A shallow bowl of water on a simple table in the corner of the room had evaded my notice in the dark of night, but I made ready use of it now, splashing my face and hair, wiping with the nearby rag in hopes that this would wipe away the lingering vestiges of my dream. I took a deep breath as I stared out the window and the first light of day, waiting for some understanding to fill me. It did not.
Disappointed, I straightened my jerkin and vest before taking my belt from where I’d left it on the floor last night, girding it about my waist and checking its fit, the angle of my sword, the availability of the parrying dagger at my back and the ash wand in a short sheath on my right leg. My staff had rolled under the bed and I stooped over to recover it, a solid piece of oak I’d carved with runes and symbols myself. The edges of the fresher carvings bit lightly into my hand as it gripped it, the older symbols worn smooth at the edges, comforting and familiar.
I leaned the staff into a corner of the room where it remained propped, supported by the angle at which it rested. The saddlebags and backpack lay in a sprawling pile of straps, half under that small table and half waiting to trip me. The saddlebags held my more mundane belongings, but the backpack held the tools of my trade; this I lifted and lay on the bed, spreading out its contents to ensure that I’d lost nothing in the journey or during the night. I pulled out my personal grimoire and journal, leather wrapped and rough-cut sheets of vellum that didn’t align precisely. Not the pinnacle of the bookbinder’s trade, but what I could afford when I’d acquired it. In time, I’d come to find its eccentricity somehow endearing. I briefly flipped through the pages, remembering the circumstances in which I’d inscribed the diagrams and sigils, copied passages from other texts, and added my own encrypted notes. Laying this aside with the quill and small leather pouch that held my quills and inks, I reached into the sack again, pulling free a small drawstring bag. I pulled the strings to open the bag and let it fall gently against my palm, revealing the jewelry within. Not gaudy pieces of gold and silver—while they would have been more effective for my purposes, I could not at present afford them. Pewter rings, two brass torc bracelets, a large iron disc about twice the size of an Altaenin swan, a pendant on a thin chain and another drawstring bag, this one filled with small metal balls I carved into which I’d carved runes myself.
I had had each ring engraved with intricate sigils, each designed to store a different working on the cusp of manifestation. This allowed me to prepare those workings in advance, before the pressure of the situation increased the likelihood of a misstep in the shaping of the thing, so that the fatigue of the working would not grasp me in my time of need, so that I need not dedicate myself to a protracted preparation of the working when time was of the essence. For now, each lay dormant, so that the Power would not slowly bleed into the world as Flux, where it might wreak havoc in unexpected ways at inopportune times.
The bracelets each had a small sapphire set within, a reservoir for the Power I might draw upon, again so that I might avoid the fatigue that often accompanies the use of the Art, or the time if would take to channel the Power from without myself if I otherwise wanted to avoid that draining of my concentration and vigor.
The pendant held a ruby surrounded by runes, the stone there keeping the runes powered with the simple warding effects they held. Not enough to turn a blade or a shot by themselves, but enough to tilt the scales in my favor if I could make them at least even.
The disc, inscribed with a complex system of geometric symbols and carefully-placed words in the Old Aenyr tongue, had been designed to hold a spirit bound to it. It remained untested as of yet, but I expected it to be of great service in the matter at hand. I slid the pendant over my head and the binding disc into a pouch on my belt, returning the rings and the bracelets to their pouch and setting it aside.
I had also a humble collection of ingredients and reagents for use in workings—particularly alchemical ones, though I had not brought equipment for such—my ritual girdle (really just a length of sturdy cord knotted at various intervals), chalk for the making of quick circles for theurgic practice, a wooden chalice for divinatory workings, a simple iron key and accompanying bell for the summoning and binding of spirits and short, sharp dagger solely for the purpose of cutting through the workings of others. Not knowing what I’d find here in Vaina when I began to investigate in earnest, I’d tried my best to prepare for the most likely contingencies, knowing full well all the items in my apartment in the Ilessa’s Lower City could not equip me for every possibility.
