VIII. A Visit From a Loyal Follower
Finding Terkan’s house had been easy, Alec thought to himself as he approached the door. It had simply required money — more money — and another consultation with that expert on all subjects, Aardvard Factotum. After all, he had been able to identify Terkan in the first place. It made sense, albeit expensive sense, that he could also tell Alec where the man lived. Still, the day had been pretty much wasted chasing after this Terkan — alive or dead. Alec rapped loudly on the door of Terkan’s house and then turned to admire a rather ordinary sunset.
The door was opened eventually by a young man, the late Terkan’s apprentice, most likely.
An expression of appalled surprise flashed across the boy’s face. “What’re you — ?” he rasped. The voice sounded familiar.
But the expression quickly darkened. “What do you want?” the apprentice snarled.
“I’m here to see Ariel,” Alec said.
The young man raised an eyebrow. “Oh?” he said sourly. “And who are you?”
“Tell her that Iliara sent me.”
The man frowned, then said “Wait here” and closed the door.
So Alec waited. There was that perfectly routine sunset to entertain him and that rasping voice to speculate about.
Very soon, though, he heard running footsteps and the door was flung open. Ariel stood within, a very hopeful expression on her face. “You’re from Iliara?” she asked, then added “Have I seen you before?”
“On behalf of Iliara, yes,” Alec said. “As for whether you’ve seen me before — ” He broke off. A short, balding man had hurried up behind Ariel, along with that sour-voiced apprentice. Alec stared at him. The man seemed fully recovered from that fit of leprousy he’d apparently been suffering in the house on the other side of town. “Terkan?” Alec asked.
“Of course,” the man replied, looking Alec over carefully. “This is my house, my front door, my assistant, my guest. It does rather make sense for me to be me, don’t you think? However, as for you –” He shook his head. “I don’t believe I know who you are.”
“I am Alec,” Alec said, sure that, in spite of the evidence, this was not really Terkan. To Ariel, he said “And you, I believe, are in terrible danger.”
“Tell her something she doesn’t already know,” Mouse said, having caught up with the others.
“From Haargon?” Ariel asked anyway.
“From Haargon –” Alec agreed, before turning to stare at Mouse. “What are you?” he asked.
Mouse put her hands on her hips and glared at Alec. “You know,” she said, “I really don’t feel like answering that question. It is very insulting.”
“She’s a friend of mine,” Ariel said, reaching down to assist the small person up to her shoulder. “Mouse.”
“So what do you know about the terrible danger from Haargon?” Mouse asked, seating herself.
“I think,” Alec answered, glancing from the small woman to Master Terkan, “that you’d better leave this house.”
“Why?” Mouse asked.
“Does Haargon know I’m here?” Ariel asked.
“Probably,” Alec replied, still looking at Terkan.
“But not definitely?” Mouse asked. “Then if that’s not the terrible danger, what is?” She watched Alec’s stare. “Do you have some problem with Brother Terkan? Is there some message from Iliara that you want to share?”
Alec elected to ignore Mouse. To Ariel, he said “Please, I think you should come with me. Now.”
“Where to?” Mouse quickly asked.
“I have a room where you can hide,” Alec said to Ariel, still ignoring Mouse.
“All right,” Mouse shrugged. “But why now?”
“I can’t explain that,” Alec said, improvising. “Not in the presence of people who aren’t followers of Iliara. It refers to the secret knowledge of Barnaby.”
“Ah, Barnaby,” Mouse said. “Well then, how about if Brother Terkan and Bret excuse themselves to go make us some tea and you can give us a quick explication while they’re busy. Then, if we agree about the urgency, we can leave with you as soon as tea is concluded.”
“But you’re not one of the followers — ” Alec protested.
“Of Iliara?” Mouse interrupted. “Of course I am. I’ll have you know that I’m one of her harder-working messengers, assigned right now to keep Ariel company through this her time of trouble.”
“You are?” Ariel asked. “I thought — ”
“Sure,” Mouse said quickly. “Why else would I have hung around with you this long? And as for you, Alec, you ought to have recognized the phrase ‘Tell her something she doesn’t already know’ — unless you haven’t yet been admitted to the fifth circle.”
“You’re fifth circle?” Ariel asked.
“That would be telling,” Mouse said. To Brother Terkan, she said “Tea, please?”
“Come into the parlor, then,” Brother Terkan invited. The group moved into that room. Then, the master of the house crooked a finger at Bret and the two went toward the back of the house.
