Things Unseen, Chapter 30

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

The courtyard between the castle’s inner wall and its keep bustled with activity as servants set up alchemical lamps, cloth decorations, platforms for entertainment, long lines of trestle tables and benches, and all the other accoutrements of a celebration intended to be spectacle as much as respite from the worries of the world. We passed fire-eaters, jugglers and mummers, actors, musicians and all manner of other players hired to provide distraction and entertainment throughout the night. Servants of both the amn Vaini and the amn Esti erected avilions of fine cloths bearing the families’ coats of arms, flanked and surrounded by clay statues, probably the rushed product of Ovaelo’s apprentices, of various mythological figures.

We passed unmolested between these various obstacles, at one point dodging a pair of young folk delicately maneuvering a cask of wine between the gauntlet of competing workers, at another ducking under a long carpet tightly rolled and carried like a piece of fresh-cut timber by some of the stronger lads.

Eldis greeted us at the doors into the lord’s great hall, flanked by several of the household servants. Without missing a step, Vesonna continued into her home, her waiting handmaids falling into line behind her as she disappeared through one of the side doors. Indorma followed behind.

The aging steward held a hand up to me, however, causing me to pause on the steps into the hall. By the nervous faces of the two servants who remained behind him, I could tell they’d been assigned to attend to me in some task and wished they hadn’t. I recognized the stout girl who’d brought me my breakfast that morning. Beside her, a taller, thinner, older woman whose calm demeanor bespoke an attitude to the world immune to surprise and impractical superstitions. I hoped that her younger companion would take some strength from her—and perhaps not continue to make the sign of the Tree at me when she thought I wasn’t looking.

“My lord has arranged a new set of clothes for you for this evening. And a bath for your comfort, my lord,” Eldis said, tone bereft of any opinion whatsoever. “These good women will escort you and see that you are provided for. I trust your day in Barro’s books proved useful?”

“Enough.”

“Very good, my lord.” He waived his hands to signal the two women to lead on. I followed.

They took me to a room on the same floor as my bedchamber. The windows had been opened to let in the still-warm air of the summer night, and the faint sounds of the workers continuing to build the labyrinth of amusements below mingled with the first tentative practices of the musicians. A large tub, bigger than a butt of wine set on its side and split open, occupied the center of the room. A wooden tray at the height of a desktop straddled the entire piece; on this had been set a small mirror on a stand, several soaps and a collection of shaving implements. Nearby, a short rack held several towels awaiting the finished bather.

In the far right-hand corner of the room stood a mannequin, on which had been arrayed a set of fine clothes, black satin with copper colored cloth in the dags, those befitting a nobleman of my title, if not my wealth. Frankly, they looked stiff and too expensive—the kind of thing that causes you to fret with every movement that you might tear or scuff or scrape its meticulous craftsmanship. I prefer something sturdier, harder-wearing, and less likely to draw attention.

A mask, tied to the otherwise blank face of the mannequin, stared at me with beige eyes. No one had mentioned that the party would be a masquerade. At first I damned my luck, for the masks would make it difficult for me to identify those who the party would give me opportunity to question. On the other hand, since the celebrants at the cult’s gathering the night previous had also been masked, perhaps something—the shape of a chin or the way one’s hair fell about the mask—would inspire some intuition of identity.
My mask had been shaped to cover the full face, like the masks worn by the Avarian Aenyr after the [Name of] Treaty. Most of the masks, I knew, would be half-masks in the typical style of such parties in the Sisters, so mine would undoubtedly stand out. That it was blackened iron gilt in bronze accents of faux-arcane symbols further enhanced the otherness the article would provide. The upturned bronze wings, like those of the messenger spirits of the Firstborn, completed the strangeness, dwarfing the other attributes of the mask with their conspicuousness. I wondered at the amount of time required to make such a mask; had it been made to Aryden’s orders in a short time, or had it somehow been procured from the Sisters?

The shorter of the servant-women turned to me from a table on the side of the room, speaking while she poured wine into a goblet sitting next to a hunk of bread and some dried meats, “It will take us some time to fetch the water, my lord. There will be much food at the celebration this evening, but my lord thought you might be famished and sent you this food and drink to tide you until then.”

“Thank you,” I told her. “You may call me, ‘Iaren.’”

“No, my lord,” she said, face pointed downward as she scurried past to join her elder companion in bringing the water to fill the bath.

They made several trips with buckets of steaming water before they filled the tub to an appropriate height, and another trip to fetch some perfume and flower petals to drop into the water. I thought of Barro’s tea and smiled to myself.

The task complete, they took their leave, closing the door behind them. Only then did I realize how much I ached—between sitting pouring over books today and the bruises of the night past, I’d acquired a number of sore patches and plaintive joints. The bath then seemed an excellent respite.

I removed my belt and leaned it and my sword against the corner of the room toward which the door opened. In that corner I sat briefly to unlace and pull off my boots before unceremoniously strewing the rest of my clothes across the floor’s warm stones. The maids had managed a perfect temperature for the water, hot enough to cause the briefest sensation of burning before becoming extremely comfortable, and I eased myself slowly into the vessel, leaning my head back and listening to the sounds coming through the window for a moment.

Just as I truly fell into relaxation, the door began to swing open, quietly. I sat up, splashing water across the mirror, and turned to see Vesonna, clothed in only a robe, hair wet from her own bathing, mechanical bird perched atop her left shoulder. She pressed the door closed behind her as quietly as she’d opened it and stepped lightly around the side of the bathtub until I had no need to crane my neck to see her.

Without a word, she let fall the robe. I’m sure it crumpled around her feet, but it might as well have disappeared into thin air. Her skin was pale and soft, untanned by a life in the fields, unscarred by a life of toil and hardships. She had an alluring combination of toned muscle and feminine curves, though I knew too little of her to guess at her athletic endeavors.

She stared at me, lips slightly parted, while her bird cocked its head and looked at me with crystalline eyes, holding the posture of a Gracaellas Street pimp about to ask if I liked what his girls had to offer me.

My own mouth dropped open a bit, and I swallowed hard, a lump in my throat and my stomach developing that tingle of nervousness that accompanies an event both enticing in its promise and fraught with the possibility of disaster.

It took me a moment to speak, and I did so with a voice less sure than I’d hoped for. “Vesonna,” I began. “I—”

Her face became a frown. She knew what was coming next.

“You don’t find me attractive?” I couldn’t tell whether the pout in her voice meant playfulness or deep offense.

“It’s not that,” I managed. “Not at all.”

She stepped forward, eyes widening as she peered into the bathwater. “I see that it’s not,” she smiled mischievously.

I tried to move the tray table to cover the parts of me that had her attention. “I would like to,” I admitted, voice still trembling slightly. How is it that I could steel myself against the horrors of the Close or a child of Daea and yet I found myself entirely unraveled by something so…natural?

She leaned down next to the bath and put a hand on my face. “Then why not?” she asked, quiet and breathy, the entrancing melody of her voice accompanied by the faint whirring of the Artificial bird.

As self-assuredly as I could manage, I took her hand in mine, removing it from my face and placing it against the side of the bathtub. “You know why,” I said.

“Tell me.”

“Your father,” I complained, nervousness dissipating ever-so-slightly. “My relationship with him is strained enough as it is, and I’m sure you understand how—” I wanted to say jealous but decided against it, “protective he is of you. I simply can’t afford the consequences.”

She stepped back, rising to her full height, pulling her hands to her chest. “Am I some ledger-book to you, some accounting that needs balancing that you should weigh passion against consequence? I thought you were a man of the Sisters, that you understand the value of passion against aught else!”

Perfect, I thought to myself. “Under different circumstances, I would not hesitate, believe me. But I need this job and I’m not sure I’d survive your father’s wrath—more than he’s already directed it to me.”

“Your love is money?” she asked, incredulous.

“Do I look to you like a man for whom coin is a motivating desire?” I pointed to the dusty and worn clothes in their path across the floor. “But I need enough coin to survive. Passion isn’t a luxury I can afford at present. Maybe it is accounting, in the end. And I know passion well enough, thank you. I feel it even now. But I’m also no fool to let himself be undone by his passion.”

“So you would make a fool of me, then?” she barked, bending over to gather her robe again. The sight was painful to behold, a heart-wrenching maelstrom of my compassion for her position and my own aching at the knowledge of what I’d turned down.

I opened my mouth to speak but thought the better of it as she tied the robe closed around her, bird flapping its wings tentatively as she stormed from the room, huffing and mumbling angrily to herself. Apparently, she had her father’s temper.

I sank back into the water, leaning my head back and closing my eyes, running the conversation through my head, wondering how I could have done things differently so as not to lose the woman’s friendship, which I was certain I had.

My thoughts whirled through my head one after the other, often contradictory, mostly unresolved, until I heard the door open once again. I assumed that Vesonna had returned to make a fresh argument, and I said her name without opening my eyes.
When no response came, I turned just in time to see a hooded figure moving quickly toward me. I grabbed for the razor on the bath tray, but my assailant tossed the whole thing aside before I could lay fingers on the blade. I blocked a punch with my left elbow, but he used my distraction to push me down into the water.

I hadn’t had time to catch a breath before I collapsed into the tub; my eyesight quickly began focusing into a limited circle around which lie only darkness. Between that and the refraction of light off of the water’s surface, I could neither make out my attacker nor any weapon close to hand. As my head and lungs began to burn, I knew that I had no focus to work even a sorcery upon the man; I struggled through the fog in my mind to thinks of any way I might escape. Meanwhile, the killer’s hands tightened around my neck, pushing me against the bottom of the vessel as my legs kicked, splashing water.

I moved my right hand upward from his wrist, jamming my fingers under his palm and tucking my thumb into the webbing between his own thumb and fingers. This gave me the leverage to pull that hand back far enough from my neck that I could lean and clamp my teeth around his thumb. I bit down as hard as I could, an inky cloud of blood spreading forth from the wound. Now he thrashed, attempting to throttle me into releasing his hand, but mine were now free to shield my face from his desperate blows.
He fell back from me only when his thumb tore apart between my teeth; I must have bitten down right at the joint not to have been stopped by bone. He recoiled, clutching at his mangled hand, as I pushed myself back into the air, spitting the ragged flesh from my mouth and gasping. I could hear him screaming now, but only as a distant sound despite his proximity.

The would-be assassin ran, but adrenaline had kicked in now, and as soon as I had the least sufficient amount of air in my chest to give chase, I did, panting my way down the hallway in pursuit of the trail of blood, trying not to slip on wet feet against stone. But my head continued to pound and my lungs burned with the exertion and I knew I could not follow for long.

My attacker must have bound his bloody hand with whatever he had available, for his trail stopped somewhere within the stairwell. Not knowing where to exit, I continued downward into the main hall. Without that crimson path to guide me, I knew I could not reach him in my current state. As rationality set in, I understood also that I’d be to tired to survive a confrontation even if I had caught the man.

As I collected myself from the fury of the chase, I noticed that I was not alone. Eldis, Edanu, Aryden and a collection of servants had gathered there, no doubt discussing the last-minute changes to the plans for the celebration. The maidservants gave me a look up and down and then turned to one another, whispering and giggling. I looked down at myself and remember that I was naked—and covered in blood. I grinned sheepishly, tasting copper.

“Did a man in a hood run through here?” I asked in a stream of words without spaces between them.

“What the hell are you doing?” Aryden asked in return.

“I was attacked,” I told him, catching my breath in short pants between words.

Glances were exchanged between the three men before Edanu approached. Instinctively, I raised my hands in a defensive posture, but he only unlatched his cloak and draped it over my shoulders so that I had something with which I could cover myself.

“Send Gamven to have the premises searched. Find this person,” Aryden told Eldis, who immediately set about the task.

The lord turned back to me. “Are you okay, my lord? Is any of that blood yours?”

“No. I’ll be fine. But I think I’m going to need another bath.”

For a single PDF with all chapters released to date, click here.

Things Unseen, Chapter 29

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

There came a knock at the door. Rotating my legs out from under the bedcovers and onto the floor, I arose. Still a bit dizzy, I grasped for the nearby canopy post at the foot of the bed, leaning on it momentarily as I let my head stop swimming. The flux-created rain had moistened everything thoroughly, to say nothing of my own sweat, and my underclothes clung to me like an unwelcome relative. The floor, at least, had not gathered puddles, so I made my way to the door over dry land.

I unlatched the door and pulled it open a crack to find a plump servant girl, pock-marked face dropped slightly agape when she saw the state of me, holding a tray of food and drink. “Are—are you alright, my lord?” she asked, nervously. I suspected the tray occupying her hands and preventing her from making the sign of the Tree at me only added to her discomfort.

“Fine, thank you. How are you on this fine morning?” I managed.

Her mouth continued to hang open still, and she blinked several times before realizing that I’d answered her. “My lord amn Vaina requested that food be brought to you first thing in the morning, my lord.”

“Thank you,” I repeated, letting the door swing open a little more so that I could gently take the tray from her hands.

As soon as I had, she turned and made her way down the hallway back to the stairs, arms moving in front of her to form the sign of the Tree as she did. Closing the door, I took the tray and placed it on the table near the bed, the one that held the bowl of water for washing and underneath which hid the chamberpot. I tried to be annoyed at the message Aryden sent with such an order, but the fresh milk, small beer, dark, dense bread and rasher of bacon blunted the edge of the act’s meaning with the welcomeness of the act itself. Before eating, I swung open the leaded window through which light began to flood the room, removed my wet bedclothes, and hung them on the window sill to let the sun dry them. Already, I could feel the heat of the day beating upon my forearms as they lay the linens out; little time would be required to remove the moisture. My underclothes occupied the entire space of the sill, but I picked up my jerkin, pants, and jacket to determine how damp my day looked. Not as much as I feared, but more than I hoped. These I laid out across the floor where the sunlight fell most directly, the best I could do without a place to hang them.

No sooner had I taken my first bite of bacon, savoring the salty-sweetness of the meat, than there came another knock at my chamber door. I cringed, fearing that Aryden might have intended to catch me in just such a position for another scolding. Reluctantly, I swallowed the bacon prematurely, nearly choking on it, and took a swig of the beer before returning to the door.

When I put my hand on the latch, I heard a voice from the other side. “Iaren?” it asked. Vesonna’s voice.

I opened the door a bit more eagerly, but just a bit, hiding my naked self behind it. Viewing part of my shoulder and chest, and evidently understanding what my posture meant, Vesonna smiled briefly for a moment before becoming serious again. “Are you alright, Iaren? Aela said you were soaked in sweat and looked ill. Should I fetch the doctor for you?”

“No. Thank you. I’m fine.”

She held the back of her hand to my forehead, moving it into position before I’d even realized what she was doing, much less in time to prevent the action. “No fever,” she said. “That’s good. Perhaps something you ate last night?”

“A bad dream is all.”

“Of the spirit? Like my mother’s?”

“In a certain sense, yes.”

“What was the dream?” she put her hand on the door, as if to push her way in, but exerted no force upon it. A message of her desire but not an effort to impose her will.
“I’ll tell you of it later,” I said. “But I need to make use of Barro’s library today, so I need to eat my breakfast and be on my way.”

“Excellent!” she said, a bit giddy. “You could use an assistant in your research. I’ll go ahead to Barro’s and make things ready.”

She left before I could object. To be honest, the company in the task would be welcome, and I could think of far less pleasant companions.

When I’d finished my breakfast, I found my underclothes dry again, though donning my true attire somewhat dampened them again. The leather of my belt and pouches remained wet as well, creaking and sticking to itself as I pulled it on.

I drew my sword from its scabbard, though I knew I had no need to check it. In the fuller of the blade, I’d etched a rune of protection, which kept the weapon sharp, strong, and free from rust without a need for maintenance. I necessary precaution, because I often found myself preoccupied and too willing to neglect the maintenance of my gear.

When most think of supernaturally-empowered weapons, they thing of swords that burst into fire when drawn, spears that can cut through all armor like so much paper, bows that never miss their target. Such things exist, but rare enough that they remain mostly left to legend. Wondrous effects of the type people remember typically result from the Awakening of a spirit within the weapon or the accrual of symbolic meaning over time, as Power subtly attaches to the object to give tangible effect to what the weapon has come to represent. This requires the weapon to repeatedly be used in acts of great significance over time—and a little Wyrgeas besides. Hence the rarity.

Far more common are the wondrous weapons of my sort, inscribed with a rune or two and imbued with Power enough to sustain the workings represented by the rune. The more powerful the effect, the more often more Power must be brought into the rune to keep it active. Mine required that I imbue additional Power into it only rarely, less than yearly. That a rune for the easy maintenance of my weapon itself required little maintenance seemed just and right.

The rune itself actually meant more to me for what it symbolized in my own pursuit of the Art than for the benefit it provided. I’d used a theurgic ritual to form the engraving by manipulating the metal of the blade itself, shaping it through the Art rather than by physical of chemical means of inscription. This left the edges of the rune distinct but rounded, without the hard corners of chisel or acid. A step on the path of mastery of the Art, for I’d created the ritual myself, from scratch.

Sheathing the blade again, I sat against the side of the bed and pulled on my boots. The meal had refreshed me a good deal, but I could still feel the weight of fatigue pulling on the edges of my consciousness, dulling them ever so subtly.

Clothed and armed, I declared myself ready for the day. From the trunk at the foot of the bed, I gathered my quills, inks and my notebook, the tools of the student remain comfortably familiar to me. Placing these into my backpack along with my ritual girdle, I left for Barro’s home.

Like Aryden’s other most trusted allies, the priest’s home occupied a portion of the Old Town, where it exhibited the same gaudy ostentation as the homes of Vaina’s wealthiest merchant families. A bit smaller than those familial compounds, given that it had been intended for a single person and a handful of attendants, but no less grand in its appearance.

Technically, the Temple owned the house and its effects, but I imagine that made little difference to the occupants, who enjoyed its splendor all the same. Should the elders that govern the Temple move Barro to a new posting, it would likely enjoy the same magnificence, or more. Unless, that is, Barro displeased his superiors and they purposefully appointed him to a humbler position as a means of expressing their displeasure. Many are the tales of Temple politics and scheming priests.

Unlike the merchant homes, no gate surrounded the exterior of the building, no bravos guarded the door. I supposed that some combination of respect for Barro himself and fear of the vengeance of The One and Their loyal Firstborn provided protection enough. It’s not dissimilar in the Ilessa, where the Coin Lords leave no obvious defenses about their homes—those whose homes are identifiable, anyway. They invite thieves and murderers to attempt an intrusion, the threat of a life perpetually on the run from ubiquitous vengeance dissausion enough to keep the homes secure, though I assume there are plenty of armed footsoldiers and thugs within, just in case. That’s not to say that the Coin Lords are never robbed or murdered, only that it never happens in their homes.

Before I reached the door to knock upon it, one of Barro’s acolytes, a somber-faced teenage boy with a clipped ear, likely a punishment for theft, swung the door open to me. “My lord amn Ennoc,” he said. “My master awaits you.”

As soon as I stepped inside, I could hear the voices of Barro and Vesonna making pleasantries. Nevertheless, I took a moment to inspect the artwork hanging in the entry hall before following after the acolyte, who looked back at me impatiently.

Like the merchant families, gilt frames held the works of talented artists, props set to impress a guest, though these had been calculated to put one in a more reverent mindset rather than to intimidate or titillate. Religious images, all of them. There were the obligatory scenes of Ashaera on the Tree, Ieladrun spiriting her away as a child, the risen Ashaera appearing to the first believers. Others depicted the lore of the Temple after the writing of the Book of the Tree—the acts of saints and Chosen strewn between the miracles of the loyal Firstborn. Here, Melqéa descended into the underworld to make it a haven for those souls between incarnations, her willing sacrifice when Sedhwé’s misdeeds revealed that misfortune we call death. There, Aelessyn concealing the garden made by Baruvin, Tamsé, Samaradha and Avariennë, where The One will create the first humans.

