I arrived late to the party but clean and in my finery. By now the festivities had grown loud, expanding to fill up every corner of the courtyard, and probably some of the darker places in the nearby towers of the inner wall as well.
Everywhere were masks in all manner of colors and materials, from subtle leather suggestions of demons and devils to gaudy metallic indications of the Firstborn. I caught Vesonna quickly, dressed in the colors of her house with a fine mask of blackened steel and gilt accents, not unlike well-crafted armor. The mask’s sculpture, tiny roses around delicate features, must have been the likeness of Samaradha, the Lady with dominion over the flora of the Avar and, daughter of the Firstborn Melqéa and Avariennë. She turned away from me when she recognized my full mask and I didn’t pursue. I couldn’t think of anything but time that might ease her embarrassment and anger, though I had no intention of saying anything to anyone that might cause her public shame, or even gossip.
I could hear plenty of gossip around me as I moved through the crowds. Given the general din of festivities, only disjointed and out-of-context words came to my ears, but I caught enough to discern that at least some of the talk revolved around my naked and bloody run through the castle. Naught to do about that but laugh with them. Except I couldn’t. The image of that face, too darkened by its hood and my collapsing eyesight to be made out as the person it belonged to tried to murder me, kept me from seeing the humor in the absurdity of what followed the attack.
Being surrounded by a sea of masked revelers, few of whom I could positively identify by some eccentricity of form, only worsened the sense of dread that grew within me. Glimpses I’d caught of naked but masked supplicants revering Vaina’s ancient resident spirit overlay with the sights of the party; the smell of smoke from a wood fire matched the smell of the cult’s bonfire. For a moment, I was back in those woods fleeing desperately from pursuers—the same who’d sent my assassin. I’d no doubt that some of whom moved within the crowd, easily identifying me while shrouded from my own searching.
As I wandered through the various clusters of folk gathered around this performer or that, a large man with a slight limp stepped in front of me. His beard, neatly combed, nevertheless splayed from under his mask given its size. He wore a metallic mask, extravagant in the thin metal leaves that protruded upward and all about from both sides, the entirety alchemically dyed green to give the impression of a wild man of the forest.
Gamven grabbed my arm, firmly but not aggressively, and pulled me to the side. “My lord,” he said, “My lord Aryden has asked me to talk to you immediately. Some of the servants told him they saw Vesonna enter your bathing room and, of course…”
“She did,” I admitted.
“My lord, after our adventures together we are like brothers, bonded in blood and fire. But I am bound to carry out my lord’s orders.”
He couldn’t see my expression under my mask, and I feared that put me at a disadvantage. But maybe not, for as much as he could read no sincerity, he could also see no tells of misdirection or dissembling. “You needn’t worry,” I told him, flatly, a small hole in the mask’s mouth allowing my voice to escape without being too muffled. “She remembered something of import from the library and foolishly rushed into the room to tell me. Nothing untoward occurred. She gave me the message and departed. Ask those same servants and they should tell you she wasn’t in the room long enough to do…anything they might have implied she may have. That’s gossip for you, half-truths and insinuations. The Lady Vesonna means well and knows her duty to her family. Besides, were she to dally with someone, it would not be me.”
Gamven smiled, showing his teeth. “That is a relief, my friend. Come, let’s get you a drink!”
I followed the green man to an area where a makeshift tavern had been arranged in the courtyard, several tables and benches arrayed before a long, thin table, behind which lay several squatting barrels of beer. Worvo, the owner of the Farmer’s Folly in Outer Vaina, tended the bar. Here, the servants and retainers of the amn Vainas and amn Estos seeking a more relaxed environment took shelter, casually swapping stories with one another while drinking copious amounts of their lords’ stocks.
Worvo smiled as we approached the erstwhile bar, filling two tankards and setting them on the table for us. “How goes it, my lord?” he asked.
“Well met, Master Worvo,” I responded. “We are making progress, and soon to have the matter resolved.”
“Excellent,” the tavernkeeper said.
