He screamed soundlessly as his body was crushed from all sides by incredible pressure. He gasped for breath, but couldn’t expand his chest against the forces arrayed against him. He felt himself splayed out, spread-limbed, horizontally in mid-air, nothing but the pressure from below and above holding him in place. Pain throbbed like a living, maddened thing in his body.
He had been betrayed by the one he had trusted most. They would never have caught him in a vulnerable moment otherwise. But he laughed at the pain, laughed breathlessly as he was squeezed, because he was not dying.
He knew that with a little concentration he could draw upon his power, his carefully amassed reserves, his well-rehearsed spells, and free himself from this pitiful trap. In just a moment, when he had pushed aside the pain, mastered it, and could concentrate again …
Agony streaked through him, limning every fiber of his being with compounded pain. His thoughts shattered in the onslaught, breaking his concentration thoroughly. Still he felt no weakening of his spirit, no diminishing of his body, no dissolution of his mind, just pain and more pain, but pain would become commonplace soon enough and then …
The agony redoubled and this time he could feel his body coming apart. He didn’t worry, not at first. They couldn’t kill him, he knew that from experience. They continued to work, though, and he felt the beginnings of fear. He was being split, his essence was being divided. He felt himself become three instead of one, but three that were greatly diminished individually. He realized that his enemies had found the one thing that could stop him. The pain diminished as he lost the capacity to feel it, but his breathless, bodiless screaming continued on and on.
Flane jerked awake, panting as if he had actually been screaming. Shaking his head, he slipped from his bed in the Inn of the Panther in Dargon and walked to the small window. He opened the shutters and looked out on the silent darkness, the cool air wafting in to dry the sweat from his body. He poured himself some water from the pitcher on the table beneath the window and gulped it down as he reflected on the quest he had inherited.
The dream he had awakened from was familiar to him. He had experienced the dissolution of the Margre Chalisento many times since he had found the artifacts on the body of the brown-robed stranger. A small rock, a stone cup, a blue-covered book, and a silver ring had together changed the course of his life.
He had been in the middle of the woods, traveling to Tench with his fellow members of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza. They were a group whose mission, to exterminate gypsies and any other foreigners, he had once heartily agreed with. Out of the woods one day had ridden a stranger named Shan who had asked to travel with them. Lacsil, their group’s leader, had agreed. Not long after, an attack by gypsies had thrown the group into chaos. In the confusion, the stranger had been killed. Flane had found himself searching the body without quite knowing why. His confusion had ended upon finding the artifacts.
He had ridden away from the attack without another thought, his hatred of gypsies completely buried under the need to get to Dargon. He had a quest to complete.
The journey had been long and hard. His horse had died early on from a snake bite he hadn’t even realized it had received until it had dropped from under him. He had continued afoot, working his way toward Dargon. Haste had never been a factor in his journey, just a dogged movement toward his goal. He had traveled through the northern wilds of Baranur for a month and a half, finally arriving in the ducal seat two days previously, on the 13th of Ober.
His purpose was clear, and if it bothered him that his memories were not his own any longer he didn’t show it. He had already started canvassing the many information sellers this port town offered, looking for lore about the Margre, trying to unravel the riddle-hidden pointers in the blue book. He knew how the stone of the Margre’s intellect had been unearthed in a similar search by Voesh in Pyridain. Flane recalled, without having been there himself, how Voesh had enlisted his companions in Bresk’s Band to ferret out information that had led them all to retrieving the cup of the Margre’s body. He reviewed Shan’s brief stewardship of the quest, gained when bad luck had caught Voesh in an ambush and good luck had saved Shan from the same. The bad luck had dogged Shan, though, leading to the deaths of his two remaining fellows in Bresk’s Band and finally, to his own.
Flane, however, had succeeded. He was in Dargon, and he would find the final key. And when the water of the Margre’s spirit was poured over the stone resting in the cup, the Margre would be revived. She would return to the world, reclaim her power, and reward Flane with everything he had ever wanted. And if he was so occupied with finishing the quest that he never took the time to plan that reward, he never even noticed it.
“I’ll just let the seer know you’re back, Master Nakaz,” said the young woman who had met them, as she walked through the door into the back of the shop.
Nakaz said, “Thank you, Thuna,” as Aldan looked around the room, marveling at the clutter, wondering how the owner kept anything straight in there.
“She seems to know you pretty well, Nakaz,” said the son of Baron Bindrmon.
“That’s probably because I’ve been here twice already, Aldan,” said Nakaz.
“And,” said Aldan, “because you’re a bard and a very handsome man.” Aldan returned Nakaz’ grin at the compliment, then became serious again. “Do you really think it is worth visiting everyone yet again? If the man who has taken on the Margre quest hasn’t yet visited one of the sages and scribes in Dargon by now, what makes you think he still will?”
“Faith, Aldan, and hope,” said the bard. “Faith that Meelia was telling us the truth just before she died when she said that the quest was headed for Dargon. And hope that the new holder of the quest isn’t hiding from us, but has just taken longer than we expected to reach the city.”
Aldan frowned. “I never thought he might be hiding.”