One of these stood out in contrast to the others, a scene of macabre torment and threatening meaning. In the center, disembodied spirits, as if caught in a whirlwind, spiraled upward toward some unseen oblivion, while all around strange beings—some inanimate objects come to life, others horrid hybrids of incongruous creatures that even the most imaginative and insane of fleshcrafters would not consider. On the lower right, a humongous pair of shears cleft a man in two, while on a ledge above it a horde of pig-bird-snake-things stripped pieces of flesh from a fallen victim, and many more scenes of a sort besides. The torments of those who chose corruption throughout their lives, who served only themselves and evil. Or so I hoped, thinking myself not among them before a pang of doubt made me wonder. In the upper left corner of the painting a shadow loomed over all, almost bearing human features if one squinted. Sedhwé, I imagined.
I recognized the painter’s mark tucked into the underside of one of the shadowy ledges on which tortures were carried out—Ovaelo. No wonder he was a madman, living with such images in his mind’s eye.

The acolyte led me into the parlor where Barro and Vesonna sat, the lady’s tutor, Indorma, sitting disapprovingly in the corner as the former two chatted. When I entered, the shadow over Indorma deepened further.

“My lord, amn Ennoc,” the priest said, rising. “You do look—” he had wanted to say well, but his desire to speak truthfully, given the fatigue that had settled over me, prevented it. “Well, I am glad to see you relatively uninjured after facing down the beast in the woods. A child of Daea, stalking the forests just outside of town. What are times coming to, eh? As if our adventure in the Close where not enough for a lifetime. For me, at least.”

“Several,” I agreed, managing the best smile I could.

A second acolyte, this one stout and bow legged, entered through a far door in the parlor. In his hands, a tray containing a teapot and several pewter cups.

“Ah, thank you, Bennard,” the priest said, waiving for the boy to place the tray on the small table between him and his guests. He waived for me to sit and I obliged. “I hope you’ll humor me in a cup of tea before you begin,” he offered, almost apologetically. “I think you’ll find this variety will lend you well to your work. It’s all the way from the isle of Vindh in the Outer Sea, months of travel to reach the Sisters, longer to reach us here. A gift from the im Valladyni, to whom it was a gift from one of their trading partners. They know that I have a weak spot for strange teas; it makes a most welcome token of appreciation. And, for seeing me out of the very maw of death in the Crimson Close, I most happily share it with you, my lord.”

“Thank you,” I told him, raising the cup in salute. “To those did not come home with us.”
“To Medryn and Errys,” the priest said, eyes down in reverence, “May The One reward them as they deserve.”

I sipped at the tea, comfortable that Barro was not amongst the revelers I had observed the night before and that I had little fear of poisoning in front of Lady Vesonna. Still, the realization of the ensuing paranoia, the fact that I had little way of identifying any of the cultists should I chance across one, left me unsettled. I faked a smile as I pushed the thought aside.

“My lord, you remain convinced that the witch Falla has nothing to do with my lord’s predicament?” Barro asked, breaking the enjoyable silence.

“I do.” By my expression, I countenanced no further answer than that.

He took the hint. “And so you believe that the phantom is indeed the spirit of the boy Orren?”

“Yes.”

“And you believe that you may discover him in my library?” He smiled, overly enjoying his own cleverness.

I permitted a smile and the subtlest semblance of a laugh. I may not enjoy it, but I can dissemble and play at social niceties with the best of them when I must. “An investigation has many parts, father. To be sure, finding Orren’s body will likely be necessary, but I must understand more about the phenomena that has made of him an angry spirit to know what must be done to remove him back to the Path.”

“My library is a grand one, my lord. Perhaps one of the finest outside the Sisters. But I’m afraid I have little in the way of thaumaturgical texts. Some descriptions of the wonders of the Art and arcane matters, but those designed for laypersons and without practical information. I am sorry for that. Would you not be better served returning to Ilessa for a time to conduct your research there?”

“We make do with what we have, father,” I told him. “I do not think Lord Aryden would appreciate my departure, and the trip would cost me three days at a minimum.” From the corner of my eye, I could see a reaction from Vesonna, but I could not tell what it meant. A knowing nod about her father’s authoritarian leanings? Relief that I would not be leaving so soon—or that I was committed to ridding the amn Vaina home of their spirit after all? It didn’t matter. “Besides, the sort of information I’m looking for need not be found in a grimoire or practical text. That information I have well enough. Something that helps me to determine the precise nature of the spirit will help me put that practical knowledge to use, and such things may often be found hinted at or described in legend or experiences related in books on subjects unrelated to the Subtle Art.”

“Then I will endeavor to think up a list of books that might contain such information to ease your search. Otherwise you have the entire library to examine.”

There came an audible sigh from Indorma, who held her tea in her lap, attentive instead to the conversation.

“I don’t think the size of the library will be as much of an impediment as you might think,” I told the priest, setting my now-empty tea cup on the table between us.

He downed the rest of his own cup with a swig and smile before standing. “Then shall I let you set to it?”

Indorma and Vesonna likewise finished their tea and returned the cups to the tray that Bennard had brought in to us. Barro led us through a few short hallways—no less decorated with art and statuary than the entry, to a large hall, the kind of room one might mistake for a chapel by its design, save for the fact that this one had been lined with shelves from floor to ceiling on three sides, two stories high, sliding ladders on affixed to tracks above and below allowing access to the topmost shelves. Books packed every shelf tightly, leather covers dyed various colors of the spectrum, wooden slates bound by carefully laced string or sinew, tracts with rough-glued bindings lacking the perseverance or splendor of their more expensive peers. The smell of old books filled my nose, that combination of vellum and leather mixed with a tinge of mildew; I felt at home at once.

A single round table, possessed of four elaborately-carved chairs and also stacked with books, occupied the center of the room. There I sat my backpack and unpacked the journal, quills and inks.

“How did you—” Vesonna wondered aloud.

“Amass such a collection?” Barro answered for her, voice full of pride.

“You well know the reputations of many priests of the Temple of my standing. Where others of my station squander the resources with which their service blesses them upon personal luxuries, I have turned the incomes from my office toward the collection and preservation of knowledge. Often do I send the merchants of the im Valladyni or the im Darqosi certain sums for the purchase of books when they travel to the Sisters, and there are few markets across the Avar Narn better for the trade in books. I must admit that some of these are written in languages I cannot identify, much less decipher. But the majority are written in Ealthebad, or Altaenin, or Old Aenyr, which I do understand.”

“There must be more than a thousand books here,” Vesonna continued, to herself as much as anyone else. When she realized this, she turned to the priest and asked him, “Have you read them all—those you can, at least?”

Barro chuckled slightly, “No, my dear, I have not. It is a great fallacy of the lover of books that when one purchases a book, one thinks he is also purchasing the time to read the things. Alas, this is not often the case.”

“Then why keep them?” the lady asked.

Indorma answered, “Child, you know well that books—good ones, at least—are treasures worth more than gold are silver, and well worth preserving for posterity.”

“Just so, mistress,” Barro told her. “Now, my lord, I have had my acolytes spend some time in arranging the books in some semblance of organization. You’ll find bestiaries and tomes on flora at the far back on the right on the lower shelves. Above them, travelogues and geographies. The next section closest to us contains treatises on law as well as chronicles and histories. Closer still are collections of philosophical and theological matters. The section closest to us on the right-hand side holds military manuals, writings on horsemanship…”

He kept speaking, but I stopped listening. I would navigate my own way through his library, and my methods would have little to do with his system of organization. While I appreciated Vesonna’s company and assistance, I would need to dissemble enough to keep her from some of the true targets of my research while still giving her productive work to do. I especially had no desire to reveal my concerns about free spirits and occulted organizations to Indorma. In Barro’s house, I could afford few risks were I to keep my promise to Falla.

Having given us the lay of the land, the priest took his leave. Indorma stared at me dubiously. “How to you expect to sort through all of this?” she asked, waiving her arm to indicate the breadth of the library.

“It’s impressive,” I admitted, “but we both know it’s dwarfed by the university libraries.”
“Where people spend lifetimes searching out lost knowledge contained in forgotten tomes,” she chastised. “How long do you have to search these books?”

I was already moving as I responded, “Enough.” First, I removed my sword belt and leaned it against a corner nearest the door. Before I left it, though, I withdrew a piece of chalk from one of the pouches. Proceeding deeper into the room, past the table to where a finely embroidered rug provided some protection against the winter cold of the stones—which was of course no current worry. I pulled that carpet aside, clearing the floor. “Would you mind rolling that up?” I asked my companions.

They both continued to stare at me, waiting to observe the theurgy in which I prepared to engage. For a while they watched as I, taking using the knots in my the ritual rope to measure out distances and aid in the drawing of accurate circles, began to create the circle of the Art through which I would execute my working. As they began to realize the time necessary to complete the process, they gathered up the carpet and rolled it into a tube, which they leaned against the corner opposite my sword belt. After completing the chore, they settled into two of the chairs at the reading table and waited.

Half an hour passed before I’d completed the design for my working, the runes, sigils and empowered words at their appointed places, connected by strange combinations of regular and asymmetric geometries. The circles and designs complete, I joined the ladies at the table, where I recovered a quill, a bottle of ink, and a piece of loose parchment. Vesonna watched with impatient expectation, Indorma with pessimistic disinterest.
I tore a small fragment from the corner of the leaf of parchment, ragged but large enough to fit a few words upon. Opening the ink and dipping the quill, I scrawled the words specter, phantom, spirit, dead onto the scrap. I placed this into the midst of the circle and knelt beside it, chanting the words of focus to draw the Power into the circle to complete the working. After a moment of incantation, I heard Vesonna gasp as different books within the library began to emit a faint light, easily drawing the eye to them. With the working sustained by the ritual circle itself, I stood.

“We gather all of these,” I began. “These will be for you and Mistress Indorma to review.”
Vesonna immediately mounted one of the sliding ladders, ascending in search of the highest-shelved books first, but her tutor frowned. “Who said I was going to assist in this foolhardy venture?”

“You’re here, aren’t you? As you can see, the Lady is in fact here to help me research and not for something more nefarious, so a chaperone is less than necessary. You can sit and watch and be bored all day, or you can help move things along.”

She sighed. “What are we looking for within these books, exactly?”

Vesonna passed in front of her mistress, arms loaded with books fresh-gathered from the library walls. Dropping them on the table with a dull thud, she looked up as well, ready for instruction.

“Once we’ve gathered all of these, you’ll search through them for mentions of spirits of the dead who remain in the Avar—or at least close by. We’re looking for reasons given for such occurrences and the ways in which the spirits were driven onward.”

Now the tutor smiled a smile replete with disdain and pleasure in my subtle admission. “You mean that you don’t know how to get rid of the spirit?” She asked. Rhetorically, of course.

I frowned by reflex. “No. It’s reasonably assured that the spirit is that of the boy Orren, but I still do not have an idea of what caused his…situation. Without an idea of cause, I cannot be sure of the best methods for removing the spirit.”

“What about finding an anchor?” Vesonna asked. “I thought you’d told my father that before. That destroying the anchor would allay the spirit.”

“That may still be the proper methodology, but, again, without some idea of the events that led to Orren’s rising as an unquiet spirit, I have little means of where to look exactly for such a thing.”

“Can’t you simply use the Sight to find an anchor?” Indorma asked.

“It’s not so simple,” I said, feeling the hairs on my neck bristle with defensiveness. “Only fools and madmen walk around using the Sight without good cause. Some things are best left unseen. Besides, I’ve used the Sight on the spirit. While I sensed some connection tethering it, I could not make out where it led—some power has obfuscated the thing.”

“Hmph,” she said in response.

I turned myself away, looking to the shelves on my side of the room that held radiant books. Stacking these on the table in turn, I busied myself with drudgery until my two companions had opened books and begun to pour through them.

While they remained distracted in their work, I tore another scrap of paper from the parchment. On this, I wrote the word, Orösaven, the Old Aenyr name for those spirits created by the Three Mothers—Avariennë along with Melqéa and Taelainë—that were not given flesh when the animals and plants of the Avar were first made. I suspected that the spirit at the center of Vaina’s cult had its origins in this order of beings.

Repeating the ritual with this new scrap, only three of the library’s tomes lit up in response; I gathered these in a small stack near the empty chair at the table I’d claimed as my own. I then wrote the word curse on a third fragment of the paper, but Vesonna interrupted before I could make my way back to the circle.

“Here’s something,” she began, still looking to the page that had caught her attention. “This says that vengeful spirits can be created when a person dies under Qaidhë’s moon.”

“Who’s the author?” Indorma and I asked, almost simultaneously.

The Lady flipped the book to the frontispiece. “Um…Savute? Kevis Savute.”

Indorma sucked her teeth. “Toss that one aside. He purports to be a historian, but he’s a purveyor of old wives’ tales and superstitions.”

I nodded in agreement and took comfort that there was something—anything—that Mistress Indorma held the same opinion of.

“Why do you say that?” Vesonna asked.

“Logic,” I said. “If every person who dies under Qaidhë’s moon rose again as a specter, why don’t we have regular intervals of waves of restless spirits plaguing all civilizations across the Avar?”

“If you keep reading,” Indorma warned, “you’ll also see that all deformities are the result of curses, all accidents are the action of malevolent spirits, and locking the door of your hovel will protect you from roaming demons.”

“If someone will publish all of this nonsense, how do we keep straight what is real and what is not?” the student asked.

“Experience,” both Indorma and I said, a chorus. We smiled at each other at that.

“Have you paid no attention to me, child? The point of education is to develop the tools of the scholar—the ability to ask and answer questions, to think critically about the assertions of others, to look at the evidence and determine the likeliest truth. It’s not always as precise as we’d like, but it’s what we have.”

Sighing, Vesonna set the book on the floor and retrieved a different one, while I continued to my third execution of the working of discovery. Of the books that began to glow this time, I pulled those from the stacks between Indorma and Vesonna and moved them to my own pile, leaving those that had not responded to the first ritual to the shelves.

The day progressed in much the same way, with either Indorma or Vesonna finding a passage of interest and reading it aloud, some discussions of metaphysics or the Art to follow. Indorma’s general air of disdain for me abated somewhat as I revealed the scope of my learning, though she continued to make clear her disapproval of any engagement between the Lady and I but the most formal and directly-related to the work at hand.
As I’d anticipated, though my companions uncovered many fascinating anecdotes and minutiae of the nature of various kinds of spirits and how one might deal with them, little of it had the slightest relevance to the situation at hand. Except for one thing.
Indorma read to us a lengthy description of the ancient practice of grimming, whereby an animal would be ritually sacrificed to create a guardian spirit of a place. The passage out of Vaalt Trimjen’s History of the Art, continued to describe stories that certain malicious practitioners (though whether those of the demon kingdoms or simply corrupted individuals within otherwise less-avowedly evil societies the author could not say) had used a similar technique to create stalking specters for the harassment or murder of enemies.

Could this cult have been preparing Orren for just such a fate? Was that why he returned to Ovaelo with the aura of flux and Power about him? Could they have murdered him out of revenge on the amn Vainas for what they saw as an unfair arrangement between the magnates of the Old Town and those of the New? It might explain why no body had been found—the corpse itself would provide the anchor for Orren’s spirit. Were the cadaver to be discovered and sent to Barro for last rites and for burning, the bond between spirit and anchor would be destroyed.

The idea gave me some hope that ending the affliction might prove easier than I’d begun to fear, but it unsettled me deeply that the cult might be so dangerous after all. If the being at the center of the group’s veneration was an Orösave, it would have had plenty of time to learn both the existence and technique of such operations. If the inherent power of the spirit were not enough, it seemed that Vaina’s second spirit had learned the Art as well.

My own research offered little of value as well. I came across some examples of Orösaven who had bound themselves to a particular place, drawing the natural Power of the land and its features to bolster the spirit’s inherent preternatural abilities, if restraining it to a particular geographic area. It was a footnote in one of the works that particularly caught my attention: the most powerful spirits that become an embodiment of the land itself in such a way are those that secure for themselves a place where the Veil is thin, where Power naturally leaks into the Avar.

I’d felt just that in the place where the cult gathered, and another piece fell into place—this explained House Meradhvor’s interest in the Vaina holdings. They weren’t looking for natural resources, or for pleasant climes—they wanted a place where they could easily siphon the Power, storing it into the crystals and gems that provided one part of the alchemical fuel that powered that Artifice which needed a source of energy. For the summoning and storing of the Power in this manner, the Houses employed myriad lesser practitioners, those who had some minor talent in the Art but who lacked skill enough to become competitive as even a limited worker in the Subtle Art: an evoker or fleshcrafter, diviner or the like. But how did Meradhvor come to know that such a place existed in Vaina at all? Had it hired Orren to spy for them as Ovaelo intimated? The idea didn’t seem to match with the cult’s use of the boy as a sacrificial spirit of vengeance.

As the suns began to descend, the three of us left Barro’s library with more questions than answers, though I attempted to convince the Lady and her tutor of the invaluable nature of their assistance. How much they believed me, I could not tell.

For his part, Barro pleaded with us not to pick up the mess we’d made, assuring us that his acolytes would gladly return the books to their proper locations. Something about building character might have been mentioned, and I knew the priest took greater pleasure in volunteering his apprentices than they took in being volunteered.

Nonetheless, I didn’t protest. Better them than me, I supposed. Besides, there would be a party that night, and the Lord had demanded my presence. It would take me some time to prepare myself—physically of course, but more mentally than anything. Dealing with the buffoons and snobs of the nobility requires a mask of a sort, a mental construct that did not involve the Art but was no less real.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 28

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

No sooner had my head hit the pillow than I awoke again, the sensation of water lapping at my feet. I propped myself up on my elbows and looked down to find that I was in no bed, but on a beach, a mix of sand and gravel underneath me. Waves danced around my heels, swirling in little eddies to the sides of them, stopping just short of soaking into my pants.

I could feel that my elbows rested on soft grass, and the shade of a tree cast a shadow over me in the against the twilight sky. I wore only my bedclothes; a cold breeze passed over me and caused me to shudder. Back on the Sea of Dreams, I sighed, wondering whether I’d feel that I’d gotten any rest when I awoke. If I awoke.

As before, thick woods occupied the island on which I found myself, leaving only that short stretch of rugged beach between the interior and the water. In the distance, other islands pierced the horizon, dark silhouettes against the grayish-bluish-orange of the sky. I tried not to let my thoughts dwell on what might occupy those faraway places—the demesnes of other dreamers I’d never meet.

Already the oppressive feeling that presaged the arrival of the amorphous creature I’d encountered previously in this place hanged like a mist about me. It mattered not; I had no other chances of yet to communicate with Aevale except in this place. I’d not let this one slip away unused.

Sticks and thorns seemed to cut my bare feet as I moved into the island’s forest, as if the very ground warned me away from my path—or the island itself wished me harm. I stopped occasionally to listen, my neck straining as I attempted to catch a hint of the smallest or most distant of sounds. Often, I wondered if I’d actually heard something or if I’d only wanted to hear something so badly that my mind had tricked me into satisfaction.

Cracking branches echoed from somewhere around me, the trees distorting the sounds so that I could not determine their origin. I looked back and forth, hoping for some movement to attract my focus. Finding none, I quickened my pace, thinking at least not to be caught flat-footed.

With a single blink of the eyes, I found myself transported—still on the island of Aevale’s dreaming, but not where my next steps should have led me. I stood in a clearing, in the center of which lay a shallow pool, the lady Aevale reclined over it, the edges of her white garments beginning to wick the water upward, her hand tracing signs in the water, leaving only ripples and disturbances across the surface. She did not realize the futility of her actions, for when her motions failed to leave a lasting impression, she only added force to the movement of her finger, now leaving a rough wake behind it.