Before he could say any more, Gamven interrupted. “I’m sorry, my friend, but Lord Iaren cannot stay; he’s due to be present amongst the higher-born guests.” He put an edge in the words “higher-born” that intimated some ambivalence about the meaning of those words. I agreed. “I just thought he could use a bit of Vaina’s finest beer before treading amongst the wolves.”
I raised the mug a bit before remembering the metal gate that barred my mouth. I lifted the mask back on my head enough to reach the lip of the tankard with my own, taking a swig of the hoppy, bitter beer, a hint of spices lingering like Vaina’s ghost after I’d swallowed. I raised the mug in salute to the barkeep; he nodded back, still smiling.
Gamven turned me gently, “And now your true task,” he said to me quietly as we walked.
I gasped sarcastically. “I’m to be more than one more pretty fencepost? More than a demonstration of your lord’s wealth and influence?”
“We all have our roles to play, my lord,” Gamven said in a tone suggesting the soldier’s sense of duty.
“What, exactly, is Aryden asking of me?”
“Your role is much like mine this evening,” the master-of-arms began. “You’re to stand watch so that nothing happens to interrupt the evening’s festivities—no uninvited guests, I mean.”
“I got it.”
“But, whereas I have the advantage of watching from afar, my lord desires that you also mingle with his distinguished guests. Being one of them, of course.”
We approached the area of the courtyard where the nobles sipped their wine, shared the latest gossip from courts afield, and danced to the tunes of a large ensemble of musicians—dancing both the more formal dances of court and alternatively capering and gamboling to the livelier songs of the common folk.
While servants and retainers were fewer in number here, not all had been given the night to celebrate for themselves. These moved mutely among their masters, anticipating needs and serving by knowledge of custom rather than by interrupting communications. Some downed the dregs of their lords’ wine as they removed old cups to bring fresh ones, others listened quietly and patiently to both the raucous banter and the whispered insinuations, searching them out for some intelligence that might be sold to an interested party for a little extra coin. Some even served faithfully and diligently, but these interested me less.
Some of the prominent folk of the town had joined the nobility with their own families. Mistress im Norrene in a silver gown with a black mask with horns and tendril like rivulets of leather-formed hair laughed at something said by a man whose dark mask had the tusks of a boar. In the flickering light of the lamps and torches, I could not tell whether the mask intended to be a boar or to mock the Blooded who called themselves the Rukhosi.
In a corner of the makeshift enclosure, another courtier, well-dressed but not so extravagantly as many of his fellows, watched sulkily, sipping long, considered swigs of his lord’s wine. A mask with real antlers and a sharp brow formed in dark, waxed leather concealed his face, but I knew him to be the constable Daedys by his demeanor. A guest at his lord’s celebrations, to be sure, but attendance required him to bear witness to a decline in his own family’s influence. A slight decline, in the great scheme of things, perhaps, as the slip only mattered relative to the prestige of the other non-noble magnate families in Vaina, but for a man of pride, the slightest loss of prestige may feel devastating.
But, the question remained: was it devastating enough to cause the im Vardi to turn on their lord and master? Had Orren been involved in such a plot? Had he somehow been foiled in whatever machinations he took part in but held a hatred so ingrained in him by his family that he refused to leave his vengeance even after death? It seemed a trite thing to me to keep one from the Path and Wheel, but different folk mete out their meaning differently than I. The bigger problem in my line of thought was the question of—if the preceding were true—why amn Vaina would keep the same secret, why not take more drastic action against the im Vardi? Why not strip them of all power to oppose him altogether? No, like all my theories so far, this seemed too simple. Neither Daedys nor amn Vaina knew the location of Orren’s body nor suspected him as the cause, or the lord would’ve never sent for me in the first place.
A change in tune from one of the more staid courtly dances to something livelier broke my reverie, particularly as a woman wearing an exquisite dress of ultramarine paired with a blue-painted mask that could only have meant to capture the essence of the Aenyr known as the Sapphire Queen took my hand from my side and dragged me into nearby the crowd of dancers, her grip hard enough to nearly pull me off my balance and onto my face. I dropped and forgot the mug that Worvo had given me as I swept forward, but I’d emptied it anyway.
