DargonZine 12, Issue 4

Talisman Zero Part 4



This entry is part 4 of 38 in the series Talisman

Orlebb stood at the end of the causeway and watched the bustle of activity at the docks. The _Typhoon Dancer_ had finally made it into port, and it was unlikely that the ship would leave again before late spring. Which meant that it was up to him, as castellan of Wudamund, to find places for the senior crew among the limited rooms in the keep, and arrange housing for the rest of the crew, as well as an extra squad of teraehran.

Fortunately, there were not likely to be any hardships over the winter due to these extra people. Wudamund was sparsely populated at the moment, but Orlebb kept the storehouses full to capacity, in case of emergency. Of course, no one would bother to actually thank him for his foresight. They would all just go on eating through the months of winter, never really thinking about where their food was coming from. Why should they, after all? That was Orlebb’s job.

The chaos on the docks began to sort itself out, and a small group of people began to walk toward the causeway. Orlebb turned to the aides clustered around him and pointed to one. “You, run and alert the cleaning staff that they should start readying the rooms in Green Tower for long term occupancy. You,” he pointed again, “I need to know about accommodations in the village — how many people can the inns house? You, go get Barracks Three in shape for the new squad of teraehran, as well as the _Typhoon Dancer’s_ alkaehran squad.”

Orlebb twisted around for a moment and verified what he thought he had seen earlier. He turned back and said, “And you, go to the hospital and alert the healers that they will have a patient very soon.” He watched each of his ordered aides running back toward Wudamund, seemingly dashing across thin air, following several faintly glowing lines that arced across the river between the keep and the docks.

It had taken Orlebb quite some time to get used to the invisible causeway created by the magic of the arrogant Fretheodan who owned the keep. When he had asked why such a profligate use of magic went for a simple bridge, he had been told that there had been no choice. The docks had been located on the east side of the mouth of the Coldwell, while the watch-keep was on the west side, a short distance from the mouth. Which meant that with even Fretheod building methods, it was impossible to build a stone bridge between those two points. Orlebb privately thought that it had actually been meant as a display of the might of the empire here in one of its most remote outposts.

He looked upriver, where the beginnings of a stone causeway were beginning to climb up over the Coldwell from each bank. Instead of running northeast directly to the docks as did the magical bridge, the stone version ran due east from the keep. Now that their magic was failing, the people of the empire no longer completely trusted the first causeway. If the awesome power of the Yrmenweald and the anhekovel could cease, then it stood to reason that so could the magic of the causeway. The new bridge probably wouldn’t be finished for a year or more, but it was a definite sign that the empire was growing more and more troubled.

Another sign was the late arrival of the _Typhoon Dancer_. In all his years as castellan, no ship had ever been a week late before. Orlebb smiled a secret smile — he had no love for the empire, even if it did give him a roof over his head and an important job to do. They were conquerors. While they had not yet conquered all of this land they called Cherisk, his own people *had* succumbed to their might. Maybe now their expansionist ways were over. It was too late for his own people, but at least no one else would be conquered and absorbed.

Orlebb laughed to himself at that thought. It wasn’t as if he held any altruistic feelings for the rest of Makdiar’s people. He actually couldn’t care less for them; he was just glad that the empire was finally getting a taste of disaster.

He turned around and found that the group of people from the _Typhoon Dancer_ had almost reached the causeway. He found himself staring at the three who walked in front — a most intriguing trio of people indeed.

In the middle walked a woman of about average height, dressed in a sailor’s tunic and brief leggings, but wearing the vest of an officer. He had never met the captain of the _Typhoon Dancer_ on the ship’s previous visits, but he realized that this must be Captain Eldinan. She was quite a handsome woman — a bit weathered, but it looked good on her. Her hair was long and reddish brown over a round face, and her eyes were an interesting shade of dark grey. Her mouth was full and set at the moment in a somewhat grim line, despite the fact that she was finally ashore. The body under the sailor’s clothes was fit and trim, and well rounded in all the right places. She moved with grace and assurance, qualities that Orlebb found himself admiring.