I looked about for the creature of shadow, which I now presumed to be Orren’s spirit, but observed no signs of its presence. As lightly as I could manage, my bare feet torn and bruised by my running, sore even against the soft grass of the glade, I moved toward the woman, telling myself to remember every detail I possibly could when I awoke from this place.

As I approached, she turned to look at me, face drawn in a sign of mixed frustration and despair. Without speaking, she only turned back to face her ephemeral strokes through the liquid, drawing my own vision to the same. I struggled to track her movements, recreate in my mind’s eye the lines she traced, but the total structure eluded me.
The movements indicated a complex design, perhaps a seal or sigil, even a ritual circle in miniature. “What are you trying to show me?” I asked her as my silent observation failed.

Without looking back to me, eyes remaining focused on her art, she answered, “Trying to remember.”

“Remember what?”

“Remember the things that keep me here. Remember the things that draw him to me—or me to him.”

“You mean Orren?”

“I mean the creature that stalks us even now, waiting to devour us. Its name does not matter. Only what it wants.”

“And what is that?”

Tears began to form at the corners of her eyes, gaining size and mass until they fell across her cheeks like the intermittent droplets of a spring drizzle. “I can’t remember!” she sobbed.

“What do you remember?” I ventured.

“Aryden. My love. But a darkness parts us now, like a veil, and I cannot see his face.”
I pointed to her hand, still moving in the water. “Is this what brought the veil down upon you?”

“I forgot myself,” she said softly, “and I continue to lose myself ever since. It is consuming me, taking me from myself, until I become nothing. Only then will it be satisfied.”

“Revenge?” I asked her.

She dashed her hand quickly across the surface of the pond, as if erasing all that she had drawn before. Then she stood, looking me in the eyes. I could see in her face that she meant no metaphor with her words. She had diminished, somehow, something I recognized implicitly even without having known her before the process began.
I stepped back to look at her and found the edge of her form blurry to my vision, with tiny wisps trailing away in some unfelt wind, as if even now Orren’s spirit siphoned her essence from her.

Under the Law of Essence, one of the immutable laws of the Subtle Art, the true nature of a thing may not be permanently altered. Through the Art, whether thaumaturgy, theurgy or one of the other disciplines, the aspects of thing might be changed, even for very long periods with the right techniques and enough power (though the cost of such techniques prove dissuasive enough that such workings are rarely attempted, and never lightly), but never may the truth of a thing, being or object be made to be something it is not for an indefinite period. The Temple scholars believe that this is The One’s own will and power superseding the petty conjuries of mortal beings, protecting the integrity of Their creations. Changing the essence of a thing through anything other than experience and unfolding existence remains a mystery to us—as it likely should.

All of this is to say that what was happening to Aevale shouldn’t be. Orren had become no mere tormenting spirit, if the word “mere” may ever be appointed to such beings; he had become something else entirely. What, I did not know. But I marveled at the possible scenarios I could conceive that might have the slightest potential to create the situation I believed I now observed. The amount of Power necessary to such a transformation would far exceed the greatest amount I had ever drawn upon at my most foolish, most brash, most desperate. Sacrifice would be required, and more than the boy’s death alone. Something that transcends even that force that binds soul to body, that riddle of incarnation.

But I had little time to puzzle on the subject. A cold wind blew across the glade, sending Aevale running into the forest, holding up her dress, hands about her waist, cloth cascading from those hands like billows of clouds or water, to allow her feet the freedom to carry her away without tangling in her garments. I made no effort to follow her, saw nothing more that I could do for her within her own dreamscape, even as compassion pulled at me to do something, anything, to alleviate the depth of her suffering that had only now been made clear.

Orren’s spirit, predatory and possessed of wrath for the living, manifesting as a dark mist that moved with strange intent, here forming a clawed arm, there forming a glowing eye before collapsing back into amorphous vapor, entered into the clearing with me. Instinctively, my hand went to my side, searching for wand or implement that might aid me in resisting this intruder. Naturally, I found no such tool waiting for me, for they had not accompanied me to this place.

To this day, I am unclear on the metaphysics of the Sea of Dreams and its innumerable islands. I have heard tales of those who, while in this place, may will changes to the landscape, create and destroy with sheer will and thought alone, without resort to the Art, as some fortunate few do in less tangible dreams. I am not one of them, so I turned to my thaumaturgy for my defense.

Defense is perhaps the wrong word, for my previous encounter with the specter had convinced me I lacked the Power to confront the spirit in a head-on fight with much chance of success. Instead, I made a desperate gamble. As the mist-form moved ever closer, I began the incantation for a thaumaturgy intended to heighten the senses, to increase awareness of both one’s body and one’s surroundings. I sped through the words, sloppily, the images forming in my mind loose and ragged but substantial enough—or so I hoped.

As the spirit came near—near enough to strike, I closed my eyes, hoping to block out all distraction as I sought to complete the working. I felt a rush of wind across my face, undoubtedly the creature raising some malformed claw of air to rend at me—
And then I awoke, sitting bolt-upright in the bed, hyperaware of the sweaty flesh underneath my bedclothes, the slightest hint of sunlight peering into the room, the cold that surrounded me despite the summer heat, the drops of water—I hoped—condensing onto the ceiling of the room and falling upon me like heavy raindrops. Of any injury or pain, I was thankfully unaware. My gambit had worked, the sensations of my body pulling my spirit back to it from where it had traveled, and just in time to avoid the mortal blow.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 27

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

Eldis waited for me just inside the doors to the Vaina keep, his face creased in worry, his stance indicating impatience. “My lord is looking for you,” he said without pretense of decorum. “Where have you been?” The accusation in his voice had been passed to him from Aryden, I was sure—he didn’t strike me as the type to act often without respect for others. Besides, the hour had grown late to a time where few indeed have any patience at all; certainly not I.

He turned away without waiting for my answer and I followed as we ventured up the stairs and into the lord’s office, where Aryden sat, staring into an empty goblet, fatigue causing his mind to wonder, undoubtedly. As the door opened, he snapped to, his eyes focusing on me with the heat and anger that I imagined kept his vassals and servants well in line. “What the fuck have you been doing outside the castle at night?” he bellowed before I had fully entered.

“Investigating,” I said bluntly.

“Investigating, what, exactly? The spirit was here, tormenting us again, and you were not! Not that your presence did much good the last time!” He yelled enough to wake everyone within the keep, I thought, but doubted that he cared. If his anger had been purposeful, calculated to make me malleable to him, it didn’t work. I’d come across many hotheads and blowhards in Ilessa, and while some of them were competent at making good on the threats they screamed, emotion tended to make them sloppy in the execution. No, it was those folk of cold control over themselves, who explained their threats matter-of-factly and with an air of detachment that told you they didn’t really care which way things went that unnerved me. A Coin Lord who speaks in such a voice has already plotted out whatever’s threatened, to be delivered at a time and place of their choosing, when you’ve finally relaxed that such punishment might be coming.
Aryden, loud and demanding as he was, did not unsettle me like the spirit I’d encountered earlier that evening. Hell, maybe I was just too tired to be scared of him.

“May I see Lady Aevale?” I asked in response. My voice came out monotone, devoid of expression, for I had neither care nor strength for the subtleties of communication.

“What?” he said, incredulous, before overcoming the initial shock of the non-sequitur.

“No,” he said, voice replete with annoyedness that I’d even ask.
“Then how do you expect me to complete my investigation if you continue to keep her from me?”

He returned question for question. “What the hell were you investigating rolling around in the dirt?”

I opened my mouth but stopped myself before any words spilled forth. Despite my fatigue, I had to move carefully here. I’d promised Falla I’d not betray the existence of the cult and, without any definite evidence that it had been involved in Orren’s death or his manifestation within the castle, I had nothing to gain by breaking my promise anyway.

“Veil is thinner at night, remember? I went looking for any signs of Orren’s resting place.”

“How’d you end up looking like that?”

“Took a fall. Spirit’s gone again?”

“After taking its time in tormenting us, yes, it seems to have vanished for the time being.”

Eldis interjected. “I think it was looking for you, my lord.”

“For me?” I asked.

“It appeared to be searching for something. When it could not find that thing, it left. I presume the thing was you, because that’s what’s different from the last manifestation,” the seneschal offered.

“That’s not a good sign,” I said, as much to myself as to those present with me.

“None of this is good,” Aryden exclaimed, banging a fist on his desk. “Thank The One that the amn Esti were not here to share the experience! Now, account for yourself. What have you been doing all the damned day and night that you still have nothing to show for it?”

“Asking after the boy. I spoke with Daedys and his family, with the painter, Ovaelo, checked on the witch Falla again—and confirmed she is not involved in this—searched for the body in the wilderness outside of town.”

“And?”

“I’ve confirmed that your trust in the boy was misplaced.”

“Hmph,” came the lord’s response.

“You no doubt are aware of his philandering.”

“So? Boys will do what boys will do,” Aryden responded, smiling to himself.

“Most boys don’t use sex as a ladder.”

Aryden looked uncomfortable for the briefest of moments, as if the thought so breached decorum or his ideas about honor and manhood as to be inconsiderable. “Explain.”

“Orren seems not to have been chasing girls simply for the passion of it—nor only boys. By all accounts, his choice of lovers was always calculated as to bring some form of advancement or material gain.”

The lord laughed, “Well, he never tried to sleep with me! How’s that for your theory?”

“He had an affair with the painter in an attempt to secure an apprenticeship that would take him out of town and to the city.”

“If he wanted to go to the Sisters so badly, why not just leave? Why take a position in my court in the first place?”

“He was too smart to leave for Ilessa or one of the other Sisters without anything to show for himself. He’d seen or heard what happened to most young folk who took that path—the factories, the mercenary companies or the brothels. Evidently he didn’t fancy those options.”

“So the old dog Ovaelo wouldn’t give him what he wanted?”

“No. But Ovaelo wasn’t his only attempt. He pursued your daughter for a time—”

“What?” Aryden growled at the thought.

I waived my hand at him for calm. “She saw through his intentions. An astute young woman, your daughter. She had seen him trade his attentions for favors with the servants of your house enough to suspect his motives.”

He relaxed at that, but only a little. “So how does this help us?”

“This kind of behavior does not make friends of others in the long run. Jilted lovers and angry fathers have plenty of motive. I have a few suspects to start with.”

“Who?”

“Dalen im Valladyn to begin. Nilma and Orren had a…troubled…relationship at best, and I get the sense that Master im Valladyn is quite protective of his daughter.”

“Careful, Iaren,” amn Vaina warned. “It’s appropriate to be protective of one’s family, and I’ll not have you make accusations that ruin a wedding set for the day after tomorrow.”

“But what if Dalen im Valladyn did have Orren murdered?” I asked, already knowing the answer. Justice and law are wonderful things when they don’t interfere with business, but some things are better handled without the publicity—or so the Powers that Be often think.

“If you find evidence of that—hard, irrefutable evidence, you bring it to me. I will handle things and see that justice is done for Orren, my way. We will not endanger Nilma’s wellbeing for her family’s crimes—if that is the case at all.”

Well rationalized, I thought.

“But what about the connection with Lady Aevale?” Eldis asked.

I pointed to him, thankful that he’d raised the point. “This is why I need to see her. I don’t know the connection. Perhaps he had attempted his seductions upon her and his affliction of her is vengeance for her rejection of him. I can only speculate without seeing her, talking to her.”

“She suffers enough,” Lord Aryden said. “You work on casting out this spirit and she will recover.”

“My lord, I—”

“No. Only as a very last resort. Why aren’t your wards keeping the spirit out?”

“The spirit is more powerful than I’d anticipated.”

“What does that mean? I thought we were talking about the specter of a dead boy,” Aryden complained.

“I don’t know yet. It’s possible that he is strengthened by a curse—”

“You told Issano there was no curse,” Aryden objected, foolishly.

You wanted me to tell Issano that! I have no idea yet. It’s certainly a possibility.”

Eldis attempted to bring the tension down somewhat. “What are the other possibilities, my lord?” he asked me, voice calm and even.

I scratched at my stubbled chin absently as I thought about an answer, one that stepped lightly enough but that answered as honestly as possible under the circumstances. “That some practitioner of the Art is involved and as of yet remains undetected,” I began.

“The witch?” Eldis offered noncommittally.

“No. I’ve spoken with her more than once now; I’d have detected it.”

“Someone unknown, then?” This from Aryden.

“Possibly. It could also be that his spirit has been able to draw Power from some natural source in the area. If so, he would have to be draining the source so completely—or it would have to be so subtle—as to prevent my noticing it. It’s also possible that the manner of his death was so violent or so filled with passion that it empowered him somehow—changed him into what he is now.”

“And how do you determine among the possibilities, my lord?” Eldis followed.

“Normally, I would do some research, but I’m afraid I did not bring a library.”

Lord Aryden looked up at that. “Barro has one. Extensive. History, theology, plants, all that stuff you scholars distract yourselves with. Use his.”

“I doubt that he’ll have the sort of texts I need, but it won’t hurt to look. I’ll go see him in the morning. If that’s all—”

“It is not,” Aryden said, keeping me from turning to leave. “There will be a masque tomorrow, and you will attend.”

“I don’t have anything to wear,” I demurred.

“I’ll take care of that,” the lord responded, dismissing my objection.

“My lord, you didn’t hire me to attend social functions and play nice with your guests.”

“My lord, I hired you to do a fucking job. So far, it isn’t done. The least you can do is make sure that my festivities aren’t disturbed by a spirit tomorrow evening.”

“I can’t guarantee—”

“I’ve heard enough of ‘I can’t fucking guarantee,’” he said, voice raising with each word. “You will do every damn thing you can to protect my family and get rid of that damned specter as soon as humanly possible. No, as soon as thaumaturgically possible!”

“If Eldis is right, that the spirit has decided to focus on me, that could invite a spectacle to your celebration as much as prevent one.”

“Then you’ll be the entertainment,” he said. “Maybe that will lend some credence that the spirit is only a nuisance and not an affliction upon my family. Now, that is all. Begone with you!”

I opened my mouth to speak again but thought the better of it. Besides, the bed was calling to me.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 26

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

The moons provided sufficient light to navigate by even away from the lamps and torches of the town, though the shadows remained deep and difficult to penetrate. Away from the eyes of curious townsfolk, I moved my engraved rings to gloved fingers. In my haste, I had grabbed them with the thought to empower each with the working it had been designed to hold, but the height of the moons reminded me that I might not have the time to spend in the multiple workings they could collectively store. Instead, I chose one, its sigil designed to hold a working that would confuse and disorient those around me, one that had saved my life at least once before in Ilessa.

I whispered the incantations lest I draw attention to myself, formed the hand-signs to assist with the working with both hands, drawing my mind through the serious of thoughts and images I used to shape the working. Then, when on the cusp of completion, I drew the construct into the sigil itself, sealing it and the Power I’d summoned within, ready to be activated in an instant.

You may be wondering why I do not constantly have such workings stored and ready for use in these rings; the reasons are manifold. First, sigils are a useful tool, but perhaps not as reliable as you might first suspect. You see, having bound the working into the ring before it took effect, I did not yet know what the specific effect would be—without having seen the results, I could not be absolutely sure that I’d properly performed the working and that it would have the intended effect when triggered, or that it would lack side effects. That’s not too different from any working, I suppose, but, once the working is stored, it must either be allowed to take effect or the Power bled out of it, likely into random Flux. Neither result is ideal, so it’s not wise to walk around with stored workings you might not immediately need. Over time, the Power will leak from the sigil and working as Flux anyway, attaching itself to me or to the environment more subtly that what might otherwise be released from a working, thus more likely to go unnoticed until it manifests itself in extremely unhelpful—if not disastrous—ways. Perhaps I should put it this way: I don’t make a practice of carrying around many ready-and-waiting workings for the same reason I don’t generally carry loaded pistols. Triggers can be tricky, and accidents are highly embarrassing at the very least and deadly at the worst.

There’s another reason though, a matter of habit or practitioner’s courtesy more than practicality, I suppose. Even without the sight, we practitioners may feel the present of a working delayed through a sigil or other effect, the more Power invested in one or more such suspending workings, the likelier we are to notice. A practitioner who comes to you loaded with workings ready to manifest seems to have come looking for trouble. It’s the same as a soldier who comes to have a chat wearing full plate and festooned with weapons—it just doesn’t send the right message. Besides, the spirit at the center of this nighttime excursion could likely sense suspended workings as well as any practitioner, which would obviate the purpose of preparing myriad obfuscatory workings and storing them for use only should I be detected. One would suffice.

I checked my belt, the weapons, tools and items suspended from it, working and tightening straps to ensure as little clanging and jingling as I attempted to move unnoticed.

All of these preparations complete, I stilled myself, quieting my mind and hoping to feel any detectable resonance caused by the immaterial. For a long moment, I felt nothing. I’ve never been as adept at this aspect of the Subtle Art as many others, as “quieting my mind” is a relative term at best and I have great difficulty purging myself of thoughts and focus enough to become truly receptive to those delicate tremulations of spiritual energies that can sometimes be felt as vibrations or, as the uninitiated might say, “tingles.”

Just as I prepared to give up, I felt something like the echo of an echo, a sensation of distant disturbance. Part of me wondered if I hadn’t just heard something in Vaina, the faraway barking of a dog or the braying of a mule, and mistook it for something more mystical. But there was a directionality to the sensation, if a broad and unfocused one, and I had no other method for finding the occult gathering I sought.

I followed one of the well-trod roads to the west of Vaina as long as I could but soon found that it twisted sharply away from the direction in which I’d felt that subtle perturbation of the material avar. High grass greeted me as I took my first steps from the road, and I cursed that I couldn’t find by moonlight the route that the celebrants of this supposed cultic meeting followed through the terrain, though part of me knew there had been little chance of me finding the hidden route used regularly by locals wishing to remain unnoticed.

Before long, I found myself within a wood, one not yet touched by Vaina’s timbering efforts, far enough from the mill to be inconvenient until it became the closest forested area to the town. Under the leaves the moons had less sway and I struggled to make out branches, leaves and other ground covering that might alert others to my presence amongst the subtle differences in blacks and grays. I could ill afford the thaumaturgic light I’d used when first approaching Vaina and, perhaps because fatigue already had its hooks in me, I struggled to extemporize a working that would allow my eyes to see better with the available light in the environment. A moment’s thought on the matter had allowed my eyes to adjust somewhat, so I decided to make due as I could.

I shuffled forward, thanking The One that I did so in summertime, when leaf-fall was minimal, but I nevertheless whispered the occasional curse as I stepped on an unseen twig or rolled my ankle on some half-hidden rock.

The trees fully concealed the lights of Vaina town behind me as I began to hear the first noises that indicated something ahead of me. At first the sounds came as low susurration, deeper than that of the wind blowing the leaves. My cautious approach eventually allowed the whisper to become a palpable rhythm, drums played softly. A melody of sorts, punctuated by cacophonous outbursts, accompanied the drums, some sort of chanting or incantation.

My heart beat faster in my chest as I recognized what must have been a ritual of summoning, a chant in Gwaenthyri, a people who, being at the end of their empire, had had an easier time throwing of the yoke of the Aenyr hegemony, stealing their knowledge of the Subtle Art without paying as heavy a price as those more western subjects had done. I wondered for a moment at the oddity of such a tongue being spoken here, for no people currently living speak the language; since the Gwaenthyri League had been shattered by the Cantic Empire long ago. Stranger still because neither Cantos nor the Gwaenthyri had ever laid successful claim to Altaene or the Sisters, the islands being nearly equidistant between the two powers and the logistics of maintaining such an outpost being more dissuasive than the resistance of its people—though that hadn’t hurt us either. How the tongue had come to be spoken by a cult of spirit-worshipers defied me, unless the spirit itself had taught them. From whence would it have learned?
A flickering flame dancing between trees in the distance cut short my wonder; the cultists had constructed a bonfire that burned at least at my height if my estimates of perspective and distance held true. Dark shapes occasionally passed in front of the flames, silhouetting themselves, bodies in the midst of some ecstatic trance. I’d read of such things, but had never personally dealt with a cult during my time working in Ilessa—a threat better left to the Temple fanatics, the Vigil or the secular inquisitors than me. Besides, no one had ever offered me money to investigate one. Before this, of course, though by all accounts Aryden had no idea that he’d hired me for such a purpose when he handed me the coin.

