The fall of night is always a mysterious and dangerous time. Across the city of Dargon people work to complete tasks and chores before the setting of the sun and the loss of the day’s light make work difficult or impossible. Oil lamps and candles and torches can extend the day by a bit, maybe by a bell or two, but it is best to work by day and sleep by night. Such is the rhythm of life. Not everyone, however, has rhythm.
At the corner of Temple and Atelier Streets there is an estate. This is not the sort of estate one might find in the county, sprawling across fields and vales, but for a holding in the middle of a busy city such as the newer half of Dargon it was large. The house itself was significantly larger than many of its neighbors, and attached to it was a large workshop. As this was the estate of Lord Arbogast, patron of the arts, helper of the poor and weak, and wielder of power both mundane and arcane, the windows of that workshop often glow with the light of oil lamps well into the night. Thus it was on the eighth of Ober in the year one thousand and eighteen.
Inside the workshop Arbogast sat in a large chair beside the cold hearth. At his side sat his son, Connor. They were both concentrating on a large sheaf of documents, talking in low voices and pointing at various notations and drawings. Arbogast occasionally used a magnifying lens to assist his aging eyes as he read. They were largely oblivious to the other person in the room.
Nessis Romen stood beside a large wooden table. Unlike the Arbogast and Connor, who wore well tailored clothes of practical design, Nessis was dressed in poorly fitting and poorly matched clothes that were patched and soiled. He was actually very close in age to Connor, but the years had not been as kind to him, and his hair was showing gray and the wrinkles in his brow were deep. His hands were covered in dark smudges of charcoal. In his hand he held a pestle, also smudged with charcoal. He stared at the two other men and shuffled his feet nervously.
“Um, erherm,” he cleared his throat and the two men glanced up briefly from their discussion.
“Yes, Nessis?” Connor asked.
“If it please your honor,” Nessis said, ducking his head ever so slightly, “I have filled all the vials you gave me,” he waved his hand at a row of stoppered glass jars lined up on the table, “but there is still charcoal left to grind. What shall I do?”
Arbogast nodded and motioned at a chest on another table on the other side of the room. “We have more vials. They are in that chest.” He then returned to his discussion with Connor.
Nessis ducked his head respectfully and looked over at the chest. “The chest,” he muttered to himself. He set the pestle down into the mortar and walked around the end of the table and down to where the chest sat. He had a certain natural grace as he walked, a talent that had helped him through the years when he was a performer, and the years when he scrambled to make a living as a con man. When he reached the chest he reached for the handle on the top of the chest and pulled. Nothing happened. The chest was a large box with designs carved into the wood, and with stones set into the brass fittings that held it together. Nessis looked it over, front and back. There was no keyhole that he could see. Nessis tugged on the handle, left and right and up and back. Nothing. Nessis had no idea how to open the box.
Nessis looked over at Lord Arbogast and Connor, both still deep in conversation. Normally Nessis would never have been in company with a noble, not even a minor one like Arbogast. Nor would Nessis have kept company with someone rumored to wield magic, as Arbogast was. As was true of many uneducated people, Nessis was somewhat superstitious. Recently, however, Nessis had come into possession of certain objects that were clearly powerful, and he had approached Arbogast for help in exploiting them. Shockingly, rather than turn him away as the con man he was, Arbogast took him in and employed him in replicating the very devices Nessis had “found.” Nessis trusted Arbogast, and by extension his sons. Now, however, he was faced with a mystery, and he could feel the hair slowly standing up on the nape of his neck.
Nessis had never seen Arbogast perform any magic. Nessis had also never seen Connor or any other member of the household perform any magic. Everyone in town knew, however, that Arbogast was a mage, and that magic must run in the family. Here, now, was a box that seemed to have no lid, and yet Arbogast stored things in it. Nessis shuffled a half-step away from the chest and considered it carefully. It was certainly far more ornate than a simple wooden box, with symbols and images and inset stones. It just reeked of the arcane. Still, it was ultimately just a box, wasn’t it? Nessis set his lips tight and his brow furrowed. He stepped back up to it. Right and left, up and back, twisting and pulling and pushing and straining, Nessis worked that handle, to no avail.
Nessis jumped at the sound of his own name and spun to face the hearth where Arbogast and Connor now stood. “Yes, Lord Arbogast?” he said.
“How many vials do you need?” Both of the other men were staring at him quizzically.
“Four or five, your lordship,” Nessis said. Arbogast and Connor stood and stared back at him, as if expecting him to say something else. Finally Nessis acquiesced. “It’s just, I — can’t get the chest open.”
“Ah!” Connor nodded and stepped over to the table, with Nessis stepping aside to allow him in. With a simple motion Connor took the handle and slid the front, not the top, of the chest aside, revealing the contents. Nessis planted his hand against his forehead and shook his head.
“There you are, Nessis,”Connor said, returning to his father’s side.
“Thank you, your honor,” Nessis said, his hand falling to his side, a black print now gracing his face.
“Whatcha up to?”
Nessis jumped at the sudden sound, jostling the mortar he was holding, flinging black powder across the table. After obtaining the empty vials he had returned to his labors in the quiet of the empty workshop. Now he looked around wildly for a moment before spotting the source of the words.
“Don’t startle me like that, Josey,” he complained to the boy whose dirty and impudent face he had spotted in the open window. “Can’t you see I’m busy with very important business?” He waved the pestle at the items on the table he was working on, spreading still more black dust as he did so.
“You’re not doing nuthin’”, replied Josey, “you’re just standing there.”
“That’s not true,” countered Nessis. “I’m making some very important stuff.”
“It looks like you’re just making a mess.” Nessis watched as Josey surveyed the scene before him. The oil lamps in their sconces cast a steady yellow light on the inside of the large room. Shelves of books and scrolls encircled tables laden with artifacts and instruments. Nessis doubted Josey had ever seen the like before. There were globes and bottles and stuffed animals everywhere. A skeleton hung from a stand in one corner, surrounded by shelves covered with glass jars filled with body parts. The table Nessis was working on was covered with papers and bottles of colorful powders and liquids. There was a great lamp of some sort, and many kinds of glass and metal tubes. Josey took it all in, and then stared at Nessis a moment, as if he were out of place. “I don’t think you even know what you’re doing,” the youth said.
Nessis puffed himself up at this insult. He gripped the worn lapel of his tattered coat and thrust up his chest, unheeding of the black marks the pestle was making on the fabric. “I will have you know,” he boomed out, “that *Lord Arbogast* and I are currently engaged in highly profitable and highly secret work that will soon have the results of placing my name on the tongues of every man, woman, and child in the city of Dargon.” He waved at the table. “This is highly significant work. So what do *you* know, then?”
“Well,” Josey said, “*I* know where to go and get *free food* tonight!” His urchin face beamed excitedly.
Nessis was taken back for only a moment. “Wha — well, I — I don’t *need* free food. I am engaged with *Lord* *Arbogast* now, and he and I have as much food as we need or want, and whenever we need or want it. Plenty of food, and fine food!” Nessis turned back to the table. “You must be talking about the opening at the bathhouse. Well, I know *all* about that bathhouse. Now if you will excuse me, I have work to do!”
“Suit yourself,” shrugged Josey. “All the more for me! See ya!” With that Josey’s face disappeared from the window. Nessis cast a quick glance back at the empty casement, then, with shoulders and head bowed, resumed his grinding. He applied himself diligently to the task for almost a mene before the door opened. It was Arbogast. Nessis looked up, and ducked his head in quick reverence.
“M’lord,” he said.
The man walked over and surveyed the table perfunctorily. “Good work, Nessis. The grind looks quite fine indeed. You learn quickly.”
“Thank you, Lord Arbogast,” Nessis replied with another head duck.
“Finish a few more mortars full and you can call it an evening.” He selected a bottle from the collection on the table and turned to go. “We are off to the opening of the bathhouse, so lock up when you retire for the night. Oh, and Cookie said to tell you that there will be no supper tonight, on account of everyone off to the opening, but there is some cold food in the kitchen if you want some. It’s pea soup, left over from last night.”