Satisfied that I had everything I’d packed, at least for my thaumaturgic purposes, I returned the backpack’s contents to it and strapped it closed again. I did not bother with the saddlebags—anything within them was of little real value and could be replaced relatively easily if lost or stolen.
I donned my cap, slung both backpack and saddlebags over my shoulder, pulled my staff from the corner in which it rested, and made my way back downstairs.
Worvo and a woman I presumed to be his wife were already bustling, something fresh and enticing in the cauldron at the room’s center, setting mugs and a robust dark bread on the tables in front of those who’d already made their way for breakfast. Looking up from his myriad tasks and spying me with all of my belongings, Worvo raised a single eyebrow? “Not intending to stay for breakfast?” he asked.
“No, Master Worvo; my apologies. I’m eager to get a start on to meet Lord Aryden this morning.”
“We’ll be happy to continue to stable your mount for you, spare you leading the beast through crowded streets. Let me have a servant take your belongings to the castle for you so that you may enjoy your walk unencumbered,” the tavern-keep offered.
“I must again decline, I’m afraid. I’m very particular about…my tools.”
“Of course. At least take some small beer with you.”
“I wouldn’t trouble to take one of your mugs.”
“Nonsense. I’ll send someone to retrieve it later.” He was already thrusting the cup into my free hand as he said this; there was no use arguing.
“What do I owe you for the food and the night?”
“My Lord will cover it, I’m sure. You’re his guest. And if not, then the pleasure is mine.”
I assumed his hospitality to be more a matter of ingratiating himself with the amn Vaini than consideration for me, but the warmth of his smiled gave me just enough doubt to wonder about my usual cynicism. Smiling back with a nod, I took my leave, back through the courtyard where a few large men slumped over their tables, snoring. The town’s drunks, or at least a few of them.
The large doors in the courtyard wall had been swung wide and I wasted no time returning to the street. Old Vaina and its castle sat atop the hill hugged by New Vaina, some of the more recent houses themselves attempting the climb upwards and resting, somewhat precariously, on the incline. The impending towers, built before the use of artillery had become commonplace, now offered a more symbolic strength than any true protection, but the petty wars of the Altaenin nobility kept a tacit rule about the destruction of rivals’ homes. Inevitably, a lord who stood behind the cannons today would find himself on the other side in the future, so the forbearance of the destruction of the island’s old towers and fortifications benefited all those with an “amn” in their name. If they still held lands and castles, that is. Ennoc had been razed, but by mercenaries in the service of the Artificer Houses rather than by rival nobility. I’d not seen the tragedy myself, and upon returning to Ilessa, I’d had no desire to inspect the ruins. They held only ghosts of their own now; ones I had no need to confront.
The old stones made for an easy guidepost, so I turned myself toward them and began to walk, the tip of my staff tapping a regular staccato as I moved along. Like most farming communities, many of the townsfolk had arisen before the sun and the streets had already sprung to life with daily routines.
As I reached that open marketplace I’d passed through in the night, stalls where going up, wares being laid out and the first calls of hawkers filled the air. Only those selling local goods had arrived so far, the merchandise advertised being only the necessaries of the local families—cloth, foodstuffs, basic tools and metalworks and the like.
I did not like to think that I matched the expectations of a thaumaturge in appearance. In Ilessa, the majority of arcane services available to the general public were provided by practitioners skilled in only one of the five ways or six practices; full magi could easily find more lucrative—and reliable—employment in the service of some nobleman or merchant, a guild or one of the mercenary companies. I’d even considered the latter for a time myself, but thought it better to remain in the City where I had the resources to complete my studies rather than somewhere far afield in mud and blood. The Company of the Valorous Dead had even posted handbills in search of a thaumaturge, but I’d never inquired with them as to the specifics.
Those entrepreneurial practitioners serving any who could pay their fees tended to dress eccentrically—and gaudily. They wore robes with astrological charts embroidered on them, festooned themselves with chains and trinkets covered in arcane-looking symbols (usually meaningless), bearing shaved heads or long and wild gray hair (the younger among them using the Art or simple dyes to achieve this color had they not yet earned it with age), tattooed and wreathed with wildflowers or bearing trained animals they called “familiars.” High showmanship, it is, and they presented themselves as the magi and thaumaturges one would expect to grace the stage at a local theater—which was probably the origin of their appropriated stylings in the first place.
