Vesonna led me across the ramparts, through the back of the courtyard, into the keep, and down hallways so that we appeared in the great hall discretely, as if we’d been there waiting the entire time.
The guests and Lord amn Vaina’s folk mingled, enjoying wine and beer along with those stronger spirits a few had brought for themselves. Seats at the trestle tables had not yet been taken, else we’d have attracted everyone’s attention by our entrance. Servants darted in between the clusters of gathered celebrants, the prominent folk of Vaina mingling with the nobility and magnates of Esto on rare occasion, moving back and forth between kitchens and tables to prepare the initial feast. Beeswax candles lit the hall, providing clean light and a subtle scent of honey that coalesced with the smells of the various dishes, making my mouth water.
I turned to find that Vesonna had already left might side; I’d never even felt her hand slip from mine so slight was its grasp in the first place. A good thing, too, for I had no desire for the conversations that would inevitably follow had someone observed us holding hands—especially given how little the gesture actually meant.
Finding some wine for myself became the first task at hand. This didn’t take long, because, before I’d even really collected and oriented myself, the Lords Aryden and Issano stood before me. Issano’s squires had doffed his armor before he joined the feast, leaving him dressed in extravagant attire in his family’s colors. If the rumors proved true, and I had no reason to doubt them, such a display represented a precarious risk on Issano amn Esto’s part, for if he could scarce afford to let the im Valladyni money fall through his hands before, he could not at all now after the expenditures of gauche (but expected) display for the impending wedding. This was only the welcome feast, after all; his wedding attire would have to exceed even the sumptuousness of his current display.
Aryden extended to me a hand holding a pewter goblet filled with a semi-sweet white wine of the kinds grown in Aedys and Velmys to the east. The cup itself was cold to the touch; both it and the wine must have come from the castle’s ice house, a luxury facilitated by relative proximity to the Tursa Elvor, the only prominent mountains in the islands the Sisters call home. Ice from the high places there can be transported quickly by river, reaching even Ilessa and the other Sisters intact without the intervention of the subtle art—though practitioners in the cities can create ice without the hassle of transportation as well.
Issano spoke as I took the cup from Aryden. “A pleasure to meet you, Lord amn Ennoc. I am so sorry to hear about your family. I know nothing of the truth of the allegations against your father, but no noble line should end as ignominiously as yours did.”
“It hasn’t. Not yet,” I told him. I’m not sure why I said it, I didn’t think I cared about such things.
“And you’ve taken on a trade,” he continued. “That’s quite intriguing. Had you ever considered mercenary work? There’s many a young nobleman who’s restored his family’s fortune and glory through feats of arms.”
“If only I had such an extravagant suit of armor as yours, and without a scratch upon it!” I retorted. I may not be a killer of men, but I have no qualms about murdering an ego.
Aryden intervened. “As you know, Issano, Iaren has been investigating our little spirit. He can tell you more about the situation,” he eyed me purposefully to communicate his desires in my response, though there was no need.
“A relatively minor thing,” I began, adopting the air of the detached expert, the scholar of history or the lecturer of arcana. “Restless spirits and the like are perhaps commoner than many think, for those unfortunately afflicted often prefer not to make their problems known, for fear of the stigma that attaches to such things. Here, though, we have just that. I’ve seen no evidence of a curse or anything far reaching enough to cause great concern.” The last was an outright lie. Every hour spent here, every further conversation, every piece of the puzzle made me surer and surer that much more was going on here than I was being told, that Orren’s predations constituted more than a cosmic mistake.
“But what about Lady Aevala?” Issano asked, pressing the issue.
Now I shot a look to Aryden, though I hoped mine proved subtler than Lord amn Esto’s. “Unfortunate happenstance, but not causation. I don’t see any indication that the spirit and the Lady amn Vaina are connected in any way.” A half-truth this time. I’d found only anecdotal evidence of some connection between the lady and the phantom, nothing decisive, but my intuition prevented me from rejecting the suspicion. The nature of the connection eluded, but not a growing conviction of its existence, proof or no.
