DargonZine 19, Issue 5

Dancing

Sy 12, 1018 - Sy 14, 1018


This entry is part 25 of 27 in the series The Black Idol

I looked down at the dagger that was pointed at me, sharp tip touching my chest, and I could see my reflection in the polished blade. A thin face, greying hair, and sad, sad eyes looked back at me. There was a question in that face, but no fear. The threat of the dagger seemed, perhaps, welcome.

The latch on the door to my office rattled and my hands opened automatically, releasing the dagger, which thudded dully on my desk. One end of the crossguard gouged the leather pad that covered much of the top. My assistant, Heerans, opened the door and said, “Percantlin, there’s been an incident in the grain warehouse. You’d better come.”

I looked up from the gouge and into Heerans’ concerned eyes. I couldn’t decide whether the interruption was welcome or not, but I knew that I needed to respond. I rose from my chair into the after-midday sunlight of the Sy day where it sliced through my office from the window high on the wall behind me. Concentrating on the warmth it gave my shoulder and the side of my face, I mentally struggled to leave the dagger behind before following Heerans from the room. It would, after all, be there when I returned.

“Rats,” he said as we strode past his desk and through the hallway to the outer door. I struggled to pay attention to his words, noting his sidelong glances as he said, “They’re in the small grain store.”

Rats weren’t the kind of thing that I, as owner of the shipping, trading, and storage company called Fifth I Merchants, was regularly summoned to deal with, and Heerans knew that, too. Ultimately there was little that I could do to deal with rats that the warehouse manager couldn’t do on her own. But my assistant knew that I was troubled, and with the rapport that develops between people who work together for years, he knew that I needed things to do, problems to deal with, to keep my mind off my pain. Pain that, even after a month, I was still unable to deal with: my daughter, Kalibriona, was dead.

I barely noticed as we stepped out of the building and into the air of the city of Dargon. Thoughts of my daughter filled my head. I remembered her marriage just two years before, and how radiant she had been, young and beautiful and leaving. My Bronna had been 18 when she and her husband had moved to a distant duchy, and she’d been barely 20 and returning to Dargon when she’d died. She was too young to be dead.

I didn’t want to keep dwelling on that subject, so I sought to distract myself. I looked around and focused on the details of where we walked so as to drive the painful memories away.

Heerans and I were walking east on the cobbles of Division Street, heading toward Coldwell Street but away from the Coldwell River. To our left was the main warehouse where my office was located, a long, narrow, storey-and-a-half brick building with strong walls and thick doors. On the other side of the street were more warehouses, also brick, but they didn’t belong to Fifth I. I could feel the heat radiating off the sun-warmed bricks beside me; the bustle and noise of the docks rang in my ears; and the sea-smell of the wide mouth of the Coldwell behind us was strong in my nose.

We approached the end of the main warehouse and the alley that gave access from Division to the large loading yard behind it. On the other side of that alley were three small buildings that were also Fifth I warehouses but which looked more like shops or dwellings, all windows and decorated facades and narrow doors. I had plans to join all three together into a more efficient space someday, but there was no pressing need.

Heerans and I were about to cross the alley — the grain store was in the last of the three small buildings in front of us — when I heard a rumbling crash from behind the nearest of those odd warehouses. I turned down the alley toward the access-way that ran behind the three odd buildings and separated them from the large, low storage structure where we kept our bulk items. There was a cry of pain and then another rumbling crash before I reached the access-way. Several workers spilled out of the bulk warehouse and arrived at the space between the buildings before me, and their shouts made me hurry.

The first thing I saw upon arriving was the body. The second thing I saw was the rubble that had fallen from the walls of the warehouses on both sides. From my vantage point, the rubble was beyond the body, which wasn’t moving. The workers had seen something else, it seemed, as they were still shouting and racing down the alley away from me. I looked in the direction they were headed and glimpsed two figures turn the corner to the right between the first two house-like buildings.

Heerans had approached the body and I followed, wondering who the fleeing figures were. My assistant crouched down by the body, and then stood up again, a sour look on his face. “Just a gypsy,” he said.

I looked down and saw that Heerans was right. A young man, no older than my daughter, was lying there. He had the high cheekbones and large, hooked nose typical of one of the Rhydd Pobl, and his clothes were a designed patchwork of colors that were muted and worn, but not shabby. Blood streamed from a terrible gash in his forehead. I knelt beside the youth and held my hand under his nose, but felt no brush of air. He was dead.

My vision began to waver as tears filled my eyes, and I thought, “Like my daughter.” I was just about to start rocking and keening, as I had so many nights alone in my room, when Heerans laid a hand on my shoulder. “Sir, did you know him? I mean, he’s just a gypsy …”

I dashed his hand away and twisted around to face him, my misery turning to white hot rage in an instant. “Don’t you dare say that again, Heerans! He’s dead and deserves more respect than that, no matter who he was. He’s someone’s son, maybe even some infant’s father! Straight?”

Heerans backed away, astonishment written all over his face. His stammered reply was interrupted by the return of the workers who had dashed down the alley. “Master Percantlin, sir, we lost ‘em,” the younger one said.

I reined in my anger, knowing it wasn’t going to be helpful here. When I could do so without shouting, I asked, “Who were they and why were you chasing them?”

The older of the pair said, “Don’t know, sir. Heard the crash, came outside, saw two people bending over that one there. I shouted, they ran. We chased ‘em, but they got away down Coldwell Street.”