“So what’s going on?” Ariel asked.
Alec watched Brother Terkan out of sight and then dropped his voice to a very conspiratorial whisper. “I don’t think your ‘Brother’ Terkan is who he claims to be,” he said.
“Then who do you think he is?” Ariel asked.
“I suppose you think he’s an agent of Haargon?” Mouse asked.
“It’s the most likely conclusion, don’t you think?” Alec replied.
“From your standpoint, perhaps,” Mouse said, “if all you know is Iliara and Haargon. But you do have to admit that there’s much you don’t know. For example, I don’t think you knew that I was the one who brought Ariel here to Brother Terkan’s house.” She smiled. “So if you impugn Brother Terkan’s good will toward Ariel, you impugn mine also.”
Ariel frowned and seemed about to say something, but Alec spoke first.
“I didn’t mean that there was anything objectionable about Brother Terkan,” he said, “because that man isn’t Brother Terkan.”
“How did you know that?” Ariel asked.
“Because I saw a great deal of Brother Terkan today and I know that the real Brother Terkan died a horrible and disfiguring death today at a house belonging to a certain Margala. That man is an imposter.” Alec looked to see if his information had made a deep impression on his listeners. The response was disappointing.
“And how do you know that this fake Terkan is doing anything for Haargon?” Mouse asked.
“Why else would he be doing it?” Alec asked.
“Well, do you know anything else about Terkan besides where and how he died?”
“I know that he visited Aardvard Factotum today to find out what that old worthy knew about Iliara or Haargon.”
“And what did he know?” Ariel asked.
“Nothing, actually,” Alec shrugged.
“Nothing again,” Mouse repeated to Ariel.
“I keep telling you their war is secret,” Ariel said.
“Very secret,” Mouse agreed. “So secret that everything about it appears to be kept secret from pretty much everyone.”
“But what’s your point about Terkan?” Alec asked.
“Simply that you and I both knew very little about him,” Mouse said. “And the fake Terkan you’ve just met is here for very good reasons that have nothing to do with Ariel or me or any of your secret gods. The real Terkan was a very unsavory man who trafficked in a different, extremely evil, but also fairly secret god. The substitute Terkan had a hand in killing off the real one and is working now on finishing up a mission to eradicate the worship of this other evil god.”
“What’s the name of this other evil god?” Alec asked.
“Jhel,” Ariel said.
“Am I supposed to have heard of him?” Alec asked.
“I don’t think that’s important,” Mouse said. What’s important is that we already knew that Terkan wasn’t really Terkan and that both versions of Terkan had nothing to do with Haargon. Both of them, in fact, have never heard of Haargon and couldn’t manage to find out anything about Haargon if they tried. But you do know about Haargon and show up trying to persuade Ariel to leave this place and go somewhere else. I think we should wonder whether you’re the danger.”
“So you already knew that Terkan wasn’t Terkan,” Alec said.
“That’s right,” Mouse said.
“And you already knew that priests of Haargon are trying to draw you to their side in the secret war.”
“I’d figured that out already, too,” Ariel said, smiling faintly.
“And you already have a brave, valiant and competent protector,” Alec added hopefully.
Ariel nodded, but Mouse said “No. That job’s available.”
“But what about you?” Ariel asked. “Aren’t you my protector?”
“You expect to get much protection from the likes of me?”
“But you’re at least fifth circle, aren’t you?” Ariel asked. “You should be able to call upon some serious magicks if need be.”
“I should, but help would be nice anyway,” Mouse said. “Are you applying?” she asked Alec.
“All right,” he said.
“Good! Then we need references.” She sprang across the table closer to Alec. At the same time, the door of the parlor opened. Cefn and Je’en, still in disguise, came in bearing a tray of tea things. Terkan was rich; the setting looked elegant. Tea was served out while Mouse explained to Cefn that Alec was aware of Terkan’s demise and replacement, but wished to help protect Ariel anyway.
“How did he know about Terkan’s death?” Cefn asked, concerned how public that knowledge had become.
Alec put down his teacup. “I was following Terkan today,” he said.
“Yes, we saw you,” Cefn said.
Alec turned to Je’en. “So you are the woman in the silver mask.”
She nodded. “You’ve had me wondering just how small a town Dargon is,” she said.
“Why were you following Terkan?” Cefn asked.
“I wanted to find Ariel.”
