Things Unseen, Chapter 41

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

Muddy water and putrefaction pooled around Orren’s corpse on the iron slab where it had been placed in the center of Endan’s infimary. Glassy eyed, rotting face frozen in an expression of surprise and fear, the young man—what had been the young man—lay on its back, staring upward at nothing.

Examining it through a pair of glasses fixed with additional rotating lenses of various magnifying powers, occasionally shifting between them, the doctor mumbled to himself. At regular intervals, he shifted to the lit lectern set nearby and scrawled a line or two of notes.

I watched silently, hoping that his observations might supplement my own and not wanting to skew his conclusions with my own thoughts. Most doctors would have had little useful knowledge in ascertaining details of death from a corpse. There purview was to save the living, of course, and except for the occasional dissection of cadavers for purposes of physiological speculation, few had anything to do with a body once the spirit had left it. But Endan had been a barber-surgeon as much as a doctor, a military medic who’d no doubt seen as much death as life. I imagined that he’d often been forced into that worst of triages: determining who might still be saved and leaving those beyond help to the business of dying. Beyond that, I expected that he’d walked many battlefields after the fact, his medical knowledge allowing insights into the observed processes of decay and decomposition that his fellows from the university had never experienced.

“Lord thaumaturge,” he said, looking up from a bout of his notes.

“Iaren’s fine, doctor,” I told him.

“Yes. My lord has informed me that we are not to believe the outcry of the errant spirit that appeared o’er the amn Esto wedding and to discount Nilma as the killer. I’m not sure I received all of the details, but Lord Aryden seemed to indicate that the spirit meant to exact an unrelated vengeance in making such a claim. He said that you’d want as thorough an inspection of the body as possible in hopes of finding the true killer, since our victim seems not to be so forthcoming. I’m told he was pulled out of a ditch in the far fields.”

“That’s correct.”

“And when you encountered him, he was exposed? His body, I mean.”

“Partially. From about the waist up.”

“He’d been fully buried originally. Not deeply, mind you. But someone had taken the time to hide the body.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

With the edge of a small knife, he pointed to a yellowed, waxy patch of flesh exposed in the young man’s torso. “See that?” he asked. “Corpse wax, it’s called. You see it when a body is submerged. Swamps and the like. When it isn’t exposed to the air, otherwise—” he pointed to the less stable viscera nearby the preserved spot, which seemed to be slowly flowing even now, “you get that kind of liquefying rot. He didn’t stay buried long. That’s no surprise in one of those ditches running between fields, where the rains will make mud of the earth and then the suns will dry it back out until it cracks and powders. A body remains buoyant for some time after death, so each of those rains typically pushes it back to the surface, bit by bit. One of many reasons we don’t bury our dead.”

“Hmm,” I responded. “So whoever buried him there either didn’t know better or wanted the body to be found.”

“I agree,” Endan said, marking the observation amongst his notes. “A sign of remorse, perhaps? The killer needed time to distance himself—or herself—from suspicion but hoped that the body would ultimately receive its last rites? Perhaps the killer feared that he would become a restless spirit without them? Who does that remind us of?”

“That could be anyone, Endan. Ask any person in Vaina and I bet they can tell you a story about restless spirits and vengeful ghosts. Besides, I expect that whoever did this had some experience with violence, perhaps a history of military service.”

Endan paused a moment to think about it. “Perhaps. The depth and width of the slice to poor Orren’s throat indicates strength if not skill. The cut is clean at the edges; there was no hesitation in making it. One fell sweep of the hand. Our killer either had experience in such an act or had determined the action well before-hand. This would have been a bloody-handed thing, though its time in the ditch has washed the body somewhat, so an experienced—or clever—killer would have stood behind when it happened.” He waved the knife over the boy’s neck in mimicry of the action.

“I had the same thought.”

“I’d say at first that it reminds me of a scout silencing a sentry, but there’s something of the butcher’s trade in it, too,” the doctor added.

“How so?”

“The boy’s head was jerked hard enough to dislocate the vertebrae. This is unlikely to have happened on its own, but with such a deep cut destroying much of the supportive tissue around it, the act would require violence of execution but not too much in the way of strength. It suggests that the killer pulled Orren’s head back to expose the throat but pushed it forward after finishing the slice. Like a butcher holds a goat’s or a pig’s head if it hasn’t been strung up, to let the blood flow freely and away from the butcher himself. To exsanguinate the creature. A soldier acting on habit would have let the body fall, moved on to the next task at hand, more likely.”

“But the boy was exsanguinated?”

“Most definitely. If he’d not been soon after the attack, some of the blood would have congealed in the body, but I’ve found none. The movement of the blood through the severed arteries would have accomplished bleeding him out at first, but at some point the boy may have needed to be hoisted by the legs to let gravity do the rest.”

“The killer knew he’d be transporting the body somewhere and didn’t want to leave a trail behind him.”

“Yes,” Endan nodded. “I believe so.”

“Then either multiple people had to have been involved or everything in the ambush had to be perfectly arranged beforehand.”

“With this much decay, it’s difficult to tell, but I’m not sure I see any signs of struggle. He was a calf to the slaughter. Quick and nothing to be done once the knife had struck. At least, that’s how it looks.”

“Then the boy definitely knew the killer, had some comfort around him or her. Had his guard down.”

“Or the killer used the Art on him,” Endan said, again writing the thought into the leather-bound notebook resting on his lectern. “Would you be able to detect that, lord thaumaturge?”

“This far after the fact? No. Every working leaves a lingering presence, one that can be read like a signature for those with the skill and enough knowledge of the practitioner. But they fade, some quicker than others. Only the most powerful linger more than a few days or weeks.”

“Too bad,” Endan mused. “Between you and I, we speak freely. But officially, the witch Falla did this, my lord says. I had hoped that the official and the unofficial might be one and the same.”

“They are not, I’m afraid,” I told him.

“I see. Well then, I hope you find justice for the boy, since I cannot.”

I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t there for that. But it didn’t matter.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 40

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

“What do you mean, you’ve arrested Falla?” I asked, incredulous, as I walked alongside Aryden’s horse back to the castle.

“We came across Barro as we were searching for Nilma. He told us that she was responsible for summoning the spirit that attacked the wedding, posing as Orren, so I sent Gamven, Edanu, and some of my other men to seize her and take her to the castle as well.”

I almost laughed at the paradox I’d fallen into. To have much chance at saving Falla, I’d have to reveal the existence of the cult—and I’d promised the witch I wouldn’t do that. I hoped I could be persuasive.

We trudged along the narrow ridges at the edge of the network of ditches and fields that splayed outward from Vaina. The mounted retinue moved slowly so that I could keep up. Nilma had been tied at the hands and placed in the saddle in front of one of Aryden’s riders, so she had the luxury, at least, of not slogging through the mud. I doubt she much appreciated it.

“Lord Aryden, that’s simply not true. Falla’s appearance saved Barro, Daedys and I from the spirit, allowed me to bind it so that it will trouble you no further. She sang an ancient song that blunted the spirit’s power, turned away the assaults of its minions. The very forest seemed to be at its command.”

“Isn’t that just evidence that she had power and command over the spirit in the first place?” he asked.

“No, not with a song of that kind of Power.”

“A song? Hah, you’re basing this on the fact that she sings a lovely tune?”

“Aryden,” I began, my tone perhaps a little condescending, which I blamed on weariness more than exasperation with the situation at hand. “Songs like that are rare indeed, most of them lost, and, of those that remain, few know how to sing them so that they have the intended effect. These were songs created by ancient magi, the Aenyr themselves or the first practitioners after the fall of their kingdom, the most capable magi of Cantos or Gwaenthyr.”

“Then how does a hedge witch have such knowledge, eh?”

“I don’t have an answer to that.”

“Well, something else we can ask her when we put her to the question.”

“My lord!” I pleaded. “She is innocent.”

“No one is innocent, lord thaumaturge. You of all people should know that.”

All too well, I thought. “Perhaps, but she is innocent in this.”

“But not innocent,” Aryden accentuated. “I should have been rid of her long ago anyway. She is a corrupter of the people of Vaina.”

That was the spirit, I wanted to say, but if I did, Barro would only have more for his pyres. “Then send her away. Let her go to the Sisters where she’ll trouble you no more.”
The Lord amn Vaina waved for his retinue to go on without us; they entered into a trot that carried threw up little clods of mud behind, making distance from us quickly.

“Are you sure that Nilma is innocent?” the lord asked me.

“Of Orren’s murder? Yes.”

“Good. But if she is innocent, someone else must be guilty. The amn Esti must have an explanation for today’s events that satisfies them, puts them at ease, and allows the wedding to continue. We will give them one.”

“So you’ll kill an innocent person to preserve your plans?” I asked, foolishly.

He looked at me with hard eyes. Only then did I truly understand that Lord Aryden amn Vaina was no mere entitled lordling used to getting his way. He was a nobleman of the old kind: ruthless, dedicated to his family, willing to do anything to preserve or expand the ancestral power. “Would you rather it be you, Iaren amn Ennoc? Perhaps under other circumstances, your title would protect you, but you have no family for a vendetta, and I don’t suspect that many would question your guilt in the first place. You haven’t made many friends here, have you?”

His hand had moved close to where he’d tucked the wheelock pistol into his belt, not resting upon it, but close enough that he’d have it quick to hand if need be.

“You need the amn Esto wedding to secure Vesonna’s wedding to Meradhvor, don’t you?” I asked.

“I do,” he said, matter-of-fact.

“Why so fixed on Meradhvor?”

“The Artificer Houses are the future, Iaren. Surely you know that.”

“And they want your lands. Why?”

“What does it matter, why? They can’t own them, but allying with our family is just as good. They’ll have a supply of good timber and stone, foodstuffs. We’ll have ready buyers. The commoner folk will be able to put more in their pockets, more on their tables. Maybe that will help stop their grumbling.”

“But the merchants will get richer still, won’t they? They’ll carry Meradhvor goods to market, avoid the taxes the Council has put on the Artificer Houses themselves. Everyone profits.” Except Falla, I thought to myself.

“Yes.” He paused for a moment and we continued in silence until he began again. “Once we burn Orren’s body, his ghost will depart, yes?”

“It should.”

“What do you mean, ‘it should?’ I thought you said—”

“I made no promises that that would be the end of things, Lord Aryden. It’s obvious that he was murdered, so we may need to bring him some semblance of justice to allay his spirit.”

Aryden frowned. “Dammit. Well, we’ll have Barro give him his rites, and you’ll tell the amn Esti and Edanu that Falla was responsible for his death and raising his spirit. She made Orren’s spirit attack the wedding—we can leave this second spirit out of it entirely. We’ll keep the amn Esti out of the keep and, if necessary, you can continue to work quietly on getting rid of him once and for all.”

“I won’t,” I protested.

“You won’t what?” Aryden said, voice sharp.

“I won’t lie for you. I won’t let you kill Falla for convenience. I’m your investigator, but I’m not your lackey to be ordered about.”

“You ‘won’t let?’ You have no say in how I run my demesne, Iaren, nor how I govern—or protect—my people. Do not forget your place.”

“I’ll not lie for you.”

“As long as you don’t contradict me, and you work quietly, I can live with that,” he conceded. Practical, pragmatic, political.