“Thank you for the effort, both of you.” I wondered what the strangers had been doing poised over the dead body. “Could you describe them for me?”

The younger one said, “Robes and dark hair, sir. The one with the hood was holding ‘is head and limping a bit, though he ran good. Couldn’t tell no more.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Could one of you fetch one of our sentries, and then the Town Guard?”

The younger one nodded. Both bowed and walked off. I glanced over at Heerans, who was looking at me with a calm expression. He said, “I’m sorry, sir. You’re right.” I nodded, and turned back to the gypsy boy.

Sorrow welled up inside me again, and not just at the thought of the lost life before me. I quickly started cataloging details, pushing the despair back little by little.

The reason he’d died was obvious: the head wound. I looked around and found a bloody brick lying just beyond him and deduced it was the cause. I noticed that there was nothing else lying near him except for brick dust. Looking behind me, I saw the rents in the walls of the two warehouses where the outer layer of bricks had collapsed, strewing rubble close to the holes and dust much further.

After a squeamish moment, I started searching the body, hoping for something to help identify him. I knew little about the ways of the Rhydd Pobl but I didn’t really expect to find a clan sigil or a family crest on him. However, I still needed details to keep my thoughts occupied.

His belt pouch had a few copper Bits in it. I left them there. In a pocket sewn inside of his vest was a long, thin box, which I removed. I opened the simple latch and lifted the lid to find a long tube resting in the velvet interior. The tube was heavily carved with figures that I did not recognize, and it had holes in it spaced regularly down its length. I guessed that it was some kind of flute.

I didn’t want to move the body much, not knowing what kind of procedures the Town Guard would want to go through, but as I searched him I noticed that there was as much brick dust underneath him as on top of him. I thought back to the two crashes and the cry between and deduced that he had been hit by a stray brick fragment from the first collapse. I did think it odd that only one piece of broken brick had come in this direction.

I found no hidden pockets, and no clues to his identity. I sat back on my heels for a moment, wondering what to do next.

“Your pardon, Master Percantlin.”

I looked over my shoulder and saw an older man in a Fifth I guard uniform standing there. He continued, “You wanted to see me?”

I stood and said, “I’d like you to check these buildings to see whether anything has been taken or disturbed. There were two people running away when I arrived, and I’d like to know if they were up to some mischief or other.”

The guard looked down at the body at my feet, then back up at me. I said, “Perhaps they were involved with this, and perhaps his death was just an accident. But I won’t know which until I have some information about the state of the warehouses.”

“Very good, sir,” he said, and hurried away.

“Your pardon, Master Percantlin.”

I turned around again, wishing people would stop coming up behind me, and saw a town guard this time. The woman, probably my age, looked fit and competent in the city’s colors with a sword at her side. She seemed harried, her brow furrowed and her eyes narrowed, as she said, “You wanted to see one of us?”

I gestured at the dead boy, and said, “I thought you should know about this.”

She looked down briefly, and I could see the dismissal in her eyes when she looked back up and said, “He’s just a gypsy.”

I closed my eyes for a moment, then said in a very restrained tone, “And what does that matter? He’s still an ended life. He might have relatives to notify. And there is the possibility that his death was not accidental; there were two men running away from him when I arrived.”

The town guard sighed, and I could tell that she was restraining her own temper. She said, “Master Percantlin, in case you haven’t heard, there was a serious accident at midday; a barge hit and damaged the causeway. In the bells since, there have been an inordinate number of accidents all over the city. In the resulting chaos, you expect the guard to devote time and personnel to searching for the family of an itinerant, and his possible murderer, when it isn’t even our job to do so? You should know that our writ runs to the welfare of the people of Dargon, not vagrants and wanderers. If the citywide situation was different, then someone might have been persuaded to follow this up. As it is, none of us has the time. I hope you can understand.”

She turned to go, and I said, “But what about the body? I found –”

She said, “Have someone notify the Death Rattler, but you’d better wrap the corpse up good; it might be some time before he has room in his wagon. You can keep whatever you’ve found. Have a good day, Master Percantlin. I’ve got real work to get back to.”

***

Half a bell later, I was back behind my desk, a ledger covering the gouge that the dagger, now safely in a bottom drawer, had made. The flute was resting beside the ledger, and my attention was focused on it.

The Fifth I guard had found nothing disturbed or missing from the warehouses except for the grain store infested with rats, which were then chased away. Following the town guard’s suggestion, I had sent a runner for the Death Rattler, a corpse collector, and had ordered the boy’s body wrapped in oilcloth and stowed. I was still shocked at the guard’s disregard for the life of the boy, but there was little I could do in the face of it. I had already dismissed the idea of finding someone higher in authority, a sergeant or lieutenant, to plead the boy’s case to; while I’d been walking back toward my office I had seen a wagon crash into the building on the other side of Division and I realized that the guard probably did have better things to do at the moment than look into a minor mystery.

The puzzle of the boy’s death wasn’t so easy for me to set aside, though. I knew the pain of losing a child, and the thought of the boy’s parents waiting for his return somewhere made me ache with sympathy. Added to that, I had always found solving problems to be pleasing. Finding the solution to this one would be deeply satisfying.

My office door opened and Heerans ushered Master Yokit through. I stood and extended my hand to greet the man, a good customer of long standing. I didn’t normally meet personally with my clients, but my ordering clerk had not returned from her late lunch.

