“An experiment?” Thanos asked. “What does that mean?”
The girl, Ara – or boy, or dragon, or whatever, the warmage thought, his head whirling with contradictions – laughed helplessly. “What else would you call it?”
“I don’t know. You’re not...excuse me,” he said, blushing a little and looking her up and down. “I’ve never met a half-dragon, but I know that they normally display more salient physical characteristics.” He scratched his head in puzzlement. “You don’t appear to be under the effects of any illusion or transmutation magic, and you’re clearly a high elf, with a hint of the Second House about you. But there’re no...ah...”
“No wings,” she grinned. “No fangs, no claws, no scales, no whirling gold eyes.” She spread her hands. “That’s because I’m not a half-dragon. I’m pure-blooded kultakäärme. Like I said.”
“And pure-blooded gold dragons can shape-shift,” the warcaster mused. “Like the spell, muuta ainetta. But only...”
“...only into Kindred forms,” she nodded. “Or animals.”
“Animals?” Of course, he thought. He’d seen Valaista take the form of a badger once. “What sorts of animals?”
“I’m partial to hawks and eagles, but for the last few months, it’s mostly been cats,” Ara replied with a wink. “Nobody notices them; almost nobody bothers them. It makes it a lot easier for me to slip in and out of the palace.
“Although,” she went on pensively, “I’ve been working on trying to take the shape of a cooshee. Not all elves are fond of cats. I’ve had a few too many clods and cobbles tossed at me. But everybody seems to revere those big green dogs. But for some reason, that’s a very hard shape to take.”
Thanos laughed. “It’s because they’re not really animals, as such,” he said. “According to legend, the cooshee are descended from Larranel’s hounds, Celer and Sapio. He touched them, and gave them their names, ‘Wise’ and ‘Fleet’. Remnants of divine magic flows in their blood. They’re a lot bigger and a lot smarter than the average mutt. That’s probably what makes it so hard to adopt their shape.”
Ara blinked. “You’re quite a font of knowledge, aren’t you? For a mortal, I mean.”
“I like books,” Thanos shrugged. “And I’ve been...paying more attention to dragons, lately. I’ve learned a thing or two about your transformational abilities.” A sudden smirk twisted his cheek. “I learned a lot a few weeks ago, when Valaista thought it might be fun to try to take the shape of a phoenix.”
“What happened?” Ara wondered, astonished at the iron wyrmling’s audacity. “What’d she end up with?”
“Bullfinch,” Thanos laughed. “I don’t know what annoyed her more, her failure, or Karrick offering her his finger to stand on.
“But more to the point,” the warcaster went on, growing serious again, “the whole question of your form-altering abilities is why your origin story intrigues me so. Of all the many forms of interspecies mating to be found in Anuru, with the possible exception of elf-human bonds, draconic-Kindred pairings are far and away the most common.”
“I know,” Ara nodded. She grinned wryly. “Believe me, I know that better than most.” She frowned suddenly. “Why is that, do you think?”
Thanos scratched his jaw. This late in the evening, he badly needed a shave. “There are three reasons,” he said, unconsciously adopting the lecturing tone he’d used at the College. “The first, obviously, is the ease of change for the draconic partner. The vast majority of such pairings are between Kindred and the wyrms of bronze, silver and gold. It’s because you can take our forms so easily. Needless to say,” he added, flushing a little, “coupling between a mortal and an untransformed dragon would be a little...er...impractical.”
“To say the least,” the girl deadpanned. “Especially given that we do not reach maturity for mating until about fifty years after hatching. I, for example, have seen 89 winters. And in my natural form, I would be too...hmm. Let us just say that, even were I so inclined, it would be impractical with any biped smaller than a giant.”
Thanos cocked an eyebrow. Valaista, in her true shape, was only a little larger than a pony. “Just how big are you? Really, I mean?”
Ara pursed her – his, the warmage reminded himself, his! – lips. “Four times your height,” she said, considering, “ten times your length, and...” She looked him up and down. “...about one hundred times your weight.” She grinned. “Hence the incompatibility.”
“Plus, your kind lay eggs,” Thanos added drily. “So, virtually all mortal-dragon matings occur when the dragon has used its innate transformational ability to adopt a Kindred shape. And therein lies the problem.”
“ ‘Problem’?” Ara repeated. There was a dangerous glint in her eyes.
“Your ability to take our form,” Thanos forged on, “mimics a spell. The one I mentioned a few moments ago. Actually,” he added somewhat tangentially, staring off at one of the distant bookshelves, “I’ve always thought that it was the spell that mimicked the draconic ability. Perhaps that’s where it came from in the first place.
“In any case,” he went on, returning to his point, “Muuta Ainetta has a number of serious limitations. It transforms the caster’s shape, but not his essence. If I were to cast it on myself – assuming that I were able to work transmutational magic – then I could, if I desired, take the form of a gold dragon. I would look like one of your kind; I would even be able to fight and fly like one of your kind. But I would not, for example, be able to breathe underwater, as you can. I would not be able to adopt a Kindred shape, as you can.