“I’ll need to talk to Falla and Nilma,” I said.

“Fine,” Aryden agreed.

“And I’ll want to examine the body before it is burnt.”

“It will be with Endan while Barro prepares. He’ll assist you.”

“And if Orren’s spirit does not leave after he receives his rites, I need to see your wife.”

Now Aryden glared. But I could see the trepidation creeping in at the edges of his face, undercutting his well-practiced hardness of visage. “If the spirit does not depart, we will discuss it.”

With a squeeze of his legs, amn Vaina spurred his horse into a canter, leaving me to journey alone to the town and its castle.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 39

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

My feet raced nearly as fast as my mind as I followed Falla’s directions to where she’d seen Nilma, in a drainage ditch in the wheat fields on the other side of Vaina, between the town and the witch’s cottage. I’d thought that Magaréil had lied when it had posed as Orren’s ghost and accused the bride-to-be, but now I could not be so sure. How else might she know where to find his body?

I wondered also whose help she might have had in the murder; I still felt her incapable of the deed on her own, though I couldn’t exactly articulate why.

Daedys had recovered his senses enough to trail behind me, and a second train of thought wondered how I’d keep him from exacting some revenge before we discovered the full truth of things.

Certainly, he was not averse to violence when it suited him. With the binding of Magaréil, a long-comfortable aspect of his life in Vaina had suddenly been pulled out from under him, and I couldn’t help but think that such instability would not prove helpful to rational thought. I’d no desire to fight him, much less to kill him. That itself seemed strange to me after I’d killed three of his lackeys. I reasoned that I’d done that in self defense, that being the difference, and had nothing to defend myself from with him, at least not at present.

We didn’t speak as we traveled. For what reason would we? He knew what had happened to his men if I’d showed up at the wedding—the details didn’t particularly matter. And I knew enough about his involvement in, and then resistance of, Magaréil’s cult for my investigation. We may have been momentarily united in purpose, but there was no trust between us, and we at least had the courtesy not to force one another to lie.
Falla did not accompany us, though I’d no idea what other, more pressing, matter she had to attend to. Still, I couldn’t be in more than one place at a time, so I had to prioritize. My investigation took precedence.

We moved in zig-zag patterns, skirting the perimeters of the square fields of wheat, barley, and other grains, following the edges of enclosures for cattle or sheep. The farmers looked up from their work, briefly, nodding respectfully to their constable, making the sign of the Tree at me. It mattered not; I’d grown a bit accustomed to the gesture now, and it seemed to mark those who felt too powerless to take any real action against me. Ironic that I found a symbol of my own safety in such a gesture when had first proved so intimidating.

After nearly an hour of travel, the suns beating down upon us with the heat of the late afternoon, we finally came across a ditch next to one of the fields where Nilma sat, cradling Orren’s rotting cadaver and sobbing.

Daedys began to move in front of me, but I held him back, throwing a glance over my shoulder that conveyed the intensity of purpose I now felt. He stopped where he was and let me move closer without him.

I stopped at the edge of the ditch and knelt down, hoping it would make me less daunting to an already-distraught young woman. It didn’t.

Nilma looked up at me, eyes blurred with tears, still cradling the putrid remains of Orren’s half-buried corpse. When she realized who I was, she spat. Even from the distance I stood, the stench rankled and nauseated me. I tried to fight back any reaction, lest it worsen a delicate situation.

I decided not to speak first. Instead, while I waited for the uncomfortable silence to spur her to conversation, I gathered what details I could about Orren’s resting place.

A layer of brown sludge covered the ditch’s trough, making it a quagmire of water retained after recent rains. Orren’s body remained half concealed under the muck his tattered and worm-eaten shirt clinging to his body like some bloody flag fallen on a battlefield. But there was no blood, the clods of mud stuck haphazardly to his torso and face having a decidedly lighter hue. Of course, sitting in wet avar, rotting and bloating, would make any determination of the body’s original state before its deposition speculative at best.

The likely cause of death, though, was obvious; the boy’s throat had been slit from under one ear to the other, the wound deep and ragged, exposing the glint of dirty spine underneath. From that orifice, the water and mud would have entered the body, quickening deterioration under the hot suns, leaving us less to discover from the corpse than I’d hoped for. At a minimum, the appearance of the wound made clear that the attack had not been made in the heat of passion. It may have been quick, a surprise ambush, but it would have had to have been planned, premeditated. The killer would have either had to hold the boy down or stood behind him to get such a thorough cut through the neck. I bet on behind, where the arterial spray would have been less likely to cover the killer and inhibit an escape.

The location also made clear that the murder had not occurred here. This field lay at the edges of the farmers’ fields ringing Vaina, the ditch on the outward-facing edge of the field, where the farmer would be unlikely to pay much attention until harvest time—barring some unforeseen event in the interim, at least.

No, I supposed that the body had been moved here, dumped so that it was unlikely to be found. How then had Nilma come across it?

The young woman wiped a tear from her face, leaving a smudge of wet avar across her cheek. Her wedding dress had been torn and ruined by the absorption of the ditchwater and even more putrescent liquids. I stared at her now, hoping to glean some insight into her mind by her appearance and behavior. My mind dragged now after the confrontation with Magaréil and my overuse of the Art; had I wanted to use less conventional means to steal her thoughts from her, I still would have been unable to. And, as I said before, I had no desire to walk down that path of the Art, not for all the advantages it might have. The fruit it would bear would be poisoned, indeed.

Nilma’s expression indicated despair. Not despair at being discovered; it had neither resignation nor defiance of expected consequences. No, it carried the sorrow of memory, of tragedy relived in the mind but that could never be changed, never rewritten. I realized then that she had, for better or worse (and I supposed the latter), loved Orren, despite the treatment she’d received at his hands. I’m told that love is a many-splendored thing, the greatest of all possible relationships to be had by any spirit, anywhere. But my experience, of both reality and the ballads, is that love is more often tragic.

But in that moment, I knew that she had little to do with Orren’s death. I remained unwilling to say “nothing,” because I’d seen plenty of unintended consequences of act or omission lead to the injury of a loved one, and I expected the same to be likely here.

“Orren’s spirit lied!” she said, softly, still choking back tears.

“I know,” I told her in the gentlest voice I could manage.

She looked at me in disbelief. “How?”

“Because I have the Sight, and I saw that the spirit pretending to be Orren to spoil your wedding was an impostor.”

“Impostor? From where?”

“Never mind that now.”

Deadys stood far enough back that he couldn’t hear our conversation. “What are you doing over there…lord thaumaturge? Pull her out of that ditch so that I may arrest her and bring her to justice.”

I threw him a glance, more threatening than the first, that warned him against making further demands of me at such a time. His frustration caused him to pace as I continued my conversation with the young woman.

“How did Orren come to rest here?” I asked.

“I—I don’t know,” she replied.

“Then how did you come to find him here?”

“I didn’t believe them when they said he’d left town. So I looked for him. I spent all of my free time in the mornings and the evenings looking for him. One day, about a month after he left, I found him here.”

“And you’ve told no one that he was here?”

“No.”

“Despite the fact that his spirit attacked you? Despite the fact that his spirit torments Lady Aevale even now?”

“I—I didn’t want to lose him.”

It was a fool’s answer, to be sure, but foolish enough that I believed it. Love does strange things to a person’s mind.

The sound of heavy footsteps interrupted our conversation. I turned, expecting to see Daedys advancing once again, but instead I saw only his back, turned against newcomers, his sword drawn. I stood and turned as well, but without pulling my blade before I understood the situation.

Dalen im Valladyn waddled closer, three of his lackeys pacing slowly before him, armed with halberds. They stopped far enough away that no blows could be exchanged. At their distance, none of them could see what was in the ditch behind us, but they knew all the same. They’d come looking for the woman in the first place, and someone had told them where to search.

“Nilma?” the father called.

“Father?” daughter responded.

At that, Dalen took a step forward, but Daedys brought his sword into a ready stance, stopping the fat man in his tracks.

“She’s under arrest,” Daedys said, voice cold and irrefutable.

“Now, now, Master Constable,” the merchant returned. “I’m sure we need not be so hasty as to take the ramblings of a mad spirit as evidence.”

“That accusing spirit was my nephew, what evidence more do you need?”

“But it wasn’t, Daedys. You know that,” I reminded him.

He responded to me without turning his gaze from the Valladyni intruders. “But she knew where to find the body. And she lied about it.”

“That doesn’t make her a murderer,” I told him.

“Yes, listen to the Lord Thaumaturge. He speaks reason,” im Valladyn interjected.

“Shut up,” Daedys and I said to him, almost in unison. The merchant stepped back at the affront, as if slapped. His men brought their halberds into readied positions.

“I’ve talked to her,” I pleaded. “She had feelings for your nephew—strong ones—but she didn’t kill him.”

“She’s lied to you before,” he protested. “There are better ways of putting her to the question.” That was the wrong thing for him to say.

“Like you tried to do to me?” I asked, anger surging. He’d made me kill men, and no amount of temporary camaraderie would assuage the blame I held him to for that.

“I—” he attempted.

“That is quite enough,” im Valladyn said, not in the voice of a warrior but in the voice of a father whose petulant child has driven him to exasperation. It wasn’t entirely inappropriate, I suppose. “You will turn over my daughter to me, or there will be blood.”

I pulled my staff, which I’d left lying at the edge of the ditch, to my hand with a minor sorcery. The polearmed retainers stepped back at that, expecting more. I had no more to give after confronting Magaréil, but they need not know that.

“Are you sure that’s what you want, Dalen im Valladyn?” I warned.

“Want? Want has nothing to do with it! You will give me my daughter!”

He was right, of course. No petty theatrics would dissuade him from his parental duties. I drew my sword, letting the point fall low toward the ground, and took a place at the constable’s side, forming a two-man wall between the interlopers and the ditch. “I’m sorry, Master Dalen, but this must be done the right way. And I do have more questions for your daughter before we are done, though I assure you that no harm will come to her.”

The halberdiers took another step forward, but Dalen raised his hand and called for them to halt. “Wait! Maybe there is another way that we can rectify this. You know I am a man of means. Perhaps we can come to an arrangement of some sort that benefits everyone more than violence?”

“Damn you, im Valladyn,” Daedys growled. “Thinking your wealth sets you above the rest of us. I’ll not let you subvert justice with your filthy lucre!”

I wasn’t sure that either of them had but the most tenuous grasp of justice at this point, but neither was justice my primary concern. Nilma might have more information that I could use; I’d not let that opportunity pass by.

Im Valldyn looked to me, eyebrow arched. What made him still think he could buy me defied belief and offended me to my core. “No, Master Dalen. This will not be about money.”

“Isn’t it, though?” He returned. “That’s why you’re here in the first place, isn’t it?”

He wasn’t wrong, but a man has to have a code. “I’m a professional, not a mercenary,” I told him. “I made an oath to Lord amn Vaina to see my investigation to the end, and I intend to do just that.”

The merchant drew in a deep breath of exasperation and resignation. “So be it,” he said. “Put them down, but try not to kill them,” he told his retainers.

The men moved forward cautiously, warily observing our stances as they approached, searching for some weakness of defense. Thinking he’d found one, the first of the halberdiers pulled his weapon back to strike at me. I moved sword and staff together to ward what would undoubtedly be a heavy blow.

