XXII. The Subtlety of the Woodcock
Ariel jumped out of her chair. “Marcus!” she shouted. She stared at Karina’s husband, who was also Camron’s cousin-in-law and briefly her landlord. Then she ran to embrace him. “What are you doing here?!”
“Came for you, of course,” Marcus replied. He hugged her. “You do seem to have gotten yourself into a bit of trouble last night. Who were you talking to?”
“Who? I was talking to –” Ariel looked over her shoulder and realized that Mouse was nowhere to be seen. “I was –”
“Rehearsing a speech to give the Duke when you throw yourself on the mercy of his Court?” Marcus grinned.
“I –” Ariel didn’t feel like grinning back.
“No,” Marcus’ face quickly became serious. “That’s not funny. Your struggle against the forces of Dark Earth is no joke –”
“No,” Ariel agreed, “but Marcus, how did you find me? I thought I was *hiding* here.”
“Ah.” Marcus’ smile returned. “That’s part of the good news I’m bringing you. I’d never have known where you were without him. Now, you don’t have to fight alone any longer. Cyrrwiddyn Hawkwing, priest of the Seventh Circle, has come to bring you into the Congregation of Iliara’s Faithful.”
“Iliara’s Faithful?” Ariel repeated.
“Who else?” Marcus grinned. “Come in, Cyrrwiddyn,” he called out into the hall.
A man came in the door of the library — and Ariel felt a surge of disappointment.
He was quite ordinary, she thought, this priest of the Seventh Circle of the Congregation of Iliara’s Faithful. The clothes he wore, the grayish tunic, the darker breeches, the cloak of undistinguished fur, could have been worn by a hundred other men in the city. The face, with all the usual parts in all the usual places and a general smile that looked unimproved by any great spiritual insight, could have belonged to a miller hopeful of her custom. Indeed, the man was short and his glance darted to the corners of the room. He simply wasn’t what she’d hoped for from a colleague of Stefan’s in the Great Struggle.
Her reaction was obvious in her expression.
“He doesn’t look like much just now, does he?” Marcus quickly said. “Hardly a sight to make you think that he’s one of the brave few that keep the world from spinning into the complete chaos that would mark the final triumph of Haargon. Or something like that,” he added, when the priest arched an eyebrow at the effusive speech.
“We must walk disguised,” the man named Cyrrwiddyn murmured, “lest the forces of dark earth find us before we find them. We must be vigilant and alert,” he added, continuing to inspect the room circumspectly, “lest they catch us unaware. You’re alone here?”
“Except for –” Ariel glanced back at the reading table, but Mouse was still missing.
“Where is the little one called Mouse?” Cyrrwiddyn asked.
“You know about her?” Ariel asked, turning back to the priest.
“My dear Ariel,” Cyrrwiddyn said smoothly, “you are one of the chosen of Iliara. Do you think there is anything about you that your Mistress doesn’t know?”
“Then why did she leave me alone all that time while those earth priests were after me?”
“Ariel,” the priest clasped his hands in front of himself, “Iliara knows you — perhaps better than you know yourself. She knew that those priests and their assaults were not more than you could handle. See, they have done their worst and you are still whole –”
“I am not whole!” Ariel declared forcefully. “I am wanted for murder.”
Cyrrwiddyn allowed an eyebrow to rise. “But you did not commit –”
“Of course not,” Ariel said bitterly. “But it’ll be hard work convincing the Watch of that.”
“Hard work, perhaps,” Cyrrwiddyn said calmly. “But in time, of course, the truth shall prevail.”
“How much time?”
“That’s not important, Ariel,” the priest reproved her. “What is important is that you have come through your trial — as have we in our struggle against Haargon. You have been tempered and are the stronger for it. It is now an acceptable time for you to join with your companions in the fight.”
“I don’t feel stronger,” Ariel complained. “I don’t feel any relief now that you’ve finally showed up.”
