Pirea’s presence loomed over them in silence for just a moment before vanishing back into Feynoree. With the light of their eye gone, the room fell completely dark. Stinging pain bit at Felfet’s scalp where the pine rooks had torn at her, she could feel her heart beating in her ears adding to the disorientation. Mif was still alive under her, she could feel his chest rise and fall with sobbing breath. In a moment she would join him on the floor, but fist she needed to get help. She rolled off Mif toward her hat with a graceless thud. Elbow banged into the wooden floor, she braced herself with her left hand and found slick blood against her palm. Her hat was damaged, but the copper and gold knife was still secure in the band around the base. Felfet’s fingers wrapped around the familiar grip. Even in the dark, with her head spinning, she could make out the leaf shaped blade, and the barest glimmer of the gold vein that run down its spine. When she spoke the invocation, all she could manage was a whisper.
“Be at my side.”
Lisle’s hands shook, adrenaline and fear bled away leaving pain in their wake. She had broken fingers before, a common injury on the docks of the Fountain City, and she was certain that most of them were broken now. The sound of Felfet shuffling about and mumbling something brought Lisle’s attention back around to the room. She cautioned a glance at the body of the Courtier beside her and was thankful for the darkness.
“Fel?’ her voice was low, not by intention but by some invisible pressure of the situation. Felfet did not answer, but there was something in her hand—a soft orange glow like dying embers. Then there was a second one. Something like smoke came into the room, twinning around the light, opaque, but for patchwork lines of orange firelight. Dim as the ember light was, it still illuminated the round room and Lisle saw that it had taken the shape of an old man. The smoke was uniform in texture, but gave the impression of the skirt, padded cloth armor, and saber of the soldiers of the old kingdom of Melyn. Lisle had seen their painted silhouettes on the columns of the old buildings in Melythis where the markets stood every fourth day.
“Twice cursed poison victory is this.” The ghost’s voice crackled like a campfire, “Vassal, there is little time. Cloth strips to bind the bleeding, and then we move on.”
“Right.” Lisle drug herself up from the floor, looking around in the dim ghost-lit room for loose fabric that could be torn into strips. Just like they had done on the mountain. There were flower vases all over the room, sitting on cotton runners to prevent the ceramic from cutting into the wooden stands. She fixed her eyes on one, moved toward it with singular purpose, but when she went to grab it her hand would not open. Pain shot through her wrist and up her arm from her fingers. She tried to flex them slowly, shaking, but the physical pain overwhelmed her mental commands. Her hands were nothing more than shattered clubs. Briefly fear filled her thoughts, a dockworker without functioning hands was no worker at all. The fear abated quickly as it seemed the eyes of the Courtier’s corpse drilled into the back of her head. There would be no future for any of them after this.
“Vassal!” the ghost’s ember-crackle voice hissed like steam.
“I can’t.” Lisle whispered and held up her hands in protest.
The ghost nodded, its eye-lights bobbing behind the smoke of its face. It moved to the stand. With a deft and unconcerned motion pulled the runner out from under the vase, which tumbled off the stand and crashed upon the floor. Lisle winced at the sound.
“Put your foot on the bottom.” The ghost ordered as it let the runner unfurl along its length to the floor. Lisle did as she was bidden and watched as the ghost worked. It held the other end of the banner aloft, and with its free hand drew the sword from its side, plunge the phantom blade through the fabric, and tore it in cleanly in half, “I shall bind the wound on the boy’s thigh, it is deeper than the others. You will help me shoulder them out of here. The strength of your back shall suffice in lieu of your hands.”
Lisle just nodded, there was nothing to say.
Even when the skies were clear the soft sounds of falling water sang against the windows of the grand city of Melythis. Six day’s walk from the mountain town of Trefen, twice as long if the travelers were inclined to dawdle. Safren Convame had never been one to dawdle. The venerable old matriarch of the Convame clan preferred straightforward action and measured words.
She lay awake in her apartments on the third floor of an ancient building on the grounds of the Colloquium in the heart of the city. As age had crept over Safren she had found that sleep came less and less often. The bronze-channeled grooves that ran around the city spilled water gathered from rain and humidity by the bay window. Dull golden light, ever present in the capital, illuminated the masterful floral arrangements that decorated the bedroom. She had been staring at the arrangements, considering how she might change them in the coming day. What should be added or taken away.
So it was that when her patron, the great ephen knight Kayfir, manifest in her bedchamber at a haunting hour of the night she lost no time to pleasantries.
