“My apologies, Master Edanu, but as you know the matter for which I have summoned Lord amn Ennoc is pressing indeed. If you will excuse us,” Aryden said, his voice husky and matter-of-fact.
“Of course, my lord,” the Meradhvor emissary returned with a subtle nod in place of a bow. Somehow, he managed to deposit a cloud of smoke around me as he passed to the door, leaving me struggling not to hack and cough.
I heard the door close behind me, and Eldis took the seat next to me with a sigh as he took the weight off of his old bones. He said nothing and waited for Lord Aryden to speak.
“Welcome, lord thaumaturge,” the nobleman began, pushing the papers into a rough stack at the corner of his desk and taking a long swig of whatever filled the goblet on the desk’s adjacent corner. “My sister and brother have informed you of the reason we have need of you?”
“They showed me your letter, my lord.”
“So you know we have a shadow, a night thing for you to hunt.”
“I’m not much of a hunter,” I said plainly.
“That’s not what my siblings said. Word from Ilessa is that you’re quite the one for finding lost things and solving riddles. For fixing problems of…a certain nature.”
“That’s different. Finding a person who doesn’t want to be found isn’t the same as lifting a curse or sending off a spirit.”
“Did you come all the way here, to tell me you won’t take the job?” amn Vaina bellowed a laugh and took another swig from his tankard before falling silent and staring directly into my eyes, waiting for my answer.
“Of course not.” I replied.
“But you need to know that there are no guarantees here. I don’t know what you’re dealing with, so I don’t know what the remedy will be, so I can’t know whether or not it’s something I can take care of for you.” My interruption physically set him back; clearly he had become quite accustomed to deference in his time as the Lord of Vaina.
“That’s why I pay for results, lord thaumaturge.”
“No. You’ll pay for my time and my skills. As I said, there are no guarantees.”
Amn Vaina laughed again; Eldis managed a sympathetic grin. “So you came all this way to negotiate? A brave man, I say! And that’s a start,” said the lord.
I returned his stare, my face still while my stomach turned. “My lord,” I began, “you’re not in much of a position to negotiate. No one else would come, would they?”
The mirth dropped from amn Vaina’s face. Perhaps under different circumstances he would not have suffered such an affront to his dignity and authority. But I was his peer—technically speaking, at least—and I had not violated decorum. Moreover, I was right.
Silence hung in the air for a moment as the lord considered; a doubt welled up within me that he might just turn me away. I’d relied on the unspoken rules of noble behavior as my shield, forgetting that a sharp pride might cut straight through such a defense.
But a smile returned to his lips and he banged the desk with a large hand—a warrior’s hand—causing the beer in his cup to slosh onto the nearby papers. From within a drawer in the desk he procured a small pouch, it’s jingle plainly proclaiming the contents. This he set in the middle of the table.
I tried to moderate my smile as I reached for the coinpurse, though I doubt I had much success. Truth be told, I hadn’t held this many coins in quite some time—regardless of the denominations pressed into them.
Aryden seized my wrist as I started to recover it. He pulled his face close to mine; the lines of his face, both of joy and tragedy, seemed to all threaten in concert. “I pay for results, thaumaturge. If you cannot rid us of this apparition, you will return this coin—one way or another, name or no.”
I had no intention of complying with that command, but I also figured that I had no reason to push the issue now. “Cross that bridge if we get there, I suppose,” I said. “But who’s to say it’s a curse? There are many things it could be: a curse, yes, but also a rogue spirit, the echo of some forbidden ritual, a ghost or, even, your own imagination.”
“Several of us have seen the phantom. Are we all imagining it together?”
“It’s not likely, but it’s possible. I’ve read of such things. One person’s fears set off another, and the group affirms one another’s mistaken beliefs despite reality.”
“This is not a matter of imagining, lord thaumaturge.”
“Iaren, please,” I told him. It was a matter of preference yes, but I also hoped that a little familiarity might ease the tension that already existed between us.
“Very well…Iaren. But I am sure that something is going on that is unnatural. Else I’d not have asked my siblings in Ilessa to send you and wasted my coin.”
