Orlebb had hoped that the extra tenants at Wudamund this winter would offer him some opportunities for interesting diversions, but he had been wrong. Perhaps he shouldn’t have set his sights on that interesting trio of Captain Eldinan, Alkant Kendil and Terant Nikkeus.
As soon as they had taken up residence together in the master suite of the Green Tower, Orlebb had set his network of spies to gathering information for him. Of course, his network of spies was only his staff of pages and aides, cleaners and cooks, and the few artisans and crafters who worked for the Lord Keeper and thus for him, but they were still effective. Spread throughout the keep doing menial tasks, they were most often treated as though they weren’t there, and therefore they overheard all kinds of things.
This overheard information was one of the things that made Orlebb such a superb castellan. Sometimes his spies heard plans being made and so was able to ensure that provisions and supplies were ready and available when requisitioned. He learned everything there was to learn in the keep and the village beyond it, and he used that information to make himself indispensable to everyone. Unfortunately, indispensable didn’t mean well liked. He might have been the most well informed person in the keep, but sometimes he was sure he was the loneliest as well.
As if the request for the bed that Captain Eldinan had made wasn’t enough confirmation, his spies made it clear that the three people in that master suite were sleeping together. When he’d heard about them using food in their sex play, he’d been sure that with the right moves he could get himself invited into their group. They seemed more than open-minded and experimental enough to extend their companionship to a worthy fourth, right?
And so he had attempted to make some overtures to the captain when he had found her alone in the great hall. He’d gotten her to blush a few times, but he had done his best to reassure her that he hadn’t been trying to embarrass her, just point out his interest in her and her lovers. He had walked away absolutely sure that it was but a matter of time before he’d be spending his evenings on the sixth floor of the Green Tower.
And then the next day while he had been disciplining one of his pages, Eldinan had intervened and defied his authority over the children in his employ. While he knew that she was technically overstepping her bounds, she had enough rank and enough support, if only from her own crew, to make her threats real. It didn’t help that the Lord Keeper was more interested in fantasies of fighting off invasions with her toy armies than in running the keep, because that left him with no higher power to appeal to.
Angry and frustrated, he had let her win the confrontation. But he knew that she wouldn’t hold his professional manner against him personally. So he was fond of the lash, that was only part of his job. He continued to expect an invitation into their room, or at least some exploration of his interests.
But the days passed, and nothing happened. He kept his informants on the job, gathering every tidbit of knowledge about the trio that could be wrangled from anyone. He learned about how the three of them had met aboard Captain Eldinan’s ship, _Typhoon Dancer_, first Nikkeus and Kendil, then Kendil and Eldinan, and then, to the amazement of everyone on board, all three of them together. He learned of the multiple times Kendil had been intruded upon in the ship’s shower by people attempting to ensure that elements of the trio weren’t being coerced into their relationship by magic. He also learned about the assault upon Nikkeus by drug-affected alkaehran, and what had happened to them.
He delved into the pasts of the trio, learning where they had been born, where they had grown up and entered service, who their families and friends back home were.
He spent so much time in his research, devising methods for his servants to extract more information from the various people in the keep, that he forgot all about the solstice krovelathan ceremony until the morning before it was supposed to happen. It was a tribute to his organizational skills that the ceremony came off without a hitch, even if it was somewhat simplistic. As a compensation, he made sure that the post-ceremony party was well supplied with food and especially drink, using up all of the supplies that wouldn’t keep over the winter and even dipping into the winter surplus stocks.
But even that potential disaster couldn’t shake him out of his growing obsession. He’d had six of his people assigned to do nothing else at the party but watch the trio, two to a person. He had a list of everything each of them had eaten and drunk, and another list of everyone each had talked to. He circled the names on the second list of people whom he thought to be attractive, and did his best to make sure that none of those people were in a position for continued contact with his trio. If a fourth was going to be added to the set, that fourth was going to be him!
As obsessed and single-minded as he was about his trio, he was almost knocked back to reality by the news that began to filter back to him a couple of days after the solstice ceremony. Against all accepted tradition, and against explicit imperial law, his trio had gone and gotten bond-promised. He had been brought some discarded sketches by the cleaning staff. Scribblings on the sketches revealed that they were designing a krovelathad of impressive dimensions. The drawings showed a large, tripartite disk that looked more like a talisman of nature fit for a temple wall. It didn’t have much in common with the simple, small krovelathads that were usually exchanged at a krovelathan ceremony.
