It was darker at night in Trefen than in Melythis, or anywhere in the lowlands of Vanoree. Even at night, there was the soft golden glow of the towering clouds that enveloped Vanoree and protected it from the unsaved lands. A constant reminder of the power of the Bronze King and the privileges of the Golden Summer. Here in the Redfens, the mountains blocked the view of the cloud wall, although Felfet was certain that just above the crown of trees there was the faintest purple-orange halo of light from beyond.
The three of them stood at a crossroads on the east bank of the stream. Between a large wooden building that served as the base of operations for the mining and logging efforts that many of the residents of Trefen were tasked with, and a wooden market. The market, as the buildings, on this side of the water was newer but also, somehow, more run down. The road ahead into the night was split, the left side went up a ridge by the waterfall, and the other around the right. At the end of the road there was a grove of ancient oaks, with strange fiery colored leaves, and at the heart of the grove was a round wooden house—older than the other homes in this part of Trefen, and of a more noble bearing. Felfet knew the house, had spent a week there with friends in her fourth year at the Colloquium. She’d made a point not to visit her aunt then, it seemed important at the time that no one knew where she was, but now she couldn’t remember why.
“Y’sure you know what the layout is, greenhat?” Mif whispered, and Felfet nodded in reply.
“Yes. There is a central circular sitting area, and several small rooms around the sides. All with windows. The second floor is where the sword will be.”
“Right.” Mif cast a glance up the dark road, “Quiet then. I’ll come’in from the back, through the trees’n the window. You just keep your boy at the front.”
“Easy enough.” Felfet took a breath, “Lisle, you stand by and listen. If it seems like things are going sideways for some reason, run up and shout for me. Loud enough that Mif will be able to hear.”
“Then we’ll pretend we need you for something and all just walk off.”
“Remember, Mif, you do not need the sword itself, just make an ink rubbing of the runes.”
“Got’it.” he smiled, bobbed his head, and before turning to the road added, “S’a good plan, greenhat.”
Felfet watched him as he made his way down the road, keeping close to the tree line. The pines were glossy black in the dark, their needles still clinging to drops of water from the storm. She saw him cross the road as little more than a moving shape, and then vanish into the grove of oaks.
Even in the low light of night, sheltered by the ruddy orange canopy of the oaks, the ground cover had a glossy sheen from the storm. The smooth bodies of thousands of acorns glistened in the dark, their curves pushing into Mif’s sandals as he made his way toward the ridge. He walked with practiced purpose. Left foot forward, heel down, roll to the ball of the foot—softly—checking for twigs and leaves. Right foot forward, the same, directly in front of the left. Single file footsteps, the ground cover of the grove was an unknown the less of it he encountered the luckier he would be.
The ridge was about half again his height, a tangle of roots holding fast to ancient boulders formed a natural staircase of sorts. Mif put a hand on a root and tested its stability. Solid as the earth if a bit slick from the rain. No more difficult than climbing the brick waterworks in Melythis. A more forgiving approach, in fact, given the darkness—nowhere in the Fountain City was ever totally dark. The thief crept up the ridge, so that nothing more than the top of his head and his eyes broke the plane of the ground. The house sat, maybe seven strides away, illuminated by candles. The greenhat had been right, she was expected. Mif grinned to no one, breathing in the scent of wet soil so close to his nose, the way this property was set up invited burglary.
“Our turn.” Lisle said, and put a hand on Felfet’s shoulder, “Hope this works.”
The road on the ridge was silent, or if there were any sounds they were drowned by the waterfall. Felfet’s thoughts refused to stay pinned down, replaying the story that her aunt had told her, the trials that she and the others had gone through to get the sword, the sticky hot march back down Garrison Mount, how she was thankful to be back in a clean dress, but also how the fabric was coarse and a bit irritating. The barest sliver of a moon was out. Waxing. The dead would be watching tonight, Ethereal Magic—the specialty of Herren’s family—would be a factor. Felfet ran her fingers along the copper and gold binding knife tucked into the brim of her hat and thought about the ghostly soldier at her command.
No, she reassured herself, there will not be a reason for the oracles in Melythis to look at what happens here tonight. The sword will not be missing. Even if we do succeed.
