XIV. The Houses of the Holy
The building stood at the intersection where Layman Street met the Street of Travellers. It had a commanding view of the distant river to the west, but more significant was the sight of Pickett’s Let, the name given to the part of Dargon that lay between that building and the river. Pickett’s Let had originally grown up around a stub of the river named for a man who was now entirely unremembered. The inlet was now also entirely filled in, though the foundations of the buildings in that area were as unsteady as every other aspect of the place. Pickett’s Let was not a place that anyone wanted to go to and those who had to be there took as much care about their safety as they could.
The building that watched over Pickett’s Let was called by some a temple, but if it still was one to any god, that fact was quite secret. From the architecture, it did seem as though the place had been built for that purpose: Most of the ground floor was given over to one large chamber, constructed of stone and structured with many pillars and columns that obstructed vision and created many nooks and alcoves. So the place was now used mostly as a temple to the transactions clandestine, to the purchase or exchange of goods that the Duke of Dargon might have said were no good. Here, items of dubious provenance might be obtained or recovered. Here, persons skilled in unseemly arts might be engaged. Here, substances of unwholesome power were traded.
But all that took place in the quiet, unlit alcoves of the place. At the center of the chamber was the hiring table for the Longshoremen’s Guild, wherein merchants and captains made sure that they would have a crew to load and unload their cargoes. And because of that table, almost anyone coming to Temple could have a legitimate reason for being there, if they wanted to bother with one. Why did the Longshoremen’s Guild choose to conduct their business in such a doubtful location so far from the docks where they worked? Because the place was cheap and many guildmembers had other private reasons for wanting to come there. The Guild of Longshoremen was rich and tainted.
Brother Terkan had business at Temple, and a cargo to unload, though he did the job personally. After receiving his unanticipated house guests and sending them off to much desired bedchambers, he removed a modest pouch from a concealed recess in his study and undertook a long morning walk across the river to Temple. There, he found a man named Mikl who trafficked in interesting potions and nostrums.
Mikl was suddenly afflicted with a splitting headache.
Brother Terkan quickly hid the unconscious apothecary in a nook that gave off the alcove he usually frequented, covering him with a curtain that seemed intended for just that task. Then, Terkan donned a robe that was quite similar to the one that Mikl generally wore. He didn’t borrow Mikl’s both because it wouldn’t have fit and because Mikl’s standards of hygiene nauseated Terkan. Then, Terkan waited.
Almost immediately, the young boy Terkan was waiting for arrived. He frowned at Terkan and started to protest.
“I have what you want, though, Herrn,” Terkan said in a soft voice. He opened his pouch and showed the lad the reddish silver contents. “Hanla’s Tears. Highest quality. What you need as well, I fancy.”
The boy glanced in the pouch, nodded, and handed over his coins. Taking the pouch from Terkan, he lit out without stopping for any other conversation.
“Well, there’s another one that’ll come to a miserable end,” Terkan told himself with satisfaction. “Hurry back to Mistress Margala, you little piglet. Today is going to be a *good* day.” He divested himself of the robe, pocketed the money, and strolled out of the Temple to amuse himself for the morning while he waited for his next appointment.
He remembered the fragmented story his houseguests had told just a bell or two earlier, about a god or goddess — or was it god and goddess named Haargon and Iliara? He’d never heard of either name and disliked feeling so ignorant. And from a professional standpoint, it smoked his knuckles to have other people know of some gods he wasn’t cognizant of. He decided to call on Aardvard Factotum. There were reasons not to, certainly: The man was crotchety and waspish to converse with. The man was rich because he was grasping. The man had a house that was back across the river in the Old Town. But the man also had an excellent library of books on this sort of subject. Terkan sighed and considered the coins he’d just collected; perhaps he’d splurge and hire a ferry.
“You want to know about *Iliara*?” Aardvard Factotum asked, while Terkan was still shucking his surcoat. Neither man was inclined to waste time on social pleasantries — especially in the presence of the other.
“And about Haargon. You’ve heard of them?” Terkan asked.
“Oh, no,” Aardvard replied quickly. “That is, I don’t think so. Unless — ” He started back through his overheated rooms that were crowded with bookshelves, but then whirled around again, nearly colliding with the pursuing Terkan. “Boy!” he shouted, pushing Terkan to one side.
“What?!” Terkan exclaimed in annoyance.
“Not you!” the older man responded with equal acid. “You!” he continued, pointing at the boy who did dash up to the two. “Fetch that — that what’s his name. Tell him I’ve found what he was looking for.”
“Yes, sir.” The boy ran out the front door.
“What — ?” Terkan repeated.
“Nothing to do with you,” Aardvard Factotum assured him. “You just reminded me of something someone else asked me to look into.”
“What?” Terkan asked again, beginning to feel that his conversation had fallen into a rut.
