Joraz shrugged. “He wanted a broomstick, but there wasn’t one handy. No mops, either. Or coat-racks.”
The warrior guffawed into his cup. “So you…what, just sawed it off? Where’d you get a saw, eh?”
The monk made a quick hacking motion with one hand, and winked. Valaista was sitting nearby, listening intently. Her eyes widened at the gesture.
“Nice,” the warrior nodded. He took a long pull at his drink. “Sharpen it first?”
“My hand, or the table leg?” Joraz asked.
“With what, your teeth?”
“With Breygon’s knife, actually.”
“Your were actually carrying weapons?” Karrick asked, feigning surprise. “Really? And you still went with the table leg?” He stared up at the ceiling, shaking his head in wonder. “You guys really need to leave the whole improvised-weapons thing to people who’ve actually done it before.”
Joraz nodded, maintaining his outward calm. Apparently it was going to be a long night.
“So!” the warrior asked brightly. “Who did the deed?”
The monk cocked a thumb at Breygon, who was seated at the head of the table. The half-elf looked his normal dour self, though perhaps a little more ebullient than usual. The reason for his good spirits sat at his side. Amorda, in stark contrast to her fiancée, was so ethereally beautiful beneath her halo of midnight locks that she looked like a creature from another world.
Karrick’s eyes narrowed. There was something odd about her. He leaned closer to Joraz. “Did she change her hair?” he asked.
“Hadn’t noticed,” the monk replied.
The warrior shook his head again. There was definitely something…different about her.
Balls. “Did you hammer it in?” he asked, returning to the matter of Joraz’s tale. “Or did you just…” He made a two-armed swinging motion, like a miner wielding a mattock.
“No,” Joraz admitted. He had been glancing at Amorda, wondering what Karrick had been talking about. He turned his attention back to his table-mates. “We borrowed Father Shields’ mace.”
Valaista got her hand over her mouth in time. Karrick didn’t. He sprayed a mouthful of bright berry wine across the table and its cargo of assorted dishes and plates. The dragon-girl leapt from her chair and made as if to pound him on the back, but he waved her away.
“I suppose it was a little unorthodox,” the monk acknowledged, feeling slightly abashed. “What about you two?” he asked quickly. “Did you manage to do something about the vault door?”
“Couple’o fellows from the guild’re coming tomorrow to take measurements,” Karrick snorted. “Gnomes, likely. They’ll probably come up with some steam-powered horror that’ll cost a mint, break down after a day, and won’t keep out wind. Stop trying to change the subject,” he growled. “You were saying that you hammered a table-leg into a vampire’s rib-cage with a priest’s skull-crusher?”
“That’s what I said,” Joraz sighed.
“He kick up much of a fuss?”
“No, he didn’t seem to mind at all. He just lent us the mace without question.”
Karrick sighed. “Not Shields. I meant, did the vampire kick up –”
“Ah! No, he didn’t,” the monk admitted. “He just sort of…lay there, and took it.”
“He didn’t move?”
Joraz took a deep breath. “Not at all. Breygon thought he might’ve been paralyzed.”
“If he was paralyzed,” Valaista asked, a puzzled look on her face, “then why didn’t you just hit him with the mace?”
“That didn’t occur to us,” Joraz replied precisely.
“Or cut his head off with the half-elf’s knife?” she added.
“Didn’t think of that either,” the monk grumbled.
“Yeah,” the warrior chortled, coughing a little. He refilled his glass from the wine-pitcher, topping up Valaista’s as well. When he waggled the beaker at Joraz, the monk merely gave a shake of his head. Karrick shrugged and put the pitcher back on the table. “So,” he said, obviously enjoying himself. “You burned the body?”
Karrick shook his head. “You guys really need to leave the whole killin’-vampires thing to people who’ve done it before.”
“You always burn the body,” Valaista said gravely.
“I beg your pardon, missy,” Joraz said, his carefully cultivated equanimity slipping, “but might I ask just how many vampires you’ve seen?”
“Just the three who invaded Kalena’s study and killed Kaltas’ priest,” she said, shrugging. “But we are hatched –”
“– with much knowledge’,” Joraz sighed. “I know. I know. I’ll try to remember the fire advice for next time.”
Karrick was shaking his head sadly. “So if you didn’t burn it…how’d you get rid of it?”
“We threw it in the river,” the monk said with some satisfaction. “According to folklore, immersion in running water ought to destroy him completely.”
Karrick frowned. “The river? You mean, the Lymphus? That’s a half-mile from the embassy! How’d you get it there?”
The monk coloured slightly. “Through town.”
“Ah-hah, of course,” the warrior nodded. “Bag of Holding?”
“We…ah…no,” the monk frowned. “No, we...um...we dragged the body. By the heels.”
For the first time in their months-long association, Joraz saw Karrick lose his composure. The man’s face, deeply tanned, drained of all colour. “You what?” he choked.
“We dragged it.”
“You dragged it,” Karrick murmured like a man in a dream. “A vampire’s corpse. At high noon, down main street, in the capital of the elf-realm, with his undead noggin bouncin’ off the cobbles.”
“Yes,” Joraz nodded.
“You didn’t consider asking Shields to find you a wagon and a poxy blanket?” the warrior demanded.
“We didn’t think of that either.”
“So you dragged’im. With a sharpened table leg,” the warrior went on in magnificent fascination, “sticking out of his chest!”
“Yes,” the monk grated, his cheeks reddening.
Karrick sat back in his chair. “I take it back,” he said, thunderstruck. “In all the history of the universe, that is the greatest plan ever!”
The monk said nothing. He merely glowered at the grinning thug, mentally bemoaning the fact that Tyrellus’ wisdom hadn’t included instructions on how to set people alight simply by staring at them.
Karrick was silent for a long moment, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “Anybody…you know, notice?” he asked at last.
“We did get a few odd looks,” the monk confessed.
“Can’t imagine why.” Karrick thrust his chin towards the head of the table. “And he was there? The mighty Lewat himself?”
“Masked? Disguised? Invisible, maybe?”
“Did he put his hood up?” the warrior said slowly, as if speaking to an idiot child.
“Not that I recall,” the monk snapped.