“And how did you know that he had any connection to her?”
“And why couldn’t you just ask Iliara?” Mouse asked.
“I learned that Terkan was asking questions about Iliara and Haargon,” Alec said. “And I’m not as close to Iliara as I’d like to be,” he continued. “You notice, I didn’t recognize that phrase you used.”
“I do notice,” Mouse said. She sipped some more tea. “And I wonder why you’d be looking for Ariel unless you were doing so for Haargon. Who’re you working for, Alec?”
Alec sighed and set his teacup aside in case of overreaction.
“A man named Cleo hired me,” he said. “He’s archon of the circle of Haargonites who are operating in this town. He wanted me to follow Ariel and report to him all her movements.”
“That makes sense,” Je’en rasped. “Is it the truth or only a half-truth? Were you really hired or are you actually a member of that circle?”
“I was hired,” Alec said. “And the word on Haargonites is that they pay slowly and badly, so I have little desire to do any more work for Cleo — or even complete this assignment — ”
“Does he know yet that you’ve tracked Ariel here?” Mouse asked.
“No. The last thing I reported to him was losing her in the harbor last night. The news that I’d lost her irritated him, but he seemed unsurprised — almost pleased — to hear that she dove into the harbor.”
“Perhaps because that’s what the fake Ariel had done,” Mouse said.
“What fake Ariel?” Alec asked.
“You didn’t hear?” Ariel asked back.
“I suppose that this Cleo wouldn’t have wanted to confuse him by passing it along,” Mouse said.
“What fake Ariel?” Alec repeated.
“Last night, someone who resembled Ariel killed Auditor Jarvis in Merchant Camron’s warehouse,” Cefn said. “The murderer then grabbed Mouse out of a barrel in the warehouse and ran away. There were, however, a number of witnesses.”
“Oh,” Alec said, then asked Mouse “What were you doing *in* the barrel?”
“Travelling,” she replied. “Us mice are always using shipping barrels to get around.”
“Uh huh,” Alec said. He decided he didn’t want to think about that statement too carefully. “Speaking of traveling, Ariel, I have the backpack you dropped last night. It’s back at my place if you want to come with me to collect it.”
“I’d like it back, yes, thank you,” Ariel said, “though I feel a lot safer here than I would wandering through the streets. There’s the Watch looking for me, not to mention the priests of Haargon. Do you think you could fetch it?”
“There are no priests of Haargon,” Cefn interrupted, before Alec could respond. “There’s no such god as Haargon — ”
“Of course there is!” Ariel exclaimed. “Stefan explained to me all about him. His priests have been harassing me since before I came here and often enough since I’ve been in Dargon. Alec’s seen them too — ”
“Oh, I don’t deny that you’ve been harassed,” Cefn said. “And I’m sure that several men have told you that Haargon was directing them. But they’re lying. There’s no Haargonic priesthood and no worship of any Haargon.”
“But Stefan said — ”
“And I don’t believe him,” Cefn said.
This brought Ariel to a full stop.
“But I’ve known of the Haargonites for a long while,” Alec said. “Everybody knows about them — though no one knows very much.”
“Actually,” Cefn said, “you and Ariel seem to be the only ones with any experience of Haargonites at all. And Ariel’s is entirely recent and limited, though upsetting.”
“Well, I know what I know,” Alec insisted.
“Yes, but how do you know?” Cefn asked. “From Cleo, I suppose, but who else? Who else told you anything about Haargon or these priests?”
Alec frowned. “Lots of people,” he insisted. “A word here, a remark there. ‘Beware the Haargonites!’ That sort of thing.”
“But from whom?” Cefn insisted. “Can you remember clearly that sort of remark from any particular person?”
Wracking his brain, Alec fell silent.
“Try to be a little objective about this,” Cefn said softly to Ariel. “I’m an expert in these matters — ”
“Yes, that’s *very* objective,” Alec said dryly.
Cefn looked at him. “All right,” he said. “I’ve spent many years studying these sort of matters. I’ve never seen anything about any evil earth god named Haargon. The same goes for the late Terkan. And he went to the trouble of consulting the estimable Aardvard Factotum — ”
“How’d you know that?” Alec asked.
“There’s nothing about the late Terkan, I *don’t* know,” Cefn said, fishing out from his tunic an odd amulet that hung from a necklace. “And believe me, it’s given me a terrible headache. Terkan consulted Factotum and the two both failed to discover even a single reference to this Haargon. His conclusion was that Haargon was a fraud. On this I agree with him.”