Nessis nodded mutely as Arbogast left. He looked back over his shoulder at the empty window. He looked at the door, down at the mortar, at the door, and back at the window. Then he hurried to the door. Opening it, he glanced up the hallway and into the main house. Seeing no one, he leaned back inside the workshop, snatched his hat from a hook, closed the door behind himself and slipped out the side door into the growing dark. Far ahead he could see the slight figure of Josey walking up the street.
“Josey! Hey, Josey!” Nessis called, running after him. “Josey! Wait up!”
Nessis caught up to Josey in a block, as Josey had heard and waited for him. Together they walked down to Nochtur and turned the corner, heading for the Street of Travellers. Josey kept the silence away with a constant stream of commentary.
“… scraps o’ wood from when they was building th’ place and squirreled them away somewhere secret so’s we can ‘ave a fire when the weather really starts to turn cold,” he was saying.
“I won’t be needing that wood so much,” Nessis replied, thinking as he walked, no mean feat, “’cause I’ll be working for Lord Arbogast, unless the whole idea really takes off, and then I really won’t need the wood because I will have money, although sometimes it can take a while for a business to really get started.”
“Well, sure,” replied Josey, “but it’s always ‘andy to ‘ave some wood, ‘specially some of this wood, ’cause it’s the real good smelly stuff, and you know ‘ow folks like that in a nice festive fire an’ all.”
“That’s true, that’s true. Hey, what did you say they was gonna have before the food?”
“They’s gonna have a play,” Josey explained, nice as can be. “A pageant, ya see, to celebrate the coming of the sun, or something like that. There’s supposed to be magic in it, an’ costumes, an’ singing, an’ girls. I figured you’d like the girls.” Josey elbowed Nessis knowingly. Nessis stepped away, absentmindedly.
“Yes, I remember Lord Arbogast mentioning the play. He has been quite involved in this bathhouse, when he is not working on my project.” Nessis shook his head. “I may have to leave before that part, Josey,” he remarked, still half inside his own head. “I have very important work to do, you know, and I must be back at it.”
“Oh, it can’t hurt ta stay and listen ta some singing,” Josey explained. “It’ll be nice. A good break for ya.”
“No, I need to be back at it,” remarked Nessis, almost to himself. “I have to apply myself to this, you see. Must apply myself, and make it work, and work right. Must make it work right, this time.”
They walked in silence for a way, until Nessis realized that Josey was looking at him oddly. “What?”
“You’re talking all funny and stuff,” Josey remarked, studying his friend. “You sound like Old Arbogast.”
“That’s *Lord* Arbogast,” Nessis snapped back, straightening up. “He’s a great man and a fine lord and we all would do well to remember that! And I must be back at my work as soon as possible,” emphasis on his last, “as soon as I get some food in me.”
The pair had not yet gotten far down the Street of Travellers but already their ears could hear the growing sounds of celebration. The growing evening had darkened the sky, but up from the far end of the docks could be seen a glow, and music was carrying up to the pair. It quickened their feet. By the time they hit Commercial Street Josey was running. He turned the corner and vanished for a moment, then reappeared and waved at Nessis.
“Come on!” His young face was shining with excitement. His enthusiasm took hold in Nessis, who sprinted down to meet him. Nessis turned to look at the source of the light, and slowed to a stop.
The sun was going down, but from the far end of the docks a new sun was rising. Like most citizens of Dargon, Nessis had been watching the construction on the docks for sennights. Rumors of what the new buildings would become had come and gone, eventually settling around the form of a hospital and compound, both run by a cult of Shilsara, the Olean goddess of health and desire. The demolition of the old, burned warehouses and docks had taken longer than Nessis had expected, and a large amount of building material had been brought in. Once work started, however, it progressed with great rapidity. Seemingly overnight the burned dock had been rebuilt, and a great hall had arisen atop it, along with a cluster of smaller buildings huddled within a high wall. Now those clean, new walls shone with a golden light, although from what source Nessis wasn’t quite sure. People were streaming through the streets, headed for those now-open gates adorned with the name “Olhaven”. From within the high-walled compound emerged music. Nessis leaned forwards and allowed his eager feet to draw him towards the scene.
Ahead of him, Josey turned around and called to Nessis. “Come on! We don’t want to miss th’ play!”
“What’s so special about the play?” asked Nessis, but Josey was already running ahead. Nessis could not help but run as well. They merged into the crowd, and were funneled along with the others past long, empty banquet tables. “Where’s the food?” Nessis asked, fearing that his walk would have been in vain.
“We have to see the play first,” Josey replied impatiently. “They always have the play first!”
“Who told you so much about this play?”
“I talked to one of the girls who sings in the chorus and she told me about it. That’s how I knew it was tonight.”
“Look,” Nessis began, “I really don’t have time for a play tonight. I must get back to my work …”
“Aw, stuff it, Nessis,” Josey replied with uncharacteristic brusqueness. “It’ll be fun, then we’ll eat, and then you can go back to making your mess, OK?”
Nessis closed his mouth, both embarrassed and annoyed. The press of bodies carried him along, and within moments he and Josey were inside a high theater that was built into one wall of the great hall. He just had time to orient himself when whatever fires were illuminating the area were doused, and the crowd fell silent.
Nessis blinked repeatedly in the sudden darkness. A growing light up on the stage drew his gaze, as intended. He quickly saw that there were a number of figures on stage, arrayed in a long line. They appeared to be in costume, and many of them were children, or at least very slight. From the center of the stage emerged a larger silhouette. From somewhere a beam of light reached out and illuminated this figure, which turned out to be an older man dressed in a simple brown cassock. The man stopped at the edge of the stage and addressed himself to the crowd, which spread out all around in a great hush.
“And now we present,” he said in a loud, clear voice, “the cautionary tale of Salis and the Sun.” With this proclamation he bowed, and faded back into the darkness. After a moment there came the sound of shuffling of feet, and a group of actors moved from the shadows into the spotlight. Nessis looked around. Where was that light coming from? He could see no fire or torches. And why was the whole stage not lit?
“Greetings and good day, Farmer Stile,” one of the actors onstage said to another. “Have you seen Salis today?”
“I’ve seen this one before,” Nessis whispered into Josey’s ear. “Last year, around this time, at one of the cult houses in Old Town.”
“Shhhhh!” whispered Josey back, not taking his eye off the stage.
Nessis shook his head and turned away from the stage, looking back over the top of the crowd. “I don’t even know why I’m here,” he muttered. “I have so much work to do, back at the shop. They’re counting on me.”
“Shhhh …” whispered someone behind him. Nessis closed his mouth, searching in the scaffolding in the back of the theater for the source of the light. As he did so he looked around at the crowd as well. All the faces were turned up at the stage, in rapt attention. He glanced back up there. The action was playing out as he remembered it. The play was a simple morality play about a man from a small village who needed to learn some sort of moral lesson about serving one of the various Olean gods — Shilsara, wasn’t it? — and how the people of the village helped him learn it, and somehow the sun was involved, and how it wouldn’t come up unless the man, Salis, did something or said something to show he’d learned the lesson. The play was very similar to many of the plays that the various churches or cults or temples were always putting on in Dargon. Nessis had seen many of them over the years, as these productions often included a public offering of free food and drink. He suspected that the purpose of the various plays was to somehow teach the public something, and indeed Nessis had learned a lesson from them — he had learned that you could get free food from religious people.
Nessis’s roving eye caught sight of a glimmer of light coming from the theater wall. He stared at it intently. He could see two figures up there, working around some sort of machine. As his eyes adjusted he could see that there was a fire inside the device. One man was making a rhythmic motion. Nessis suspected he was pumping a bellows to keep the fire burning. That must be where the light was coming from. He turned back toward the stage. On it, a tall woman was saying something officious to a male actor. Both were lit by the same circle of light. By looking back and forth between the actors and the crew behind him, Nessis could see that the light flickered in time with the man’s pumping actions. Satisfied he had figured that trick out, Nessis turned back to watch the play.