For my part, I wore the same things any common person with just a bit of means might—clothes only slightly out of the current Altaenin fashions. That meant riding boots turned down at the knee; breeches of a swordsman’s style, loose enough to allow freedom of movement but not so baggy as to snag on every point that passed by; a jerkin flared slightly at the waist and cut to mid-thigh over an undershirt and under a wide-shouldered doublet that stopped abruptly where the jerkin began to flair. Unlike the continent, where most clothes were made of wool, the often warmer climate here caused us to favor lighter linens. Once, my clothes had born eye-catching embroidery over brightly-dyed base fabrics, but time had faded all so that differences in the colors could scarcely be made out by the discerning observer. I kept my hair and my beard close-cut, a slouch-cap atop my head in the rakish style of the swashbucklers and errant nobility and a hooded cloak mantled over all.
It quickly became clear that I did not blend in. The cut and style of my clothes marked me as one from the City, which itself attracted the eyes of the townsfolk. Once turned to me, those eyes saw my staff, the wand on my hip, the sword at my side and identified me almost immediately as the one prophesied by their late gossip. Stern eyes met me, the hard look of those attempting to mask fear with scorn. Not a few made the sign of the Tree at me, with one or both hands, and I quickly found myself meeting those gazes with a similar mask of scorn to conceal my unease.
My pace quickened slightly, though I paused every so often to take a swig from the mug I carried. A small crowd of children began to follow me, casting aspersions at first before taking to dirt clods. I thought to drop the mug to leave my hand free for my sword but thought better of the signal it might send. Instead, I turned to glare upon my pursuers, a final clod of dried avar shattering against my chest as I did. Under my dread gaze, the children remembered the stories they’d been told of warlocks and necromancers, thinking better of continuing their assaults upon me. They scattered to side-streets, undoubtedly to return to their mothers’ skirts.
Upon turning back toward my destination, I found two drudges making their way toward me, Artificial constructs of wood, metal and chains in the rough likeness of a too-tall and too-wide man that clanked with every step and hissed air from behind their faceplates as they watched the path before them with dead and dull eyes. The sight might be expected in Ilessa, where the Artificer Houses plied a brisk trade despite their tenuous relationships with the Council of Twelve, but I’d expected nothing of the such in the countryside, where the abundance of peasant workers made the expense of such devices uneconomical. Still, here they were, brushing past me with not a sidelong glance, followed by a clutch of broad-shouldered and heavily-muscled men bearing pickaxes, destined for the quarries. Drudges would prove useful in such endeavors, where their Artificial strength exceeded even that of the Rukhosi-Blooded.
The thought gave me some solace. Had I been a thaumaturge and of the Blooded, even of the diminutive Ilmarin, I might have been strung up or burnt upon taking my first step into the bounds of Vaina. Even in the Sisters, the ubiquitousness of the Blooded did not leave them endeared to those of standard stock. Their very appearance sentenced them to lives on the margins of upstanding society, through no fault of their own, despite what was said about them.
Shaking that thought, I continued on my journey past through the narrow streets. As I drew closer to my destination, the close-hanging buildings obscured my view and I must have taken a wrong turn. I came to a wall and thought for a moment that I’d found the proper course, but the wooden doors in the wall’s gate had been painted with a red “X” and a lowered portcullis braced them from my side. To keep people in, not out. I reasoned that this was the Crimson Close that Worvo had mentioned, which made the wall a late-added bulge from the true outer wall of the fortress intended to enshrine and imprison the poor souls within who had succumbed to the Red Maw’s embrace. A shudder ran up my spine to think of that fell plague and I quickly turned back to find another way.
Finally, I made my way up the hill to the halfway point where the Old Vaina wall began. Here, two tall and wide gates lay open, the bottom of a portcullis visible at the top of the arch that framed them.