“More to the point,” he continued, punctuating his words with taps of his fingertips against the table’s surface, “I would not be able to breathe fire, like you; nor would my mere presence panic men and beasts, as yours does, unless you consciously suppress it. I wouldn’t be able to cast spells as you do, either. My own, yes, so long as I could get the words and gestures out; but yours, no.”
Ara was frowning. “You’re saying,” she murmured, “that when we change, we mimic your shape, but we do not take on the totality of your substance.”
“Exactly!” Thanos exclaimed. He sat back in his chair. “You look like one of us; but within, you are still a dragon. You could, right now, blast me with flame, if you felt like it, could you not?”
“I could, but I won’t,” the girl replied. She smiled. “You seem pleasant enough. Plus, I like books too.”
Thanos chuckled. “See? You look like an elf. But your essence is still the essence of a dragon. If you were to mate with a Kindred male in this shape, your child would be half-Kindred, half-dragon.”
Ara’s eyes widened. “And how, precisely, would that work? I’m really a male myself, remember?!”
“But your body, at this moment...” Thanos put the palm of his hand to his forehead. “Damn it, you wyrms confuse me.” He was silent for a long moment. “All right,” he said at last, “based on what I’ve read, if we were to couple, and I were to kindle you, right now, in this form, it is likely that...that...”
Hearing nothing, he glanced up. Ara was staring at him, her eyes approximately the size of soup plates.
“Hypothetically!” he exclaimed quickly. “Hypothetically!”
The girl’s expression didn’t change. There was a peculiar golden glint in her eyes.
Mortified, Thanos forged on. “Right, then...er, well, given that example, the moment you returned to your own form, which of course is male, the pregnancy would end, as you would no longer possess the necessary...internal, er, structures, to...to sustain it. To carry a child to term, you would have to remain in your current shape, until the...until the birthing. And the child would be born normally.”
“ ‘Normally for elves’, you mean,” Ara replied, white-faced, “I would be expected to squeeze a squalling, squirming...thing...out of my body. Like your females have to do.”
The warmage shrugged. “That’s how the equipment operates.”
“A live creature. Out my cloacal canal,” the girl said. She seemed to be mesmerized with horror.
Thanos swallowed heavily. This conversation wasn’t going at all where he had anticipated. “Actually,” he said, as clinically as possible under the circumstances, “with Kindred, it’s called the
“I don’t care what it’s called!” the girl shrieked. “It’s revolting! How could anyone...any dragon, even consider...gaah!” She shuddered so hard that her chair creaked.
“Shh!” Thanos hissed. It was late at night, but there were other patrons in the library. The last thing he wanted was to be arrested by the Guard for making a disturbance, or for upsetting one of the Queen’s hand-maidens. Even if the maiden is really a boy, and the boy is really a dragon, he thought inanely to himself.
He leaned forward and grabbed one of her hands. “Enough!” he whispered. “Do your folk some credit!”
Ara froze. He felt a sudden, stabbing pain in his arm. “Let go,” she whispered.
Thanos looked down. Her fingernails, long and shimmering with a bright, gilt sheen that he knew was not paint, were cutting into the skin. He clenched his teeth. “Not until you promise to act your age,” he growled, “and listen to wisdom from someone who has something to teach you.”
She blinked at that. The pain in his hand eased. “Agreed,” she said sullenly, releasing him and sitting back in her chair again.
Trying not to draw too much attention to himself, Thanos withdrew his hand, pressed his bleeding wrist against the skirt of his tunic beneath the table, and with the other, slid a scrap of parchment over the spots of blood speckling the table’s surface.
As he dabbed them up, the girl said, “I’m sorry,” in a small voice.
“Never mind,” he replied gruffly. “Actually, you did me a favour.”
“How so?” she whispered.
He held up his bloody wrist, and grinned. “This is a pretty fair demonstration of the fact that shape-shifting dragons retain much of their essence even when in Kindred form.”
“I suppose it was, wasn’t it?” she murmured. “I’m still sorry, though.”
“The fault was mine. In any case,” Thanos went on, “it brings us back to the point of my original query. If your father was indeed Third House, then why aren’t you a half-dragon?”
Ara blinked. “You already know, don’t you?”
“I had a suspicion. You as much as told me when you said that he was a powerful wizard, and one of the Dragonlore Masters to boot. Your mother didn’t change to mate with him, did she?”
“No,” the girl replied. “No. He changed. To mate with her.”
“Suurempaa Muutosta,” Thanos breathed. “The greatest of the arcane transmutations. The true change. He became a gold dragon, didn’t he? If only for a little while.”
“Just a little while,” Ara laughed morosely. “But long enough, it seems”
“Tell me about it,” the warmage said intently.