“I don’t think it is very likely. Why would he worry about someone tracking him? But he might just be paranoid enough to ask for secrecy from anyone he speaks to about his riddles. I don’t think that I’ve yet been lied to by anyone I’ve met with and this time I will use my bardic authority to make sure of that. I also intend to leave instructions that any future contacts be reported to me, instead of waiting for a fourth or fifth visit. I think I’ve seen enough of Dargon’s streets in the past month!”
Their mutual laughter was interrupted by the arrival of a kindly-faced older man dressed in a robe. He strode into the room and said, “Well, well, welcome back Nakaz! The last time you were here was exactly a fortnight ago, on the 2nd of Ober, yes? And who is this you’ve brought with you this time?”
Nakaz said, “Your memory is perfect, Corambis. This is Lord Aldan Bindrmon, a friend I escorted to Dargon. He was searching for some … people, but we have both concluded that those people did not actually come to Dargon.”
“Ah, welcome Lord Aldan,” Corambis said. “I’m sorry your long journey was for naught.”
Aldan looked puzzled. “Long journey? How did you know …?”
Corambis just smiled patiently. “I doubt whether a noble with the last name Bindrmon would not be from the barony in Welspeare,” he said. Aldan blinked in surprise, and then smiled back.
“Now, Nakaz,” Corambis continued, “I was just about to send word to you. I well recall the reason for your previous two visits, so I marked the man who came in two or three days ago who was also asking about the Margre Chalisento.”
Nakaz was elated to finally hear what he had been waiting so long for. He asked, “Who was he? What did he look like? Did he say where he was staying?”
“He said his name was Flane, but he didn’t indicate where he was lodged. He was of an average height, with a plain face and brown hair. He had two distinguishing features, though. First, the top of his right ear was missing. Second, in the middle of his left eyebrow there was a rather prominent scar.”
Aldan and Nakaz looked at each other at the mention of the scar. Nakaz turned back to the sage and said, “Exactly what did he ask about?”
“The Margre, first. When I informed him of my lack of such knowledge, he then asked about local legends of any kind concerning leaf-shaped stars, or cat and stag motifs. My response was again negative.
“However, just this morning I ran across something that might actually be relevant. I was reading a fragment of a manuscript, much the worse for wear and of uncertain provenance, but it was concerned with legends from this area. One of these mentioned something called the Asthen’ron. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought had it not given a description of this being or thing; it looked like a large cat, but with a stag’s antlers and hooves.”
Nakaz’ eyes widened and he looked over at Aldan to see the same look of surprise. “Did you learn anything more about this Asthen’ron?” he asked.
“Sadly, no, Nakaz. There was nothing more to be gleaned from that weathered parchment. I do intend to do more digging, though; my curiosity is piqued!”
“Do that, Corambis, please. I have never heard of this legendary thing, but I believe it has some connection to the Margre. Thank you very much for your time and your memory. It is good as well to finally know the identity of our quester and that he is actually in the city. Please don’t let this Flane know about your discovery, if you would be so kind?”
“Do not worry, Nakaz, I will keep this between you and me for now. Glad to serve in any way possible. I don’t suppose you would care to enlighten me as to what or who this Margre is?”
Nakaz smiled slyly and said, “Maybe next time, Corambis.”
Grinning, Corambis said, “Fair enough, fair enough. Might I interest either of you, then, in a reading? Perhaps I could help Lord Aldan with his missing people?”
Aldan opened his mouth, hope in his face, but Nakaz interrupted. “Maybe next time, once again. After we catch this lop-eared, scarred person named Flane. Thank you again, Corambis. We’ll see ourselves out.”
The bell over the door jingled as Yawrab and Ganba left the shop of Abernald the apothecary. Ganba walked behind Yawrab, but she knew that her lover’s face was clouded with doubt and sadness. They had been visiting Abernald’s and shops like his all over the city, hoping to learn that someone in Dargon knew where Lord Aldan was. They had once again received a negative reply; no one had reported Aldan’s whereabouts to Abernald.
“I’m beginning to believe that he’s not here, Ganba,” said Yawrab, turning her odd-eyed visage toward the gypsy. “We’ve been searching all over for so long …”
“I know, love,” said Ganba, reaching over to touch the older woman’s shoulder, putting as much affection in the contact as she could. “I know it’s hard. But you know he was headed for Dargon, and Sefera’s cards said he was headed north. Where else but here could he go?”
“You’re right,” Yawrab admitted, but Ganba could tell by the tone of her voice that her spirits weren’t lifted. “We’ve covered the whole of the lower city several times over, though. Couldn’t we ask someone in the Old City?”
“If he’s here to hide from his deed of murder, Aldan is not going to do it among the nobles,” said Ganba.
“But what if he didn’t do it?”
Ganba had heard this before, and she remembered what Sefera’s cards had said, but she wasn’t convinced. So she said, “You chased the man across the kingdom because you believed he had murdered your sister Tillna. Why are you here if not to bring him to justice?”
Yawrab stared her green-and-brown stare, then finally nodded, casting her eyes down. Ganba tugged her away from the doorway and they started walking through the streets of Dargon. Hoping to cheer her up, Ganba said, “Even if you don’t find him, Yawrab, this is an exciting adventure, isn’t it? Above and beyond chasing down Lacsil, and then the gathering at Eariaddas Hwl. Straight?”
Grinning tentatively, looking around at the hustle and bustle of the city, Yawrab said, “I suppose.”