Cyrrwiddyn sighed. “You have been separated from your true friends for too long,” he declared. “Come. Embrace me.” He held out his arms. “And then we can sit down and tell brave tales of our respective parts in the hidden war.”
Ariel looked at the man, feeling no desire to hug him. He held for her not even a flicker of the spirit that she’d felt Stefan kindling in her when he told her about Iliara. He seemed to her a pleasant man who sighed and smiled and spoke the same language and meant well. But he wasn’t anything more — and something at the back of her mind made her wonder if he might be even less. It occurred to her — and as she thought it, she realized that this was a shift in her perspective — that perhaps Iliara wasn’t going to get her out of her present mess after all.
“Come,” he repeated.
Reluctantly, she went to him. The embrace was awkward and she broke it before he wanted to let go. He sighed again.
“It is as I feared,” Cyrrwiddyn said to Marcus. “I have not dealt personally with this Mouse, but it’s clear to me that she is an agent for the Other Side. Earth darkness has enveloped this child. She yet struggles against it, but the influence of Haargon already weighs heavily upon her.”
“What, from Mouse?” Ariel exclaimed. “That’s absurd! Mouse doesn’t even believe in earth darkness. Or Haargon. Or the War. Or even in Iliara — at least, not the way you — we do.”
Cyrrwiddyn gazed at Ariel with compassionate sadness. “And you see what she has done to you? You’re confused now, no longer sure what to think. And whose work was that? The seeds of bewilderment, those are sown by Haargon and by his minions.”
“But she’s not his minion!”
“She only says she’s not his minion. How do you know what her true purpose is?” Cyrrwiddyn’s soft, gentle voice began to harden as he continued to raise questions. “How do you know why she accosted you? And it was just last night. That was awfully convenient — for Haargon, don’t you think? You don’t know anything about her, not really.”
“And where is she now, anyway?” Marcus asked.
“I don’t know,” Ariel admitted.
“You see?” Cyrrwiddyn said. “She is actually a follower of the Dark Way. She was trying to trip you out of the Path of Light and make you stumble into their grasp. But she had to flee when your true friends arrived.”
“I don’t know,” Ariel said again. “She didn’t seem to me to be trying to make me do anything.”
“The ways of the Evil One may be subtle indeed,” Marcus remarked, sounding as if he was quoting something.
“Be therefore three times subtler,” Cyrrwiddyn responded, “yea, more circumspect than a woodcock.” He looked at Ariel. “The Letter of Jamison,” he explained. “Did Stefan tell you about it? I don’t suppose he offered you a copy of it to read.” Ariel shook her head. “Too bad. It would have been a comfort and a help to you after he — after your loss.”
“Perhaps,” Ariel admitted doubtfully. “But –”
“I think,” Marcus interrupted, “that you and Cyrrwiddyn should go now to the nearest post of Iliara. You’ll be much safer there.”
“Post of Iliara?” Ariel asked.
“House of Zephyrs,” Cyrrwiddyn said, as if that should explain all. When Ariel’s expression made it plain that the term explained nothing, he added “A place of safety here in Dargon for the followers of Iliara. Marcus is right, though. We should go now.”
“But — my friends –”
“Are not your true friends,” Cyrrwiddyn cut off the protest. “They do not have your real interests at heart. They try to separate you from the love of Iliara. But we are your true friends — your true family. We only will help you serve Iliara more faithfully and bring the light of Air and Truth more fully into the world. Now come. We need to get to a place of greater safety.”
“I should at least tell them where I am,” Ariel said. “And that I’m all right.”
“I’ll come back and tell them you’re fine,” Marcus promised, “that you no longer need their dubious help.”
“I’m sure they meant well,” Ariel resisted.
“Whatever they may have meant,” Cyrrwiddyn told her, “the result was that they were doing Haargon’s work.”
“Unless you’re doing Haargon’s work,” Ariel suggested.
“I?!” Cyrrwiddyn exclaimed with clear affront. “How dare –” He caught himself. “But Ariel, Marcus, here finds me genuine.”