“I’ll wait here.” Lisle whispered as they came to last green tree before the strange orange-red oaks. Felfet nodded to her friend, then straightened herself up and kept on walking toward the door. It was late at this point, probably too late to reasonably be making a house call, but she did know Herren and they had been through something strange earlier in the day. When Pirea had revealed that the sword was contraband, it had been a surprise to both of them, and Herren had been as interested in it as she was. Her visit should not be totally unexpected.
There was a broad porch wrapped around the house, just slightly off the ground so that three steps had to be ascended before one reached the door. There were candles burning in the front window, which hastened Felfet’s pace. She had been right, he was expecting her—or, someone, in any case.
Despite the age of the house the craftsmanship was masterful. Weather smoothed dark wood met her knuckles with the deep sound of bass percussion. The door opened only a few moments later, too quickly for Herren to not have been by the door, and the warm dry air from inside rushed across her face like a breeze. It reminded her of the library in the Colloquium. Vellum. Ink. Leather. Candles that smelled faintly of citrus. The round room was just as she remembered it, the thick yellow-white fur rug in the center—cougar—the chests along the edge topped with white ceramic vases etched in black silver and overflowing with pink and blue hydrangeas.
Herren stood in the door, his outline dancing against the flickering light of the room.
Mif watched the greenhat walk up to the door, and as soon as he saw the figure of the Courtier framed in the light, he scrambled up the lip of the ridge. He started walking before he had stood up completely, moving in a low hunch to the back of the round house, and slipped underneath the wide wrap-around porch. Cool, damp clay pressed against his palms as he sat in the quiet dark. He could almost feel his new cloths staining where they touched the ground at the brick foundations. The less than subtle scent of fertilizer made itself known as he caught his breath, shafts of candlelight falling through the porch boards from the windows above illuminated a pile of canvas sacks, and a wooden crate full of gardener’s tools.
“Good evening, Herren.” he heard, and holding his breath pressed his back into the bricks, “I was hoping that we might discuss our little misadventure from earlier.”
“Sure, come on in.” one. two. three. The door shut with a distinct and singular sound. Hard wood. Heavy, well made—a cheaper door would have clattered against the frame, hit and then bounced and hit again. No squeak, the hinges were well tended to. He slid out from underneath the porch and moved along its edge toward the river. The river side of the property was thick which bushes dotted by huge ball-like flowers. A wooden trellis by the stairs was entirely overcome by honeysuckle vines. Mif tested the first step and found that it did not creak, dropping to his hands he moved up to the level of the porch, staying below the windowsill.
“It is almost exactly the same as I remember it.” he heard through the wall, muffled but not enough for his liking, the brick walls in Melythis were better at keeping sounds in—and out.
“Although, I think the flowers were a different color.”
“That was eight years ago, Fel,” a smile slipped across Herren’s face, “I’m surprised you remember that at all.”
“Fourth year Solutions with Master Alin? We were all completely brain dead, you brought the entire class up here.” She walked past him into the room and looked around, hands folded behind her. The mezzanine of the second floor was lined with shelves artfully packed with all manner of things. Flowers and tomes and decorations, “It was the first time that I had been outside of Melythis.”
“I know.” Herren made his way across the fur rug to a leather-bound chair, a rosy colored cushion stuffed with cotton, or maybe down, caught him as he sat, “You’re right, you know? About the flowers. They were all white before, but I’m not as good as Gran at keeping the soil around the house balanced properly. Kayfir has significantly more control than Pirea over that sort of thing…”
“Fascinating.” Felfet stood by one of the chests, opposite the back windows, and leaned in to stare at one of the hydrangea flowers. It was an enormous ball of pinks and blues, with a sweet smell. “That Ephemeral magic can even change something as delicate and small as the color of the flowers and also move the sun across the sky and grow the forests…”
“You really do deserve to be a Courtier, Fel.” Herren said, she turned and saw that he was leaning forward and resting his arms on his legs talking more into the floor than to her.
“I do.” She confirmed, recalling aunt Mureal’s story, the unrewarded work that the kilnsage had done over the years, the familiar jealous twinge of injustice, “I have earned it, through work and dedicated study. You know, Herren, I do not,” she made a conscious effort to soften her tone, “I don’t blame you for taking the sword.”