Karrick blinked at least a dozen times before speaking again. When he did, his voice was unnaturally even. “You do happen to remember,” he said softly, “that he’s getting married tomorrow, yes? At the Palace? In the Commanderie? By the chief of the realm’s biggest order of paladins? With the Queen’s explicit sanction, and half the nobles in the realm hanging about and gawking at the circus?”
The warrior held up his hands, forming a frame with thumbs and forefingers as if grasping a broadsheet. “ ‘Half-elf who showed up at the Palace, fought a duel in the Starhall, was acknowledged by Her Fabulous Majesty as a long-lost descendent, and is slated to marry the Baroness of Arx Incultus, was arrested yestereve for murder, and for performing vile indignities upon a Corpse’,” he intoned solemnly. He cocked an eyebrow, and added, “ ‘His henchman, a nondescript round-ear in baggy pants, escaped into the crowd holding a bloody table-leg, and is still at large’.”
“ ‘Non-descript’?” Joraz asked, wounded. “And what d'ye mean, ‘indignities’?”
“If somebody jammed a table-leg through my breadbasket, I’d be indignant,” Karrick shrugged. “Wouldn’t you?”
“I suppose I would at that. But he didn’t ‘arrest’ us,” Joraz said, a little put out.
“ ‘He’?” Karrick repeated in disbelief. “What d’ye mean, ‘he’? Who didn’t arrest you?”
“The guard captain at the harbour gate.”
Karrick’s eyes bugged out. “ ‘The guard captain’? You were seen by the city guard?”
“Couldn’t help that,” Joraz shrugged. “We had to throw the body in the river, and the
is surrounded by the River Wall. So we had to go through one of the gates,
didn’t we? And the harbour gate was
closest.” Great Island
“And guarded!” the warrior exclaimed.
“They’re all guarded,” the monk shrugged.
Karrick put his hands to his head, and Joraz wondered if he was going to actually tear his hair. “What…about…the sewer!?” the warrior groaned, punctuating his words by banging his forehead on the table.
Thanos, who had been deep in conversation with princess Myaszæron, looked up at his friend’s sudden outburst. He cocked a querying eyebrow. Karrick shook his head, mouthing Sorry.
Joraz looked thoughtful. “Starmeadow has sewers?”
“This city,” the warrior sighed, “has a population of more than tenscore thousand. Nearly all of them elves. Elves pretty much eat nothing but roughage. What do you think?”
“I didn’t know about the sewers,” the monk said, mildly chagrined.
“Yeah, I got that. Here’s a hint.” He pointed at the floor. “They’re usually ‘down’.”
Joraz frowned. “Look, we didn’t have a choice. We’d staked him, but the creature still had to be permanently destroyed.”
“Granted,” Karrick sighed. “Shields can raise the dead. D’ye think he might be able to make a little fire?”
“We didn’t ask him,” Joraz grumbled.
“Okay. Maybe he didn’t have the right spell prepared anyway. Did the Embassy run out of wood?”
“Even if the place was all out of firewood, you still had most of that table left,” the warrior said despairingly. “You cut off the critter’s head, douse it in holy water, stuff the mouth full of roses and garlic…”
“It’s winter,” Joraz protested. “Where were we supposed to get roses?”
“…and burn the body in the fireplace!” Karrick finished heatedly.
“Wouldn’t people have noticed the smell?”
“ ‘The smell’?!” Karrick shrieked. Thanos turned to him again, looking annoyed, and the warrior made an apologetic gesture. Turning back to Joraz, he dragged a hand across his face. “ ‘The smell’?” he said as quietly as his passion permitted. “You just dragged an impaled corpse through the middle of town, at high bloody noon, and let the militia watch while you tossed it in the river! And you’re worried about somebody noticing funny smells? Vara’s clapped-out cunny!”
“All right!” Joraz muttered, feeling more than sufficiently chastised for one evening. “All right! Point taken!”
“You guys really need to leave the whole getting’-rid-of-bodies thing to people who’ve done it before,” Karrick groused. “Oh, well – live and learn, I guess. At least nobody got hurt.”
Joraz reddened slightly, sucking air through his teeth.
Karrick’s eyebrows shot up. “Who got hurt?”
“Father Shields. He…uh…got a little life-drained. And…er…blown up.”
“He all right?”
“He’ll mend. He...er...might need some new robes,” Joraz muttered. “And books.”
The warrior glanced at the head of the table, then back at the monk. “You both look just fine.”
“Shields is old,” Joraz explained. “He’s not very fast on his feet.”
Karrick nodded. “And you burned down the library?”
“No, we saved it! Well, most of it, anyway.”
“I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies.” The warrior leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Well, a lamiata-mage, eh? Probably from that Grim Duchess lass, I suppose. Find any tattoos when you stripped the corpse?”
“We didn’t…um…” Joraz flushed again.
Karrick pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “You didn’t search the body.”
“He had a bunch of rings!” the monk said defensively. “And an amulet! We got those off. And there was this stone in one of his pockets. And these fancy bra…” His voice trailed off suddenly.
“Ah…fancy bracers. We kind of left those on the body when…when we…”
“…when you tossed it in the river.” The warrior shook his head sadly. “Boy, you guys really need to leave the whole lootin’-corpses thing to people who’ve done it before.”
“You were otherwise occupied,” the monk said stiffly.
“It’s not hard. Just a matter of focus, really,” Karrick explained gently. “Look, you start at the head, and pat down both sides, doing each limb separately. Then –”
“I know how to search a body!” Joraz barked.
“And yet here you sit,” the warrior snorted, spreading his hands helplessly, “lamentably bracer-less!”
The monk ground his teeth. “We were distracted.”
“Were you on fire? Was somebody stabbing you?”
“No,” Joraz acknowledged. He nodded towards the head of the table. “But he’s getting married tomorrow. His mind’s been elsewhere for awhile.”
“Given what he’s marrying, I’ll pardon him for being a little preoccupied,” Karrick nodded. “But what’s your excuse?”
“I’m his best man.”
Karrick’s expression didn’t change.
“Well, if that’s not enough of a distraction,” Joraz shrugged, “I spent most of the morning flying between demi-worlds floating in the sable bosom of the
Karrick cocked an eyebrow. “The
, eh? Heard of it.