The girl shrugged. “There’s little to tell. They were both among the Avustaja, the Acolytes of the Sailor – she a gold wyrm, and a diviner of immense skill; he a mage, once one of the Magisters of the College, and a master of transmutation. He had taught that art, I was told, at the Supreme Sanctum, under the cold and calculating eye of its master, Nevlos of Boorn.”
“ ‘Boorn’?” Thanos said sharply. “You mean, this Nevlos is a lich?”
Ara frowned. “I thought you were a sage?” she said crossly. “You know the name of old! Nevlos was the apprentice of Niktanos, the master of necromancy who challenged Tîor Magnus, and was destroyed by him. Niktanos perished in the obliteration of
but Nevlos escaped. He outlived Tîor’s
vengeance, and escaped the tribulations of Ancient Harad by fleeing to
Dracosedes. For his knowledge and
sagacity, Miros herself gave him sanctuary, and permitted him to construct the
Supreme Sanctum. He has been its master
for more than five thousand years.” County Boorn
Thanos nodded, doing his best to keep a straight face. Another library to visit! he thought, elated.
“To return to the point,” Ara said crisply, “my father – his name was Chohees Anavale, and he was of no particularly important house – became enamoured of my mother. Her name was – is – M’hanallanias Mylastanorrian. They worked closely together on a number of tasks for the Sailor, which, according to the tales my mother has told me, caused my father’s passion for her to deepen irrevocably. She, however, did not reciprocate his sentiments.”
“Why not?” Thanos asked.
Ara flushed slightly. “Please do not take this as an insult,” she said carefully. “But my mother despises the Kindred.”
“Really?” Thanos expostulated, taken aback. “A gold dragon? For heaven’s sake, why?”
“She lost her lifemate, and their clutch, to a party of human mercenaries,” the girl replied with a sigh. “It was about six centuries ago. The men were egg-thieving, and penetrated her lair, somewhere north-west of Ekhan, near the deserts of eastern Sheshinpans, while she was a-hunt. They killed her mate, purloined three of her eggs, and destroyed the rest.”
Now it was Thanos’ turn to flush. He knew of the practice of egg-theft; dragon eggs fetched wondrous prices in arcane markets, well worth the risk if one was sufficiently gold-hungry. It had never particularly bothered him before. But then again, he thought, mortified, I’d never seen a gold dragon egg for sale.
And I’ve never known any actual dragons before.
In a sudden moment of introspection, he wondered how he would feel if someone kidnapped Valaista. The thought brought him instantly to a state of panicked fury. What appalled him was that he didn’t know if his sudden, uncontrollable rage at the very notion of losing her was because she was his familiar; because she looked like a pretty young girl; or because he thought of her not as a dragon, but as a person. One he had come to think of as his own daughter.
“What is it?” Ara asked, looking askance at him.
Thanos realized that his fists were clenched on the table-top. Wisps of smoke, smelling mildly of brimstone, were rising from them. He took a deep breath and let the coiled magic flow harmlessly away. “Just thinking,” he said dismissively. “What’d your mother do to them?”
“Hunted them down, roasted them alive – feet first – and ate them,” the girl replied matter-of-factly. “All but their heads. Those she personally delivered to the nearest human city, informing the local lord that if a human ever approached her lair again, she would slaughter every son of Esu within a thousand miles, and raze their cities to the ground.”
Thanos swallowed heavily. “That’s quite a threat,” he said hoarsely. “Would she have carried it out?”
“I don’t know,” the girl shrugged, “because it worked. She was never molested again. Of course,” she added sadly, “she never took another mate, either. Neither true-mate, nor love-mate. Not until my father came along.”
“If she despised all Kindred, then how did he convince her to wed him?” Thanos asked.
“Oh, they never wed,” Ara laughed, shaking her head. “They were true-mates, but there was no love between them. Not on her part, at least.
“About a century ago, a mighty force of Uruqua-spawned horrors from the darkest depths of the lower planes broke through to the Vatnhugr. They came via the Jokiesekasorto – the Unbinding Flood, the river of elemental chaos that flows from Asgard to the Abyss, and back again. The rivers of the outer worlds mix, in places that are deadly to traverse.
“Korralinna was besieged. The Sailor is mighty, and the Sijainen and the Avustaja, the Adjuncts and Acolytes, are formidable mages, too – but the enemy was innumerable, insane, and potent beyond belief.”
“Demons can be like that,” Thanos observed wryly. “What happened?”
“For weeks, the
withstood the assault, but many lives were lost,” Ara said solemnly. “My mother, one of the mightiest of the
diviners, stayed at the Sailor’s side.