He expected her companions to be her officers, but neither wore vests; instead each wore military arm bands. The man to the left was almost the same height as the captain, and his arm band was that of an alkaehra, a ship-board soldier. His hair was short and dark brown, and his eyes almost exactly matched that color. His swarthy face was handsome and rugged, and nicely toned muscles showed in his arms and legs. Besides the strength that was to be expected in his movements, there was also a vitality present, and he smiled broadly as he walked beside the captain.

On her other side was a dazzling specimen of manhood. He stood much taller than the captain, and was thinner than either of the other two. His long blond hair and very prominent nose were distinctive, but his light green eyes were arresting. His arm band revealed that he was a teraehra, a land-based soldier, one of the new squad stationed here at Wudamund most likely. Yet he was walking beside the captain as if he were one of the crew.

The group arrived in front of Orlebb, and he said, “Greetings. I am Castellan Orlebb, and I would like to welcome you to Wudamund.”

“Thank you, Castellan. I am Captain Eldinan, of the _Typhoon Dancer_. As you can see, we have grave need of your healers.” She gestured to the stretcher being carried by two sailors. “This is our stone-wizard, Maka’arn. He has been worn beyond exhaustion by the severe storms we have encountered the past week and a half, and needs the services of your healers.”

“Yes, of course. I have already alerted them.” Orlebb turned to one of the few aides that still stood by him. “You, escort the stretcher to the healers.

“And now, Captain, rooms for you and your officers are being readied in the keep, and preparations are being made to house the rest of the people from your ship. I take it that you will not be sailing out again until spring?”

Eldinan shook her head. “Even if the weather held off for long enough, which it doesn’t look like it will, Maka’arn won’t be fit for duty for a fortnight or more. I hope that our presence over the winter will not inconvenience you, Castellan.

“Also, these two will be staying in my quarters with me. Could you see to installing extra storage chests, and, if possible, the largest bed you have available?”

Orlebb’s professionalism was such that his face never wavered from its customary neutral expression, even though he was both startled and intrigued by the request of the captain. He turned to his last aide and said, “See to the captain’s wishes.” As the young man ran off, he said, “It will take a short amount of time to complete the arrangements. If you are hungry, I could have the cooking staff prepare a tray of cold meats and cheeses.”

“No thank you, Castellan,” said the captain. “We should get back to the _Typhoon Dancer_ and make sure it is properly unloaded and secured. That should leave your staff plenty of time to get everything ready. Thank you for your hospitality, Castellan.”

They turned and started walking back toward the docks, and Orlebb stared after them. When he lost sight of them amongst the bustle around the newly moored ship, he turned and started walking across the invisible bridge back to the keep. His thoughts were centered on the possibilities the new residents brought, especially the captain and her pair of men. He decided to keep his eyes on that trio — such a fascinating arrangement — but he wouldn’t neglect the other newcomers either.

He knew, and was known by, all of the current residents of the keep and its village, which was something of a problem. He had risen to the second highest position — only the Lord Keeper was a higher authority — and that meant that starting a relationship was difficult. Most of the permanent residents only saw him as the castellan, and not really as a person. But a whole shipload of new people and just arrived, and none of them yet saw him as only a functionary. And for the most part, they would be leaving when the weather turned in the spring, which opened up all sorts of possibilities.

And then there was the captain, who had already praised him for his hospitality, and had been thoughtful enough to have considered the inconvenience the grounding of the _Typhoon Dancer_ might put on the keep. Yes, there were definitely possibilities with the captain and her pair — pair! — of men. Very exciting possibilities, indeed.

***

Kendil stood still for a moment at the center of the causeway and just let himself be impressed. He looked down between his feet to the Coldwell river thirty or forty feet below and laughed to be standing on ‘air’. He lifted his head until he saw the thin dark lines that traced out the arc of the bridge. On either side of the bridge ran a set of thicker lines about four feet above the surface that marked the presence of the invisible guard rail.

None of the places he had traveled in the empire had had such extravagant uses of magic on display. Of course, his travels had mostly been in the south of Duurom, which had been under Fretheod sway for more than 1500 years, but which had been a well developed civilization before then. Any bridges that had been needed in his home province had been long since built by the time the Fretheodan teraehran marched in and conquered everything.