Bonded! His trio, securing their relationship together! He could hardly imagine it, especially as it didn’t include him. He didn’t have much time to work his way into that group. The spring equinox was three months away, but his deadline was the completion of the talisman. If they finished it without him, he was out of luck. He had plans to put into motion, starting now!
Kendil closed the door to the quarters of Zawk behind him as he left and slumped against it in relief. Zawk was the local erlantrielk; the Clear Fire Weaver for Wudamund Keep. The erlantrielk were some of the most feared people in the empire due to their mastery of the most powerful magics known. That Wudamund had one was somewhat unusual, but fortunate. Without the services of Zawk, which Kendil had just secured, the creation of the talismanic krovelathad that they were designing would have been much, much more difficult.
And that design was surely grand, Kendil thought as he began to walk back toward the Green Tower to let Elin and Nikk know that Zawk had agreed to the challenge. It was to be patterned after the nature talismans of Nikkeus’ own people, though somewhat smaller. Instead of being painted onto the side of a building to bring fortune to those inside of it, this would be something to be held in the arms, a talisman of depth and weight, made of stone and metal and glass. A work of art as well as a work of love.
Zawk’s part in its creation was twofold. The most basic part of the talisman would be a disk three feet in diameter and nine or so inches thick at the center, somewhat thinner at the edges. The material it would be made out of would be mostly stone, but their intention was to add various other elements to the stone to make it unique. Zawk had to make a magic crucible that would melt stone as well as any other material they intended to add to the mix, and then make a mold out of magic or reinforced by magic that would receive the melted mix from the crucible and form it into its disk-lozenge shape, where it would cool and harden.
Zawk had taken some convincing, but Kendil got the impression that the white haired man was just playing with him. Kendil had been rather bored before this krovelathad project had come up, and he imagined that Zawk was as well. Zawk had at first refused such a paltry challenge as beneath his talents, but even then there had been a glimmer of interest in his face. A little bit of haggling over an exchange of gold, then some more haggling about the specifics of the mold, and the deal had been made. In about a week, everything would be ready.
Kendil was thinking about some of the talisman’s design elements, when he heard a voice say, “Pardon me, Alkant Kendil?”
He stopped and turned, to find Orlebb walking toward him from a connecting corridor. He frowned for a moment. Elin had told him about her two encounters with the man, and he had formed an unfavorable impression of the castellan. Then he figured that he had no actual reason to be rude to the man who ran the keep, so he smiled a bit and said, “Yes, Castellan?”
The tall man appeared to be a bit overdressed for the middle of an average winter day. His tunic was of a rich fabric, and he wore a heavily embroidered undershift beneath it. His belt buckle shone like a mirror, even though the belt it fastened squeezed the slightly plump middle of the man somewhat unflatteringly. He wore fine hose that were tight about well-turned legs, and his boots were well polished and fashionably ankle-high. A chain bearing the key of his office hung about his neck, and the only other jewelry he wore was an ornate ear-cuff on his right ear that extended some kind of figure along his temple almost to his eye, and another figure — or part of the same figure? — below the ear along his jawbone. His raven black hair was swept back tightly, showing the squareness of his face, again somewhat unflatteringly, and there was the beginnings of a moustache and beard, almost more grey than black just yet, around his mouth and chin. A somewhat hooked nose separated those mismatched eyes, blue an d brown, that had disconcerted Elin. And that thin-lipped mouth that didn’t smile, even though every other feature of his face seemed to be doing so.
All taken together, the man didn’t look all that bad. His fashion sense might need some work, but overall, he presented an interesting image. Someone that Kendil might have taken the time to get to know if not for Elin’s assessment of his character.
“Ah,” began Orlebb, “I found something that I thought you might find of use. It is a set of carving chisels.” He slipped a small, flat leather bundle from the back of his belt and handed it to Kendil. “It turned up when we were inventorying a storeroom. It must have been left by a former resident. It doesn’t belong to the keep, at least.”