“… ye need just ask,” a woman was singing in an operatic tone, “and she will give ye.” The song was written in an older dialect that lent it an air of formality. The singer was backed up by a choir of small children, each dressed in a fluffy white costume. Nessis expected they were supposed to be clouds. The children were echoing the “give ye” part in high, piping voices, mostly if not completely in tune. “Call on her above,” the woman sang, “and she shall answer.”
With this verse the woman lifted a languid arm and pointed upwards. There came movement from over her head, and then a gasp from the crowd as two pale figures swooped down from the rafters and began making arcs over her head. They were two children, clothed in brilliant white paint, outfitted with wings like heavenly messengers. Nessis also gasped in surprise, but quickly spotted the thin, black ropes that supported the two young actors, one girl and one boy. After a long, hard stare, Nessis could see that each one wore a harness about their hips, painted the same white as their skin so as to blend in. Each child carried an instrument, a golden horn. As they swooped overhead they held the instruments to their lips. Horn music swelled as they did, but from the band, not from the children. Their swinging motion slowed, and other actors appeared from above, in similar paint. Together the entire ensemble was lowered to the stage, singing the song with the actress.
Nessis watched the spectacle unfold. As he did, though, his mind kept rolling back to his plans. There was always opportunity in Dargon, and Nessis was always there to greet it. Frustratingly, most opportunities were much easier to grasp than to keep. He had worked many a plan and many a scheme in his life, and yet he still had not achieved the success he knew he deserved. He had asked much of life, and yet it seemed that the lady of fortune had not yet smiled on him.
The actor who was playing the part of Salis was back, singing now. Nessis actually knew this tune — it was a drinking song. The lyrics were different, though. Instead of belching out great words of boasting about beer and women and money, this song was about how the man was happy being who he was and doing what he liked to do. Nessis admired the character for this sentiment, just as Nessis always admired a self-made man.
Nessis had reinvented himself many times, but this latest effort was sure to be his last. His fortune had certainly changed in the last few sennights. What had started as a harmless trick to part a heavily laden sailor with some brightly colored tubes had turned drastically different when those tubes turned out to be capable of spewing fire and sparks and of flying madly through the air. Realizing their potential, Nessis had succeeded in engaging the famous Lord Arbogast to duplicate them, all in exchange for some simple labor, and he had good ideas about how to make merchandise of the tubes once the old mage had figured out how to recreate them. He even had a plan for possibly taking the tubes to the duke himself! This plan with the colored tubes was going to be his ladder to success, he just knew it. He could make it there himself now, if he just stuck to it. It would be complex, but he was up to the task. It was all just a matter of time.
A flurry of movement drew Nessis’ attention back to the stage. As the principle actors were singing in the center of the stage, other cast members were milling about, also singing, but rearranging the props at the same time. The painted spirits had been whisked back up into the heavens, their part done, and the last of the fluffy little cloudlets were being herded offstage by a matronly actress in peasant garb. Workmen were echoing the main character’s drinking song as they carried what looked like risers to center stage and set them up. Women in city clothes were busy too, singing and setting up small platforms. As all this happened the words and tenor of the singing was drawing to a fevered climax.
Nessis sighed. This was not where he needed to be. He looked around, wondering if he might slip out, but there were no obvious exits, and the crowd was packed in tight. He looked up, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness until he could see the ropes and pulleys that were used to raise and lower the scenery and curtains and actors. He admired the cleverness of whoever had designed it all. He thought back to all the work that still needed done back at the workshop. There was still so much left to do.
“… to do …” the woman to his left muttered. Nessis started, staring at her wide eyed. Had she read his mind? “What to do,” she said again, but her eyes were on the stage, not on Nessis.
“What to do,” said a man to Nessis’s right. Nessis spun about, but as he did he heard the same thing coming from the crowd: “What to do. What to do? What to do!?”
Frightened, Nessis turned to look onstage. The lead actress was standing at the very edge of the stage, motioning dramatically to the crowd. “What to do?” she was imploring them. “What to do? The sun is fading, what is there to do?”
Nessis relaxed, realizing the question was just part of the show. He remembered this part. Often in these religious morality plays the actors would try to get the audience to participate, and this play was no different. Soon the audience would be chanting along to some part of the play. Sure enough, the actor playing Salis strode onstage. The woman turned to him.
“Salis,” she said dramatically, “the sun is dying!” Indeed, the light was fading. Nessis glanced back up and saw that whoever was stoking the fire in the rafters had stopped, and the fire was growing dimmer. The actress continued. “The goddess must bring the sun back to life, but she will not do this unless we believe! Do you believe? I believe!” With this the actress turned to the choir behind her, which was arrayed in the darkness behind her on the risers set up earlier. “Do you believe?” she asked the choir.
“I believe,” came a few half-hearted, disjointed replies. The actress turned back to Salis. “Do you believe?” she asked again. Salis stroked his chin and looked uncertain. The actress turned now to the audience. “Do you believe?”
“I believe,” came a few scattered responses from the crowd, mixed with some cries of “Yes” and “I do” and maybe one or two “Can we eat yet?” from the back.
“Do you believe?” the actress thundered to the choir behind her. The light was now almost out. Only the woman and Salis still were illuminated.
“I believe!” came the reply from the choir, in unison now. She turned to Salis and repeated the question. “I believe,” Salis replied, nodding and looking out at the audience. With this, however, the light faded on him, leaving only the woman in the light. She once again appealed to the audience.
“I believe!” came the reply, louder now. The actress repeated the call, and the audience shouted back, in unison. Again she called, and again they answered, a unified roar. Nessis looked around, in awe, wondering for a moment if he was in the right business. He looked back, away from the stage, scanning the faces and seeing the joy they showed as they chanted. The light went out, and still they chanted. It was dark for just a moment, then Nessis could see the faces around him illuminated by a golden glow. He turned back to the stage.
The spotlight was completely extinguished now, and all the stage was dark, save for one golden glow dead in the center of the white backdrop. At first Nessis had no idea what it was. It grew brighter, and brighter, rising gently higher on the backdrop. Suddenly a narrow sliver of intense white light appeared at the top of the highest riser. A small gasp burst from Nessis’ lips and was echoed across the audience. The light stayed still just the barest of moments and then rose higher, becoming a small hemisphere of light. In an instant Nessis realized that someone was walking slowly up the back of the riser, and that he was seeing the top of their head. One more step, and he could see her face.
Her smile shone like the sun, melting Nessis’s dark thoughts like the frost on the first warm spring morning. Her eyes met his, and his life ended. There was now nothing else but her. She continued to walk up the steps onstage and into his life, revealing more and more of that great, golden glow. She held her arms up and out to the side, trailing a shimmering gossamer of bejeweled threads. Barely half her torso was in view and already the entire stage was easily visible in the light from her body. Truly the sun was rising, and it was rising in Nessis’s heart as well.
Nessis gulped air, realizing that he had forgotten to breathe. He couldn’t believe anyone could be so beautiful. She was the exact embodiment of the goddess of love, made without the taint of earthly things, fabricated entirely of molten gold. No paint job this — her skin literally shone, smooth and polished like a statue, but soft and warm, not hard or cold. Her huge, golden-brown eyes were the only dark thing in her face, and whenever she looked down to find her step Nessis became lonely until she looked back at him again. She was nearing the top of the riser now, and Nessis was just finally coming back to himself enough that part of his mind realized that no spotlight could ever illuminate an actress so completely or so perfectly. Indeed, she herself was the only source of light. Her ephemeral costume didn’t even begin to block the dazzling glow, and the whole auditorium was lit by it. She reached the top, and stood on tiptoe, her arms and head thrown back in ecstasy, her slender, perfect body arched upward towards the heavens. Nessis could feel her radiance wash over him with every thud of his pounding heart. Incredibly, almost imperceptibly, she continued to rise, even though she was not moving, but still, rising, her toes leaving the riser as she levitated up into the air, suspended for all to see. She *was* love, now, and he had to have her. He felt he could touch her, he knew he could reach her, if only he could get closer. Already he could sense her warmth, smell her hair, feel her …
“‘ere, Nes, back off, will ya?” Josey said, pushing Nessis back and off him. “Yer gonna muss my hair.”