“Perhaps you’ve managed to deceive him as well,” Ariel shrugged.
“Ariel,” Marcus said solemnly. “I assure you that I have no doubt that Cyrrwiddyn has come from the counsels of Iliara herself. I do think you should accept his advice and counsel. And quickly! We don’t know when the Groundlings might mount their next attack on you.”
Ariel gazed at the two men, watching their impatience become a little more blatant. Finally, staring into Marcus’ eyes, she suggested, a little reluctantly, “Or perhaps Marcus is doing the work of Haargon as well.”
“Ariel, no!” Marcus exclaimed, clearly wounded.
Cyrrwiddyn blinked, then cleared his face, becoming again the pleasant, blank man who’d first come into the room. He smiled that chilling smile and said “Of course, child. You have to consider possibilities like that. Iliara herself suggests that you must be subtler than the woodcock. But you mustn’t wallow in such speculations. You can raise the question if you must, but Marcus is a good man and trustworthy. And as you twist and turn your way through your part in the Great Struggle, you will find, Ariel, that you must trust someone.”
“That’s true,” Mouse said. She climbed back up from the underside of the table. Marcus and Cyrrwiddyn stared at her. “You have to trust someone,” the tiny girl said calmly.
“There you are!” Ariel exclaimed. The sight of Mouse, unlike the previous arrival of Cyrrwiddyn, did make her feel better.
“She *is* small,” Marcus breathed.
“We can see that,” Cyrrwiddyn snapped. “A perfect guise for someone who wants to persuade that she’s an agent of Iliara,” he suggested.
“She’s never tried to convince me of that,” Ariel reminded him. To Mouse, she asked “What happened to you?”
“Strangers barging into my house make me nervous,” Mouse replied. “So I laid low until I felt less nervous.”
“You feel less nervous now?” Ariel asked.
“Odd, isn’t it?” Mouse said cheerfully. “Here, I’ve been listening to these friends of yours calling me a nasty little agent of Haargon and no good for you. And I’ve also heard you declare doubt about whether anyone cares about you — whether anyone’s on your side in this Great Struggle. You know, I think we’re not in full agreement about what this Great Struggle is struggling over.” She paused for a moment, gazing thoughtfully at Cyrrwiddyn, then shrugged.
“Oh well,” Mouse continued. “Maybe I’m less nervous because the priest of Iliara finally said something I can agree with. Ariel, there is such an intricate dance of purposes here that it does look as though you’ll have to let your heart pick *someone* and then, just trust that person. I’d vote for Je’en, of course. A very straight arrow. Or Alec, who, however he came to know about you, I think does care about you. But neither’s here right now. Perhaps you should wait here for one of them.”
Cyrrwiddyn frowned. He glanced at Marcus. “You sense it too, don’t you?” he asked.
“Uh, I’m sorry Cyrrwiddyn,” Marcus replied cautiously. “I fear I’m not as sensitive in these matters as you. Uh –”
“Something *soiled* has just presented itself to us!” Cyrrwiddyn shouted. “Didn’t you notice how it just got a lot mustier in here?”
“Oh — of course I noticed that,” Marcus admitted. “I thought you were referring to something subtle.”
“Well I didn’t notice that,” Ariel said, feeling vexed by the self-proclaimed priest of Ariel. “I didn’t notice anything like that. And I don’t think –”
“Ariel, she has corrupted you,” Cyrrwiddyn said, abruptly changing his tone back to a pretty good approximation of a sweet, conciliatory tone. “She has blunted your sensitivity to the odor of earth. Now please, you’re too important to Iliara –”
“I am?” Ariel asked.
“Every one of Iliara’s followers is important to her,” Marcus said. “Isn’t that right, Cyrrwiddyn?”
“Then why did you abandon me for so long when I came to Dargon and needed you?”
“We didn’t abandon you,” Cyrrwiddyn said. “Iliara yet was with you. But her support was more subtle than you might have liked.”