“Cost you a Cue to find out.”
“Oh, come on!”
“A Mark, then.”
“Never mind,” Terkan said quickly. “Let’s get back to Haargon.”
“And Iliara,” the sage said.
“And Iliara,” Terkan agreed.
The pair hunted through a number of likely tomes in Aardvard’s library, but though they spent all the morning bells on the search, they found nothing at all about Haargon and only a single mention of Iliara. Iliara, according to Yrtulayn’s treatise, On False Religions, was the second of the three Wise Ones who ruled over Trade. Terkan doubted that that was germane.
At length, feeling hungry and deciding that he’d wasted enough time on idle curiosity, Terkan offered Aardvard a half-dozen Pence for his time and the reference on Iliara. The bookmonger stared contemptuously at the coins, though, so Terkan pocketed them and left. The good news, he realized, upon returning to the street, was that failure was cheap. Odd though, that Aardvard hadn’t argued with the miserly sum he’d offered.
Aardvard turned from watching the door close and nodded to Alec.
“His name’s Terkan,” the sage said. “He knows even less than you do about this Iliara,” he added. “But he’s definitely got someone with him — not right now, you understand — who’s worried about Haargon. Actually, he himself seemed a little worried about Haargon. Two Mark.”
“What?!” Alec squawked. “I’ll never be able to get that much back from Cl — from my client. I’ll give you a half of Sterling.”
“All right,” Aardvard nodded. “I can see that you’re an impoverished and starving young man who doesn’t really *need* any answers to life’s more puzzling questions — ”
The heavy sarcasm was annoying. Alec produced the six silver coins. “Take it or leave it,” he said.
“I’ll take it,” Aardvard gave the man a cold smile, “if you tell me who your client is.”
“Cleo the Priest.” Alec threw the coins at the scholar, then ran out after Terkan. That was still likely to be money he’d never see from his customer again. And, with Aardvard in possession of Cleo’s name it would likely soon be well known that he sold customer’s identities cheap. He wondered if he would ever get another client.
But at least he was in the hunt again.
XVI. Sleeping in Strange Beds
Alec trailed Terkan through the busy streets of midday Dargon. The quarry was slight and dressed unremarkably, but was taking no special effort to mask his trail. Indeed, he dawdled and seemed so indifferent to his surroundings that Alec had decided to risk joining him on the same ferry across from the Old City.
Gulping a bowl of Gundi’s stew — he preferred the medium version — Alec watched Terkan enjoy a more leisurely repast seated at a window in a taproom. However, when the sixth bell rang, Terkan concluded his meal abruptly and hurried out into the busy street again. Now Terkan moved briskly, with a definite goal in mind. Alec was still able to stay with him easily, though.
Terkan hurried into a part of Dargon that was quiet — and also much seedier than Aardvard’s neighborhood was. It didn’t feel dangerous, exactly. At least, not much. It was more as though the area was a trifle embarassed to be out in broad daylight and would prefer to have no one take note of the fact. Alec averted his gaze and focussed on Terkan.
In the end, his destination was pitifully easy to identify. It was a well-kept looking house just north of Ramit Street that was surrounded by open land that appeared to be resting between practical uses. A small, neat kitchen garden bordered on several large trash piles. With no crowds around to mask his movements and not even any other buildings nearby, Terkan quite obviously went into the house. The problem for Alec was finding a concealed vantage that wasn’t absurdly far away, wherein he could wait for the man’s exit.
He did the best he could with a corner of another building that hadn’t fallen down completely. There, he watched nothing happen for a while. Occasionally, people came — generally in pairs of opposite sex — and people departed at about the same rate. Alec listened to the seventh and eighth bells sound.
This Terkan evidently proposed to stay a while, so Alec decided to try to find out what this house had to do with Iliara. In some ways, he was getting tired of this assignment, so he decided to take a direct approach. He walked over to the door of the house and knocked.
The woman who answered the door was old but sharp. She sized up Alec quickly and said “Yes?”
“I’m here about Iliara,” Alec said.
“You know.” Alec lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Iliara.”
“No, I don’t know,” the woman replied unhelpfully. “But I think, young man, that you’re lost. Whoever — or whatever — directed you here has erred. Good day.” She swung the door closed.
“What about Haargon?” he asked, but the door closed anyway.
Alec shrugged. Well, he thought to himself, Terkan didn’t have to spend every waking moment concerning himself with Alec’s problem, but it would be nice if the old man could lead Alec to Ariel sometime today. Still studying the house, since this was probably his one chance to look at it up close without arousing any more suspicion than he already had, he backed away toward his loitering place. Doing that on a fairly deserted street, Alec of course ran into someone. He was just lucky that way.