“I know.” He sighed and sat upright in the chair, causing its joints to creak, “I’m sorry that I had to do it, though.”
Mif was grateful for the level of craftsmanship that had gone into the construction of the house as he shimmied—splinter free—up one of the posts holding the roof over the porch. He curled his fingers around the lip of the ceramic shingles, felt his first knuckle joints give under the pressure. There was just enough friction, and it would have to be quick. He threw his left leg up onto the roof, temporarily supported in the air by nothing more than his fingertips. The clack of his ankle bone against one of the ridged joints of the ceramic shingles caused him to bite down on his lip to keep from yelling. The maneuver was done, he lay on his back on the slanted roof, pulling every muscle in his face as tightly as he could and gingerly touching the growing bruise on the bone.
He moved to the second-floor window, pain shooting up through his calf from the ankle every time he put pressure on it. Not ideal. Pausing to listen at the glass, he needed to know if anyone had heard the noise.
“You know, you could always just marry into a family that already has a Courtier.” They were still chatting away, “It’s much easier to get the attention of a patron if another Courtier’s patron advocates for you.”
Mif shook his head, he owed Lis a drink. On the way up to the mountain from Melythis, Fel had joked about the number of times she had been propositioned to join one of the courtier clans, he had bet Lis that the greenhat was just pumping up her own ego. Apparently not. Why not take the easy route? He wondered as he fished a dagger out of his muddied vest.
“That is how you came to have Pirea as a patron. Your grandmother is pledged to Kayfir, Prince of Oaks, and First Principal of the entire Redfens forest.” Felfet tried to stifle her irritation at being forced into this conversation again, but they both heard the edge in her words.
“Yeah…” Herren’s eyes darted around the room and she, realized that there was not a single thing in the house that spoke in his voice—only his Gran’s.
“Herren, you know that you are a talented magician in your own right.” Felfet took a few steps toward him from where she had been standing by the chest, the fur of the rug tickling the sides of her feet through the gaps in her sandals.
“I’m not, and you know it. The family barely even acknowledges me when I call on the Ethereal.” There was a snap in his tone that caused her to stop where she stood in the center of the room. Glancing up at the windows to see if Mif was finished with the task at hand.
“You, though,” Herren went from sitting to standing in front of her by the time her eyes found their way back to him, “you’ve always had the kind of talent and skill that the Summer Court really needs. I want to help you.”
“Will you freely have Pirea or Kayfir speak to a patron on my behalf?” she knew the answer before she asked the question, met his gaze, did not move in spite of the discomfort caused by his closeness, and replied before he could embarrass himself further, “I will not accept the role of Courtier as a bribe to swear myself, my skills, and my life to your family or any other family. I will earn it, on my own.”
Mif slipped the blade of the dagger between the glass pane and the board of the sill, angled the handle, and popped it with the heel of his hand. The latch was soft lead, it bent under the pressure, but not enough to break. When Mif removed the dagger and the pane fell back into place the latch slipped off the pin, the weight of the hook pulling it down into the unlocked position. Fel and the Courtier were arguing now, which wasn’t ideal for her—but was perfect for a burglary.
He pushed gently on the glass pane and it opened without a sound. Mif straddled the windowsill, and slipped inside, immediately crouching down below the level of the handrail on the mezzanine. There was only one room on this floor, on the riverside of the house. The door was lined up with the walkway of the mezzanine, framed by two stands with vases full of the big ball flowers.
“Felfet, please, I am trying to help you…” he heard the Courtier say. It was the same tone that the street bosses on the Fountain City docks took when they were ‘giving’ the rats work to do. Mif briefly considered tossing a dagger into the Courtier’s back.
“No, you aren’t!” the greenhat shouted, and Mif took the opportunity to cross the mezzanine to the door. Hobbled only somewhat by the pine shooting up from his ankle. He smirked as he tested the handle—it was unlocked.
“If you, or anyone else, was actually trying to help me you would have your patrons speak for me on my own merits. The ones that you claim to value so highly, not hold the offer over me as a bargaining chip!” Felfet had not meant to turn this charade into a shouting match, but the frustrations of the day had worn her thin.