It never came. Instead, a gunshot pierced the air. Too distant to have been fired by one of the combatants, but close enough to throw a shiver down every man’s spine. The sound of hooves followed the crack of the weapon, and we were soon surrounded by Lord Aryden and several of his guardsmen, arranging themselves in a semi-circle against the ditch.

The lord had shoved the arquebus he’d fired into a sheath on his saddle and now held one of his wheelock pistols. “Throw down your arms,” he said.

We did as we were told, all of us. What alternative was there?

From horseback, Aryden could see Nilma in the ditch, still holding onto Orren’s putrefying corpse. “Good God, girl!” he exclaimed. “What in all the hells are you doing down there in the mud clutching a dead boy?”

He looked to me, expecting some explanation. “Daedys and I found her here like this,” I said. “I don’t think that she’s responsible for Orren’s murder, but she did know that the body was here. Has for some time, it seems.”

“My lord, if I may—” Dalen began.

“You may not, Master im Valladyn. I’m sorry, but your daughter will be coming with me. She’ll be treated as a guest, of course, until we’ve got this all sorted out. Go home and wait for me to send for you.”

“But—”

“Go home!” Aryden’s command was unquestionably final. Dalen’s retainers hesitated until their lord indicated that they could recover their weapons, at which point they picked them up and moved swiftly through the gap between horses that Aryden’s men allowed. Dalen waddled behind, muttering to himself.

“Lord thaumaturge, I believe you have a good deal to explain to me about what’s befallen us these past hours. Walk with me,” He turned to his own retainers. “Passyl, please escort Mistress Nilma to the castle and have Eldis prepare a room and fresh clothing for her. Sateros and Gallo, recover the body and bring it to Master Endan for examination.”

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Things Unseen, Chapter 38

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

“How’re we going to fight a spirit with swords?” Daedys asked when we’d at last entered the clearing where I’d first encountered the cult. The place thrummed with Power spilling into the Avar.

“We don’t. I use the Art.” I responded.

“Then why’d you send us out for weapons?” Barro asked, pushing up the coif that had fallen forward and partially obscured his eyes.

“Because I don’t expect this spirit to be alone.”

Daedys’ eyes narrowed, and I knew that the thought had dawned on him that he might be killing his fellow cultists, the fellow downtrodden of Vaina whom he had meant to protect with his anger and plotting. For my part, I began to wonder how I’d explain away to Barro the appearance of armed townsfolk defending the spirit without breaking my vow to Falla. But there’d be time for that, a more immediate danger was already manifesting.

Speak of the dark one and, thus, he appeareth. The air thickened as the spirit formed itself from some mysterious confluence of air and the Power that saturated its sanctuary, assuming now the form of the green man I’d previously observed through the Sight. He…it…stood taller than a human man, perhaps by a head, and it gave off an aura of authority and splendor that insinuated itself in the mind, predisposing one to deference and timidity. Of course it had formed a cult around itself; this seemed as natural a course of events as the daily rise and setting of the suns, the regularity of the tides and seasons, the inevitability of death and the Path.

I raised my staff in preparation to defend my cohorts against the supernatural attacks I expected from the Orösave, but Magaréil, to my suprise, wanted to talk. “Lord thaumaturge,” it said, voice as mellifluous as a spring breeze, “It is not too late to accept my offer, though the priest may not be allowed to tell of our bargain, and—”

“What bargain?” Barro asked, taking a wide step from my side.

“It wanted me to remain silent that it had masqueraded as Orren’s spirit,” I told him. “But instead, we are here.”

Umbrage at the temerity of a natural spirit against the realm of humanity took hold of Barro now, and he addressed Magaréil directly. “To what end such a ruse? Why attack my lord now?”

The spirit smiled. “Your lord’s ambition has exceeded his grasp,” Magaréil half-sung in response. “I have a dominion here, too, and I shall not allow his machinations to pose a threat to me.”

“A threat? How do the amn Esti threaten you? What has a marriage between mortals to do with…such as you,” the priest said, contempt gathering in his voice.

“None of your concern, priest,” Magaréil snapped. It turned its attention back to me. “There is much I could offer you, Iaren amn Ennoc. I have seen ancient secrets with my own eyes that few in the Avar know ever existed at all. I have made bargains with practitioners of the Art many times in the past. I will do so again. The question is whether you will be my ally or my enemy. You must choose, now.”

I swallowed hard before responding. “You have this final chance to leave Vaina and never return,” I said, feeling as if I was watching myself utter them, as if a stranger spoke in my place. “If you do not, I will banish you, Magaréil. You much choose…now.”

The Orösave lost its smile at hearing its name. I’d no idea how close to correct my pronunciation of it had been, for I’d never heard the nuance of its utterance from the being to whom it was attached. Nevertheless, just having the name at all gave me some power I otherwise would not have had. Between that advantage and the Power infusing this place, I might just stand a chance.

Magaréil turned to now to Daedys, knowing the source of its betrayal. In a way I cannot fully describe, the Orösave’s being suddenly took on the aspect of summer in its anger, radiating now not the intoxicating beauty of an early spring but the oppressive heat of the dog days.

But before Magaréil could speak to denounce Daedys’ treachery, a shot rang out, the ball from the constable’s little wheelock pistol passing through the spirit as through so much gathered smoke, just as had done when some of the wedding guests had attempted the same.

A roar like a deafening wind issued from Magaréil’s spectral mouth, driving the loose forest detritus in a whirlwind about the clearing, requiring us to lean forward lest we lose our feet. Then came the sound of creaking wood, as of a boat whose sails strain against the wind, and I looked round to see the ash trees ringing the glade pulling their roots from the ground, shaking the dirt from them, and standing solidly atop them like so many feet. The limbs of the animated trees variously became knotted like clubs or spearpointed at every shoot and stalk.

Now Barro and Daedys closed ranks with me against the impending onslaught. I raised my free hand and extended a lance of fire at the nearest animated tree, the quick and powerful sorcery a benefit of our presence in this place of Power. My target burst into flames, causing its fellows to recoil violently from it as it ran a panicked and irregular course through the space in the clearing, its many legs of disproportionate sizes rapidly pulling it along like the tendrils of an octopus more than any creature that lived on land.
Still, the others pressed in, and we defended ourselves with blade, staff and mace against the relentless assault of sharp or bludgeoning branches. Our weapons made some good defense to ward away the strikes but did little to damage our attackers. Were I could, I shot more gouts of flame at the wooden warriors, but Magaréil again called down a heavy rain that quenched the fires and protected its minions against further conflagration.

While the ashes presented the most immediate threat, we were lost if I could not confront Magaréil itself. Only when its power had been contained would we be free from danger. But no such opportunity presented itself, and the trees pushed ever closer, knowing that our weapons were of little threat to them.

I tried another conceit, dropping to my knees in hopes that my brothers in arms would be able to shield me—even momentarily—from the onslaught. In my mind’s eye, as I began to chant in Gwaenthyri, so that I knew Magaréil would understand, I thought of fall and winter, of falling leaves, of mushrooms growing on dead trees, of the rot and decay that accompanied every living thing. I imagined a blight upon a tree I had once observed, an arboreal sickness much akin to the plagues that affect the Naming Folk. I imagined it spreading to these trees, and when I opened my eyes I saw the bark of the ashes turning mottled grey and black, the leaves falling from once-healthy branches, which at the very least allowed Barro and Daedys to see the weapons arrayed against us more clearly.

But Magaréil had the Power available here, too, and quickly set about to counter my working. Decay struggled against new life, with the bark of the trees passing back and forth between healthy and blighted as if being washed back and forth by unseen waves. Limbs would become brittle and break off as they crashed against Barro’s shield or received a blow from his mace; sproutlings with little budding leaves would erupt from these wounds, quickly growing into new spears or blunt instruments. Our minds clashed, each seeking to overcome the other’s working and, for a brief moment, I reveled in the conflict with such a capable opponent—not a fellow practitioner in the true sense, but a wielder of the Power nonetheless. It was, in short, an opportunity to truly test what I’d learned in my private studies after leaving the university, whether my efforts bore fruit.
I found that they did as we struggled, with every fresh assault on my working from Magaréil I managed some subtle change in the pattern of the working to maintain its effectiveness. For a time at least. I knew, in that part of my mind not dedicated to perpetuating the working against the Orösave’s soldiers, that all I was doing was biding time. Time enough perhaps to invent some other, more effective, strategy. But perhaps not.

Barro and Daedys continued to hack at limbs that rotted, shattered, and regrew afresh before their eyes. They said nothing, only grunted as they blocked, parried, counterattacked as best they could. Kneeling between them, I had some modicum of shelter from the storm (both literal and figurative). Even with this temporary respite, however, I was losing the battle of wills. The Orösave was in its element; we were playing it’s game. As long as that remained the case, I stood little chance. Rain beat down upon us, denying me the opportunity to use more fire. At least, not directly. Another thought passed through my mind, and I began to draw on the Power that pervaded the glade.

The sky had darkened and become stormy in fulfilling Magaréil’s will for rain. From these dark clouds, I drew down bolts of lightning, flashing bright enough to temporarily blind us, deafening us with every accompanying crack. But each time a bolt struck one of the trees, the animating spirit fled as the bark blackened and split, leaving charred and broken bodies behind.

For a moment, the three of us grinned to one another, a sudden hope filling us. But then we saw freshly-animated trees joining the fray, and we thought of how much fodder Magaréil truly had in the midst of a forest. Hope sank into despair; I made what signs of apology I could to my compatriots as we prepared to be overwhelmed and overrun.

But, as the ringing in our ears returned to some semblance of normal hearing, we heard the voice of a newcomer to the fight. That voice raised no fearsome warcry, no bellow of rage, no pompous taunt, no challenge to enemies. Instead, we heard a melody, lilting in ancient language, beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. Falla’s voice.

She walked slowly, gracefully, into the clearing, the rain breaking against some invisible barrier around her as if loath to touch her against her wishes. Her feet made no sound as she tread, no crunch of leaf or branch, no shift of odd stone, no scrape against root or hard-packed avar. A gentle wind blew into the clearing alongside her, and small animals trailed behind, awestruck by her song, desperate to hear it for as long as they could.

When the melody fell upon the trees attacking us, they fled into the deeper forest, seeking the comfort of their still-sleeping brethren. Magaréil roared with a voice that reminded me of rushing rivers and rising floodwaters, of landslides and avarquakes. But his fury only revealed that he had little wherewithal to contradict a force so ancient, so brimming with primordial Power, so pure that it must have come from the Firstborn themselves, perhaps a song sung by Avarienne to her first progeny when the Avar was young indeed.

I rose to my feet, hair standing on end in the aftermath of the lightning strikes, pushing myself up by my staff. With the Flux dissipating from the massive displays of the Art, the massive Power drawn and shaped in a place already receptive to sympathetic contagions, the rain turned to snow at the same time the flowers began to bloom as if the spring had come, fresh and sudden. The darkened clouds now blocked out the light of the suns and the Avar became far darker than it had any right to be in the mid-afternoon. In the shadows cast by the trees and the clouds, one could make out the almost-imperceptible forms of people, masked and naked, dancing and making supplication to Magaréil. Not spirits, truly, but fragments what had been, echoes of souls that had once been in this place, resounding like shadows cast against the cave wall of the future by an invisible, eternal flame of the Power, of raw possibility and Creation itself.