Still, for this outpost to boast such a construction was just amazing. He wondered what the imperial province must be like. Or even the imperial city? Surely the heart of the empire had the best and most magnificent magic on display. Eldinan was right beside him, so he asked, “Elin, do they have wonders like this in Frethemak?”

She grinned and said, “Oh, yes. There are bridges there that span leagues, from one opulent palace to another. The streets are pure diamond, with flowing wine on every street corner and massive fountains in every square spraying wine, honey, and gold coins. It is a paradise on Makdiar, my love!”

Kendil had certainly heard stories about the abundant riches of the homeland of the Fretheod, and was almost ready to believe Eldinan’s tale. But he noticed the teasing look on her face, and said, “You! Talespinner! I’ll bet it’s really no more than a bunch of clay huts next to a muddy stream, right?”

Eldinan said, with a laugh, “Not quite that crude, no. Really, it is not much more impressive than your own province. Different architecture, different style of city planning, but all in all very mundane. By the time the empire was rich enough to squander its resources on extravagances, the city was pretty much finished.

“As for this causeway, it was built from necessity, since it proved to be impossible to build a stone bridge between the keep and the only place extensive dock works were feasible. Poor planning really, I suppose. I’ve heard that the original plan was to build a town a couple of leagues up river, but somehow that never quite happened. Wudamund was never meant to be an actual port.”

Nikkeus said, in a quavering voice, “Elin … Kendil … could we please continue on? I don’t like this standing on nothing. It’s a little easier when we’re moving, because at least we’re getting closer to solid ground, but just standing here with nothing under us but rushing river is very unnerving!”

Kendil smiled indulgently and walked over to his lover. “Sure, sure, Nikk. Let’s go see what that strange man Orlebb has made of Elin’s quarters.” The captain moved to Nikkeus’ other side, and the two of them wrapped their arms around the nervous musician. “Just keep your eyes on the keep, Nikk, and don’t look down. Right?”

“Right. Thanks,” said Nikkeus as they started to walk forward again.

The trio walked toward the watch-keep of Wudamund. Kendil thought it looked much like the several watch-keeps he had seen before, which were large, roughly square, and possessed of towers. This keep had three towers, but fit the type in all other respects. It was a pretty basic design for a pretty basic function: house soldiers and keep a guard over a strategic location. In this case, that was the mouth of the Coldwell, presumably to ensure the safety of that settlement further up the river that never got started.

They arrived at the end of the causeway, stepping onto the plaza surrounding the keep with an audible sigh of relief from Nikkeus. Kendil looked around with interest, trying to learn the lay of the land. The top of the rocky outcropping had been leveled with stones, and what wasn’t supporting the keep itself had become a ledge of varying width surrounding it. A short wall, lower than the rampart of the causeway because it was visible, ringed the outcropping. It offered no real defense — that was the keep’s job.

They walked along the river edge of the plaza looking for the entryway, allowing Kendil a good look at much of the area around the keep. On the far side of the river there were few structures apart from the docks themselves, and two large buildings that were probably warehouses. Since Wudamund wasn’t a trading port, there was really little need for more storage than that. Kendil did note that there was some kind of construction going on a hundred yards or so upriver of the keep. He didn’t know much about stone construction, but he thought it looked a lot like the beginnings of another bridge.

Occupying a couple of acres along the same bank as the keep and just upriver of it was a small village comprised of maybe a score of wooden buildings surrounded by a wall of earth and wood. Kendil noticed that there were two stone structures built against the flanks of the keep’s outcropping, and that there were half a dozen buildings clustered around the outside of the single gate in the village’s wall. As he understood it, there hadn’t been an attack on Wudamund in two hundred years or more. By the looks of things, even the empire’s fanatical adherence to its own strict rules for outposts was liable to be worn down over years and years of peace. It had probably come to be too much trouble to keep expanding the walls every few years.

A short switch-back ramp connected the plaza around the keep with the village, and on that side of the building the trio found the entrance. Stuck to the side of the keep like an afterthought was a small gatehouse. It had a crenellated platform on top, with two small enclosures at each front corner that might have been called towers if they hadn’t extended only four feet above the top of the crenellations. The large double doors of the gate were wide open, and the portcullis was raised. After a short pause to look around, the trio walked inside.