We swung for a moment with the dance, those standing or sitting around us to talk or drink becoming a blur as I struggled to keep up with unknown steps, the frenetic need to acquit myself well overcoming my discomfort at the attention dancing always seemed to call to me—and not because of my skill.
Only when the woman laughed did I realize her for Vitella amn Esto. Her breath was hot and sweet with wine. Given her normal proclivity for drink and that the wedding of a younger relative accentuated her age (though I believed her to be only a year or two older than me) and her single status. As her dress twirled with her movements—precise and graceful despite the wine—I caught a glimpse of Ilmarion flowers sewn within the folds, perhaps only visible with activity as vigorous as dancing. I would’ve stopped to ponder this had not the rhythm required me to move quickly, lest I be bludgeoned with flailing arm or leg or, worse still, make obvious the many minor blunders and missteps I made in attempting to keep up with the Lady Vitella.
When the musicians paused momentarily to adjust their instruments, the lady showed sympathy for me and led me away from the other dancers. “Well, that was quite amusing, my lord,” she smiled and winked, sliding past me to greet some other partygoer she’d only just recognized.
Across the other side of the space made for dancing, Daedys watched dispassionately, the distance too great to tell if his eyes fell upon me or only my general vicinity. Ignoring him, my eyes fell on the betrothed, distanced somewhat from the rest of the group, talking with one another sweetly and laughing, he in a mask of bronze fire, a perfectly circular sun over the forehead with what I imagined were chariot horses trailing away from the star, she in a mask dyed with various shades of blue accentuated by engraved clouds painted white. Ialos and Qatemë, the original Lord of Fire, for whom the larger of our suns had been named; she the Lady of Sky, his lover. A fitting metaphor, I supposed.
I watched them until Lorent amn Esto took his leave of his bride-to-be for a moment, perhaps to consult with family or simply to find another glass of wine. With Nilma left alone, I swept in to take the opportunity for another conversation.
Her disdain—disgust, really—at seeing me became apparent as her mouth twisted between her mask, which I noticed had been alchemically treated to give the illusion of the clouds moving across it as she turned her head back and forth.
“I’ve nothing to say to you,” she said. “Leave me alone to celebrate.”
“But I have things to say to you,” I told her, my voice perhaps more ominous from behind the mask. “You lied to me.”
That pricked her sufficiently; she turned toward me quickly, with a, “How dare you!”
I smiled, though she couldn’t see it. “You’ll make quite the lady, with a temper like that,” I taunted.
“You will not speak to me that way!” she continued.
Turning to face her, I stared with the static expression of the mask. “Do you deny it?”
“My lady, I’m not hear to threaten or cajole you. I have no desire to upset you or to disturb the joy that is due to you upon your nuptials.”
“Then why do you call me a liar to my face?”
“Because I am polite enough not to do it behind your back. And I need your attention. I mean to cause no offense, but I do need your help.”
“You told me you didn’t know Orren when we first spoke. We both know that’s not true. I need you to tell me what you do know about him.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to find Lorent, grinning under his mask, reaching out and grasping me with the foolish bravery of youth. “Master thaumaturge—” he said before I cut him off.
“Lord thaumaturge,” I said, brusquely swiping his hand away.
“You appear to be bothering my bride,” he said, smile still wide.
I looked back to Nilma in response. She stared blankly at us, noncommittally.
Lorent took it as sign enough he was in the right. “You should go,” he commanded.
For a brief moment, I considered my options. I wore no weapons—nor would they have done me in good if I had, save to find me more trouble. Lorent had a dagger at his side. His hand did not rest upon the grip, but it was balled at his hip just nearby. For the same reason a direct escalation in confrontation would only worsen things, any use of the Art would have the same effect if detected. Behind Lorent, the lords Aryden and Issano watched over the scene, silent gargoyles threatening to pounce. “My lord,” I said, finally, “I have need only to ask a few questions and I’ll excuse myself from your presence.”