“And those ships!” Ganba said. “Weren’t they fascinating? All those ropes, all those people, and they actually float! They’re so huge!”
Yawrab smiled brightly at this. The two of them had spent days at a time on the waterfront, watching the activity. Ganba had justified the time by hinting to Yawrab that the fugitive Aldan might just try to escape completely by taking passage on a ship to somewhere far away, but they hadn’t seen the son of Bindrmon’s baron on the docks either.
Ganba took a stab at turning her lover’s attention completely away from their endless search. “What do you want to bet,” she said, “that they haven’t changed the sheets yet back at the Panther?”
Yawrab laughed out loud. Their room at the Inn of the Panther had only had the linens changed three times since they’d taken up lodgings there, a fact that annoyed Yawrab far more than it did Ganba. They discussed the possibility of changing inns or doing something about the appalling laundry as they strolled through the streets, and eventually fell into a companionable silence.
Despite herself, Ganba’s thoughts returned to their quest as they walked, and she wondered when to give it up. Winter was closing in. She knew that as the Rooted Folk numbered the year, it was the 18th of Ober, and the end of their year was less than three fortnights away. Ships would stop sailing out of the harbor, and caravans going south would dwindle in number as the northern climate worsened. Ganba didn’t need a caravan to travel, but she was subject to the same limitations. Rain or snow and cold would stop her just as effectively as any other traveler. Soon she and Yawrab would have to weigh their chances of finding one man against the prospect of wintering over in Dargon.
Her attention was diverted by taunting shouts. Ganba looked around, but it was Yawrab who spotted the trio of young boys darting and dancing around an older boy who was better dressed in what almost looked like a uniform of some kind. The altercation was taking place just outside the mouth of an alley, which the young boys were preventing the other from entering. The older boy — more of a young man, really — had a look of abject fear on his face, well out of proportion to the threat the youngsters posed. The uniformed man’s eyes darted from the alley to the passers-by, who ignored the altercation completely. Panic made the young man’s movements jerky, and a quick jab by one of the tormentors made him drop all of his belongings.
Ganba and Yawrab strode right up to the small group, who were all scrambling for the dropped belongings, the boys to kick them away, the young man to pick them up. “Stop that!” shouted Ganba, and “Get away!” yelled Yawrab.
All four looked up. The three boys grinned fearlessly, then ran when Ganba stamped a foot at them. The young man hurriedly looked back down and gathered his bundles together, edging into the alley after the boys but not following them.
“Are you all right?” asked Yawrab as she and Ganba walked over to the cowering young man.
“Y-yes, thank you,” he said, his grey eyes still darting nervously about. They rested momentarily on both of them, and Ganba recognized the kind of frown as the young man looked at her; she had seen similar all her life.
“Do you need any help?” asked Yawrab, talking softly to the still obviously nervous young man. “Why, if you don’t mind my asking, were those boys bothering you?” Ganba could hear the unspoken question, “Why could those boys bother you?” She wondered whether the young man could hear it too.
The young man looked around and suddenly seemed less nervous. Ganba scanned the area but didn’t notice that anything had changed except for there being almost no one walking by. He straightened up, still in the mouth of the alley, and said, “I’m sorry, I’m Ratray — call me Tray — and I work at the keep. Those boys just caught me off guard, see, but they won’t be any more trouble, I’m sure.”
He looked at both of them, the frown returning when he looked at Ganba. Addressing Yawrab, he said, “Thank you for driving them off, though. I, ah, I should be going now.” The nervousness had returned, and Ganba looked over her shoulder to see a group of people walking toward them. With a small wave, Tray darted up the alley and was soon gone.
Ganba said, “That was a very strange young man, wasn’t he, Yawrab?”
“Strange indeed,” Yawrab said. She took a step and stooped to pick something up. “He must have dropped this,” she said, straightening up and showing off her find.
It was a wooden flute, complete with elongated breath-hole and circular finger holes. It had once been a fine instrument, but now it was nicked and notched and dusty. Only the dust had come from the scuffle, though, as it was obvious the other damage, while superficial, was old and well worn.
“He’s bound to miss that,” Ganba said.
“I’ll just have to return it to him, then,” said Yawrab. Ganba wasn’t sure at all why there had been a hint of slyness in the way she’d said that.
Ratray sat on top of the shortest of the three towers of Dargon Keep and played his fiddle. The moon had been full three nights past, but there was plenty of its light shining on him and he didn’t need to see to play anyway. He was still smarting from the attack earlier that day, for letting those children get the better of him. He felt worse for having been rescued by two women, one a gypsy, and on top of it all he had lost his flute. He could only afford to own instruments that had been discarded, and that flute’d had a sweet sound despite its nicks and gouges, none of which had marred the air passage. The fiddle he now played was in fact the worse for its wear; the piece of canvas he had glued over the hole in its back made it sound better, but not perfect. Still, the fiddle was his favorite instrument, as he could sing while he played.
He never heard the footsteps. One moment he closed his eyes to concentrate on a difficult variation, and when he opened them again he was staring at the bard he had seen around the keep for the past few sennights.
His hands stopped moving, and he said, “Greetings, s-s-sir bard. I hope I d-d-didn’t disturb you …”
The tall, blond man smiled and squatted down. He said, “No, I wasn’t disturbed at all. I was taking a break from the gathering I was at, looking for some fresh air, and was lured up here by your lovely music. You play masterfully, young man.”