The someone was a woman, so the man she was with started shouting at Alec for being careless even before Alec had finished falling to the ground. And the woman was tough enough not to need the man’s solicitousness, since it was Alec, and Alec only, who fell.
The woman was wearing a silver half-mask over part of her face. Stumbling to his feet, his ears burning with the man’s insults, Alec stared at the semi-masked woman for what seemed like a full mene before realizing that the woman’s companion was increasing the hostility of his remarks. Quickly, Alec mumbled an apology and hurried past them, but then he stopped and turned around. She was a Peacekeeper; Alec had remembered that already, having seen her several times at Market Square. But now, he remembered who had hired her: The Fifth I. Why would the Fifth I be interested in this seedy house? Did that old woman at the door owe them money? Were Fifth I Peacekeepers also assigned to collect debts? Did the Fifth I own this place?
He watched, interested to see if they were going to lean on anyone he knew, like an annoying old woman. But the man turned and stared at him. He didn’t say anything now, but it was the sort of stare that made Alec take an inventory of everyone to whom he owed money and wonder whether any of them was upset about the debt. The man’s stare seemed to promise that there was someone who’d appreciate Alec being persuaded painfully to hurry up a repayment. It was, in short, not a nice stare. Alec decided to move along back toward his vantage and the Peacekeepers were admitted to the house without any trouble at the door.
Back at his post, Alec tried to be patient. The house had absorbed Terkan of the Obscure Gods, a Peacekeeper employed by the Fifth I with companion, and several pairs of other people, but it appeared unaffected.
The Fifth I, Alec mused. They might have something to do with that murdered bookkeeper at Camron’s. The Fifth I competed with Camron. And, Alec had heard, sometimes those merchants’ competitions could get deadly. Perhaps the Fifth I’s Peacekeepers had done in the bookeeper. Or perhaps the dead bookkeeper had been telling Camron’s secrets to the Fifth I, was caught, and now –
Alec found himself stuck for plausibility for a moment. But his imagination soon rallied.
Suppose Ariel, who was also a secret informant for the Fifth I, was here in this unimpressive house on a seedy street to report to Fifth I Peacekeepers and Terkan –
Why was Terkan here?
Alec shook his head. Ariel wasn’t really here. She’d sent Terkan to represent her. Yes, that was it. She still had to hide from the Watch. They’d seen too much the night before. She needed a quiet way of getting away from the city and in return for her keeping quiet about the I’s involvement in the murder –
If the I was involved in the murder.
If Ariel was working for the I and the I was involved in the murder, then that would involve Ariel pretty thickly in that auditor’s getting killed. And Alec didn’t believe that Ariel was a murderess. Didn’t want to believe it, he realized. So, start with Ariel’s being innocent of murder — but a little commercial spying? That would give her spice.
All right, what if Ariel was an agent of the Fifth I but neither she nor the Fifth I had had anything to do with the auditor’s getting killed. Sure, that was unlikely, but it was possible. And since Ariel was catching the blame for the killing, it made sense that she would turn to the Fifth I to help her get out of this mess.
Alec folded his arms and smiled grimly. Now, he understood what was up. Terkan was meeting with agents from the I. Then, after his meeting, he’d likely go and report back to Ariel what the Peacekeepers were offering. So, if Alec wanted to find her, all he had to do was wait.
He could do that. Waiting was the boring part of his job, but at least he was experienced at it. And it was quiet, contemplative work. In moderation. Talking to that Cleo the Priest was irritating, but at least you knew you were alive while doing it. This waiting outside buildings was pure tedium. In spite of his logical deduction as to what action he should take, Alec was just about ready to go back to the house and ask if he could sit in on Terkan’s meeting when a pair of riders mounted on exhausted horses cantered up to the house.
These two were clearly in a hurry. One leapt off his horse and ran straight to the door. The other at least made a gesture of securing her horse’s reins to a post before she hurried after the first. Also, they didn’t knock at the door or call any greeting; they just walked in. Alec frowned and listened for a protest from within. If there was one, it was quickly quieted. He waited to see who might come flying out of the building next.
He wondered how these two might fit in with Terkan and the Fifth I. They’d had a scholarly, rather than muscular frame; perhaps the Fifth I had sent a couple of accountants or scribes? This didn’t seem to Alec to be the sort of meeting where detailed numbers would be discussed, let alone any sort of recordkeeping. In fact, it occurred to him, it may be that this man and woman had nothing to do with Terkan or the Fifth I Peacekeepers at all. Perhaps they were here merely to collect rent from the obnoxious old woman. That would explain why they didn’t bother announcing themselves at the door.
But rent collecting, Alec knew, went much easier when the collector was physically intimidating. And it didn’t look good to seem to be in a hurry. No, that wouldn’t be it. Alec rubbed his chin. He doubted that the two lived in the house: They dressed too well and would’ve disposed of their mounts more securely — in a nearby stable, say — if they were residents.