“Subtler than a woodcock,” Mouse remarked.
“See how she continues to try to poison your will against the Lady,” Marcus said. “Twisting even the sacred words of Jamison.”
“Please, Ariel,” Cyrrwiddyn appealed. “She’s likely to summon other minions of Haargon –”
“– if she hasn’t already,” Marcus added.
“We need to get to Zephyrs as quick as we can,” Cyrrwiddyn continued. “Please, don’t let Iliara down. For Stefan’s sake, if not Iliara’s herself. Come on!”
Ariel flinched at the mention of Stefan. She clasped her hands, stared at Cyrrwiddyn, then asked “Mouse, what should I do?”
“Cyrrwiddyn is a wise man,” Mouse said. She watched the priest relax a moment at the unanticipated compliment. Immediately, though, the man seemed to doubt whether the words would have only a single meaning; he tensed up again in expectation of an oblique attack. Mouse gave it to him: “He said you have to trust someone and you do. But Ariel, the someone you should trust first is yourself. Go with them if you think that’s right.”
“You’re not going to tell me to order them out of my sight?”
“I –” Mouse bit back her first answer. Instead, she said “No point. The priest has called me an imp of Haargon. Either you agree with Cyrrwiddyn and anything I say is damnable or you deny him and leave your options open.”
“My options open?” Ariel repeated. “*My* options open? Yes. That’s true. If I refuse Cyrrwiddyn’s help and place of safety, then I’m pretty much on my own coping with my problems. Those priests of Haargon, they’ll be *my* worry. That murder charge at Camron’s, that’ll be an accusation against *me* that’ll be *mine* to disprove. Mastering the air wizardry, that’ll be my subject to study. It’ll all belong to me again, won’t it?”
“But you can hand it all over to Iliara,” Cyrrwiddyn suggested, a hint of desperation in his voice. “Cast your burdens before Iliara, for she can carry you on the wings of the morning –”
“But they’re *my* burdens,” Ariel insisted. “What if I don’t want to share?”
“Then you don’t have to,” Cyrrwiddyn quickly acceded. But his message was now muddled.
“No thanks,” Ariel said firmly. “I just don’t want to go with you and I’m not getting arguments from you that persuade me otherwise. You might as well leave now.” She glanced around at the friend she’d decided to trust. “Mouse, we have to figure out what –”
The moment of inattention was a mistake. The priest of Iliara was a whirl of motion for a moment and then Ariel gasped before falling to the floor, a wicked looking dart stuck in her neck.
“I would rather have talked her into coming with us,” Cyrrwiddyn remarked to Mouse. “It would have gone easier if she’d thought she was doing the right thing. But I had no intention of leaving here without her. And we can change her attitude later, at our leisure, though the process will be more time consuming and painful this way. Now, the only remaining obstacle is you.” He and Marcus started walking slowly, casually, toward the table Mouse was standing on. “How are you at vanishing while people are watching you?”
“I was thinking I’d like to ask the same question of you,” a voice announced from the doorway behind him.
XXIII. Don’t Call Me That
“What?” Cyrrwiddyn spun around. Kittara Ponterisso leaned against the doorjamb. The crossbow she carried with deceptive casualness was pointed at the priest.
“I was thinking,” she said lightly, “of asking you how good at vanishing you were if someone armed with, say, a crossbow was watching you and that watcher didn’t want you to go disappearing until you’d stopped to answer a few questions.”
“This is none of your business –” Cyrrwiddyn growled.
“Oh, I’ll be the judge of that, I think,” Kittara declared. “After all, I’m the one with the crossbow. But to be fair,” she went on, as casually as if this were taverntalk, “I really ought to be putting this question to your colleague — Hello Marcus.” She waved with the loaded crossbow at Marcus. Marcus remained frozen, staring at Kittara, but Cyrrwiddyn, as soon as the crossbow shifted away from him, snarled a filthily misogynous epithet and sprang at Kittara.