On some level she wanted to believe that Herren’s self-serving entitlement was well meaning, but she could not settle the injustice of it. Could not resolve the oft repeated truism that hard work and dedication to the craft would yield great rewards, with the reality of politics and deal making that had confronted her at every step on the road. For twelve years of studying at the Colloquium. For thirty years of being the daughter of a baker and a carpenter. For the fifty-two years since her aunt Mureal had hid the sword and languished in ignominy while Herren’s grandmother walked the palace halls of Conaal with the Summer Queen’s own knight as a patron. The why of it all screamed at her and would not be silent.
Herren backed away from her, gripped by some unspoken frustration, and collapsed into his chair. The candle flame on the end table contorted with his movement and was extinguished. Felfet was standing alone in the center of the room now, on the fur rug, still furious but unwilling to continue yelling at the now deflated Herren.
“I’m sorry, Fel.” For a moment, standing in that warm well-furnished house, the clean scent of lemons and flowers in the air, Felfet believed that her angry words had touched her friend, and that everything was going to be okay, “I had really hoped that Pirea was wrong, that you were too smart for this.”
Mif fell over the railing of the mezzanine and hit the wooden floor with the grace of a wet sack of rice. His arms and face were covered in lacerations, and he gripped the rune-steel sword in fetal convulsions. The light of the candles was extinguished by an impossible breeze laden with the scent of pine needles and rot, as the wilting yellow light of Pirea’s glowing eye fell upon the room. The fey towered over them both, talons and beaks, branches and barbs, and the ceaseless carrion wind. Felfet screamed something incomprehensible against the gale. She tried to reach Mif, but Herren moved in front of her, spreading his arms wide.
“The dead are watching, Fel. The oracles will know. My family has influence in both realms, if they say that you were only here by coincidence…” his voice cracked, “We can blame this street rat. No one will question a courtier and a magician over one dead lowlife. Please, Fel.”
“No.” Felfet shoved Herren out of the way, and nearly fell forward toward Mif. Fractured leg. He was bleeding from multiple deep cuts, and she felt her own skin being torn at by the swirling pine needles. She could still fix this. She knew the formulas, “Pirea, please, stop.”
“Crows steal. Maybe. It is not a crow. Steel is…cold. Something.” The yellow eye narrowed, “Something after summer. Maybe. Too many vaphen.”
“The Courtiers are entrusted by the State, through the authority of the Bronze King and the power of the Summer Court, to act as caretakers of the Golden Summer and all the people of Vanoree. To act against our will is to act against the will of the State—this is treason, Felfet.”
“Don’t do this, Herren.”
“This is my duty, the punishment for treason is death. Pirea, do it.”
Lisle heard the scream over the sound of the waterfall and sprinted across the property to the house. She left heavy boot prints in the muddy path and cleared the steps up the porch toward the darkened house with a leap and threw open the door. Blood and rot greeted her, the looming monstrous fey poised over her friends, and the Courtier ordering death.
“Call it off!” Lisle yelled and threw herself at the man, he was smaller than her by a fair margin and the two of them went down against the wooden floor, the crash muffled by the rug. Pirea hesitated, contemplating the development.
“I took an oath!” Herren shouted, struggling to get back to his feet. Lisle dragged him down, she was too bulky for him to shift.
“Call it off!” she yelled again, the reeking wind like the noontime docks with a fish haul filling her mouth and threatening acute nausea. Herren flailed his arms inelegantly looking for something to grasp onto for leverage to aid his escape from Lisle’s pin. She broke his nose with a heavy fist, and he spat blood in her face.
“My life to serve! Pirea!”
Lisle watched Fel hunker down over Mif as a storm of wooden birds with pine needle feathers descended on them from the oil black body of the fey. They tore into them, ripping off Fel’s hat, talons cutting flesh, beaks pulling at hair matted slick with blood.
“Stop!” Lisle screamed in panic and slammed her fist into Herren’s face again. Felt her knuckles bruise against the curve of his skull. Once. Twice. A third time.
A fourth and a fifth.
And then, Pirea stopped, and cocked their bird-skull face to the side, one yellow eye focused on Herren. The room now silent except for the low uncertain sobs of pain, exhaustion, and three heart beats.