Such sights had little effect on me; I’d seen their like enough before to know them for what they were. But the writhing images—or, more likely, the hoarse whispers of Gwaenthyri chanting that accompanied them, held Barro and Daedys as if transfixed.

Magaréil focused on Falla. “Finally, you have come here to challenge me,” it said to her. “I have long felt your fear from afar, have heard my people whisper about your petty incantations and false potions, while drew power has dwelt nearby you since before even your mother had come to this place. Who do you think taught her the things she knew? The things she taught you, that you have corrupted. Diluted. I wondered when your jealousy would get the better of you, when you would seek to truly usurp me for the favor of my people, instead of living off of the scraps of my wisdom and my benevolences.

But did you think do have a chance against a mind centuries your senior, studied in esoterica you could never hope to find in your own travels, for they have long since been lost to your kind?”
The hedge witch turned away from him, tossing her cloak out behind her as if brushing him aside. She continued to sing her ancient song, and the snow, too, refused to damped her hair or clothes. The nonchalance of it was once of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. That was true power. Not the kind we practitioners borrow from what The One has left us to use, but a power that comes from conviction of oneself. I don’t know whether she had ever been jealous of Magaréil, or if it spoke the truth about her mother and the source of their knowledge. But I know that, in that moment, I was jealous of Falla, for no number of titles, nor dusty tomes, nor prestigious educations, can bestow what she demonstrated in her defiance of the Orösave.

It was Magaréil who proved coward, afraid of the power Falla wielded in the beauty of a song. While her back was turned, the spirit’s arm became like a venomous snake, lashing out across the too-wide distance with ease. But I stood ready with my staff and interposed myself between, the whip-like snake rebounding off of the shield of force I conjured with a sudden sorcery.

“We could have been such allies,” it said to me, seemingly sickening under the effects of Falla’s song. It’s voice was pitiable instead of fierce, desperate rather than imperious, forlorn over haughty.

I dropped the shield and my staff, pulling key and binding disk from my belt. Holding both aloft and drawing upon the Power, I focused on the spirit, my own confidence bolstered by Falla’s continued melody.

“Magaréil, in the name of Lady Avariennë, I bind you to my will…” I began.
A buzzing filled my ears, like a swarm of stinging insects surrounding my head, as the Orösave initiated a final assault on my mind. Though no creatures actually encircled me—Falla’s song had prevented the spirit from such an exercise of its power—I could feel the sensation of pricks and stings, painful and distracting. A clever ruse, I must now admit, and it almost distracted me enough from my working for it to fail. Almost.

“Magaréil, in the name of Lady Taelainë, I bind you to my will,” I continued, striking the key against the binding disk with each statement, my voice straining against the psychic onslaught of imagined bees and wasps. “Magaréil, in the name of Lady Melqéa, I bind you to my will! With the authority of the Three Mothers, I bind you from the East. With the authority of the Three Mothers, I bind you from the West. With the authority of the Three Mothers, I bind you from the South. With the authority of the Three Mothers, I bind you from the North. I bind your will to mine own. I bind your spirit to the stone I hold before me. You shall take no action I do not permit. You shall harm no one. You reside within the stone until I summon you. You shall obey my commands until I release you. By the secret names of The One, I bind you!”

The snow and the insects stopped suddenly, replaced by a flash of light and a wave of heat that scorched the life out of the grass and trees surrounding the glade, leaving behind parched and dry plants like those suffering under an extended drought. The avar had become dry, gone was the mud softened by Magaréil’s driving rains. The confrontation, my workings and Magaréil’s own uses of the Power, to say nothing of Falla’s sad ballad, had drained the place of its Power. But only temporarily, for the Veil was thin here and Power would continue to leak in from parts unknown.

Gone, too, was the spirit itself, though the subtle thrumming of the disk in my hand assured me of its presence there. The binding had worked, thanks not to my own power as a practitioner of the Subtle Art, but to the ancient and secret song Falla had brought to our aid.

I turned to find that Barro had departed. When, exactly, he’d lost his nerve and run I couldn’t say, but I supposed that it didn’t much matter, either. Daedys was in the process of recovering his senses, albeit slowly.

The witch had ceased her singing and approached now, a subtle smile of self-satisfaction writ large across her face. “Well, that’s one threat to Vaina dealt with,” she said.

“Where did you learn that song?” I asked, my curiosity and wonder plainly evident.

“A story for another time,” she returned. “You’ve got more pressing matters at hand.”

I looked at the disk in my hand.

“Not that, either,” she explained. “That can wait now that the spirit is bound. I came across Nilma on my way here. She’s with Orren’s body.”

“What? How?”

“I don’t know, but I figured you’d want to see it.”

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Things Unseen, Chapter 36

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

I awoke, groggy-headed, strapped to a chair. The scene reminded me of something I’d been likelier to find in Ilessa, had I run afoul of one of the Coin Lords or their various lieutenants.

The chair, and thus I, sat in the center of a crude cellar, undoubtedly under the im Varde home. I could smell mold and rot, the sweetness of spilled wine and wood, something like petrichor that I assumed was the upturned dirt, rectangular, that had been freshly dug next to me.

A wooden table and several hooks anchored in the support beams built into the earthen wall to my left held a curious array of farming and gardening implements: trowels, hoes, knives, saws and axes, any of which could handily be turned into a crude device of torture.

The three men with whom I’d fought leaned against the wall in which the descending stairs had been cut or stood nearby, all of them focused on Daedys, who by now had clothed himself in the finery of someone of the wealth he feigned having but lacked altogether.

The bravos had left their weapons above, probably along with the belt I now found missing. I’d have very much liked to burn them where they stood with a sorcery or thaumaturgic incantation, and without their pressing attacks to distract me, I might have been able to execute such a working, were it not for the pounding headache and mild sense of vertigo that continued to plague me from the bump on my skull. It would have hurt to burn them up anyway, given the Power it would have required. Might even have been truly dangerous to my body. Had my thoughts been clearer, I’d probably have accepted the risk. In my present state, though, I was just as likely to set myself aflame instead of them and to die watching them laugh at me.

I strained to hear the words that Daedys whispered to his lackeys, but I could make out none of it. Still, I grasped the situation. They hadn’t killed me, so they were keeping me alive to find out what I knew. About what in particular, I wasn’t sure, but I knew their very questions might prove clues themselves—if I managed to survive after the interrogation had concluded. A short window of opportunity lay before me now; if I couldn’t escape before that time had passed, that would be the end of it.

Once the constable had finished giving the men his orders, he set off up the stairs, on his way to attend the earliest of the day’s wedding events, thereby avoiding suspicion for what would come later, or at least working on his alibi.

The three men grinned to one another like idiots, like children told that no one would be watching over them for a time, that they could get away with whatever they wanted so long as one commanded thing was done. This, I imagined, was what they’d joined Deadys’ constabulary for in the first place—not to protect their fellow townsfolk, not even to avoid the harder labor of the fields. For the chance to hurt people. Really hurt them. And I had become that chance.

The first man looked to the other two. “Shouldn’t we gag ‘im or something? So as he doesn’t enchant us or nothin’?”

The furthest right (to me) of the three men looked to the first with an expression of superiority that almost made my laugh; I knew intuitively what he was about to say. “How’s he gonna talk, then? Think, Balen!”

Balen shrugged sheepishly in response. Briskly, he strode up to be and struck me across the face with his fist. I could feel my brain swing around the inside of my skull and jiggle slightly before coming to rest.

“You’re supposed to ask a question, first,” I told him, spitting a bit of blood into the adjacent grave.

“You’ve got to learn who’s in charge, first,” Balen responded.

“Daedys is. You’re just the lackey.” I don’t know why I said it. Anger, a defiant streak in me that overcomes my common sense, a conviction that I’m just that funny.

It certainly wasn’t that I wasn’t scared. I was. Deeply. Between the chair that held me immobile, the three men and the ad hoc burial I had to look forward to, I didn’t see a lot of hope in my future. And there’s not much that makes a thaumaturge feel helpless than when he can’t perform a working—once you’ve tasted that power it’s a hard thing to be without it. More comforting than a good blade or a fine pistol, the Art is when it comes to defense. And yet, my anger at the unfairness of it all, at the lack of chance I seemed to have, pushed my fear aside just enough to keep some modicum of cool.

Balen raised his fist to strike again, but the third man stepped forward with his hand raised to stop him. The remaining bravo leaned against the back wall, watching, silent.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” the third man said. “It can go easy.”

“That’s my line,” I told him.

“Balen, get a hook from the table. Let’s see how tough the lord thaumaturge really is.”

I looked to the makeshift grave. “You don’t think that’s ironic?” I asked.

“Huh?” The third man said.

“Well, I came here to investigate a spirit haunting the castle. Deadys has decided you should kill me and—without any rites—bury me in his cellar. You’ve heard from Barro that killing a man without giving him his rites is a good way to create a restless spirit, haven’t you? Did you know that the Aenyr and other ancient cultures used to bury animals alive for the exact purpose of creating guardian spirits to watch over a place?”

Both Balen and the third man hesitated for just a moment, but the second spoke up. “It’s not our house,” he growled. “Not our problem.”

I smiled my bloody smile. “Maybe not that part. At first. But you’ve heard of death curses, haven’t you? Who do you think mine will fall on? Blood is Power, and the more of mine you spill, the heavier my curse will be on you.”

“Pfft,” the second man guffawed. “You don’t know our names. How can you curse us without our names? ‘Cept Balen, of course. Guess he’s plowed.” The second and third men chuckled as Balen cringed.

“Fool. You’re standing right in front of me. I see you, as you are, your essence. What need have I of a name?” Exaggerated, maybe, but mostly true.

The three men became uncomfortable now. They huddled together, speaking in low tones, one of them occasionally throwing a glance over his shoulder at me. I almost wanted to laugh, but my face hurt.

Instead, I concentrated as best I could on the ropes that bound me to the chair, tugging at them with a sorcery, hoping to find the right angle to pull them looser rather than tighter. Without being able to see what I was doing, the work would be slow. As long as the men conferenced, I kept at it.

They didn’t give me long. Not nearly long enough. The second man broke from the group and went to the bench of tools, pulling free a set of sheep shears. “Get a set of tongs,” he said to Balen. “We’ll be out with his tongue and then we’ll see how well he can curse us.” Without hesitation, Balen left the room in search of the implement.

“Again, how are you going to get me to talk if cut out my tongue?”

“Aw, I bet a smart fellow like you can write his answers if we get some parchment for you. You’re right-handed, ain’t ya? Sword arm and all. Guess that means we’ll have to start our work on the left hand to leave you the good one for your answers, huh?”

I thought to explain to the man that a working doesn’t require speech, which only serves as an aid for focusing the mind, but I’d already played on his superstitions enough that I wasn’t sure I wanted to pull that thread.

The man pushed my hand flat against the chair’s armrest, splaying my fingers out so that he could grab my pinky finger and maneuver the old scissors around it. I struggled, to little avail, which only made him smile the wider. Behind him, the third man now watched patiently, and I saw little chance of quickly finding a way to get him to intervene and stall the inevitable.