The boss calls it ‘an endless nether-plane, connecting Anuru to the vast
expanse of the extra-planar multi-verse’.” River
“That’s it,” Joraz nodded. “Infinite, mostly empty, and mostly un-peopled. It was magnificent.”
“Hmm,” the warrior grunted. “Mostly empty and un-peopled, eh?” He picked up his wine glass and drained it in a gulp. “Sounds like a good place to get rid of a body.”
Joraz blinked. He hadn’t thought of that either.
“It’s magnificent!” Thanos exclaimed happily. “Like a whole new world to explore!”
Myaszæron grinned despite herself. His obvious enthusiasm was infectious. “Just because it’s in a different script? Surely there are translations available!”
“No! Not real ones, anyway,” he amended. “That’s the thing! You can’t translate it! Harkittu is…it’s…”
She waited, still smiling.
He sighed in frustration. “It’s hard to describe, that’s what it is,” he said with a small laugh. “It’s like…”
Still listening closely, the princess addressed herself to her dinner. She knew she could safely eat; when the warcaster began explaining arcane concepts, the explanation tended to take the form of an internal debate, with listeners usually just along for the ride.
“Okay. Imagine a house,” Thanos went on eagerly. “No. Imagine an architect, building a house.”
Mya nodded helpfully. He didn’t notice. He forged on. “Architects work from plans. Hätäinen – that’s the dragons’ normal script – is like the plan. Harkittu…it’s like the house.”
She swallowed. “Is it –”
“No, that’s not it,” he went on heatedly, correcting himself, and completely ignoring her. “That’s not it at all. Hätäinen is like the plan for building a house with brick and mortar. Harkittu lets you build the same house using marble and gold.”
“Sounds expensive,” the princess muttered.
“But it’s more than a house!” Thanos continued, oblivious to the fact that most of his neighbours at the table were now watching him with bemused expressions. “It looks like a house…but when you enter it, it’s a palace! With hundreds of rooms, gardens, balconies, kitchens and closets, statuary and seraglios, topiaries and tapestries…”
“You’re saying,” the princess interrupted, laying a hand on one of the mage’s waving arms, “that this…this other dragon script…it actually transforms their language? Until it’s…what? More than meets the eye?”
“Exactly!” Thanos cried. “That’s exactly it! ‘More than meets the eye’! You keep reading, and reading, and it’s like wandering the halls of a wondrous palace! A work of art, that never ends! Where you keep finding more, and more, and more again!”
Mya put her elbows on the table, folded her hands under her chin, and regarded the warcaster with a bemused expression. “Could you give me an example?”
Thanos nodded excitedly. His mouth opened…and then he closed it again. “Actually, I can’t,” he said, sounding puzzled. “There’s no way to do it justice.”
“Well,” he said slowly, “it really sounds no different in spoken words. Except that it sounds horrid, because simply reading off what the symbols mean distorts their beauty. When you speak the words, it’s like you’re reading the plan for the house. ‘Six courses of mortared red brick, four feet of thatch’, that sort of thing. But reading the Harkittu symbols themselves…it’s like looking at the finished house, and seeing it, all at once. And knowing that the deeper you look, the more you’ll see within it.”
“The gold-and-marble palace,” Mya said.
“That’s it!” he exclaimed happily.
“So there’s no way to give me an example?”
The warcaster shrugged helplessly. “It’d be like trying to describe a rainbow to a man blind from birth.”
The princess rolled her eyes. “I’m almost sorry I asked.”
His face reddened slightly. “I did manage this, though.” Thanos reached into his tunic and extracted a folded piece of paper. He placed it on the table and slid it across towards Myaszæron.
The princess picked up the page and unfolded it. Her eyes widened in surprise. “It’s lovely!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know you were familiar with the Crypto-Impressionist movement!”
The warcaster blinked. “The what, now?”
She laid the paper back on the table, pressing on it to flatten its seams. Most of the surface was taken up by an incredibly complex, marvellously beautiful drawing consisting of sweeping black arcs, lines, triangular and diamond-shaped spots, and peculiar, hooked hatch-marks. It was so precisely perfect that it looked as though it had been pressed from a woodcut. Or crafted by magic.
“Crypto-Impressionism,” Mya repeated, staring at the interwoven shapes in fascination. “It became popular shortly after the Argent Three brought the Book of the Powers to us. About two and a half millennia ago. These sorts of artistic designs were all the rage.”
Thanos laughed helpless. “It’s not art, highness. It’s Harkittu.”
“I think it’s beautiful,” she replied stubbornly, still staring at the shapes.
“Of course it’s beautiful!” the warcaster laughed. “It’s Valaista!”
Hearing her name, the dragon-girl turned towards her master. “I beg your pardon?”
Wordlessly, Thanos put his fingers on the parchment and slid it towards his apprentice.
Valaista frowned. Then, to Mya’s astonishment, the girl put her hands to her mouth – an extraordinarily normal Kindred gesture – and burst into tears.
“What is it?” the princess exclaimed, glancing back at Thanos. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” the warcaster grinned. “It’s her.”
My looked back at Valaista. Behind her hands, behind her tears, she was smiling. “It’s me!” the girl confirmed. “It’s my life!”
“Karrick told me what you clawed into the table at the embassy,” Thanos said. “I spoke to Ara – Ara Latentra, one of the Queen’s handmaidens?” he added for Mya’s benefit.
“I’ve met her,” the princess nodded.
“She’s a…uh, she knows the script,” Thanos went on, suddenly realizing that Myaszæron might not be aware of the ancillula’s true identity. He pointed at the paper. “I told her everything I knew about Val, and she wrote that for me. Or ‘drew’ it, I suppose.”
“It’s beautiful!” the dragon-girl exclaimed. She dabbed at her eyes with her napkin.
Mya leaned closer to Thanos. “Do you understand what she’s all worked up about?”
“Something to do with the way the individual symbols are chosen and incorporated into the overall figure,” he replied sotto voce. “The choices are up to the writer. The same story might never be told the same way twice. The more skilled the symbologist, the more praiseworthy the end result.”
“Ara must be very skilled, then,” Mya replied.
“There’s no way to know, is there?” Thanos laughed. “Until one of us learns to read and write the language! And to appreciate its subtleties!”
