayer?”

            Amorda nodded.  They were near the heart of it now, and all of the sorrow was flooding back.  “You know of last night’s battle in the harbour, yes?”

            “Yes,” he replied, his eyes widening.  “I’d heard of it.  My friends are telling the most marvellous stories.  An epic struggle, they say.  Good versus evil, with good triumphant.  Did you see it?”

            “I was in it,” she said drily.  “Unfortunately, so was my ancilla.”

            The priest frowned.  “I think I see where this is going,” he sighed.

            “She was killed,” Amorda pressed on, although her heart sank at the sorrowful expression that now coloured her host’s face.  “When the...the dragon struck our ship...”

            She fell to her knees on the rough floor, and it was not affectation; for the first time in as long as she could remember, genuine emotion had taken over, wrenching her carefully-cultivated control out of her grasp.  She put her forehead to the stones at the priest’s feet.  “I beg you, servant of the Protector,” she wept, “please.  Please! Bring her back to me.”

            Lautitio put a gentle hand on the elf-woman’s head, then grasped one of her hands and tried to pull her to her feet.  When she did not move, he sighed again.  “Daughter of Hara, I would if I could.  But I cannot.”

            She ignored him.  “Look,” she said urgently, fumbling at her bodice.  “Look.  I know you require a sacrifice.  Take this.”  With a wrench, she broke the hasp on the necklace she wore, piling the mass of gold and precious stones into his outstretched hands.  “It’s worth thousands.  Tens of thousands!  It ought to be enough.” 

            When he said nothing, she looked up into his face; and what she saw there crushed the few remaining shreds of animation out of her spirit.  “It’s not,” she whispered.  “Is it?”

            “Nothing would be,” Lautitio replied.  “No sacrifice suffices where grace and might are wanting.”  He put the precious bauble back into her hand and folded her fingers gently over the chain.  “Dear lady, I am truly sorry.  I lack the power and the mastery to do what you ask.”

            She blinked, and felt tears coursing down her cheeks.  “Then...perhaps someone else...”  She broke off when he began shaking his head. 

            “Not here,” he said gravely.  “My colleagues, the clergy of Hara and of the Forest Mother – they are good people.  Wondrous people!  But they are even less experienced in such things than I.”

            The elf-woman’s face fell.  “Then there is no hope,” she said hollowly.  “She is gone, and forever.”

            Composing herself to the best of her ability, Amorda climbed slowly to her feet.  “Servant of the Protector,” she said with a formal bow, “I thank you for your time.”

            “I can offer you some small help,” Lautitio temporized.  “I can, if you wish, lay hands upon your departed friend, and prevent time from ravaging her...her remains.  For a seven-day or so, at least.  Maybe long enough for you to get her home.”

            Amorda thought about that.  Assuming that Reticia’s remains could be found amid the wreckage of the stern, and assuming that she could arrange passage on another ship, they could be back in the capital in less than a week.  And she knew of at least half a dozen clergy in Starmeadow who were reputed to possess the kind of power she sought.  Elcaradon, the First of Hara Sophus, was one such; so was Shaivaun Shabat, Istravenya’s arch-priestess, at the great temple near the Lucum Spadacódru.  Larannel’s highest prelate, she thought, would likely be of little use; he was a warrior first, and a servant of the forest second.  And she who stood for the Forest Mother was another such.  And Csæleyan’s high priestess wasn’t even Kindred. 

            But there was also – or at least, so it was said – a high priestess of Miros somewhere in the city, reputedly at the College...and the Disciples of Miyaga, too, might, if properly motivated, be willing to...to...

            “Yes,” she said decisively.  “Yes.  Good.  Please come with me, then.  I’ll show you the way.”

            Lautitio raised an eyebrow.  “It is customary for the remains to be brought here, to the temple,” he said carefully.  “We prefer to perform such rites on sanctified ground.”

            His words sparked another memory in Amorda’s rattled brain; something that the shock and horror of the previous evening, and the nervousness resulting from her interview with the princess, had driven entirely out of her mind. 

Their prisoner – the fiend.

            “There’s another reason,” she said in a rush.  “A...patient.  One who needs healing.  The kind only a priest such as yourself can provide.”

            “Bring him here,” Lautitio shrugged.

            “That would be unwise.  She’s not a...a normal...” Amorda rolled her eyes.  “You’ll understand when you see her.”

            The man blinked, then frowned.  “ ‘When I see her’...lady, are you well?” 

            He put his palm on her forehead.  Amorda slapped it impatiently away.  “Please, sir, I beg you – come with me.  Your services are urgently required, and you will be well compensated for your efforts.  A child of Bræa, a new one, is in dire need of your aid, and...and...”

            She broke off again.  She had suddenly remembered how the two torvae had reacted towards Beck.  And the nymph too.  She didn’t understand why...but she didn’t need to, did she?

            “And, what?” Lautitio asked, beginning to show a little frustration.

            “And,” she grinned, “there’s someone there I think you should meet.”