“You’re supposed to ask a question first,” I offered, feeling the sweat beading on palms and forehead.

“I think it’s probably better you get a taste of the consequences first,” he smiled with a mouth of half-rotten teeth.

He started, slowly, savoring the moment, to close the blades against flesh. I let out a gasp at the first bite of the iron, the slow, building pressure excrutiating. Only then did I notice that this my torturer was missing the end of his own left thumb, which had been wrapped in a linen bandage. I expected no reprieve now and doubted even that the man would take seriously Daedys’ orders to question me first.

But a reprieve, most expected, did come. Before the sheers had progressed too far, we all heard Balen’s footsteps on the stairs. He clambered down hurriedly, no tongs but a matchlock pistol, match fuming, in his hand. His companions shouted at him as he raised the piece to point at me, but he’d made up his mind, the fear of my reprisal against him too much to bear.

The pain had clarified some of the daze caused by the blow to my head, and the clear and present danger of immediate death allowed a sort of focus that I’d not had a moment before. And so I worked a sorcery, a sense of justified retaliation welling up within me as I did.

I imagined the ball within the barrel of that piece, nestled within the wadding that held it and powder in place. I imagined the ball welding itself to the barrel, forming itself so that sealed the open end of the pistol shut, a solid piece of crude metal corking the weapon. I thought of wax, melting, flowing and solidifying. In my minds eye I held the thought of the glowing ingot in the blacksmith’s forge, soft and malleable. I imagined a corked wineskin exploding as the pressure of fermenting grapes became too much to bear. I uttered no words, could make no gestures. I hoped that my will and the clarity of my sympathetic analogies were sufficient to create the effect I intended.

Balen, desperation across his face and in his trembling hand, pulled the trigger, plunging the lit matchcord into the chamber. For a split-second, nothing happened; the fire required a moment to ignite the powder. When it did, thunder and lightning filled the room as the pistol exploded into a thousand slivers of angry wood and steel. Balen, of course, took the brunt of it, the force of detonation mangling his hand and sending shards of the disintegrating weapon into body and face at high speed.

Though they stood farther away, the other two men caught a fair amount of the fragments of the makeshift grenado as well, my assassin’s back thankfully shielding me from the brunt of the explosion. The blast propelled him forward against me, the shears cutting against the web between my fingers before it clattered to the floor. We followed, my torturer and I, as he pushed the chair backwards along his own trajectory.

The chair shattered against the hard-packed earth of the cellar floor, leaving me tangled in a wreckage of wood and rope, some storm-tossed sailor borne aloft by good Wyrgeas.
We all lay there, moaning, for a moment, our collective bleating dulled by the assault upon our ears the detonation had wrought. All sound I could make out pushed its way through a barrier of constant ringing and a pressure in my ear canals that caused me to worry that they, too, might explode.

But the projectiles created by the pistol itself had mostly missed me, and—aside from a bloody finger, a bruise across the face and a large bump forming on the back of my skull (which I’d narrowly managed to avoid striking against the floor in my fall)—I remained mostly hale.

I craned my neck under the weight of the man atop me, searching with my eyes for the shears. Seeing them in the glint of the lamplight, I stretched my fingers out, my hand pulling itself across the floor in an effort to gain the slightest extra reach, until I could touch them with the tips of my middle three fingers. I pulled at them, fruitlessly at first, before gaining just enough purchase with the pads of my fingers to bring the shears into my palm and a complete grip.

My torturer could see what I was doing, but in the concussion of the blast and the pain of the shards embedded in his back, he had no energy to defy me. Instead, he only looked pleadingly at me, begging me with his eyes not to do what we both knew I would do. His mouth trembled as he tried to make a sound but could not.

I brought the shears down into his back, over and over again, a matter of catharsis more than survival, the sudden release of all the tension I’d had a moment before when torture and execution seemed to be all I had left. I rolled the body off of me and into the makeshift grave beside. It seemed fitting.

Slowly, achingly, I stood, shaking the remnants of the chair and my bonds free like some spirit breaking out of a summoning circle.

Balen had been killed by the blast, or near enough that I couldn’t tell the difference. The third man lay on his back, small splinters of wood and steel protruding in an irregular pattern from his face, torso and hands. One appeared to be lodged in his eye, wiggling slightly as his gaze darted from place to place, attempting to recover a knowledge of where he lay and what had happened. He posed no threat and I had neither need nor desire for further violence, having purged the drive with the stabbing of the man who’d tried to drown me the night before.

Having been drawn by the sound of the explosion, the servant Mosan peered down from the top of the stairs. Seeing me coming out of the smoke that lingered in the air, he fled. I smiled.

I hobbled back to the main floor and, after meandering amongst scattering servants for a few moments, found my sword belt. I checked my gear and, finding it all still there, made my way from the sprawling complex and back out to the street.

The suns had risen high, so I must have been out for some time before I came to in the cellar. I didn’t have long before the amn Esto wedding would begin.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 35

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

Not long after Aryden had left, I did as well. I traveled by way of the kitchens, where I picked up some breakfast on my way. With so few hours of sleep, I longed for some coffee, but the delicacy had not made its way outside of the Sisters, so I settled for a hot tea with some bread and cheese.

As refreshed as I could expect to be, I traveled the long stretch back to the im Varde home in New Vaina. The walk refreshed, but thoughts of what I would do or say upon confronting Daedys darkened things substantially. I tried to push back my speculations, to wait for Daedys’ own words as to why he’d tried to have me killed, but the possibilities spilled forth nonetheless.

Like before, several of the constable’s men, those rough thugs best suited to keeping the peace through threats and violence rather than providing serious protection as Gamven’s watch did, congregated at the fence to the im Varde home. Unlike before, they only watched me with cold eyes, making no motions toward me and saying nothing. I’d have liked to think that my past demonstration with their fellow bravo had earned this respect, but it was likelier that something else caused them to keep their distance—a command from their master or perhaps some other knowledge about the less direct danger I represented.

I had no desire to engage with them if they were wiling to let me alone, so I strode past to the gate, and then to the home’s front door. Striking the knocker, I waited patiently, tapping my foot idly, for Mosan to greet me.

After a moment he swung the door open, a look of surprise upon his face. “Lord amn Ennoc,” he said, quickly recovering his expression. “You wish to speak with Master Daedys?”

“I do.”

“Very well, my lord.”

He led me again to the im Varde parlour and its collected grandeur. “Would you sit, my lord?” he asked.

“I’ll stand, thank you.” I wanted to keep my sword ready and my feet free to move should the need arise.

The constable kept me waiting for some time; while I tried to keep an eye on the doorway into the parlor, I distracted myself somewhat with the inspection of the furniture pieces that decorated the room. Given this time, I noticed details I had not before. The furniture was all of fine craftsmanship and quality materials, indeed, and, aside from those pieces intended and used for sitting upon, like new. Too new, given the style of the pieces, of a fashion many decades gone.

The decorative furniture in this room was just that—decorative. I pulled at one of the drawers on the writing desk to find that it did not open. The desk had the look of a desk but not its function, as if it had been made as a set piece for some work upon the stage—the impression of a desk, but not its essence.

I took one of the books from the nearby shelves and opened it to find only blank pages within the leatherbound cover, the faint smell of mildew emanating from within. The parlor, then, had been meant to keep up appearances, to give a showing of the kind of wealth enjoyed by the merchants of Old Vaina without the cost. I imagined that the parts of the im Varde home I’d seen—the entry and this parlor—were the extent of the building decorated so lavishly, concealing considerable humbler accoutrements within the living spaces used by the family.

I thought about how growing up in such a place might have shaped Orren—the constant reminder of the sham of the political settlement between the magnates of the Old Town and New that so impressed those without access to the truth, the resentment at the manipulation of the amn Vaini, forcing them to keep up such appearances while being left outside that prosperity that accrued to the town. Moral or not, I understood better the origin of the boy’s ambitions.

In the corner of my eye, I caught Daedys entering the room, clad in a robe over his nightclothes, a look in his face that intimated he may not have been finished drinking when he’d returned home last night. He wore no weapons, though he could have been concealing a dagger or other blade beneath the robe.

“You’ve come to discuss the attempt on your life yesterday?” He asked, fatalistically more than expectantly. His voice made clear the hungoveredness implied by his disheveled appearance.

His bluntness took me aback for a moment. “I have.”

“I don’t have any information yet, but my men are searching for a man missing part of his thumb.”

He doesn’t know that I know, I thought to myself. Of course he didn’t, how could he? Perhaps I’d not fully recovered my wits myself. “The man must be someone above general suspicion, someone who could have entered the lord’s keep without attracting attention in the first place.”

“I thought the same myself,” Daedys offered.

“Someone in your employ? One of your constable’s men?”

He frowned, but I saw through it. “Hmm,” he said. “That’s possible. I hadn’t thought of it.”

“But why would one of your men try to kill me?”

“I have no idea,” he said. He feigned the appearance of shock as he said, “Could one of my own men be responsible for my nephew’s death? Have you uncovered evidence that might indicate that?”

“No.”

“Then it’s likely not one of mine, is it?”

“Perhaps not,” I allowed. “But then, who? One of the lord’s servants? A member of Gamven’s watch? And then, why?”

“You must be getting closer to uncovering Orren’s murderer,” Daedys said.

“Or I’ve found something else someone wants kept secret.”

The constable looked directly at me now, trying to read my meaning in my eyes. Let him, I thought.

“I’m sure you come across sundry secrets in your work, Iaren, some only embarrassments to an individual and some of much greater import,” he said.

“Yes, as I’ve come across one of yours. Several, in fact.”

His face hardened, “And what are those?”

“You’re familiar with a spirit that makes its home in Vaina,” I began.

“Of course I am; it’s why you’re here.”

“No. Not the phantom preying on the amn Vaini. Not your nephew. The other one. An ancient spirit, not from here originally, but that has made its home here. Has cultivated worship here.”

“I’m not familiar—”

“But you are. It’s been your ally in the prosperity of this town, a champion of the common folk who till the fields and tend the herds—of the people who sustain Vaina while a small few get rich.

Originally, folk here took up with the spirit for good crops and safety from disaster. But it seems that that became insufficient when it did not bring wealth enough to compete with the im Valladyni and the im Darqosi, while the amn Vaini increased their influence and power by reliance on your assured harvests, without so much as acknowledging the equal value of the service New Vaina provides. Some of those within the group pushed for more…aggressive…action. Perhaps that’s what Orren was up to?”

His expression revealed nothing in response to my sudden thrust. “You think my nephew had something to do with this…cult?”

“Don’t play stupid, Daedys. It doesn’t suit you. This cult is why you sent one of your men to kill me. It has nothing to do with Orren. Not directly, anyway. You’re trying to protect your best weapon against the amn Vaini, your own interests. Nothing more.”

“I—”

“Do not insult me by lying, constable,” I commanded.

“Then you’ve come to what? Arrest me? Take your vengeance? You’ve come alone, so you haven’t disclosed your accusations to Lord Aryden. That was a mistake.” Calmly, he produced from within his robe a small pistol, not much larger than his hand, its clockwork mechanism allowing for ready use even from concealment.