Mya tapped a manicured fingernail on the table. “This is all very interesting,” she said slowly, “and far be it from me to discourage anyone engaged in artistic pursuits. But the world rushes forward, and things are afoot that cannot now be undone. I don’t understand how this peculiar dragon script aids you in your goal.”
Thanos nodded soberly. “Because we’re not just pursuing our quest in the visible world, highness,” he said. “We’re following a trail that was blazed thousands upon thousands of years ago. We’ve found clues hidden among religious artefacts, in the libraries of undead horrors, and falling from the lips of revenant masters of magic. We’ve had to decrypt ancient texts in a dozen Kindred tongues, and words scored magically into stone.
“The dragons recorded much of their wisdom in the daily tongue,” he went on, looking frustrated, “but there are pieces missing. Vital pieces. Not to oversimplify, but I’ve noticed a pattern in my researches. Draconic sources written in hätäinen invariably recount the deeds of the dragons and their mortal allies. They tell the ‘what’. But they never seem to tell the ‘why’.”
The princess frowned. “Sorry? ‘What’, but not ‘why’? Why does the ‘why’ matter?”
“Because the great wyrms are closely woven into this story, and into our quest,” the warcaster replied patiently. “We were recruited to serve the silver dragons. We aided a pair of iron dragons, and I took their daughter as my familiar. We’ve battled and defeated black dragons, red dragons, and even a wyrm of the shadows. We’re seeking an ancient tome of terrible evil, buried deep in the hoard of a blue dragon. We’ve had visions of a mighty green dragon, and of a mightier red, a servant of the Dark Queen, ancient and terrible. And now we’ve met a gold dragon guarding...ahh...” He cut himself off just in time.
“Guarding what?” the princess asked.
“Not important,” he said hastily. “What’s important is that at every turn, the wyrms rear their heads. They are part of the warp and woof of the world, and of our tale, too. It is not merely their deeds that interest us, but their desires, their demands and their destinies.” He rapped his knuckles sharply on the table. “We know what they’ve done…but we know next to nothing about why they did it!”
“And that’s important?”
“It might be the most important thing we’ve ever looked into!” Thanos exclaimed. “The dragons are a motive force behind the great engine of the Universe. For good or ill, they are implicated in every event of substance that occurs. Their lore is of vital concern to us.” He clenched his fist until the tendons cracked. “If we don’t know why they do what they do, we won’t be able to guess what they’ll do next. I need to know more!”
Mya sat back, taken aback by his sudden vehemence. “What more is there to know?”
With a snort, Thanos reached into his tunic again and extracted another folded page. This one he unfolded and pressed flat onto the table.
Mya glanced at it. It was another intricate symbol, this time in a dark, maroon ink. It looked infinitely finer and more complex than the page Thanos had passed to his apprentice. “What’s this?” she asked.
“A poem,” Thanos replied. “It’s called ‘Vaikerointi Olowarten ja hänen lupaus kuninkaallisen suvun tontut’.”
The princess blinked. “And that means…”
“ ‘The Lament of Olowartan and his Vow unto the Royal House of the Elves’.”
“You can read that?” Mya exclaimed, staring at the extraordinarily complex figure.
“Ha! No, of course not,” Thanos laughed sadly. “Ara read it out to me. Basically, it’s a tribute written by Olowartan, the great silver wyrm, to his brother Jawartan, who bore Yarchian Renovator, the last High King of Harad, into battle at the Field of Oldarran and the Gloaming of the Wyrms; and who, after the battle, took the king’s body to the Vale of Skulls in ‘Fair Dracosedes’, making Yarchian the only mortal ever to be entombed in that holy place. Jawartan, according to legend, laid the fallen king on the earth, swore an oath that bound all of his many descendents to serve the Elven throne, then curled up around his friend’s body, and surrendered his life.”
“Why?” Mya breathed.
“That’s what makes the thing so interesting!” Thanos exclaimed. He tapped the page with a fingertip. “It’s all about the ‘why’! According to Olowartan, his brother gave up his sielu in victory, because, in fighting alongside his friend Yarchian, the apotheosis of his life had been fulfilled, and anything further would have been a diminishment.”
“I don’t follow that argument,” the princess frowned.
“That’s because you’re not a dragon!” Thanos laughed. “According to Olowartan, the silver dragons set themselves apart from their brethren because they are following a destiny that was chosen for them by their ancestors – by the silver dragons who were present at the Raw.”
“What’s ‘the raw’?” the princess asked, boggled.
“The Raaka. They mean it in the sense of ‘savage’. That’s what they call the moment in time, in the depths of the ancient world,” the warcaster explained excitedly, “when the race of dragons broke away from Bardan’s control and the overlordship of Achamkris, and divided itself. They went two ways – one part to follow the example of Oroprimus by serving the light; the other to emulate his sister Nidhoggr, by serving the dark.”
“I’ve never heard of that before!”
“Nor had I,” Thanos chuckled. “But it’s all in here! All the races of dragons have a destiny, one that they selected for themselves at the moment of the division!
“The brasses,” he explained, breathless, “seek exaltation through joy. Joy in speech, joy in song, joy in sensation, joy in all things. The coppers, by contrast, consider themselves as the guardians of the continuity of the natural life of the world. The bronzes are the vagabonds of dragonkind; they are driven always to explore. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. The golds concern themselves with magic, and wisdom, and lore, and the order of the universe. And the silvers…” He laughed again, shaking his head.
“What do they seek?” Mya asked, enthralled.
“They are ours,” Thanos said. His voice was low and stark with astonishment. “Ours! They are drawn inexorably to the Kindred – charged at the Raw with protecting us, aiding us, safeguarding us, teaching us…
“It’s why the silver dragons led the fight against Bardan’s hordes at the Gloaming, and perished nearly to the last wyrm,” he said, marvelling. “It’s why the silvers served Yarchian and his knights. It’s why most of the dragons who act as mounts for the Knights of the Fang in Dracosedes are silvers. It’s why the dragons that brought the Book of the Powers to your ancestors – the Argent Three, remember? – were silvers!
