In the dark of the late night, everything looked a bit more sinister than it should. Once at the boundary of the town, I lit my thaumaturgic lamp to dispel the threatening darkness. It revealed two-storied cottages, humble, with the lowing of cows or the bleating of sheep emanating softly from the first floor within. A small garden flanked each one, each a family’s treasure-trove of foodstuffs that didn’t come from grain. The homes of those who tilled and worked the fields that radiated outward from the town, that had lined both sides of the road on my approach.
The thatch on the roofs of the homes smelt moldy and old, the plaster had sloughed off of the wattle undergirdings in places and had never been patched. Still, the gardens bristled with life.
Just further on, I could see a collection of larger buildings, compounds of buildings, really, much larger and more sprawling than those on the outskirts, but still outside of the town’s castle wall, which yet remained a long ways off. I had heard that Vaina proved rich both in natural resources and in merchants; I assumed that it was the latter who built these middling palaces of brickwork and wrought iron. But, as I came closer and my lantern revealed more than their outlines and barest detail, I began to second-guess myself. Nowhere on these edifices were the gilt accents, the pretended coats of arms, the suggestions of sumptuous wealth I would have expected on such monuments to convey the grandeur of the owners and their newfound wealth. Instead, these buildings were large in scale but humble in decor, utilitarian and unpresumptuous of status and affluence.
Before I thought further on the matter, another light gleamed in the corner of my eye. While realizing suddenly that I’d encountered no other soul as I made my way into the town, I turned to see this new arrival, to determine if she might be friend or foe.
I found her doing much the same. We nodded to each other politely, our hands both moved closer to the grips of our swords but not close enough to touch them, lest our defensive readiness be construed as offensive intent. Windborne stood dumbly behind me, oblivious to the tension in the air; the reins hung slack from the bridle. Whether he didn’t know he was free or it made no difference to him, he didn’t move.
The woman wore a breastplate, oiled and oxidized until a brownish black that seemed to soak up the light from her lantern, which hung from the back spike of a halberd she held in her left hand, swinging gently as she planted the buttcap of the weapon in the dirt. A simple sword of workmanlike style hung from her belt; she wore simple brown trousers and gambeson under the armor with black leather turnshoes on her feet. Her hair was long but pulled into a tight bun atop her head, which took the place of any helm or hat—perhaps an armor of its own sort.
With eyes that possessed at once both friendliness and a casual confidence, she looked me over—the staff I held in my hand, the alchemical lamp hanging from my waist next to my Altaenin sword, the practical cut of my clothes—not those of a peasant but neither those of a merchant or lordling. She said, simply, “Hail, traveler. You a mercenary or something?”
“Or something,” I returned. “I take it you’re the watch.”
“I am. My name is Errys. I should let you know that we have both a curfew and laws about the carrying of arms.” This she stated matter-of-factly, without accusation or the readiness to mete out punishment on the spot that one often found in the guardsmen of Ilessa.
I moved my hand away from my blade and took Windborne’s reins again. “My apologies for my late arrival. My name is Iaren amn Ennoc, and I am expected by Lord amn Vaina.”
“Amn Ennoc, you say? You don’t look like a nobleman, pardon my saying.”
“Not that kind of nobleman.”
She smiled at that. “Right, my lord.”
“Iaren. I trust your journey was a safe and pleasant one,” she offered.
“Aside from the two bandits I met on the road just outside of town? Enjoyable enough, I suppose.”
“You don’t look to have been treated too harshly. Did they take anything from you, my—Iaren?”
“That’s well enough, I suppose. I’ll let the Lord’s sergeant-at-arms, Master Gamven, know; I’m sure he’ll dispatch some of us to find the rogues and bring them to justice. The town gates are closed and barred at this hour, so I’m afraid I cannot convey you to my Lord amn Vaina until the morning.”
“I understand. Is there a tavern or inn where I might find lodgings for the night?”
As I asked the question her expression changed; I surmised that she must have made the connection with what I was doing in her town. “You’re the thaumaturge, aren’t you? The one come from Ilessa?”
“I am,” I admitted.
She made the sign of the Tree with her free hand, low and partially concealed by her leg so that I might not take notice, an apotropaic ward against the evils of sorcery, as the Temple taught. Still, she smiled at me and adopted the casual stance of one trading gossip rather than one threatened by my presence. It relaxed me as well. “What’s it like, to be a thaumaturge?”