In a blur, the crossbow was targetted again on the priest, steadied with both hands, and fired. At the same time, Cyrrwiddyn slightly misjudged his spring and tripped over the fallen Ariel. He stumbled and then caught Kittara’s crossbow bolt in the neck. He crashed against the reading table and was still.
“Saren’s spit!” Kittara exclaimed with clear annoyance. “They’re not supposed to die unless I mean for them to die.” She watched the priest for any sign of life, but the only movement was the seeping blood around the embedded quarrel. Marcus, however, began to ease his right hand under his cloak.
“Hold it right there, Marcus,” Sylk ordered. He stepped forward from the hall into the library and pointed his loaded crossbow at the man. “It’s true that we just wanted to ask you and your ‘friend’ some questions — though our list of questions has been getting longer each mene. But, as Kittara here demonstrated –” he nodded to her and she walked over to Cyrrwiddyn to inspect her work “– we can’t promise that if I have to fire, I won’t kill you.”
Marcus looked at the crossbow. He looked at Sylk’s grim expression. He looked at Cyrrwiddyn and he looked at the bloody quarrel. He raised his hands over his head. “Guess I should’ve warned Cleo not to mess with Crossbow Kitty, huh?” he asked.
In a blink, Kittara had crossed the two steps to Marcus and her fist smashed into his temple. Marcus collapsed in a heap and Kittara stood over him, wringing her hand. “Damned clod has a really thick skull,” she complained to Sylk.
“That may be, but –”
“No buts, Sylk,” Kittara said. “I told you. Nobody *ever* calls me that.”
“I understand,” Sylk said. “But look around.” He gestured at the unconscious Ariel and Marcus who were lying on the floor along with the expired Cyrrwiddyn. “If you keep popping people like this, we’re never going to get our little list of questions answered.”
XXIV. But I Never Forget a Footprint
The night was almost completely gone, but the passage of time was marked in this interior chamber only by the occasional replacement of tapers with fresh ones. Ariel sat slumped in one chair and Marcus occupied another. Kittara leaned against the only door to the room while Sylk glared at Marcus over one small table.
“So that’s still your story,” he said again. “You last saw Ariel before tonight when you found her at this –” He glanced at Ariel. “Terkan’s house?” Ariel nodded. “You last saw her last night when she said good night and gave you to understand that she was turning in.” Marcus nodded. “And then this evening, this Cyrrwiddyn — whom you’d never seen before — came to you and threatened your life if you didn’t come with him and help him persuade Ariel here to go away with him?” Marcus nodded again. “How could he threaten your life? He didn’t look so tough to me and you –” Sylk glanced at Kittara’s hand. “You, I call a bit more solid than a rock. How’d he threaten you?”
Marcus shrugged. “I’ve got a wife,” he said. “I’ve got a nice little house. He said he had friends. The friends wouldn’t stop from hurting Karina or burning things. Anything.”
“So you helped this Cyrrwiddyn just to keep your wife safe from these friends,” Sylk shrugged. “Helped with a lot of enthusiasm, I’d say.” Marcus shrugged. “Why did Cyrrwiddyn want Ariel?” Marcus shrugged. “Why did you go after Ariel last night?”
“To make –” Marcus stopped. “I didn’t go anywhere last night,” he corrected himself.
“Bad lie, Marcus,” Kittara murmurred, coming over to stand directly behind his chair. “I happen to know you were out last night because we had a very close encounter. I found you fighting in an alley with someone else and you ran right over me when I tried to break the thing up. Now, I’m not very good at faces and I do fail to recognize a name from time to time, but I never forget a footprint. I recognized you. I knew you were lying earlier today when you said you’d been home all last night. I knew you were hiding something –”
“So is that how you found me this evening?” Ariel asked.