The enemy focussed their strikes, of course, on him. When he was duelling the Abyssal general, a
fiendish creature of immense size and might, as potent with fire as the Sailor
is with water, my mother caught a blow meant for her master, and fell. Before the enemy could finish her, though, a
new dragon entered the fray – a golden wyrm of vast and terrible power. Though wounded severely in the process, he
slew the enemy general, consuming him with divine flame, saving both my mother,
and the Sailor himself.” Coral Castle
“I can guess where this is going,” Thanos said, his eyes wide. “That was your father, was it not? He was a transmuter. He took wyrm’s form to fight, did he?”
Ara nodded. “And he did such a good job of it, too, that my mother fell instantly in...well, not in love. Not as such.” The girl flushed. “The instant the Sailor had healed them, she bugled her desire, and they took to the pearl-clouded skies over the Korralinna to dance the Trepudio together.”
“That’s a common enough reaction to battle,” the warmage observed.
“It is for my kind,” Ara murmured ruefully. “We call it kematian nafsu.”
“The ‘death lust’?” Thanos said, surprised. “I’ve heard of it, but don’t know much about it. Dragons are fairly close-mouthed on the subject, I believe.”
The girl’s face turned bright red. “It...the elves call it egeo mortis. It affects them too, more or less, albeit for different reasons.
“For us, battle and death bring about an uncontrollable mating frenzy. When many of us are wounded or perish, the survivors are driven to replenish the race as quickly as possible. The urge overrides even the bonds of love-mates. Many true-mate bonds are forged on the field of battle, without regard to prior…er, arrangements.”
“It can do that?” the warmage exclaimed. If that sort of thing affected elves, too, then it threw Breygon’s initial interest in Amorda, and her reaction to his advances, into a new light.
“It can,” Ara sighed. “The...the source of the drive is different for elves. They endure it as a command of kesatuan, the unity that urges all life to renew itself. It is spiritual. For us, though...
“Remember,” the dragon-girl said darkly, “that the wyrms were created by Bardan. We were to be the most terrible of his mortal minions. Kematian nafsu was the Dark Ender’s device for ensuring that we would always strive to rebuild our numbers after battle. It is a physical imperative. For that reason, we dragons of light endure the kematian only begrudgingly. We must; we have no choice. It is part of what we are. It can even be a good, for it brings about new life. But we do not seek or desire it.”
“Why not?” Thanos asked, fascinated.
“Because it disregards love,” Ara sighed. “Have you not heard song writ by the Golden Sage, Ryskankanakis? ‘All other ties sunder, when passions enthral’!”
“I’ve heard it.” Indeed, he remembered reading it in the Book of Tales.
“When the kematian strikes and the true-mate appears in the heart,” Ara went on, “all other ties really are sundered, if only temporarily. The life-mate, if there is one, must step aside, and wait until the fury passes. Wait, and either accept it calmly, or gnash his teeth in rage. The kematian is a galling reminder of whence we came.”
“And that’s what happened to your parents,” Thanos summarized. “Your father took wyrm’s-form – a true shape-change, using the mightiest transformation magic – and mated your mother. And you were the result.”
The girl nodded.
“Are there others like you?” he asked.
She shook her head. “There were nine eggs in the clutch,” she said bleakly. “None of the others hatched. I am alone.”
“That’s an unusually low number, isn’t it?” Thanos frowned.
“Yes. I was exceptionally fortunate,” she said heavily. “If that is the word.”
A vast surge of sympathy welled up in the warmage’s breast. “I’m sorry,” he said, meaning it. “I did not intend to force you to dwell on painful memories.”
Ara shrugged. “Truth must be spoken, however painful it may be.” She squared her shoulders. “Have you any other questions?”
Thanos nodded. “What happened to your father?”
“He died,” the girl said flatly. “The Sailor asked his adherents to discover how the enemy had breached the walls between the Floods to penetrate Vatnhugr. My father volunteered to seek out the answer alone.”
“That sounds risky,” the warmage frowned.
“Of course,” she shrugged. “He no longer desired to live.”
Thanos gaped. “Why?!”
“Because my mother rejected him,” she sighed. “After their mating was done, after she had kindled, she refused to have anything to do with him. In her mind, she had been driven to the act by instinct, not reason. She did not love him; indeed, she despised him for a hated two-leg. She made her nest alone, clutched alone, and endured the long wait and the hatching alone.
“My father,” she sighed, “once having had her, could not bear her rejection. A dragon could have coped with the separation, understanding the kematian for what it was; but he was an elf. His heart could not forget her. He was denied even the solace of the Vale of Skulls, where dragons who can no longer bear the burden of life may surrender it, and join those who have gone before them. In the end, despite all his service to and love for our kind, he was not one of us.”
“That bothers you,” the warmage observed astutely.
“It was unjust,” Ara shrugged. “Whatever his outward form may have been, my father had a dragon’s heart.
“He sought ever-greater challenges. At last, responding to the Sailor’s request for aid, he followed the back-trail of the enemy that had besieged the Korralinna. He pursued them all the way to the Abyss, where he vanished. He has never been seen since.