“It’s why,” he went on, his voice rising with every word, “the silvers basically run the Brotherhood! It’s why Venasta commanded his only surviving son and heir, Svarda, to live in Anuru, among us! It’s why Svarda’s daughters spend most of their time sharing our form and our fate! And it’s why…er…”
He flushed and clamped his lips shut. The princess eyed him oddly, provoked by his sudden reticence. “Why, what?”
Thanos cleared his throat loudly. “It’s…er…why most Kindred half-dragons descend from silver bloodlines,” he said, his cheeks burning. “The silvers seem to be unusually…ah…drawn to our kind. They spend more time in Kindred form than all of the other wyrms combined. Under such circumstances, romantic entanglements are...er...inevitable.”
“And that bothers you?” Mya frowned. Does it bother me? she wondered.
“Well,” he temporized, his face flaming, “I am more or less responsible for Valaista, you know…”
“Ah,” the princess remarked. She kept her face blank, but inwardly she was chuckling. Humans – especially human males, she’d noticed – seemed ridiculously close-mouthed about the most natural of subjects. “But dragons don’t mate unless the urge to rise strikes, and it doesn’t usually strike until they reach maturity. Nearly a century or so. No?”
“Yes,” Thanos agreed. “So?”
Mya shrugged. “Well, unless you were to develop a sudden fascination with the lore of Boorn, you’ll almost certainly be dead long before Valaista ever rises to mate. So it’s not really your problem, is it?”
Thanos opened his mouth to reply, then shut it with a snap.
The princess grinned. “Feel better?”
“Not really, no,” the warcaster laughed.
Mya reached across the table and slapped him on the shoulder. “Cheer up, soldier. Focus on today. You were saying that you want to know more? About the ‘why’ of dragons?”
“I do,” he nodded. “I do. We need to know more.”
“By learning this…this harkittu script?” She tapped the figure on the page.
“Maybe,” Thanos mused. “Or maybe by seeking out other sources of draconic lore. I don’t quite know yet.”
She smiled. “Well, if there’s anything I can do to help, you have only to ask.”
“I was hoping you’d offer, highness,” the warcaster replied soberly. “I’d like to go through the palace library as well, to see if there are any harkittu works kept there. Also, if we ever get the chance to go south again, I’d be obliged if you asked Kaltas if he would allow me to go through his wife’s…I mean, Alrykkian’s papers.”
He looked so mortified at his faux-pas that Mya winked. “Don’t worry about it, my friend. I’ve always counted Rykki a sister – if a moody, terrifying one! – and I would hope that, wherever she now resides, she would think the same of me.
“So yes,” the princess nodded. “I’d be happy to ask my husband whether he…whether…”
Her face went completely white.
“What is it?” Thanos asked, alarmed.
“Kaltas! Pusfire! I forgot!”
She pushed her chair back, stood, and strode quickly towards the head of the table, where Breygon and Amorda were speaking quietly, their heads close together.
Thanos watched her go. “Forgot what?” he wondered aloud.
“You’ve heard from him?” Breygon asked, surprised.
“Kaltas?” Amorda exclaimed at the same moment. “Really?”
As she spoke, she cocked her head quizzically. The odd motion caught Breygon’s attention. Unusually, she had gathered her glimmering fall of midnight locks into a long braid that reached down almost to the small of her back. It was different, he decided, but not unattractive.
The princess nodded. “I’m sorry; I should’ve told you earlier.” She grinned wryly. “I mentioned it to Grandmother, and she got so excited that I lost track of things. Then I got preoccupied with getting my gear sorted out for tomorrow, and then I had to rush over here...”
The ranger cocked an eyebrow. “What’s to sort out?”
Myszæron’s face fell. “Well, for one thing,” she said glumly, “I’ve had to replace my regalia. Obviously I’m no longer entitled to wear Valatanna’s colours or sigil.”
Amorda frowned. “I hadn’t thought about that,” she said, biting her lower lip. “Oh dear. What will you wear, then?”
“Well, I am still a princess of House Æyllian, after all,” Mya chuckled, putting on a brave face. “As well as a member of the High Guard...at least technically. I suppose I’ll see if I can’t wedge these hips into my old uniform.” She glanced over her shoulder at her posterior. “A century of royal living has done me no favours.” Knocking out a couple of Eldisle heirs won’t help either, she thought despairingly.
“Anything you need adjusted, just have it brought here,” Amorda said soothingly. “The staff will be up all night anyway.”
Mya burst out in a peal of happy laughter. “Did you forget where I live, you featherhead? Grandmother has a regiment of seamstresses at the palace! They work in shifts just to keep up with the demand!”
Amorda rolled her eyes. “You play the adventurer so convincingly that sometimes I forget who you really are, highness.”
“Kak for thy ‘highness’, sister mine!” Mya snorted humorously. “Worry about your own adornment. All eyes’ll be on you! Don’t worry, I’ll be presentable on the morrow.”
Breygon’s eyes had narrowed noticeably. “I didn’t know you were part of the Guard,” he said, addressing the princess. “What rank do you hold, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Legate,” she replied. “That’s gradus proprio, my permanent rank. Of the Household Legion, of course. But I’m also Imperator honoris causa. All members of the royal family who’ve commanded troops in action tend to be granted an honorary generalship, assuming we live long enough.”
For the first time that evening, Breygon grinned happily. “A general! That’s simply outstanding!” he chortled.
Mya wagged a finger at him. “You can’t tell Thanos! I’m not pulling honorary rank on a combat veteran, much less one who’s both a nephew to my good lord, and a cousin to the throne!”
The ranger sighed. “Well, that takes some of the savour out of the day.” His cheek twitched. “I suppose I’ll have to settle for the look on his face when he sees you in uniform.”
“I suppose you will,” Mya nodded. “I look magnificent in it, by the way,” she added with a grin.
“I don’t doubt it.” Breygon felt a tug at his elbow. He half-turned. It was the Wilder gardener and doorman, Tua Sekop. “Yes?” he murmured.
“I apologize for the intrusion, Lewat,” the old woodsman said with all possible deference. “But you must to bed. Recall that you have duties to Hutanibu tomorrow.”
“I’m aware, my friend,” the ranger murmured with exaggerated politeness. “I’m busy now. We can discuss it later.”