Ratray blushed and looked at the roof between his knees. He said, “Ah, you jest, I’m sure, sir bard.”
“Call me Nakaz, and I never jest about my art.”
Ratray looked up and saw the serious look on the man’s face. He said, “I’m sorry sir … Nakaz. I’m Ratray, call me Tray.”
“I’ve seen you around the keep, Tray,” said the bard. “You work here?”
“Yes, I do. Humble servant, fetch and carry, clean, unskilled labor like that.”
“Where did you learn music then, Tray?
Ratray looked at his scrounged fiddle, and back at the bard. “Just came to me, s– Nakaz. Never took lessons or nothing.”
“Then you have an amazing talent, Tray. You should go to the Bardic College. You would be an asset to our ranks.”
Ratray didn’t even flinch at that. He had never been able to dream that dream, and he was sure he would never be able to in the future. “No, Nakaz, I’ll never be a student at the college. I … I’m cursed.”
Ratray looked up at Nakaz, having not heard ridicule in the single word. He found the blond man looking at him as seriously as he had before when questioned about his art. Ratray realized that the bard might be able to understand and decided to tell his story. At the very least, Nakaz was unlikely to use it against him as Marnvik had.
“When I was young, four or five,” Ratray began, “my mother took me to a gypsy who was telling fortunes in the marketplace. For two Bits the gypsy, Zeefra I think was her name, gave me and my mother a prediction. She said that my life would be irrevocably altered by a cataclysm of crowds and fire. She couldn’t say any more, except to explain that irrevocably meant forever and altered meant changed. We already knew that cataclysm meant something bad.
“From that day, fear has ruled my life. I don’t know when this cataclysm is going to happen, so I go everywhere afraid that my end will come the next time there are more than two people near me. Always looking, always wondering, always afraid.”
Ratray was silent for a moment, and then his hands started to move on his instrument and a haunting melody drifted across the rooftop. “Music helps, but it hurts worse,” he said. “Music sets me free for moments at a time, but always there is the sadness that I can’t share it with anyone, except like this. I can’t be a bard if I have to be alone all the time. So you see, I am cursed.”
The bard didn’t reply. When Ratray’s song ended, the bard held out his hands, and Ratray handed over the fiddle. Nakaz played a note, grimaced, looked the fiddle over and nodded to himself when he saw the patch, then played again, soon reaching accommodation with the strange-sounding instrument.
Ratray listened to Nakaz play, enraptured, and when the bard handed his instrument back he proceeded to copy, and then embellish, what the bard had played. Encouraged by Nakaz’ smile, he continued layering flourishes on the complex melody he had been given, receiving the man’s applause with pleasure when he finished. The pair traded the instrument back and forth for several more bells, and if anyone was disturbed by the noise, none complained.
Yawrab walked up the steps to the courtyard that surrounded Dargon Keep, trying as hard as she could not to look as nervous as she felt. Having continually dodged the logical step of looking for Aldan among the nobles of this northern duchy, she now felt like everyone was looking at her and saying to themselves, “Why did you wait so long?”
There was more to her nervousness, though. She had served nobility all her life — first Lord Cranhull, then the Denvas — but she didn’t know anyone on this side of the Coldwell River. Her old feelings about strange surroundings and new places were resurfacing as she entered someplace that was almost familiar despite being leagues and leagues away from everything she had known.
The changes she had undergone in the past months since meeting Ganba and leaving Beeikar resurfaced, and she pushed down her nervousness. She wasn’t looking for an audience with the duke, nor was she here to shout to everyone her story of her sister’s death and her hunt for the one who might have killed her, Lord Aldan. She was simply going to give back the flute the young man Ratray had dropped, and then ask a favor of him in return: nothing to be nervous about at all.
There were several servants around the entrance to the keep, cleaning the stonework and sweeping the courtyard, getting ready for the King’s Birthday celebration that was coming up in five days. None of them were Ratray, and when she asked the sentry at the door where she might find that servant, she was directed around to the west side of the keep.
Yawrab walked around the corner, admiring the view over the Old City. The keep was a commanding feature of the city, up above everything on its outcropping of stone. The Coldwell River and the lower city on the other side of it were behind her, but she knew that the keep overlooked that just as well. It was the perfect place to build a fortification, and she had never seen anything like it.
She reached the servants’ entrance in the back corner of the keep and looked around for someone to ask Ratray’s whereabouts of. Then she saw him standing by the parapet, looking at the forest away to the south and west. She walked over to him and said, “Excuse me, Tray?”
The lanky young man with the fringe of dark hair spilling over his eyes turned and said, “Yes?” His eyes darted around quickly, and then settled back on her.
“I don’t know if you remember me?”
Ratray looked at her for a moment, then he said, “The boys. Yesterday.” He didn’t sound entirely pleased to be reminded of that incident.
“Yes, that’s right. I’m Yawrab, and my friend and I are staying at the Inn of the Panther. I came today to give you back your flute. I think you dropped it in the scuffle.”
She held out the battered wooden flute, and Ratray’s eyes grew wide as he reached out for it and took it gently from her hands. He touched it all over, as if to make sure it wasn’t damaged any further, and then looked back at Yawrab. “Thank you, again, Yawrab. I was sure I’d never see this again, and I can’t afford to replace it.”