Alec gnawed his lip. Those two might be associates of Terkan, he mused. Perhaps they had some word from Ariel, or about Ariel. Maybe Cleo had found some other way to locate her, had taken her away to his underground, Haargonite temple, and those two were useless guardians who now had to report that she was missing. They looked useless enough and careless with their horses. Alec watched one of the mounts wander around toward the side of the house, cropping grass.
He shrugged: Do a good deed, satisfy a little curiosity. Alec went over to the wandering horse. Calmly, he introduced himself to the steed, whose reaction was indifferent. Guiding the horse close to the side of the house, Alec finger-combed its mane and made admiring remarks about the animal’s good behavior. As a reward, the horse allowed him to inspect the tack and saddlebags for any indication of the identity of his owner.
The horse was getting the best of the deal. Aside from a brand on the saddle that Alec failed to recognize, he found no clue. He was still looking when he heard the front door opened and some people come outside again.
“How many horses did you bring?” he heard an oddly rasping voice ask.
“Bother!” another voice responded. “Cherup’s gone wandering again.
Quickly, Alec brought the horse around to the front again. “This your horse, m’lord?” he asked, tugging his forelock. “Fine animal he is, too. Given to wanderin’ a bit, he is. That patch o’ grass just a few feet further away, that’s the one’s sure to be tastier than this stuff underfoot, that’s what he’s a thinkin’ — Oh hell.” Alec looked up from his servile act at the woman in the silver half-mask, the one who worked for the Fifth I.
“You again?” she rasped.
“Uh …” Alec’s mind raced. What should he admit and what should he ask?
“You know him?” the man who was with her asked. Alec glanced at him and saw with relief that it was not the intimidating starer. Rather, he was one of the riders.
“No,” the woman said, taking the reins of the other horse. “We collided earlier. Accident. That’s all.”
“Really?” the man asked, taking the reins of Cherup from Alec. “Where?”
“Just about where you’re standing, maybe a pace to the right.” The woman mounted the other horse.
“Hey!” Alec finally decided to say something. “That isn’t your horse!” Immediately, he felt like an idiot. “I mean, didn’t you come here on foot?” He turned to the man. “And wasn’t someone else riding with you before?”
“I don’t see that this is any of your business,” the man said. Idly, he traced a sigil in the dirt, then looked up at Alec. “I think you should be on your way. Colliding with women you don’t know is not a socially acceptable habit, you know.”
“The last man who told me that put it a lot more bluntly,” Alec replied. He glanced at the drawing in the dirt, but it meant nothing to him. Certes, it didn’t match the brand on the man’s tack. He looked up at the woman. “By the way, whatever happened to him — ?”
“Why are you here?” the man abruptly demanded.
“I — ” Suddenly, Alec wanted to explain everything. He felt like telling all about what he was investigating and, particularly, he wanted to talk about Ariel. “I’m looking for a girl,” he said.
The man and woman glanced at each other quickly. “What, and you think she might be in there?” the man asked, gesturing at the house.
“I hoped so, yes. You see, I’d been following — ”
“Then if I were you, lad,” the man interrupted, “I’d go in there and get her out of there right away.” He mounted his horse. “Do it now.”
“But — ” Alec frowned. He’d scarcely begun explaining and he didn’t think they understood the matter aright.
“Believe me,” the man insisted, “this house is a bad place to visit. Get her out.”
“But — ”
“Come on Je’en.” The two cantered away.
“But …” Alec watched them out of sight, feeling frustrated. Then he felt confused. He’d wanted so much to tell the man all about his mission and his concerns about the Fifth I and Camron’s and the dead auditor and all of it, but he’d barely gotten started. Now, he couldn’t understand why he’d wanted so much to explain about it all to a perfect stranger. He shook his head. There was still this feeling he had that he should go into the house and get Ariel out of there as quickly as he could. And, even though he was fairly certain that Ariel wasn’t inside, Alec walked up to the door of the house and simply went in.
The room inside was dark and hot and smelled like too many things had been burned with not enough windows left open. It also contained the annoying old woman. She came toward him. “You again!” Her mood appeared unimproved. “What do you want?”
“Ariel — ” Alec shook his head. He didn’t know where Ariel was but he had watched Terkan come into this house only a few bells previously. “I mean, a man named Terkan.” Alec stared around the room while his eyes adjusted to the dimness. He noted a large glass globe on one table, a side table crowded with half-burnt candles, and a shallow shelf upon which were arranged a number of small ceramic bowls. The setup looked mystical. “Seems to me you should’ve known that already,” he added.
“I don’t waste the Power on trivia,” the woman snapped. “Get out.”
“No Master Terkan?”
“Never heard of him.”