How could I answer such a question? The depth and breadth of it, the nuance, the moments of sheer pleasure and the moments of sheer terror? “It’s a living,” I said, lamely.
She frowned at that, clearly disappointed. She wanted tales of adventure, flights of fancy and romance, descriptions of other things she had heard of but never seen with her own eyes. I didn’t have it in me to shatter her fantasy with a description of the tedium of study, the many dangers of the Art, the politics and dubious reputation that follow a practitioner.
Shaking her head free of her reverie, she looked at me more soberly. “Master Worvo has a tavern called ‘Farmer’s Folly’ a short walk from here. If you’ll follow, sir.”
I did, our two lanterns casting a wide arc of light across the rough paths before us and the horse’s hooves clopping rhythmically behind. We passed through a wide square of cobbled stone, surrounded on all sides by houses somewhere between the humble homes of the farmers and the brick complexes of the wealthy. A marketplace, to be sure, where the merchants would set up booths and tables to display the wares they’d brought from Ilessa and the other Sisters, to sell or trade them for goods to carry elsewhere for further sale or trade in a never-ending cycle of barter.
We passed through the space, dark and quiet with the time of night, and onto another dirt path that snaked its way between buildings, nearly entirely enclosed by overhanging second stories so close they almost touched one another. I had lost all sense of direction at this point, thankful for a guide whom I’d be lost without.
As we walked, she pressed me further. “So you’re here to exorcise the spirit, huh?”
“Maybe,” I responded cautiously. “I don’t know exactly what I’m here for until I know just what the problem is. There a great many types of spirit that sometimes make their way into our world and they are not all alike or equal in dignity and power. And there are many things that may seem to be a haunting to the uninitiated but are something else entirely.”
She walked before me now, the tight bun on her head bobbing slightly with each step, but still I could sense her smiling. This is what she wanted to hear.
“Like what?” she asked.
“There are sometimes spirits of the once-living that fail to depart when it is their time, that is true. But there are many spirits of the Avar itself, the Children of Avarienne they are called. And spirits from realms beyond our own who find their way here at the behest of their masters or for their own reasons.”
“You could call them that. Some of them, anyway. There are some spirits that are wholly one thing, their very essence bound up with an idea or an ideal that they are little more than manifestations and representations of something usually abstract. And there are those born of Sedhwe or Daea, and they might rightly be called demons. Most spirits, though, are like us—they’re neither wholly one thing or another, but something more ambiguous, something they would find difficult to define even for themselves.”
“So how do you know what’s what?”
“It can be difficult, but there are ways. Sometimes the Sight will reveal the nature of a thing, or sometimes there is a technique in thaumaturgy or theurgy that can do so. Sometimes we must rely on lore collected over the ages, the wisdom of long observation and theory. When we do, we must hope that such learning is correct, as are our deductions in using such information.”
“That sounds…complex. Is this the sort of thing you usually do? Dealing with unwanted spirits?”
“No, actually. In Ilessa I’m more of…a finder.”
“Of people, of things. When someone goes missing or something gets stolen or someone doesn’t want to be found.”
“There’s a lot of that work in Ilessa?”
“It’s a big city; things get lost merely by accident in a place of that size. And that’s before we factor in the intrigue and malevolent intent of the inhabitants.”
“It’s a dangerous place, then?”
“If you go looking for trouble, it is. I suppose that’s part of my job. That gives me a different perspective than most on life in the Sisters, I guess. I don’t usually see the better parts of it.”
“You don’t hear of the nobility taking on work very often, much less that…kind…of work.”
“Like I said, not that kind of nobleman. That’s not much part of my life these days.”
“What does that mean?”
Before I had to answer, we arrived at a short plastered wall, maybe six feet high, surrounding the courtyard in front of a moderately-sized building, timber, wattle and daub instead of the brick in the walls of the finer homes, but in relatively good condition. I could see the top timbers of a wooden stables on the far side of the courtyard.
Sounds came from the courtyard, the murmur of low voices sometimes punctuated by raucous laughter, hands or mugs pounding tables.