I might have flinched at having the firearm pointed at me, briefly wished that I’d brought my own. But I recovered myself and my calm quickly, part of my mind preparing for a defensive sorcery if such became necessary. “I do few things haphazardly or by accident, Master Daedys,” I warned. “I did not come for violence, nor for threats. I came for information.”

“I have none of that for you,” the constable said, almost wistfully. “I cannot trust you to keep this secret from Lord amn Vaina, and I will not be responsible for the blood in the streets if that damnable priest of his hears of a cult in the town. You understand, I hope.”
Behind him, the three bravos from outside entered the room. He must have sent Mosan for them before he met with me, a backup plan for just this situation. The men smiled darkly, hungry for blood and unconcerned with any sense of honor in the getting of it. Not that I cared much for honor either. Regardless of the supposed nobility of any particular circumstance, I prefer my blood to stay in my body, thank you very much.
“There is, perhaps, one way this doesn’t have to end badly for all of us,” Daedys said. “As you’ve said, there are secrets enough in Vaina already; I’d like not to have to keep your fate as another one. If you leave, now, and do not return, and never speak of what you saw here, I can live with that—and so can you.”

A sardonic smile passed over my lips. “Were it so easy, Daedys. But I took a job and I gave my word. I’m not leaving until that job is finished.”

“That—that’s your sense of honor?” the constable asked, somewhat incredulous.

“I don’t know about honor,” I admitted. “But a man has to have a code. Besides, your master has already made me a better offer.”

“What does that mean?”

“That same spirit to which you feign allegiance even now sent a messenger to me. I know that there is disagreement between you and those who side with you and the spirit’s own more loyal supporters. That messenger both disavowed the cult’s involvement in my attempted assassination—pointing the finger to you in the process—and promised me safety should I not interfere with the spirit’s designs.”

Daedys looked around exaggeratedly before turning back to me. “I don’t see any protection for you here. Perhaps you’ve failed to see what some of my fellows have also missed—our patron spirit is not The One: is neither omnipotent nor omniscient; is not infallible. It may have had much time to gather wisdom and intelligence, yes, but that does not mean its decisions and decrees are always right.”

“But you are?” I asked.

“This time, yes. A more…forceful approach is necessary to the guile and deceit our patron espouses. This seems to leave us at an impasse, Lord Thaumaturge. But I will maintain my offer to spare your life a little longer. Let us depart this place as friends—or at least not enemies. You may leave Vaina to its fate, yes, but I’m sure there are others who will need your help—who you can actually help. Perhaps its best that you not be so shortsighted and that you think of future unfortunates.”

I had to admit, he made a compelling argument—as much as there was one to be made. But I could not bring myself to consider only future possibilities, when a present calamity stared at me from Vaina castle. The question, then, became whether I would lie to him to escape.

Quickly, I ran through the possibilities with that part of my mind not preparing for a working of defense. If I said I’d leave, I’d no doubt that Daedys’ men would accompany me until I’d actually left, maybe all the way back to Ilessa. If they let me get so far—I wasn’t sure that these bloodthirsty bravos wouldn’t attempt to permanently remedy the danger once we’d made it far enough afield, whether or not it was their master’s command to do so.

Even if I made it out of town and survived, I’d just be coming right back, and Daedys would have his agents on the watch for such a thing. It would only prolong the confrontation between us. No point in such dilation.

With my right hand, I began to draw my sword; I extended the left to protect a sorcerous shield. Just in time, too, for Daedys’ pistol’s pan flashed briefly before the barrel erupted, the heavy ball rebounding from my shield as if hitting a wall.

The fury of the pistol in close quarters thundered from the walls, stunning everyone within and causing us to hunch, hands to ears instinctively. Were it not for the deadly intent of the shot itself and the pandemonium soon to follow, our collective suffering might have been comical.

I recovered just in time to ward the first incoming sword strike with my own blade. The space within the parlor allowed some room for the maneuver of both feet and blade, but a fight between four people would be tight indeed. I’d attempted to turn my parry into a riposte against my first attacker, but the incoming thrust of the second required me to redirect my weapon to a second parry instead.

With my left hand, I drew my dagger from its sheath at my back—I needed more steel were I to continue to deflect the attacks of all three men. If I could survive long enough, I might find an opening wide enough to take one of the men out of the fight and improve my odds.

Circling steel clashed against sonorous strikes as I moved my hands and weapons back and forth between the attackers. The furniture offered sufficient obstacles to assist in my evasion of the occasional attack but restricted my footwork to the narrowest of margins in turning or sidestepping to avoid injury. I would grow weary against such and onslaught, I knew, though slow maneuvering brought be closer to the parlor door and potential escape. Daedys had disappeared.

My best advantage was that my opponents were suited to the brawl rather than the fight proper; they’d become more used to striking swords against bucklers to make great clamor and show of bravery than to actually kill. I played by no such rules and, besides, I had no buckler with which to ward myself, only my sword and dagger. Their training and experience caused no great hesitation in their willingness to swing steel at me, but they employed technique made sloppy by half-hearted use, offering me just enough to parry blows that might have otherwise overrun my defenses.

For my own part, I noticed some loss of skill of my own; a casualty of more time spent in books than with blade, I admit. Only during the press of their assault did I regret such a choice and, if I managed to survive without so much as a scratch, I imagine I’d have left the thought of returning to more arduous study of the art of defense (which idea currently loomed large in my mind) quite quickly.

Alas, I did not come out unscathed; as my footwork brought me round to the opening from the parlor to the hallway, something heavy fell across the back of my head, a sudden, sharp shock that lead to momentary oblivion.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 34

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

The creaking of my chamber door awoke me, as Lord Aryden pushed into the room, Eldis, the doctor Endan, and Barro following. Orange light from the rising suns illuminated the room with the impression of fire. The lord looked at the remnants of the ritual circle on the floor, smeared by my feet and by the water that had run from me as I exited it and made a low sound to himself.

“So this is how you kept us at peace last night, is it? You could have thought to do it sooner. Or were you waiting for a special occasion?”

I thought to correct his misapprehension, but then thought better of it. “There is a sort of trial and error to my work,” I explained, “It is called the ‘Subtle Art’, after all.”

“Yes, well.” Aryden said, more to himself than to anyone else. “For all your minor successes, our situation continues to deteriorate. My wife cannot be awoken from her slumber. Tell him, Endan.”

Part of me wanted to interrupt and tell them I already knew this, but I decided to play my cards a bit closer to the chest—I’d already chosen to conceal the existence of the cult from Lord Aryden, what would it hurt to keep a little more to myself until I’d deduced the full cause of his lady’s suffering.

The doctor began, “While the phantom may not have appeared to torment the night’s celebrations, my lady’s condition worsens, and I can find no physical cause for her decline. She has no fever, no sweats, no boils or buboes. Her blood appears normal and so does her urine. She’s been in this condition without dying or recovering for too long to suspect toxins, but she shows no signs of disease—and none of her handmaids have fallen ill. And yet, as my lord has mentioned, she is in a slumber and none can wake her. The cause must be spiritual, as we have suspected all along.”

“We are running out of time,” Aryden interrupted. “You are running out of time, Lord Thaumaturge.”

“I am making progress, Aryden.”

“Which is?”

“I’d rather not share all of the details at present.”

“That does not instill trust in said progress.”

“I understand that, but caution is necessary in these matters. We know now that it is Orren’s spirit that haunts your castle. At least, all evidence points that direction and I’ve seen none to contradict it. But we don’t know who killed him and why, both of which are essential to discover if I am to have any chance of banishing the spirit permanently. Gossip travels, and I am loath to let the killer, whoever it is, know what I know lest they plan some way to misdirect me.”

“Hmph,” Aryden responded. “And then there’s the issue of my daughter,” he continued. Behind him, Gamven frowned.

“What issue with your daughter? I already told Gamven what happened.”

“And you can tell me, now,” he insisted.

“What is there to tell? As your servants saw, she entered the room while I was bathing, forgetting herself in her excitement to share with me a clue she’d found in Barro’s library but not remembered until just then and, once she told me, she realized the situation and immediately withdrew.”

“What was it that she found and had so urgently to tell you?”

“That, according to Savute, vengeful spirits sometimes rise when a person dies under Qaidhë’s moon.”

“Does that fit our situation?” Gamven asked.

“I have to do the math, determine when Qaidhë’s moon was last in the sky, see if it fits our timeline.”

Aryden again. “If it does, what does that mean? I thought you said you needed the killer and the motive?”

“If Qaidhë’s moon is an influence, then there may be a ritual to undo that influence. If that’s the true cause, then the boy’s death might actually have been an accident, and there might be no killer at all.”

“An interesting prospect,” the lord said. “And a convenient one, I think.”

I rose from the bed. “If you don’t trust me, Aryden, perhaps I should leave. You come in here first with an accusation of my failure, then of my bedding your daughter, and then of playing some sort of trick on you—and to what purpose? If I were aware of such a simple solution from the first, why would I put myself in harm’s way in the Close? Or with the creature in the forest? Besides, I don’t think that that will be our answer. The spirit here feels…to empowered for some mere operation of the cosmos to be our cause. I’d not even have mentioned the possibility unless I’d checked the stars and found some basis for further investigation—which, as I said, I’ve not yet done.

If you won’t confide in me to do my job as I gave my word I would, how can I help you? When I do find what needs to be done, what happens if you don’t want to hear it? What happens if the person to blame is not someone you are willing to punish? What then?”
Lord amn Vaina was taken aback, either by the forwardness of my words or the revelation that I wore nothing under the bedsheets, though he would’ve known that already if he’d been observant. My underclothes had dried, thankfully, and I put them on as I waited for some response.”

“Dammit,” Aryden said resignedly. “I know you’re right. I don’t like it, but I’m man enough to admit it. I’m—I grow weary of this plague upon our house and my wife. It makes me suspicious. And stubborn.”

“I’m not here to judge you,” I told him. “I’m here to help you. Let me.”

He sighed. “Yes. Of course. But there is one more thing.”

“Lorent amn Esto?”

“Just so.”

“I’ll avoid him,” I said. “You have my word.”

“You’ll be needed at the wedding ceremony this afternoon,” Aryden reminded.

“To keep watch again, yes.”

“So, you’ll spend the morning making the calculations about Vesonna’s theory?”

“I’ll need more information. Can you have Eldis let us know or find out when Qaidhë’s moon was last seen? I can do the rest from there.”

“The farmers will know; they keep an eye on such things. In the meantime?”

“In the meantime, I need to speak with the constable.” By now, I’d donned my clothes for the day and strapped on my belt. As I sat on the edge of the bed to pull my boots on, Aryden and his retainers turned for the door.

Before he left, though, the lord turned back. “Lord thaumaturge…” he began.

“Yes?”

“Work quickly. Save my wife. Please,” I’d not heard such desperation in his voice before, though I’d seen it in is his actions, felt it in his words.

“I’m doing everything I can.”

For a moment, I thought that he’d return the statement with a threat or chastisement that what I was doing was not enough. But he only nodded before he passed through the door.

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To proceed to the next chapter, click here.

Things Unseen, Chapter 33

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

The exhilarating rush that filled me as I returned to my body made it clear that sleep would not come soon, or easily. With the revels continuing in the courtyard below, I gathered that the same would be true for many others in Vaina, so perhaps I would not lose much valuable time in my investigation if I could take some further action now and sleep in a bit once exhaustion finally set in.

