Complex stories never have just one beginning. Like a tapestry, threads of actions weave in and out of the background of circumstances, bringing patterns of results to the surface of the finished product. So it is with Ol Tamboch Narhin.
No, my friend, I have no intention of trying to detail every beginning that goes into this tapestry. Neither of us have as long as that would take. But you need to know the important inceptive elements.
Once again, we reach a long way into the past, though not as far in distance. The year is 885 by Baranurian reckoning, 12 years before the start of the Great Houses War, and the place is right here.
Aidona let out a short, startled scream as her foot slipped in the small trickle of water on the floor of the cave, and immediately felt very foolish and glad she was alone. The calmness and peace that usually filled her when she was underground reasserted itself, and she chuckled at her clumsiness and automatic reaction.
She lifted her lamp and looked for the source of the water she had slipped in. The last time she had explored beyond the crack in the southeast face of the quarry the tunnel had been perfectly dry, and there hadn’t been any rain in Dargon for a sennight. It didn’t take long to find that the water was seeping from a crack in the wall at about chest height.
She placed her hand against the stone to one side of the crack and felt granite. Not in the way that, say, her husband Pesank could distinguish one kind of stone from another by the texture and temperature and color of it. No, Aidona could lay a finger on any pebble, rock, or stone and simply know what it was without being able to explain why she knew. She ran her hand across the rock face to see whether there was a different kind of stone around the break. Her inability to sense anything else about what she touched, like thickness for example, came into play as her touch on the edge of the fissure brought disaster.
There was a sharp snap, and the crack widened. Water gushed out, and more snaps followed as the pressure of flowing water broke the opening wider. Before Aidona could think what to do next, a flood of water knocked her against the opposite wall and then swept her off her feet and down along the seam that she had been exploring.
The force of the flow slackened quickly, and Aidona was able to keep her lantern out of the water and alight, until another weak point gave way and dropped her through the floor and into darkness.
She didn’t fall far, though her landing was less than gentle as lumps of stone gouged her side and leg. She lay on a slope, which gave her hope for getting back up to the main crease. Despite the complete darkness she was in, she still felt no panic or fear. She paused to catch her breath from the fall, and then began to slowly crawl up the slope.
She moved carefully and cautiously, testing her hand and knee placement, idly cataloging the stone she touched as she climbed: basalt, granite, limestone, quartz. When her hand landed on the large, oval lump she was startled by the blankness she felt under her fingers where the stone knowledge normally flowed. It was rough and hard, like stone, not smooth like metal, but she got no recognition from it, at least at first. As she paused in her climb to try to fathom the mystery under her fingers, the answer finally came to her. The word ‘virietallo’ came to her, surprising her just as much as the initial emptiness she had felt. She had never touched the stone known as Dargonian moonglow before, though she had seen the shimmering, multicolored, opalescent, and fantastically rare gem once or twice. Virietallo came only from this very quarry in Dargon, and she thought that, if this lump was pure, she held enough of it to make her richer than Duke Sumner himself!
Aidona twisted herself through the crack in the rock-face and emerged into sunlight again. She didn’t heave a sigh of relief, having never been worried. Instead, she took a good, long look at her moonglow.
It was a beautiful sight, all swirling colors and sublime sheen. Looking closely, she saw that the colors actually moved, flowing slowly in coiling patterns. She stared at the motion for a bit, surprised that she’d never heard of this property before. She wondered whether the stones that were set into rings and necklaces were too small for the swirl to be seen. Perhaps chipping or cutting the raw stone stopped the motion of the colors within it. But that didn’t explain why those who fashioned jewelry out of moonglow had never mentioned the coiling, swiriling patterns.
She blinked a few times and tore her eyes away from the hypnotic ornamentation. The roughly cylindrical stone that was about as long as the distance from her elbow to her fingertips barely fit into the bag she had stashed by the entrance for any finds she might bring back, and soon Aidona was making her way across the quarry to the bathhouse by the kitchen compound.
As she followed the paths through and around the stone outcroppings away from the cliff face, she heard the noise of a working quarry all around her. It was a sound she knew well, since she came from a family of stone workers going back at least five generations. Continuing the tradition, her brother and his family were employed here. As were her own grown children, which might not have happened had she not met and married Pesank, as her own talents — reading, writing, and figuring — would surely have led her away from the quarry otherwise.
Aidona’s walk was interrupted by a shout and a clattering thump from up ahead. She rounded the spur to see a man lying at the base of the rock face. She followed the ropes that rose up from the body and saw another man perched about twice man-height above the ground, tools in his hands, a stricken look on his face.
She called out, “What happened here?” as she approached the man lying on the ground. She knelt beside the twisted body and resisted the urge to straighten him out, knowing that only a healer could do that without possibly further complicating his condition.