An archway standing taller than the rest of the wall framed a set of oversized, side-by-side doors, wide enough for a wagon or a coach to fit through. Errys rapped the door with the back of her hand and a window, covered by an iron cage on our side of the door, swung open.
“Come by for a drink, have you?” the voice on the other side creaked, older and raspy.
“No. I’m on duty. I’ve come by with a guest for you.”
“We’re full for the night.”
“The hell you are, Hammon. Open the door.”
“You’re out of bounds, Errys.”
“Then you tell Worvo how I brought a late-arriving guest of Lord amn Vaina to your door and you turned him away. I’ll inform the Lord in the morning and I’m sure he’ll have the reason from you.”
“Wait, wait. You should’ve said that to being with. I’m sure we can find a room for a guest of the Lord.” The door swung open, revealing a wizened man, hunched and face craggy with wrinkles, the top of his head bare but ringed by wisps of hair, gray and almost white. Come in, Master—”
“Iaren,” I interjected before Errys could speak. She looked at me from the corner of her eye but said nothing.
“Yes, of course. Master Iaren.” He held out his hand for the reins and I laid them gently across his palm. “I’ll make sure that your horse is fed, watered and properly stabled. I’ll have someone bring your things to your room.”
“Thank you, but I’ll take them myself.” I pulled the saddlebags and a cloth backpack from behind the saddle, slid my staff into a sort of sheath sewn into the leather of the bags and rested the whole bundle on my shoulder, tilting it forward so that the upper end of the staff cleared the archway in the wall.
“I’ll take my leave here, Master Iaren. A good evening to you.” Errys said. I swear she winked at me when she said it, but the old man didn’t seem to notice.
While he walked the horse—almost having to pull on the reins to get the stubborn beast to follow—I made my way into the tavern proper.
Where the night had been hot, the inside of the tavern proved steamy. In the center of the room, hanging over a wood fire, the dregs of some sort of stew or pottage bubbled lazily, filling the air with a smell equal parts sweet and bitter. The many candles burning on sconces on the walls added additional heat to the room. But it was the crowd of bodies that made the room swelter. Late-drinking citizens of the town occupied nearly every seat on every bench at every table, spilling beer on the table and one another while carrying on about the One knows what.
My eyes settled on a portly man in an apron making his way toward me. He had a full beard but had shaved his head bald. As he moved, I recognized the build of someone who’d been broad shouldered and all muscle in his youth but who’d put himself to pasture and let that muscle dissolve to fat that bore the slightest remembrance of what it had once been. Even his eyes smiled at me, to say nothing of his lips, a silent hospitality that seemed the opposite of the greeting we’d received at the outer gate to the premises.
“A late guest, I take it. I hope no misfortune delayed your arrival, good sir. My name is Worvo, the proprietor of this establishment. How long will you be staying with us, sit?”
“Well met, Worvo. I’m Iaren. I’ll only be with you tonight; the Lord amn Vaina expects me and I’ve clearly arrived too late to make an introduction this evening.How much for a private room for the night?”
“You must be the thaumaturge he sent for!” he smiled.
“How did you—”
“A tavern-keeper hears many things, you know. I have a private room for you on the Lord’s account. I imagine that you’re hungry from the road.”
“Very good.” He handed me a small iron key. “Your room is the third on the right upstairs. If you’d like to store your belongings and return I’ll fetch something for you from the kitchen—I’m afraid the stew is unlikely to be appetizing at this late hour.”
“Thank you, Worvo.”
“If you don’t mind, I’ll trouble you on your return for news from Ilessa. We’ve a few others from the City in town, but they’ve been here for some time now, so we’ve had no news.”
“I’ll be only too happy to share what I know if you can tell me about Vaina.”
“A bargain struck!” Worvo said.
Within brief moments, I’d left my equipment in my room and returned to find a table cleared of patrons, Worvo sitting with a mug of ale on one side and a meal of bread, cheese and some sort of broth waiting for me across from him. Having unburdened myself of my sword, I sat easily and began to eat.
“What news from Ilessa, Master Iaren?”
“The Council of Twelve is scheming, the Council of Coin is scheming, the Artificer Houses are scheming, the nobles are scheming, and the common folk are in the midst of it all.”
“Nothing of import, then?”
“The Company of the Valorous Dead have left for Ealthe or thereabouts. Several other companies have been contracted as well.”