I had just the task. Kneeling in the center of the concentric circles that set the foundation of my ritual circle, I began to wipe away at the various symbols I had drawn before without touching those circles themselves. As the runes and sigils began to smudge rather than fade, I wet the cloth near the bowl of water on the table across from the bed and scrubbed, using the wet cloth to pick up the particles of chalk and the dry to wipe away the water left behind.

The floor cleared of its original diagrams, I began to draw another, this one intended for a journey of a different sort, one more harrowing than simply leaving the body.

Again, the ritual forced me to resort to my grimoire repeatedly, turning back and forth between open book and floor, narrowly undoing the details of my work with a careless knee or an outstretched hand searching to balance myself in my movements. I expected the nosy guardsman to intrude once again, but he did not. Perhaps my “threatening thaumaturge” demeanor had become better than I’d thought it. This would be progress as a practitioner—at the university we often laughed about disapproving stares and reproachful gazes being core skills of the magus.

In time, less in fact than the previous ritual drawing had taken, I had completed the new ritual space. I sat within it as before, but hesitated. My last foray to the Sea of Dreams had been both involuntary and life-threatening, and I wondered if the potential benefit of another intrusion really did outweigh the risks. Ultimately, I concluded that, without Aryden allowing me to see his wife (which did not seem to be any nearer to happening than when I’d first arrived) or the wards around the lady’s chamber suddenly and spontaneously collapsing, I had no other available paths to the specific vein of knowledge I sought.

It might have been possible for me to dispel the wards upon Aevala’s chambers, but that, too, would have required physical proximity to them—I did not believe I had sufficient skill to ethereally project myself and dispel them that way, clumsy though they might have been. And, I’ve already explained my general reservations to the use of such techniques.

The drive to know the truth of the matter, more than the potential rewards for satisfying Lord Aryden, overcame my fears. I closed my eyes, remaining silent for this working, quieting my mind except for the image of my destination. This was not an easy task, for my mind remains in a general state of disquiet at the calmest of times. The One did not create me for simple contemplation or for still satisfaction, apparently.

For some time, I struggled with myself, thoughts intruding upon my attempted meditation, images entering my mind unbidden, drawing me into consideration of this event or that clue in my investigation—or even the merits of Worvo’s beer. I shook my head in sympathetic attempt to shake the thoughts from my mind, my inability to focus on a single thing increasing my frustration, increasing the difficulty with which I tried to focus.

As if running into a stone wall built of my own vexation, I opened my eyes in anger. To my surprise, I found that I sat not within my room in Vaina Castle, but within a rowboat, gently bobbing up and down under the twilit sky that blankets the Sea of Dreams.
I looked behind me, to the horizon, for the forested island I’d come to visit. Like a mirage made real, the hazy image of my destination appeared in the distance, gradually becoming solid. Taking up the rowboat’s oars, I pulled myself in that direction.
As I did, I could see other islands in the distance, some hazy, some as solid and real as any island in the Avar. Atop one, a gray and lonely castle; spreading across another relatively nearby (though spatial relationships are remarkably flexible in realms such as this) a bleak desert, baking in the heat of an invisible sun. Turning to check whether my course remained true, a new island, a mountainous dagger rising from the limitless deep, pushed its way into my path, forcing me to divert around it and reacquire my destination before continuing.

In the time that I rowed, I contemplate the potential meanings of the Sea of Dreams’ geography: why each dream-containing island formed in the way it did, why certain islands seemed closer in their relative positions to some but not others, what meaning belonged to these relationships—for whatever meaning there was did not originate from physical laws.

The study of the Art teaches that there are subtle relationships between many things, those that are not readily apparent to the casual observer (as they only sometimes correspond to physical properties and are just as likely to be symbolic or metaphorical) but that may be discovered through careful analysis and study. This principle, these sympathies, are the basis of the various practices of the art. In alchemy, sympathies are used to create desired effects through the relationships between physical materials and those desired results. With sorcery, thaumaturgy, it is the thoughts and images formed and held in the mind that create sympathies with the purpose and direction of the will. This is not simply a matter of visualizing the desired result—although there is some of that to be sure—it is a matter of creating meaning through association, and then using the Power to make that meaning manifest in the Avar. Theurgy and enchantment are hybrid practices, using drawn or carved symbols to create certain sympathies while also relying upon the careful thought and construction of the practitioner.

It only stands to reason that a place such as the Sea of Dreams operates by similar principles. Those private demesnes created by powerful magi, modest examples of that final great working of the Aenyr, likewise operate by rules based in sympathies—and the idiosyncrasies of their creators.

These thoughts passed the time until the rowboat jerked with a hollow thump that indicated I’d arrived on land—the beach of Lady Aevala’s dreams. Leaving the boat, I recovered my balance, it having been disrupted by the waves of an imaginary ocean.
The heavy pall of fear and death continued to hang about this place, the atmosphere thick with imminent tragedy that spoke of a reality entirely independent from Aevala’s dream-state. That dread impelled me this time rather than slowing my steps. Isn’t it strange that its sometimes easier to be brave for someone else’s sake than your own? While that sour feeling in the pit of my stomach yelled at me like a village alarm, my head remained clear as I pushed into the island’s interior, shrouded by the thick canopy of the strangely-shaped trees.

I searched for the pond at which I’d first encountered the lady, for the rocky outcropping and the cave to which I’d chased her, ignoring any potential threats from the sides or behind as I focused on the path forward. I went from one heavy footfall to the next, quickening my pace in frustration and anger as I failed to find any of the landmarks I’d seen before.

In the periphery of my vision, I could see shadows twisting unnaturally between the trunks of trees, as if animated and aware. Whether Orren’s spirit had elected to confront me here, or these manifestations only represented the strange nature of the Sea of Dreams and its innumerable islands, I did not know.

It didn’t matter to me. I felt up for a fight, if only to enjoy something simple and straightforward for a change, and if the spirit thought it’s power enhanced by being in this place, I would match it. As I’d come of my own volition, and had forced my fear down well enough to keep my wits about be, my own long-honed will would have as much benefit in a place formed of desires and will as anything the spirit might hope to gain here.

Indeed, when I finally encountered Aevala, I found the spirit there, too, standing over her, grinning at me as if daring me to attack. The specter aimed its threat not at me, though, but at the woman behind whom it stood.

Aevala lay stretched out on her back over a stone slab, intricately carved with visions from the Book of the Tree, the sort typically reserved for the preparation of the dead for their last rites. Funerary clothes covered her, though no shroud masked her face.
Foolish of me to expect some climactic combat here, as if such a thing would prove useful anyway. I could only hope to banish the spirit again for a time, and nothing would have changed. Not really. I might have kept my wits, but anger had surely clouded my expectations and my judgment.

Drawing in a deep breath, I attempted to do what I’m best at: observe and analyze, hold the situation in my hand and turn it to observe all angles, all of the consequences to the various ways things might play out. This is no element of the Art, merely the application of careful thought and conjecture based on experience and logic, though I’d argue that my practice of the Art had tempered my skill in such endeavors all the same.

Recentering myself gave some relief, as I noticed the subtle rise and fall of Aevala’s chest, indicated she had not yet died, as the props seemed to indicate, but had fallen into a slumber. Over her, cadaverous hand outstretched as if drawing the life out of her bit by bit, breath by breath, Orren’s spirit continued to smile at me, believing itself to have the upper hand. Based on all that had transpired so far, I couldn’t say definitively that it was wrong.

We stared at each other in a sort of stalemate, the phantom and I, my mere presence threatening at least temporary violence to it, it revealing its deepening ability to inflict suffering upon the woman I’d been hired to save, after a fashion. Things are always so much more straightforward in the stories of knights and their lovers.

I had two real options: move against the specter here and now, risking further injury to Aevala, or leave, failing to do anything about the lingering suffering the spirit inflicted upon her. A sensation of warmth surrounded my hands and I looked down to find them wreathed in dancing fire, a visible symbol of my inner anger. What would have required a conscious effort of the will (and a thorough application of technique) to achieve in the Avar required only emotion and the subconscious here in the Sea of Dreams. In the back of my head I made a note to myself to further research this phenomenon on my return to the city—if that happened.

Seeing my manifest animosity, the spirit only smiled wider. If there had been any doubt that vengeance and hatred powered this spirit, that grin disabused me of it in an instant. The feeling of impotence only stoked my fury’s flames; whatever calm I’d generated as I’d analyzed the situation burned away as so much paper.

Aevala’s sleeping form let out a low moan, driving me forward a step in empathy. A chill ran through me as I stepped into the spirit’s cold aura, the shock of it bringing a much-needed reprieve from my anger, however brief. Before me, the specter’s fingers elongated into dagger-like claws in anticipation.

I knew that the spirit could not kill Aevala right away—if it could have, it would have done so already. It required time to complete its design, though that time was running short. Whatever injunction prevented the spirit from taking immediate vengeance on the target of its ire (at least its current target) did not apply to me. Should it rend me apart in this place, I would be dead in all places. That would make it difficult in the extreme to continue my investigation and find some final way to banish the specter once and for all.
As cold as the air around me, my mind weighed the options afresh, finding the risk of a current confrontation too disproportionate to any benefit for logic to support it. It pained me to see Aevala’s condition worsening, her suffering prolonged and deepening, but if I was to help her, I would have to leave her to her suffering a while longer.

I turned. Using all of my strength, I ignored the knot in my gut, no longer a warning of danger but a natural response to ignoring the suffering of another mortal being. I retreated slowly, deliberately, pausing several times to consider turning back toward the lady and coming to her rescue—like one of those knights in stories, perhaps. But ultimately, I reminded myself of the fantasy of such things, and the fantastic nature the dreamforged island around me accentuated the point. So, I kept moving.

I kept moving through what felt like long hours of walking, hoping that by traveling in a single direction I would eventually reach the island’s beach, which I could then follow around to my boat. Time consuming, but the most reliable method of navigation I could imagine in this ephemeral place.

A thought occurred to me that I’d not considered before: what would happen if Aevala’s dream ended before I’d left the island? If I’d only been dreaming, I’m sure that I would have simply awoken myself. But I had projected myself here in spirit, made myself more present by my will to be here rather than the natural workings of the Sea. Would the island suddenly disappear, leaving me to fall into an empty patch of the Sea? Would I be stuck in some in-between place? If so, would I be freed at the onset of the lady’s next dream and able to return to my body—if it continued to be able to house my spirit?
Some comforted existed then that Aevala had entered into a seemingly-impenetrable sleep from which she was unlikely to wake, cold comfort though that was.

Finally, I returned to the little rowboat waiting for me on the shore. I pushed it free of the sandy beach and leapt in, but not without soaking myself in the process. Pulling at the oars, I made my way into an open patch of the Sea before closing my eyes and thinking of that room in Vaina Castle where my body awaited me.

Even more than in my attempt to reach the Sea of Dreams in the first place, my mind raced, eschewing all attempts at focus or quiet meditation. Behind the constant stream of thoughts, I growing panic began to gnaw at me: what if I could not achieve peace enough to return at all? What if my own idiosyncrasies prevented me from leaving? Would I be stuck here for all eternity, some stranger making unexpected and inexplicable appearances in the dreams of the Avar’s sleepers? Did such a class of unfortunate—or over-ambitious—practitioners exist?