“It was shortly after I left the shell,” she added bleakly. “I saw him only once, as a hatchling.”
“Did he speak to you?”
She nodded. “He told me that he loved me, and that true love is sielu to sielu, and that shape is transitory and meaningless. And he counselled me always to keep an open mind. I have tried to honour him.”
“I’d say you’ve succeeded,” Thanos observed. “Do you miss him?”
“What of your mother?”
“She is still with the Sailor,” the girl replied. Some of the emotion went out of her voice. “She is one of the Sijainen now; the Adjuncts, the mightiest of his servants.”
“Did she...” Thanos paused. “I’m sorry. Did she ever take another mate?”
“Briefly,” Ara shrugged. “In a convoluted way, that is why I am here.”
“Oh? How so?”
“Shortly after my father’s disappearance,” the girl said, “my mother – out of a sense of obligation rather than affection – tried to find him. Even her mighty divinations could not accomplish it. She decided to request the aid of the Oracle of Evermount, she who lives at the heart of the maelstrom, in the Mountains of Miros. In order to gain access to the Oracle’s presence, my mother had to petition the Grand Master of the Sacred Wardens. The Lord of Silverstair. The Ascendant Ancient and Silver Speaker, Venastargenta.”
“Ah ha!” Thanos said. “Okay. I’m beginning to see the connection.”
“You haven’t seen all of it,” the girl said ominously. “She met with him, and fell enamoured of him. They became ainakaveri – love-mates. But they never clutched, and their pairing lasted only a few years.”
“Why did they part?”
“Because of the Kindred,” she snorted. “Part of our mating rituals involve expressions of honour for past mates. Venasta has never lied; and when he told my mother that he had once mated a mortal woman, and sired half-dragon children with her, a part of her heart turned away from him. I think that confession poisoned their love from the very beginning.
“And…” she added, more hesitantly, “…so did I. While they were mated, I began to study under Venasta. That put me into contact with his son and viceroy in the mortal realm, Svarda. Svardargenta makes his home here, in Anuru, in the ancient fortress of Cloudspire, so here is where I came.
“Moreover,” she went on with a sigh, “because Svarda has always concerned himself more with the affairs of the Kindred than with things draconic, I began working closely with your kind. With elves and men.” She indicated her gown with a sweep of one hand. “I became accustomed to Kindred forms through long practice.
“Mother, of course, didn’t approve,” she continued, grimacing. “She accused Venasta of corrupting me; of making me into a ‘servant of the filthy two-legs’.” She shook her head sadly. “For all her wisdom, my mother is blinded by hatred. She still believes that we wyrms are the only truth of the Universe, and that our strength and wisdom and power are the answer to all ills. Venasta knows better. His power is the power of faith, not the flux. He knows that you are the answer. All of you, I mean. The Kindred.
“Svarda knows it, too,” she added.
“Why?” Thanos asked, mesmerized. “Why do they believe this?”
“The Oracle told Svarda.”
“ ‘The Oracle’?” Thanos breathed. “The Oracle of Evermount, you mean?”
She nodded. “Venasta once did her a service, and Svarda claimed her aid in his father’s name. The Oracle permitted him three questions. It was only a year ago. Her answers were why he began seeking aid in Anuru instead of amid the Outer Realms. It was why he sent his daughter to seek you out – all of you – and it is why he ordered her to bring you into the Brotherhood.”
Ara’s eyes grew suddenly bright and yellow, as if parts of the dragon’s inner essence were beginning to leak through. “From the Well between the Worlds, deep in her palace of ice, on the slopes of the Mountains of Miros in Fair Dracosedes,” the girl intoned solemnly, “the Oracle of Evermount spoke nine names to Svardargenta of Cloudspire. Breygon Greenwarden and Lyra Shadowbane, pistokasïï Hara. Bjorn Fistfaith and Joraz Fatebearer, Karrick Shardshield and Qaramyn Lifetwain and Thanos Farseeker, pistokasïï Esu. Gwendolyne Everjoy and Mordok Swiftjest, pistokasïï Nosa. From her lips to his ears, like splinters of ice the names fell. Vedon Yhdeksän, she named you – the Wager of Nine.
“So you were called, and so you are here.” She grinned suddenly. “And so you can imagine my surprise. I nearly soiled myself when the three of you spoke your names to the Queen yesterday morning. To have a trio of the Nine show up unannounced...it was a bit of a surprise.”
Thanos ignored her jest. “What else did the Oracle tell Svarda?” he asked eagerly.
“He did not inform me,” Ara said simply. “But you may ask him yourself when he arrives.”
“He’s coming here?!” Thanos gaped.
The girl nodded. “I contacted him early yesterday afternoon, after the events at the Court of Lauds. He is agitated, and wants to speak with you himself.”
“I hope he’s not displeased with our lack of progress,” the warmage said, worried.
“I do not know. But I would imagine that he will press you to redouble your efforts.”