The old fellow, though, was neither as discrete as his Third House cousins, nor as willing to give ground. “Now is the opportune moment, Lewat, with all respect,” he said firmly. “The Slaughter begins at midnight. You must consider carefully how to bestow the Threefold Benison. The trees and the beasts can take care of themselves, but as I told you this morning, for the Third Blessing, you need look no further than –”
“Stop!” the half-elf commanded. He glanced to his left, where his future lifemate was seated, staring listlessly into the distance. “I’ll thank you, pelari,” he said intensely, keeping his voice low, “not to try to slip the Forest Mother’s daughters into my bed while my lady is seated at my side!”
“I am only doing my duty,” Tua whispered fiercely.
“And I thank you for it,” Breygon replied in the same stark tone. “My duty, however – all of it – is to my lifemate.”
The old fellow was silent for a long moment. At last he said, “My lord intends to wed milady on the morrow?”
“You know bloody well I do,” the ranger snapped.
“And does milord intend,” the Wilder elf went on nervously, “to keep to the ancient rite, and perform the coniunc –”
“Not that it’s any of your damned business,” Breygon roared, his restraint at an end, “but yes!”
His bellow caught not only Amorda’s attention, but also drew the eyes of the rest of his table-mates, and all of the domestic staff. One of the younger serving-girls dropped a salver, and burst into tears.
The Wilder elf bowed until his head was below the table’s edge. “Most sincere apologies, Lewat, for upsetting your equilibrium.”
The ranger sighed and rubbed his face. “It’s I who ought to apologize, Tua. I’m sorry. It’s been a…a busy couple of weeks.” He slapped the old fellow on the back. “You have my word; one way or another, I’ll do my duty by the Forest Mother.”
The Wilder elf straightened up and gave Breygon an odd look. “I believe you will, Lewat.” He stepped back and made himself scarce.
Breygon turned reluctantly back to Amorda, expecting a fiery tongue-lashing. He didn’t receive it; the elf-woman was looking away again. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or worried.
The princess cleared her throat a little too obviously. “Ahh, speaking of uniforms,” she continued, turning to Amorda and babbling on as if they hadn’t been interrupted, “what arms are you bearing tomorrow, era meum?”
“Acus, of course,” the baroness replied distantly. “With my little friend Novaculum in my boot, as always.”
Mya cast a glance at Breygon. “Thinblade and stiletto,” she explained. “Traditional, for the nuptia bellum. I’ll be similarly armed.”
“No bow?” the ranger asked, smiling. “You’ll look incomplete without it.”
“Look who’s talking,” Mya snorted. “No, no bow. I need my hands free for the ceremony. So do you. What arms will you bear?”
“I hadn’t decided,” the ranger replied, thinking hard. “Given how my last visit to the palace went, I was considering asking our friend Ira for the loan of a ballista.”
“I’m afraid that falls under the prohibition against two-handed weapons,” Mya deadpanned. “You could bear the Queen’s gift; it would do her courtly credit. You managed well enough with Kaltas’ blade, after all.”
“ ‘Well enough’ nearly put my lifemate in the ground,” the ranger replied stiffly. “I’m done with ‘courtly credit’, aunty mine.”
He glanced at the woman seated to his right. Amorda was listening to their exchange in still silence. “Thanks to my darling’s cleverness,” he said firmly, “even a modest threat to me could mean death for her. I’ll therefore take no more chances and offer no more warnings. Henceforth, the head comes off anyone who so much as looks at me sideways.”
“That seems the prudent course, I suppose,” Mya said. She smiled. “So…greataxe, then?”
“Don’t tempt me,” Breygon growled. “Look, I don’t mean to stifle this line of discussion, but weren’t you telling us about a message you’d had? From Kaltas?”
“Yes, of course,” the princess said, rubbing her brow. “Of course. I’m sorry, I don’t know where my head is today.
“He contacted me by flux-speaking. It was just a brief note: ‘Novaposticum; mobilization proceeds. Estimate Starmeadow three weeks. Nice dragon’.”
Breygon smiled at the last two words. Then he frowned again. “That’s it? That’s all he said?”
The ranger glanced at his fingers for a moment. “That’s only nine words,” he said at last. “I thought that spell allowed the sender to speak two dozen words or more, and the receiver to reply with a like number.”
The princess eyed him stonily. “Is there a question in there?”
“What was the rest of his mes – ”
“I haven’t seen my lifemate,” Mya interrupted, “since our wedding night. It has been the longest two weeks of my life. And I say that as someone who once spent a fortnight stuck in a sealed grotto after a cave-in, with nothing but four rotting bugbear carcasses to serve me as company, couch and comestibles.”
Breygon sat back, stunned into silence by her sudden vehemence.
“The rest of my love’s message,” Mya said sternly, “was for my ears, and mine alone.” A pretty pink flush took the anger out of her words.
The ranger snorting, holding his hands up in mock surrender. “I apologize most profusely, aunty.”
She huffed a little, but smiled.
“So,” Breygon said, “what did you tell him in return?”
The princess didn’t reply. To his vast amusement, her mild flush turned bright pink, colouring her from bodice to ear-tips.
“Furtive whispers between lifemates, eh?” Breygon teased. “Maybe I should take lessons.”
“Maybe you should,” Amorda murmured softly.
Her tone caught Breygon’s attention, but Myaszæron didn’t hear anything unusual. She simply chuckled. “You’ll have plenty of opportunity tonight. I had the chamberlains take a pair of cushions over to Salus, so at least you won’t be kneeling on bare stone. Remember, too, that while the pervigilium coniugalis is supposed to be a time of reflection, it is also a time for you to be together, with no other distractions. A good time to talk about things you’ve not spoken of before. There’ll be a dozen Guardsmen on duty to make sure you’re not interrupted.”
“Just how private is it?” Breygon asked with a wink. He glanced at Amorda again; she greeted him with a wan smile. A sudden worm of worry edged its way into his gut.
“Well, you’ll be kneeling before the Hearthfire in the sacristy, with a half-company of swordsmen about,” Mya shrugged. “I suppose if you were adventuresome and quiet enough, it wouldn’t be a problem. That would defeat the purpose of the vigil, though.”