“Five decades I have enjoyed your patronage, my friend. There is bad news on the wind tonight. Glad tidings would have waited for the morning. Never mind that, now, say what you have come to say. I will manage with the rest.”
Kayfir wore the form of a man, broad shouldered with a beard of oak leaves and a crown of branches fashioned like a stag’s antlers. Draped across the crown and hanging from his neck and wrists were threads of gold woven around acorns, pinecones, beetle shells, feathers, all manner of nut and seed and things the animals of his wood took pride in.
“A wish pact has been fulfilled.” Kayfir’s voice creaked with the cadence of boughs in the wind.
“Mine?” Safren tensed, if her body had been younger, she would have needed to fight back the urge to run.
“No, not yours.” The great fey made a beckoning motion with his hand, and a mass of pine needles and crow feathers filled the space beside him at the foot of her bed.
“Pirea.” Safren felt the knots go out of her shoulders. She strained her eyes to take in the wounded fey, she remembered when it had offered its patronage to her youngest grandson, Herren. It had been a surprise to all of them, as Herren scarcely wanted to be a courtier to begin with and had not much talent for any sort of magic. Still, Kayfir had insisted, and the Archrook of Pines obliged. Even in its prime it had been a ragged thing, now loosed from its pact faril beetles were already eating away at it. Safren watched the pinecone vaphen and crows peck at the pests in a vain attempt to keep their master alive, but death would win in the end.
“Cannot last. There is another after coming.” It shook what passed for its shoulders as if casting off a heavy robe, “Maybe.”
“Well, I am certain that Herren is pleased to be done with the responsibility of being a courtier. We will find Pirea a new magician to make a pact with before the faril pests eat away what is left, Kayfir, no need to fret.” She stared out the window at the water in the golden light, thinking of the potential candidates in the Colloquium and who might be a reasonable fit for the damaged Archrook, “What did Herren wish for? I hope that it was something that made him happy.”
“To make you proud.” Pirea’s words took all the air out of the room. Safren balled up the blankets in her fists.
“Tell me what the boy has done to earn my pride.” Dread compelled her to ask the question, though she knew the answer as plainly as the messenger. She mouthed the words of the oath unwilling as Pirea spoke them:
“His life to serve.”
Lisle struggled to control her breathing, Mif’s bloody legs hung over one arm his head lay against her shoulder, with one arm looped around her neck. The ghost was helping Felfet along, who at least seemed awake enough to support herself. The walk back to the inn was far longer than it had seemed earlier. Each step was another one forward, but they didn’t seem to be getting any closer. By the time the group arrived at the bridge Lisle felt like she was going to collapse. She leaned against a brick pillar, letting it take the weight of Mif and her own body off her feet for a moment.
“Don’t talk.” Now that she wasn’t focused on moving her own feet forward, she could tell that Mif was shaking, his breathing was fast and shallow, and his face was covered in sweat.
“We must keep moving.” The ghost passed her with Felfet in tow. Lisle pushed herself off the pillar, took a breath, and put one foot in the front of the other. The inn was just across the bridge.
Safren moved door the corridor in the upper halls of the Colloquium with practiced familiarity. In the dome of the sprawling building the oracles of Melythis gathered each night under the moon to take counsel from the dead. Over the twelve decades of the Golden Summer many among them had been members of her family, a proud heritage of Etherists in a society often suspicious of those that communed with the dead. Currently, among the ten active oracles there was only one Convame, the second son of her eldest daughter who was known to the family as Shy.
The polished red stone of the hall clicked against the metal braces of Safren’s sandals. On a normal night she might have stopped on the breezeway, beneath the ancient arches, and watched the water cascade from the bronze channels and erupt from the innumerable fountains that dotted the city—but not tonight.
The door to the oracles’ gallery opened for her as she approached and greeted her with an unexpected throng of figures. If she were younger, she would have been stricken with embarrassment. Seven of the oracles were in attendance, including Shy, but there also were the High Courtier Constance Riahn and Seneca—the Summer Queen herself, patron of the Bronze King. Safren effected a quick bow, taking off her black courtier’s hat. Before she could stand fully upright Constance had taken her into a deep hug which threatened bruising.
“Oh, Safren, I am so sorry…” the High Courtier was a mountain of a woman, possessed of great compassion and power. She shared a fondness for baked goods with the Queen—but not the great fey’s physiology.