Thanos snorted. “After the wedding, maybe we’ll have a chance. How’s he getting here?”
“I meant, I hope he’s not leaping the flux,” the warmage warned. “We got a nasty shock when we last did so.”
“Ah,” Ara nodded. “No, like all of the Sacred Warders of Holy Miros, he is very concerned about keeping his movements hidden from the enemy. I believe he is flying.”
“I hardly think a dragon flying into Starmeadow constitutes ‘keeping hidden’,” Thanos snorted with some asperity.
“Stealth must be balanced against urgency,” Ara reminded. “After all, you three are not his only concern. Remember, he has a daughter to find.”
Tîorsday, 12 Vintersdyb, one hour after noon, Domus Casia; the Gardens
Clutching her cloak tightly around her shoulders, Amorda tiptoed down the steps. At the bottom of the stairs, she slid her feet into her house-slippers and, easing between two of the slumbering rose-bushes, edged her way out of the amatorium and into the garden.
It was cold; cold enough that she could see her breath, and shiver as fingers of frost wormed their way under the heavy wool, raising goose-flesh anywhere they found flesh. She welcomed the distraction. She had just left Reticia’s cell; the girl, still groggy from the ordeal of being brought back from the nether realms, had immediately fallen asleep. Amorda had been glad to see her servant to bed; she was still suffering twinges of stabbing pain, the ghostly vestiges, she presumed, of the terrible wounds she had suffered as a consequence of the duel between her current and former lovers. That ordeal had been worse than anything she had ever endured. Reticia’s death had been terrible; but that pain had come all at once, as a single crushing blow, washing through her like a bolt of skyfire, and had been over almost before it had begun, leaving nothing in its wake but an awful, soul-charring emptiness. She had all but felt her ancilla’s spirit leave her body; but at least the agony of her death had been swift and merciful.
It had been different this time. She had felt every stabbing, tearing, hacking violation as Szyel’s blades cut into her beloved’s flesh. At the time, she’d been almost too stunned to recognize what was happening; had been all but delirious, fading in and out of consciousness as Father Shields, bending over her blood-drenched form, had struggled to keep her alive. She’d been within a hair’s-breadth of death at least three times in less than a minute, and recalled every fading of the light with terrible, burning clarity.
In the hours since, the memories had, if anything, only grown worse. Each wound had been distinct, agonizing; but she knew that he had felt them, too. He had been hard-pressed, and she had been nowhere near – unable to do anything to stem Szyel’s murderous rage; unable to help him; unable even to comfort him with her presence. She had long since made peace with her own eventual demise; but the thought that he might die while separated from her burned worse than any of the dreadful wounds they had shared.
The Lantern was at its zenith, but the hidden by clouds that promised still more snow. Through the needle-decked branches, she shot a glance back at the house she had just left. He was still there, closeted in her – his – study with a half-turma of tailors, bootmakers, hairdressers and haberdashers, oblivious to her departure. That was a victory of sorts; normally, the half-elf abominated any highborn fussery. That he was submitting to it with such grating goodwill was a testimony to the depth of his regard for her feelings. He had come a long way since their first meeting – Not even a fortnight ago! she reminded herself, astonished – and was becoming more and more the gentleman, without losing any of the wildness that had attracted her to him.
And that, she reflected with a wry grin, had been just fine. In his arms, she felt safe. She wasn’t; not really. She knew that. But the illusion was a comfort to her nonetheless.
The garden was chill and silent, glimmering white beneath the silver-gray sky. The winds, having delivered winter’s shroud, had died away again, leaving behind a scene that was perilously beautiful. The trees and bushes, frosted and white, shone like crystal effigies, sparkling with a glorious sheen that was as breathtaking as the icy air.
As her eyes adjusted, she could see, near the back wall, the tall, brooding shapes of the morbannon grove; and beneath them, the distinct, glimmering form of Lööspelian, still seated comfortably among the roots of the tallest of the trees. Joraz, the elf-woman noticed, was nowhere to be seen; presumably he had gone back inside to seek the warmth of his blankets. He’d had an odd look on his face when she’d passed him earlier that morning; introspective, with a strange, otherworldly light in his eyes. Presumably he had seen something unusual. She hoped he would tell her about it later.
She froze. Her eyes narrowed. Now she was seeing something unusual. There was something...wrong. Something out of place.
Motionless, she stared around the garden. Between the diffuse sunlight and her natural acuity, the place was as bright as mid-day to her; and, having directed its refurbishment and upkeep for nigh on a century (Amorda was as passionate about greenery as she was unskilled in tending to it; but that, after all, was why Hara, in his matchless wisdom, had made gardeners), she was as familiar with its shapes and contours as she was with the layout of Domus Casia itself.