Yokit grasped my wrist, said hello, and sat in the chair on the other side of my desk. I sat down, too, and we began haggling over the price for the hides he had dyed. My hand strayed to touch the gypsy’s flute, and when it did, a curious thing happened. Normally when striking a deal, I kept a few possibilities in the back of my head. Dealing was like game playing, with moves and counter moves, and a good player knows his opponent and what kinds of plays are likely to be made. I knew what moves I needed to make with Yokit to get the best price, and had a few tricks waiting in case the man was up to something new.

When I touched the flute, however, an image entered my head. I saw an array of doors before me and something told me in an instant what each door represented, laying out every possible action I could take in response to Master Yokit’s proposed deal, including options I would have never ordinarily even considered. One door meant taking his deal, another meant offering him more, and a third indicated offering him less. Another door would lead me to throwing him out for insulting me, and the next said I could kill him and forge the order for the hides. I could also make the deal and never pay him, or pay him, take the hides, and then gift them back to him. Every alternative was represented there, every door the same size and shape, each equally viable.

All of this information simply appeared in my head, seen and understood between one word from Yokit and the next. It startled me so much that I snatched my hand off the flute with an oath, and then had to apologize for my outburst. We resumed our negotiation and made our usual fair deal. Once he had left, I stared at the flute again.

Three more customers and two scheduled appointments with shipping agents occupied the next two bells. I left the flute alone for the first two of those, but on the third customer I touched the flute lightly and saw an array of doors as before. I made a bargaining gambit, and the door that represented my choice grew in my mind’s eye as if I was passing through it. On the other side, I saw a new set of doors and knew their meaning. Some were the same choices as before and some had changed along with the possibilities of the situation. There was still no value attached to the choices — was this one good, that one bad? — but there wasn’t any way I could miss an option.

I finished the bargaining without the flute, not really finding any advantage in the strange ability. When the first of the two shipping agents came into my office to discuss scheduling, I again touched the flute, and found myself presented with options again: I could delay or advance the shipment, pay him more or less to do the job, give the job to one of two other companies, or send them west with my own guards. I found the lack of weight to the choices frustrating and I wondered whether I could choose an option, go through its door, and continue the process until I had determined whether the course of action was worthwhile. I didn’t dare experiment, though. While comprehending the choices of the doors seemed instantaneous, I didn’t know how long following various option selections might take, and I didn’t want to offend the shipping agent.

Before my last appointment of the day arrived, Heerans brought Tanjural, my son-in-law, into the office. I couldn’t help but frown when I saw him. When he had married my Kalibriona two years before and taken her away to the Duchy of Kiliaen, I had resigned myself to being separated from Bronna for a long time. Her letters had detailed her life in the duke’s court, where Tanjural had worked as chief clerk. They had also told of the corruption and double-dealing that had led to his being released from that job as a scapegoat. In the aftermath they’d had no choice but to return to Dargon, and along the way my Bronna had taken ill and died. Tanjural still refused to tell me the circumstances of her death.

Heerans said, “Percantlin, the causeway disaster has shut down all traffic on the Coldwell, and it doesn’t look like the way will be clear again for days, maybe longer. This means that our outgoing and incoming goods need to bypass that blockage. Tanjural has worked out transportation schedules and routes, and has located some supplies to build some temporary loading docks upriver. His plans just need your signature.”

I looked at the paper my assistant placed in front of me. It would have been wise to read it, but I didn’t want to spend that much time with my son-in-law. Tanjural had been an employee of mine before marrying my daughter, and he knew the business, which was why I’d hired him back. If Heerans had said anything about possible changes, I would have delayed my decision. Instead, I grabbed a quill and signed my name.

“Go, get it done,” I said harshly, all but throwing the paper back at my assistant. I continued to scowl at my desk until the door closed again.

I was having difficulty clearing my head of the dark thoughts brought on by Tanjural’s presence when my last appointment arrived. I don’t know whether the deal I ended up striking with her was a good one, but soon, possibly too soon, the shipping agent was gone and I was alone in my darkening office. I looked at my ledger and at the flute. I reached out and touched the flute, and examined the presented options. I could stay here all night and brood. I could go home to my housekeeper Margat’s excellent cooking. I could go to some dockside bar and get roaring drunk. I could head east across the city to the Lulling District and contract with a whore at Mother of Pearl’s. Or, I could reach down into the bottom drawer, retrieve my dagger, and finish my earlier business with it.

I chose dinner, and left.

***

The next morning I walked through Heerans’ office to my own, ignoring his stare as I passed by. The stare was normal, though it had only started lately. It wasn’t caused by my arrival time, which was neither early nor late, but probably by the redness of my eyes and the unkempt nature of my clothes and hair, which were all recent innovations.

I sat at my desk, finding everything as I had left it the night before, flute next to the ledger on the leather pad. Heerans came in with his morning list, which was rather longer than usual that day. The chaos that had gripped the city ever since the causeway accident the day before had disrupted my warehouses in the night, and was playing havoc with my daily appointments. The one bit of unreservedly good news was that my ordering clerk had returned; she had been caught up helping accident victims after her lunch.

Heerans left, and I had half a bell until my first appointment. I yawned and rubbed my eyes, feeling tired and raw after a night plagued by thoughts of my daughter, the dead gypsy boy, and his parents pining away for news that would never come. I looked at my ledger book, but couldn’t find the concentration necessary to pay attention to the columns of numbers. I looked at the flute, and a flight of fancy took me.