She nodded. “For prospective lifemates, it’s supposed to be a test of their restraint. And of their ability to focus their contemplation on larger things.”
Breygon smiled. “And you and Kaltas managed it?”
“Yes,” she chuckled. “But only barely. My heart was hammering all night for the coniunctio. Had Kaltas so much as winked at me, I’d’ve been on him in a heart-beat, and we’d’ve failed the Forest Mother’s test on the spot!”
The ranger laughed aloud. Turning to Amorda, he murmured, “Take that as a lesson, my love. I’ll do my utmost to keep my hands to myself, if you’ll do the same.”
“I promise nothing,” Amorda replied with a feeble grin. “Sponsus, the night wears on. We need to prepare, and then make our way to the Palace before midnight.”
He nodded worriedly. “You look a little tired. Should I call for a coach or a palanquin?”
The elf-woman smiled again. “We go a-horse, my heart, as those who wear the clavus must. I may go bare-handed – and I will, for as you say, I am tired, and your good right arm is armament enough for me – but I’m afraid it’s sparum et peltam for you, Sir Knight.”
Breygon frowned. “I have the glaive the Queen gave me, so I’m all right there. But I’ve no buckler. Never had much use for one.”
“Borrow a friend’s,” the elf-woman shrugged. “I’m sure Karrick would lend you his scutum for the night. If not, I’ve a number of presentable shields somewhere about the house.”
She made as if to stand. The ranger shot to his feet, took her hand, and helped her. She nodded her thanks. “Half a stick, sponsus, and we’ll hie us up the hill together. I’ll leave you to farewell our guests until the morrow, if you don’t mind. Placet, dominus?”
“Domina, placet,” he replied with a graceful bow. “Anon.” He remained standing, watching after her while she made her way towards their suite.
After she had turned the corner, he sat again. “Something’s wrong,” he muttered.
“She’s exhausted,” the princess said, concerned. “Yesterday came as rather a shock, you know.”
“It shouldn’t’ve done,” the ranger replied moodily. “These damned rings were her idea, not mine. She’s seen us – me – in action before. She ought to have bloody well known the risk she was running.”
Mya grinned sourly. “You’re new at this, aren’t you?”
“Romance, you idiot.”
Breygon turned a jaundiced eye on his aunt. “Excuse me?”
His discomfiture was obvious. Myaszæron laughed. “Have you ever actually been in love before?”
He took a deep breath in preparation for an angry retort; at the last instant, though, he managed to throttle the bitter response that built up in his breast. He let the air whistle slowly out of his lungs.
“Well?” she prodded when he didn’t speak.
He thought about the camp women of his youth, and about the many quick and furtive liaisons he’d enjoyed during his woodsman’s days. He thought about pleasure-besotted noblewomen, delighting in a taste of forbidden fruit while their husbands were following a false trail designed to keep them busy, and distant, for a few hours.
He thought, too, about Ally, with whom he’d felt some deep connection, but whose small, delicate hand he had never so much as touched other than in the guise of a deliverer.
A muscle twitched in his cheek. “I don’t know,” he said at last. I really don’t. It was a galling realization.
“Do you love her?” the princess insisted, nodding towards the corridor where the elf-woman had disappeared, turning the screw a little further.
“I…I don’t…” I don’t know. He couldn’t say it aloud. Not again. But the truth was that he didn’t know. He had to admit it, if only to himself.
“That’s the problem,” Mya said softly. “She doesn’t know either.”
His eyebrows shot up. “She doesn’t know whether she loves me?”
“Hah! No, of course not! Are you blind?” the princess chortled. “Of course she loves you. She’s thoroughly smitten with you, gods alone know why. Any imbecile can see that!”
The half-elf frowned. He wasn’t at all certain that he could see it.
“No, the problem – nephew,” she went on, grinning, “is that she can feel your doubt, and it burns her like fire. She knows her own heart. She is yours, warrior, wholly and completely! But she doesn’t know whether you are hers.”
“I’m not entirely certain how this is my fault,” Breygon grumbled with some asperity. “She’s nigh on ten times my age. Surely she’s been through this before!” He thought of the tale Amorda had told him, about the servant of the Protector that she had seen at the shrine to Breygon’s grandmother, and how he had spurned her. “I know for a fact that she’s been in love at least twice!”
“Maybe,” Mya allowed. “Maybe. But not like this. I know it when I see it, Bræagond.” She smiled. “It’s pleasant to be able to speak that name again without having to spit afterwards. But as far as Amorda’s concerned, it’s different with you. I can tell.”
“And how, precisely, can you tell?”
“Because I’m a woman,” the princess grinned. “One who’s in the same boat myself, incidentally, vis-à-vis your uncle Kaltas.”
“That’s twaddle,” he snorted.
“ ‘Twaddle’?” she laughed. “Maybe, but I don’t think so. There’s more to it than mere intuition.” She put a hand to her hair, stroking the blackening roots ruefully. “Whatever I am now, nephew, I was once as deeply attuned to the rhythms of the green as you. Syelission and I walked the glades and forest-paths together in silence, feeling the world all around us, its lifebeat warming us, like sunlight on skin. The thunder of the owl’s wing, the fall of leaves, the slightest breath of wind, the scents of birth and death – we tasted these as though wafted along, within the strains of a symphony.”
Moved by the wistful longing in her tone, Breygon forgot his morbid introspection for a moment, and simply watched her. The memory of rapture shone in her eyes, and he swallowed heavily. She had found a degree of exaltation in the green that he had only begun to attain, and then she had lost it. How terrible!
No, he corrected himself almost immediately. It was worse even than that. She hadn’t lost her link to the green; she had given it up, willingly. And all for love.
Could I even imagine such a sacrifice?
She continued without noticing his frown. “There’s more to your sponsa than meets the eye. And I don’t mean her false identities, and her penchant for machinations. They’re not even the tenth part of what I feel in her.”
“ ‘Machinations’?” Breygon murmured.
She shot him a withering gaze. “Don’t play the dullard with me. I know what she is. I suspected, for many months, that she was a sycophanta – a player, for lack of a better word – but I never looked into it as deeply as I might have done, because she never seemed to be working against our House, or against the Throne. Petty political games never mattered to me. Hers did furnish some amusement, of course, especially when she was topping my idiot brother, and wringing every possible ounce of information from his wine-sodden brain. As far as I’m concerned, she did Grandmother a favour, keeping him preoccupied and out of trouble.