Nessis looked down, startled. He whispered an apology, looking quickly back up, to be sure he hadn’t missed anything. No, she was still there, perfect in her splendor. She was looking at him again, smiling and beckoning him to her. He had to go. He pressed forward, but the mass of bodies refused to part. And then, in a simple horrible instant, the whole vision ended. The curtains swept closed, blocking forever his access to this dream, this vision of paradise. A gasp and a groan swept out of his heart and across the audience. There was a muted whomp as someone re-lit the spotlight, and the feeble, pale light from that pitiful source shone a lone figure onstage. It was the monk who had opened the pageant.
“Shilsara thanks you for your belief, and your attendance. If you have questions for Shilsara, the oracles will answer them outside. Please join us in the feast to celebrate her love, and the opening of this new facility. Thank you.”
With that the monk turned and slipped back inside the curtains. The auditorium was flooded with orange light as the doors were flung open leading back to the courtyard. As one body the entire audience turned and headed out. Nessis alone tried to head forward, toward the stage, to get one more glimpse of that radiant creature, that vision of love and light. The weight of the throng was too great, however. Like a mouse clinging to a floating branch, Nessis was swept away on the human tide.
By the time Nessis could reverse his direction and head back toward the theater, the great doors were closing. His heart plummeted as they thudded shut. So lost was he in his funk that he let the remnant of the crowd drag him down into the buffet line, where he ended up beside Josey.
“‘ere, Nes, try dese ‘ere pears — dey’re good.” Josey’s consonants were suffering a bit for having to coexist with all the food in his mouth.
“So beautiful,” Nessis replied, taking the proffered food limply with his right hand.
“Uh-yuh, an’ these little fried pork pies, so good,” Josey agreed, handing Nessis some of the described items.
“So beautiful,” Nessis said, taking the food in his other hand.
“Ooooo, an’ these are just amazn’,” Josey added handing Nessis more food.
“Yes, so beautiful,” Nessis agreed. He stood there, staring blankly, both his hands filled with uneaten food. Josey stared back.
“Nessis, sometimes I don’t think you and I aren’t talking about the same things,” Josey exclaimed.
“What?” Nessis replied, lost.
“Are you still stuck on that girl?” Josey asked incredulously. “The one on the stage?”
“How could I not be?” replied Nessis, handing the food back to Josey. “She was beautiful! And … and talented! Yes! And very … professional. I have to see more of her!”
“With that costume I don’t think there was much left to see, really,” replied Josey, thoughtfully, but Nessis wasn’t listening.
“It was like she was right beside me, and she was looking right at me! I must …” Nessis spotted a robed figure standing apart from the crowd. “I wonder …” he said, then started off through the crowd, leaving behind a bemused Josey. “Excuse me, sir,” he called ahead, but the distance and hubbub was too great. The man was standing by a door, and turned to open it. “Sir!” Nessis called, lunging through the last of the crowd. He dashed up as the man was opening the door. “Sir!”
The man turned. Nessis could see now that it was the same monk who had opened the play. He looked at Nessis and smiled, bringing hope to Nessis’ heart.
“How may I help you, friend?” The man beamed.
“What’s her name?” Nessis stammered out before he could stop himself.
“Sorry?” the monk replied.
“Oh, sorry … I mean …” Nessis cleared his throat. “The performance, she was beautiful, I mean *it* was beautiful, you know, and the performers, straight!” He laughed nervously at the priest’s growing concern. “What I mean is, the performance went so well, and was so well done, that I was wondering if I could get to meet the cast?” Nessis smiled his best disarming smile and nodded hopefully.
The monk smiled. “Shilsara is pleased by your appreciation of our offering tonight.” He waved at the thinning crowd behind Nessis. “The celebration is winding down, and the performers are all busy with their preparations for this evening’s devotions. If you have questions for Shilsara, or would like to worship her with us, the temple will be open in the morning.”
“Oh, yes, straight,” Nessis said as the monk again turned to leave. “I just want a word with one of the performers, in particular, a young lady, the one who played the part of the sun, I believe.”
“Oh, yes,” the monk said. “So wonderful you were here to see that!” His smile was genuine, if tired. “The pageant of the sun is always so sacred.” His gaze drifted off, his tone growing softer, almost hushed. “I have only seen it three times, and I have been a devotee since I was a lad!” He glanced quickly at Nessis. “Oh, I’ve seen the pageant every year, mind you, it’s one of my favorites every Harvest holiday. But to see the glory, the glory of the deity herself, descend on the Sun as she stands there, oh what a precious thing that is to see, praise be to Her who loves!” His eyes closed in silent prayer for a moment. Nessis shifted a bit on his feet uncomfortably as he waited until the older man opened his eyes again. “It doesn’t happen every year,” the monk admonished. “I am well over forty years of age, and I have only seen it three times!” He nodded vigorously, his eyes wide. “We have the lights, of course, because no one knows if the glory will come, and we all celebrate the pageant in any case, but to see her glow like that! Truly glow, as no light could ever show her! And rise! And she was so, so very radiant this time!”
“Yes!” Nessis jumped back into the conversation. “Yes! Radiant! She was! And beautiful! And devout, too, I can’t help but imagine! And I would love to have a chance to speak to her, tonight, about her devotion, and her radiance, and her beauty. Is there any chance …?”
The monk affixed Nessis with his gaze, then smiled knowingly. “Ah, you’re smitten, then are you? I’m not surprised. I’m no young stag and even I was … stirred.” He sighed, nodding and smiling. “But still, the answer’s the same, my good man. She needs her sleep. We all do. Good night. Come back tomorrow.” With that, the priest stepped through the door, closing it behind him.
Nessis stared at the door for a long moment, stunned. This was not how he had hoped things would happen. He looked around and back at the door. Was this correct? That couldn’t possibly be the answer. She was just too beautiful. Nessis knocked on the door. It was solid — exceptionally well built, with bronze strapping and heavy timbers. Even Nessis could not hear the knock. He pounded it with his fist, but he might as well have hit the ground. He looked around for another cult member, backing away and turning about. The crowd was definitely thinning and draining out the great gate, and Nessis scanned for any more devotees. None. Maybe at the gate itself? He hurried in that direction.
As he walked he continued to look about, and spotted another open door. This one was larger, a double sliding door like a barn would have. And look! Through those doors were devotees, dozens of them! Women and men and children — and was that her? Was it?! Nessis leaped forward, his eyes straining to pick out that vision among the blur of other bodies. It had to be her, it *must* be her, it …
Just as Nessis reached the door something massive and brown blocked his path. He collided with it with a soft thud, reminiscent of a young faun bouncing off the side of a full-grown Ledarian dairy cow. He landed on his backside, looking up at a mountain of homespun topped with a scowl. That scowl pinned him with a stern gaze.
“No visitors! Go away!” The woman, and woman it was, put her thick hands on her broad hips and bent down, curdling Nessis like a jar of milk. “This door is closed to visitors!” With that pronouncement she stepped back, spreading her arms like the wings of vengeance, took each massive door in an equally massive hand and slammed the doors shut. Nessis snatched his feet back just in time to avoid amputation.
“Ask again, Nes,” Josey commented simply, standing at Nessis’ side, his arms laden with next sennight’s meals. “I think you ‘ave her on your side, now.”
“There has to be another way in,” Nessis said, climbing to his feet. He looked left and right, but saw nothing. He took a step back to get a better view and bounced off someone else. This also was a cult member, a man, and he had a companion.
“Friends,” he said, “the temple will open again at dawn. Please … join us then for a celebration of the goddess’s bounty.” Both extended an arm towards the gate, indicating an exit was in their immediate future. Nessis did not get the hint.