“Peritt slipped, ma’am,” the man above her replied. Aidona held her hand above Peritt’s nose and mouth and felt a faint brush of air against it. She gathered her own breath to shout for help until she saw the slight adjustment of his body into his final slump. She waited a moment more to be sure, but no more air brushed against her hand. Peritt was dead.
She stood and looked upward. “Why don’t you come down here and give me a little more detail, Yarly?” The mention of Peritt’s name had jogged her memory into recalling the crew he normally worked with.
The man above her quickly descended with a slapping of rope, clicking of metal against rock, and controlled grunts of effort. Soon Yarly stood before her, and Aidona thought there was something in his face besides the natural upset of seeing his fellow crew member fall to his death. She knew that there were comparitively few serious accidents in this quarry, compared to most; perhaps he was just nervous at having an accident happen nearly in front of the quarry master’s wife.
“We were working up there, tracing a seam, Peritt and I, ma’am,” Yarly said. “I saw the rope slip off the piton, but before I could warn him, Peritt tried to move sideways. He slipped and there was nothing to catch him. I reached for him, but he missed my hand.” Yarly looked behind him at the body of Peritt, and shuddered.
Aidona frowned, then cleared her expression before Yarly turned back to her. She was suspicious, but she wasn’t sure why. She tried to think of some questions to help probe for the truth, but she was interrupted by running footsteps coming up behind her.
“What happ–?” Aidona glanced over her shoulder and saw that one of the people who had just arrived was Chek, the team leader. He continued, “Oh, your pardon, ma’am, I didn’t expect to see you here.” He looked her up and down, and said, “You been caving, ma’am? You look like you had an interesting time.” His smile faded as he saw the body at the base of the rock face, and he took a few extra steps forward. “With your permission, Mistress Aidona, I can take over from here.”
“I think that is for the best, Chek,” Aidona said, not sorry to have the responsibility removed from her shoulders. “If you could let me know what you find once you’ve reported to Pesank?”
Chek nodded, and Aidona walked away from the problem. She was still suspicious, though, and she decided to do a little investigating of her own.
Aidona walked out of the bathhouse feeling clean again. She walked past the kitchen compound, where several crews were eating their midday meal and listened to the chatter. She glanced in as she went by the door, seeing at least three tables throwing dice and another playing cards, the glint of coins adding to the festive atmosphere. She knew that gambling was one of the main ways that the quarry workers entertained themselves, and not just dice and card games either. She remembered the trouble her youngest son, Jorar, had once gotten into playing cards with the wrong people, and wondered, given the fact that ropes seldom untied themselves, who Peritt might have been gambling with.
The quarry master’s house was right next to the kitchen compound, which meant she never had to cook for herself, just one of the perks of being Pesank’s wife. The noise could get overwhelming, but she had no problem with that. She climbed the steps onto the porch and as she reached for the door it opened and out walked her husband.
Pesank was dressed in some of his best clothes, and he was wearing his formal jewelry and his badge of office. His wide face with its crooked nose and brief beard broke into a wide grin at the sight of her. Aidona grinned back and hugged him. She stepped back, admiring how distinguished he looked, the clothes and jewelry just putting a final gloss on the character in his face, the wings of grey at his temples.
“Where are you going, dear?” she asked.
“The duke and his architect have a new project they want to start, and want my input. Not to mention delivery dates on the last stone for the Court of Trees, and then there’s the anchor blocks for the new piers. I may not design them, but without me, all of Duke Sumner’s and architect Alisaria’s plans would come to naught.”
Aidona said, “The duke certainly has grand plans, doesn’t he?”
“He may only be the second Duke Dargon, but he doesn’t want our land to be seen as lacking in anything.”
“But we weren’t exactly a collection of mud huts before the king gave Anton a title!”
Pesank laughed, and said, “You’re right, love. The keep, the wall around Old City, the causeway, the new city itself: sure they were all there when Sumner’s father got the first ducal coronet, but Duke Anton wanted there to be tangible evidence of his land’s elevation, and Sumner is just carrying on those plans.”
“I can’t argue with the results,” Aidona said. “If no one wanted our stone, we wouldn’t be of much use to anyone.” She chuckled, then said, “I just wish you were around more. I swear you spend as much time up at the keep as here in the quarry.”
Pesank looked serious for a moment. “We could always just move up there. Be part of the court, meet important people, go to parties. It’s just as easy to make the trip down here when there’s something requiring my attention as to do the reverse.”
Aidona just stared for a moment. She finally said, “I’ll think about it. Shouldn’t you get moving? Dukes get mad when people make them wait.”
He nodded, gave her a quick kiss, and headed off to the stables. Aidona went inside in a daze, thinking about leaving the quarry for the bustle, glamor, and strangeness of court life. Her hand brushed the bag at her side, and she lifted the virietallo out as she made her way to her dressing room. The moonglow seemed to actually shine in the dim hallway, though it shed no light at all.