Eldis nodded sagely at this.
“I will take you at your word, my lord,” I told him, and meant it. “So let’s delve into the details, shall we? When was the apparition first spotted?”
“It started before that,” Aryden said.
“Maybe a week before. Aevala, my wife, she started having nightmares.”
“That’s not too extraordinary,” I offered, trying not to think of my own dreams the night before.
“Except that she said she saw something dark in her dreams, a phantom. It moved into our home, she said. Sat on her chest when she slept. I woke up to her choking one night, sure as someone had their hands around her throat. But there was nothing there, and it stopped as suddenly as it started. My guardsmen burst into the room at the sound of my screams and her gurgling, and this finally woke her. She has not slept well since.”
“May I see her?”
“Perhaps later. She remains unwell and I’ve only allowed my physician, Endan, and the town’s senior Temple priest, Barro, to see her.”
“Fine, perhaps I can get what information I need from them. What was the next event?”
“Aevala continued to have bad dreams, when she could sleep at all. But she wouldn’t speak of them to me. The next night, the dogs howled all night long. They say dogs can sense spirits even when we can’t see them. Is that true?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “What else.”
“That’s when things became serious. A few nights later, several of the servants said they saw something like a shadow that didn’t act natural.”
“Didn’t act natural? What does that mean?”
“They said it didn’t react to light as it should. And that it followed them. A few nights later, one of the servants went to the cellars to fetch some wine. She said that something she couldn’t see tossed several of the bottles about and smashed them. I’d have considered beating her for lying as an excuse for breaking the bottles herself, but I know this particular servant to be quite trustworthy.”
“No, Nilma was no common servant but a handmaid to my wife. She had her experience a few nights later. We heard her screaming and saw her try to flee the castle—it was late and the guards stopped her at the door in the inner curtain. Endan tended to her through the night—she’d been scratched something fierce—and we let her return to her family in the morning. She’s refused to return to the castle since. Fortunate for her that her father’d already signed the marriage contract with the amn Estos.”
“I’ll want to speak with her.”
“Of course, though I’ll have to wish you good luck with that. Gamven, my sergeant-at-arms, and Daedys, the constable, both tried, to no avail. And her family, the im Valladyns, are pious adherents to the Temple. They’re not likely to take kindly to a thaumaturge.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Did Aevala have other handmaids?”
“Yes, an amn Esto girl, but we sent her back to her people shortly after Aevala fell ill. Didn’t need her spouting about our troubles to her family. Of course, we’ve still got one of them hanging about until the wedding.”
“Vitella amn Esto. She negotiated the contract between her family and im Valladyns. We’ve had the good luck that recent events haven’t caused her family to call of the wedding, but I’ll say that nothing’s done until it’s done. One of many reasons I need you to move quickly.”
“You think they’d do that?”
“No one wants to willingly pull a curse down on themselves. Contagious things, they say. If the amn Estos begin to think that that’s what’s going on, and that the marriage might bring them into it, they might just call it off. We’re only a few days to go, though, so do your best to keep it from coming to that.”
Just what I wanted: politics. I couldn’t give a damn about what noble house married which, and I certainly hadn’t come here to play matchmaker guardian. But I had come, and there was nothing for it now. “What else?”
“With the spirit?”
“More sightings in the weeks since. A few reports of things being thrown or people being chased. And my wife continues to lose sleep and grow weaker. So what do you think it is?”
“Hard to say. It has some of the telltales of a spirit—though I couldn’t yet say what kind. But I find it strange that the focus seems to be on your wife and yet other people are being accosted, too. I’ll know more when I get to see the thing.”
“Shall we go look for it?” Aryden asked, standing and already stepping around his desk. His left leg from the knee down had been replaced by a metallic prosthetic, wires and pistons covered by steel plates filigreed with gold, the joints at the ankle perfect in their simple flexibility; the device lifted and set down with the same delicate precision as a human foot. It even had toes, carefully sculpted to match human anatomy, and these splayed ever so slightly on the ground as they met it to increase Aryden’s stability. A far cry from a wooden peg, valuable both for its function and as a work of art.