I have never had much interest in creating music of any kind, but I picked up the strangely-carved instrument anyway. I was surprised to note that the array of doors did not appear. I guessed that holding the flute didn’t generate the same effect as just touching it. I would have to test that out later. My fingers seemed to fit themselves over the holes, and my arms came up in such a way that the wider air hole rested just under my bottom lip, the bore of the instrument jutting out to my right.

I looked around to make sure no one was there to watch me make a fool out of myself. My office was empty. There was a pool of sunlight from the high windows on my left, just touching the edge of the door. I glanced over to those windows just as a grey dove launched away from the sill, its spread wings dimming the sunlight for a moment.

I pursed my lips and blew air out between them and across the flute. A thin, pure tone seemed to fill the room, and when my fingers shifted, some lifting, some stretching and covering new holes, the note changed.

I grew suddenly fumble-fingered and the flute slipped out of my fingers. I barely caught it before it hit the desk. I looked around on the edge of embarrassment, though whether for the dropped flute or the astonishingly pure notes I wasn’t sure.

I hesitantly lifted the flute back to my lips and suddenly I saw all of my options for that moment spread before me. But instead of doors, I now saw paths, each one mentally labeled as before: play the flute and succeed, play the flute and fail, throw the flute across the room, put the flute in its case, and more. I didn’t just see the beginning of each path, either, but where that path led and the options each choice would then present me with, and another layer of paths and choices, and on and on. So much information lay before me that it was overwhelming and I set the flute down in its case to make it all go away.

Only it didn’t. Instead, the paths changed: I could stay seated and look at my ledger, I could stand, I could go to the door and call for Heerans, I could go to the door and leave. The paths branched and multiplied, spreading away from me in a way that I was aware of but which didn’t interfere with my view of the room around me. I noticed that the flute wasn’t present in any of the paths, and wondered why.

The office door opened and Heerans peered in, a puzzled frown on his face. I ignored the pathways as he said, “Percantlin, there’s a short man with big ears here who wants to know if we want some stem bolts. Do we?”

I looked at the options, and saw that the paths leading from accepting the product, whatever it was, led only to loss of money and wasted storage space. I said, “I’ve heard of bolts of fabric, but not bolts of stems. Tell him to go away.”

Heerans nodded and withdrew. The pattern of pathways slipped along past “don’t buy them” and settled into a new configuration. I wondered why I no longer needed to touch the flute to see the possibilities, and why they were now presented as paths, not doors. None of the options before me led to an answer to my question, so I chose one I could understand instead and turned my attention to the numbers in the ledger. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed as if I could hear faint music in the silence of my office.

The day seemed to blur by, overlaid throughout by the ubiquitous pathways that almost seemed to dance as they shifted from decision to decision. Meetings came and went, and I deftly manipulated every one to the best outcome possible, tracing the paths from junction to junction before committing to one or another choice. When Heerans came to me with news of this or that disaster, I could see all of the possible responses to the situation, and used my new insight to make the best of every one.

It was only as I was heading home after a much busier than normal day that I realized that I hadn’t had time to think about the two deaths that haunted me. I wondered whether the powers of the flute could help me find out what had happened to the gypsy boy. If it could show me things that hadn’t happened yet, perhaps it could also show me things that had already happened, following choices in reverse or something similar.

Without paying attention to the pathways before me, I decided to return to the office to retrieve the instrument. As I turned, I caught sight of a dark form darting out of an alley. Before I could see more than a wave of dark hair and a flash of something silvery, I felt something sharp penetrate my chest, sliding deep into my body. I could feel coldness swell from that penetration, and a warm wetness that ran from it down my front. My eyesight began to dim and I felt myself swaying, growing weaker and weaker. The music that had been in the background in silent moments all day swelled and grew until …

***

… I opened my eyes to bright daylight and looked around. I found myself suddenly back in my empty office, sitting in my chair, my hands holding the flute, fingers poised confidently over holes. The instrument was positioned at my lips, its bore jutting out to the right. There was a pool of sunlight from the high windows on my left, just touching the edge of the door. I glanced over to those windows just as a grey dove launched away from the sill, its spread wings dimming the sunlight for a moment.

I pursed my lips as if to blow, but took the flute away from my mouth instead. I swayed again as I had just a moment ago, in the dark, in an alley. I slumped back in my chair and looked at my chest. It didn’t hurt at all, and there was nothing wet there either. It seemed to be morning, but was it the same morning? Everything looked and felt the same, or did it?

I set the flute back into its case, and was startled that I didn’t see any pathways telling me what I could do instead. I listened, and heard no music. I was wondering whether the day had already happened, or whether I had dreamed it somehow, when Heerans opened the door to my office and peered in, a puzzled frown on his face. He said, “Percantlin, there’s a short man with big ears here who wants to know if we want some stem bolts. Do we?”

That wasn’t something that happened every day, but I had certainly experienced it before. I still didn’t know what a stem bolt was, but I knew what to do with them. I said, “I’ve heard of bolts of fabric, but not bolts of stems. Tell him to go away.” Heerans nodded and withdrew.

I proceeded to relive the 13th of Sy, moment by moment, meeting by meeting, bell by bell. This time the day seemed to drag, but only because I knew everything that was coming next. Even without the guidance of the pathways, or even just the flute’s doorways, I was still able to remember enough about the bargaining to come out ahead, and I had my responses to Heerans’ disaster announcements ready as well. I was too nervous to try to change anything major, though I was daring enough to choose a different leftwich for lunch.