“A natural illness, then?” amn Esto dubiously inquired. He’d been corresponding with Vitella, to be sure, so his suspicions were no doubt well-founded.
“You have nothing to worry about,” I assured him.
“Of course not! I’m not staying in the castle!”
My turn to look to Aryden for an answer.
“We’ve made comfortable accommodations for the amn Esti in a house in the Old Town, so that they may have their privacy,” the Lord amn Vaina stated.
So they don’t see anything you don’t want them to, I thought. “Of course,” I said and smiled. I took a swig of the wine to wash the taste of deceit from my mouth. It didn’t work.
Thankfully, Aryden now led Issano away from me. I’d completed the task he needed me for and now best I not be involved in the conversation lest it remain focused on ghost, curses, witches and the like. This wasn’t the first time that a job had involved my providing cover for my employer, but that didn’t mean I liked it. I stood alone and awkward for a time, wondering when and how I might make my escape to continue my investigation. The impending danger of intruding upon a cult to a nature spirit didn’t sit quite well with me and I found that I had little appetite, but the excitement of the prospect also energized me strangely.
On the high table, Nilma had already been seated with Lorent; the two flirted and played with one another, each apparently happy (and no doubt relieved) with the reality of their intended. They alone occupied the table; everyone else remained standing, moving from one group to another as need or desire suited, enjoying the informality that existed until the Lord of the house called for everyone to sit, when station and importance became painstakingly clear. For now, though, the town’s potentates could flirt with the women of house amn Esto, the merchant wives could gossip with one another and gawk at the young men in the amn Esto retinue, and the retainers of each house could pursue the servants of the other, setting up those late-night trysts and other dalliances that often punctuate events such as this one.
I saw Vitella approaching from the corner of my eye, new immediately that she’d set me for her prey, and turned to face her. “So, what did you tell my uncle, Lord Thaumaturge?”
I said nothing for a moment, trying to read the expression on her face.
“Oh, don’t worry,” she smiled. “I haven’t told him much; he’ll believe whatever you told him. Truth be told, my cousin is charming, but a dolt—I’ll not be the reason this prospect falls through for our family. Besides, if there were some curse to be caught here, I’d have it already, and I still haven’t seen the damned spirit with my own eyes!” Her words slurred ever so slightly as she spoke; she’d been partaking for some time before the start of the festivities (and now that I thought about it, I realized that I hadn’t observed her in the group during the earlier formalities) but held herself as one long-accustomed to prodigious drinking.
“I told him he doesn’t need to be worried.”
“But does the Lady Aevala?”
I said nothing.
“I see,” she returned, smiling that damnable smile of amused knowing. “Well, tell me of the day’s events. I am fascinated by your process.”
Behind her, wedged in the corner of the hall and dispassionately observing all that went on, I spied the historian Naemur. With a half-hearted, “pardon, my lady,” I brushed past my inquisitor and made my way to him. The others gathered had given Naemur a wide berth, lest they be drawn into one of his dry lectures or random musings. This played to my advantage, as I’d hoped for a private conversation with him.
I set my chalice—by now empty—on one of the tables as I passed by, having decided I’d ought to keep a clear head for my later expedition, so I reached the historian empty-handed and a little unsure how to occupy myself as we spoke.
“My Lord amn Ennoc,” he said, smiling, as I came near, evidently excited to have someone to talk to after all.
“Naemur,” I returned with a shallow nod of the head. “I’ve got some questions for you about Vaina.”
“Do you?” His eyes lit up as he spoke.
“Indeed. But they are of a delicate nature and I must be assured of your discretion.”
“My lord, the first thing a decent historian learns is what not to write—but to remember!”
“Very good.” I admit that I swept my head to both sides behind me to ensure that none had given us attention before I pressed my questions. Satisfied, I began. “Tell me about the factions with influence over Vaina.”
“Other than the amn Vaini? You mean the families of note? The Valladyni of course,” he said, sweeping a hand to the gathering behind me, “and the Osi, the Vardi, the Norreni, the im Darqosi? The town is largely split between the mercantile interests of the Old Town and the pastoral interests of the New Town—”
“No, not that, exactly,” I interrupted. “Are there any other powerful or influential groups? Crafting guilds, perhaps?”
