By Aaron Bradford Starr
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Aaron Bradford Starr and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012 by New Epoch Press.
Art by Aaron Bradford Starr
In the days before my increasing fame made travel abroad difficult, I was seldom seen in one locale for more than a handful of days at a stretch. Such movement was due on one hand to natural inclination, and on the other to my profession. Supporting myself, as you no doubt know, as a freelance Gallery Hunter for the Gallery of Days, I visited many a remote place. Such was the lot of the Gallery Hunter, and the life I lived. After all, one does not find the Tiara of the Fallen Princess beneath the Floating Palace, now does one? Well, until I actually did find the Tiara of the Fallen Princess beneath the Floating Palace, but that is another story altogether.
In general, success in Gallery Hunting requires a willingness to travel from the southern-most isle of the Shards to the northern coast of Tyndel, and to every cove and corner in-between. While the pirates of the Circlet Sea had been put down two full Turnings before, beyond the reach of most living memory, there were still dangers to be found, and I always traveled armed, as you may remember, with my dueling sabre. In the days during which this tale took place the weapon was a plain example of the type, made of fine but not exceptional steel. This was before I gained my current weapon, which is a tale I need not recount here.
Discussion of my original sword was the catalyst of the affair whose particulars I shall presently relate. On that sunny summer afternoon, I was walking from my rooms over the Penekal courts of the Scribes Guild (an odd Vironese affectation for such a studious group) and discussing with Yr Neh the merits of armed versus unarmed combat.
The cat was partial to unarmed combat, lacking, as he was, the hands necessary for the wielding of crafted weapons. He hunkered on my shoulder as I strode through the streets, and lifted a single paw before my face with all four claws fully extended, his point being that four cutting surfaces were superior to one.
“That may be true,” I told him, “but my single surface is many times over as long as all four of yours combined. How then are you to use your claws when faced with my sword?”
He bobbed his head in the way cats will when they wish to convey a shrug. Looking away, he kept a single ear trained to me, as a sign he was thinking and would presently have more to say on the subject. I waited, as any companion to a cat must often do. There was much to occupy my mind while walking the streets of Ravanon.
The Anth stretched out over the water, both visible through the gaps in the buildings. These tremendous supports may be familiar to you from the paintings of the Countess Estova, but to the people of the Shards, the Anths are more than just bridges to the Floating Palace. The cities that huddle around each of them radiate outward from their bases, and every street and road will converge eventually on those mighty arches, whose length stretches away into the distant glimmer of the Floating Palace itself, visible from Ravanon as a collection of glints and shimmers. The bridge, unsupported by pillar or post, was often said to sway slightly in the winds off the sea, but to my eye the unmortared stone of their construction stood with a stillness that was otherworldly.
Besides the mighty rise of the support itself, as it crested into the distance on its way to the Palace, there were all manner of people milling about, human and feline both, in the streets and along the walkways reserved for the cats. At one point I stopped and bowed along with the other commoners as an entourage of the Senate crossed my path. The Senator herself was resting idly on a palanquin, her fur and whiskers ruffling in the cool wind off the sea, borne aloft by eight hulking humans dressed in the livery of the Palace. Following her was a train of lesser nobles, walking in stately single file, tails in the air. As they passed, they were trailed by a Proclaimer who pronounced all of the interests and affairs to which this particular Senator paid attention. The commoners who felt she represented their interests tossed coins into the street before this man, the amount depending on the degree of representation. On hearing her support of the Gallery of Days within the Senate, I tossed three bronzes into the street, the tiny coins pathetic next to the silver that was so common. Yr Neh cocked his whiskers forward reproachfully.
“Oh, all right,” I said. My last two silvers landed on the bricks with the other coins, the Proclaimer’s cloak gliding over them as he passed. When the cloth had gone, no coins remained. A majestic and elegant way for the Senator to collect funding, I thought. But it still represented a large portion of my remaining income, as I only had six double-silvers and a single gold remaining to me, and my mood took a turn for the worse.
“Now then,” I addressed Yr Neh. “You’ve had more than sufficient time to formulate a response to my claim that a sword is more than a match for any number of tiny claws.” It was because I had turned my head to see the cat perched on my shoulder that I failed to notice the man into whose path I stepped.
I am not as large as some, but an active and strenuous lifestyle had lent my frame a certain solidity, and it was due to this that the other man rebounded from me. Where I took a step back with the impact, he was thrown violently to the ground, and sat there stunned as his books and papers settled to the cobbles around him. Yr Neh, who had been tossed from my shoulder in the collision, stepped up to the man, and inquired as to his health, and whether the fall had injured him. Having just dropped a far greater distance relative to his size, I felt Yr Neh’s inquiry to be somewhat rude, but Yr Neh was a complex cat, given to pettiness at times.
“Why, no, good sir,” replied the man, righting his feathered hat on his head. “I’m quite undamaged, as I will demonstrate.” He then scuttled about on the paving, collecting his belongings. I hurried to assist, while Yr Neh sat to one side, cleaning his orange and white fur with his tongue.
“I apologize,” I told the man. “I was having a debate with my friend, and was not paying the attention I should to my route.”
“Think nothing of it,” said the man. “It was likely as not my own fault, engrossed as I was in reading my latest acquisition.” He held up for my inspection a newly printed volume, by the Chronicler Ruban. I could not keep all of the distaste from my voice.