“You will do that now,” he said, his grinning face begging to be slapped hard enough to tear the mask from it.
“That is not how you get what you want, little lordling,” I said loud enough to draw the attention of those nearby, including the two lords. “Why command when you can ask nicely?”
“Because my words carry the weight of a man of honor. They always demand satisfaction.”
“Do not threaten someone unless you mean to do them violence, for a person of honor and courage is likely to oblige your demand for blood all too quickly.”
“And what, you’re a man of honor,” he asked, mockingly.
I turned away from him, to the crowd of nobles, retainers and hangers-on. “Honor is such a gaudy accessory,” I said. “These clothes are a gift from our mutual host. Aside from them, I have nothing to wear honor with! Alas!”
Some laughs in the crowd.
“So you’re a coward then?”
I turned back to him with a flourish, adopting the stance of the fencer. He startled and nearly drew his weapon. I took a fencer’s step forward, holding some invisible blade before shifting my mask’s gaze between my empty hand and the upstart lordling, as if only now realizing that I was unarmed. More laughter.
“I will not kill you with wit, my lord, only bleed you a little. And we can play at courage. I will cut you with my words, bit by bit, and we shall see when such injuries require you to strike with steel. Then we shall see your courage!”
More laughter now, and this no longer at my antics, but at my target. Derisive. Offensive.
“How dare you speak to me with such insolence, on such an occasion?” the lordling said, spitting before me as if throwing down a gauntlet.
Now I was glad for the mask that concealed all of my face. “On the one hand you say I am a coward, on the other you accuse me of being over-daring. How can such qualities exist in the same man?”
“Perhaps I should cut you open and see,” the young man threatened.
“There. There,” I said. “That’s it. You’ve confused a readiness for violence with courage and honor. They are not the same.”
“They are related,” he protested. “That’s the essence of vendetta. But I know that’s something you do not understand, Iaren amn Ennoc.”
He got the better of me, and my controlled mockery fell away into a purer scorn. “You know nothing of vendetta, lordling, as you know so little of the rest of the world. Live among folk who have no time to worry about ‘honor’ and ‘respect’ if they are to survive and you might see how mistaken you are. Although, since this marriage is intended to rescue you from such a fate, I imagine you’ll continue to live in ignorance.”
That strike cut him deep, as I’d promised, but deeper than I’d actually intended. The light of the alchemical lamps glinted off of the short length of his dagger’s blade as he pulled it slightly from its sheath before thinking the better of it and pushing the weapon back home.
Before either of us could further spar, Aryden’s hand had grasped my upper arm. To the others it appeared a friendly gesture to lead a friend to new introductions, but I felt the tips of his fingers push deep into the muscle. “Pardon Lord amn Ennoc,” he told the lordling. “He has been preoccupied with his work of late and may not be pleasant company.”
“No,” I agreed, adding nothing.
As my employer pulled me away from the crowd, which quickly turned back to the music and dancing, he scolded, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“You told me I had to be here,” I returned, petulantly.
“To prevent any unseemly event from disturbing festivities, not to cause one!”
“I can do that from elsewhere.”
“Then perhaps you should. Wait a moment for propriety’s sake and then remove yourself to the keep. You can keep your watch for our unwanted guest from there.”
Aryden stopped to give some quiet command to Gamven before he returned to his conversations with the Lord amn Esto, and the master-of-arms looked at me with a dubious expression as he received his orders, hesitating slightly before leaving the celebration.
Before I could follow, however, the Sapphire Queen stepped before me again, smiling that mischievous smile of her. “That was even more amusing,” she said before I could react.
“Really?” I managed. “I figured you’d be as upset with me as everyone else.”
“On the contrary.” She briefly paused for another sip of wine. “It’s nice to see the little shit put in his place for once. As you pointed out, this is his destiny, and because of its importance to our family, he’s been coddled. He’s seen little of the world as you suggest, certainly not enough to provide even a modicum of humility, some of which even we highborns need, no?”
“Yes. And I’m glad, once again, to have provided you some amusement.”