Eldinan seemed to have an idea of where to go, so Kendil followed her lead. She took them through the gatehouse and then down the left hand fork of the corridor that it gave on to. Kendil thought they were heading for the side of the keep that was opposite the river, and when they turned left again, he was pretty sure of it. They walked down a short corridor to another set of double doors, which Eldinan opened after saying, “This is the great hall”.

Kendil stepped into the huge room behind those doors and looked around, his mouth gaping. The room was both large in floor space, and very tall. Looking up, Kendil saw that the ceiling of the room was covered with a huge mosaic, the individual pieces visible even this far away. The scene depicted was the night sky over Duurom, with both moons in the sky. He saw the familiar constellations picked out in different colored tiles, and the sight made him smile even while he felt a slight pang of homesickness. A month ago, out in the middle of the Valenfaer ocean, the smaller of Makdiar’s two moons, Celene, had dropped below the horizon and never risen again. He had heard that the continent of Cherisk never saw Celene, only the larger moon Nochturon, but it was unsettling to have the night sky change so fundamentally. Compounding that was the way that even the stars were different, half a world from where he had been raised. Up there on the ceiling was a comforting reminder of that home.

The room was heavily decorated, and looked more like it belonged in some imperial palace than a watch-keep on the fringe of the empire. Statues stood along each wall, and paintings hung between them. The windows were flanked by heavy blue curtains, and blue-tinged marble covered the floor. The tables that ran along the walls in one half of the room were heavily carved from dark wood.

People moved through the room constantly, most of them in keep livery — a surcoat that was half magenta and half a checkered pattern of grey and white. One of these staff members came up to them and said, “Pardon, you are Captain Eldinan and … company?” Kendil nodded with the others. “Your room is ready, Captain. It is on the sixth floor of the Green Tower. Would you like me to escort you?”

Eldinan nodded, and the young man, probably a page, scooted past them into the corridor. They followed him as he turned left and walked along the long corridor, eventually taking a diagonal turn to the left that quickly opened into a large, empty room. The wall opposite the entryway was curved inward and in the center was a door painted emerald green.

The page walked over to the door and opened it. A stairway started upward just beyond the door, and they all started to climb. As they neared the third floor, the page said, “The quarters for the rest of your ship’s officers start here, Captain.”

Eldinan said, “Good, good. Glad they could be lodged nearby.”

They kept walking up three more flights of stairs, and the page stepped onto the landing on the sixth floor. “There’s only the one suite on this level, Captain. Above are some storage rooms, and then the roof. The kitchens serve three meals a day, but you can have food brought to your room at any time. If you need anything, just ask anyone in the livery. Any questions?”

Eldinan shook her head, and the page left. Kendil opened the door and led the way into their new home for the next several months.

The front room was almost as opulent as that large hall downstairs had been. Here, rugs covered the floor, except for the hearth around the fireplace. Massive, comfortable furniture was clustered around that hearth, while in another corner was a table similar to those downstairs, surrounded by smaller chairs. Two doors led off this main room. One led to a space with the furnishings of a craft room: tables, storage bins, tools. The other led to a bedroom as comfortable as the main room. A large bed and several chests for storage, plus rugs on the floor. The bedroom had another door in it, which led to a bathing room. All the conveniences of civilization!

Only one thing worried Kendil as he sank into the cloth-covered couch beside Eldinan and Nikkeus, and that was the prospect of spending a northern winter cooped up in this keep. He had a feeling that even his two lovers weren’t going to be enough to keep him from going crazy!

***

Eldinan’s first real encounter with Castellan Orlebb was not a good one. It happened about two weeks after she had arrived in Wudamund. She and her lovers had settled into a routine that was already wearing thin — there wasn’t much of the keep left to explore, and the village was so small that the three of them had exhausted its mysteries within two days. There was ample forest land to explore, and from the stories told by the teraehran who had been stationed here for the past half-year, there were mysteries aplenty therein. But it was getting a little too late in the year for such explorations. Even though it was still a week until Lu-midarvorse, the winter solstice, it felt like winter had already arrived. If not for the excellent hypocaust system within the keep, she would have been very uncomfortable in the cold. As it was, the weather just limited her ch oices of how to pass the time.