“Our friends in Trefen brought word this afternoon that a magician had recovered a bit of giant’s foul science from somewhere in the peaks of your old haunt, my dear.” The Queen spoke, like all the fey there was something musical to the cantor, Safren had always found Seneca’s voice to be droning, practically to the point of hypnosis, like the vaphen cicadas that served her, “It seems that things have taken a darker turn in Trefen town since then.”
“Kayfir and Pirea have…” Safren began to speak, with her usual confidence, but found that her voice broke, and tears came unbidden to her cheeks. Constance hugged her harder. It did not help. Grim curiosity, and the spark of vengeance had carried her from her bedroom to the gallery with strength she had not felt in years. Now, under the eyes of the gathered nobility, the oracles, their retainers, the high dome and its towering windows in the sight of the sliver of the moon and all the dead of Menoree—she fell to her knees and wept for her grandson.
Lisle lay Mif down on the bed in their room. In the candle light she could see that many of the smaller lacerations were already starting to scab over, but the deep one on his left thigh, and two other—across his collar bone and down his right arm—were still raw and wet with fresh blood. The strips of runner cloth from the house that the ghost had used around the thigh wound had slipped down a bit during the trudge and were soaked through.
The ghost went to work immediately, untying the soaked linen and tearing the inn’s sheets into new strips. Mif shook the entire time.
“Lisle…” Felfet muttered from the chair by the window, not more than two feet away from where Mif had sat earlier that day eating plums.
“Water…Bloodrock powder…Salt…I need…a pot, and something copper…and willow bark.” Felfet gingerly touched a hand to the wound on her head and winced.
“Water, salt, copper, pot…I can get that in the inn…willow bark and what?” Lisle chewed on her lip and looked down at her hands. She would figure out how to carry the ingredients. Somehow.
“Blood…ow…” Felfet squinted, “bloodrock powder. Ground up, it comes from…broken tools. My aunt, in the smithy. I need…” she looked over at Mif and the ghost, “just…a lot of it. Aunt Mureal will know what it is.”
“It was the magician, Felfet Lyns, the dead are certain of this.” Shy spoke with the easy surety of the oracles, of knowing, “One of her retainers did the deed, of course, but a servant cannot be held distinct from their master.”
“Traitor.” Constance seethed, Safren placed a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder and squeezed, “There will be nowhere for them to go. Kayfir will turn all of the Redfens into our eyes and ears. We will find them, and Kumath will scour them from the face of Vanoree—no one can stand against the sun.”
“Rarely have I had the pleasure of seeing you in such a spirit, dear Constance.” Safren was looking at the floor, but she did not need to see the Queen’s too-sharp-smile to know that it had made an appearance. Seneca presented an air of regal standing, but in fifty three of service to the crown Safren had learned that the fairy queen was a vicious creature, “We would do well to learn what we can before you and your patron reduce these heretics to ashes. How my dear Vathaal managed to overlook a piece of the giant’s lost sciences…for one thing.”
Safren thought her heart might stop, and not for the first time she worried that Seneca could see her thoughts.
“I would…” Safren struggled to her feet with help from Constance, “May I request permission to handle this as a family matter?”
“Oh?” Seneca absentmindedly stroked the back of a large golden ring in the shape of her beloved cicadas, “Have the Convame’s birthed a grudge tonight?”
“It would be irresponsible,” Shy spoke up, he was tall and thin—as much unlike his cousin Herren as blood relatives could be—and always immaculately dressed, “to allow the murder of one of our own at the hands of an upstart hedge-witch, and then allow the State to intercede on our behalf. It would show weakness on the part of our family, and undue nepotism on the part of His majesty.”
“Pride is a dangerous tool, young oracle.” Safren recognized the tone of an academic in the High Courtier’s voice but squeezed her shoulder, drawing Constance’s attention back away from Shy.
“Sometimes, pride is all you have.” Safren managed to say, “Is all I have. Please, allow Shy to track down his cousin’s murderers. Who better to hunt fugitives than an oracle? Let the Convame name be the one that brings these traitors to justice—and then the Bronze King may do with them as is his will.”
“A hunt, then!” Seneca beamed, “So be it, we shall allow it. The hounds of the dead on the heels of traitorous little foxes.”
“By your grace, my Queen, thank you.” Safren bowed, resisted the urge to fall again to the floor, her eyes hurt from crying. Shy would find this magician and her retainers and rid the world of them before Bronze King learned that she and Mureal had hidden the damned sword in the mountains all those years ago.
Vengeance for her grandson, and the continued good name of the Convame clan in one stroke.
Next Issue: Confessions & Impasse