As I came as close as I dared, I whispered a working of obfuscation. Nothing so powerful as to render me actually invisible or inaudible, but enough to blunt the senses of those not specifically searching for me. For their part, the entranced townsfolk had more than enough to occupy them and I doubted that they might detect me even if I walked in amongst them. It was the spirit I feared.

There are many, many, types of spirits in the Avar Narn, some as old as the Avar itself, others only newly come to consciousness and sentience. The power wielded by this one narrowed the possibilities dramatically, but still not enough as to give me an idea about its nature or abilities. For that, I’d have to wait and watch.

The townsfolk moved frenetically against the flaming backdrop, their naked flesh illuminated in hues of yellow-orange contrasting with the shadows clinging to those parts of them faced away from the fire. Though they’d removed all of their clothing, they’d donned masks and I could identify none of them. That would make things plenty more difficult.

The masks appeared to be fashioned from wood, carefully carved to resemble the benevolent forest spirits often carved into architectural accents or creatures of the wood—foxes, bears, wolves, deer, badgers and the like. Had I encountered the masks alone, without the ominous accoutrements of drum and dance, I’d have taken them for the props of some tradesman’s play about pastoral perfection. I imagined they looked benign enough on their own, even childish and quaint. But here, given visages of anger and wrath by the flames flickering against them, they had a decidedly demonic tone that threatened even without intent.

Both young and old capered and gamboled about the fire, some holding hands, others solitary. Between the dazzling light and the grasping shadows, I could not identify particular bodies well enough to make any count of the number in attendance, though I estimated by the size and sound perhaps fifty souls. The entire cult, or merely some fraction that come for tonight’s supplication? More than a thousand people dwelt in Vaina.

The air had become thick as the thinned Veil allowed the substance of some other existence to spill through. Even those spirits who are born of the Avar sometimes create demesnes for themselves, pocket dimensions to which they may retreat, so this sensation did little beyond reassuring me of the spirit’s power.

I waited with the same expectant anxiety as the flailing supplicants for the appearance of the being we sought. I expected a grand show of an entrance, a flash of light, manifestations of flux, some gaudy display that immediately seized the attention. You know, the sort of thing that says, “Worship me, mere mortals!” I was disappointed in this and more.

Between a blink of my eyes, the spirit manifested itself. How it had come and from whence denied all logic or inquiry, its sudden presence defying any onlooker to declare that it had not always been there.

No better way to describe the spirit exists than to say that it manifested as nature itself, in the shape of a human being formed of branches and vines, nettles and flowers, thorns and lichen. Some sort of glowing fungus must have occupied what served as eye sockets, for light emanated from them. Its various parts represented the Avar in all its seasons, from leaves in autumnal splendor to dry and barren branches lightly dusted in snow, to the deep green of summer foliage and the many-colored blooms of springtime . A primeval thing, radiating the power of natural forces, the beauty and anger of Avarienne herself in equal measure. I don’t know if I gasped audibly upon perceiving it for the first time, but I should have.

At its arrival, the supplicants ceased their dance round the fire, bowing to the spirit as they might in a nobleman’s court, broken and heavily-accented Gwaenthyri in unsynchronized and unmelodious utterances spilling forth from them as they did.
When the spirit opened its mouth in reply, it spoke with a voice like the wind itself, soft and sibilant, alluring and enveloping. Apparently, the wind also speaks Gwaenthyri. Not really the language you’d expect a spirit to speak unless, during its long history, it had been present when the language had been spoken by the mortal kindred and the time proved…formative. I’m not sure that the word fits well in this instance, but I wouldn’t know how else to describe it. Awakened spirits are often emblematic of ideas, constructs or archetypes when they are “born,” but the magi say that they grow and “mature,” achieving ever more individual personality as they continue to exist in sentient form. Unlike us, however, they do not seem to be on the Path or the Wheel.

None of that mattered at the time, of course. I struggled to make out the words the spirit spoke—between the alienness of its speech and my lack of use of the language combining to make the effort highly frustrating. What I could make out caused me to smile to myself: a trading of empty formalities, not at all unlike the one I’d observed earlier in the evening between nobles of remarkably high opinion of their own worth based on little more than lucky birth.

The formalities had not gone far before the spirit stopped mid-sentence, its branches waving rhythmically for a moment as it made some unintelligible gesture. The sound of air rushing into something in short, sharp bursts accompanied the motion and I almost thought that it was sniffing, smelling the air for something—for me. I realized that an actual sense of smell was irrelevant—it was reaching out with whatever senses it possessed, scouring the environment for the source of something it had only had the faintest taste of. Something that concerned it greatly.

My obfuscatory working fell to pieces once they started to search for me. How the spirit had detected me so quickly eluded my understanding, but I had little time to worry about that. The spirit didn’t lift its arm to point in my direction; instead, the vines and leafy tendrils that constituted the appendage unwrapped themselves and formed again in an indication of where the supplicants should search.

Several of them, men and women of the more athletic sort, broke from their bows and started toward me, backlit by the fire, masks threateningly shadowed. The nearby trees seemed to surrender branches willingly to them, conveniently club-like growths that separated delicately from the trunk when seized. The trees’ other arms bent out of the way to make easy passage for the spirit’s scouts.

Watching the cohort against the brightness of the bonfire had burned an afterglow into my eyes; I fled blindly in a direction I hoped would take me closer to Vaina. Fortunately, the cultists suffered the same effect, resulting in a comically slow chase full of stops, stumbles and false starts. Comical if my life had not been in danger, at least.
The trees themselves betrayed me, rustling nearby to give an auditory sign of my location. Once my pursuers caught on to this, they closed the gap between us with stunning efficiency. My eyes had just adjusted to the dark as they came near; I could make out six figures but few details: still nude, still masked, still armed. Not much else mattered at the time.

I had worn my sword and dagger but had little confidence for the odds. At worst, only three of them could attack me at once with a reasonable chance of not stumbling over or clubbing each other in the chaotic fray, but the others would still be there waiting, fresh for the fight as my energy flagged. And, despite their homicidal preference for secrecy, I didn’t actually know that these folk had any evil intent in their intimacy with the spirit. Having seen it, I could be relatively sure that it was indeed a child of Avarienne and, while fickle as nature itself, not categorically malevolent. Recalling Falla’s words about pyres, I understood that these cultists feared for their lives as much as I. Stabbing them in response seemed discourteous. Not that I wouldn’t if it came to it, but I chose to proceed with less lethal tactics first.

Instead, I raised the ring on my left hand and triggered the suspended working contained within. For a moment, the group stood dumbfounded as the working stripped away the foremost of their thoughts, leaving them with that troublesome feeling of walking into a room only to forget what you’d been looking for in the first place. Effective, but short-lived; just enough to give me a head start in the chase proper.
I made about ten paces from them by the time they recovered their purpose. Had there been fewer of them, the working might have lasted longer, but the Power stored by the sigil can only go so far. Pumping my legs as fast as I could, heedless of the hidden perils in the terrain, the large tree roots, the low limbs, rocks and shallow pits, I dashed to put more ground between us. I whispered an incantation to make myself more nimble and surefooted, panting in between syllables for a full minute, my mind split between the working and the chase, my hands contorting into mnemonic signifiers as they swung back and forth, before the working took effect.

With that advantage, I became more daring, taking sudden turns and ducking through narrow gaps in trees, forcing my pursuers to chance the same stunts as I or to find alternate routes, losing time and distance as they did. I heard an “oof!” as one of them tripped, feet tangled in a mass of tree routes. Five left.

We’d made enough distance now that the cultists lacked the arcane support of the spirit; no longer did the trees give away my position or track me with their rustling movements. Even so, they stayed on my trail, too close for comfort. My chest burned now with the exertion; I could feel the thaumaturgic blessing of grace I’d placed upon myself slipping away, my mind grasping for the fraying edges as they snapped loose from their moorings, one after another. Too many distractions, too many factors to consider all at once; I couldn’t keep the focus necessary to sustain the working an longer.

My thaumaturgy lost its effect just as I hit a root with my toes, the pain reverberating through my foot and causing me to curse loudly. Worse, the leverage of the kick had tossed me forward and off my feet so that I rolled roughly down the side of a small valley between the rises of hills I hadn’t noticed in my pursuit. The pitch was steep enough to dissuade anyone from following, at least not immediately, though it also caused me to land hard in the “v” shape at the bottom, some drainage channel etched by the rainwater. The wind flew from my lungs, and my skin burned from myriad scratches torn by the brambles and bushes that lined the gulch. Fortunately, those thorny assailants also provided some cover, so I made a desperate gamble.

Summoning the last of my strength, I performed another thaumaturgic working. I could ill afford to aid myself with the handforms and incantations that would help focus me given the purpose of the working, so I steeled myself as best I could and hoped that sheer will would provide sufficient form to the working to have any chance at success. I strained at the effort of it, my vision collapsing into a narrow tunnel surrounded by darkness.

In that tunnel, I watched myself clambering up the other embankment, away from the cultists, sprinting afresh into the cover of the trees. And then I passed out.

I don’t know how long unconsciousness held me with any precision, but it couldn’t have been too long, for the moons had not much moved in the sky above me. Everything ached; I could feel the bruises in my back from where I’d taken hard hits rolling down the side of the hill, the long dull ache across the back of my leg where I’d landed on my sword, each and every thin tear in my skin ripped by branches and brambles as I neared the trough of the miniature valley in which I lay. But still I smiled, for I was alone.

My pursuers must have seen what I saw before passing out, the illusion I’d created of me continuing my flight away from them. The image couldn’t have lasted longer than I remained conscious to sustain it, but it had given them enough, and they must have left to pursue it. Even in the moonlight, I doubted that they could find their way back to this particular ditch if they realized their error. I breathed a sigh, and my lungs burnt slightly.

For a time, I waited without moving, trying to keep my breath shallow and quiet. Hearing no stirring around me except for the occasional cry of an owl or scuttering of a field mouse, I slowly pushed away the foliage covering me enough to stand. Using the position of the moons, I estimated the direction toward Vaina and began the march back. I chose a long and circuitous route, fearful that the spirit might have commanded its supplicants to set an ambush for me. If they had, I managed to avoid them, and the only trouble I had in my return journey was continually putting one foot in front of the other.

By slow degrees the New Town of Vaina moved closer to me, until I wearily began to trudge up the hill toward the castle. Every shadow between buildings threatened; I imagined assailants waiting around every corner, behind every wagon or stall left by the main road overnight. However unlikely, it was possible that my pursuers had broken off the search from me and returned to their spirit master, who had ordered others to the town in front of me, so slow was my own return.

My fear was unproductive; no matter how careful or vigilant I might be, I lacked all strength for any kind of confrontation. A dull ache, a consequence of the fall or of my thaumaturgies, had settled in the back of my head; my feet felt leaden as I willed them to continue the ascent toward my destination.

I reached the gate in the wall between towns Old and New still alive, much to my own surprise. A watchman from atop the gate signaled for his fellows to open the sally port in the great doors to me. As I passed through, the watchman below laughed to himself and pushed my shoulder gently before realizing he’d touched a lord and feeling quiet sheepish about the mistake. “Out for that kind of investigating, my lord?” he asked with a smile that overcame his awkward coyness. “Looks like you were successful!”

I wondered at first what he meant before I reached to my head to touch the grass and small twigs still nestled within my hair, looked down to the dirt that powdered my boots and clothing, felt the sweat that continued to bead across my brow. But I had no energy for a clever quip, or even to disabuse him of his notion. I continued silently forward, focusing on my footsteps, the image of my bed fixed in my mind like some glimmering beacon to the sailor lost at sea. Unfortunately, I would not yet be allowed to reach my destination.

For a single PDF with all chapters released to date, click here.

[This is the last chapter of the first draft that I have finished as of the day it is posted. Chapters will now be posted as they are completed, which I expect to be at a frequency of one every few days. I hope that you are hooked well enough that this comes as disappointing news!]

Things Unseen, Chapter 25

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

Vesonna led me across the ramparts, through the back of the courtyard, into the keep, and down hallways so that we appeared in the great hall discretely, as if we’d been there waiting the entire time.

The guests and Lord amn Vaina’s folk mingled, enjoying wine and beer along with those stronger spirits a few had brought for themselves. Seats at the trestle tables had not yet been taken, else we’d have attracted everyone’s attention by our entrance. Servants darted in between the clusters of gathered celebrants, the prominent folk of Vaina mingling with the nobility and magnates of Esto on rare occasion, moving back and forth between kitchens and tables to prepare the initial feast. Beeswax candles lit the hall, providing clean light and a subtle scent of honey that coalesced with the smells of the various dishes, making my mouth water.

I turned to find that Vesonna had already left might side; I’d never even felt her hand slip from mine so slight was its grasp in the first place. A good thing, too, for I had no desire for the conversations that would inevitably follow had someone observed us holding hands—especially given how little the gesture actually meant.

Finding some wine for myself became the first task at hand. This didn’t take long, because, before I’d even really collected and oriented myself, the Lords Aryden and Issano stood before me. Issano’s squires had doffed his armor before he joined the feast, leaving him dressed in extravagant attire in his family’s colors. If the rumors proved true, and I had no reason to doubt them, such a display represented a precarious risk on Issano amn Esto’s part, for if he could scarce afford to let the im Valladyni money fall through his hands before, he could not at all now after the expenditures of gauche (but expected) display for the impending wedding. This was only the welcome feast, after all; his wedding attire would have to exceed even the sumptuousness of his current display.
Aryden extended to me a hand holding a pewter goblet filled with a semi-sweet white wine of the kinds grown in Aedys and Velmys to the east. The cup itself was cold to the touch; both it and the wine must have come from the castle’s ice house, a luxury facilitated by relative proximity to the Tursa Elvor, the only prominent mountains in the islands the Sisters call home. Ice from the high places there can be transported quickly by river, reaching even Ilessa and the other Sisters intact without the intervention of the subtle art—though practitioners in the cities can create ice without the hassle of transportation as well.

Issano spoke as I took the cup from Aryden. “A pleasure to meet you, Lord amn Ennoc. I am so sorry to hear about your family. I know nothing of the truth of the allegations against your father, but no noble line should end as ignominiously as yours did.”

“It hasn’t. Not yet,” I told him. I’m not sure why I said it, I didn’t think I cared about such things.

“And you’ve taken on a trade,” he continued. “That’s quite intriguing. Had you ever considered mercenary work? There’s many a young nobleman who’s restored his family’s fortune and glory through feats of arms.”

“If only I had such an extravagant suit of armor as yours, and without a scratch upon it!” I retorted. I may not be a killer of men, but I have no qualms about murdering an ego.

Aryden intervened. “As you know, Issano, Iaren has been investigating our little spirit. He can tell you more about the situation,” he eyed me purposefully to communicate his desires in my response, though there was no need.

“A relatively minor thing,” I began, adopting the air of the detached expert, the scholar of history or the lecturer of arcana. “Restless spirits and the like are perhaps commoner than many think, for those unfortunately afflicted often prefer not to make their problems known, for fear of the stigma that attaches to such things. Here, though, we have just that. I’ve seen no evidence of a curse or anything far reaching enough to cause great concern.” The last was an outright lie. Every hour spent here, every further conversation, every piece of the puzzle made me surer and surer that much more was going on here than I was being told, that Orren’s predations constituted more than a cosmic mistake.

“But what about Lady Aevala?” Issano asked, pressing the issue.

Now I shot a look to Aryden, though I hoped mine proved subtler than Lord amn Esto’s. “Unfortunate happenstance, but not causation. I don’t see any indication that the spirit and the Lady amn Vaina are connected in any way.” A half-truth this time. I’d found only anecdotal evidence of some connection between the lady and the phantom, nothing decisive, but my intuition prevented me from rejecting the suspicion. The nature of the connection eluded, but not a growing conviction of its existence, proof or no.

“A natural illness, then?” amn Esto dubiously inquired. He’d been corresponding with Vitella, to be sure, so his suspicions were no doubt well-founded.

“You have nothing to worry about,” I assured him.

“Of course not! I’m not staying in the castle!”

My turn to look to Aryden for an answer.

“We’ve made comfortable accommodations for the amn Esti in a house in the Old Town, so that they may have their privacy,” the Lord amn Vaina stated.

So they don’t see anything you don’t want them to, I thought. “Of course,” I said and smiled. I took a swig of the wine to wash the taste of deceit from my mouth. It didn’t work.

Thankfully, Aryden now led Issano away from me. I’d completed the task he needed me for and now best I not be involved in the conversation lest it remain focused on ghost, curses, witches and the like. This wasn’t the first time that a job had involved my providing cover for my employer, but that didn’t mean I liked it. I stood alone and awkward for a time, wondering when and how I might make my escape to continue my investigation. The impending danger of intruding upon a cult to a nature spirit didn’t sit quite well with me and I found that I had little appetite, but the excitement of the prospect also energized me strangely.

On the high table, Nilma had already been seated with Lorent; the two flirted and played with one another, each apparently happy (and no doubt relieved) with the reality of their intended. They alone occupied the table; everyone else remained standing, moving from one group to another as need or desire suited, enjoying the informality that existed until the Lord of the house called for everyone to sit, when station and importance became painstakingly clear. For now, though, the town’s potentates could flirt with the women of house amn Esto, the merchant wives could gossip with one another and gawk at the young men in the amn Esto retinue, and the retainers of each house could pursue the servants of the other, setting up those late-night trysts and other dalliances that often punctuate events such as this one.

I saw Vitella approaching from the corner of my eye, new immediately that she’d set me for her prey, and turned to face her. “So, what did you tell my uncle, Lord Thaumaturge?”

I said nothing for a moment, trying to read the expression on her face.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she smiled. “I haven’t told him much; he’ll believe whatever you told him. Truth be told, my cousin is charming, but a dolt—I’ll not be the reason this prospect falls through for our family. Besides, if there were some curse to be caught here, I’d have it already, and I still haven’t seen the damned spirit with my own eyes!” Her words slurred ever so slightly as she spoke; she’d been partaking for some time before the start of the festivities (and now that I thought about it, I realized that I hadn’t observed her in the group during the earlier formalities) but held herself as one long-accustomed to prodigious drinking.

“I told him he doesn’t need to be worried.”

“But does the Lady Aevala?”

I said nothing.

“I see,” she returned, smiling that damnable smile of amused knowing. “Well, tell me of the day’s events. I am fascinated by your process.”

Behind her, wedged in the corner of the hall and dispassionately observing all that went on, I spied the historian Naemur. With a half-hearted, “pardon, my lady,” I brushed past my inquisitor and made my way to him. The others gathered had given Naemur a wide berth, lest they be drawn into one of his dry lectures or random musings. This played to my advantage, as I’d hoped for a private conversation with him.

I set my chalice—by now empty—on one of the tables as I passed by, having decided I’d ought to keep a clear head for my later expedition, so I reached the historian empty-handed and a little unsure how to occupy myself as we spoke.

“My Lord amn Ennoc,” he said, smiling, as I came near, evidently excited to have someone to talk to after all.

“Naemur,” I returned with a shallow nod of the head. “I’ve got some questions for you about Vaina.”

“Do you?” His eyes lit up as he spoke.

“Indeed. But they are of a delicate nature and I must be assured of your discretion.”

“My lord, the first thing a decent historian learns is what not to write—but to remember!”

“Very good.” I admit that I swept my head to both sides behind me to ensure that none had given us attention before I pressed my questions. Satisfied, I began. “Tell me about the factions with influence over Vaina.”