She was sitting in the Great Hall that afternoon, nibbling on some cheese and staring through one of the decorative statues. Kendil and Nikkeus were off in one of the barracks trading stories like fighting folk did. She was wondering just how long it would be before Kendil and Nikk would tire of hearing the same stories repeated again and again.

There was movement beside her and she looked up, startled, to find that Castellan Orlebb had settled into the chair beside her. He said, “I hope I didn’t startle you too much, Captain Eldinan, but I’ve been so busy lately that I never got to ascertain how your lodgings were working out? Everything to your satisfaction?”

For the first time, Eldinan noticed that Orlebb’s eyes were different colors. One was blue, the other was brown. It was an odd feature, and she couldn’t quite figure out whether it made him slightly more or slightly less attractive. There wasn’t a great deal of attractiveness there in the first place — a very plain face, clean shaven, nothing at all distinguishing about it except for those eyes. His hair was raven black, and cut neatly; that was advantageous. He was tall, almost as tall as Nikkeus, but slightly overweight which negated that advantage.

And then there was the way he spoke. As she mulled over his words, she could have sworn that he had added a certain emphasis on the word ‘satisfaction’ that made it almost seem suggestive.

“Your hospitality has been exemplary, Castellan,” she said. “Our quarters are excellent, and we have not lacked for anything, save for excitement lately.”

Orlebb’s eyes sparkled at her last comment, and he seemed to almost leer without his mouth ever moving at all. He said, “Excitement, eh? I should have thought you were well stocked for excitement.”

Eldinan was sure he couldn’t have meant that quite like it sounded. She was just about to try to clarify his comment when he continued. “I mean, you and your companions have been very thorough in exploring our little world here at Wudamund. Surely you have found something to amuse yourselves?”

Doubting that that was what he had first meant, she said, “How do you know what we have been doing? Have you been following us?”

“Oh, no, good Captain. I am far too busy to follow you. But it is my business to know what goes on in the keep. So I have heard about your explorations, among other things. Like the whipped cream and fruit …”

She felt the heat rising into her cheeks, and she leapt to her feet. “How dare you!” she demanded, but Orlebb held up his hands to calm her down.

“My dear Captain, what ever are you upset about? I was just referring to your ordering food late at night. I get hungry late as well. What did you think I meant?”

How could he possibly be smirking like that without ever moving his mouth? It was all in his eyes and his tone, or maybe just in her mind.

Eldinan apologized, and sat back down. She reflected that she was getting a little touchy. So not all of her and her lovers’ attempts at staving off impending boredom had involved leaving their rooms. They *had* eaten the whipped cream and fruit, just not from plates. The fun had certainly been worth the resultant mess. What she wasn’t sure of was why she had assumed the worst when Orlebb had mentioned that particular late night feast. There was no reason that he should have known to what use that food had actually been put.

“Now, Captain, I want you to remember,” said Orlebb. “If you require anything, *anything* at all, to help pass your time here, please just ask me. I am sure that all of your needs can be met.

“And now, I must return to my duties. I am glad that you are happy with your accommodations.”

He stood and bowed to her, but Eldinan almost didn’t notice as she was trying to figure out whether ‘accommodations’ had been subtly underscored. He reached the other side of the table, and turned back. Leaning toward her, he almost-whispered, “If you wish, I could have a page bring you more whipped cream and all sorts of fruit every night.” Eyes smirking again, he left in a perfectly composed hurry, while Eldinan blushed and fought with her temper.

A full day later, she was still trying to determine whether Orlebb was spying on her, or whether he was just making deductions. She recalled that they hadn’t done a very good job of cleaning up after that particular feast. It was certainly possible that the cleaning staff had seen the evidence, and the information had eventually reached the castellan’s ears. That was probably it. There was no reason to suspect some kind of malicious intent when simple gossip could explain everything.