Kendil opened the bundle to reveal a set of woodworking knives and chisels of all different shapes and sizes. This was a master crafter’s toolkit, like the one that his father used. He had always wanted one, and knew that someday his father’s would be his, but now he had one in his hands and he just wanted to go carve something with it.
“Thank you, Castellan. You don’t know how much this means to me! These tools are works of art in themselves. I can only hope that my skill can live up to their potential. You are sure that they belong to no one? It would be a tragedy to lose tools of this quality.”
“No, no, I assure you that they belong to no one now resident here. Except you, if you accept them.”
Kendil looked at the castellan, who was still not smiling with his mouth, but was in all other ways looking happy and eager to please. There was something about that voice, though. Well, no matter. “I thank you for this gift, Castellan. Perhaps I could find the time to carve you something in return.”
“Oh, only if you wish to, Alkant Kendil. I’m glad you find pleasure in my gift.
“And now, I must return to my normal duties. Farewell.”
That voice again! Was he really hearing that emphasis on ‘pleasure’ or was it just the castellan’s accent?
In any case, Kendil knew he needed to get the feel of these tools, and that they might be of use in constructing the talisman. So, a practice figure or two was in order, after he gave Elin and Nikk the news about Zawk. As he continued his journey toward his quarters, he chuckled at an odd coincidence; he had just been talking about his father’s crafting tools the other day with one of the keep’s carpenters.
The next day, Kendil found himself with some free time, so he took his new tools down to the woodworking room. He was surprised to find it empty — usually at least one of the staff carpenters was at work in the large room. He had just selected a block of wood that felt right for carving when Orlebb walked into the room.
“Ah, you have found that time to practice with your new tools I see,” the castellan said. Kendil noted that he was wearing almost exactly the same thing as yesterday, save that each article of clothing was a different color. Except the undershift, which was still white, but which had a different pattern and color of embroidery on it.
“Well, yes. They were calling to me, in a way. So, where are the carpenters today?”
“Oh, called away. Some repair or other in the village I believe. Did you have anything in mind to carve first?”
“No, actually. This block wants to be something else, but I don’t yet know what.”
Orlebb had come up to stand right next to him, and Kendil caught the hint of some kind of perfume from the man: faint, musky, masculine, but still a little odd. He had never taken to the Child of Aelther custom of wearing scent, and he was surprised that Orlebb, conquered native of Cherisk that he was, had done so. Still, it was a nice enough scent, all in all.
The castellan reached out and touched the block of wood without quite touching Kendil’s fingers. He said, “Do you do figures? Statuettes?”
Kendil nodded, and Orlebb continued, “From life?” Kendil nodded again. “Do you think you could carve me?”
Kendil looked thoughtfully at the block, and then at the castellan. A glance at those tools decided him. “I think so, but those clothes would be a little complicated to put into a practice piece like this.”
Before Kendil could continue, Orlebb spoke up. “You mean, you would prefer to do a nude statuette of me?” There was an odd eagerness in his voice, and his mismatched eyes gleamed, but his mouth never moved upward from its straight across line.
Kendil took a step back from the man standing right next to him, startled by that eagerness. “Uh, ah, n … that is … if … no. No, I don’t think I’m up to that. How about a bust instead?”
Kendil didn’t wait for an answer, but went back to the bin to search for a larger piece of wood. He found it, a nice blond type of wood that would match Orlebb’s pale skin nicely. He returned with it to the work bench and said, “If you could just stand there, I’ll rough this in quickly. Then you can get back to your duties while I put the finishing touches on it. Good?”
“You could carve the details of my face from memory? How flattering,” said Orlebb as he struck a pose.
Kendil was about to say something about the pose, since the bust would only be of the head and shoulders, but that remark struck an odd note with him, and so he let the castellan posture and started to carve away with his largest chisel.
He chipped away at the block of wood. It was somewhat soft, so he made rapid progress, working down through two smaller chisels before he turned to the still posing castellan, and said, “There. I think that’s enough detail to let you get back to your duties.”
Orlebb relaxed, and looked over at the carving. Kendil’s gaze turned to it as well. The block of wood had been turned into a reasonable, if rough, facsimile of the castellan’s face and shoulders, minus the ornamentation of the tunic and undershift, and that ornate winged lizard he wore as ear jewelry. “My health, that is an amazing likeness, Kendil, and in such a short time! Those tools belong in your capable hands if that is the kind of work you can do.”