“Sure,” Kittara replied breezily. “We shadowed Marcus. We sure didn’t have anything else more useful to do, what with everyone interesting lying pretty low today. But it wasn’t too terribly long before Cyrrwiddyn came to Marcus’s house and then the two of them led us to you.” She turned back to Marcus. “Now, you were in that alley last night. The question is why?”
Marcus licked his lips.
“When did you first meet Cyrrwiddyn, Marcus?” Sylk asked.
“A few days ago, I guess,” Marcus said. “He said that Camron had a bird named Ariel who was going to help take care of an annoying audit. He wanted me to put her up and keep an eye on her.”
“When you say ‘help take care of an annoying audit,’” Kittara asked, “do you mean –”
“Marcus, who killed the auditor Jarvis?” Sylk interrupted.
“I don’t know.”
“It wasn’t Ariel, though, was it?”
“A twittering fool like her?” Marcus sneered. Behind him, Kittara nearly let fly with another shot to his skull, but controlled herself. Unaware, he continued: “Think anyone would really trust a job like that to her? Nah. She didn’t do it — but she was set to catch the noose for it.”
“That, Ariel, is hopefully the most backhanded character reference you will ever get,” Sylk grated, glaring at Marcus. “So who could tell us who killed Jarvis?” he asked. “How about Camron?”
“Cyrrwiddyn probably could,” Marcus mused.
“But Cyrrwiddyn’s conveniently dead,” Sylk pointed out.
“So how about Camron?” Sylk asked again.
“I don’t think he’d know about something like that,” Marcus replied. “He preferred to keep to clean, legitimate subjects, ’cause he was always talking to nice, respectable people like Duke Jastrik. ‘Course, you have to wonder if he was always talking to the Duke about completely respectable, legitimate –”
Kittara’s fist smashed into his face.
Sylk sighed. “Kit,” he said.
“You expect me to just let him insult both Ariel and the Duke?” Kittara demanded.
“Yes,” Sylk said simply. “Look Kit, it’s an interrogation. We want him to talk. But you’re the reason this is taking so long. We keep having to revive him every time he says something you don’t like.”
“*Almost* every time,” Kittara said, with satisfaction.
XXV. And There Was Evening And There Was Morning.
Ariel stood at the gate to Duke Jastrik’s compound. Kittara stood with her.
“So I’m not under arrest?” Ariel asked again.
“No,” Kittara shook her head. “We’ve got Marcus and we’ve got reason to go after Camron. We don’t think you’re involved and we’ll advise the Watch the same way.”
“And you don’t have to turn me over to the Watch?”
“No — and you should be glad. The Watch — Ariel, between you me and the gate here — they sometimes lose people who’ve been entrusted to their care.”
“Lose? They escape?”
“They die. People connected with certain names. Look, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after we’ve squeezed Marcus a while longer, he coughs up some more of those names –”
“You know that priest named Cyrrwiddyn? Marcus referred to him once as Cleo. That’s one of –”
“Cleo!” Ariel shouted.
“Shh!! Didn’t I just tell you that’s a name that can get you killed?”
“Sorry,” Ariel whispered. “It’s just that — I have a friend named Alec. He’s sort of a friend. An acquaintance, really. But he was working for a man he called Cleo. Except that he thought that Cleo knew something about Jarvis’ murder so he was going to help us trap Cleo so we could … we could –” She stopped. “Alec’s missing,” she said. After a pause, she added, “He’s been missing most of the night.”
“But he’s just an acquaintance, right?” Kittara asked.
“You think he’s in trouble, right?” Ariel asked.
“Uh, yeah — no. I think he’s probably past just being in trouble. I think you’d better figure he’s dead.”
Ariel nodded. “I see,” she said dully, then shoved the subject away. “Well. Thank you.”
“Sure.” Kittara glanced inside the gate again. “Well, good luck to you. I want to see how much ‘Cleo’ will make Marcus sweat.”
“Bye.” Ariel watched Kittara go back inside.
“Back to Terkan’s?” Mouse asked. Ariel stared at her.