She was walking down a corridor as she came to this conclusion, once again alone. She was beginning to feel better about the castellan’s spying that wasn’t spying when she heard a cry of panic from nearby. She looked around for the source, and saw a door just as another cry came. She rushed over to the door, flung it open, and saw Orlebb standing over a young boy, ready to strike him with a lash.

“No!” she shouted and hurried to interpose herself between the castellan and his target while both of them were startled by her presence. When she was safely between the boy and the man, she said, “What do you think you are doing, Castellan?”

“What business is it of yours, Captain Eldinan?” She saw that he was actually frowning, the first expression she had ever seen his mouth make.

“My business as a human being, and a citizen of the empire. There is no excuse for beating a child, Castellan.”

“The child is under my employ, Captain. He is one of my pages, and he is not fulfilling his duties properly. Now stand aside, Captain, and let me discipline my own staff.”

Eldinan looked over her shoulder and said, “Boy, is the castellan right? Have you been shirking your duties?”

“Y … yes, Captain, I … I guess I have.”

“Why, boy?”

“Please, Captain, my sister … she’s sick, and I … I was just worried …”

She turned back to the castellan and said, “Do you not think that this is a good reason for this boy’s lack of attention to his duties? Did you even bother to ask?”

Orlebb’s frown deepened, and he said, “How I handle my staff is none of your business, Captain. I leave no room for excuses — duty is paramount. There are tasks to be done, and I only have so many hands to accomplish them. Derill’s sister is sick, yes, but the healers say she will probably get better. And even if little Preda *is* Derill’s only family, and even if she *is* his twin sister, that’s no reason for the water jugs to remain empty in this quarter of the keep!”

“Find someone else to fill the water jugs, Castellan. Let Derill go be with his sister until she recovers. Find some other way for him to recompense you — go without a meal, or work some grimy task or other. But I will not allow you to whip this boy. We don’t whip children in the empire, Castellan. Grown men, yes, but they are paid for the service they give. Am I understood?”

“This is not your ship, Captain, and you have no authority here. This may be the empire, but it is *my* part of the empire. And here, discipline is enforced with a lashing!”

“My authority rests in my rank, not my ship, Castellan. I hereby take these children under my protection, and if even one lash falls on the back of any one of them, each one of my crew will give you the same number. Am I understood?”

“You can’t …!”

“I can and will. Try it, Castellan. Have you ever been lashed? I guarantee you won’t like what my crew will do to you. And don’t bother going to the Lord Keeper, either. I’m sure she will feel such matters are beneath her notice, don’t you?”

She knew that the current Lord Keeper was something of an officious fool, given to delegating authority for all of the mundane details of running the keep, while she worked out strategies in her map room for defense of the keep against enemies that did not exist.

Obviously, Orlebb knew it too. He grimaced, and said, “It shall be as you say, Captain. Discipline among my staff has become your concern. If my workers fail to complete their duties, I shall send them to you.” He stalked to the door, and then said, “I only ask, Captain, that you fully consider my situation. It is my responsibility to keep this keep running from day to day. I need staff to do that, just as you need a crew to sail your ship. If the keep suffers, I will go to the Lord Keeper with what you have done. I think that she can be convinced to do something in those circumstances.”

He left, and Eldinan turned to little Derill. “You can go visit your sister in the healers’ rooms, Derill. But I also want you to tell all of your fellow pages what went on here today. If anyone is mistreated by the castellan, they need to get word to me. I will look after you and your fellow pages, but you still need to get your work done. Understand?”

Derill nodded and smiled. “Thank you, Captain,” he said, bowing. He then hurried off, and Eldinan stood up. She hoped that this wouldn’t turn into a disaster. She knew how to keep her crew in line, but could she do the same with a collection of children? Only time would tell.

***

Nikkeus got the idea while he and Eldinan and Kendil stood arm in arm in arm in the perimeter, watching the krovelathan ceremony with the other spectators.

The krovelathan ceremony was held on a solstice or equinox, and outdoors if possible. This winter solstice, four couples were to be bonded in the ceremony, and hereafter would be legally and spiritually bonded in the eyes of the empire. It was a beautiful ceremony, though the form differed from province to province. The scene set before them this solstice was one of elegant simplicity, which Nikkeus found very appropriate. But he had heard whispers comparing this ceremony to the much more opulent one last season, on the fall equinox. Rumors said that Orlebb had almost forgotten about the ceremony this season, which accounted for the simplicity.