“Guilds? No, not in Vaina. The merchant families’ relationships with the craftsmen govern those businesses, and there’s enough goodwill between the two sides that those who make have seen no benefit in forming an organization to represent their mutual interests against the merchants. I’m told the im Osi instigated for such at one point, but the im Darqosi and im Valladyni—perhaps under amn Vaina influence—preempted the strategem by providing new concessions to the tradesmen. Those tradesmen represent the influence of Old Town extending into New Vaina, much to the chagrin of the magnates there, I’m sure.”
“What about Barro’s power, the Temple influence?”
“Barro has influence over the attitudes of folk, but that’s about where it ends. He’s so allied to Lord amn Vaina that his influence belongs to the lord, in effect.”
“Falla or her mother?”
“From what I gather, the amn Vaini have tolerated that family with calculated purpose. The threat of violence and retribution for overstepping their bounds kept the mother in check, as it now does for the daughter. They provide a service to the amn Vaini, after all, giving some succor to folk against common ailments, freeing up the amn Vaina resources and wealth for other things. I’m told that the previous generation of the amn Vaini even consulted with Falla’s mother themselves from time to time.”
“Have you come across any groups that may not be well known in how they exercise their influence, even to the folk of Vaina themselves?”
“What do you mean, Lord Iaren? Conspiracies? Plots? Intrigue? In the past, perhaps, but not since the amn Vaini set up the current positions of the families in the Old and New Towns.”
I hesitate to continue the questioning, as freely as he spoke with me I rather doubted his ability to keep any confidence, his pedantry easily overcoming any desire to hold something back. I attempted to skirt the issue once more. “Have you any idea why Vaina seems to have been spared those common calamities that have afflicted its neighbors from time to time? Pestilence, famine, disaster?”
“Well, they have recently had a visit from the Red Maw, haven’t they?” he rebuffed.
“Such a small one hardly counts in the face of what a town of this size must usually face, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yes, I suppose.”
“You suspect some Otherworldly influence then?” he asked.
“I hadn’t much thought about it, I’m afraid.”
A lie. Any university lecturer on history worth her salt would constantly remind students to consider and include the influences of the Subtle Art, the Firstborn, spirits and other preternatural phenomena upon course of events; I doubted that Naemur would suddenly forget such a key component of the scholarly approach. But, was it a lie that mattered?
“Come now,” I tried in my best sympathetic voice, “You’ve not thought of arcane or spiritual influences over Vaina even since my arrival?”
“Well, I’ve speculated somewhat, but I’d rather see what happens and then get the facts from you, you see?”
“An admirable approach, I suppose. But present circumstances haven’t dredged anything to mind from the town’s past?”
“No, my lord. I am sorry.”
I had no recourse but to accept his recalcitrance; the cost of any coercive measure to press the issue further would be far too dear, no matter the information I might recover. I’d have to try another approach and return to Naemur only as a last resort.
It never sat well with me to leave a potential source of knowledge less than fully-tapped, but I’d been forced to accustom myself to such wisdom in the face of social and political realities. In Ilessa, patrons, protectors and networks of influence are far better armor than any piece of steel or ward of the Art; often it’s not about the ability to stop the harm altogether, but simply making the debt the injury accrues too heavy to make all but the most foolish unwilling to accept the consequences of attacking you. Working for both the Coin Lords and the Council of Ten had put me in situations where I could ill afford to take the direct approach because of a person’s status or influence, and I’d learned to adapt.
I spent the rest of the meal looking for an opening to leave without attracting attention—not least of which because, if this cult of Falla’s were real, there was a possibility that someone in the room could be affiliated with it. My escape required little, in the end.
Aryden had really only wanted my presence for the brief assurances I’d given Lord amn Esto and little more. I was seated at the lord’s table, yes, but at the last seat on an end, limiting those with whom I could speak—and those who might speak with me—as thoroughly as possible. On my left, Eldis, whose aged ears left him mostly unable to hear any conversation at all with the general din of merriment and jokemaking that had filled the hall from floor to beam. Across from me, Naemur, who by now was regaling no one in particular with tales of the Cantic Empire. Next to him sat Gamven, quiet and stern.