It only took her a moment to identify the oddity. Padding as softly as she could – the air was so cold that the snow squeaked beneath her slippered feet – she skirted a frost-decked cluster of bushes and made her way towards the north side of the garden. There, against the wall (there was a narrow alley-way on the other side, providing access for soldiers and sight-seers to the River Wall that lay at the back of her house) stood a trio of tall, straight oaks, leaf-bare and majestic. The peculiarity that had caught her attention was that there were now four of them. And the fourth one, unlike its kin, still had its leaves. She thought she knew what it might be. Or rather, who.
The sight at once unnerved and fascinated her. She was fairly certain that neither this newcomer, nor any of the others that had found their way into her garden over the past few days, would harm Lewat’s chosen mate; but she also knew that the denizens of the deep forest, be they Fey or otherwise, tended towards wildness and unpredictability. There was – there always was – a certain amount of danger in approaching...
Damn it, she thought suddenly. This is my house! She drew up before the cluster of oaks. Feeling a little foolish, she said, “Welcome to my garden.”
There was no response. The lack of wind denied her even a rustle of leaves, something that she might have interpreted as an answer.
She tried again. “You’re an ent, aren’t you? The one Bræagond told me about?”
Hmmm. Maybe a different tack. Raising her voice a little, she said, “It’s simply dreadful how this place has gone to seed in my absence. I’ll have to have the gardeners in.”
“These oaks, for instance,” she said more loudly still, “could do with a solid pruning. In fact, they look rotten. I might have to just have them hacked down, and...”
“Hoom!” The leafy oak uttered something between a hoot a honk, shaking its branches violently. As snow showered down, Amorda had to stifle a shriek of surprise; she had been half-way to convincing herself that she was only talking to a bunch of trees.
She took a nervous step back. Immobile, the creature was nothing special; it just looked like any tree. But moving...she realized belatedly that the thing was twice the size of the dragon that had struck their ship in Novaposticum. Its crown towered over the roof of Domus Casia.
“Hoom!” the thing repeated. “Pruning, aye! Presumably with saws and axes, yes? Unwise, most unwise.” Shaking itself, the colossal tree unclenched its roots from the frozen soil and took a step towards her.
Amorda squeaked for real this time, backpedalling rapidly until her calves intersected a low marble balustrade. She fell painfully backwards onto her posterior, fortunately landing amid a crackle of half-frozen herbs.
As she watched in sudden terror, a pair of enormous eyes opened in the thing’s trunk, a good fifteen feet above her. They were as green as her own; but each was larger than her head, and they shone with an eerie, eldritch light, as though the plant-creature’s life were radiating from its orbs.
It leaned down towards her, creaking and crackling most alarmingly, and her heart leapt up into her throat. “Explain!” it commanded, sounding like a cacophony of basso wood-flutes.
Amorda blinked. “Ahh...explain what?”
The tree swept a limb the size of a dromond’s main-yard – That’s an arm, she realized dazedly – around, indicating the surrounding terrain. “This horror is yours, daughter of Hara. So you said, just now. Have you so forgotten your roots that you could permit such an abomination, let alone glory in it? Explain, pray!”
The elf-woman felt her fear leaking away, to be replaced by puzzlement. While it looked to be angry about something, the massive creature didn’t seem hostile or violent. “What do you mean, ‘abomination’?” she asked, increasingly curious, and not a little put out.
“This ‘garden’, so called,” the tree-creature rumbled dangerously. “It is gallingly imperfect. A testimony to mortal infelicity. Why have you permitted this?”
That puzzled her more than ever. “You mean...growing things?” Light dawned suddenly. “Is it the walls? Does it bother you that the...the plants are...are captives?”
“ ‘Captives’?” the ent asked. Now it sounded puzzled. It straightened up and glared at here, cocking one mossy eyebrow in a gesture that was so elven Amorda nearly dissolved into a fit of giggles. “Hutanibu mendengar! How, captive? Ivy creeps. I walk abroad, through stone and over it, through it even, if I so desire. Seeds go where they will, borne by our forest brothers or wafted upon on the wind. How does one ‘capture’ one of my kind, I beg?”
Amorda spread her hands. “Then...then I don’t understand what...what is bothering...”
“Disorganization!” the tree cried. It sounded like a blast on one of the steam-whistles that Amorda had heard on gnomish fire-carts. “Disarray! Ignorance! Chaos! The terrible entropy of mortal-spawned loneliness!”
The thing looked so mortally offended that the elf-woman really did giggle this time. Levering herself out of the herb-bed, she dusted the snow off of her derrière, rearranged her cloak, and said gently, “I hear you, sirrah. Please explain, I beg you.”
The tree pointed a quivering twig at a nearby, lonely, leafless stalk. “What is that?” it cried.
Amorda glanced at the tree. “Magnolia, isn’t it?”
“Magnolia!” the ent agreed. “Marvelous, in season most gracious gloriosity! But also, terrible in tragedy!” The outrage returned. “She stands alone!”
The elf-woman frowned, stunned. “What?”