Yawrab was pleased that the young man was glad to get his flute back as it left the perfect opening for her. “You are welcome, Tray. Ah, I was wondering if you could do me a favor in return?”
The servant grew wary, and hugged the flute to his chest. “Perhaps,” he said. “What is it?”
“My friend and I are in Dargon looking for someone,” Yawrab said. “His name is Lord Aldan. We’ve been looking for sennights in the lower city, but not at all yet up here. I was hoping you could keep your ears open for his name?”
“Well, I suppose I could do that for you. Lord Aldan, you say? Straight. What do I do if I find him?”
“As I said, Ganba and I are staying at the Inn of the Panther. Do you know where that is?”
He sneered at the mention of Ganba’s name, and muttered, “Gypsy,” a reaction Yawrab was used to, if not usually quite this pronounced. Louder, Ratray said, “No, no I can’t go there. Might … no, can’t. Maybe, instead, I could leave word with Abernald the apothecary, straight?”
“Oh, yes, that will be fine,” said Yawrab. “Now, Aldan is tall, with …”
“Tray,” someone called, and both of them turned toward the voice. Yawrab saw a tall blond man come around from the back of the keep. He was wearing the insignia of a bard, and as he got closer she could see that he had a very large nose that didn’t make him at all unattractive, as well as piercingly green eyes.
“I was wondering if you’d seen my friend, Tray,” said the bard, stopping in front of them. Yawrab found herself fascinated by the man, almost drawn to him. When he glanced over at her, their eyes locked and she could have sworn she felt something pass between them in that moment of contact. She felt herself flush with desire; she wanted to touch that hair, grasp that waist, pull down those leggings and –
Blinking rapidly, she turned her back on the bewitching man. Lifting a hand to her cheek, she could feel the heat of the blood in her face. Her voice shook as she said, “Thank you, Tray. Abernald’s, then? Straight.” She walked away quickly, not worrying whether her haste was making a bad impression. She had never in her life felt like that about anyone, man or woman. Why had she reacted so lustfully toward that bard?
Nakaz watched the woman walk away, confused by his reaction to her. He had felt drawn to her somehow, like he knew her and all he had to do was touch her and she would remember him. The sensation confused him, and he was both glad and sad that she had walked away so abruptly.
He turned back to Ratray and said, “About my friend, Tray. He was supposed to meet me up here, but I haven’t seen him. He’s tall, with long brown hair and beard, brown eyes, good looking, and his name is Lord Aldan.”
The musician servant looked startled by that, and said, “But, she …” He turned his head to where the woman had walked away, and Nakaz followed the gaze, but she was gone.
Before Ratray could say anything more, a shout rang out. “Rat!” Nakaz turned to see a stout fellow with a ruddy face standing in one of the servant’s entrances behind them. The man said, “Get in here, Rat. No more lounging today. Too much to do ‘afore the celebration.”
Nakaz looked at Ratray, who shrugged and strode over to the ruddy-faced man. He called over his shoulder, “Haven’t seem him, Nakaz,” before he vanished inside.
Nakaz wondered why Ratray had seemed to connect Aldan with that woman. Then he wondered where Aldan was, and continued his search.
“Why are you so eager to get back here, Yawrab?” Ganba asked as they neared Abernald’s Apothecary. “We were here just two days ago.”
Yawrab hadn’t told Ganba about her visit to the keep the day before, so she said, “Well, I returned Ratray’s flute yesterday and I sort of asked him to keep an eye out for Lord Aldan. Then this bard came up and …”
Ganba interrupted with, “You didn’t need to hide that from me, Yawrab. I suppose it was only a matter of time before we had to start looking in the Old City and the keep. I take it that Ratray didn’t know who Aldan was.”
“No, he didn’t. But he did say that if he found out anything, he would leave the news with Abernald.”
“Now I know why you’re so eager.”
They entered the shop, ringing the bell over the door, and went right to the counter in the back. The cheery figure of Abernald stood behind it, and he called out, “Good day to you, Ganba and Yawrab. I’m afraid I have no news for you today. Would you care for a poultice?”
“So, you haven’t heard from Ratray, the young man from the keep?” asked Yawrab.
“No, he hasn’t been in since day before yesterday. Either of you have a ticklish throat? I’ve got a certain-sure cough draught right here.”
“Thank you, no, Master Abernald. We’ll be back later.”
Ganba guided a crestfallen Yawrab out of the store. “It’s too soon, that’s all, Yawrab. We’ll go back later and see whether the news is any different.”
Yawrab didn’t answer, just started walking away from the shop. Ganba said, “Perhaps we should find somewhere to eat on our way back; I think that the stew at the Panther has been in the pot for a little too long.”
Yawrab again didn’t respond, despite the mention of a subject she usually had no end of opinions about. Ganba knew that her lover was depressed when Yawrab ignored two men who were about to come to blows over a tipped applecart and just walked right past. Ganba shook her head and followed.
Ratray made his cautious way to the door of Abernald’s Apothecary. He hadn’t been able to get away from the keep before now, and he wanted to discharge his debt to the Yawrab woman. He watched for a moment as two men traded blows, stumbling over apples next to an overturned cart. They had drawn away all passersby, and he entered the shop confidently.