Two of the watch flanked either side of the doors; I quickly recognized Errys as one of them, her demeanor slightly more haggard now toward the end of her shift. She waved a hand as her compatriot began to speak to me. “The Lord’s thaumaturge,” she said, her brother-in-arms nodding in understanding.
“I am only my own,” I told her reflexively, “though I have come at the Lord’s request.”
“My mistake, my lord. But you’d better be on your way; we’ve had news from our fellows in the Old Town of further disturbances last night. Said they saw our Lady walking the walls alone and speaking to herself as if in a fever-dream. Best to go straight to the castle, as well; there’re plenty of folk unlikely to approve of your presence here, even if you are the Lord’s guest.”
With another wave of her hand she invited me through the gate. I quickly obliged.
Inside the wall, Old Vaina proved not to be so old. What ancient buildings may have once occupied this space had been torn down to make way for newer buildings in more modern style. Here, I found the gilded and accented brickwork of merchant families’ homes that I’d thought I’d found in the newer town below. The difference in opulence between Old Vaina and New proved readily apparent and added weight to Worvo’s commentary on the tension between the magnate families of the two.
My journey in this part of Vaina also contained scowling faces, apotropaic oaths and signs of the Tree made in my direction. Only this time, they came from people finer dressed. Face hardened to the resentment against me, I nodded in greeting and acknowledgment to those whom I saw turning accusatory countenances toward me. I will not feign that I received no satisfaction from the shocked and worried looks I received when each townsperson realized I had turned my attention to them, specifically. They seemed to believe that I could curse them with a mere glance. Given their open hostility, I was not inclined to disabuse them of the notion.
Finally, I stood before the gates to Vaina castle’s inner courtyard. Like the outer wall, a set of large wooden doors, currently open, filled the tall and wide arch in the gatehouse. Unlike the relatively simple design of the outer wall, a formidable gatehouse held this doorway, with curved half-circles protruding from the wall on either side, arrow slits facing the approach, and squat, square tower atop the archway itself, the floor of that tower on either side of the great doorway grated and punctured by murder-holes through which the fortress’s defenders could rain all manner of violence upon would-be breachers. An antiquated way of fighting now, but the thought of it gave me the chills nonetheless. Not one but two portcullises fit within that artificial tunnel running two and beyond the doorway. The first of these fell just behind the doors, where the iron latticework could reinforce the thick wood from attempts to batter them open. The second hung patiently at the interior end of the gatehouse over the entry where it could force intruders to mass under the machicolations above while trying to break through that final bulwark against them.
The Vaina arms, for the town used those of its lord, hung auspiciously above the projecting front of the gatehouse’s central tower. A gold background pierced from below by a black chevron, a mace in the top left corner, a pickaxe in the top right and the Tree in the midst of the chevron. All very gaudy and in good Altaenin taste, I supposed.
Guardsmen leaned nonchalantly on either of the interior walls flanking the gatehouse door, their halberds likewise casually resting against the stone. Where the members of New Vaina’s watch wore clothing of dull brown, these more senior soldiers had been arrayed in the gold-and-black livery of their master.
Between them stood a man, hunched slightly by age, in black ministerial robes, a gold chain of office draped from his shoulders, thin and wizened even when bolstered by the thickness of the robe. Grey hair splayed outward as if from the very center of his pate, radiating in a drooping disc that followed the curvature of his skull. His brown eyes sat in deep recesses, sharp despite the man’s age, lines of earned wisdom flanking them as well as his brow. He kept his face cleanshaven, thin lips nearly the color of the surrounding skin.
He opened his mouth to speak as I approached. “The thaumaturge at last,” he said, bowing slightly. “Welcome, my lord.” That last word piqued the interest of the guardsmen, but when I waved it off they returned to their lazy watchfulness.
“It’s just Iaren,” I told him. He said nothing in response but nodded his head, as cryptic an answer as I could hope for. “Follow me, sir, and I’ll take you to my Lord amn Vaina. He’ll be happy to see you at last. My name is Eldis, the lord’s seneschal.”
