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