“Why hello, Tray. This is a surprise,” said Abernald.
“No pipedust this time, Abernald,” Ratray said. “Just some news for a woman named Yawrab or her gypsy friend.” Abernald frowned at the sneer in Ratray’s voice, but the servant continued. “She can find Aldan at the Lighted Candle in the Old City, where he’s staying with a bard named Nakaz.”
“That’s excellent, Tray. Why, Yawrab and Ganba were just in here wanting that very news. I’ll be sure to tell them next time I see them.”
The crowd around the upset applecart was growing, and Ratray nervously said, “Well, better be going then. See you later, Abernald.”
“Safe trip,” said the apothecary as Ratray slipped out the door and away from the brewing brawl. He felt good for being able to repay the woman for his returned flute, even if it had cost him an otherwise unnecessary trip into the city. Keeping his eyes out for unexpected crowds or naughty children, he made his way back to the keep.
Aldan walked into the taproom of the Inn of the Panther to rest and have a drink. It was going to be a long walk back over the causeway into the Old City, and he thought he deserved a pause before starting the journey.
In the four days since learning that Flane had begun asking about the Margre, he and Nakaz had made little progress in tracking him down. They had visited Genarvus Kazakian and Dyann Taishent, as well as the scribes Cavendish and Greuber. They had visited a dozen other sages, seers, and scribes as well. Some had been visited by the quester, some had not. Most had promised to send word if Flane came back.
That morning, several messages had been awaiting Nakaz and him at their inn, the Lighted Candle. Nakaz had decided to split up to respond to them, and Aldan had just come from his last meeting, with Greuber. To his disappointment, none of the people he had visited had produced any new information, although one had confirmed the legend about the cat-stag Asthen’ron. He was still chasing the quester, and he didn’t seem to be gaining. He hoped that Nakaz was faring better.
Aldan had just received his second tankard when a shout went up from one small table. “To marriage!” The half-a-dozen people at the table lifted their tankards at the toast, and soon others around the taproom were shouting out their congratulations. Aldan sipped his ale and stared at the group. Since he seemed to be the only one paying more than casual attention, he guessed that these were regulars in the bar.
Four of the six, two men and two women, wouldn’t have drawn attention in any crowd, but the last two couldn’t help but do so no matter where they went. One of these was a man in a robe and cowl, but the cowl was filled with darkness; nothing could be seen of the face within. The other was a woman in a silver mask with a black bracer of some kind on her right wrist. She never used her right hand for anything, lifting her tankard with her left. Aldan noticed that her sword was belted on her right side for easy drawing with her left hand.
The odd pair seemed to be very friendly. He gathered from eavesdropping that it was one of the others who was getting married, and that one seemed to be related to the silver-masked woman.
The talk of marriage bothered Aldan a little. If things hadn’t gone so wrong, he would have been married to Tillna by now. What bothered him most was that he wasn’t sorry that things had gone wrong, except for the death of Tillna herself. His fiancee had been murdered by his former friends, the children of the nobility of Bindrmon. He had admitted to himself a fortnight ago that for some reason Weasel had lied as he lay dying, and that the rest of the Menagerie, as they had called themselves, had not actually run to Dargon. Someday he hoped to find them and bring them to justice, but he knew that could wait. Stopping the Margre quest couldn’t.
Aldan stared into his tankard, thinking of this important task he and Nakaz had taken on. It seemed so elusive, so endless. He had been chasing those who were pursuing the artifacts of an ancient legend for what seemed like ages, and getting no closer. The prospect of circling the city, visiting sage after sage, seer after scribe, always a few paces behind lop-eared Flane, made him tired. A lot of things made Aldan feel tired these days, though. Getting up in the morning sometimes seemed like a chore, like something he had been doing for hundreds of years, and doing it no differently than he ever had. This, despite the fact that these days he awoke beside Nakaz, the handsome bard who had once been his guide and was now his lover. As exciting as their relationship had been in the beginning, now Aldan found himself feeling like he and Nakaz had always been together though they had been so for only a month, and though he was no less in love with the bard, he was feeling tired of that existence.
Aldan’s attention returned to the table, where the cowled man had lifted his tankard. “To Kroan and Anorra — a long, happy, and profitable life!” Aldan smiled and sipped with them, hoping the betrothed would be happy. There was a sudden crash, and a gasp from the people around the table. They were staring in shock at the silver-masked woman, who had tried to lift her tankard with her right hand.
“Well, no one could believe it!” said Ganba as she and Yawrab walked toward Abernald’s for the second time that day. “Je’en hasn’t lifted anything with her right hand since the accident that had changed her life. You remember, everyone was telling her story. But there she was, in the middle of the taproom with a tankard hanging from the fingers of her right hand. I saw it myself!”
Yawrab was only listening to Ganba’s story with half an ear. She was sure that Abernald would have heard from Ratray by now. It was almost ninth bell, and the apothecary closed at ninth, so they had to hurry.
“Cefn took the tankard from her hand, and Kroan patted her on her back, trying to comfort her. She didn’t like that much, though. She shouted something rather rude, and stalked out. Everyone else left then, and I got another tankard.”