“Is there another way back, to meet the performers?” He asked urgently, but the look on their faces indicated that they had expected this question.
“I’m sorry, but the whole cast has worked very hard on this performance, and they need rest now. Please come again in the morning.” They took Nessis by the shoulder and turned him toward the door. Josey took Nessis’ hand and pulled, and between the three of them they got the star-struck man outside the gate, which was soon locked.
The next toll of the bell found Nessis and Josey in a dark alley beside the cult enclosure, Josey chewing his way through a meat-stuffed roll and Nessis deep in a lonely funk.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Why don’t they understand? I just want a word with her, that’s all.”
“I expect they made it plain enough,” Josey replied, “when they said what they all needed some sleep.”
“I just asked for a mene of her time, is all,” Nessis said. “Surely that would be reasonable, just a mene. I’m sure she and I could have a reasonable, useful conversation in a mene.”
“‘ow long is a mene, anyway?” Josey asked as he stuffed some more of the greasy, salty pasty into his mouth.
“Long enough, I assure you,” Nessis replied curtly.
“Aren’t you a bit … *old* … for her?” Josey asked, throwing a suspicious look at his companion.
“Age has nothing to do with it,” Nessis replied, sitting up straighter. “I will have you …”
His retort was interrupted by a peal of high-pitched laughter from above. Both looked up, and saw a single square of light showing from a wall above their heads. Nessis came slowly to his feet.
“That must be where they live,” he said, appreciation dawning on his face. “She … Hey! Hey!! Up there! Hey!!”
The reaction was immediate, as a ham-sized arm shot out of the window, seized the open shutters, and snapped them shut. “No visitors!”
“Hey … hey!” exclaimed Nessis angrily. “We just want to talk to her! Hey!”
There was no reply at all from above. Nessis examined the structure beside him. It was solidly built of rough-hewn timbers, and had no windows on the lower story. On the upper story, which seemed to be somewhat higher than the average second floor would be, there were a neat row of smallish windows. Most were closed, and seemed to have some source of light behind them. The window immediately to the left, however, was open. Nessis stepped towards it.
“Hello!” he called, but Josey grabbed him by the shirt.
“Shhh!” he said. “Or they’ll just close that one too!”
“Well, how am I supposed to …”
“‘ere,” Josey said, “boost me up. I’ll see if I can see inside.”
Nessis nodded, and bent down at the foot of the wall. Josey climbed up on his shoulders, and Nessis stood. Josey stood on tip-toe, but the window was still out of reach. Nessis lowered him down.
“There!” Nessis said, pointing down the alleyway. Hidden in the shadows was a pile of old crates. He ran over and sorted through them until he found one that still had some structure, then hauled it back under the window. He climbed atop it and held out a hand for Josey.
“I dunno,” Josey said, eying the warped timbers of the old box. “Sure that’ll hold?”
Nessis hopped up and down on it, then held out his hand again. Josey gave the crate another wary look, then crawled back atop Nessis’ shoulders. Together they stretched upward, and again their height was lacking.
“Ungh,” Josey said in a loud whisper. “I can just touch th’ bottom of the sill. If I could jist get m’ fingers over it …”
Nessis responded with an upward heave. Josey got a finger over, but could not hold it. Nessis tried again, and Josey got two fingers, again to no avail. Nessis gathered himself up and actually jumped. Josey held this time, but when Nessis came down the crate splintered, dumping Nessis on the ground. Left alone and hanging, Josey flailed and flapped as he tried to haul himself up. He got as far as to lever himself up onto an elbow, then gave out a choked yell.
“No visitors!” Nessis did not need to see through Josey’s eyes to recognize the owner of those stout vocal cords. Above him he could see a thick hand flip Josey’s elbow out from under him. Josey flailed just briefly before losing his grip for good. As he fell, his trousers snagged on something — likely a projecting nail — and Josey flipped end for end like a circus acrobat. He hung suspended for half a breath before the cord tying his britches gave way and he fell back down, landing atop Nessis. Above them both the shutters slammed shut.
“She pushed me!” Josey exclaimed as he disentangled himself from Nessis.
“Ow,” agreed Nessis, picking himself up slowly from the remains of the crate. He stared a moment at the now trouserless Josey, his eyebrows arched in surprise.
“Knock it off and get me my pants,” Josey growled. Nessis shrugged and complied. He disentangled the snagged garment from where they hung and handed them over. The boy quickly wriggled into them. The waistcord was snapped, and he fumbled silently with it, trying to tie the ends back together. Nessis shifted his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other for a moment. “And no word from you to anyone about this, straight?” grumbled Josey.
“Not a breath of it,” agreed Nessis.
“Put this behind us and move on,” Josey insisted.
“Absolutely,” agreed Nessis. “Not that there is anything wrong with wearing an undergarment of that color.”
“No, there isn’t,” agreed Josey.
“No, nothing at all,” concurred Nessis. “Although I must admit I had not expected to see quite so much … lace.”
“Look, they were all in a bundle,” retorted Josey, flushed. “I wasn’t in a place to pick and choose.”
“Right,” agreed Nessis, looking away.
“Besides, you wouldn’t believe how comfortable they are.” He took a step, grimacing. “I think I may ‘ave broke something.” Josie said, his hand on his hip. He reached in his pocket and pulled out the squashed remains of a hard-boiled egg. “I did.” He nibbled a bit pensively, shrugged, and put it back in his pocket. “Still good.”
“Did you see anything?” Nessis asked, rubbing an elbow. “Was she in there?”
“It was a bit dark,” he said slowly, “an’ I couldn’t make out any faces, but there were a bunch o’ people in there,” he paused, “an’ they were definitely not men.”
“It’s got to be her,” Nessis said, looking up at the closed window.
“Yeah,” Josey said, mostly to himself, “a few were undressed already, and they were definitely not men.” He frowned, a puzzled look on his face.
“Look,” Nessis whispered, pointing. The next window in the line was also still open. He stepped toward it.
“Wait, wait,” Josey begged, grabbing his friend by the coattail. He pointed upward. “That hurt. I don’t wanna do it again, and besides, she’ll just slam * that * window too.” Nessis considered this, then looked longingly back up at the window. Josey thought a moment, then continued. “Is there a way we could get one o’ their attention? Maybe throw somethin’ in?”
Nessis frowned at him. He opened his mouth to reprove his younger companion, then stopped. His eyebrows shot up and his eyes widened. He snapped his fingers.
“A note! We can throw up a note!”
“A note?” Josey asked, incredulously. “When did ya learn yourself ta be a scribe?”
“I didn’t,” Nessis said, “but I live in a whole house of them! One of them can help! Come on!”
Nessis grabbed Josey and started to haul him toward the mouth of the alley. Josey followed a moment, then broke away and ran back. He gathered up the remains of the food he had taken, then took off running after Nessis.
Lord Arbogast was the head of a large household populated by his children and grandchildren and servants and friends and associates. In addition to the large house and workshop there was also a stable and a foundry. Truly the center of the estate, if there was one, was the house, and the center of the house was the kitchen. It was there that activity truly never ceased, for before one meal had even ended preparation for the next had begun. It was only logical, if one was looking for someone with no fixed station, to start looking in the kitchen. Thus it was that Nessis and Josey headed there first. Nessis was a bit disappointed, however, to see that only the night baker and her assistant were there at work.
“Have you seen Lord Arbogast?” Nessis asked the baker, Joleen by name.
“He is at the opening tonight, Nessis,” she explained.
“That’s right,” Nessis said, snapping his fingers. He thought for just a moment. “How about Brian? Where is he?”
Joleen bristled a bit. “His *Honor* Brian,” she said, emphasizing the missing title, “is accompanying his father, his lordship.”
“Right, right,” Nessis said, tugging on Josey’s coat to draw him away from a stack of rolls the boy was eyeing. “And his Honor Connor?”
“His Honor Connor is also at the opening, as are the rest of Lord Arbogast’s sons. Seriously, Nessis, how could you not know this? Lord Arbogast has been working on this project for years now. Where else would they all be? Why do you think we’re the only ones left here?”