For an old man, he walked briskly, and I found myself holding my staff angled so that it did not drag on the ground as I moved to catch up. We were making good time across the inner courtyard toward the keep that served as both palace and fortification within, passing by stables, the castle’s smith, a small barracks with armsmen at drill and a number of other wood outbuildings I could not determine the use of.
“What can you tell me about the events here, Master Eldis?” I asked.
“No doubt what you have already heard. A specter appeared to infest the castle about four weeks back now; my Lady amn Vaina fell ill at about the same time. The provenance of the spirit remains obscured, for until now we’ve had none with the Sight or with understanding of such things to aid us. Our priest, Barro, recites scripture to us and pretends that he understands how it applies to our present predicament. He is a well-studied man, to be sure, but his pride fools him into the belief that he knows more than he does.”
“Where has this ‘spirit’ been sighted?”
He caught my tentative use of the word. “What do you mean, saying ‘spirit’ that way? Are you not convinced?”
“Not until I see it myself. Not until I have enough evidence to make a determination of the nature of the occurrence based on something more than hearsay and rumor.”
“Good,” he smiled, before a rough landing of his foot on the ascending stone steps to the keep’s main door forced a frown. He shrugged it off apologetically and returned to conversation. “The first sightings were in the cellars. The staff thought some domestic spirit had moved in, so they began to leave gifts. You know, milk, bread, those sorts of things. When the apparition did not respond to such offerings, our servants began to speculate to one another, but it wasn’t until the abomination attacked one of them that they began to suspect something sinister.”
“This was Nilme?”
“No, she was not the first. Well, she was the first to show any real signs of being attacked, but her fellow servants had complained about being chased or threatened by the shade.”
We’d now crossed the threshold into the keep’s main hall, a shaft of light from the morning suns following us only for a few paces before our eyes adjusted to the many lamps that illumined this great space. It spanned at least three stories above us to the vaulted ceiling and seemed just as wide as it was high, and even longer. The trestle tables that would’ve have filled the hall in the evenings remained now in whatever storage they occupied when not in use, though the tapestries still adorned the walls and many rugs softened the stones beneath our feet.
I lost track of the conversation for a moment as I looked from on tapestry to another. Some of them had faded somewhat with the passage of time—they must’ve been family heirlooms—but I could make out the images nonetheless-those many lamps hanging from the walls and support columns provided ample light, even if they did not compete with the raw power and majesty of the sons outside. I noted numerous scenes from history—a battle of the Artificer War, an image of Ilessa being overrun during the Noght Gennigt, our savior Ashaera hung from the Tree as her initiates wrote her words, the Sapphire Queen in her ancient and terrible court in the days when the Aenyr ruled, the infiltrating miasma of the Red Maw upon its first appearance. Beautiful works.
Expensive. Between them were hung paintings in vivid colors in the latest artistic style—unlike the highly symbolic and abstracted images on the tapestries which, if we’re being honest, looked comparatively like the work of children, the paintings imitated the world that presented the onlooker’s eyes almost perfectly, with depth and expression and the implication of movement. For a brief moment, one of the hall’s support pillars filled my view, just long enough to return me to the moment at hand.
“Nilme, what was her role as a servant?” I asked.
“She was a handmaid to the Lady,” Eldis told me. “A high honor, and one that undoubtedly earned her the offer of marriage my lord so deftly negotiated.”
“To the amn Esto family?”
“The same. Her family gets a title and the amn Estos get a dowry—which they sorely need! And he’ll soon have another put to vellum and signed as well.”
“Another marriage to the amn Estos?”
“Hah,” the old man spat, the idea apparently amusing. “No, my lord, to the House Meradhvor.”
“It’s just—Meradhvor? He’s arranging a marriage with one of the Artificer Houses?”
“For his daughter, Vesonna. Even now he and the House’s emissary are negotiating.”
“There’s a representative of House Meradhvor here? Now?” Unconsciously, my right hand went to the hilt of my sword. Just to make sure it was still there.
“Yes, my lord. You’ll meet him along with my lord, I’m sure.”