Kendil almost blushed at the praise. He thought he had done a pretty passable job of capturing the man in wood, but it wasn’t a piece to sit in a palace entrance hall even with the finishing touches he knew it needed. Still, it was good to hear praise like this, and it had a different quality coming from a relative stranger rather than his lovers.
That musky perfume came to his nose again, and the castellan was suddenly next to him and clapped an arm around his shoulders. “Keep up the good work, Kendil. Maybe when you lay down your sword when your service is over, you can become some princeling’s master woodworker. Maybe even the Lord Keeper’s.”
Orlebb slapped him on the back as he drew away from the somewhat astonished carver. As he walked to the door, he continued, “And if you are ever *up* to carving that nude statue we spoke of, just let me know.”
Kendil stared after the retreating castellan and wondered if that was what Elin had meant by ‘smirking voice’. That last comment had certainly sounded sexually suggestive to him.
He turned back to the bust and wondered if he should finish it. He was worried about what the castellan might be thinking. Still, he hadn’t actually given the man any encouragement, and if Orlebb had fantasies about him, that wouldn’t do him any harm, would it?
Taking out one of the finer chisels, he started working on refining the features of the bust. No, the castellan’s fantasies were none of Kendil’s business. Idle thoughts and innuendo couldn’t hurt him, or Elin or Nikk either. Could they?
Eldinan looked at the drawing laid out in front of the fireplace and sighed. Part of the sigh was at the beautiful elegance that Nikkeus had sketched out, with help from her, and, to a lesser extent, Kendil. But more was a sign of the misgivings she was beginning to have about this.
The talisman, as Kendil had started calling the krovelathad, was going to be beautiful, one of the most beautiful krovelathads ever created — and she had seen the krovelathad display in the Royal Museum in Frethemak. Krovelathad were usually hand-crafted by the couple forging the bond, but often when royalty was involved, some help was permitted. Thus, the krovelathad in the museum were more often the work of Master Crafters and Artisans. But those works of art were going to pale next to this talisman. In her estimation, anyway.
But this talisman was more than a thing of beauty. If it was a symbol of the love between Kendil, Nikkeus, and her, it was also a symbol of the way their love defied tradition, convention, and law. Its size, for instance, was larger than normal. And the design to be etched into its upper surface was all in threes. Two sets each of three different stylized animals in three different pairs, worked into a three-strand design of Geronlel knot-work. Three, three, three. Everything said there should only be two: two bonded by a traditional krovelathan ceremony; two totem items customarily represented in some fashion on the krovelathad. Two, two, two. It was the law …
Eldinan was pure blooded Fretheod, and as much as she tried to separate herself from that heritage, at times it wrapped itself around her like a smothering blanket. This was one of those times. She loved Nikkeus. She loved Kendil. She loved them both, but her upbringing told her that she could only have one, that she had to choose between them. And she really, truly, could not.
Suddenly restless, Eldinan stood up, looked down at the design again, and then turned away. A need to move, to be away from here, filled her, and she dashed out of the room, down the staircase, and out of the tower. She needed someplace neutral to think; someplace within the keep since she hadn’t brought her cloak and it was snowing outside, as well as bitterly cold. She was standing in the antechamber to the tower, in front of the green door that gave the tower its name, when she saw Castellan Orlebb walk through the archway into the room. He was carrying a small covered box in front of him, and his face brightened when he saw her standing there. Of course, his mouth didn’t participate in the smile.
“What good fortune, Captain Eldinan. I was just coming to find you.” He paused for a moment, but she didn’t say anything in return. He continued, “Ah, I discovered this while clearing out the house of one of the casualties of the season down in the village, and I thought you might have some use for it.”
He had continued to approach her, and she stared at him almost blankly as he approached. He was dressed very well, better than he normally did except for ceremonial occasions. His tunic was no more than waist length and made of stripes of different material. The long-sleeved undertunic he wore was made of softer hued, complementary colored stripes. He wore particolored tights in the two main colors of his tunic, and it was short enough that his codpiece, a triangular flap of cloth, was revealed to be particolored in the opposite pattern. The combination wasn’t as unattractive as it might have been on him — perhaps it had been fitted by a very talented tailor. He wore slippers covered with cloth that was also counter-particolored to his hose.