Alec sighed. “Guess I’ll have to do this the hard way,” he muttered. Then, on a whim, he asked “What did the Peacekeepers want?”
“Who?” The woman quickly changed her mind. “None of your business.”
Alec shrugged. A staircase led from the occult parlor to the floor above and there was also a doorway leading toward the back of the house. The place was quiet, except for the voices of the woman and himself. He started toward the stairs.
The woman blocked his way. “I told you to get out,” she said.
“And I told you I wanted to see Terkan,” Alec replied. He shoved her aside. “I know he’s in here. I saw him come in and he hasn’t left yet.” He started up the narrow stairs. “Now, do I have to go through all the rooms in this house or are you going to be helpful?”
“Can’t be helpful if I don’t know who you’re looking for,” the woman grumbled. Alec kept going. “You’re going irritate a lot of people, snooping around and disturbing their quiet meditations. Including those Peacekeepers,” she added.
Alec stopped. “They left,” he told her. “One of them, anyway.”
“My, but you are the knowledgeable one, aren’t you?” the woman replied, advancing up the stairs toward him. “Still, if you don’t want to run into the other one all accidentally, perhaps you’d better have me show you around up here, eh?” Alec nodded and the woman led the rest of the way up the stairs.
At the top, the woman wasted no time on pleasantries like knocking. Instead, she opened the nearest door and strode in, announcing “Wend, this man is annoying me!” Then she stopped and muttered “Spit!”
Alec, who’d followed her in before realizing that she hadn’t really intended to be helpful, looked around her at the motionless figure lying on the bed. The man was the right size and garb to be Terkan, but his head was wrong: His face was — gone.
Half gone, anyway. Alec stepped forward, staring at the mess that used to be his quarry. Enough of the man’s features remained that Alec was fairly sure that this had been Terkan only a brief while ago. Now, though, the man’s face was covered by several large, leprous blotches that appeared to be expanding even as Alec watched.
He was breathing — gasping — shallowly, his nose being a part of the man’s face that was already melted away. The man’s expression under his diseased flesh appeared to be anything but peaceful. Alec indulged his revulsion for a moment, staring at Terkan, but then steeled himself and, grasping the man firmly by his mercantile robes, tried to shake the man awake.
No flesh fell off Terkan’s body. The pudding-like patches that Alec could see on the man’s face and hands held in place. But the remaining uncovered eye didn’t open either and the pained expression didn’t alter when Alec started shouting Terkan’s name.
“Hush!” the woman admonished. “You’ll wake the other guests.”
Alec ground his teeth. “I’m trying to waken *this* one,” he reminded her.
“And I have a business to run, which I doubt this person will be contributing to any further.” The woman folded her arms and stepped a pace further away from the sickbed. “If you’ve found what you’re looking for, please take him with you and leave.”
Alec stepped away from the dying man. “If you don’t know him as Terkan, do you know this man under another name?” he asked.
“Barrin,” the woman admitted gracelessly.
“And do you know anything else about him? Where does he live?”
The woman smiled sourly. “This isn’t the sort of establishment where clients share personal details like that,” she explained. “Most of them’d rather that no one knew they came here. And me especially, lest I use the Power against ‘em. As if I would.” She nodded at the dying man. “He doesn’t come here often and when he does, he pays poorly. I sha’n't miss him. That’s all I know. Now, will you leave?”
“Have you seen a girl — young woman named Ariel?” Alec asked, feeling that the question was a little desperate. “Medium height, long straight brown hair and gray eyes. Pretty. Walks fast. Usually looks wistful. Talks about Iliara — ”
“Ah,” the woman interrupted. “Iliara again.” She nodded, staring at Alec.
“She was wearing a lavender dress and a full lightweight cloak over that, but she went for a swim in the harbor last night, so I’m not sure what she might be wearing today. Or how soaked she might look. She doesn’t smile often, but when she does — ”
“She’s beautiful,” the old woman broke in again. “All young women are beautiful when they smile. Didn’t you know that? And is she fond of you?”
“Huh? Well — ”
“It’s dangerous work, being a rescuer,” the old woman observed. “But the rewards are sometimes great. Sometimes nil,” she added sadly. “So take care; watch out for yourself.” She gave Alec a cloaked, wistful smile. “A little free advice from one with the Power. I haven’t seen your Iliara, though. You will have to look elsewhere for her.”
Alec shrugged and started for the door.
“You’re sure you won’t take him with you?” the woman asked hopefully.
“Where to?” Alec asked. “I know less about him than you do.” He opened the door and realized immediately that he’d found the closet instead of the hall. He stopped to look inside for a moment.
“I’ve found that other Peacekeeper,” he announced.
The woman came up beside Alec and looked at the fatal knife wound the dead Peacekeeper bore. She sighed.
“Today,” she prophesied, “is not going to be a good day for either of us.”