“But if Haargon doesn’t exist,” Ariel asked, “who are these people that are harassing me? What do they want? And who is Iliara warring with?”
“But who is Iliara?” Cefn responded, even more softly.
“What do you mean, who is Iliara?” Ariel demanded, a hint of panic in her voice. “Iliara is the goddess of light and air and truth and air magery. It’s by the power of Iliara that I can fend off the evil Haargon and his minions — ”
“There’s no Haargon to fend off,” Cefn insisted quietly.
“But there is the evil of those minions,” Mouse replied. “Somebody grabbed me out of that barrel last night and I’m sure that somebody was part of this Haargon plot.”
“I’ll agree with you about that,” Cefn nodded.
“But I cast the spells!” Ariel exclaimed. “The air magic is real, I know it.”
“Yes,” Cefn said. “The magic was real and truly cast. I’m sure of that, else why would you be a target at all? But were you channeling power from this Iliara you speak of, or was the energy drawn from within yourself? What do you think, Ariel?”
“I think — ” Ariel faltered. “I don’t know what to think.”
“All right,” Cefn said cheerfully. “Keep yourself open to the possibilities, then. Relax and see what further proofs can be turned up.”
“Relax?” Ariel asked in despair. “How can I relax when it seems as though everyone in Dargon is after me?”
Cefn shrugged. “I suggest,” he said, “that it may be time to draw out your pursuing minions into the open.”
“And how are we supposed to do that?” Mouse asked.
Cefn looked at Alec. “You have a messenger now,” he said. “Send a message.”
XX. The Danger of the Serpent
“No, I don’t know where she is now, but I do know where she’ll be just a few bells from now.”
Alec stood once again in Cleo’s chamber. He looked briefly around the room at the several symbols of the power of Haargon and of earth. His gaze passed the sharp spade and also the large rock that always obstructed the doorway. He looked at the pile of loose, wet humus on the side table with the drugged slug on top. It was all the way he’d always heard it should be. He was sure of it, even though they’d said that Haargon was just an invention. He frowned, poking in his mind at memories that seemed to him to be perfectly genuine. After a few quick prods, though, he dismissed the whole effort. It was irrelevent to his present task.
The present task was to tell Cleo a story and then lead Cleo into what he hoped would be a trap. Then, he hoped, they might get a few straight answers out of Cleo and Ariel could clear herself with the Watch and perhaps he and she could turn to more pleasant matters. In his heart, he felt the warm glow that is the lot of all knights who ride to the aid of fair and distressed damsels they’ve found themselves caring an awful lot about. He felt it, he recognized it, and the folly didn’t bother him in the least. He’d even made a fool of himself leaving Terkan’s house by pulling Ariel aside and muttering some witlessly noble speech to her. Something about hoping that Iliara would keep her safe, and if the goddess couldn’t then he’d try to fill in as best he could. Something like that. Fortunately, he couldn’t remember the details. But she’d given him a small smile and her thanks and he was content, more or less.
“Is that all?” the priest’s harsh voice brought Alec back to the present. Cleo leaned back in his chair and glared across the desk at his miserable excuse for a hired hunter. “Why don’t you know where she is *now*?” he demanded.
“Because I lost her again,” Alec admitted. “After all, she *is* a sorceress. I managed to find her along the docks area. She was skulking and I approached her, telling her I had a message from the followers of Iliara. The gleam of hope that flared up in her eyes when I said that was — It was pathetic.”
Cleo’s grin was loathsome. “Of course it was,” he gloated. “We have stripped her of all allies and companions. She’s becoming desperate, I fancy.”
“I’d say so,” Alec nodded. “She’s going to try to get back into Camron’s tonight.
“She wants to try to search for clues — something to explain who’d really killed that Jarvis.”
“After the Watch has looked all around the place? What could she expect to find?”
“Well, she said that they’d already decided that she did it when they went through it, so they might’ve missed something that would exculpate her because they wouldn’t be looking for it.”
“Uh huh.” The eyes in the priest’s naturally pinched face narrowed even more. “And did you suggest this notion to her, or did she come up with it all by herself?”
“I — why do you care?” Alec asked.
“Because, you idiot, the last thing we want at this point is for the Watch actually to take her. Now, this desperate scheme of hers is just the sort of stupidity that may hand the girl over to them practically tied up for the slaughter. The Watch lacks brains, you see. They probably base their methods on pathetic old sayings like the one about criminals always returning to the scene of their crimes.”