I took a different way home that night. I left the flute at the office, not truly wanting to experiment with its power just yet. I decided over Margat’s fine meal that I needed to find out more about the flute first.

***

The morning of the fourteenth of Sy was as busy as the previous day had been. I left the flute alone and muddled my way on my own through the crises and disasters that were still plaguing the city, not to mention the regular business of the Fifth I. I learned that Tanjural’s rerouting plans were working as well as expected, given that every sixth wagon lost a wheel if not its entire load, and the horses were as likely to stampede as rabbits were to breed.

At about midday I set aside my duties, trusting them to my employees for a few bells. I closed the flute into its case, picked it up, and set off to find some answers. I hoped that learning about the gypsy’s possession would also help me find out about him.

At the house of Aardvard Factotum, healer and information finder, I was ushered into the parlor by Hansen, the butler. Aardvard arrived moments later and greeted me with a warm wrist-grasp and a hearty slap on the back. “Good to see you, Cant. How is the Fifth I doing these days?”

“As well as can be expected, with disaster running riot in the city,” I replied. “I was hoping you could help me with a little mystery I came across two days ago. I found the dead body of a young gypsy boy, and all he had on him was this.” I showed Aardvard the closed flute case. “Do you recognize it? I’m hoping it can tell us who the boy was.”

Aardvard picked up the box. He examined it, but there really wasn’t anything distinctive about it. After giving me a sideways look he opened it, and his eyes widened. He reached for the instrument and I briefly wondered whether he would see the doors like I had. As his fingers closed around the tube I remembered that holding the flute created a different effect than just touching it. I decided to stop him if he tried to play it, though.

Aardvard drew the flute out of its case and said, “This is very finely crafted, and, I think, very old.” He looked closely at the strange symbols carved into the shaft of the instrument and tutted now and again. His brows drew together as he pored over the flute, and he shook his head more and more often.

Finally he said, “It reminds me of something, but I just can’t place what. I think it has something to do with the Creator’s Pantheon, but the symbols just aren’t right. Give me some time, though. I’ll do a little research. I’m sure I know the right book. I’ll get back to you tomorrow, yes?”

“That will be fine, Aardvard. Do you need to copy the symbols or anything? I don’t want to leave the flute here.”

“No, no, I’ve got a very good memory. I’ll be fine. Now, you said this came from a dead gypsy? That’s odd. I am not aware of any gypsy adherents of the Creator’s Pantheon; the Rhydd Pobl tend to be more nature oriented, more animist, more primal. But maybe … I’ll have to check in the other book, and maybe that one, too.” I could see that he was looking at his pile of research books in his mind’s eye.

He blinked and refocused on me, and said, “And as for the boy himself, let me ask a friend of a friend if he knows anything. Gypsies aren’t loners, normally. Someone will know about him. Unfortunately, they may not be in the city at the moment.”

I stood, giving Aardvard my thanks and farewells. I showed myself out, and directed my steps homeward instead of back to the office. I didn’t want work to push aside thoughts of the boy. He deserved to be someone’s top priority, even if all I could do was wait for Aardvard’s summons.

I idled around my home for a bell and a half, unable to concentrate on anything, wishing I could snap my fingers and have it be tomorrow and already know the answers Aardvard would give. Suddenly, the idea came to me: I could play the flute! Then I would know what tomorrow would bring today!

I hurried to my study and settled into my cozy chair, the small room comfortably close around me, my short bookshelf to one side, a table to the other. I lifted the flute from its case on the table and raised it to my lips. I looked through the window to see a wagon passing in the street outside. As its rear gate fell open, dashing ripe fruit to the pavement, I blew across the air hole and filled the wood-walled room with a clear, pure note.

As soon as I set the flute back into its case, I realized my mistake. Yes, I would know the answers Aardvard would give me as soon as I awakened from this strange dream, but I would still need to live the bells between now and tomorrow as if they were really happening. I was going to be waiting and fretting anyway!

I was wondering how I could be sure I was actually in that flute-dream state when suddenly there was a pounding on my front door. The options for response danced open in front of me — answer the door, don’t answer, run from the visitor, kill the visitor — and I had my answer. I went to the door and opened it to find Hansen standing there staring vacantly at me.

“He’s dead,” were his first words. I reached up and lowered his hand, still poised to pound on my door again. Then I pulled him gently inside and sat him down in the hall chair.

“Who’s dead, Hansen?” I asked, though I was sure I knew.

He slowly focused on me, and said, “I went out to deliver my master’s message about your gypsy to his sources, the ones he told you about. I stopped for supplies on the way back. When I arrived, the house was on fire! And Master Aardvard was lying there by the path, his head crushed in. Who would kill Aardvard? Who would want to?”

“Did you summon the guard, Hansen?”

The butler nodded. “They were coming anyway, for the fire. When they saw Master Aardvard, they sent runners for more help. The sergeant asked me questions, and then let me go. I didn’t know where else to come, but since you saw him last I thought you would like to know …”

Margat appeared next to me with a mug of something warm, which she handed to Hansen; she must have heard his story from the kitchen. She put her arm around his shoulders and bade him drink up, smiling and tutting at him, saying that everything would be all right. I stepped back and let her work while I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that Aardvard was dead.