“Other than the amn Vaini? You mean the families of note? The Valladyni of course,” he said, sweeping a hand to the gathering behind me, “and the Osi, the Vardi, the Norreni, the im Darqosi? The town is largely split between the mercantile interests of the Old Town and the pastoral interests of the New Town—”

“No, not that, exactly,” I interrupted. “Are there any other powerful or influential groups? Crafting guilds, perhaps?”

“Guilds? No, not in Vaina. The merchant families’ relationships with the craftsmen govern those businesses, and there’s enough goodwill between the two sides that those who make have seen no benefit in forming an organization to represent their mutual interests against the merchants. I’m told the im Osi instigated for such at one point, but the im Darqosi and im Valladyni—perhaps under amn Vaina influence—preempted the strategem by providing new concessions to the tradesmen. Those tradesmen represent the influence of Old Town extending into New Vaina, much to the chagrin of the magnates there, I’m sure.”

“What about Barro’s power, the Temple influence?”

“Barro has influence over the attitudes of folk, but that’s about where it ends. He’s so allied to Lord amn Vaina that his influence belongs to the lord, in effect.”

“Falla or her mother?”

“From what I gather, the amn Vaini have tolerated that family with calculated purpose. The threat of violence and retribution for overstepping their bounds kept the mother in check, as it now does for the daughter. They provide a service to the amn Vaini, after all, giving some succor to folk against common ailments, freeing up the amn Vaina resources and wealth for other things. I’m told that the previous generation of the amn Vaini even consulted with Falla’s mother themselves from time to time.”

“Have you come across any groups that may not be well known in how they exercise their influence, even to the folk of Vaina themselves?”

“What do you mean, Lord Iaren? Conspiracies? Plots? Intrigue? In the past, perhaps, but not since the amn Vaini set up the current positions of the families in the Old and New Towns.”

I hesitate to continue the questioning, as freely as he spoke with me I rather doubted his ability to keep any confidence, his pedantry easily overcoming any desire to hold something back. I attempted to skirt the issue once more. “Have you any idea why Vaina seems to have been spared those common calamities that have afflicted its neighbors from time to time? Pestilence, famine, disaster?”

“Well, they have recently had a visit from the Red Maw, haven’t they?” he rebuffed.

“Such a small one hardly counts in the face of what a town of this size must usually face, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, I suppose.”

“Well?”

“You suspect some Otherworldly influence then?” he asked.

“Do you?”

“I hadn’t much thought about it, I’m afraid.”

A lie. Any university lecturer on history worth her salt would constantly remind students to consider and include the influences of the Subtle Art, the Firstborn, spirits and other preternatural phenomena upon course of events; I doubted that Naemur would suddenly forget such a key component of the scholarly approach. But, was it a lie that mattered?

“Come now,” I tried in my best sympathetic voice, “You’ve not thought of arcane or spiritual influences over Vaina even since my arrival?”

“Well, I’ve speculated somewhat, but I’d rather see what happens and then get the facts from you, you see?”

“An admirable approach, I suppose. But present circumstances haven’t dredged anything to mind from the town’s past?”

“No, my lord. I am sorry.”

I had no recourse but to accept his recalcitrance; the cost of any coercive measure to press the issue further would be far too dear, no matter the information I might recover. I’d have to try another approach and return to Naemur only as a last resort.

It never sat well with me to leave a potential source of knowledge less than fully-tapped, but I’d been forced to accustom myself to such wisdom in the face of social and political realities. In Ilessa, patrons, protectors and networks of influence are far better armor than any piece of steel or ward of the Art; often it’s not about the ability to stop the harm altogether, but simply making the debt the injury accrues too heavy to make all but the most foolish unwilling to accept the consequences of attacking you. Working for both the Coin Lords and the Council of Ten had put me in situations where I could ill afford to take the direct approach because of a person’s status or influence, and I’d learned to adapt.

I spent the rest of the meal looking for an opening to leave without attracting attention—not least of which because, if this cult of Falla’s were real, there was a possibility that someone in the room could be affiliated with it. My escape required little, in the end.

Aryden had really only wanted my presence for the brief assurances I’d given Lord amn Esto and little more. I was seated at the lord’s table, yes, but at the last seat on an end, limiting those with whom I could speak—and those who might speak with me—as thoroughly as possible. On my left, Eldis, whose aged ears left him mostly unable to hear any conversation at all with the general din of merriment and jokemaking that had filled the hall from floor to beam. Across from me, Naemur, who by now was regaling no one in particular with tales of the Cantic Empire. Next to him sat Gamven, quiet and stern.
Whether he was still mourning the loss of his compatriots—for which none could blame him—or maintained a silent vigil against unexpected threats to his master, I couldn’t tell.

I requested that one of the servants bring me water without making my choice of beverage obvious to anyone else, slipping one of the coins Aryden had given me as gratuity for the favor. I counted each time one of my neighbors had his glass filled again, waited until convinced that they’d given leave to the majority of their senses and memory for the remainder of the night. Gamven barely ate, nor drank much, but the intensity of his lack of focus on me left me assured that he would miss me no more than the others seated near me.

Finally, Aryden stood and wobbled slightly before calling for music and dancing, words which summoned players as if from thin air, the sound of lute and viol in turn calling the happily-inebriated to mutual amusement as they collectively stumbled through popular dances, all the while politely ignoring each other’s glaring mistakes and missteps. The commotion offered plenty of cover as I snuck through one of the hall’s side doors and made my way quietly back to my room, encountering a single patrolling guardsman as I navigated the lamplit corridors.

Once in my chambers, I looked from my window at the moons, Nyryne and Annyn, the former whitish-gray, the latter its pale red, stood near apex in the sky. If whatever ritualistic gathering of this cult had not already begun, it would soon. I needed to move quickly. I recovered my backpack from the chest at the foot of the bed, removed the rings, the iron key and brass bell from it, and replaced the rest. Tucking these into one of the pouches on my belt, I left the chamber and returned to empty halls.

I met no other soul as I exited the keep through the most expedient route that avoided the main hall and those areas closest to it. The courtyard still bristled with life—servants completing nightly duties, retainers who’d tired of the festivities or had been worn down by their recent journey, revelers who’d retreated to any available dark space to engage in more intimate cavorting. None of these had any care for me and I ignored them as well.

Someone had brought beer to the guards at the mighty gatehouse in the castle’s inner wall; I could hear the sounds of laughter and tavern singing from every loophole or murder slot built into the towers flanking the great doors. The two guardsmen assigned to the inside of the door grumbled to one another, upset to be working while their fellows played, no doubt. They stopped their gripes to one another as I approached, apparently thankful for the distraction—any distraction—that might speed the passage of time.

The man on the left, a younger man with the beginnings of a downy, tawny beard, stepped forward, his polearm still leaning backwards against his shoulder at a relaxed angle. “My lord,” he said, “out late are we?”

“My business for your lord does not wait for the convenience of day, I’m afraid. I need to visit the New Town.”

The older man, grown slightly portly and clean-shaven, nodded in response to the boy’s questioning glance at him, sending the younger guardsman to unfasten the bars and locks securing the sally port in the left of the heavy gatehouse doors. “May I ask your business in the New Town at this hour?” the veteran asked.

“No.”

“Very well, my lord. Should we expect your return before day?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll let the boys know to expect you then,” he offered.

I thanked him and passed through the now-open door into the Old Town, where quiet streets livened only by the sound of distant steps of lonely watchmen on patrol waited. The journey to the outer wall between the Old Town and the New passed quickly, my pace enlivened by the prospect of encountering a free spirit in its own demesne—though it should have perhaps been slowed with caution and trepidation. I’ll admit to being curiouser than I am brave, but foolishness and bravery are sometimes a distinction without a difference.

My passage through the gate in the outer wall transpired much as the previous—the watchmen offered tentative resistance and inquiry when I demanded egress but quickly acquiesced. The New Town felt livelier than the Old, most of its residents uninvited to the castle feast and going about their own nighttime festivities—perhaps a subtle protest of those enjoyed by the highborn up the hill. A few folk, having had their fill at Worvo’s inn or some other tavern, strolled or stumbled home, some singing or humming, others grousing to themselves, others silent in their meandering. I nodded to some of those I passed, that subtle nod of acknowledgment but tacit agreement to never make mention of the meeting, and continued on my way until I came to the dirt path leaving town.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 24

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

In Vaina, a lordly procession made its way, imperiously slowly, through the new town toward the old. Flute, trumpet and drum filled their air with a sonorous score to the trouping retinue, their tune punctuated by the irregular staccato of many ironshod hooves clapping pavement stones on the main road.

An armored man, clothed in steel except for his head, which was covered in short-shorn hair dappled with greys and blacks, led the march, his warhorse (in full barding) taking high and exaggerated steps to demonstrate its training and discipline. At his side, hilt pointing behind him in sign of peace, he wore a hand-and-a-halfer in an elaborately tooled and worked leather scabbard of a chestnut brown. The weapon’s pommel had been shaped into two fish, back to back, as if diving apart from one another. If there’d been any doubt, this marked him as one of the amn Esti. Lord Issano amn Esto, no doubt. He wore a yellow sash, embroidered with scenes I could not make out from my vantage point, across his chest. Behind Issano, a footman carried his tournament helmet, a monstrous device topped with the crest of a leaping fish.

This man was flanked by two others in the place of squires, one carrying a light lance with a yellow pennant trailing dramatically from the tip in the light breeze of the early evening, the other holding a shield emblazoned with the amn Esto crest—more fish.

A row of three mounted men-at-arms trailed Lord amn Esto’s weapons-bearers, these wearing half-plate to allow for their elaborate and dagged sleeves and slops, yellow over blue. Like their lord’s scabbard, their leather boots had been tooled with intricate patterns. Despite a light coating of dust from the road, these boots had not been worn much before; they must have been crafted specifically for the occasion. The men—or rather two men and a woman—scowled, their countenances stern and threatening, though purely as a matter of decorum.

Lady Osynna amn Esto, Issano’s wife, rode side-saddle atop a well-groomed palfrey with braided hair and caparisoned in the heraldry of her house, the center of a group of ladies-in-waiting, all smiling and chatting with one another. Between them walked the commoner maidservants, a bit wearier for having walked but feigning high spirits, at least.

Lesser members of the house, distant relatives and all their retinues trailed behind, perhaps a hundred people in total, all wearing some variation on the amn Esto arms. I did not remember my heraldry well enough to distinguish between the various cadet branches of the family in those variations, but neither did I care much about it. If I had my way, I’d be allowed to mostly ignore the amn Esti and continue my investigation undisturbed. Somehow, though, I doubted that that would be the case.

I followed behind at a respectful distance, not because I am a particularly patient man but because I hoped to avoid notice or causing a scene by rushing in front of them to the castle. I thanked the One that their slow speed, as infuriating as it was otherwise, at least left no cloud of dust behind them for me to cough my way through.

As would be expected, many of the townsfolk of Vaina had lined the street to watch this parade. Even many of the im Norenni and im Vardi I’d seen earlier had joined the crowd, though they lacked much of the enthusiasm of the other inhabitants of the New Town, those for whom the amn Esti did not threaten some further loss of status and influence, for they’d never enjoyed any to begin with.

The im Valladyni would be waiting in the castle with Lord Aryden, but the other merchant families of the Old Town, dressed in their finery, throwing flowers and calling out to the processing nobility, lined both sides of the street just as they had in the New Town. I smiled a bit and wondered how many professional thieves a town the size of Vaina might have; this must have been an irresistible opportunity for them. They were good, I admitted, for I could catch sight of none, though the crowds and the failing light offered them the advantage. Behind the lines of folk watching the amn Esto entrance, I could see members of Daedys’ watch, surveying the crowd for the same thing as I.

Dusk had fallen over us as we passed under the grand gatehouse into the castle courtyard. As quickly as I could, I made my way to one of the wings of that space, hoping to avoid notice that would require me to remain through the ceremonies of greeting and all of the nonsense that accompanied such pomp and circumstance.

For a moment, it appeared that I’d successfully evaded detection, until I felt a delicate hand slip its way into the crook of my arm and heard the quiet whirring of the gears that animated the mechanical bird, Ethelyn. “My lady,” I said, without looking to my side.

“No taste for decorum and custom?” she asked, her voice touching the words only lightly.

“None, I’m afraid.”

“Me, neither. Let us hide together.”

She tugged at my arm gently and I turned to follow her. Now, part of me did worry about decorum. The last thing I needed gossip about me sneaking off with the Lord amn Vaina’s daughter while everyone else was occupied with the amn Estos. It reeked of salacious intrigue. Still, I needed to talk to Vesonna, and I didn’t know what better chance I might get to find her without Mistress Indorma Vesith tagging along.

She took me to one of the doors in the wall between the courtyard and the Old Town, a circular stairwell already lit by lamplight. Holding my hand—which by now had passed into the realm of discomfort—she pulled me along as we ascended to the ramparts. Atop the wall, we continued around it until she found just the spot she wanted. Those few guardsmen posted atop the defense ignored us and looked inward, where Lords Aryden and Issano, and [Mr. Im Valldyn], exchanged formulaic niceties.

“There we are,” she said, finally. She positioned us to overlook the hill upon which Vaina sat, the suns slowly falling over the horizon in the distance. I had to admit, it was a pleasant viewpoint. After a moment of silence, simply regarding the landscape, I remember our clasped hands and pulled away.

Making no mention of my move, she spoke again. “And where did your investigation take you today, lord thaumaturge?”

“Amongst the magnates of your town, my lady.”

“And what did you discover?”

“I’ve heard that you had no love for Orren,” I said flatly. “Why?”

She smiled, a mischievous smile. “Let’s play a game.”

I frowned. “I have no time for games, my lady.”

She shook her head at that. “What else do you have to do at present?”

I looked up and away, a poor attempt to conceal my admission that she was right. In response, Vesonna grinned and nearly hopped with excitement, pushing herself briefly to the tips of her toes and gracefully returning to flat feet.

“What’s the game?” I asked her.

“You answer my questions, and I’ll answer yours. No lying, no leaving anything out, no dodging.”

I took a deep breath. I’m not one to enjoy talking about myself, but the price was a relatively low one to continue my search for answers. “Fine,” I told her, suddenly remembering Falla’s words. Those who rule cannot rule themselves.

“Excellent,” she smiled. “I’ll go first. Tell me about what happened to your family.”

“You know that story, I’m sure,” I resisted.

“That’s not the game you agreed to,” she warned, tone light but meaning all too serious. “I know that the amn Ennocs were declared traitors by the Council of Ten, that their lands were seized, and that you were spared by reason of your absence. But I don’t know what happened.”

“That’s not enough?”

“Of course not,” she smiled deviously. “I’m curious. Call me an investigator, a historian,” she smiled again. “Now stop warding the question and answer it. Else I’ll answer nothing you ask.”

With a deeper sigh, this time, I began the tale. “I was only six when my parents suspected that I had the Gift. They summoned an Ealthen Magus, Marten Ravenswing—”

“What a silly name!” she interjected.

“It’s not his real name. There’s a habit among practitioners to hide their true names, lest they be used against them. It’s the same reason the Aenyr were called as they were.”

“But you use your true name,” she protested.

“I use the name I was born to, yes. There’s much more to a true name than that. Anyway, Marten took me to his manse in Ealthe to apprentice. That was the last I saw of my family.”

“What was it like to be an apprentice to a magus?”

I wagged my finger at her. “That’s not the question.”

She made her face faux-apologetic for a brief moment and waived for me to continue.

“We corresponded, of course, but it takes weeks for a letter to pass between Ealthe and Altaene, and the magus would not allow me to use the Art to communicate with them, even once I became capable of it. And to be honest, I had little interest in doing so. They weren’t much of my life, after all.”

“Now you’re not answering the question!”

“Right. So, after my apprenticeship, Marten had me enrolled in the Arcane College of the University of Asterfaen. He’d not come from nobility, and, admittedly, had little love for born to power and status, so he refused to allow my family to pay for my education and enrolled me as a sizar.”

“What’s that?”

“The university paid for my education, but I had to work as a servant to the other students.”

“How awful!”

“I hated it at the time, of course, but it taught me some valuable lessons. It never stopped me from enjoying my time at the university, anyway.”

“Studying?”

“I enjoyed, that, sure. But not as much then as I do now. Back then I was something of a rake. I spent as much time as I could in the taverns, carousing, chasing women, or in the schools of defense, learning sword and staff, fighting feigned duels over stupid slights, generally getting into trouble. These distractions kept me from realizing the dire straits my family had entered until the letters stopped altogether. I’m sure they did as much as they could to conceal the truth of things from me, anyway. I only discovered what had happened much later, when I returned to Altaene.”

“Which was?”

“Ennoc was never a wealthy place of its own, so our family created its wealth and power in the City, in Ilessa, in much the same way as the other wealthy folk there: trade. The amn Ennoci were no captains, no adventurers, but they had coin to invest. Through luck or skill—I suppose which doesn’t matter—their trade endeavors made them rich and powerful Our noble title prohibited us from sitting on the Council of Ten, of course, but the patriarchs and matriarchs of my family were content to influence politics from a distance.

“Things changed after the Artificer War. The amn Ennocci personally financed a mercenary company to fight in that war, one of several groups that served as Altaene’s proxies on the continent. The spoils of war added substantially to our coffers, especially once the Houses ransomed the Artifice captured by the other combatants as part of the treaty.

“My grandmother, Tanyle, was an especially sly woman, some might say devious. She was the third daughter of her generation, expendable though capable, so she had been sent to manage the mercenary company employed by the family. I’m told she even fought alongside them on occasion. With great foresight—or so she thought—she brought with her several Ilmarin craftsmen, the most skilled in Artifice she could find who were not beholden to the Houses. By the time she’d surrendered the Artifice she’d captured to its previous owners, her craftsmen had learned at least some of the techniques used in the creation of the devices. These Ilmarin became some of Ilessa’s first Gray Artificers, though certainly not the only ones, and a portion of their profits flowed into our coffers.

“Most of the Artifice she’d taken had come from House Meradhvor, for her company had fought largely in Old Cantos, where Meradhvor had its home at the time. Despite the treaty, Meradhvor never forgot those who most sorely injured them in the war, though they bided their time to regroup, raise themselves back up, and regain their footing in the new order established under the treaty before they took their revenge.

“Tanyle eventually became the amn Ennoc matriarch, her skill and ruthlessness brushing aside her older brothers. Under her guidance, the family was one of the most powerful in Ilessa, influencing trade, politics, civil life, and even the Temple and the Council of Coin through its wealth and connections. This made enemies.
“My father, I’m told, was not have the astute commander and politician that my grandmother was. Meradhvor first approached him to lease some warehouses in near the Ilessin docks in the Lower City.”

“Because they couldn’t own them themselves,” Vesonna observed.

“Yes. It’s the same reason they want to marry someone into your family. You won’t technically be an amn Vaina anymore, since they can’t hold titles, and you’ll never inherit Vaina or your family’s holdings, but the relationship you establish between the amn Vaini and House Meradhvor will help them to circumvent the strict rules of the treaty, to gain access to the things they want that they’re not allowed to own directly.”

“What do they want in Vaina?” she asked. She didn’t seem offended by the idea; she’d somehow already become accustomed to the way the world works and had accepted it for immutable fact. Her tone indicated curiosity instead, as perhaps she thought about how to make her own advantage of a hard truth.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. I had a suspicion, but I wouldn’t confirm it until later that night.

“Fine. Continue.”

“Anyway, Meradhvor increased their business dealings with my family over time, garnering trust as they gathered more and more information to use against them.”

“‘Them?’ Not ‘us?’”

“I told you. They were never really my family after I left—I never saw them again. We share a name, but not much else.”

“Sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter. Eventually, after having planted several spies within the family’s staff and servants, House Meradhvor made a marriage proposal for my sister. It was accepted, of course, and my father evidently thought himself somehow as gifted as his mother. On the night of the wedding, when the entirety of my family had been gathered for the event, the City’s watch burst in and arrested all of them. The Council of Ten declared them traitors.”

“For a marriage alliance with Meradhvor?”

“No, of course not. No one was particularly happy about that arrangement, and it probably had much to do with what happened next, as the House itself had counted on, but it was not part of the official charge, as it was no crime.

“Meradhvor had used its spies to plant evidence that my father was conspiring with the Council of Coin and others to overthrow the Council of Ten and declare himself the only lord of Ilessa. This was nonsense, but it had happened before in the past in nearly all of the Sisters, so the threat is always taken seriously, and the imperiousness of my father’s behavior did nothing to allay suspicions. Besides, the Artificer House had used its dealings with him to string him along and provoke him into several actions that gave the idea credence. More than that, though, the City itself was tired of my family’s overbearing influence over it—there was tacit agreement that little real investigation into the matter was necessary if what the evidence already presented sufficient grounds to be rid of the amn Ennocci.”

“And House Meradhvor had provided the evidence in the first place?”

“Of course. They styled themselves as ‘conscientiously abiding by the treaty.’ They’d already made secret deals with several members of the Council of Ten—and several of the Council of Coin—well before the arrests. Everyone had something to gain from the ruse, so everyone went along with it.”

“What happened then?”

“Many things. After a short trial, my family was convicted of the treason of which they were accused and sentenced to banishment and seizure of all of their property within the City, most of which the City itself took control of officially, but it ended up in the possession of members of the Council of Ten, the Council of Coin, or other prominent families who needed extra incentive to go along. My families villa in the Upper City was quickly leased out—to House Meradhvor, as it happens. A ‘just reward for service to the City.’

“Street gangs belonging to the members of the Council of Coin but led by operatives of House Meradhvor raided those Gray Markets where my family retained some influence, taking all Artifice they found and murdering the Gray Artificers there, few if any of whom had actually been with Tanyle in the first place.

“The amn Yvossi sacked Ennoc within the week after the order of banishment; only ruins remain now.”

“And your family?”

“Put on a ship for Ealthe. One that never arrived. There were rumors of storms at sea, or pirates, but I found some evidence indicating that Meradhvor had employed the entire crew. I suspect they went far enough out to sea to avoid notice and murdered everyone wholesale: my parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, all of those with relations close enough to my father to be rightly called ‘amn Ennocci’.”

“That’s terrible!”

“That’s politics.”

“But you live in the City. How does that work?”

“The Council of Ten specifically exempted me from the charges and sentence. Someone had advocated on my behalf, argued that I could not have been involved. It’s possible that this was my father’s doing, but more likely some unknown benefactor. I was allowed none of my family’s holdings, but they could not lawfully strip me of the name and made public that I was under no shadow of suspicion and to be welcome in the City should I return.”

“And you haven’t revenged this?” she asked, almost incredulous.

“It was nearly a year past by the time I came home to Ilessa, and another before I’d discerned what had actually happened. Besides, what was there to gain by revenge? I’d hardly known my family, I never cared about the title or the legacy, and being wealthy and powerful earns you the enmity of others; there’s no honor in it.”

“But your family deserves justice, don’t they?”

“What have I to do with justice?”

“But I thought—”

“You thought that’s what I’d come here for? I came here for your father’s coin, Vesonna. I fix problems; that’s my living. It’s not the same as justice. Justice is too costly a thing in this world; I’ll leave the justice to The One. Besides, would you refuse to wed into House Meradhvor now that you have this knowledge?”

She paused for a moment. “No,” she said at last.

“Then what care you for justice?”

“It’s not my revenge to be had,” she attempted.

“Revenge and justice are not the same, Vesonna. I’ve seen plenty of revenges in my work, petty ones and grand ones. You know what revenge gets?”

She didn’t answer.

“More revenge,” I told her. “More blood, more death, more deceit, more evil.”

Ethelyn let out a chirp, then, one that sounded of sage agreement. Vesonna gave the mechanical bird a sullen look, as if it had betrayed her.

“My turn,” I continued. “Tell me about your relationship with Orren?”

“What about it?” she parried.

“Don’t dodge. I’m told you treated him rather cruelly. Why?”

“Not at first, I didn’t. He was handsome, had some wit to him, a silver tongue. I found him intriguing when he first came to apprentice to Eldis, if only because he was a new face. I quickly realized that behind that alluring mask was a person I did not wish to be near.”

“Why not?” I continued.

She held a finger up to my lips, smiling coyly. “That’s not how we play; we get one question each.”

I moved her hand away from me, perhaps too quickly. “You asked several questions; I answered them all.”

She sighed. “Fine.”

“How did you come to your opinion of Orren?”

“By watching him. He pursued anyone and everyone he thought might have an interest in him. For most, it was only flirting, enticing them that they might grant him favors in hopes of continued attention. Extra food, secrets kept when he would sneak out at night, gossip about others in the castle. For others, he went much further. With those who couldn’t offer him anything, he only satisfied his lusts with them and moved on. For those who could, he dallied until he got what he was after and then left them to their disappointment. He treated those from whom he needed nothing and for whom he had no desire with contempt. It disgusted me. He made a whore of himself and, what’s worse, a dishonest one. It is one thing to trade coin or power for pleasure when both parties are in agreement; we all must do that from time to time, I’m afraid. But it is entirely another when such arrangements are disguised behind passionate play until the prey is entrapped and indebted.”

“He pursued you, too.”

“Of course he did. We flirted for some time, until I saw him for who he was. I realized that he had little interest in me, in particular; he wanted a ladder he could climb into my parents’ favor.”

“I thought Aryden and Aevalla thought well of him.”

“They did. But not enough for his ambitions. He wanted favor enough that they might send him away from here to do their bidding, pouches laden with coin and no one to look over his shoulder so that he might turn his position to his own advantage as much as possible.”

“What about his treatment of Nilma?”

“Ah, ah, ah, Lord Iaren. I believe we are now even in the answering of questions; it is my turn once again.”

I waived my hand to indicate that she proceed.

“Why didn’t you finish your education at the university?”

“I, um.”

“You know the rules, my lord,” she chided.

“I wore out my welcome, let’s say.”

“What does that mean—that’s not another question. That’s an admonition for you to answer the question I asked.”

“As I said, I was a sizar and I spent a lot of time learning to fence. I had a hotter head back then and the combination wasn’t a good one. I took only so much disrespect from my fellows at the university before I started fancying myself a duelist and challenging others to fights over insults real and perceived. Vengeance, you might say. The Ealthen style of dueling is very different from the Altaenin. It is about blood, not about finesse and precision. Well, to the extent that any fight isn’t about finesse and precision and to the extent that every fight threatens blood. But the difference in real: here we focus on a display of superiority over the other party; there on bodily injury as recompense for social injury.”

“You killed someone?”

“No. But almost, and under somewhat pathetic circumstances. I’d slept with the man’s paramour, more of spite than true attraction, and she thus became an object for us to fight over rather than the rather remarkable woman she was. The duel turned ugly, uglier than it already was, when the man’s friends attempted to come to the aid of their fellow. This was against the rules of the duel, of course, but I’d made enough of a nuisance of myself that none of them cared much about that.”

“Oh.”

“No, I’m not finished. The woman used a sorcery to defend me from the man’s friends. In the confusion, I injured the man—badly, though thankfully he recovered—and I ran. I returned to my rooms, took what I could carry with me, and left Asterfaen for Ilessa. I’d received news of my family’s misfortune only a few months before and that seemed as good an excuse to come home as any. For a while, I even talked myself into thinking that a desire to find the truth about my family and not a need to flee the failures of my time at university had brought me back to the Sisters. Time clarifies things, though, and I’ve realized better.”

“Who was this person you dueled? Or the woman for that matter?”

Now I smiled. “My turn,” I said. “Nilma.”

“Let me illustrate. Nilma had been taken with Orren for some time, but he’d never much responded to her. She spent an entire day when she had no duties in the castle collecting flowers for him. That night, she brought them to him while several of the servants were gathered in the hall; I was there as well. He took the flowers, laughed in her face, and distributed them to the other girls who were present—except for Nilma—and told her that he’d given them to the women who had merit deserving of such decoration. When she burst into tears, he took to her like a wolf after one who flees, worrying the wound he’d already given her until she could bear no more and withdrew to her chamber.”

“And after that?”

“The poor girl. She resented him, but she still wanted him. Now, when you returned to Ilessa, what did you do?”

“For a while, not much. I thought about joining a mercenary company, but that final duel had not left me much enamored with violence as a way of life. The Coin Lords courted me for a short time, but they quickly realized that I wasn’t much for obedience—especially of the blind variety. It was one of Blind-Eye Berem’s boys who offered me my first job as a finder, actually. Something had been stolen from him and he needed help finding it. I had the skills for it and it turned out to be a pretty easy job—the item in question had been misplaced rather than stolen. Still, he was happy enough with the result, so a few others came asking for assistance afterward. Some of them related to the Council of Coin in one way or another, but some of them not. I did some work for private citizens, the Council of Coin when they needed someone independent to answer a questions for them, even a job or two for the Council of Ten. Enough to make a modest living, to continue my studies.”

“You’re like one of the shadowmen, then?”

I bristled, instinctively. “No. I am nothing like a shadowman. You hire shadowmen when you want something stolen, someone kidnapped, someone killed and you don’t want anyone to know who’s behind the job. I’m the opposite. I find things and people and I solve problems. I don’t kill people.”

“But the jobs have to be dangerous, working for the Coin Lords.”

“Sometimes. But there’s a difference between defending oneself and murder. I’ve been in some fights; I’ve hurt some people to stop them from hurting me. But I’ve never killed anyone. And the Coin Lords don’t come to me for violence; they had their own folk for that kind of work. They come to me mostly because they don’t trust each other to speak the truth, so the Council itself hires me, not any one of the Lords, so that they get answers from someone not beholden to any of them. There’s a sort of protection in that; any Lord who acted against me outright would look guilty to his peers. So, they try to hide things from me, obfuscate the truth, bribe me, instead of threaten. To be honest, most of the things they ask me to investigate have stakes too low to be worth violence anyway. And jobs from them aren’t all too common.”

“Hence your coming here.”

“First job I’ve had outside the City. Thought it might be nice to get away for a change.”

“And?”

“I’m not sure I made the right choice.” Before she could respond, I asked my own question. “You said ‘was’ when you spoke about Orren. Why?”

“You yourself have told my father you believe it’s his spirit that haunts us. I see no reason it wouldn’t be. Why should he be less selfish or predatory in death than he was in life?”
She had a point. “But you’re willing to take my word for it?”

“You’re the expert, my lord.”

Below us, Lorent amn Esto moved through the last of the customary performances in thanking the amn Vaini for their hospitality, only accentuating Aevala’s absence. The young man’s armored father elbowed him at that, and Lorent nearly stumbled over in response. Already, the valets and servants were spiriting away the entourage’s horses, showing servants to the storerooms for goods and the chambers for themselves. Even those of higher station, who could not simply fade away during the observations of decorum, struggled to contain their growing boredom.

Whether Lorent had finished his expected speech or had only paused for breath, Aryden interjected with a mighty, “Bah; that’s enough of that, isn’t it? Let’s eat—and drink!”
Vesonna tugged at my hand, gently, lightly. “Come, let’s away before they noticed we’re gone.”

“I could use a drink,” I said.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 23

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

Excitement carried me along as I left the am Norreni house and headed again to the wilds outside of Vaina town. Though he’d not understood it, what the painter had told me about Ovaelo’s midnight excursions could only indicate the arcane. If a citizen of Ilessa—where practitioners of the Subtle Art were far more common and their services had practically become a part of every day life—had not noticed, it was no wonder that no one else in Vaina had said anything about his attempts at the Art. If the boy had been experimenting with forces he did not understand, this could explain his present condition as an angry spirit. It was possible even that no one had murdered him; that he’d succumbed to some misuse of the Power. He’d not be the first to so perish; even trained practitioners sometimes fell victim to their own ignorance or desperation in foolishly forming a working beyond their ability. If that had happened, it would explain why no one had found a body.

Only one person in Vaina—out of Vaina, actually—might have additional insight. The witch, Falla. So, once again, I made my way to her cottage near the ruins of the ancient Aenyr fort.

My thoughts about the potential implications of Orren’s involvement with the Art occupied me as I walked the old path toward my destination and, despite myself, I lost my usual caution about jumping to conclusions, spinning ever more fantastic threads of speculative possibility as I journeyed. None of the scenarios I imagined made a connection between the young man and Lady Aevala. Nilma or Vesonna both seemed likelier targets of his anger, but the facts were the facts. Even if Orren’s arcane talent or experimentation answered one question, it did not complete the puzzle.

Before I reached the edge of the clearing, I could hear the chanting. A single voice, Falla’s, singing as much as incanting, pleasant and enticing in its melody and timbre, the words liquid and flowing one into the other, each somehow simultaneously independent and yet part of an inseparable string of sounds. Beautiful. I felt the Power in the air around us, even at a distance from which I could not yet see her. I could feel raw possibility organizing itself into visions of potentiality, the many skeins of contingencies weaving themselves into an array of alternative futures, only one of which would come to pass. No longer did I doubt Falla’s abilities as a seer, cryptic though she’d been. This knowledge of her intimacy with the divinatory practices required that I trust her statements on the nature of that aspect of the Art more than I had.

As I edged closer to her clearing, her incanting became more intense, less melodic but ever-more rhythmic, and quickened in that rhythm. I caught sight of her at last. She knelt, her legs tucked under her, in a clear spot of grass in the glade, naked but for the pigments with which she’d slathered herself and the tattoos that covered much of her body. If she’d looked wild before, she now appeared nothing but chaotic. Her hair splayed about her head as if buoyed by some invisible force—not taut but languid, as invisible hands seemed to hold her up against falling, tossing her this way and that in time with the rhythm of her chanting, which had grown uneven so that she was sometimes propelled with inhuman alacrity and sometimes drawn into contortions the strongest of muscles could not create with such gradual movement. I sensed no spirit, no other being operating upon her; the Power itself swirled about her and held her thusly, suspending her in such strange positions as it swirled about her, passing through her to fuel her visions.

Her eyes opened suddenly, the iris and whites alike obscured by solid and dark color, swirling and changing subtly in gloomy hues. Her mouth opened and her voice issued forth, low and without melody, her lips unmoving as she nevertheless formed the words that spilled out.

“Master thaumaturge,” she said. “Are you prepared to pay the cost for seeking after death?”

“I—” I began, but the seeress would brook no interruption.

“Death begets death; it is the way of this world. Did you think that you’d find only one death at the end of your journey?

“Your time is running short. The powers at work in this place conspire against you, even as they struggle with one another, and lives hang in the balance. Not the least of which yours, though many precede you. Medryn, Errys, Savlo. For what? Who else will you bring with you to the brink before someone nudges you over?

“You look to petty histories of petty lives for answers when you do not yet know even the questions. You think the boy responsible for his own fate when he, too, is only a pawn in the games of others, just as you are. Have you any idea who pulls the strings? Who are the ones who truly rule here?”

More riddles, but I now took it on faith that they were not useless ones. Falla clearly had too much skill in the Art for that. “Who?” I asked.

Her mouth widened in an impossible smile as words passed through the gate her lips had opened without touching any part of the portal they passed through. Only then did I realize that there might be no audible words at all; I might only be hearing her through some telepathic communication. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell the difference. “The ones who rule cannot rule themselves, and those who seek power are doomed to fall. The bolt of cloth threatens to tear itself asunder as each end pulls its own way,” she said.

I opened my mouth to speak again, but she collapsed into a heap, unconscious but breathing heavily. The inevitable consequence of calling on so much power. I only hoped she’d not injured herself permanently. The spectacle of her foresight not diminished, I turned my head aside, averting my gaze in respect for her compromised state. The exoticness of her painted skin, with its combination of designs in permanent inks and recently-added pigments carried an erotic temptation that required effort to ignore. I did my best, venturing into her cottage where I might find something to cover her with.

I’d expected to step into the darkness endemic to most such structures but found instead that light illuminated the interior as well as the outside under the twin suns, now high ascended. No torches or candles flickered, nor did I see the alchemical lamps so commonly used by those of means. She had enchanted the light into the rafters themselves with runes at once precise and indicative of her wild independence. The more I came to understand her practice, the more I admired her, both for her skill and her character. She paid a heavy price for her freedom, and she paid it willingly and without hesitation. There is no greater freedom than that.

In a manner uncharacteristic of any practitioner’s study I’d ever observed, the mundane flowed into the arcane here without any noticeable transition. An herb with occult properties hung next to strips of smoked and dried meats. One does often get hungry while undertaking an extended working, I suppose. Those of us who are trained by masters and at the university are instructed to keep a harsh separation between our laboratories and other chambers. They rationalize the tradition with warnings of allowing the imagination to wonder into the use of the Power accidentally when such division is not maintained, but I’d never found the argument all that compelling, and Falla’s cottage seemed to indicate no true threat justifying the approach. The Subtle Art is delicate and mysterious for all of our desire to truly control it, and thus it sometimes becomes difficult to separate important aspects of practice from mere superstition.
A humble bed waited patiently in the corner of the single room, unkempt but clean. Preternaturally so, as I pulled the blanket off of it for a covering for the witch, I noticed no fleas, no bugs, nothing crawling out from the straw stuffing. Rare is the bed without some form of pest or pestilence. I made a note to remember to ask her about the enchantments she’d used.

Returning to the clearing, I laid the rough-spun blanket over her gently, careful not to touch or disturb her. By then her breathing had settled some and I ceased to worry about her not coming back. My stomach growled and reminded me that I hadn’t eaten yet, so I took the liberty of taking some of the vegetables lain on the table inside the cottage, chopped them, and added them to the cauldron in the center of the clearing, as it was clean and empty. She kept a barrel of fresh water, perhaps collected from the rain, near the door of the cottage and I used a ladle to transfer some into the waiting pot. On the side of the cottage Falla had stacked firewood, which I stacked carefully under the vessel along with some tinder I scrounged from beneath the trees at the edge of the glade.

On this visit, we had no audience of animals in the trees and shadows; I imagined that Falla’s use of so much Power had temporarily driven them away. I set the tinder ablaze with a quick sorcery and sat on the well-worn log nearby. I unbuckled my sword belt and lay the weapon and leatherwork gently on the ground behind me, unlaced and opened my vest as some relief from the afternoon heat.

I sat quietly with as much patience as I could gather—which admittedly didn’t last long—before I rose in search of something to drink. Inside the cottage, in the corner on the same wall as the door (which I told myself was the reason I hadn’t noticed them in the first place) a collection of corked pottery bottles lay on their sides, stacked nearly as high as my waist. I took one from the top, delicately, and pulled the cork with a little effort. The smell of ale greeted me, evoking a smile. After an introductory swig, I took the bottle to my perch on the log and resumed my vigil over the unconscious witch.

As I sat and sipped at the sweet concoction, I mulled over Falla’s prophetic utterances. The ones who rule cannot rule themselves. Did that mean the amn Vaini or the im Valldyni and the im Vardi? Those who seek power are doomed to fall. I assumed that this meant Orren, who did little to hide his ambitions, but a part of me wanted this to refer to Edanu and his Artificer House, even after we’d built some camaraderie on the field of battle. His kind would find little well-wishing in my heart. Even so, though, the ambiguity of the statement meant that I might apply it to many in the town: Nilma and her family, the constable Daedys, Lady Vesonna, perhaps even me, from a certain perspective. The bolt of cloth threatens to tear itself asunder as each end pulls its own way? But who, or what, was the fabric? The town itself seemed to be the answer, as ancient rivalries the amn Vaini had once quelled by dividing mastery of the demesnes resources amongst the prominent families seeped to the surface anew. Could Orren have been a pawn in a conflict between the old town and the new, or were the amn Vaini the manipulated ones, the ultimate prize over which their factions of followers fought?