“It looks like war on the continent?”
“Another wave of skirmishes and border disputes, I suspect. We hear that the Empress in Ealthe is eager to reincorporate the former provinces, no doubt to be resisted by the lords of those realms. But that’s been the case for decades now, so I’m not sure it qualifies as ‘news.’”
“Anything else from further abroad?”
“Something stirs in the old Aenyr city of Arthen Amenghroth to the north. The venture companies have uncovered some slumbering chimeric monster, I imagine. That sort of thing.”
“Are the Houses taking action?”
I almost laughed at that, my cynicism getting the better of my manners. “The Artificer Houses are doing what they always do, letting others take the risk so that they can swoop in and reap the rewards.”
“It seems you have no love for the Houses.”
“Why should I? They are peddlers of wonders but purveyors of intrigue and plots, merchants of tragedy and exploitation. Your poor farmers here have it better than those in thrall to the Artificer Houses. Let that be news from the City for you. Without them, we’d have no shadowmen in Ilessa. They’re the mercenaries the City should be famous for. No daggers in the dark waging a secret war for so many trinkets and baubles.”
He must’ve been taken aback by my sudden rancor, for he changed the subject. “Any word from the Aenyr on this Arthen Amenghroth?” He butchered the pronunciation as one unfamiliar with Ealthebad. A forgivable thing this far from the continent.
“I’ve no Aen to speak with, Worvo. But I imagine they’d be as silent on the subject as they are on all matters of the past.”
“I thought the Aenyr people came to the City with frequency.”
“I wouldn’t call it frequency. Not in large numbers, at least. There’s an occasional embassy, but the Aenyr tend to keep to the shadows when traveling alone. As much as they can, anyway, wearing masks and completely covered even in the summer sun.”
“I see. Thank you for the information, Iaren. In truth, we’ve had several lads leave for the City to join the mercenaries or a venture company. It may be a comfort to some to know where those boys might be headed. Though I suspect not…”
“You mentioned others from the City in Vaina. Who are they?”
“The painter Ovaelo has come with his apprentices to paint portraits of the Lady Aevala and of Lady Vesonna, her daughter.”
“How goes that with the events at the castle?”
“I hear from the apprentices that Vesonna’s portrait is complete, but her mothers was only started before—before the trouble of late. It seems that Lord amn Vaina has forbidden the master artist to leave until the trouble is settled and the portrait completed.”
“Unfortunate for him, I suppose.”
“Perhaps not. He’s been engaged in a brisk business for the notable families of the town while he waits for the Lady’s return to health.”
“Return to health, you say?”
“Aye, Master Iaren. They say she has fallen ill since the castle’s specter first appeared.”
“Tell me about the amn Vaini.”
The tavernkeeper glanced around conspiratorially and leaned in before speaking.
“They’re trothbonded,” he whispered. “To each other!” he added, grinning ear to ear as if it were the most amazing thing he’d ever heard.
It wasn’t the most amazing thing I’d ever heard, but it was a fascinating piece of information. In the Sisters, we’ve adopted the tradition of trothbonding in recognition that—especially for the nobility—marriage is an institution for the preservation of wealth and power. Lovers outside of the marriage vows are common, as they are everywhere, but here we acknowledge that love must often be sought apart from one’s spouse, a contract and relationship most often chosen for us. Thus the practice of trothbonding—of publicly declaring one’s love and dedication to a single person for life upon one’s honor and reputation. Affairs outside of marriage are never spoken of with judgment as they are on the continent, and often they’re not spoken of at all. But violate one’s trothbond and you become anathema; the worst kind of oathbreaker and cheat there is. “How long has that been true?” I asked.
“Ever since they were married. They declared their troths in the ceremony. Devout followers of the Temple, you see, so they chose those ways instead of our own.”
That phrasing struck me. The Ashaeran Temple may not have the institutional power in Altaena that it has elsewhere, but it still represents the de facto religion of our part of the world. I suppose I’d heard plenty of Temple priests preach about how Altaenin traditions defied the teachings of Ashaera, but I’d thought it so much commonplace for the clergy. Followers of the Temple do tend to be a bit more uptight on the continent than in the Sisters, but I’d never thought that perhaps the Temple preachers were right. Apparently the amn Vaini thought so.