Remember what I said about sympathies, about the bonds of symbolism and meaning between things both alike and seemingly disparate? Apparently, the sympathy between a body and soul is a particularly strong one. This makes sense, I suppose—how else keep a thing by nature so free and eternal bound within something so frail and limited? The power of that bond, more than any of my own doing, brought me safely home again.
The warm air of the summer night greeted me as I returned to myself. I opened my eyes to find the my room’s window ajar. This brought me quickly to my feet, though as my mind caught up to my shock I realized that I’d likely already be dead if another assassin had entered through the window while my body sat empty and defenseless in the middle of the room.

Checking the window and the wall outside, I found no signs of entry or a forcing of the window. More likely, the flux of the theurgic ritual had drawn another gust of wind that blew the window open. Only once calm hit me did I realize that the wet of the Sea of Dreams had followed me back to the Avar. I’d dripped a trail across the room from the ritual circle to the window, water continuing to fall from my clothes in heavy drops.
Below, the celebration had finally begun to wind down. The music had stopped and only the low sounds of whispered conversations, punctuated by the occasional raucous laughter, remained, the remnants of those who refused to take to their beds but who had nowhere better to be. The hour must have been later indeed, though not so late as I’d expected given the amount of time I’d felt pass in the Sea of Dreams. But time moves differently there.

I removed my wet clothes, again, and hung them on the window sill as I had done before. Still damp, I fell into the bed, drifting quickly to my own emergent island somewhere in the Sea, hopefully far away from the one occupied by Aevala and her captor.

I’d need whatever sleep I could get. Time was running short, and I had much to do to banish Orren’s ghost.

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To proceed to the next chapter, click here.

Things Unseen, Chapter 32

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

I removed my mask and tossed it atop the bed, glad to be free of its tight embrace. The air felt easier to breathe and my broadened perception allayed some of the claustrophobia I’d felt when surrounded by dozens of potential assailants.

For a moment, I just stood there, mulling of the spirit’s messenger’s words, turning them over in my mind in hopes of uncovering some hidden implication or meaning. Everyone in Vaina, had a secret he wanted to keep, even the incorporeal citizens. Especially the incorporeal inhabitants, perhaps.

But supposition would do me little good, and I soon turned my thoughts to find something within my power to search for more clues rather than to keep pushing the ones I had together like some half-missing puzzle set.

I changed back into my regular attire and obtained my ritual belt and a piece of chalk. Taking my time, I drew out the concentric circles on the floor boards, careful to keep the lines as regular as possible over the seams between planks and the minor textures and irregularities in the wood. Once I’d completed the circles, I procured my grimoire from the chest at the foot of the bed, searching through for the specific runes and patterns I wanted for this working.

Having not performed such a working in quite some time, I had to reference the pages of my collected knowledge of the Art (that I didn’t know by rote, at least) many times to ensure the proper placement and designs of the symbols necessary to the circle’s function.

Finally, perhaps an hour after I’d begun, I sat down within the circle, legs folded, and closed my eyes. I whispered the incantations softly, hoping not to disturb the watchers at my door, allowing my consciousness to release its moorings to my body. Just as I felt myself beginning to float free, the door to my room opened.

I snapped back into myself with a gasp, my eyes opening wide to see one of the guardsmen with the door half-open, making much the same expression I had.
“What are you doing,” I shot, doing my best impression of the thaumaturge not to be trifled with. My annoyance assisted in this.

“I-I heard noises,” he said feebly.

Indeed, a sudden wind had apparently blown through the room, knocking around some of my belongings. The room’s window remained closed. In preparing to leave my body, my senses had been distracted from the physical world around me, and I’d remained oblivious.

“You will hear noises,” I growled. “Ignore them. Unless I call for you, keep an eye that no one enters my room. Including. You.”

He nodded his assent and closed the door again. I could hear a mumbled exchange in unsure voices between the two guardsmen, and then silence.

With the calm and quiet restored, I turned back to my task. Again I closed my eyes and chanted, visualizing my spirit leaving my body until I felt it happening. I floated above myself, looking down upon my sitting form, my mouth still repeating the incantations despite my absence from it.

This is not a technique of the Art that I enjoy. It makes me feel more vulnerable than empowered. Unlike a being whose essential condition is inherently incorporeal and ethereal, being a disembodied practitioner feels much like looking at the world above while one’s head is underwater—a general sense may be made of things, but one must deal with distortion and confusion in the senses. Theologians who are also practitioners of the Subtle Art have debated why this is the case, with some arguing about the significance of being incarnated beings and others preferring to rely on the mortal practitioner’s relative inexperience of being ethereal as the cause. The latter speculate that, given enough time out of body, we could adjust and sharpen our senses. Still, the body itself begins to die if emptied of its inhabiting spirit for long enough, so none has been able to test this theory overmuch.

A side effect of inhibited senses when projecting consciousness is that it is difficult to use the Art as well. The better the visualization of the target of an effect, the easier that effect is to achieve. This by itself degrades performance. To say nothing of the fact that we practitioners receive our training in drawing the Power through our bodies to empower sorceries and thaumaturgies, using our physical selves as intermediary between the external world and the internal self. Channeling the Power for a working while disembodied is thus especially difficult.

These things combined to leave me relatively defenseless in a confrontation with either of the rogue spirits of Vaina. But I intended no such confrontation—if Orren’s spirit manifested itself during the night, I would immediately return to my body to engage with it. Should I encounter the natural spirit of Vaina, I would likewise return to my body. Not to fight with it, but to disengage.

For all my reservations, there are of course advantages to projecting the consciousness in this manner. To begin, I am not bound by most of the physical barriers that impede normal movement, nor am I confined to movement at the speed my feet may carry me. Second, spirits and souls—of both those bound to flesh and those less so—are like shining beacons to one who has projected into the ethereal world that borders our own. While my perceptions were generally dimmed, I had the ability to see things I could not with my physical eyes when looking at another person through this medium.
The Sight, in most ways, is simply peering into the ethereal without projecting into it fully. Of course, all of the dangers attendant to that practice also accompany this one.
Loosed into the ethereal as a bright and floating spirit, I first scanned through the interior of the keep, able to see through stone and wood, searching for any sign of Orren’s spirit.

Finding none, I next turned my attention to Lady Aevala’s chambers, hoping I might see something that could substitute for the direct observation that her husband had so obstinately prevented. A shroud of sorts, a dark barrier through which my ethereal senses could not penetrate, surrounded the room like a sphere. Someone had inscribed and empowered crude wards upon the room, wards that did not prevent Orren’s specter from reaching the afflicted woman but that would prevent my efforts to scry into that space. Had Orren established these before his death? That might explain his ability to pass through them, though his strange power as a spirit—far in excess of any mere phantom I’d encountered before—might allow him to force his way through the protections just as easily.

Noting the disturbing detail but without time to further investigate at present, I at once left my bedchamber through its outer wall, looking down upon the continuing festivities below, where the light now came from those who danced, cavorted, drank and entertained themselves rather than the lamps or torches, which now flickered only dimly to my sight, shadows in the shape of flames.

Descending, moving closer to that crowd of gathered courtiers of which I’d been a part not so long before, I searched for Daedys among them. Both his demeanor over the course of his evening and the words of the anonymous messenger impressed upon me the idea that I might find something of use among the constable’s secrets. Orren had been his nephew, after all; if the boy had been part of the cult, the probability followed that the im Vardi were involved as a whole. Further, if a dispute existed between factions within the cult, as the messenger had intimated, and Orren had acted against the designs of the spirit at the center of that cult, then Daedys likely also belonged to that dissenting faction—or would at least know something about it.

Such thoughts occupied my mind as I watched, invisible. For a long time, the constable only sulked, continuing to nurse his drinks slowly, and probably maintaining a clearer head than most around him. Eventually, though, perhaps when he’d decided he’d stayed long enough to be decorous—though given his behavior at the festivities I rather thought he’d left decorum behind long before—he approached the bride- and groom-to-be, wished them well in their preparations for the wedding tomorrow, thanked Lord Aryden for the hospitality and generosity, and took his leave.

I followed after him, leaving a good space between us out of habit more than need, for he could not see me in such a state—not without the Sight. He walked a normal course to the inner gatehouse and passed through into Old Vaina, continuing without deviation to the outer gatehouse and New Vaina. But, once here, his path did not lead straight home. Instead, glancing around briefly for anyone else roaming about, he ducked into one of the smaller alleys between buildings, making quick turns and evasive dodges through sidestreets and lesser-used paths. Had I been following him physically, I’d have had a hard time indeed keeping up with him, especially without giving myself away.
As it were, his deft maneuvers availed him nothing. I tracked him to the darkened corner, out of the light of any torch or lantern, where he made his rendezvous with another soul, a man waiting there for him.

Before Daedys had fully arrived, the man rocked back and forth on his heels, impatient, agitated. Through the distortion of my ethereal vision, I could not make out the facial features of the waiting figure—though, through this form of the Sight, I plainly observed the absence of the last joint of his right thumb.

He wore simple clothing that could have belonged to anyone from New Vaina, from the tenant farmers and cottagers to the minor tradesmen who served the wants and whims of the town’s merchants and magnates. I perceived the color as dark, though this could have been a matter of my idiosyncratic mode of perception.

Likewise, the sounds from the conversation came to me muffled, as if an echo at a distance, and I struggled to make out what words I could. From what I could glean, the men were familiar with one another. Daedys exerted authority over the man, who seemed to be complaining of—and excusing—the failure of his attack upon me.

The suspicions given to me by the cult’s messenger not so long before had been proved valid by this exchange—Daedys and Orren must have belonged to that dissenting faction within the Vaina cult, the one which, against the command of the spectral master, had attempted to cut short my life this very evening.

My racing mind, conspiring with the inherent difficulty of the task, prevented me from capturing any helpful detail of the exchange between the two men, which ended with them parting ways, both apparently upset. But the details would come soon enough—knowledge of the meeting itself provided direction for my further investigation. And the revelation of any enemy against whom I could now protect myself.

Anger and indignation replaced fear now that I had the source of the threat, though I knew it still too premature to take any direct action against the constable. He enjoyed Lord Aryden’s trust and I did not; I would need tangible evidence beyond my own testimony to convince my employer that I was not simply grasping at straws.

Further, Daedys’ motives, or Orren’s, or the cult’s spirit’s for that matter, all remained obscured to me, and I knew I would be wise to seek greater understanding of the situation before doing anything drastic—despite the emotion pushing me to swift retribution. After my own words to Lorent, I would not make a hypocrite of myself. The line of morality may be sometimes blurred in my work, but the line of hypocrisy remains a clear beacon to all people at all times.

Already, I had spent as much time away from my body as I dared, counting myself fortunate that the activity had not drawn any unwanted attention. At the speed of a thought, I returned to myself, opening my eyes and savoring the rush of sensation restored.

For a single PDF with all chapters released to date, click here.

Things Unseen, Chapter 31

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

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.”

“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?”

“I…”

“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.”

“Help? How?”
“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—”she began.

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.”

“Fine.”

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.

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