His hair was down and was longer than she remembered it from their previous confrontation, still well styled and suiting his face better. He had grown a trim moustache and beard — just around his mouth, down to the point of his chin — but it had the effect of making his face just slightly more sinister than if it had been clean shaven. Still, it added some character.
She continued to stare, somewhat befuddled by the situation. Orlebb seemed to think her silence was a result of their earlier confrontation, and he said, “Please, Captain, I regret our previous encounter. I admit that your disciplinary practices have kept things running adequately. I will not return to the lash when your protection is withdrawn upon your leaving in the spring. However, this is more than just a conciliatory gesture. I would have given this to you were we still enemies. I think it belongs in your hands.”
He was standing right in front of her now, and she noticed that he was wearing perfume, some kind of spicy scent, somewhat rugged, but rather nice. She looked into his eyes, wondering if she had been wrong about him, and those mismatched eyes jarred her. A bit of traditional Fretheod superstition surfaced in her mind: it dealt with odd-eyed individuals, who were supposed to be able to cast curses. It was a stupid superstition though, and she knew it. And she didn’t want to be ruled by stupid superstitions, or any traditions for that matter!
She took the box from Orlebb with a subdued, “Thank you.” She cleared her throat, and continued with a stronger tone, “And what is it, Castellan?”
“Oh, open it, Captain. Open it yourself.”
She balanced the small box on one hand, and lifted the cloth cover over the top of it with the other. She gasped when the small ship was revealed. She lifted the box, just a frame of wire over a wooden base, closer to her face and looked at the exquisite detail on the small model. Everything was there — all the rigging, all the hardware. She looked into the pilot house and saw a small wheel in there. Small belaying pins ringed the main mast. This was fantastic!
She lifted the box further and looked at the bow. Sure enough, there was the name, picked out in miniature. She gasped again. It read, _Celene’s Fire_. This was her grandfather’s ship!
She looked again, and noticed details that confirmed it. The shape of the poop deck, and the design painted on its deck. The lack of a top-mast perch. The extra rigging between the bow and the foremast her grandfather insisted on adding to every ship he sailed. This *was* _Celene’s Fire_ in miniature!
“You … how … This is a model of my grandfather’s ship, Castellan!” Eldinan’s voice contained her astonishment at her discovery. “How could you possibly know how much this means to me? Thank you, Orlebb, thank you for delivering this to me. Where was it?”
The castellan’s face was practically glowing, though, as usual, he was not smiling. “As I said, Captain, it was part of the effects that I was sorting through from the house of one of the poor unfortunates who died recently from the weather. Some people refuse to ask for help in bad weather, and some end up dying. I understand that he was the son of one of the crew of _Celene’s Fire_ who settled here upon their retirement. When I saw the model I … ah … remembered the connection between its captain and you, and so of course it had to come to you.”
“Yes, thank you, Castellan. Thank you again.” Eldinan was barely thinking about anything but the model and her grandfather as she leaned forward and gave Orlebb a kiss on the cheek. She turned around and dashed back into the Green Tower, leaving the castellan standing wide eyed and stretching his attire slightly out of shape.
Eldinan returned to her quarters and set the model on the mantel over the fireplace. Her grandfather, owner and captain of _Celene’s Fire_, had been a risk taker all of his life. He had sailed all over Makdiar, and had remained at his ship’s helm for years after retirement age. Because he actually owned the ship, he was able to do that, though the empire made him relinquish his anhekova eventually. Her grandfather had just sailed away one day when he was in his eighties, and was never heard from again, nor was _Celene’s Fire_ ever seen again either.
Thoughts of her grandfather bolstered Eldinan’s confidence. She was in love with two people, and she was going to do something about it. Fretheod custom, tradition, and law could go hang. The talisman would bind her and her lovers together, and that was all that counted. Three was a perfect number, perfect for her and Kendil and Nikk, and for the talisman that would symbolize their union come the equinox.
“Thanks, grandfather,” she whispered. “Thanks, Orlebb.” She smiled, looked at the sketch of the talisman’s design, and sighed again, but this time there was no fear, no regret in that sigh. Just an appreciation of the beauty before her on the floor, and the love it symbolized.