Yawrab could have shouted something rude herself when yet another intersection was blocked by the wagons of merchants packing up their wares for the night. She detoured around, knowing that Ganba would follow, dreading hearing the nine bells that would signal that she was too late.
Another brawl over an upset applecart diverted them, and then it was a potter who was trying to sell her last bowl and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Yawrab was tempted to smash the thing, but then she would have had to pay for it anyway. Finally, Ganba extracted them from the merchant’s grasp just as the bell tower began to chime.
Shoulders slumping in defeat, Yawrab continued toward the apothecary. Diversions no longer bothered her, so that she arrived at the shop with a long face but in no temper. She knocked on the door, knowing that Abernald lived above his shop, but no one answered, and no lights showed in the second floor windows in the gathering gloom of evening.
“Don’t worry, Yawrab,” said Ganba. “What difference could a day make?”
Yawrab didn’t answer. She followed her gypsy lover away from the shop, but she didn’t see the streets they walked through. She had been sure that Abernald had the information she was seeking. If Aldan was in the Old City among the nobility, then he would certainly show up at the keep, and Ratray would learn where he was staying. If only she hadn’t been delayed!
She couldn’t maintain her frustration for very long, though; she was too tired. Yawrab felt stretched like wool inexpertly put on a spindle, or like cloth worn thin by repeated use. It was as if she had been doing the same thing over and over, not for the few sennights she and Ganba had been in the city, but for years, decades, centuries beyond that. Searching, always looking for something, often not knowing what for, but always looking. She wondered if it would ever end.
Moonlight filters into a shuttered and dark shop through warped boards and air vents. The silvery light glints off large glass jars filled with herbs and medicines revealing the shop to be an apothecary.
A shadow among shadows moves slowly and cautiously. It sidles its way over to the jars and, after a pause to be sure it is alone, it begins to fill several cloth bags from the large glass jars.
Suddenly, its movements lose their fluidity, like a marionette whose operator has just sneezed. An elbow strikes and dislodges one of the jars and it crashes to the floor, shattering. The shadow freezes, and then, under control again, begins to hurriedly complete its mission.
The owner of the shop, who lives on the second floor, has been awakened by the noise. He comes down the stairs armed with a large club. The shadow seeks a way out, its mission now done, but the stairs are closer to the door than it is.
The owner opens a shopfront shutter, flooding the tiny store with moonlight, and catches sight of the shadow, formless and dark no more. Light glints off a silver mask, the owner gasps out, “Je–”, and a sword wielded sinisterly slides between ribs. As the owner slumps on the stairs, the shadow closes the shutter, wipes its sword on the owner’s nightrobe, and slips stealthily out of the shop.
Yawrab led the way down the stairs and into the taproom of the Inn of the Panther at half past second bell the next morning. She looked around at the shambles the room was in, noting that it looked about as it usually did. The disorder bothered her from a practical as well as a managerial viewpoint; you didn’t leave spills on tables, not to mention tankards and mugs, overnight. Yawrab knew that the place would look this bad for several more bells, and she knew it wouldn’t have if she were running this place. The thought put an idea into her head, an idea that instantly energized her, pushing back the weariness just a little. Once she had found Aldan, perhaps she could take on reorganizing this inn.
She and Ganba left the inn and made their way toward Abernald’s. They walked in companionable silence, staring straight ahead, having seen the sights that the city streets held many times before, which was why it surprised Yawrab when Ganba stopped in front of the Inn of the Serpent and stared at the garishly painted statue that gave the lodging house its name. She didn’t particularly care for the image, so insipid were the colors that covered the sculpture, and she couldn’t understand why Ganba found it fascinating. She watched the gypsy’s hands curl as if they held tools, and then Ganba nodded and turned away.
“What was that about?” Yawrab asked.
“Oh, nothing, nothing,” said Ganba. “Perhaps a little something to pass the bells, that’s all.”
Yawrab tried to pry the gypsy’s meaning out of her the rest of the way to Abernald’s, but Ganba wanted to keep her secret. It cheered Yawrab to banter with her lover like that, though, so she didn’t begrudge Ganba her privacy.
Yawrab’s cheer faded, however, as they neared the apothecary’s shop to find that they weren’t the only ones there. The door of the shop was open, and she could see some town guards moving about inside. Outside there were more guards looking carefully around at the street and talking to neighbors.
She walked over to a woman in a guard uniform and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, you’ll have to move along,” said the guard. “We’ve got a murder investigation to deal with here.”
“Abernald himself. Surprised a burglar, we think. Though the killing blow was very precise …”
Yawrab paled, and she felt Ganba put a hand on her shoulder and squeeze it. “Murder? No, not Abernald!”
“Did you know the apothecary, ma’am?” the guard asked.
Yawrab shook her head absently, and Ganba said, “We were customers, that’s all.”
One of the guards by the door to the shop called out, “Ilona!”
The guard glanced over, then turned back to Yawrab and Ganba. “I see. Well, we don’t know much about what happened here, but we’re investigating. I’ve got to go. Perhaps you could move along?”
The city of Dargon began to bustle as the celebration of the King’s Birthday approached. As the calendar counted down to the 24th of Ober, people from outlying farmsteads and the nearer villages and hamlets made their way to the city, and businesses geared up for the increased custom. Everyone was cleaning, stocking, preparing, working hard to celebrate King Haralan’s natal day.