“What about Destry and Dennis? Are they gone also?”
“Who are they?”
“The two scribes. They follow his Lordship about like two lost puppies.”
“Then they’re probably with him, at the opening!”
Nessis retreated back to the laboratory, Josey in tow.
“Now what?” Josey mumbled around the vanishing remains of a roll.
“A minor setback,” Nessis said. He pointed at the shelves with their row after row of specimen bottles. “Look. See? All those bottles? They all have labels on them.” He pointed at another row of shelves that ran along under the windows. “And see those? They all have labels. As do many of the tools here. All we have to do is find things that sound like the words we want, and copy down the letters, and they should spell out what it is we want to say.”
Josey looked at him skeptically. “Nah, it won’t.”
“Look,” Nessis said, “I can’t scribe myself, but I have some idea how it works, straight? Writing is just words strung together, and words are made of letters. The letters stand for sounds. If you know what the sounds are, then you can find the letters that match, find words with those letters in them, and put them all together. Come on, this will be easy.”
Josey shrugged and pulled some pastries from a pocket. “Why not?” he said as he bit a corner off one.
“Great. So first we need something to write on.” Nessis went over to the fireplace and lifted a tattered old tome. “Lord Arbogast wanted this book destroyed. He said it had so many wrong ideas it wasn’t worth fixing.” Nessis flipped through a number of pages before he found one he liked and carefully tore it out. “This one has a blank spot big enough to use.” He stood by the fireplace and thought. “Now … what to say …”
“Tell her you think she’s pretty,” Josey suggested.
“Yes,” Nessis agreed. He looked around at the many options he had for lettering. His eye landed on a small wooden display case with a glass door. Inside were many small gems. Nessis snapped his fingers and went over to it.
“These are beautiful,” he said, and studied the label. His lips moved as his eyes traced across the letters. He went back to his desk and found a quill and ink well. He dipped the pen and walked back to the display case. “I think this word here is long enough to be ‘beautiful’,” he said, and began copying it.
Josey watched while Nessis carefully transcribed the letters. Once the older man was done Josey spoke.
“You probably want to actually start the note with your name, so she knows who sent it.”
“Yes, yes!” Nessis snapped his fingers and dug into his shirt. “I have just the thing. Lord Arbogast gave me this,” he said, his gaze blindly rising to the ceiling as his fingers searched. “I use it to stamp my name on things,” he explained, pulling out a thin leather cord with a finger-sized rectangular metal bar threaded onto it. Nessis held it up so that Josey could see that the end had a series of very tiny letters carved into it. Josey gave a low whistle.
“Oh, that’s fancy, that is, Nes. He really gave that to ya?”
“He did, my friend, because he values our relationship.” Nessis said this very simply and matter-of-factly.
“That’s really nice,” Josey said approvingly. “So ya gonna stamp that on there?”
“Yes,” Nessis said, and very carefully inked the end of the bar and pressed it to the paper, leaving a clear mark.
“Great,” Nessis said. “What do we have so far?”
“Yer name, and th’ word ‘beautiful’.” Josey replied.
“Well, that won’t work,” Nessis said. “I’m not trying to say that I am beautiful. We need to say that she is beautiful.”
“So put ‘er name in there.”
“I don’t know her name.”
“Ya don’t know ‘er name? You’re going to all this work, an’ ya don’t even know ‘er name?!”
“I’m trying to find out her name!”
“So ask her.”
“I will, but first I have to explain to her why she should tell me!”
“So tell her she’s beautiful.”
“I am! I mean, I … oh, never mind. Just help me find a word for a beautiful woman.”
Josey and Nessis split up and started searching. It was Josey who called out a few menes later, summoning Nessis over to where he stood looking down at a thick tome spread open on a work table. There, in the open book, was a detailed drawing of a man carrying a dead animal.
“I don’t think she looks much like that,” Nessis commented dryly.
“Nah, silly,” Josey replied. “If th’ book has pictures of him, then maybe it has other pictures too.”
“Ah,” Nessis replied, impressed. “Good idea. Flip a few pages and see.” Josey just stood silent, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Nessis waited a moment and watched. “Go on, look through it.”
“But … “Josey said slowly, “am I allowed to, you know …” he looked about the room slowly, “touch things? In here?”
Nessis looked around the large, long, room, which was filled with shelves and tables and displays and racks, all covered in incomprehensible items. He nodded slowly.
“You are right, my young friend,” Nessis said, straightening slowly. “There are many mysterious, valuable, and even dangerous things hidden in this room. You had best leave the touching to me.” With that Nessis carefully took a book marker from the table, laid it carefully into the crease, and then started gingerly turning the pages. He and Josey stood, engrossed in solemn discovery, as Nessis flipped dozens of pages, few of which had any pictures at all. It was many pages later that they were rewarded.
“Ahhh,” Nessis said, his fingers lingering on a page, “perhaps this will help.” There, in detailed woodcut finery, was an illustration of two women. One was young and one was old, and they seemed to be sharing a cup of some sort.
“Be sure to use th’ one that is naked,” Josey helpfully pointed out. Nessis cast him a sour look.
“Because she was,” he replied. “On stage.”
“She was not naked,” Nessis sniffed. “She was clothed in the glory of the goddess’s light.” He cast his eyes to the ceiling, reveling in the pleasant memory.
“She certainly was lightly clothed,” agreed Josey. “So should I get the paper and pen?”
“No, I can do that. You look around and see if you can find something that says I want to talk to her.”
While Nessis carefully transcribed the letters, Josey wandered about the room, paying special attention to the many shelves. After a while he rejoined Nessis. Josey waited patiently for the older man to finish, then directed him to a shelf. Once there, Josey pointed out an object.
“A trumpet?” Nessis asked. “Are you saying I should play her a song? ”
“Nah,” Josey said dismissively, shaking his head sharply. “That’s not a trumpet. That’s what they use to talk real loud to a crowd. You want to talk to her, right?”
Nessis studied the brass object closely, then nodded. “Yes, I see it. Good find.” He took the label off the shelf and took it to the table where the paper was. Again, Nessis wrote while Josey wandered. Again, he was waiting for Nessis when he was done. This time Josey led Nessis to the shelves filled with specimen jars. They walked past the rows of preserved birds and animals pickled in brine to the section where human body parts were stored. Josey pointed out a jar. Nessis took one look and then gave his young friend a cuff upside the head.
“What!?!” Josey exclaimed. “I’m helping!”
“I am not going to say …” He pointed at the pale object floating in the brine. “That is not what I want to say to her!”
“Sure you do!” Josey replied, rubbing his injured ego. “You’re all about her!”
“My love for her is pure, higher, heavenly!” Nessis yelled. “I would never tarnish my love for her with …” He pointed at the body part.
“Nev … errrr, not until we, she, I … You know! We’re better than that!”
Josey rubbed his head and glared skeptically.
“Look,” Nessis said contritely, “I’m sorry I hit you. I’m on edge here. It was a good idea,” he pointed at the jar, “but not yet.” He looked down the rows of jars. “But yes, it was a good idea.” He walked down the rows, fascinated by the preserved body parts. He stopped in front of one that held a preserved hand. “Maybe I can say that I want to hold her hand.” He took the label and went back to the paper. Josey frowned after him, then went back to looking, rubbing his head.
Nessis transcribed the word on the label, then returned the label to its proper place. That done, he noticed a drawing tacked up beside the jars. It was an anatomical diagram labeling the various body parts. Nessis studied it intently, then carefully pulled it down. He carried it to the table and painstakingly transcribed another word off it. He then returned the drawing to its original location. This done, he looked around. Josey was off in another corner of the room. Nessis looked at him, hesitating, a mild frown on his face. He then turned away and began looking through the book once more. He eventually came to a place where there was a drawing of people sitting down at a table to eat, with a servant bringing them food. Nessis nodded. Josey walked up and looked at the picture.
“I can tell her I want to take her to eat, at a nice place,” Nessis said. Josey nodded, solemnly.