Nikkeus was methodically rummaging through the waste bins of all of the craft rooms, searching for suitable materials for the talisman. Their plans might have been grandiose, but he was sure that Kendil, Elin, and he wouldn’t have any problems completing it. These waste bins were providing all sorts of useful odds and ends. He had already collected plenty of chips of stone — marble, granite, even the kind of gravel that paved paths in the village. More material would be needed for the basic disk of the talisman, but he was working on that.
He was working now on metals for the banding of the knot work. The totem beasts would be carved out of the material of the disk, but instead of carving the knot work banding into the stone, he was planning that indentations would be carved where the bands would go, sort of a reverse image of them, and then each of these tracks, or channels, would get filled in with different metals. Common metals for him, precious metals for Kendil, and, if they could manage it, a glass band for Eldinan. Grandiose plans, but the bins were providing all kinds of starting materials.
He levered himself up out of the iron bin and dropped a few scraps of that metal on the sledge he was using to collect his bits and pieces. When he looked up Orlebb was standing in front of him with one hand behind his back.
“Greetings, Nikkeus,” he said. “Hard at work, I see. I hope you have some time for a little diversion I have uncovered.”
Nikkeus had heard the stories both Elin and Kendil had told, but felt he should form his own opinion. He found that the man was dressed well in an over-robe that went from shoulders to the floor, with a large opening in the front that revealed the cushion embroidery on the front of the tunic underneath the robe. He wore a hat that covered most of the sides and back of his head — not even his ears were visible. The dark coloring of the clothes — reds, browns, and blacks — emphasized the pale coloring of his hands and face. Those eyes were intriguing — in Nikkeus’ homeland, odd eyes were a sign of good fortune, though he had never seen a pair that were blue and brown.
Nikkeus said, “Diversion?”
Orlebb nodded, and brought his hand out from behind his back. In it was a lute that was so highly inlaid and carved as to almost be something to hang on a wall, not play music on. But to never play that instrument would be a crime against nature; Nikkeus instantly saw that it had all the hallmarks of an original work of Hrothgrim, one of the greatest skaldrics of the empire.
Nikkeus reached out reverently and took the precious instrument from the castellan. His hands moved into position on the neck and over the bridge, and he gave it a tentative strum. It was perfectly tuned, and the music that came from the sound box was astounding in its clarity.
He didn’t look up, but said a heartfelt, “Thank you, Castellan,” before beginning to move his fingers across the strings in a sprightly ayre. Music filled the room with happiness, every note clearly audible equally across the entire room.
His fingers stopped moving as the song was completed and he looked up. Orlebb was staring at the lute, and the corners of his mouth were turned just slightly upward. The echoes of the music faded slowly, but when they were gone, the castellan blinked and raised his eyes to Nikkeus’ face, his mouth a straight line again. “Masterful, Nikkeus. You play that instrument like a reincarnation of Hrothgrim himself. I was right that it belongs in your hands.”
All Nikkeus could do was say, again, “Thank you.” His hands moved over the instrument, caressing the inlays, the carvings, the strings, but his eyes stayed fixed on Orlebb.
The castellan stared back, and then moved closer. Nikkeus thought he could smell a familiar perfume, a special scent of certain Nirmalel flowers that he remembered Lessik wearing. Nikkeus just stood there as Orlebb got closer and closer, and then he felt the robe pressing against his hands on the lute, and the perfume was strong in his nose, and there were lips on his, pressing …
A moment of confusion and indecision passed, and Nikkeus stepped back and said, “No.”
Orlebb looked confused. He said, “No? But …”
Nikkeus said, “No. Ah … thank you for the lute. It is a wonderful gift, I’m barely worthy of it. But now I have to get back. Elin and Kendil will want to see this. Thank you again, I can’t say it enough, and good bye.”
Nikkeus raced out of the room, leaving his sledge of iron scraps behind. As he traced his way back to his quarters, he reviewed the incident in his mind. Orlebb kissing him, how strange. But it was probably just the music. The lute had sounded so good, so happy to be played again, that the music had just affected Orlebb strangely. The man couldn’t possibly think that he would want anyone else when he already had Elin *and* Kendil! No, it was just the music, just a one-time thing. Nothing to worry about, nothing that the others need know.
Nothing they need know at all.