“Where’ve you been?” she demanded.
“Around. I’m uncomfortable about strangers who barge into houses. I told you that.”
“Kittara and Sylk are on our side.”
“Well, I know that *now*. We might as well go back to Terkan’s.”
“I was in trouble and you just abandoned me.”
“You weren’t in that much trouble — nothing, at least, that I wouldn’t have made worse. And I didn’t abandon you. I was around, so I know just how well you did getting through it.”
“But I didn’t do anything.”
“And you controlled yourself very well. And Ariel, if you really had needed me, I would’ve shown up. I promise. Now –” Mouse danced onto Ariel’s shoe. “Shall we go back to Terkan’s house?”
“Might as well,” Ariel sighed. “I doubt I have a job anymore, or anywhere else to stay, for that matter.”
A Few Loose Ends
At Terkan’s house, Mouse and Ariel found a note from Cefn pinned to the front door. It advised that the Septent of Jhel was smashed and the last survivor was slouching toward Magnus. A desire for complete finality required the two to pursue. They were not sure when and if they’d be back. “… Please be sure to feed the apprentice,” it continued. “Actually, it’s probably safe to free him now. Good luck with the dead auditor, watch out for murder investigators, and be careful putting hot drinks in Terkan’s brown mugs. They hold the heat extremely well.”
“Now he tells us,” Ariel said.
Entering the house, Mouse and Ariel found that someone had already freed Bret. He was gone, as was Terkan’s silverware.
Kittara and Sylk turned Marcus over to the Watch with a promise that Marcus wished to implicate Camron in the murder of the auditor Jarvis.
Within five bells of being placed in the custody of the Watch, Marcus managed to kill himself through the simple technique of swallowing his tongue.
Camron steadfastly denied any irregularities in his books. However, several investors in his trading house (led by Duke Jastrik) abruptly withdrew their capital. Camron and his House were both ruined.
Karina, though lacking any apparent source of income besides the steady stream of boarders she took in, managed to persist in comfortable poverty. She denied throughout that there was ever any hint of wickedness in either Camron or Marcus.
Due to the poor choice of distributor, Rockway House had a bad year in rhubarb relish sales. A set of lovely doll’s clothes that had also been shipped with one of the barrels, however, was sold to Lady Katia Rombar (age 6) for a very satisfactory price.
Mouse was in the late Terkan’s library again, avoiding facing the enormous task of replacing her lost Court dress by trying to make sense of a tome that she’d not ever copied for him. It appeared to be an attempt to describe the mathematics of the motion of magical bubbles, but it was very hard going. She sighed.
“Hello Ariel,” she said. “Any news?”
“I’m supposed to be invisible,” Ariel complained.
Mouse looked up at Ariel. “So you are,” she agreed, technically. Ariel was *supposed* to be invisible, but there was a ways to go yet. “And quite transparent, too,” Mouse continued. “But you’re still audible. I take it the air magery is going well?”
“I suppose,” Ariel sighed, giving up her effort and allowing herself to be seen again and taking a seat at Mouse’s table. “They posted a notice on the door of the house today.”
“Bailiffs. Very official and legal and longwinded. A whole lot of whereases and therefores, but the news is that someone named Valory Westbrier now owns this house and he owes the Duke some serious money.”
“A nephew or cousin or something, I suppose. It’s too soon for the house to’ve been sold already, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Anyway, it seems to me that it’s time to move,” Ariel said.
“You don’t think that every house needs a Mouse?”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Ariel smiled. “You could probably stay on here after this Valory moved in and he might never notice. But that won’t work for me. Besides, I’ve found Dargon just a little bit more exciting than I like. And the way people have come and gone –”
“Still nothing about Alec?” Mouse asked.
“He had all your spare clothes and stuff. If we work at it we might be able to find someone who knew him and –”
“Who wasn’t part of this Haargon cabal?” Ariel asked. “Thanks, but there really isn’t anything there that I want back.”