“Actually, it was her idea,” Alec muttered.
A sickly grin flickered across the priest’s face. “I’m sure it was,” he said without enthusiasm. “But we shall still have to intercept her before the Watch does.” He stood up and came around the desk.
“Yes, of course,” Alec agreed. “I could meet you here after the next bell and we could go — ”
“We?” Cleo echoed mockingly. The priest’s hand flicked and Alec felt a tearing rip in his belly. A long sharp blade plunged into Alec’s gut — but it wasn’t just a stealthy dagger. A coldness accompanied the painful injury, but flashed outward into his arms and legs. Numbness overtook him and he collapsed onto the floor even as the priest lifted a small bell from his desk and rang it.
“Oh,” Cleo said, looking down past a bloody blade at the paralysed Alec. “You think I still believe your reports’ veracity — or their completeness. Well, such is not the case, and now, I think, it’s necessary to remedy those faults.” He affected a sigh of regret. “But I do believe we don’t have a whole lot of time. So this is likely to be extremely painful for you.”
As he heard approaching footsteps, Alec’s gaze fixed itself on Cleo’s pet slug.
XXI. Alone At Last
“I wish Cefn and Je’en had been able to stay with us tonight,” Ariel said again. She shuddered and glanced around the library at the shadows that leapt and shifted in the firelight. “All we’ve got now is a useless apprentice who’s tied up in the coat closet.”
“Alec should be back soon,” Mouse said. She turned a page of the book she was reading.
“Alec should’ve been back already. I don’t think Cefn and Je’en ought to’ve gone until he returned.” Ariel sipped at the tea she and Mouse had brewed in Terkan’s kitchen. She winced, as it was yet too hot and also tasted more than a little strange. Honey would probably have improved it — honey improved almost everything — but honey they’d been unable to find. “At least, we should have waited until tomorrow to do this.”
“We went over that,” Mouse replied, glancing at her own small, steaming cup. It still looked way too hot. “We had to catch this Cleo person tonight because Terkan’s house was unlikely to remain safe much longer, what with his being dead now. And Alec said trying to take Cleo in his quarters was a bad idea because he has a whole cadre of assistant priests there. He didn’t know what they really were, if not priests of Haargon, but they’re probably some sort of allies or minions. So the best we can try to do is trapping Cleo at the warehouse tonight.”
“And what good will that do?” Ariel asked. “Aren’t I still the favorite suspect for the murder, robbery and embezzlement — Je’en’s whole list? What good’s it going to do us catching this Cleo? Assuming we do manage to capture him, of course. He’s a powerful earth wizard, don’t forget. We’re likely to get ourselves killed or worse trying to take him on. We should’ve figured out a way to be sure Cefn could help.”
“Assuming Cefn wanted to help,” Mouse shrugged.
“I think Je’en would’ve made sure of that. He just had that really easy excuse for tonight.”
“If you’ve been working your way for decades toward a culminating, destructive moment against some major but ill-described peril, I can understand it if you don’t want to be diverted from that moment by an appeal to help out a couple of strangers who have a legal problem.” Mouse blew on her tea. Steam billowed up. “How does this stuff hold the heat so well?” she said. “Do you suppose Terkan magicked his mugs? Anyway, Cefn did say that he and Je’en probably wouldn’t be able to help us this evening. He’d already sent out messages convening a meeting of that Septent of his for tonight. Besides, if it all goes according to the plan Alec and Cefn sketched, it should be three of us against just this one Cleo.”
“Two and a quarter,” Ariel muttered into her tea.
“I heard that. We quarters have pretty sharp ears.”
“A lot of good that’ll do us.”
“I expect so. It’ll be dark — the middle of the night. Good hearing will be important. And we’ll have Alec for muscle and you to take care of any troubles arcane.”
“Arcane?” Ariel exclaimed. “Me? What makes you think I still have any power at magic?”
“And what makes you think you don’t?” Mouse pushed aside her book. “Didn’t you tell me that you’d been proving adept at air magery — whatever that is?”
“And aren’t you one of the ones who’ve been telling me that Iliara is a complete fraud — after making me think you were an initiate into the Fifth Circle?”
“I was trying to sort out Alec’s allegiance,” Mouse said.