I suddenly remembered that I was in the flute-dream, and maybe he wasn’t really dead yet! Then, with a deep sense of shock, I realized that I didn’t know how to return to reality. I went back into the study and reached for the flute, but found myself not wanting to even touch it, much less play it. I tried to ignore the feeling, but couldn’t make myself take hold of the instrument.

I turned away and raced out of the room, disturbed by my inability to touch the flute. There was no one in the hall, but I heard voices from the back of the house, and I knew that Margat was taking care of Hansen. I left.

By the time I got to Aardvard’s, the fire had consumed most of the house. I didn’t disturb the guards that swarmed the area, but I did notice that the physician’s body had been moved away somewhere. For the first time I wondered whether my own inquiries had caused Aardvard’s death. It had begun with the gypsy’s demise, and now Factotum. In another revelation, I realized that the burning in my chest that had ended the first flute-dream had been someone trying to kill me! What had I gotten myself into?

For lack of anything better to do, I returned to the office. As I walked past the clerks’ area, I noticed my son-in-law Tanjural sitting at a desk that had been dragged into the ordering clerk’s office. He was staring at a ledger while absently rubbing the upper part of his left arm.

I stopped in the doorway and said, “How are you, Tanjural?”

He looked up at me, startled; I hadn’t initiated conversation with him since he had given me the news about my daughter. “Ah, fine,” he replied.

“Did you hurt your arm somehow?”

He glanced at his hand as it rubbed his shoulder, then turned back to me. “No. Well, yes. I was accepted into the ranks of the dedicated followers of the Creator’s Pantheon last night, and the tattoo still stings a little.”

“I didn’t know you were religious.”

He looked at me with a sadness in his eyes that I recognized. “I wasn’t until recently. They are a comfort.”

I dropped my eyes from his, not ready to discuss comfort yet. To change the subject, I said, “A tattoo, eh? I guess that’s one way to prove your devotion.”

He chuckled, and said, “Straight. And their priests get a brand on their right shoulders. I don’t want to know what mark the euilamon take to prove their devotion!”

I grinned at that; euilamon were the Creator’s chief priests, and I tried to imagine what they might do to indelibly mark themselves. I continued on to my office, realizing that I had just shared the first good feeling with my son-in-law since the wedding. Then thoughts of the wedding led me back to thoughts of death, and suddenly the thought of sitting behind my desk no longer appealed to me.

I turned around and left, striding down Division Street with no destination in mind. My thoughts whirled around death and loss, and the still-unsolved mystery of a gypsy boy who had been, more than likely, murdered. I turned left on Coldwell Street for no reason and had to pull up short to keep from running into someone.

I focused on the person blocking my way, and found myself looking at a gypsy with white hair, lines around his eyes, and an ancient stare. He said, “Pardon me, but are you –?”

I bolted. I don’t know why, but I turned and ran. I had been thinking about murdered gypsies and suddenly I saw one, and somehow I was frightened for my life.

I darted down streets and through alleys until suddenly a shadow stepped in front of me, dark hair flashing, fist raised and holding something that glinted silver. The fist fell, and I felt a burning cold in my chest from a blow that knocked me down. My vision dimmed, but I was sure I was hallucinating as I fell because I thought I saw the most garishly-colored, yet lifelike, wyrm down the street. My head hit the pavement …

***

… and I opened my eyes to look out my window at a wagon losing its load of fruit onto the street. I glanced around at my study, and then at the flute in my hands, which I quickly returned to its case on the table beside me. The music was gone, and the pathways no longer danced before me. I was back.

My thoughts settled down, and I remembered how my dream had begun. My first instinct was to race out of the house and try to warn Aardvard, but I realized that I was already too late. The murder had happened while I was puttering around, not flute-dreaming. I couldn’t save Aardvard.

The pounding I was expecting came, and I went right to the door, calling for Margat. I drew Hansen into the house and passed him to my housekeeper, saying, “Tell Margat, Hansen. I’ve got to go.”

I started to go to Aardvard’s house, but decided that I didn’t need to see that again. Without even wondering about the consequences, I diverged from my dream and went right to my office.

Tanjural was not at the extra desk in the ordering clerk’s office when I walked past; since I had not gone to Aardvard’s, I had arrived earlier than in the flute-dream. I got to my outer office this time, where Heerans said, “This note arrived for you not long ago.”

I took the folded parchment from him and read, “Master Percantlin, I understand that you are seeking information about a gypsy and a flute. Please come to the Inn of the Serpent before eighth bell; I think we can help each other.” It was signed “Oolamrin”.

I shoved the note into my belt pouch and left. The inn was only a few streets away, and I arrived quickly. I walked into the common room, filled with early eaters and even earlier drinkers, and looked around. A woman rose from a table on the far side of the room and gestured to me. I walked over.

She was short, with delicate features and long dark hair. She was also a gypsy. I briefly recalled the older, white-haired man I had run from in my flute-dream, but this young woman didn’t frighten me like he had.

She held out her hand and as we clasped wrists, she said, “Welcome, Master Percantlin. I am Oolamrin. Please have a seat. Would you like some wine?”

I sat. “No, thank you, I’m not thirsty. Your note said you know something about a flute and a gypsy.”

She frowned sadly, and I couldn’t help but notice how pretty she was even so. As pretty as Bronna, and not much older, either. She said, “You are direct, Master Percantlin. Very well, I will be, too. Have you ever heard of Thyerin?”