“When yer done, come over ‘ere,” he said softly, then walked back to where he had been. Nessis watched him go, then set to work. He transcribed the words then walked over to see what Josey had found. His eyes widened when he saw it.
“Whoa …” Nessis whispered. “I never knew that was here.” He looked around. “I’ve been working here for days and never saw that.”
“It’s sorta hidden,” Josey said quietly, touching the glass case. Inside, on a simple blank bust covered with red velvet, was a tiara. Simple and elegant, it bore only a few gems. Most simply winked the reflect light from the lamps that illuminated the room, but one seemed to actually flicker and glow with its own inner light. It was mesmerizing, and there was silence for a long mene as the two stared, entranced. Finally Nessis took the label off the case and stepped away.
“Perfect,” he said, “because she is indeed a princess.”
Josey wandered up and down the long tables that lined the workshop, but saw no more interesting objects, so he rejoined Nessis in time to see him transcribe the last word. Once that word was added to the note, Nessis was satisfied.
“It’s important to have just the right number of words in a note,” he said knowingly, “not too many and not too few.”
“Shouldn’t ya ‘ave ‘owever many ya need to say what it is what yer sayin’?” Josey asked.
“Oh, she will know what I am saying,” Nessis said. “My love for her will speak literal volumes. Now — let us deliver this message.”
Together they found some sealing wax and Nessis sealed the note into a scroll, signing it again with his own chop. Then together the two headed off into the night.
By the time they reached the dock area Nessis had already discussed the relative virtues of the different local wedding customs, the house prices in old town Dargon, the important points of child rearing, and the proper method of marketing Corathin pottery, one of Nessis’ favorite topics.
“… have a unique, by which I mean very different and memorable, aspect of discussion for which to present to the customer, by which I obviously mean the purchaser, oh, hey, here we are!” Nessis turned in at the mouth of an alley near the gate to the cult compound. “Now which window was it?”
“I dunno,” Josey said. “Wasn’t it that one?” He pointed at a second floor window.
“Er, no, wasn’t it that one?” Nessis pointed at the one beside it. “I don’t recall it having blue shutters.”
“Me neither …. but then I don’t remember it being pointed at th’ top, neither.” Josey pointed at the other window.
“That’s called a ‘navel’,” Nessis said. “It’s a feature on many a high-end architectural structure. Adds strength.”
“Looks strong ta me,” Josey muttered.
“It looks high to me,” Nessis muttered back. He looked up toward the window above, which yawned black between the opened shutters. He hefted the note in his hand, feeling how light it was. He looked around the ground, and picked up a small chunk of broken cobblestone. He unraveled a bit of thread from his trousers, and used it to carefully tie the stone to the scroll. “This will help it fly better.”
“I dunno, Nes,” Josey said. “Don’ feel right.” He looked around at the alleyway. “Hang on,” he said, and ran off towards the mouth of the alley.
“No need to run off,” Nessis said, calling after him. “This is perfectly legal. I’m just communicating with my friend inside, is all. Perfectly normal.” Josey didn’t turn back, and vanished around the corner. Nessis watched, perplexed, then shrugged. “Odd.” Nessis cocked his arm and threw. The rock flew true, but the scroll slipped off. Upward sailed the unaccompanied stone, and vanished into the darkness between the shutters. There came the sound of breaking glass, and a shower of shards tumbled down to the street below. Startled, Nessis jumped back. From above came a shout. There came the sound of a window being slid upward, and the head and shoulders of an angry man appeared.
“What the fark!?!” he shouted. “Who is that!”
“M-m-master Shortclip!” Nessis exclaimed. “W-what are you doing in the cult compound?”
Josey ran up as a stream of profanity poured down from above, much related to Nessis’ shortcomings as a man. “Nes,” he said, “ya got the wrong alley!”
Nessis looked around, realizing immediately that his young friend was correct. He snatched up the note and followed Josey quickly out of the alley.
Nessis and Josey ran up the beach as the shouted calls for the guard rose up behind them. Nessis took the lead and led them on a winding tour of docks and the nearby town before bringing them back again to the front gate of the cult compound. From this vantage point it was obvious which alley was correct. No fancy architecture features on these windows — just simple, dark rectangles framed by utilitarian shutters, most of which were again open. Faintly, from one or more of them came the sound of soft, sweet singing. Nessis and Josey stood beneath them, staring upward.
“That must be her,” Nessis said.
“Gonna throw it up there?” Josey asked speculatively. He looked over at Nessis, who was hefting the scroll in his hand.
“No sense in repeating history,” Nessis muttered. He looked around. His eye fixed on something closer to the mouth of the alley, and his nervous movements stilled. For a long moment he neither spoke nor moved. When that spell broke, he stepped back the way they came. “Time for a new strategy,” he said.
Nessis led Josey to the alley entrance. There they stopped beside a short shed that was built upside the dormitory wall. Nessis examined it, gauging the height of the shed and the height of the rest of the house. He looked around. Back down the alley was that pile of old crates. He sprinted off towards them, Josey following. Again Nessis sorted through the pile until he found a crate that seemed to have some strength in it. A rat leaped out of it and scurried away as he wrestled it free from its mates. Back up the alleyway they went again, carrying the crate. As he arranged the crate against the side of the shack Nessis explained his play to Josey.
“I am going to climb up on the roof of the shed,” Nessis said. “After I am up I want you to hand up the crate to me. Got it?” Josey nodded. “I will then use the crate to get up on the roof.” He pointed upward for effect. “From there I will be able to see into the rooms below, find the right one, and deliver the note to her directly.” Josey nodded approvingly. After carefully stowing the scroll inside his shirt, Nessis climbed up on the crate and pulled himself up on the roof of the shed. Josey obligingly hefted the crate and lifted it to where Nessis could grab it. Nessis carefully maneuvered it up against the wall of the dormitory, and then used it to ease himself up onto the roof. He carefully worked his way to the crest. Once there he headed down to where the desired windows awaited.
The roof tiles creaked ominously under Nessis’s feet as he moved. He paused, considering, then carefully removed his shoes. Below, Josey watched as the older man did so. Josey held his breath as Nessis balanced precariously on one leg, first the left and then the right. The partial disrobing was accomplished with no ill effects, and Josey nodded as Nessis held the footware aloft. Nessis tossed the shoes down and Josey neatly caught them both. He then watched as Nessis eased himself along the spine of the dorm roof. Nessis threw meaningful glances at Josey and at the roofline as he went along, and Josey helpfully stood under the desired window and pointed. Nessis slowed as he approached, then stopped and stood still.
His outer stillness belied Nessis’ inner activity. A lifetime of living on and off the street, of running operations on both sides of the law, of doing everything possible to obtain the maximum benefit while drawing the minimum of attention had taught Nessis many things about roofs. He knew how well attached each tile ought to be, how much weight each could bear before snapping and coming loose. He knew how steep a slope he could stand on without slipping, and how to walk across the tiles without making undue noise. His feet were trained to recognize by feel where the joists were placed and how far apart they were. Nessis instinctively knew how far out the eaves would stand, and that he should be able to lie prone and extend his head and shoulders out far enough to see into the windows below. He now did this, retrieving the scroll from his jacket and laying himself down just short of the edge of the roof. Nessis smiled, filled with satisfaction that he was finally within reach of his goal. Thus it was that life taught him one more lesson about roofs. Just as Nessis reached his full extension and could finally see the figures milling about in the room below, there came from the area of his belly an ominous creak. There appeared a look of surprise, of shock almost, on Nessis’ face as he felt the roof sag. In the room below the high-pitched chatter stopped. Nessis froze. Should he press onward and risk all or fall back and lose the position he had fought so hard for? Nessis hesitated in the face of decision, and that was all it took for the battle to be lost. The roof joist, made of poorly-cut timber, split and snapped, dumping Nessis unceremoniously into the very room he had been spying on.