“Well, you make me wonder about yours,” Ariel retorted. “First you said that and then, when Cefn said there was no such thing as Iliara you hopped up on my shoulder and whispered ‘He’s right, you know.’ Do you know that saying that, you’re saying that Stefan was a liar and a deceiver who was just leading me on with that whole air magery story?”
“Iliara a lie, yes,” Mouse said. “I said that — and *I* believe it. And I suppose that, since Stefan was your teacher about Iliara, that puts him in a very bad light. Well, there it is.” Mouse shrugged. “Stefan’s dead now, and I’d never met him, so I really can’t muster much concern for him or his reputation.
“But you, Ariel, are different. I’m much concerned about you. And your magery. Look: This air magery of yours must be real. After all, you’ve done it. You’ve warped the weave. You drew the wind’s aid to speed you away from danger. You also called up shrouds to shield you from Stefan’s killers after they got him. You have the power, Ariel. I just don’t think you have it right what the source of that power is.”
“But what is the source if it isn’t Iliara?” Ariel asked. “I don’t know anywhere else to go to besides her.”
“No: You don’t know how to think of the Source as anything besides Iliara.”
“Um.” Ariel rested her chin on her hands. After a pause, she asked, “Is there a difference there?”
“Yes!” Mouse exclaimed. “But it’s a tough one.”
“Because Stefan brought you to the Source through that Iliara story. He and Iliara were both your crutch. Now they’re both taken away and you have no one to help you tap the power. It’s still there, but no one can tell you any alternative crutch to appeal to if not to Iliara.” Mouse leaned back on the table and waved a dismissive hand. “Of course, if you want to keep this Iliara, no one can tell you anything true about her that you don’t already know. Everything Stefan taught you about Iliara is wrong — probably. At least, there’s no guarantee that it’s right — ”
“You don’t like Stefan, do you?” Ariel grinned, but it was a wistful grin.
“You left home and hearth for him,” Mouse responded. “At least, I think that’s what you said.” Ariel nodded, so Mouse proceeded cautiously. “It’d be easy to say I don’t like him, but that’s not really it. I have nothing to like or dislike. I just see no use for him — or the things he taught you.”
“But he taught me about air magery — and Iliara.”
Mouse shook her head. “He made you aware of this air magery and gave you Iliara as a way of tapping the power.”
“But — ”
“But everything you know about Iliara that’s worth knowing, you know because you just know it. Because that’s the truth about Iliara: What’s true about her is what’s true for you.”
“So you say Iliara isn’t anything besides what I think she is?” Mouse nodded and Ariel frowned. “You think the power is just inside me? That hardly makes Iliara worth anything at all.”
“No. The power isn’t just inside you. I say the power is the force of the world — the way everything just persists from one moment to the next. That obstinate continuity of existence — that’s magic. And that power dances all around us.”
“How do you know?”
“That that’s what magic is?”
“How do I *know* what magic is?” Mouse asked, as though the question was as senseless as asking how many greens there were in a pine tree. “I just know. Or I don’t know. Knowing is irrelevent. But it’s a story that feels right. And that’s how magic is. Your story was that there was an airy goddess named Iliara who granted you the power to nudge the Weave. You see? I have my story, and you have yours. And the way my story goes, the power is all around us — all so terribly obvious. But the skill to nudge that power, and persuade it to accept a suggestion — where is that to come from but within oneself?”
“But I don’t feel any — anything toward the force of the world,” Ariel complained. “How’m I supposed to suggest anything to that?”
“Whatever works,” Mouse shrugged. “It’s just my story. If you’re contented with appealing to Iliara to grant you aid, then you might as well continue to pray to her — ”
“Even if you don’t believe in her.” Ariel smiled.
“Well, I don’t.” Mouse smiled back. “But I’m not the one trying to work a little magic here. You are.”
“But you’re a witch yourself, aren’t you?”
“How did you know that Cefn and Je’en were disguised when they first came to the house unless you’re a witch?”
Mouse shrugged. “I saw that Cefn and Je’en were disguised because I saw their appearance as well as their reality.”
“But isn’t it magical to see through appearances to the reality of something?”
“Magical? I’d hope that that would be wisdom.”
“Perhaps so, but Breezes, Mouse! How can you be as small as you are except by magic?”