I’d downed half the bottle by the time the contents of the pot began to pop and boil, which happened to be about the time that Falla opened her eyes. I like to think that it was the pottage that woke her. She blinked, bleary-eyed, before sitting upright. The blanket slid off of her as she did, but she ignored it, standing up to her full height without embarrassment or shame. There was nothing meant to entice or invite in the movement; she simply didn’t care that she was naked in my presence, as if such a thing were so natural that neither of us need mention it.

Looking at the bubbling pot and the earthenware vessel in my hand, she smirked. “Made yourself at home, didn’t you?”

“I asked if you minded,” I lied. “You didn’t object.”

A quick burst of air passed her lips, the expulsion of minor amusement, as she walked past me and into the cottage. She returned a moment later, clothed in a simple dress and carrying two wooden bowls. She took the ladle I’d used to water the cauldron and served some of the soup into one her bowls, which she passed to me. “What did I say?” she asked.

“You don’t know?”

“This time? No. When I sensed you coming, I started the working, hoping that I could divine something useful for you. I was overzealous. I reached out to scry the spirit itself, but it is more powerful than I’d imagined. I had to give myself over to the visions entirely or allow it to follow me back here. I will not be so foolish again.” She filled her own bowl now, setting it on the ground near the log, where she sat down beside me. With a look, she demanded the ale from me, which I passed to her willingly. She took a swig, a long one, and I could see the faintest remnant of trembling in her hands. I’d thought her fearless, in a way, but she reminded me that none of us is.

“Why?” I asked her.

“Why what?” she said, wiping her mouth with the sleeve of her dress, leaving a smudge of color behind. She’d not washed the pigments from her face, and the arcane runes formed in blues and greens seemed to dance on the background of orange, yellow and black whenever I looked at her from the corner of my eye.

“Why risk so much to help me?”

She shrugged. “You trusted me enough not to despise me in our first encounter, enough to return to seek my advice. And I am a guardian of Vaina, in my way; there are spirits enough in this place without such a malevolent one making its home among us.”
I said nothing for a moment, motioning for her to hand back the ale. She held it out for me, but didn’t release it when I grasped it, using the chance to look me square in the eyes. “What did I say?” she asked again. She smiled playfully, but an intensity in her eyes revealed her desperation for the answer.

“You told me that the powers in this place are conspiring against me.”

“But you knew that already, didn’t you?”

“Suspicion is a natural state for me, yes.”

“And what does that suspicion tell you.”

“For every answer I get, there are two held back. I don’t know the right questions to ask, so I’m letting the folk of this town evade me in the most important matters. Until Ovaelo, at least. He’s an outsider here like me, doesn’t have the advantages the Vaina townsfolk do in knowing the terrain here—social, political—like one’s own thoughts.”
“And what did the painter tell you?” she replied, the look in her eyes again cryptic, enigmatic. A look that told me that she, too, was waiting for me to ask the right answers. Unlike the others of Vaina, she would give me the answers she had freely, but only if I asked for them specifically.

“He described the boy, Orren, leaving in the middle of the night, coming back giving off the aura of one who’d been practicing the Art.”

“Or of one who’s been touched by something with Power itself.”

“What does that mean?”

“You think the boy had the Gift? And I wouldn’t have told you that the first time we met?”

“Well…damn. There goes the best theory I had.”

She smiled patronizingly.

“Wait—” I said. “What did you mean when you said there are spirits enough in this place?”

Her smile turned playful again, pleased even. I’d asked the right question. “You know that there are spirits everywhere,” she told me.

“I do, but most of them are dormant or driven by such focused nature that they are merely the representations of the things they embody. That’s not what you meant. You meant Awakened spirits.”

“Yes.”

“You’re telling me that Orren was communing with an Awakened spirit, that he wasn’t a practitioner?”

“I am.”

“Explain.”

“There is an old and powerful spirit that dwells near Vaina town, a child of Avarienne, a spirit of nature, bound only to the land itself. It, too, sees itself as a guardian of Vaina, but it guards its own desires for the place, not the commonwealth of its people. It uses the people as a means to its own ends, and they are indebted to it deeply.”

“This spirit has a cult?”

“Of a sort. Nothing like what you’d normally ascribe to that word—these are not servants of the ones whose names I shall not speak. They do not spread corruption and evil. To those who venerate it, this spirit is like unto the Firstborn, or the saints of the Temple—a steward of the creation of The One, but not the creator Themselves. They do its bidding in exchange for the blessings it bestows upon them, not because they worship it. In fact, I imagine some in its thrall fear and resent the spirit more than venerate it, and they are right to. This spirit is powerful, and while it is no demon-thing, its volition is its own and, like nature, it is ultimately uncaring for those affected by its whims and maneuvers.”

“You fear this spirit, too,” I accused.

Her lips pursed, not quite a frown but certainly an expression of doubt. “I do. I am a rival to it, I suppose. We both offer succor to the townsfolk, though its is far more general and mine far more personal. But anyone who seeks help from me is not seeking help from the spirit; this diminishes its power, however slightly.”

“This all would have been good information to have had from our first encounter.”

“Iaren, if Aryden and Barro had any knowledge of this group or its spirit, there would be pyres in the streets. They would make no distinction between this kind of relationship with a spirit and the far more sinister ones found in the secret cults of the cities. The innocent would suffer, greatly, and my silence on the matter intended to protect them without having to rely on your discretion.”

“You don’t trust me,” I said, a little offended.

“I see many things, Iaren, but they are only possibilities. I might guess at probabilities of events, but I cannot see inside the hearts of men. I do not know you, my lord. Not well enough to trust without need. Besides, we both know that this spirit and the one afflicting Lord amn Vaina’s castle are not the same.”

“But they could be related, Falla.”

“After my latest trance, I agree. Orren was a member of this group.”

“Who else?”

“Do you not see the distinction?”

The picture became clearer in my mind. This spirit was the reason that Vaina had fared so well when other towns and villages had been wracked with storms, famine and plagues. The spirit offered bountiful harvests and natural wealth to the people of Vaina in exchange for their fealty to it. And who stood to gain from that? Everyone, potentially, but particularly the folk of the new town, who made their living in farming or forestry, by the natural bounty of the Avar. If they wanted a powerful patron to struggle against the influence of the old Vaina merchants and the lord who favored them, this spirit was it. And it knew it. This minor cult may not have been one devoted to Sedhwe or his lieutenants, or to Daea and her monster queens, but its existence was sinister all the same. And the mystery ran deeper. “What else can you tell me about this cult? When do they meet?”

“Iaren, you must swear to me that you will not reveal these folk to the priest or to Lord Aryden.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“Iaren, please,” she didn’t beg; she delivered the words flatly and straightforwardly. A firm request born of concern and consideration for consequences, not of emotion.

“You know that I cannot control all things,” I objected.

“But swear that you will control the things you can.”

I hesitated a moment. “I swear it, Falla. Are you going to ask to fatebind me to the declaration?”

“No,” she said. “Your word is stronger.”

“How do you know that? You said you don’t know me.”

“I know enough. The cult will meet tonight, while Nyryne is full, as is their custom. They meet in a place west of Vaina in the wild while the moons are high. You’ll feel it from a distance and be able to follow your sense of the Power and the spirit itself. But be careful. These folk mean no evil, but they will protect themselves, and they know the stakes if they are discovered.”

Perhaps now I understood what her prophecies had meant. Vaina had two rulers, just as it was split between old and new, split between haughty merchants and stubborn farmers. And Orren had been at the center of it, moving as he did between both worlds. But this only broadened the possibilities for Orren’s murder, made everyone a suspect again. Even Falla, perhaps. Her easygoing demeanor and frank speech had lulled me into a sense of trust. But was it a false one? Maybe she was like everyone else, giving me the answers she wanted me to have to lead me away from questions she did not care to answer. I still didn’t take her for a killer, manipulative though she might have been. But I’d been wrong before. Don’t tell anyone.

The pottage had cooled sufficiently; I slurped it out of the bowl to avoid having to speak as much as to slake my hunger. “This cult must have long roots. How long has it existed?”
“The spirit itself? Who knows. This arrangement with the folk of Vaina? Since before ‘twas my mother who stood in my place, lived in this cottage. People told tales about the ‘spirit of the wood’ since time immemorial, but it never revealed itself nor bargained so openly with the townsfolk until Lord Aryden’s ancestors set im Valldyni and im Darqosi over the town’s trade and the im Vardi, the im Osi and the im Norenni over the towns agriculture. That division gave it a place to gain power, to use the struggles of Vaina against itself for its own profit.”

“How has it gone this long without the amn Vaini discovering it?”

“If the benefits it provides—and perhaps the threats as well—are not enough to ensure the silence of those who serve it, then surely it is a master of deceit and obfuscation, with and without the Art.”

“Damn it.” I said, more to myself than to Falla. This job just kept getting more and more complicated—and dangerous. As if victims of the Red Maw and a child of Daea had not been enough to earn my pay twice over already. And I couldn’t ask for more, not without breaking my vow to Falla. But she was right—at least some of those who had devoted themselves to this spirit were innocent; I wouldn’t feel good about sacrificing them simply to make things easier for myself.

“Thanks for your advice and hospitality,” I told her, rising and giving a short bow.
She laughed at that, stood and curtsied in mockery of the entire gesture, plucked my sword and belt from the ground and handed it to me in both hands. I took a last swig of the ale and traded her bottle for blade. I fastened the belt around me again as I made my way to back to Vaina; the afternoon had mostly passed and I desired to be back to the castle before dark—though I wouldn’t be staying long.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 22

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

By the time I left the residence of the im Vardi, the suns had more than peeked out from the horizon and begun their daily ascent; even now, the promised heat of the day declared itself at the edge of sensation, though the distance of Vaina from the Inner Sea spared us some of the humidity of the Sisters. For this I was thankful.

Ovaelo’s apprentices had risen early as well, perhaps earlier than I, and work had already begun inside and outside of the brick warehouse he had claimed for his workshop. I ignored those meandering around the outside of the building, their jerkins hanging open, untied, and their general appearance of those exerting more effort to look like they’re doing work without actually doing any than the work itself would require. In response, I assumed incompetence.

The inside of the workshop had much the same appearance as the first time I’d entered: a general blanket of darkness punctuated by alchemical lamps at the various workstations, the spilled illumination from those devices providing just enough to see the rest of the interior in shades of grays and blacks. None looked up at my entrance, as they’d committed themselves too desperately to the completion of their relegated tasks to give any attention to ought else.

I shattered this focus with a word, bellowing, “Ovaelo,” with as much bass and authority as I could summon. The name burst forth not as question but as statement, demand. There were starts and curses amongst the apprentices; at least one had jerked an errant brush across the canvas, creating a gash of color that would require hours to remedy. An atmosphere of threatening tension flared briefly as the young men and women shared angry glances with one another and considered riot. But this was not Ilessa, and the wayward behavior of unruly apprentices would not be so lightly tolerated in Vaina. Besides, when they saw the intruder upon their concentration, they quickly considered better of threats and resigned themselves to my presence, almost with a collective sigh.

“Master Ovaelo is not here,” one spoke up, though I could not their face behind a masking halo of bright light. “He’s gone early to the home of the im Norreni to work on a commission for them.”

“Fine,” I said, and made my way to the back room where I’d encountered the madman before. None followed and I closed the door behind me after igniting the alchemical lamps within.

Ovaelo’s personal workspace had been wracked by chaos, the outward demonstration of a mind too generative of creative ideas to bother with the petty requirements of everyday life. For all the mess, though, the tools of his trade—those he hadn’t taken with him, at least, had been immaculately cleaned and organized on a purpose-built desk in the room’s corner. The bristles of each brush had been obsessively cleaned, trimmed with impressive precision into various shapes and points.

Around the room, though, discarded works littered the floor—pieces of sketched-upon parchment strewn about, canvases begun and then stripped from their frames in a burst of frustration or a change of whim, half-finished paintings stacked in corners or leaned against the walls in precarious piles. I wondered briefly whether madness and genius must accompany one another, but recalled myself to the task at hand.

One by one, I sifted through the disarray of the canvases, discovering that some had in fact been finished and simply tossed aside. Some had clearly been started by the apprentices, with Ovaelo’s master strokes atop the blocking and basic shading of his underlings. Others appeared to have been ceased mid-stroke. There were paintings of nightmare creatures, of scenes from history and legend, of persons perhaps both real and imagined.

Among them, I found a finished canvas, recent by the look of the congealed and thickly painted oils atop it. A young man, one with features not too distant from those of Daedys and his family, nude with sword in hand, standing atop some slain beast of amorphous design, the pose in the style of ancient Cantic works, the scene undoubtedly from some tale I’d either forgotten or never read. The man had been painted with painful precision, every sinew and muscle highlighted with realistic intimacy and accuracy. The expression on the subject’s face held the hint of a sly smirk, ambiguously both inviting and derisive. I was convicted that I’d found a painting of Orren, one that told me far more than the painter himself had confessed. So far, at least.

I swept the painting up in an oil-stained dropcloth that lay under the easel in the center of the room, wrapped it to conceal the work within, and made my way from Ovaelo’s chamber, ignoring the protests of the apprentices who considered me a thief but lacked the will to stop me.

Only upon exiting the building did I realize that I didn’t know where to find the home of the im Norreni, though it couldn’t be easy to miss. I looked to one of the slacking apprentices leaning against the side of the brickwork in the building’s shadow, already evading the heat of the day’s suns. “Which way did your master go?” I asked.

He didn’t speak, only pointed. It was enough, and I set out in the direction he’d indicated, Ovaelo’s painting wrapped and secured under my arm. While the canvas and its frame were not heavy, the size of the work, which strained the last two joints of my fingers to keep a grip on the thing, made the journey less than comfortable and soured my mood. If it had ever been well inclined in the first place.

As I suspected, the home of the im Norrene family attempted no humility. Wherever possible, the edifice employed large stones, taller and wider than myself, carefully shaped using the town’s stone mill. The only brick of the building served to patch holes between the older stones—these had been painted in grays and tans to match the original colors of construction, but the attentive eye found them quickly given the great disparity in size between the stones used in the general construction and the clusters of small, rectangular brick sealed with copious mortar. A low stone wall, topped by an elegant wrought-iron fence in a style often found in the Sisters, separated the home from the street—or rather, the dirt path that served as a street in the New Town.

The iron double-gate in this wall had been swung open and left there; the one retainer of the family left to stand guard sat slumped against the wall near the home’s great door, snoring softly. Apparently the im Norreni had little fear of intruders or assailants, much to my advantage.

After watching the guardsman briefly to ensure that he slept deeply, I quietly strode past, gently trying the door. Finding it unlocked and easy on its hinges, I let myself inside.
The home matched the opulence of the other prominent families of Vaina; I need not describe it again, I think. In the middle of this complex lay a courtyard, decorated in its corners with some vegetation and brass statuary but open in the center and on long, evenly cobbled walkways centered on each side of the square.

A haven for the natural light of the suns, now sufficiently-risen to provide adequate illumination into this interior space, the courtyard proved the prime spot for Ovaelo’s work, and this is where I found him, the rest of the family and their servants gathered at the courtyard’s perimeter watching as the artist made an initial sketch of their eldest and most eligible daughter, a young woman of homely features but an impressive bearing that held a beauty all its own.

A piece of parchment stretched taut over the backing plate of the easel Ovaelo had brought with him, somehow secured to the device so that it made no movement as the artist slashed at it in short, sharp strokes with a piece of charcoal. Every few attacks he would step back from the easel, look afresh at his subject, frown, and select a different stick of charcoal from the small table the family had brought in for him to unfurl his roll of tools atop.

Murmurs began to run through the gathered groups, perhaps a dozen people, as my presence became known. A thin, well-dressed woman in a dark-colored dress tailored for active work—perhaps a riding dress—stepped forward into the courtyard as the wave of whispers reached her, her eyes clearly focused on me. Though my height, she managed to look down her nose at me, her hair in two tight buns high atop either side of her head, stray wisps extending out from them like seeking tendrils, like tiny bits of easy-going character attempting to escape the straight-laced form of their master. She reminded me too much of several tutors I had in my youth, forcing me to resist the automatic response of the embarrassed schoolboy.

“Who are you?” She asked, imperiously, though her pursed lips gave away her lack of surety. With the covered painting under my arm, I might well be one of Ovaelo’s apprentices, in which case she would have every right to scold and heap scorn upon me. But apprentice artists do not wear swords, as a general rule, and my clothing, though travel-worn and not comparable to her own finery, did bear the remnants of the dress of one of station and authority. When she made the sign of the Tree, I understood that she’d put enough of the details together to identify me.

Despite her warding gesture, she initiated a curtsy to follow. Not a deep or thorough one, not the kind she’d give to Lord Aryden, but just enough to make it difficult for one of my ambiguous social status to complain. Not that I had any interest in doing so.

“My lord thaumaturge,” she said with feigned welcome, “my apologies that my servants were so distracted as to require you to show yourself in.”

“Think nothing of it, Mistress im Norrene,” I told her. I realized I had no idea of her given name, hoped that we could end the formalities before this became evident. “I regret the intrusion upon your home, but I’m afraid I have pressing business with Master Ovaelo,” I said, tapping the covered canvas with my left hand.

Only now did the madman look to me, his hair wild as before, eyes bloodshot, visage dark and haughty with the judgment of a man who assumes he has no equals, in intelligence and creativity if not in social standing. He turned his head ever so slightly at seeing the package wrapped underneath my arm, but I could not judge the meaning of the movement.

“I will need a moment alone, Mistress,” I continued.

When neither I nor Ovaelo moved, she took my meaning. Clapping her hands, she ordered the gathered household to disperse until summoned again. The young lady standing as the painter’s subject disappeared faster than I could manage with the Art—apparently she did not enjoy standing still for so long.

After a few moments of the crowd meandering to and fro, being unsuccessfully herded by the im Norrene matriarch, the last of the stragglers finally removed themselves from our presence, leaving me alone once again with the artist.

He looked at the covered item under my arm and stroked his wild mustache and goatee with his left hand. “Now is hardly the time to make good on our arrangement,” he said, matter-of-factly.

I moved into the light of the courtyard now, stepping confidently toward him now that I had some leverage. I set the canvas, still covered, atop the ledge of the easel and leaned it back so that it rested covering the charcoal sketch. Ovaelo grimaced and ripped the oil-cloth free of the painting, revealing Orren’s nude form staring back at him with that enigmatic smirk. The man’s mouth dropped slightly agape before his brows furrowed and he poked at me with the charcoal, leaving little black splotches on my vest where he made contact. “Now what is all of this about?” he asked, the sharpness of his voice born of annoyedness rather than the fear or embarrassment I’d expected.

I should’ve known. “This is the boy, Orren, is it not?” I pressed.

“No.”

“No?”

“No. It is the likeness of the boy Orren, to be sure, but this is Xendarnus, a legendary hero of the Cantic Empire in its crusades. Do you not know your mythology, lord thaumaturge?”

I nearly punched a whole through the canvas right there, but I caught myself and recentered before allowing him to get the upper hand with such childish deflections.

“Master painter; he’s naked.”

“And? Lord thaumaturge, you are from Ilessa, surely you know how to appreciate the male form.”

“I don’t care that you’ve painted a nude man, Ovaelo. I care that you’ve painted this man nude.”

“A lover?” Ovaelo asked.

“Not mine, you fool, yours!” I worried for a moment that my voice carried far enough that the im Norreni might overhear, but then I wondered whether it would matter regardless.

“No,” the painter returned, straight-faced. “Not a lover. Not my lover, at least.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I did not love him, though he tried his best to make me.”

“So you were more than companions cavorting at the taverns, then?”