“What else can you tell me about your Lord and Lady?”
“They are good rulers, as far as it goes. Strict, but fair. I hear many travelers complain of the other nobles living entirely off the backs of their subjects, ruling by whim and fancy, enforcing the slightest complaint against them with violence. The amn Vainas are not of that ilk. Lord Aryden in particular takes after his forebears—he is a shrewd negotiator and diplomat. He manages the various factions of Vaina well.”
“Perhaps ‘factions’ is too strong a word. Too much a word from the Sisters. Perhaps I should say ‘families’ or ‘interests.’”
“What does that mean? Out with it!” My interest in the subject might have again caused me to forget my manners.
“You could divide it in a few ways, I s’pose, but they all overlap. The new town and the old, the merchants and the families responsible for farming and timber and mining, those who travel regularly to the Sisters and those who remain here through each year. The Lord keeps the peace in part by working with the most powerful families of the town instead of against them. But if they compete with each other, so be it. That’s energy they’re not spending resisting his policies and decrees.”
“So who are these families?”
“There’s the im Valladyni and the im Darqosi, they’re the prominent merchant families with the Lord’s license for trade. They live in the Old City inside the walls. Out here with us are the im Osi, who oversee the farmers, the im Vardi, who oversee the mills and the timber-cutting, and the im Norreni, who oversee the quarry.”
“And the merchant families don’t get along with the other families?”
“Not often. They’re not often violent to one another, not like a conflict between noble houses. But they resist each other where they can, they each try to influence the amn Vaini their own way, and they don’t go out of their way to fraternize with one another.”
“I see. Any recent events of import for these families?”
“Much, Iaren, much. The Lord and Lady have helped the im Valladyni to betroth their daughter, Nilma, to a young nobleman of the amn Esto clan. The wedding is to be here in only a few days’ time. We had a wave of the Red Maw pass through a few months ago; it took the life of Poltor im Varde, the family’s patriarch as well as Alayn im Varde, one of his sons. And not long after, Alayn’s son, Orren, went missing.”
“The Red Maw? How bad was it?”
“Could’ve been much worse. We caught it early, when it’d only gotten to about a dozen folk. Quarantined them in the Crimson Close and no one else came down with it. Stopped as quick as it started.”
“What’s the Crimson Close?”
“The first time the Red Maw came through, when it was most severe, that’s where the bodies were dumped, and then the afflicted living, too. Once the plague was done, none would dare enter that place. So, it was walled off and we use it for the same purpose whenever the Maw returns.”
“And what of this Orren?”
“Like Nilma had, he’d been brought to serve in the amn Vaina’s castle as their attendant, to increase his status and help him find a good marriage contract. As I said, it worked for Nilma. But Orren disappeared before anything came along.”
“When you say ‘disappeared,’ what do you mean?”
“Just that, Master Iaren. He’s gone. Some say he’s murdered, but none’s ever found a body, and by all accounts he had a wanderlust and wasn’t the type to marry. So, he probably just left. Went to seek his fortune in the Sisters like so many youth. Especially after he lost his father to the Maw, might not have felt there was much left for him.”
“All of this, the Maw, Orren’s disappearance; this happened before the haunting began?”
“It did. Not long before, but before. Think there’s some relation?”
“I don’t think anything yet.”
Worvo smiled. “A cunning investigator, no doubt!”
“Have you heard anything else about the haunting?”
“The girl Nilma I told you about before—she says she was attacked by a spirit in the castle. Fled just after and refuses to return.”
“Don’t know the details. Just heard some folk whispering about it after the fact.”
My mug had run empty and I’d cleaned the plate of any morsel of food while listening to the tavern-keeper’s gossip. When Worvo noticed that, he started to rise and reach for the mug.
“Thank you, Master Worvo, but I am full. It is late, and I’ll need sleep for tomorrow.”
“Of course. I’ll bid you goodnight, then.”
The weight of fatigue settled deeply upon my eyes and shoulders as I made my way back to my room, the late hour catching up to me quickly. When I’d been an apprentice, I’d been used to long days and long nights with little sleep, reading and studying at all hours to impress my master. But that was some time gone now and I found that sleep had become more of a necessity now.
With the wooden door to my room closed and locked, I collapsed onto the bed, still fully dressed, and slumber quickly followed.