“Magic?” Mouse snorted. “That’s not magic. I’m as small as I am because that’s how small I am. I was born — and I have persisted. Now I’m like this. And now, *my* reality is that I’m this tall and no other.” She sprang to her feet. “Look at me, Ariel. Here I am, standing on this reading table. That’s my reality. Want to see my magic?” She took a few steps around the surface. “How do I look, walking around here? About right, no? I mean, this much space to wander around on and a figure of my height doing the walking? The picture looks proportioned, doesn’t it? But if you climbed up on this table and took a step or two around on it — if any normal person did that, they’d look inappropriate and out of place. Too large for the landing and too tall for the room. So that’s my magic: I can dance on a table, perform a quadrille on a chessboard — ”
“I think you have more magic than that,” Ariel replied, smiling.
“Oh yes,” Mouse agreed. “For me, every moment is magical. Dawn to darkness. Because all the proportions are strange. Because I live in a land of giants. All the chambers I come into are enormous — and drafty — and all the distances are vast. Furniture is grand and chairs are thrones. Halls are like streets and doors are massive. And through all these enormous spaces and places and structures and compositions, here I am, dancing through it all. Unpartnered.” She paused for a moment, but Ariel stayed silent.
“But I don’t even dance like you,” Mouse continued. “You dance forward and back and side to side. You dance through two dimensions — ”
“Dimensions?” Ariel asked.
“It’s mathematical. Ask Brother Terkan — ask Brother Terkan’s spirit. That’s the sort of thing an air mage might do. Anyway, your dance is on the surface of the world. You may have stairs and hills to vary the movement a little, of course. But mostly, you dance on top.
“But I’m too short for that. I do much more climbing up and jumping down than you do. That’s in addition to the forwards and the backwards and the side to side. I climb and I drop. I have less height than you do, so the world has much more — ”
“But so what?”
“So what is that I don’t live in the same world you do. That’s my magic. Everything of yours serves me differently. Your table is my ballroom. Your cherry is my melon. Your bed is my hayfield. I can make a travelling apartment in a barrel. I paint with an oversized brush what you see as fine calligraphy. I sew a gown for myself out of velvet scraps — ”
“Many folks make new clothes for themselves from scraps,” Ariel interrupted.
“Yes,” Mouse agreed. “But from a pile of scraps, not just one or two. Do you see my point?”
“Yes, but that’s not magic.”
Mouse sipped her tea. At last, it was drinkable. “If you like,” she said. “But it is my life.”
“But what about magic?”
“What about it?” Mouse sighed.
“Well, I want to summon the wind to speed me on my way, and call up clouds that can divert harmful missiles from striking me, and make walls admit me as though I were a draft — ”
“Then do it,” Mouse encouraged.
“Well, I prefer a horse — or even a fast-walking person — to speed me on my way. And I’d rather try to persuade whomever has the harmful missiles to refrain from flinging them at me. And as for the walls, one can often go around them, or under them, or over them, or through the door — ”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes,” Mouse sighed. “I have danced with the world on occasion. But it’s my world, not yours. And my world has no Iliara in it.”
“That’s up to you.”
“But I need to fight Haargon.”
Mouse put down her teacup. “You only need to fight a man who claims to worship this Haargon. That’s hardly the same thing.”
“But this man is able to come and go wherever he wishes. He was able to track me to where I was staying — ”
“We know how he managed that,” Mouse interrupted. “He had Alec to shadow you.”
“Alec didn’t help him slip out of my house without being seen.”
“And I’m not saying he lacked the Power entirely. But I think the danger he presents is more in the effects and assistants it seems he may command than in anything he can do personally. If, as we think, he was responsible for your being framed for that auditor’s murder, then he seems to be capable of some rather sophisticated results — ”
“But Mouse, why?” Ariel burst out. “I don’t understand any of this. I don’t know why this Cleo — whether or not he’s a priest of Haargon — is going to all this trouble over me. Why, Mouse? Why are these priests pursuing me? Stefan was the powerful one — don’t give me that look. He had power. All right, he had access — free access — to the Power. And he taught me. Taught me a great deal. And he was good and loved me. And Camron’s good and Marcus is good and I liked working for Camron. And I liked his office and I even liked Jarvis — I mean, as much as he was likable. He was awfully business-like, you know, but he was always looking up at me from his work and then he’d give me a pursed little smile and then I’d s mile back and he’d get back to work and I don’t know why anyone would want to kill him or make it look like I’d killed him or that I’d steal you from the warehouse — Mouse, I don’t understand any of it!”
“But you can stop trying to understand all by yourself now,” a voice replied from the door of the library.