“And now that I’ve confronted her, and know for whom she works…”
“I know, too,” Breygon interrupted. “I know she’s not what she seems, but I trust her nonetheless. You don’t need to convince me on that score. But I would like to know more about your feelings, highness. About the other ‘nine parts’ of what you sense.”
“She’s different,” Mya said immediately. “I didn’t notice it before, not even when she was flirting so outrageously with Kaltas, and I was fantasizing about knifing her and dumping her body in the Gula at Joyous Light.”
Breygon barked a laugh. “Why didn’t you?”
“Because she didn’t love him,” the princess shrugged. “I could see that immediately. Oh, the attraction was there, of course; Kaltas is a paragon of manhood, a lord of ancient lineage, and at the height of his powers. And as for her, well – no male with a lifebeat could resist those charms.” She grinned self-consciously. “It was a nervous competition, let me tell you. When it comes to aping the courtly dilettante, I’m hardly in the same league as your beloved. It was a genuine relief when I realized that she was only playing a game with him.”
“So why is it different now?” he asked.
“You can’t see it, because you’re in it,” the princess replied with an amused snort. “Otherwise, you’d be laughing at yourself. Tomorrow will be fun, certainly, but it’s really nothing but a show. You two were mated the moment your eyes met in Kaltas’ ballroom. Everything since that night has been child’s games and idle formalities.”
“I thought my choices had something to do with it,” the ranger said stiffly.
“About as much as a boulder chooses to roll downhill,” Myaszæron laughed. “If you’d fled, she’d’ve followed.
“Crying of banns,” she snorted derisively, “wedding gowns, oaths and vows, roses and cups – can you imagine any other scion of the green indulging in such foolishness? The courtship of wolves lasts no longer than a nuzzle and a howl, and they’re mated for life. I don’t know what attachment you feel to Amorda, but her attachment to you is deep and unbreakable. Something in her spirit has made it so. You’re wolves, the both of you.”
“A nuzzle and a howl,” he repeated, bemused. That was as good a description of their first night together as any, he supposed.
“With true mates, that’s all it takes.” She punctuated her point with a dainty sip from her goblet.
“I’m sorry,” Breygon confessed helplessly. “I just don’t see it. Yes, she accepted my proposal more readily than I’d thought she would; and certainly, she seems to be…most enthusiastic about our becoming lifemates tomorrow. But there’re plenty of political reasons for that. Not the least of which,” he added drily, “is the fact that mating me makes her a princess.”
“She’s already a baroness,” the princess said, sounding irritated. “Is that why you’re mating her?”
“No,” Breygon snorted.
“She’s rich,” Mya said stonily. “She’s so rich, in fact, that it makes my head spin. Is that why you’re mating her?”
“Of course not,” he said scornfully.
“How about her fief?” she went on. “I’ve seen Arx Incultus. It’s not big, but it’s a wonder. The castle is delightful, and the gardens exquisite. And its income is staggering. Is that why you’re mating her?”
“No, and I’m afraid I’m not grasping your point,” the ranger grated.
“And she’s connected, too. Well connected. An excellent reason to rose-and-cup a woman. A very ‘third house’ reason, in fact, to–”
“Enough,” he snapped. “Hesht! I understand. You’re saying that if those aren’t my reasons, then maybe they’re not hers either.”
Mya nodded and tapped her nose with a finger.
“So, then,” Breygon sighed, “what’s her real reason? She’s a noble, even if an ersatz one; a mover-and-shaker, a creature of high society, a lady of wealth and taste who’s been around many a long year, and seen many a soul go to waste. Dragon-slayer or no, she took up my rose before she had any idea who I really was; all she had seen, all she knew, was a base-born, half-blooded, penniless bow-pulling sell-sword, who had somehow managed to luck into an acquaintance with Kaltas of Eldisle. Why in the name of all the gods would that sort of woman say ‘yes’ to me?”
“That,” the princess replied with a wink, “is an excellent question.”
“You’re saying I should ask her?”
“I’m saying you need to think about it,” Mya said carefully. “And if you ask her, do so cautiously. Because if my suspicions are correct, she might not even know herself.”
“What ‘suspicions’?” the ranger asked, suddenly alarmed.
“About what she really is,” the princess murmured. “Forget who you are, just for a moment, and think about what you are, nephew. And what you are becoming.” She leaned forward and put her palm flat on his breast. “Close those fetching violets, my duck, and try to see her with your inner eye. I think she’ll surprise you.”
“That’d be a first,” he muttered sarcastically.
Myaszæron gave him a gentle shove. “Promise me you’ll try!”
He held up his hands. “I promise, I promise!”
“Good.” She sat back and refilled her wine glass and his.
“A question, though,” he said, watching her. “Why do you care?”
“Because I like her,” the princess laughed easily. “And because I like you. You two…you’re made for each other.”
“Benigne dicis,” Breygon snorted. “That’s all?”
“No.” She passed him his glass. When he reached for it, she grasped his outstretched hand, squeezing it until he winced at the pressure. “Because,” she hissed, “I feel this! This…pulse, this lifebeat of kesatuan, it throbs between the two of you! A deep current, like the trembling of the earth, or like distant thunder!
“Some conduit of life has sprung up, tying you to her, and her to you,” she went on intently, while he goggled at her in surprise. “My connection to eternal whisper of the Unity, to the silent splendour of the green…it is all but gone, now. But this…” she squeezed his fingers again. “This I can still feel! It burns so brightly…”
She let his hand fall. “So very, very brightly!” she said. It was almost a whisper. “I suppose I’m envious.”
Still staring at her in shocked surprise, Breygon said, “I don’t understand. I…I think I love her. But I just don’t see what you see.”
Mya shook her head. When she raised her eyes to his again, he was unsurprised to see tears in them. She put her hand on his chest once more. “Open your heart, Lewat,” she sighed, “and look at your love’s light with the eyes of your sielu. Maybe then you’ll see what she truly is.”
“And maybe, if you do,” she added with a heart-felt smile, “you’ll see her looking back.”