Yawrab spent the three days between Abernald’s murder and the birthday trying to catch up with Ratray at the keep. Since the keep was the center of the main celebration, she never managed to find him. She turned her attention to learning everything she could about the staff at the Inn of the Panther, intending to find the source of the problems there. She continued to search for Aldan, but let it be secondary to her new quest.
Ganba worked hard at the search as well, a task made more difficult by the influx of strangers for the birthday and the short tempers caused by the increased workload everyone had to endure. She also began negotiating with the owner of the Inn of the Serpent, one Ballard Tamblebuck. She took some of her carvings with her on her third visit, and was soon talking with some woodcutters about obtaining a large block of wood for a reasonable price.
Nakaz sought more information about Flane and the Margre. He learned from Genarvus that the Asthen’ron had been an idol worshiped by the locals before the Fretheod had arrived, but no more information had been forthcoming from anyone.
Aldan assisted Nakaz, but had no more luck than the bard.
Ganba and Yawrab celebrated the King’s Birthday in the taproom of the Inn of the Panther, toasting and cheering, dancing and singing. They set aside their concerns and cares temporarily and revelled until the late bells of the night.
Nakaz and Aldan attended the official affair in the keep, of course. Aldan pointed out the cowled man and the masked woman, who also attended. Their celebration was not as wild as that in the various taverns and taprooms across the city, but Aldan found it very familiar and comforting, and Nakaz knew how to move among the nobility as well as any born lord. Nakaz marked the moment that the masked woman left the ball, and Aldan noticed when the cowled man was summoned out of the room by a woman in guard livery. Shortly thereafter, the ball was cut short when Duke Clifton himself reentered the room and announced that due to security concerns, the evening was over.
Nakaz’ bardic credentials allowed him to learn the full story before he and Aldan returned to their inn. A thief had managed to penetrate the security of the keep and had entered its deepest vaults. There, she had opened a hidden vault that no one had known existed and made off with its contents. To make matters worse, this thief had not been the only one to break into the keep. When the two thieves had clashed, the second one had been left for dead. Only the intervention of the cowled mage, Cefn, had saved him.
Nakaz had, of course, offered his help in the investigation. The duke’s people had declined for the time being, and he and Aldan returned to their own inn.
Ratray found himself walking down the stairs into the deepest vaults of the keep. He had been given the duty of cleaning up after the intrusions of the night; it was his punishment for begging off of helping with the party itself, and the servant had no complaints. He just hoped he could stay awake. It wasn’t often he was working at the eighth bell of night.
Aldan dreamed that he was running through a tunnel of glass, twisting and turning, going up and down as he passed over and under other tunnels. He raced and raced, moving faster and faster and …
… as Ganba ran, she began to see in her mind’s eye the pattern that the golden tunnel she raced through made as it turned left and right and rose and fell. The shape grew more and more solid as …
… he ran, over and over, through the silver tunnels. Soon Nakaz would be able to understand the meaning of the pattern, the reason for the other tunnels he passed over and under, the other runners he was beginning …
… to sense as she ran around and around the disk. Yawrab could see more and more of the disk, not just the edges but the crisscrossing lines within, each originating from a strange figure and returning to that figure’s twin. Just a few more circuits and she knew she would be able to know the whole …
Ratray had swept the white powder carefully from the steps leading down into and below the dungeons of the keep. He mopped the blood from the vault floor and returned the loose items to the empty shelves around the room. He wondered just how valuable the contents of the vault were, or rather the remaining contents.
He looked at the floor in the center of the vault. Inlaid into the stone was a compass rose whose points he was pretty sure wouldn’t line up with a real compass. The pattern was broken in the very center, though, where a portion of the inlay had risen from the floor, pushed up by a small box, open on one side, taller than it was wide, its bottom even with the floor of the vault. Ratray walked around the box, imagining it rising up from the floor under its piece of inlay, triggered by the thief who had stolen its contents. From the rumors he had heard, no one had even known of this secret vault. The second thief, the one the wizard had saved, had indicated that the objects within had been a rolled parchment, a skull, and an oddly-shaped object, but even he’d had no clue as to their nature.
Ratray crouched down in front of the box and looked inside, but couldn’t see anything. He reached in and felt around. Right at the back, something tilted as he touched it.
A rumbling began, and the floor of the box began to lift. Ratray stepped back and saw that the entire box was rising again, grinding and rumbling as it lifted to reveal another compartment below the now empty one.
A new vault, twice as tall but just as wide, was soon revealed. Inside were two objects. One was an ornately carved staff with a lump of milky crystal enclosed at one end. The other was a small chunk of stone. Ratray moved closer, reached out and lifted the stone and the staff. He didn’t recognize the carvings on the staff, but he could tell that the stone, which was shaped like a piece of pie, bore an animal that seemed to be a fox in the outer, wider third. Coming from the back of the fox was a band of gold that wound up onto the rest of the flat surface of the stone and interlinked with two other kinds of bands, one silver and one glass, so that it looked like a loosely woven basket in some places. Ratray gazed at the two objects and wondered just what he held.
Four people spread across two inn rooms in the city of Dargon sat bolt upright in their beds at the very moment that Ratray touched the stone. They all said the same thing at the same time: “It’s free!”