Whether he was still mourning the loss of his compatriots—for which none could blame him—or maintained a silent vigil against unexpected threats to his master, I couldn’t tell.
I requested that one of the servants bring me water without making my choice of beverage obvious to anyone else, slipping one of the coins Aryden had given me as gratuity for the favor. I counted each time one of my neighbors had his glass filled again, waited until convinced that they’d given leave to the majority of their senses and memory for the remainder of the night. Gamven barely ate, nor drank much, but the intensity of his lack of focus on me left me assured that he would miss me no more than the others seated near me.
Finally, Aryden stood and wobbled slightly before calling for music and dancing, words which summoned players as if from thin air, the sound of lute and viol in turn calling the happily-inebriated to mutual amusement as they collectively stumbled through popular dances, all the while politely ignoring each other’s glaring mistakes and missteps. The commotion offered plenty of cover as I snuck through one of the hall’s side doors and made my way quietly back to my room, encountering a single patrolling guardsman as I navigated the lamplit corridors.
Once in my chambers, I looked from my window at the moons, Nyryne and Annyn, the former whitish-gray, the latter its pale red, stood near apex in the sky. If whatever ritualistic gathering of this cult had not already begun, it would soon. I needed to move quickly. I recovered my backpack from the chest at the foot of the bed, removed the rings, the iron key and brass bell from it, and replaced the rest. Tucking these into one of the pouches on my belt, I left the chamber and returned to empty halls.
I met no other soul as I exited the keep through the most expedient route that avoided the main hall and those areas closest to it. The courtyard still bristled with life—servants completing nightly duties, retainers who’d tired of the festivities or had been worn down by their recent journey, revelers who’d retreated to any available dark space to engage in more intimate cavorting. None of these had any care for me and I ignored them as well.
Someone had brought beer to the guards at the mighty gatehouse in the castle’s inner wall; I could hear the sounds of laughter and tavern singing from every loophole or murder slot built into the towers flanking the great doors. The two guardsmen assigned to the inside of the door grumbled to one another, upset to be working while their fellows played, no doubt. They stopped their gripes to one another as I approached, apparently thankful for the distraction—any distraction—that might speed the passage of time.
The man on the left, a younger man with the beginnings of a downy, tawny beard, stepped forward, his polearm still leaning backwards against his shoulder at a relaxed angle. “My lord,” he said, “out late are we?”
“My business for your lord does not wait for the convenience of day, I’m afraid. I need to visit the New Town.”
The older man, grown slightly portly and clean-shaven, nodded in response to the boy’s questioning glance at him, sending the younger guardsman to unfasten the bars and locks securing the sally port in the left of the heavy gatehouse doors. “May I ask your business in the New Town at this hour?” the veteran asked.
“Very well, my lord. Should we expect your return before day?”
“I’ll let the boys know to expect you then,” he offered.
I thanked him and passed through the now-open door into the Old Town, where quiet streets livened only by the sound of distant steps of lonely watchmen on patrol waited. The journey to the outer wall between the Old Town and the New passed quickly, my pace enlivened by the prospect of encountering a free spirit in its own demesne—though it should have perhaps been slowed with caution and trepidation. I’ll admit to being curiouser than I am brave, but foolishness and bravery are sometimes a distinction without a difference.
My passage through the gate in the outer wall transpired much as the previous—the watchmen offered tentative resistance and inquiry when I demanded egress but quickly acquiesced. The New Town felt livelier than the Old, most of its residents uninvited to the castle feast and going about their own nighttime festivities—perhaps a subtle protest of those enjoyed by the highborn up the hill. A few folk, having had their fill at Worvo’s inn or some other tavern, strolled or stumbled home, some singing or humming, others grousing to themselves, others silent in their meandering. I nodded to some of those I passed, that subtle nod of acknowledgment but tacit agreement to never make mention of the meeting, and continued on my way until I came to the dirt path leaving town.