There were ceremonial purifications by all of the appropriate priests, imperial blessings by bureaucrats, exchanges of promises, and finally the invocation of the krovelathad that bound the couples together. Each krovelathad was handmade by the couple, so that each item was a unique symbol of their union, and formed a physical representation of the bond between them. The invocation was the most important part of the ceremony — the rest was just for show and from tradition. The four couples kissed over their krovelathads, and the circle of friends and onlookers cheered and swooped in on them to get and give congratulatory kisses and slaps on the back.

The party in the great hall after the krovelathan ceremony was not at all simple. Orlebb had been unstinting in the preparations and there was more than enough food and drink to go around. All of the traditional post-krovelathan things were done — most of them even happened before the guests were too drunk to perform or remember them. In short, a great time was had by all.

Nikkeus brought down all of his instruments from their room, and played for most of the party. He was joined at various times by a varied number of people with a varied amount of talent, but no one cared all that much about just how good the music was as long as they could either dance or sing to it. And as the drink flowed, the dancing and singing got worse and worse, so that the music was really irrelevant. But they all still had fun.

Since he was playing, Nikkeus wasn’t drinking. He watched his lovers Eldinan and Kendil dance, drink, eat, drink, sing, drink, and enjoy themselves greatly. And he decided to tell them about the idea he had had earlier that evening, but he would wait ’till morning. Late, once they had recovered from tonight.

He found himself up early the next morning, very excited about his idea. He let the others sleep, knowing that they would appreciate every moment they were allowed to stay in bed. He had already secured two phials of hangover remedy: the keep’s healers had had quite a supply available at the party last night. So it just remained for Nikkeus to wait until they woke up.

By the time Eldinan and Kendil rolled out of bed, still groggy and very hung over, Nikkeus was just about ready to burst with excitement. He gave each their remedy, and waited while each used the bathing room. Finally all three of them were sitting in front of the fire, and Nikkeus said, “Ready?”

Eldinan nodded, and Kendil said, “Sure, what’s your great idea, kid?” Both looked much improved from when they had woken up to Nikkeus’ exuberance.

Nikkeus let Kendil’s ‘kid’ remark pass, even though he was actually a year older than the alkaehra, and started right in. “Well, last night I had a thought. Watching those four couples get bonded was just so moving, and they will be together forever now. I know that, come spring, you two will be sailing back to Duurom. And as dull as these days have been at times, I treasure them. Because we are together, and that will end in just a couple of months, at least for a time. So what I thought was that maybe we should be bonded at the spring equinox.

“Now, I know that imperial law won’t recognize the bonding. But I’m sure that Reesera would bless it, and that’s maybe even more important — the spiritual over the legal, right? We would be bonded in our own eyes anyway, and that way we would be together even when you went back home.

“So, tell me what you think. Do you want to be bonded?”

Kendil and Eldinan just sat and stared at him for a moment. He knew they were just absorbing what he had said. It was a pretty radical concept, after all.

Eldinan smiled first, and reached over to hug him. “You are just a genius! Our own little genius Nikk! I love the idea. It’s perfect!”

“You’re both right,” said Kendil. “We can say the words, we can do the invocation, and with the talents among us we will have no problem creating the krovelathad.”

He stood and knelt in front of Nikkeus. He said, “I accept your proposal, Nikk.” He held his hand out toward Nikkeus as Eldinan copied his position.

She said, “I also accept your proposal, Nikk. And thus yours, Kendil.” She extended a hand to Nikkeus, and a hand toward Kendil.

The alkaehra took Eldinan’s hand while Nikkeus took both the hands offered to him. “Accepted,” said Nikkeus, as Kendil said, “I accept.” They all three laughed and pulled each other into a three-way hug.

“Yes yes yes!” crowed Nikkeus. “I’ve already got ideas. We’ll build a wonderful krovelathad, and then have the best bonding ceremony that anyone has ever had.”

Eldinan said, “It’s the spirit and the symbol, and it’s all we need. Let’s get building right away!”

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