I had to think to remember, but finally it came to me. “One of the gods of the Creator’s Pantheon, straight?” I wondered why those gods were so much a part of my life at the moment.

“Yes, that and more,” said Oolamrin. “The flute is dedicated to Thyerin. Some legends say that it once belonged to him, others that it was fashioned from the leg bone of his greatest euilamon long, long ago. The flute is bone, taken from a still-living Araf and carved into its current form while its former owner watched.”

I had heard legends of the strange race of people known as the Araf, and my memory teased me with some kind of connection between them and Thyerin. There was a strange light in Oolamrin’s eyes as she continued. “The flute contains a very powerful magic, an Araf magic. Thyerin’s Dance is the tapestry of creation, the woven history of everything past and future. Thyerin’s Flute is able to open the Dance to anyone who uses it. With the flute, one can see possibilities before they are actualities, and the future can be guided by its visions.”

I nodded at her words, as they confirmed my experiences. I wondered if she knew how to control the flute better, but decided not to let her know I had used it just yet. Instead, I asked, “How did the gypsy boy get hold of it?”

She scowled and said, “Rantlak belonged to a group within the Rhydd Pobl who revel in death and destruction. He learned of the flute, which had been in the keeping of the temple of Thyerin in Kiliaen. Because worship of Thyerin in the area had been waning, the treasures of the temple were to be transferred to Magnus. Rantlak’s cult stole the flute from the caravan.”

Oolamrin sat up, her eyes flashing. “Imagine what they could have done with that flute, Master Percantlin: guiding their actions with it to the most destructive courses; finding ways to cause death on a massive scale; changing key events to turn others’ victories into failures!” She gasped and dropped her eyes to the table at that, and quickly said, “My friend and I tracked Rantlak to Dargon, but before we could find him we learned he was dead. I was so glad when I heard, through Aardvard Factotum’s inquiries, that you had found the flute. It needs to go back into safekeeping.” She turned and gestured, and a tall man in a dark robe limped over from another table. “Percantlin, this is Jenkis, my friend. He’s a priest of Thyerin. He can take the flute to safety.”

I looked up at Jenkis, who was tall and thin, with brown hair and a hawkish nose. His high forehead was marked by a healing gash, and his deep-set eyes seemed to burn with the same fervor that Oolamrin’s had earlier. He didn’t extend his hand to me but inclined his head slightly, then straightened again.

Something about the man, about the situation, bothered me. Oolamrin had related the story of the flute with something other than disgust, and this priest looked anything but priestly with the disheveled robe he wore and that cut on his brow. I found myself not wanting to give either of them the flute, and was glad that I had left it at home.

Suddenly, I remembered my dream encounter with Tanjural. I looked up at the priest and said, “Show me your right shoulder.”

Jenkis frowned, and Oolamrin said, “Why?”

“Please, just do it.”

The priest looked at the gypsy, and then turned hate-filled eyes on me. His hands moved into his sleeves, and Oolamrin leapt up, saying, “Not here!” as she grasped at his arms.

I shot to my feet, my chair crashing down behind me. I ran out the door and turned right. I hesitated, staring at the familiar garishly-painted wyrm statue that was the signpost for the inn I’d just left. I hadn’t recognized it as my last flute-dream was ending, but now it signified much more than just someone’s awful sense of color. I knew that it linked the man who had killed me in my last flute-dream with the pair I was fleeing! Panic claimed me again, and I continued to run. I stuck to the centers of large streets, passing up alleyways completely as I made my way back home.

When I arrived, I slammed the front door behind me, dashed into the study, grabbed the flute, then hurried to my room on the second floor. I closed and bolted the door behind me, and sank down into the chair under the window. I could only hope that the gypsy and the priest didn’t know where I lived; I surmised that they didn’t, as the note had been sent to my office. I knew that I should have gone to the guard instead of home, but the chaos in the city had not subsided, and this was still a matter of a dead gypsy, since the attempts on my life hadn’t really happened.

However, Oolamrin had given me an idea. I lifted the flute from its case again and started to play it, keeping my intention firmly in mind. The result was totally different than my previous attempts. I found myself in an empty blackness. I couldn’t see, hear or feel anything. Before I could become frightened, strands of light seemed to wriggle into view. Some came from above and below me, and some came from the sides, and they danced together and interlaced, forming a grid that seemed to run by me like a road. After a moment, I realized that the grid looked like the coarse-woven rug in my hallway, but even more it looked like a ledger with its columns and rows. If only it wasn’t quite so undulant.

I focused on the near end of the ledger and saw the columns multiplying and dividing, branching and condensing, extending in their combinations past rows that I perceived as time passing. I looked toward the far end of the ledger and saw the complex harmony of what I knew was the shaped past. This had to be the Dance of Thyerin.

I concentrated on the dance, and the ledger moved past me. I searched for a particular intersection of column-person and row-time, and there it was. I bent my will on the abruptly ended column, and felt myself falling toward it.

Suddenly, the strange, unreal world of the dance vanished, and I was looking down on a small room as if I sat near the ceiling. From the construction and the lack of furnishings, I surmised that this was an inn or a way-station. On the bed lay Bronna, tossing and moaning, her face red with sweat and scrunched up in pain. Tanj was at her side, mopping her brow, holding her hand and muttering soothing words to her. His own face was also scrunched in pain, but it was for her, not himself.