It seemed to take quite a while for the ruined roof to finish pouring down into the pile of debris that contained Nessis. After the last tile fell in he lay there in the rubble for just a short moment as pandemonium erupted around him. There were whoops and screams and high-pitched shouts of surprise and joy. After a moment there were other shouts, less high-pitched and just slightly further away. Nessis stumbled to his feet and found himself surrounded by a dozen or so slight figures in various stages of dress and undress. It took just a moment for Nessis to realize that what Josey had meant earlier with his description of the room’s inhabitants. They indeed were not men, but they were not exactly women either. Nessis had just fallen through the roof of the eunuch’s quarters. Nessis opened his mouth to try to explain himself, only to be drowned out by a tremulous bellow from the door.
Nessis scrambled for an exit with the matron in hot pursuit, eunuchs ducking and dodging in their paths. As Nessis was ducking through a row of bunk beds he realized that he no longer had the scroll. He slipped under a bed just in time to avoid a great, grasping hand and headed back toward the site of his unplanned entry. He could see that one of the older eunuchs already had the scroll and was reading it to the others.
“… difficult to tell what it says, but I will try,” he, or she, or it, was saying, with that same sweet, lilting voice Nessis had heard below. “I think it says …”
“Not any of your business, thank you very much,” Nessis said, reaching for the scroll, but before he could touch it a heavy hand seized him and spun him about. The face that stared into his had not a trace of humor.
“Got you!” Before Nessis could as much as say a word he felt himself spun about, lifted up, flipped over, and slammed on the floor. The entire contents of his lungs left him, and was not replaced, as the matron lost no time in plopping her not inconsiderable mass directly on his midsection. Nessis was pinned and paralyzed. As he lay there, on the verge of blacking out, he could hear the eunuch reading.
“… says “rough rock collected to the young smooth body yells loudly about the hand of a thief. Your face is great banquet! And the magic of a dead queen was found.”
“What does that mean?” a high-pitched voice asked.
“It’s just nonsense,” another said. “What is he trying to say?”
“Why,” came the reply from the first eunuch, “I … I think he is trying to say he likes me. He just has no idea how to write!”
The roar of hilarity that erupted crushed Nessis’s ego as firmly as the weight of the matron was crushing his diaphragm. A storm of justification swirled uselessly in his mind as his own ineptness suffocated his hopes and dreams. When the matron finally stood up Nessis just lay there, his eyes closed, until strong hands jerked him to his feet and stood him upright. The matron was hustling the eunuchs off to one side, while the priest Nessis had spoken with earlier was examining the scroll, a bemused look on his face. Two burly cult members held Nessis firmly by his arms and at a signal from the matron hustled him out the dorm room door and down the hall, past rooms filled with curious faces both young and old. They walked Nessis out into the courtyard and to the gate, where they thrust him rudely to the ground and locked the door.
It was a long, slow walk for Nessis and Josey back from the cult compound. Nessis was silent, and downcast, and limping. Josey just walked quietly at his friend’s side. They traversed the lower part of the new town, just above the docks, and turned uphill at the Street of Travellers. They passed many closed doors and darkened houses, and Josey kept looking at Nessis, but Nessis just kept looking down at his feet. Josey was getting cold by the time they reached Atelier Street. There Nessis stopped, and stood silently, stooped and defeated.
“I can’t offer you a room, or a place to sleep, Josey,” Nessis explained. “Lord Arbogast lets me sleep in the workroom by the fire, but he asks that I lock it up at night and not let no one in.”
“That’s all right, Nes,” Josey said softly. “I ‘ave a place ta sleep tonight — I’ll be OK.” He looked the older man over, then approached him and gave him a hug. “Sleep well, ol’ mate.”
“Excuse me,” a voice said from behind, and the pair turned. Two figures approached, clad in simple brown. One held out Nessis’s cobbled-together love note. “Did you write this?”
Nessis recognized the cult member from the courtyard, the one that had shared a moment of admiration with Nessis before turning him away. Nessis straightened, and a familiar, wary expression flashed across his face. Then he slumped again, and sighed. “Yes, yes,” he said, “yes, I did.”
“Is this your name?” the priest held the scroll out and pointed at the mark at the top Nessis had made.
“Yes,” Nessis said simply, “Lord Arbogast gave me that chop and I signed the letter with it.” He stood there as if waiting for an inevitable blow.
The priest nodded, a very slight smile on his face. “I thought so. It’s very interesting.” He traced it with his finger. “The novice who got the scroll first, he actually read it wrong. It was an easy mistake to make, really, to read it as ‘rough stone’. That could actually be one translation.” He paused a moment, glancing up at Nessis. “But that would not be the most accurate rendering of the word. Most scholars would instead add the emphasis here,” he pointed at an upstroke on one of the characters. “Thus it would be better rendered ‘unpolished jewel’.” He looked at Nessis for a long moment, appraisingly. “I suppose our Lord Arbogast sees something in you others might not. I think I may have seen some of that myself.” He looked at the scroll. “The rest of the message is, shall we say, less intelligible, but I feel I nonetheless get the gist. I brought someone to come, shall we say, discuss the matter with you.”
The priest turned and beckoned for the second person to step closer. Nessis and Josey looked on with curiosity. This curiosity turned to wonder as the other pushed back the hood of the plain brown robe to release a shower of golden hair. Two golden-brown eyes sparkled in the torchlight, and an expectant, shy smile cast a warm ray of life into both their hearts. Nessis held his breath, hearing his heart beat as loud as the daybreak bell.
“Did you write the note?” she asked Nessis.
“Y-yes, I did,” Nessis replied. “Did — did you read it?”
“I cannot read,” she replied shyly, glancing back at the priest, “but Brother Rimbault told me what it said.” The priest shrugged and smiled, and she turned back toward Nessis, her eyes as wide as her smile. “I know you. You’re the one in the audience.”
“There were an ‘undred or so in the audience,” protested Josey.
She shook her head, her eyes affixed on Nessis. “*You* were in the audience. I saw you.” Her eyes burned into Nessis’. “Brother Rimbault said you had a question for me.”
Josey looked at Nessis, and Brother Rimbault looked at Nessis. At the focus of their attention, Nessis looked only at her.
“What — what is your name?” he asked, as if out of breath.
“Athelia.” Nessis savored the name, inhaling deep. “Athelia, I think you are beautiful. May I see you again? Perhaps for dinner?”
Athelia glanced back at Brother Rimbault, who studied Nessis for a moment, then nodded approval. Athelia turned back to Nessis, beaming. “Yes!”
“Wonderf –” Nessis’ reply was interrupted by Athelia’s lips on his. The kiss was brief, and ended in a giggle. She stepped away and glanced back at Brother Rimbault, whose eyebrows were rising alarmingly. She ducked her head, gave Nessis one last smile, then lifted her hood back into place, hiding her beauty.
“Come to the gate and ask for me, Rimbault, by name,” the priest said. “I can guide you past the matron, and I will *escort* you both during your time together.” His eyebrows climbed and Nessis wilted just a bit. “Second bell tomorrow night.” His gaze affixed Nessis. “Do not delay.” With that they both turned away into the evening.
Nessis and Josey watched them depart until they were well out of earshot. Finally Josey spoke.
“Well, Nes,” he said, “looks like it worked out after all.”
“All I had to do was ask,” he replied softly.
“An’ get her attention. An’ his. An’ get in ta see them. An’ write a note. An’ …”
“Yes, well, all that certainly helped.” It was the usual Nessis, his voice again clear and concise. There was a softer, more thoughtful tone to it, though. “But it’s a chance, right? And I need to make the best go at it I can.”
“You always do, Nes,” Josey said.
“And I always fail,” Nessis replied quietly.
“Not always,” Josey admonished him.
“No, not always.” He looked at the far off departing pair. “Not always.” He shook his head, then patted Josey on the shoulder. “Time for sleep, Josey, and a chance to awaken to a new day. Goodnight.” He embraced his friend again.
“G’nite, Nes. Sleep well.” Nessis nodded and started limping away. Josey watched him go, then turned to go his own way.