The windows in her dressing room muted the light but not the beauty of the fantastically expensive stone. She knew that, sold to the right person, the moonglow could fund an actual title for both her and Pesank, as well as all three of their children. They could move all the way to the capital of the kingdom, Magnus, take up residence in a castle of their own, and have enough money left over to maintain their descendants in magnificent style.
It was an enticing dream, or should have been, really. Aidona found it attractive, though not compelling, but she had others to think about, after all. Would Pesank prefer a title to the quarry? If she could provide that kind of security for their children, shouldn’t she? She just didn’t know.
The next day, Aidona stayed in the dining room after morning meal. She chatted with the workers, not asking specific questions but just putting them at their ease and giving everyone the impression that she was just passing time, nothing more. She kept her ears open, helped guide conversations to the death the previous day, and learned what she could about the victim.
Peritt had been a hard worker, and well liked. Though he’d been with Chek’s crew for a year, he had worked with several others over his career. He’d been generous, a good friend, with a definite love of gambling, at which he had generally been very lucky.
Chek’s crew came in around fourth bell for their midday meal, having gone out early as usual. She kept her eye on them as they went through the food line, then sat together. She continued her conversations as they ate, and then split up to the gaming tables. Only two people didn’t join in the games: Yarly and Roda.
Aidona finished her chat, then went over and sat next to Roda, who was drinking from a stone cup. “No dice for you, Roda?” she asked. The man just shook his head and took another drink. “Mourning your friend?” Roda didn’t respond, so Aidona said, “Tell me about him.”
The man finally looked up from his cup, and Aidona smelled the liquor on his breath. He wasn’t sad, or contemplative, but clearly angry. “Of course I mourn Peritt, ma’am. But I’d rather tell you something else. Yarly, you see, he never does well at the dice. Two nights ago, he lost big at four-bones. Yesterday at mid-meal, he tried to make good at a few rounds of cards: pass-the-pie, paquaratti, akelet. He usually does better with the pasteboards, but not yesterday; he lost every time.
“Desperate, he convinced Peritt to go double or nothing for one toss of over-and-under, staking his rent. His wife swore she’d throw him out if he came home one more time without the rent. He lost. Peritt refused to let Yarly skid on pay-up for a few days; that’s not how we play, and we all backed him on it. Yarly shouldn’t have bet what he couldn’t lose.”
Aidona had no trouble following the pointers Roda was giving her. What was more, she thought that the man was absolutely correct. After all, if Yarly had reached out to save his friend, he wouldn’t have still had his tools in both hands when she’d come upon the scene of the accident. She said, “Why don’t you and I go make sure that Chek knows this, and then you can go home for the rest of the day. After what you’ve had to drink, we don’t need an accident out on the rock to go with yesterday’s murder.”
That evening, Aidona sat in her room and stared at the virietallo resting on the table in front of her. She was satisfied with the resolution to the death of Peritt and with her role in revealing the truth, though Chek might well have uncovered the same. It hadn’t been hard to verify the motive: a quick check had shown that Yarly had paid his rent immediately after getting off shift the previous day. Direct questioning had quickly broken through Yarly’s defenses, and he had confessed his deeds. The rest was up to the magistrates.
Aidona compared the false lure of wealth without work that made gambling so popular with the potential wealth in the moonglow in front of her. They weren’t exactly the same, in that converting the virietallo into gold wasn’t a risk, but in the end there was a similarity. Both represented wanting something better than what you had.
She thought about what it would be like if she used the moonglow to buy her family a title. She had enough experience at court functions to know that she really didn’t find anything appealing about that. In fact, she realized that even something as simple as moving across the Coldwell to live in the Old Town as Pesank had suggested held no allure for her.
She was happy with the quarry, with her husband and her children, with her life as it was now. She gave a brief thought to what her family might prefer, but the moonglow was hers to do with what she wanted, and she didn’t want to use it to separate herself from what she had.
Aidona looked at the flowing colors moving inside the moonglow, and another realization hit: money was just money. Yes, it could promote her family to the highest nobility of Baranur, but it didn’t have to, any more than she had to move into the keep at Pesank’s suggestion. Money would let her give to charity, to invest in the quarry, to make sure she never had to end up gambling to make enough money for what she wanted. The moonglow couldn’t buy her happiness because she already had her bliss, but that didn’t mean she was going to throw it back into a deep, dark cave, either.
While the gem was stunning as it was, she knew that in the hands of a master sculptor it could become so much more. If her great uncle Teleis were still alive, she would have taken it to him. Fortunately, Teleis’ best apprentice had taken over for him. She decided to visit Bowen’s workshop as soon as possible.