Looking down, I saw what my son-in-law had concealed from me: Bronna was with child. By the way her legs moved, and her free hand clutched at her belly, I knew that she hadn’t simply “taken ill” on the trip back north from Kiliaen. Something had gone wrong with her pregnancy, and she was dying. I could hear Tanj muttering, “If only we had stayed,” and “The healer warned us to be careful.” My heart went out to my son-in-law, whose pain I hadn’t believed to be as great as my own. But he had lost both wife and child at once, while I’d had the dubious “luck” to bear those pains separately.

I knew the outcome, both from Tanjural’s old news and from the condition of the column within the ledger-dance. I concentrated with all my might, wishing that I could change the dance, extend the column, ward off the impending deaths. The flute felt warm in my hands, almost as if it moved under my fingers, instead of my fingers moving across it. Knowledge came to me: I could extend my daughter’s column, but only by supplying the substance to lengthen it with. Options appeared in my head, but only one was in any way viable: I chose freely to give my own column to my daughter that she might continue dancing. I felt the flute agree, and a vibration began in my toes. I could feel myself becoming attuned to the notes I played, becoming the notes themselves, becoming …

… and I screamed as the flute was ripped away from my hands and mouth, and the vibration stopped painfully and abruptly.

“Good,” said a familiar voice. “We were in time.”

I shook my head and looked up to see who had invaded my bedroom. Standing in front of me were the old, white-haired gypsy I had run away from in my second flute-dream, and the robed and dark-cowled form of the wizard Cefn, an old acquaintance. I couldn’t see Cefn’s face, but the unnatural darkness within that cowl was identification enough. I tried to stand, but found myself far too weak to complete the effort. Instead, I said, “What?” in a croaking voice.

The old gypsy placed the flute he had taken from me into its box with a great deal of ceremony for so simple an act. He said, “You were about to do something very ill-considered, Master Percantlin.”

“No I wasn’t!” I shouted. “I was going to give my daughter back her life. You shouldn’t outlive your children, after all!”

The old gypsy looked at me with eyes as compassionate and understanding as the false priest’s eyes had been angry. “There is no such rule, my good man, nor would it be a good thing if there was. Sometimes the young die for good reason. Thyerin’s Dance always comes out right in the end, and the cost for reweaving the dance is always far more than you agree to pay.”

I tried again to stand, and succeeded. I said, “How do –?” and was interrupted by my door slamming open with a crash. Oolamrin and Jenkis charged through with guttural shouts and knives pointed right at me.

My previous visitors intercepted my newest ones as I stepped back into a corner. Dargon was a rough city, but despite growing up in it I had never learned to fight. Fortunately, both Cefn and the old gypsy knew. The white-haired man produced a thin sword from somewhere other than his waist and was fending off the woman’s frenzied hacking with ease. The wizard engaged the false priest with the solid sword he always wore, and his opponent was already bleeding from several cuts. The next mene or so dashed by, and before I knew it both of the attackers lay dead at my defenders’ feet.

Cefn turned from his fallen foe to stand beside the old gypsy, who was looking down at the woman with a bitter sadness my own pain had only shallowly mimicked. “You had to do it,” the wizard said softly. The old gypsy nodded, and continued to stare.

The silence stretched for longer than the fight had taken. I wanted to ask question after question, but my need for answers couldn’t breech the sadness in the old man’s stare. The grief in his gaze struck a chord with me, and I began to guess some of those answers I sought.

Finally, he turned to me and said, “My daughter, Oolamrin, was part of the cult that stole the flute from the caravan. My son, Rantlak, found them and got the flute back, but Oolamrin followed him all the way to Dargon to retrieve it. She, or her lover Jenkis there, killed Rantlak, but couldn’t get the flute from him. And now she has paid the price for her actions.”

The old man paused, then said, “Master Percantlin, the flute may only change hands by free will, or when it has no owner. Would you please give me the flute so that I can return it to safety?”

“You’re a priest of Thyerin?” I said. “Aardvard said he didn’t think that the Creator’s Pantheon had any Rhydd Pobl followers.”

The old man calmly rolled up his right sleeve and showed me the brand. I closed the case and handed it to him. He bowed to me, turned, and left.

Cefn turned the darkness inside his cowl toward me and said, “Thank you, Cant, for doing the right thing. That flute does not belong in mortal hands. Kolvain will take it back to its makers.” The cowl dipped, then turned to me again. “Sorry about the mess. I’ll send Margat for the guard, and Hansen up to help clean up. I’ll vouch for your story with the guard, too. Farewell.”

When Cefn was gone, I just stood there staring at the bodies in my bedroom. I considered what the old gypsy had said. Not only had he outlived his children, but he had killed one of them himself. How much harder was that to bear than my own loss?

I thought about Kalibriona’s death, and the death of the grandchild I hadn’t even known about. I had lived with that crippling grief for long enough. Death had been too close to me lately, not only Bronna but Rantlak the poor gypsy boy, Aardvard the information seeker, and the two times I had been dream-murdered as well. I looked at my options as they danced before me, and I rejected the choices I had made lately. My daughter was dead, but I wasn’t, and neither was Tanj. He hadn’t killed my daughter, either, and he didn’t deserve the coldness I had been giving him ever since he had delivered his news. He had made great strides in putting his grief behind him. I would follow his example.

I stepped over the bodies and went downstairs to wait for the guard. On the way, I mentally rehearsed how I was going to invite Tanjural to move in with me. After all, the new heir to the Fifth I merchant house deserved better than a dockside hovel, now didn’t he?

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