“You told me about a journal you were keeping.”
“Full of — of Stefan.” Ariel made a face. “Do you think I want to be reminded of that?”
“I suppose not,” Mouse admitted. The two sat together in silence, burying Stefan. Then Mouse asked “What do you suppose happened to Alec?”
Ariel shuddered. “That’s another thing I don’t want to be reminded of. The way that crossbow woman –”
“You said her name was Kittara?”
“Yes. The way she described Cleo, I’m sure now that Alec is dead. Beyond that, I don’t want to imagine.” Ariel sat still, resolutely not imagining.
Mouse was tempted to return to the oscillation frequencies of bubbles that were caught in Chalcedensian inversions, but Ariel spoke first: “I’d just like to go somewhere quieter — at least for a while. Do you think you could write me a letter of introduction to Brother Muskrat at Rockway House?”
“You want to go there?” Mouse exclaimed. “Of course! It’s a great idea! You’ll love them there. They’re great.” She jumped to her feet, abandoning the bubbles. “Where’s a pen? Where’s ink? And they’ll all love you, because you’re a great person too — even when you’re invisible. I need parchment.” She jumped to the floor and started running over to Terkan’s writing desk. Then she stopped.
“I’ll miss you, you understand,” Mouse said gravely. “I consider you a very good friend, but I do still have business to complete here in the city.”
“You’re my friend too,” Ariel replied with a smile. “And I did know about the business. If you don’t mind, I’d really rather not go with you to see the Duke. That sounds too much like an adventure and I’ve had enough of that. That’s why I asked for the letter.”
“The letter. Right.” Mouse resumed her sprint to the leg of the writing desk.
“Remember to write big.”
“It’s all settled, then?” the master asked after sipping his wine.
“Except that we’ll need a new trading house, sir,” the man standing in front of the desk promised. “And Cynthia is out of circulation the rest of this month and next. Cleo commended her work at Camron’s. Everything he asked of her, both eliminating the auditor and dressing to look like the other girl, she accomplished perfectly. It’s scarcely her fault that our operation there went down the river.”
“Whose was it, then?”
“Camron’s. He was careless, letting his filthy books get anywhere near that auditor.”
“And has he been dealt with appropriately?”
“That doesn’t sound sufficient. See to it. Something slow, I think. I want him to have time to contemplate his failings. And aquatic. After all, if you live by the sea, you ought to die by the sea –” He smiled at a private joke. “I think I have an idea for that.” The man took a sheet of parchment and began to sketch. While he drew, he said “As for Cynthia, I think an extra bottle of sherry for the little thief’s infirm mother might be appropriate.”
“Her mother’s a lush, you know,” the underling offered cautiously. “She’s dying of too much drink.”
“It’s the thought that counts. Now, what are you doing about a new trading house?” The man looked up at his underling, but quickly returned to his work, remembering that he disliked having the man standing over him. He was too tall. It was annoying, but the man was valuable in other ways.
Sketching delicate wavelets, the master said, “Camron was all right, mostly, but I want no more minority partners from the aristocracy. I don’t care how much of an air of respectability they lend. The next one we take over, I want full ownership.” He sighed and pushed the parchment across the table. “This is for anyone who disappoints me. Have Camron try it out first. You know, I’d rather looked forward to playing a High Priest of Iliara, spewing all those platitudes, having that wench worshipping me –”
“Of course, Liriss,” the underling said.
“What was her name? Aria?”
“Something like that.”
“You don’t think I could’ve done it, do you?”
The man shrugged diplomatically. “Wouldn’t you have tired of it after a while?” he asked.
“Perhaps,” Liriss admitted. “The role would have been so limiting. I shall miss Cleo, though. It was very creative of him, inventing the whole scheme to get himself a pliant assistant and me a loyal mage — but that bastard Stefan! He owed me that wench — and more. And so much more.”
“He *is* dead now, Liriss.”
“Just makes it a little more challenging to collect his debts, Kesrin.”