XVII. A Polite Exchange of Views
Mouse sat in front of the open book on the reading table in Terkan’s library. Having spent a good part of the previous night flitting about the harbor area of Dargon Town, she’d spent most of the day sleeping. Now, awake again and having gorged herself on most of a plum that the occasionally helpful Bret had produced, she was staring at an introductory mathematics treatise. It failed to hold her attention.
Instead, she was plotting ways to get back into Camron’s warehouse and at least recover her dress and other possessions that had been left behind when she was kidnapped. While trying to cobble up that plan, she was frequently sidetracked into wondering who it was who had murdered the auditor and kidnapped her and generally made such a mess of her visit to Dargon. While her explanations were colorful, she knew they lacked any facts that might make them aught besides speculation. She sighed and looked at the words in front of her, wondering if there was any help to be found in algebra.
The door opened and Ariel drifted in, followed by Bret. Though somewhat dryer than last night, she looked no less forlorn. Mouse spun on the table to face her. “What do you want to do now?” she asked.
“It doesn’t seem to me that there’s much you can do,” Bret quickly answered, “except sit tight here. The Watch is probably still looking for you pretty hard. And Master Terkan said he’d see what he could do about looking into the matter — ”
“See what he could do?” Ariel repeated angrily, glaring at the apprentice. “What *can* he do? He’s never even heard of Haargon and it’s obvious that one of their agents was at Camron’s last night making it look like I was killing and robbing — and so on. Mouse, we have to find some way of exposing them.”
Mouse nodded. “Do you have any ideas how?” she asked. “I just got into town and I’m afraid I’m with Terkan on this one: I’ve never heard of Haargon either.”
“It’s a secret struggle,” Ariel said. “Between the forces of dirt and darkness and the forces of light and air. Stefan said that. I just didn’t realize how secret a struggle it was. But there must be some way to reveal it.”
There was a hammering on the front door of the building.
“Perhaps it’s about to get revealed sooner than we thought,” Mouse suggested.
Bret started out of the room, then stopped and turned to the two women. “Stay here,” he ordered. “I’ll go see who it is.” He went out, pulling the door closed. There was the sound of fiddling with the latch before he walked away.
Ariel looked at the door a moment before going over and trying it. “Locked!” she exclaimed.
“I guess he really wanted us to stay here,” Mouse said.
“And where did he think we were going to go?”
“Perhaps he was locking up in case that was Master Terkan,” Mouse suggested. “He said, when he was letting me in here, that Terkan doesn’t like having anyone able just to wander in and out of the library. Terkan prefers to have this place locked up.”
“But not with us in it.”
“No. Not with us in it.”
“Mouse,” Ariel whispered, coming over to the reading table, “don’t you think he’s awfully creepy?”
“Terkan or Bret?” Mouse closed the book and leaned back against it. It slid out of the way.
“Either, I guess. But I was asking about Bret.”
“I didn’t think he was that bad,” Mouse admitted. “But I didn’t have him sticking to me all day like a leech.”
“He hates Terkan,” Ariel said. “He sat next to me while feeding me lunch and told me all about what a cold, mean, petty, ungrateful man Terkan is. Everything a master could do wrong, I think, Bret holds against Terkan. And he supported each charge with incident after memorized incident. It’s too bad. I think the lunch was pretty good, but I just couldn’t stay hungry.”
“Try a plum,” Mouse suggested.
“They’re on the other side of a locked door. Why do you think Bret stays with Terkan if he loathes him so thoroughly?”
“I suppose he’s a good teacher, for all his other faults,” Mouse said.
“But Bret also complained that Terkan was always keeping things secret from him.”
“And I suppose he omits mentioning all the things that Terkan did condescend to teach.”
“I don’t know that I could — ”
“Sh!” Mouse jumped up and ran to climb onto Ariel’s shoulder. Ariel now also heard the footsteps in the corridor. They stood, watching the door, while the latch was tried. There was a brief, muted conversation before the key was turned in the lock and the door swung open. Brother Terkan walked into the room, followed more circumspectly by Bret.
Seeing Ariel and Mouse, he stopped and frowned. “Oh,” he said. “You’re — ” He stopped again.
“I was just reading one of your mathematics texts,” Mouse said quickly, indicating the book. On the Conversion of Economies. Ariel was keeping me company — ” She looked up at Brother Terkan and abruptly stopped talking.
“Yes?” Terkan responded, in vague puzzlement.
“I’m Ariel,” the sometime air-sorceress said, hoping to be helpful. “Mouse’s friend, remember?” She indicated the friend on her shoulder. Mouse said nothing right away, so Ariel poked her lightly.