“Did we fuck, do you mean? We did, and delightfully so. Delicious as it was, though, the rest of the boy’s plots and schemes made the cost dearer than deserved.”

I thought to make an accusation, but I couldn’t tell whether the man was too mad to understand the implications of his admissions or simply didn’t care—or perhaps he was innocent of any wrongdoing altogether. Instead, I pried further. “What cost?”

“He only slept with me because he wanted me to make an apprentice of him, to take him back to Ilessa with me. Said he needed to escape this place, be his own man.”

“Did you agree?”

“Hah! Not in a thousand years would I have taken that boy as an apprentice. Not if he fucked like the Sapphire Queen herself! There was no talent within him, and I am far too great an artist to suffer the talentless in my company.”

“What happened when you told him, ‘no’?”

“The threats of a cantankerous youth, of course, all acid and vinegar.”

“What kind of threats?”

“He threatened to tell others of our affair, of course. I laughed in his face at the quaintness of his bucolic notion. Perhaps the prudes of a backwater such as this give scorn to such matters, but I am Ilessin. I know what it is to be alive, and human, and passionate—and that there can be no stigma in that. When he saw the threat was empty, he called me some names, though the ones I returned were far better. Then he said the strangest thing; I suppose intending another threat.”

“What was that?”

“He said something about serving a power greater than I fathomed, greater even than Lord Aryden, and I should take care not to cross him again.”

“What do you think he meant by that?”

“I thought what any good Ilessin would think—he’s spying for someone. Maybe another petty lord, maybe one of the Houses. Did you ever think how or why Meradhvor might have taken an interest in the amn Vaini in the first place?”

I brushed aside the accusation, at least for now. It was a possibility I couldn’t dismiss, but I presently had no evidence to suggest any tie between Orren and an outside power. “You parted ways after this fight?”

“Not before he stole some of my coin, but at that point, it seemed a small price to pay to be rid of him. I’d tired of him, and it was clear that he’d been having affairs with others throughout our relationship.”

He’d given me a motive, there was no doubt, but I couldn’t help but feel that he’d have stopped his mouth despite his narcissism had he anything to conceal.“That bothered you? Jealousy is unbefitting the cultured Ilessin such as yourself.”

“Hah,” he barked. “In and of itself, of course not. But it was only more proof that his interest in me was pecuniary and not truly passionate, and I must admit my heart took a blow from that knowledge.”

“Who might the other affair have been with?”

“This he never let on. I detected it in the small things, implications of his speech, inconsistencies of explanations about where he’d been when we were not together. You know what I mean, I’m sure. One has a sort of…intuition, about these things.”

“Did he mention Nilma, or the Lady Vesonna? Could it have been one of them?”

“More than once I had to listen to him drone on about one or the other. Insufferable, it was. He complained incessantly about his ill treatment at the hands of the Lady Vesonna, though it seemed bitterness that she’d rejected his attentions more than that she’d committed any true offense. With Nilma, it was the opposite. He heaped scorn upon her because she was smitten with him and he held no desire for her. Failed to see the incongruity in the two complaints. Alas, I am a painter and a sculptor, and no poet, or it would be the start of a wonderful tale of love and betrayal.” He smiled at me, devilish, knowing full well he could be describing the nature of the truth I currently sought.

“Nilma had some affection for the boy?” I asked, my interest piqued.

“Orren said so. Though, as I’ve mentioned the boy had no talent for art, so I wouldn’t place any wagers on his seeing the truth as it really is.” While speaking, Ovaelo removed the painting of the boy from his easel, leaning it against one of the contraption’s feet. I’d disturbed his work for too long and he intended to continue with it during our interview.
Someone had lied. Either Orren or Nilma. Given his reputation, it would be easy indeed to cast aside this hearsay as egotistical fantasy, but the girl had gone out of her way to feign a certain distance from intimacy with the young scoundrel, just as one rejected might. Perhaps she neglected to mention these affections for fear that suspicion might fall upon her. Perhaps she had good reason for that fear. It would explain why she had been singled out by the spirit, but Lady Aevala suffered the worst of the specter’s predations, making me unwilling to accept such a straightforward hypothesis as the jilted lover murdering the object of her desire—despite the weapon-like precision with which Nilma had moved her needles.

“But you think neither was his paramour?”

“No. The boy was cunning, but not so subtle as to disguise his feelings and motivations with such pretense.”

“Anything else you can tell me about him? Any detail might prove useful.”

Ovaelo made some casual scratches at the background of his sketch while thinking, wild hair bouncing slightly with his violent movements. “He would leave in the middle of the night, sometimes. Return hours later sweaty and exhausted—but without the reek of an amorous affair upon him. The smell of grass and ash, an aura about him that made one’s hair stand on end. Subtle, but noticeable to one already suspicious of his departure. I figured he was messing with the mechanica the Meradhvor envoy had brought with him, trying to find some way to steal them or gain some other advantage.”

I perked up at this. A minor aside for the painter, but to me, a lead of potentially great value.

At about this time, the mistress of the house peeked out from one of the perimeter hallways to check in on us. I nodded to her and waved her forward, picking up the painting of Orren/Xendarnus as she approached, careful not to allow her to see any of it before I covered it again in the oil cloth.

“My apologies for the interruption,” I told Mistress im Norrene. “Master Ovaelo has addressed the matter to great satisfaction; it seems a small misunderstanding on my part in retrospect. I’m embarrassed to have wasted everyone’s time, in fact. I’ll trouble you no more and leave the master painter to his work.”

I’d turned to leave even before she could answer. Behind me, I could hear her clap her hands loudly to summon the rest of the household, the kind of action that could only be successful in such a large building if she’d commanded respect and authority such that everyone had been waiting and listening for just such a sign.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 21

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

The next morning, I left my chambers early, before the suns had risen, before Lord Aryden could catch me for another scolding. Until daylight broke, I paced the Old Town, hoping to chance across Errys but finding no familiar faces amongst the guardsmen I encountered. Then I remembered.

As soon as the gates to the New Town had opened, I made my way to the home of the constable. The building sprawled; I might have expected it to be a large tavern or inn in Ilessa’s Lower City had I not known better. It had about the same appearance, too, humble, perhaps ramshackle in some places, an agglutination of expansions and modifications as need demanded and coin allowed made clear by tell-tale differences in the gathered mildew and general patina of the various portions.

No personal retainers stood at the gate like those manses of the wealthy merchants that occupied the Old Town, but a gaggle of guardsmen waiting for instructions, smoking cigarillos and telling each other dirty jokes, leaned against the outer wall next to the gate.
I passed through the cloud of smoke they’d generated—thick as if they’d fired a volley of arquebuses—and puffed out air as I did, hoping to avoid inhaling the stuff. I’d never picked up the habit, thankfully (I have too many expensive habits as it is), and tolerated the stench of their indulgence with some distaste.

One of the men, a mustachioed would-be bravo in a dark-stained munition-grade breastplate with an acutely-pointed thrusting sword slung rakishly at his side, called out at me as I put my hand on the bar to the gate. “Who the fuck are you, and what do you think you’re doing at this time in the morning?”

“Same as you, I suppose. Just looking for some friends to share some filthy humor with before I start the day’s work.”

The duelist looked back to his compatriots with a cocky smile. “He’s kinda funny, ain’t he boys? I’ve got a joke for you. D’ja hear the one about the man with four holes?” He rested his sword hand on the hilt of his blade to make the point.

Too many people pick up a weapon and suddenly think they’re dangerous. They get unrealistic expectations of their own prowess and the nature of combat itself, don’t understand that it’s blood and guts and terror, not the kind of sport you find in the schools of defense, the drill field or the private tutor’s studio. All the best fighters I’ve known tried to avoid fighting as best they could. They’d give hell, and endure it when they had to, but it was never their first choice. Familiarity breeds contempt, and the necessary evil that is violence deserves that contempt. But, it only takes one person’s will for two to come to blows, and this man lacked the familiarity with death that might give him pause to come asking for it.

“No longer was he as full of shit as you?” I asked.

I couldn’t help myself, to be honest. The sarcasm just sprung forth from me, and I’d seen the man pulling his sword on me as too inevitable to bother to stop myself.

Sure enough, he obliged, though I worked a minor sorcery as he drew the blade and it flew from his hand as if unsheathed too roughly with too delicate a grip, the steel landing dully in the muddy street outside the constable’s gate. Before he could recover from the shock, I was upon him, gripping his clothes about his throat with my right hand and kicking his legs out from under him with my foot. This put him down hard, knocking the breath out of him, and I had the point of my dagger an inch from his neck by the time he recovered his senses.

His fellow guardsmen just stood there laughing at the mustached man’s misfortune, puffing on their cigarillos and waiting to see what happened next. Admittedly, I hadn’t thought too hard about what they’d do once I made my move—one problem at a time, you see—and breathed a little easier that they proved unwilling to intervene. Whether it was fear or laziness, I wasn’t sure, and didn’t much care.

“I’m the thaumaturge Lord Aryden hired,” I growled into the supine man’s face. That’s what the fuck I’m doing. How about you? Is disturbing the peace somewhere in the orders for watchmen? I’m sure the constable will be interested to hear about your behavior when I speak to him.”

There was no shock in the man’s eyes, no fear of reprisal. He knew who I was. Which meant that Daedys had said or done something, whether explicit or implicit, to give the man the idea that he should try to bully me. I slid my dagger back into the sheath behind my back, dropped the man’s head into the dirt as I released the grip with my right hand.
As I stood again, I noticed that the door to the constable’s house had opened; an inquisitive servant, an older man, standing in the doorway. He motioned to me and I quickly passed through the gate to meet him.

He had the care-worn face of the diligent servant, if possessed of independent and personal desires, they’d been sunk deep beyond the reaches of his countenance. The wrinkles around his eyes and brows indicated suspicion, but he otherwise held himself in the expectant grace of welcoming. “You are the lord thaumaturge?” the man asked.

“I am.”

He moved sideways, making room in the doorway for me to pass by him. “I’d been told to expect you, but we did not anticipate your arrival at such an…odd hour.”

I entered into the manor’s entryway and turned back to the servant, though not before noticing the incongruity of the inside of the home with the outside. While the building may have lacked the opulence of design and layout of the merchant manors of the Old Town, the same materials decorated the interior. Marble-tiled floors topped by rugs woven from rich and colorful—if now mudstained—threads, oil paintings on those walls not directly painted with fresco, brass fixtures to hold the candles, intricate cornicework at the joints of walls to ceiling. Daedys’ family had done well for itself in its management of forestry and farming for the amn Vainas.

“Time always runs short for me,” I said, “so I cannot always spare the niceties to which one of your master’s station are entitled.”

“Of course, my lord.”

“Iaren is fine. Your name?”

“Mosan, sir. If you’ll follow me.”

He led me from the impressive entryway into an even more impressive parlor, one containing all of the finery I’d previously observed with the addition of wooden furniture,a few bookshelves and a writing desk, elaborately carved out of some dark wood I did not recognize, and a collection of couches and chairs, each thickly upholstered in brocaded and embroidered blue cloth, the stitching the color of gold or silver. Mosan motioned for a place for me to sit, but I kept my feet. He waited as long as could be interpreted to be polite, then, nodding gently, said, “I’ll wake the family for you,” and left.

Mosan couldn’t have but cleared the hallway when Daedys stormed in, a blue robe that almost matched the furniture covering his nightclothes. His movement stopped him short just out of arms reach, where he put his hands on his hips, feet spread the width of his shoulders, as if attempting to block some door through which I’d intended to walk. “I’d appreciate it if you did not wear your weapons in my home,” he said by way of introduction, flicking a pointing finger at my belt.

I waited a moment so as not to acquiesce too quickly—he was trying to disarm me more than literally, after all—and obliged him, unbuckling the belt that held my sword and dagger, wand, and pouches of useful arcane gewgaws. I leaned the sword against the far corner of the room, gently letting the belt hang in a way that permitted nothing to fall free from pouch or sheath or to scratch annoyingly against the plastered and painted walls.

By the time I returned to my original position, Daedys’ family trailed in, dressed similarly to the patriarch, rubbing eyes and stifling yawns. A woman, dour and wild-haired entered first, whom Daedys introduced as his wife, Ymelda. Two men younger than Daedys followed, two of Daedys’ three brothers, Orren’s father, Alayn, having been lost to the Crimson Close. These he named Ormas and Evor. Another woman, younger, stricken with the temporary madness of deep mourning, came last. Daedys introduced her as Inera, mother of Orren and widow of Alayn. The four arranged themselves on the furniture behind Daedys, who, like me, continued to stand. The left an ornate, high-backed chair empty, presumably the seat of Poltor, the former patriarch of the family who, like his son Alayn, had been claimed by the Maw.

Cold-faced, Daedys waited for me to speak, his family behind him, faces slightly lower but similar in expression.

“I believe that Orren is, in fact, dead. I believe that it is his spirit that afflicts the amn Vaini,” I began, a sob bursting forth from Inera, Ormas placing a too-familiar hand on her shoulder in comfort.

Daedys looked to his feet for a moment. “Putting Kalvor to rest didn’t work?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“Another attack from the specter last night,” I replied. “And since you know of no other recent deaths in the town…”

“I understand,” he said, looking up, a light of defiance within his eyes. I didn’t understand the source of the sentiment, but its presence nonetheless alerted me to there being more at stake than I originally surmised. “What do you need from us?”

“I need to know anything you can tell me about Orren. Everything you can tell me. The smallest detail might lead me to discover his killer and bring him justice and peace.”
The widow looked up from her sobbing, her eyes daggers piercing through the veil of tears she’d accumulated. “You’re not interested in Orren for his sake, so don’t lie to us like you are! Your loyalty is to the amn Vaini; all you care about is fixing their problem and taking your coin. You’ll leave us damned if it suits you!”

Like a child parroting its parents’ secret comments, I took her outburst as an indication of Daedys’ thoughts about me, expressed in the relative safety of his own home. The constable held his hand behind him, a subtle cue for her to control herself, which she did, falling backwards against the support of the couch and continuing to sob.

“Perhaps, mistress Inera might be excused from us,” I offered, “I do not mean to cause her pain.”

Daedys raised the same hand with which he’d silenced her to point at me. “She deserves more than any of us to know what you have to say.”

“Fine,” I said. “In front of your lord you played ignorant of Orren’s misadventures among the townsfolk, and while he remained only one of many possibilities for the amn Vaini’s haunting I had no reason to delve deeper. Now, I’m afraid, I must.”

“Again with these slanders!” the man burst forth, hands dropping exasperatedly to his sides.

“The girl, Nilma, has confirmed both that the boy pursued many lovers amongst the daughters of Vaina and had crossed many of the merchants as well,” I told him, turning away to look at the art on the walls.

“The im Valladyni? They have no love for us; I’m sure the girl will say anything to make Orren look the scoundrel.”

“Then perhaps I should spend time talking to the town’s fathers? To the servant girls of the castle? To the merchants? To your deputies?”

Daedys stepped forward, his finger now an inch from my chest. “Perhaps my deputies would like to talk to you, as well. I have a nice private place for such a conversation.”

“Now Daedys,” Ymelda said in an even tone. “I apologize Master Iaren, but my husband is taking to his duty to protect our family—reputation included—very seriously since his father’s death. I’m sure he forgets himself and does not mean to threaten.”

I wasn’t so sure. “You may address me as Lord amn Ennoc,” I told her. Daedys turned to me with hard eyes at that, eyes that understood the implications and didn’t like them very much. “But I’m sure you’re right. If the distress of the Maw and the loss of your family members were not enough, he and I have had a stressful set of days together. I’m willing to overlook a certain amount of insolence on his part. A certain amount.”

Withdrawing a pace and lowering his jousting finger, Daedys changed his tone, his voice apologetic—forcedly so, but apologetic all the same. “Forgive my behavior, Lord amn Ennoc. But you believe that Orren is dead, correct?”

“I do.”

“Then please refrain from treating him as the criminal when he is the victim,” the constable said flatly.

“Perhaps some fathers complained about my boy’s dalliances with their daughters, but I defy you to find one of their daughters who’d complain more than to say they had hurt feelings when he turned his attentions elsewhere,” Inera added. “Besides, it was the Lady Vesonna who treated him ill; not him mistreating the castle’s servant girls,” she said.

“You mistake me, mistress. There is no judgment in my descriptions or questions, only a need to understand the truth of things. Young men are often wild by nature; I’ll not be the hypocrite who pretends that I did not have my scoundrel days as well.” I thought about it as I spoke, wondered to myself whether I could fairly say that my youth was possessed of “scoundrel days.” Probably. “I need to know where to look if I am to bring him justice, which is what I believe will lay his spirit. I cannot do that without an accurate view of him and his life.”

“He had his amorous adventures, and plenty of them,” Ormas offered. “A bright boy, and athletic; how could he have helped it? But I doubt that you’ll find a killer in his love-life.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“You don’t murder the nephew of the town’s constable,” he returned. “That’d be stupidity at its finest.”

“Plenty of people in this world are stupid,” I told him. “Especially when emotion is involved. A father happening upon Orren with his daughter might not calculate the consequences before he acts.”

“But it was Barro who said that he had received the complaints about Orren, not our lord,” Daedys interjected.

“True,” I agreed.

“Doesn’t that seem to indicate those who believe that they have little recourse against the nephew of the constable and a member of a family favored by the amn Vaini?”

“It does,” I conceded, “but that might as easily cause someone to take justice—as he perceives it—into his own hands. Mistress Inera, you said something of the Lady Vesonna mistreating Orren. Can you elaborate?”

The woman stopped her sobbing for a moment, face hard and icy. “She heaped scorn upon him every chance she got, got him in trouble with his masters when she could, made sure he received the difficult and unpleasant tasks whenever possible. He complained about it nearly every time I saw him.”

“Did he say why?”

“Jealousy, I think. He’d rebuffed her advances—too smart to get involved with the daughter of his lord, that boy—and her admiration turned to contempt.”

“Hmm.” I said, pondering the implications were her statement true. “I’ll keep that in mind, but had someone in the amn Vaina family been responsible for Orren’s death and they knew that the spirit appeared just after, I don’t suspect that Lord Aryden would have summoned me.”

“Then you should talk to Ovaelo,” Inera offered.

“The painter? Why?”

“Orren had been spending a lot of time with him before his disappearance. A man like that is surely a corrupting influence.”

“Because he’s a painter?”

“He does not work for a living—not in an honest profession at least. Painters are liars by nature—they depict things that are not true as truth. They’re always talking about ‘beauty and truth,’ aren’t they? Dishonest. He brings all of the corruptions of the Sisters with him, with their decadence and temptation. Um, no offense intended, my lord,” the woman continued.

Offense taken, of course, but it was perhaps the best lead on the boy I’d had so far. Provided his affairs with his lovers had been mutual matters, I tended to agree with Ormas that his romantic life was not the likeliest source of his death, though my time as a finder in Ilessa had cautioned me to remain skeptical. “How much time were they spending together?”

“Far too much,” she said. “Practically all the free time he had; he rarely came home to visit the past few weeks. At first I thought it a matter of his father’s…passing; we all have our various ways of grieving. But the way he spoke of Ovaelo, he’d fallen into a passion over the man, calling him a genius and a ‘soul of depth and wit’ and other nonsense I might expect from the layabouts of the Sisters but not the hardworking and level-headed men of Vaina.”

“You think they’d become lovers?” I asked. “The way Ovaelo tells it, they’d become drinking companions chasing women together.”

“Then why did they always leave the tavern together and not with these women they reportedly chased?”

“Had Orren had many men as lovers?”

“None others, that I’m aware of. But young men will go as their passion takes them, will they not? And a foreign artist might prove an enticing paramour to a young man who has not yet got his wits about him enough to know what artists really are!”

“But what interest would Ovaelo in Orren?”

“The pleasures of young and comely flesh, of course,” she added. “Old men are fools as much as young, I suppose, and in much the same ways.”

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