We passed through a small door on the side of the great hall, one of many, and into a closet—for it was no larger—of spiraling stairs. These we ascended at the same brisk pace the seneschal had maintained from the start. I must admit that more than once did I momentarily wedge my staff between the steps above and below as I struggled to keep pace. Cursing under my breath, I worked the stick until I found an angle that allowed me movement, made sure not to whack or poke my guide with it as I did, and continued the ascent.
The rooms above which we entered were a stark difference from the great hall. Where below the light had all been provided by burning tallow and oil, here the castle’s arrow slits had been exchanged for broad windows filled with leaded and colored panes, some swung open to allow the air to move freely through. The walls had been covered with wooden panels accented by fine joinery and finer carving. I now followed Eldis to a low door cut flush to fit seamlessly into the surrounding wood paneling, which he pushed open and motioned for me to enter, following behind me.
We emerged into a study, bookcases built into three of the walls and filled haphazardly with books, loose scrolls and letters, maps, assorted hunting gear, bottles of wine and spirits, and various trinkets and bric-a-brac—and certainly much more of the latter than the former. The ceiling above us had been plastered over and painted with a scene from the Book of the Tree I couldn’t immediately place. Near the unshelved wall stood a globe in a stand that allowed it to be spun; weapons adorned the wall itself.
At a large desk in the center of the room—the kind I’d expect to see before a court clark or some banker in the City—sat Lord Aryden amn Vaina, sheaves of loose vellum spread across the desk’s top with long lines of scratched script or tallies of goods and coins peaking from the corner of each where it found itself free from its brethren.
The lord himself shuffled the papers about, muttering softly to himself in unintelligible words. A large red beard protruded from his downturned chin; the only part of his face I could see upon entering. It was the kind of beard I’d sooner have imagined on some proud mercenary captain or some pirate of the inner sea than on a stately noble of the Altaenin countryside, though the lord had had a reputation for swashbuckling, brawling and vendetta in his youth. The top of his head lay concealed under a hat of black velvet, embroidered with gold thread and fitted with three long hawk feathers. This matched his doublet, the sleeves black and slashed with golden panes. He looked up as we entered, his eyes small and piercing as the points of poignards. Both laugh lines and crevices of care marked his visage, and for the briefest moment I wondered why he had not employed the painter Ovaelo to paint him, he seemed for an instant the very epitome of humanity, joy, fear, anger and greed all tumbled together in a single face.
To his right, half-sitting against the sill of another ornate window recessed into the shelves that surrounded it, was the emissary from the Meradhvor Artificer House. A man less than a decade my senior, with jet black hair cut close in his beard and left long to frame his face. He wore finery of blue, black and silver, the House’s crest worked intricately into the pattern within the fabric, a pattern that seemed to match perfectly at the joinder of each piece of cloth to another in one mesmerizing labyrinth. His clothes had been cut in the style of an adventurer or a swashbuckler (for all of those powerful members of the Artificer Houses fancied themselves such), though his breaches were overbroad and his codpiece overwrought. He wore fashionable turnshoes rather than boots, with black hose that followed every contour of his calves. On his face the eyes and nose of a falcon, sharp, alert and unforgiving. He held a glass of wine in one hand and a lit cigarillo in the other; perfect circles of bluish smoke issued from the side of his mouth as if it were a chimney freeing the fire within him. He cut a dashing figure, to be sure, but I hated him before I saw him. The faintest smirk curved upward the half of his mouth not blowing smoke before he said, “Speak of Sedhwe and, thus, he appeareth.”
Quickly, I returned the favor, turning toward the Lord amn Vaina, moving my staff to my right hand, sweeping my right leg behind my left, pulling the hat from my head with my left hand, and holding the underside of it out to the smirking emissary as I bowed to my patron. This elicited only a full smirk from the man as he paused his smoking to take a drink from his goblet, his eyes continuing to skewer me with his gaze over the rim of the cup.
Two chairs of simple wood (lacking the padded leather that gently supported Lord Aryden) faced the desk on my side of it; amn Vaina indicated that I should sit in one. I leaned my staff against the corner of the room, set my backpack and saddlebags gently at its base, and took a seat.