The lord saw me staring at it. “A gift from House Meradhvor,” he said, smiling. “A beautiful thing, better than the one I lost, in fact. Stray arquebus shot in a skirmish with the amn Ydellas; the wound went bad and they took my leg at the knee. Hobbled around on a crude thing Endan had made for me for quite a long time. No more.”
“My lord, we’ll wait until night to go searching out this apparition.”
“The Veil is thinner at night. It has to do with the position of the moons and their influence on the flow of energies through the Avar, just as they pull the tides. That makes it easier for spirits to manifest at night, so we’ll have a better chance of finding what we seek. In the meantime, I have a few more questions.”
The lord returned to his seat, disappointed. By this point, Eldis had only just begun to pull himself up from his chair; he lowered himself back into it with a grunt.
“About what? I’ve told you most of what I know about the haunting. I am no scholar, I’m afraid.”
It took some effort not to look around at his haphazardly-arranged shelves in response. “That’s fine, my lord. My further questions were about people rather than the apparition.”
“Who in particular?”
“The painter, Ovaelo. I’m told he remains in the city, waiting to finish a portrait of your wife?”
“How’d you manage to convince him to stay?”
“With coin, of course. I’m paying his expenses until he can finish the painting or I decide to let him go. Which of those things happens is up to you, I suspect.”
“Well, I won’t allow him to continue to paint my wife while she is so afflicted, and you’ll have to rule him out as a suspect in these events before I even think of letting him leave.”
“I see. I’ll try to speak with him as soon as I can, then.” Aryden and Eldis shared a subtle smile with one another at that, the kind that said they knew something that they’d let me figure out. Not pertinent to my investigation—I wouldn’t have expected them to withhold that kind of information from me under the circumstances—but something about Ovaelo himself. I’d heard of him back home, of course. The phrase, “mad genius” had been bandied about.
“And what about Orren? I’m told he was also a servant here, but that he’s gone missing.”
“Missing is a relative term,” Eldis interjected.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It’s as likely that he simply left as that anything nefarious happened to him,” the seneschal explained. Aryden nodded agreement.
“He lost his father and grandfather when we had our most recent bout of the Red Maw,” Aryden said. “His grandfather’d been the patriarch of the im Varde clan; now it’s his uncle Daedys, the constable.”
“That alone is enough to make him leave?”
“By itself, no. But the young men of the town sometimes leave for the Sisters in search of adventure and glory. Fools.”
“I thought he held a position of honor here in your household, my lord.”
“I brought him in after his father’s death in hopes of finding a match for him as I had for Nilma. I try not to show favoritism between the families of Old Vaina and New, so it only seemed right. Besides, he’s a bright boy and would’ve made a fine retainer even if he hadn’t married well. Eldis was teaching him to read and to work numbers.”
“He had the talent to make a fine seneschal himself one day, if not the disposition,” Eldis added.
“Why’d you say that?” I followed.
“Nothing that’s not likely to change with time, but he’s the same problems every young man of ambition does—too much concern for himself, no patience, and too much interest in the fairer sex.”
“So you think it’s unlikely he has anything to do with this?”
“I don’t know where he’d get either the means or the motivation to undertake some supernatural feat. I’d begun to teach him to read, true, but he’d barely learned to sound out the words awkwardly and he had little to read aside from receipts and reports. Besides, he may be proud and vain, but I never thought him malicious,” the seneschal added. “Perhaps you could speak to his uncle about him. He might know something that we do not.”
“Perhaps you should go ahead and begin questioning these people while we wait for nightfall?” This from Aryden.
“I’ll know better what to ask once I’ve had a chance to observe the phenomenon. I’ll be best served today familiarizing myself with the castle grounds, getting a feel for the layout, seeing if any particular locations catch my attention.”
“Fine,” said the lord.
“Shall I show you to the places where the phantom has been encountered?” Eldis asked.
“Not yet. I’d rather not have that knowledge influence my observations.”
“Good. Get to it then, lord thaumaturge.”
Now Eldis rose from his chair. “I’ll show you to your room so that you have somewhere to put your belongings. You can start your exploration from there.”