She smiled, looked into her empty cup, and turned away. Daedys, still sulking at the edge of the celebration, continued to watch over me, and I remembered that others might be doing the same. Nevertheless, I could not remain without further infuriating the man who had brought me here, and my welcome had worn quite thin as it were. I ducked away.
My pace quickened as progressed through the courtyard, ignoring the mummery and other entertainments and the crowds gathered round them in favor of a speedy return. I’d been safer in the crowd of Aryden’s most esteemed guests, where I knew at least some of those present not to be members of the Vaina cult. But here, in the darkness between localized celebrations, I felt vulnerable, remembering at once fleeing in the forest under a similar cover of night and my brief confrontation with the would-be robbers on my way into town.
Perhaps that last thought had some unintended prescience to it, for I found three men standing in my line of travel, just far enough from the nearest lanterns that few would notice their loitering—if they could have been seen at all. I stopped a good distance from them, enough that I might have time for at least one defensive sorcery before they were upon me. I’d not expected the cult—if that were the source of the evening’s previous assassin—to arrange another attempt quite so quickly—or so brazenly.
Each of the figures was appropriately masked, the shapes of their disguises seeming to take the form of woodland creatures, though I couldn’t be sure in the dark and distance. Their clothing had the cut and fashion of servingmen, though I could tell neither the status nor identity of their master. They wore no weapons, but I had little doubt that they had some sharp and insidious blades hidden about their persons.
The lead figure, the collar of his long jacket pulled up to conceal the lower half of his face, raised an open hand in a gesture that either warned me to stop (which I already had) or intended to signal peaceful intent. “We wish you no harm, Lord Thaumaturge. Only to deliver a message.”
I was not ready to believe them, but neither had I any intent to escalate the matter given the circumstances. “And what’s that?”
“Our master wishes no quarrel with you, Iaren amn Ennoc. We wish no quarrel with you.”
“It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it? One of yours did try to kill me, after all.”
“One of ours, but not with our master’s blessing.”
“Dissension in the ranks, huh? That’s going to make staying hidden difficult.”
“Let us to worry about that. Provided you do not meddle in our affairs, we will leave you to yours.”
“I can’t promise that. I have a job to do.”
“Orren’s death has nothing to do with us.”
“And I’m supposed to just trust you on that? Was he a part of your…faction?”
The man paused for a moment. “He was. But not a part of our plans. You are not a part of our plans, either, but if you become entangled in them, we must needs be enemies. That is not what our master wants. Our master is willing to offer something of great value to you if you will stand aside.”
“And what is that?”
“Knowledge. There are many secrets one such as our master has access to that you may not discover in a lifetime.”
“And what, exactly, am I being asked to do?”
“You will know our master’s intent when it is revealed. There will be a secret to keep, but it will not prevent you from pursuing your own task. Our master might even assist with the completion of that task. And we all may go about our ways enriched, and friends.”
More riddles, I thought to myself. “I’m not agreeing to anything,” I said. “Not in advance.”
“Nor would we ask you to,” the man said. “We mean only to bring an offer of peace between us and to communicate our intentions to you. You will do as you see best. We hope that it will leave us friends and not enemies.”
The messenger’s outstretched hand turned to wave his comrades to follow and they withdrew into the darker recesses of the courtyard as I continued to the entrance of the keep, where Gamven waited for me.
“My lord has asked me to post guards at your chamber,” the master-of-arms said bluntly as he followed just behind me to my quarters. “After the earlier attack on you, he thought it might be wise to provide you with some additional protection.”
“And all the better to keep me in line as well, huh?” I replied.
Gamven said nothing. I took that to mean that he respected me well enough not to lie to me and thought that we were, indeed, friends. I understood his adherence to his duties and wished to cause him no trouble for his loyalty or to test our friendship against that loyalty. That would only cause him pain, and I would lose all the same.
Two men of Gamven’s guard flanked the door to my room, wearing the same sort of breastplate and gambeson Errys had when I met her. A pang of regret washed across me, but I pushed it aside just as I pushed open the door to my chamber. Despite the presence of my guardians, my night had not yet ended.