“Yes!” Mouse squeaked. She broke off her stare at Brother Terkan to glare at Ariel. “I’m Mouse. From Rockway House. Upriver. And Brother Caleb? He wrote to you that we were coming and we showed up on your doorstep today before dawn, bringing greetings and strange gods. Didn’t we go through all this already? Bret, can you help us out here?”
Bret said nothing for a moment, but then Terkan finally seemed to recover his wits. “Yes, Rockway House!” he exclaimed. “Of course. I don’t know how I could’ve forgotten. Mouse and Ariel. Yes. And those gods, uh, Haargon and — and that other one.”
“Iliara,” Ariel said. “Did you find anything else out? You were going to see what you could do.” She glanced at Bret, who was, as usual, staring at her. He was even more overt than usual, she decided.
“No,” Brother Terkan said. “I’m sorry. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Bret and I have some work to do. So if you could — ”
“Ce — ” Bret interrupted, then corrected himself quickly. “Master Terkan, this is Ariel.” His voice rasped peculiarly.
“Yes, I know that Bret,” Terkan replied.
“Ariel from Camron’s,” Bret rasped again. “Remember? I told you how everyone at the Fifth was talking about it this morning.”
“The Fifth?” Mouse asked.
“She’s wanted for murder and robbery.” Bret stepped in front of the library door.
“I’m aware of that, *Bret*,” Terkan said. “She explained about that last night.”
“More or less,” Mouse said. “It’s pretty confusing, actually. Do you want us to go through it again?”
“But shouldn’t we have the Watch arrest her — ?” Bret started to ask.
“That’s not what we’re here for,” Terkan declared. “If you remember.”
“Then what are you here for?” Mouse asked. “If you’re not here to arrest us and you aren’t Terkan and Bret?”
“They’re not?” Ariel asked.
“No. Interesting disguise though.” Mouse nodded. “Look close,” she suggested. “Really see them. Maybe it’ll help if you think airy thoughts,” she suggested.
Ariel backed away from the false Terkan and Bret. “Who are you, then. Are you from Haargon?”
“I don’t think so,” Mouse said. “But Bret might be from someone with a real fondness for silver. She’s wearing a mask — ”
“She?” Ariel asked. “A silver mask? Like the Peacekeeper working for the Fifth — ?”
“Does everyone in this town know about me?” the false Bret rasped.
“They talked about you at Camron’s,” Ariel explained.
“Merchant chat,” Mouse suggested. “I’ll bet you’re well known among all the traders. It’s like how everyone in the world who cultivates mushrooms knows Sister Anne.” Everyone looked at her in puzzlement.
“Who?” the false Terkan asked.
“You’re not a mushroom sage, are you?” Mouse asked.
“I *thought* I was reasonably well informed about them — ” The false Terkan shook his head. “Look, I have work to do and I’m not feeling very well. Could you — ”
“She *ought* to be handed over to the Watch,” the false Bret rasped.
“That would hardly be a gracious thing for her host to do,” the man who wasn’t Terkan said. “After all, I — that is, Terkan — did agree to give her shelter. And she says she isn’t the murderess.”
“Murderesses always say that.”
“You know a few?” Mouse asked.
“As a matter of fact — ”
“Don’t answer her,” the false Terkan ordered the woman who still looked an awful lot like Bret. “That little one’s very good at steering a conversation into fogbanks. Now, let me remind you that you no longer have to assist the Watch in their inquiries. You’re retired from Peacekeeping.”
“I haven’t told Tranell yet,” the false Bret rasped.
“Look,” the man who wasn’t Terkan sighed. “You don’t need to have them arrested. Just get them out of here. I have work to do.” He stared at Mouse. “And I need to concentrate.”
Mouse stared back. “Nope,” she announced. “I’ve never seen you before.” She glanced at Ariel. “What about you?”
“I don’t know,” Ariel said. Through the whole debate, she’d been trying to concentrate on seeing the pair truly.
“All right, it appears our deception is broken for now, at least,” the false Brother Terkan declared. “And, Mouse, it does sound as though you can see us as who we really are. I congratulate you — ”
“Are you agents of Haargon, then?” Ariel asked again.
The man who looked remarkably similar to Brother Terkan glanced at her. “I’ve never heard of Haargon,” he said.
“That does seem to be the most common refrain about him,” Mouse said.
“I am Cefn an’Derin,” the man said. “Perhaps you’ve heard of me? I have developed no little skill in the arts arcane.”
Mouse and Ariel looked at each other before returning their gaze to Cefn. Both shook their heads.
“But neither of us has been in Dargon for long,” Mouse said.
“Even people who’ve been here a while haven’t necessarily heard of him,” the false Bret rasped.
“True,” Cefn agreed. “By the way, this is Je’lanthra’en. It’s enough just to call her Je’en.”
“And where’s the real Bret?” Mouse asked.
“Secured in a closet downstairs,” Cefn replied. “He may awaken with a slight headache, but he’s basically unharmed.”