“Magnolia cross-pollinates!” the ent hooted. “She requires a mate! You have imprisoned her here, fertile, desirable, a darling of the rarest beauty, away from all friendly company. She stands forever unaccompanied, flowering in solitary beauty, forever suitorless, forever yearning, forever barren!”
“Sounds like the Queen’s hand-maidens,” Amorda muttered to herself.
The tree rounded on her. It seemed to actually be quivering with rage. “I expect better from the chosen mate of Centang Lewat! Why, these fair ones...” The creature swept its limb towards the three oaks. “They were in a like conundrum. They are all female, and there are no male oaks in this place of horrors! Tall and straight-limbed, beauteous and yearning...I was forced to service them all!”
That was too much. Amorda burst out laughing. “Poor you!” she snickered.
The tree goggled at her. It raised an indignant twig. “This is no matter for hilarity!” it cried. “You will be mother to Lewat’s offspring! You must teach them rightness and care for the green! You must do better than this…than this…”
“We will do better.”
The ent spun towards the new-come voice. Amorda didn’t. She had known he was there; even his silent footfalls couldn’t disguise his scent.
A cacophony of cracks and creaks ensued as the tree bowed again. “Lewat,” it hooted solemnly. “I apologize for rousing you.”
“No apology is necessary, Kakall,” Breygon said quietly. He stepped from behind the herb garden. Amorda saw that he was still wearing the pinned-up surcoat that she had had the tailors bring, and had thrown his midnight cloak over all. She also saw the tip of a sword-blade protruding from beneath the hem. That’s my man, she thought, comforted by his presence.
“I was merely instructing your mate in the proprieties of mutually satisfactory herbacious arrangement,” the tree went on a little stiffly.
“I heard,” the half-elf murmured. He sounded like he was trying to suppress a smile. “And I thank you. Have you been properly introduced?”
The enormous plant turned to Amorda and, creaking and crackling, bowed a third time. “Kakallatheriel Killalitheran,” the thing hooted. “Greet the day, mate of Lewat.”
“Her name is Amorda,” Breygon interjected, before the elf-woman could speak. “Amorda Antaíssin Olestyrian Æyllian, née Excordia.” He reached out and took her hand, giving her fingers a gentle squeeze. “Principessa Elvii.”
“A most felicitous nomenclature,” the ent honked gravely. “To us, she is known as Subur Keindahan Karunia Lewat.”
The elf-woman turned to Breygon, who was blushing slightly. “What does that mean?”
The ranger cleared his throat. “Er... it translates more or less as ‘Lewat’s Gift of Fertile Beauty’.”
To his relief, Amorda looked more amused than offended. “Really?” she said, colouring along with him.
He nodded. “Looks like you’ve picked up a following among the fey, too.”
She pursed her lips, eyes narrow and considering. Suddenly, she grinned. “I can’t wait to see the look on people’s faces when the heralds cry that title tomorrow!”
Breygon rolled his eyes. Turning back to the towering tree-creature, he said, “I know that your kind do not leave the woods without purpose, brother. What brings you to this house?”
“Three messages,” the colossal tree replied solemnly. “First, I bring news to you, Lewat. Three and thirty suns ago, I was in the demon-wood, tending to the sielii of the Mother-wrought trees. I saw one of my kind – my kind, but also not, I should say. For though she bore my shape, she was immeasurably taller and more ancient than I. And I was disturbed by her presence, not gladdened; for there was a fire, cold and terrible, within her heartwood. A fire most unbecoming a child and servant of the forest.”
“Did you speak with her?” Breygon asked intently.
“I did not,” the ent replied. “Perhaps I was wrong in that, Lewat. But she moved with terrible purpose, and I feared to make myself known, and was loathe to stay her.”
“Hmm,” Breygon murmured. “Where was she going?”
“Of course,” the ranger said drily. “What were your other messages?”
“The second,” the great tree replied instantly, “is counsel. On the morrow, you may wish to bestow the Threefold Benison – to one of my kind, to one of the four-legs, and to one of the Fey. Or to none, as Lewat decides. But…should it be your intent to grant this blessing to one of my folk, if you have not yet chosen such a one, then, given the reverent magnificence of the day I…I respectfully have a candidate to suggest.” The vast creature seemed almost reticent.
Breygon nodded, intrigued. “Tell me about it later, and I’ll consider it.”
“I shall. Third and last-most, Lewat, I respectfully offer my services.”
The ranger’s eyes widened. “You want to serve me? I accept!”
“No!” the enormous tree exclaimed. “Well, yes, of course, Lewat. But not directly. No, my offer was in fact directed to your most lovely mate.”
Amorda found herself blinking rapidly. “You want to serve me?” she squeaked.
“Most desperately,” the tree replied.
He swept his long, bark-covered arms in a wide circle. “With all respect to your magnificent fertility, Karunia…you are in most dire need of a competent gardener.”