“Mmm. It isn’t that we like him especially,” Mouse said, glancing at Ariel, “but we have no idea what you two are up to. What about Brother Terkan?”
“Brother Terkan,” Cefn said. “Yes. What about him. By the way, do you mind if Je’en and I don’t dispel our disguises? They’re a bother to apply and I don’t think I’m finished with them.”
“I don’t mind,” Mouse said, “if you can give us a good reason for wearing them.”
“Very well, then. I’ll see what I can do.” Cefn walked over to the reading table and seated himself in a chair. The one named Je’en, however, remained at the door. “Have you heard of Jhel?”
“No,” Mouse said. Ariel also shook her head.
“Jhel is a power whose delight is in grand destruction, misery and annihilation — ” Cefn started to explain.
“You mean like Haargon?” Ariel asked.
“Another evil god?” Mouse demanded. She glanced at Ariel. “This town has way too much religion,” she declared.
“Mouse, I don’t know anything about your Haargon and you, I take it, have never heard of Jhel,” Cefn said calmly. “So it seems to me that no one has yet been obliged to deal with too many evil gods.”
“You don’t think any is too many?” Mouse asked.
“Point taken,” Cefn said, quickly adding “and what Je’en and I are about is the final eradication of Jhel’s worship from the face of Makdiar.”
“That sounds like a good thing,” Mouse admitted, “if this Jhel is as thoroughly evil as you say. But what’s that got to do with Brother Terkan?”
“Yes, Brother Terkan.” Cefn steepled his fingers. “I trust you didn’t consider him a good friend.”
“Good customer, at best,” Mouse declared. “For books. I only met him last night. What else should I know?”
“He was part of the last circle of worshippers of Jhel. A circle holed up here in Dargon.”
“Was?” Ariel asked.
“Most likely, he’s dead by now,” Cefn said. “If he isn’t dead, he’s trapped in a fatal situation and will be soon.”
“What kind of fatal situation?” Mouse asked. She jumped down from Ariel’s shoulder to sit on the reading table in front of Cefn.
“He was trying to misguide Je’en into handing her sword over to him.”
Mouse frowned. “On the face of it, making that into a fatal situation sounds like someone was over-reacting.”
“Hmmm. I guess you want the long version,” Cefn said. He steepled his fingers again. “The last circle of worshippers of Jhel believed that Je’en’s sword carried great and particular power. If they could persuade her to hand it over to them willingly, they believed it could be used to bring about a massive and disastrous manifestation of Jhel in the world. The end of the world, if you like.”
“I don’t like. Were they right?” Mouse asked.
“I believe so — ”
“But why would they want to do that?” Ariel asked. “Why would anyone want to destroy the world?”
“I expect they thought the world would be replaced by some new version over which they would be placed in charge,” Cefn shrugged. He frowned and seemed to call up a reluctant memory. “Something like that, anyway. In order to persuade Je’en to hand over the sword, Terkan crafted an elaborate plan to attack Je’en’s dreams and then bring her to a sort of dreamland in order to alleviate the nightmares. I, however, found out about the plan in time to intervene. The result of that intervention was that Terkan was trapped in the dreamland, where he is likely soon to die. And Je’en and I now know enough about the workings of the final circle of worshippers of Jhel to destroy them and this foul religion forever.”
“Can we do anything to help?” Ariel asked.
“And have you any evidence to support that story?” Mouse added.
Cefn laughed. “And what evidence can you provide to support your stories about Haargon, Iliara, and the mysterious kidnapper at — where was it?” He glanced at Je’en. “Camron’s?” he asked. She nodded.
“That’s fair,” Mouse admitted. “A lack of evidence all around, I guess. A standoff. So why did you come here to Terkan’s house?”
“I, as Brother Terkan am going to call another meeting of the remaining worshippers of Jhel,” Cefn said. “A final meeting. One that will gather very soon, before word of the real Terkan’s demise gets out. He’s not known under his own name where he’s dying, so we’ll have a little time, anyway. As for me, I’m just passing through here until we can go to that gathering and finish my mission forever.”
“You’ll be taking your assistant with you?” Mouse asked, indicating Je’en.
“Partner,” Cefn corrected. “And yes, she’ll go with me.”
Mouse nodded. “And you’ll refrain from involving yourselves in our problems with these agents of Haargon?”
“Are you sure that this Haargon really exists?” Cefn asked.
“Whether or not he exists — ” Mouse said.
“Of course he exists,” Ariel declared.
“Cefn,” Mouse ignored the comment, “are you and Je’en going to ignore our problem with the Watch over that murdered man in Camron’s?”
Cefn looked at Je’en, who shrugged.
“I think we could do that,” he said. “But I also think that this house won’t remain a good place for you to hide for too much longer.”