“I admit, I find Ruban to be something of a bore,” I said, striving for diplomacy. “I don’t believe he has his facts quite straight.” This was somewhat removed from the truth, as I detested the man as an outright liar, and furthermore one who used his powers of voice and pen to praise none other than the scoundrel Bonadas Crewfifth.
“Quite so!” The man agreed. “Ruban is the poorest sort of Chronicler, uncouth in the extreme. Where he arises from the depths of shoddy prose, it is on the wings of plagiarism!”
I looked up at the man at that, and even Yr Neh paused briefly in his grooming to give the man an admiring glance at this clever turn of phrase. Our new acquaintance was, as I mentioned, light of build, though not in the pale, pasty way of the academian. He seemed wiry and fit, if only to run away faster, for he was plainly not a fighting man. His brown beard was trimmed short, and his clothing was gaudy and rich, as one might expect on a courtier. But clearly he was something else.
“You are a Chronicler, then?” I asked.
“Indeed I am. My name is Aven Penworthy.”
You will have recognized my Chronicler from my description, though you may not recognize the nature of our meeting. Let me assure you that this was indeed how it happened, in the streets of Ravanon, not while I was fleeing the savages of the Sionese coast, nor (as was told to the Duchess of Ker Koliona) did we meet while spying on her evil uncle’s dispossessed Fleetmaster. This was long before Aven had actually become my Chronicler, of course, and after that day’s meeting we might never have crossed paths again if it weren’t for the Seekers from Tyndel who engaged my services some time later.
“And my name is Gloren Avericci,” I quite naturally replied. We stood, and he swept off his feathered hat, while I made a slight bow. Yr Neh introduced himself as well and bobbed one ear slightly in greeting, then went about cleaning his fur once more. We continued to gather Aven’s things, and I was arranging an unruly stack of papers when a sketch on one of them caught my eye.
Downplaying the excitement that suddenly seized me, I studied the drawing intently. There could be no doubt of what it was, and the label at the top of the page, evidently part of a treatise on antiquities, confirmed my thought. I addressed Aven as he continued to arrange his belongings.
“Here now,” I began, “let me buy you a drink, if you have time. It will allow us both to settle our wits, and prepare ourselves for polite company once more.” I kept my expression stoic as Yr Neh bit through the soft leather of my low boots and into the tendon at the back of my left foot. This was his subtle way of telling me we hadn’t the funds for entertaining others. I ignored him as best I could. After all, I reasoned, if civilized speech had deserted him, he would remain unheard; I thought the violence to my ankle quite unnecessary. Once the cat understood my plan, I was certain he would agree to its merit.
Aven, meanwhile, thanked me for my offer, and accepted. We went to a small roadside café, where two chairs and a pedestal were brought. Aven and I sat in the chairs, while Yr Neh settled onto the cushioned pedestal. Aven and I each ordered light midday ale, while Yr Neh requested and received a tuna fillet garnished with the eyeballs of sturgeon. I glanced at the cat reproachfully as he ate, knowing this was his way of saying that if we had decided not to be frugal, than he was going to live like the nobility he had once been. I did some calculating in my head and made my play.
“This drawing,” I said after we had relaxed a while, “is it part of some larger work?” I casually indicated the page I had noted before. One edge was slightly ragged, as if it had been bound with others.
“Not that I’m aware of,” he replied. “It was tucked into the inside cover of a volume I purchased from a used book dealer. I wasn’t certain what to make of it.”
“Well,” I said, “I do not know of any monetary value it might have, but a friend of mine is a herald, and would be most interested to see the seal at the top of the page. There are some rather striking blazons within it.”
“Indeed?” He pulled the sheet out and studied it. “Well, I know heraldry, but not as any sort of intense study. Please, give this to your friend with my compliments. Pure academia is, after all, the heartbeat of all intellectual pursuits.” He held the page out to me, and as I accepted it, I realized that, as foppish as this man might appear, he held his class in esteem, and was not selfish about it. I nodded my thanks, which were more genuine than I had expected they would be at this point in our meeting. But without spending even one bronze more of our diminishing funds, the page was mine.
Not five minutes after I parted company with Aven for what I expected to be the last time, I was walking swiftly toward the base of the city’s bridge to the Floating Palace, the cat a solid weight on my shoulder.
“That went rather well, Yr Neh,” I said with satisfaction. He snorted subtly, propelling the odor of tuna from his nostrils directly into my own. He demanded to know what had made the page so valuable to us, and I laughed. “You’ll see!”
The feeling of perceiving what his subtle mind had not was delicious, and I could tell it irked him. He remained silent as we waited to pass through the security gates. Shuffling forward slowly, I looked out over the edge of the cliff face that Ravanon was built into. Like all of the cities that surrounded the supporting legs of the Floating Palace, Ravanon spilled down the cliff walls to the Shatter Seas. The sunlight shone off the water, over two hundred feet below. As we entered the enclosure that protected the gates of the bridgehead, the view was funneled up the sloping curve, forward and away, a road through the air to a palace too distant to see save as sun-glinting towers and minarets. Ravanon was the nearest city to the Floating Palace, making travel there by foot feasible. While the way was steeper, travel from any other city took days.
I draped Yr Neh’s pass around his neck, and then donned my own. The guards let us through, and I replaced the passes into my pouch immediately. The Anth-passes were, at that point, the most valuable things either of us owned. I hesitated at the wheelcart stalls, considering hiring one for the long journey to the Floating Palace, but a hiss from Yr Neh dissuaded me. I turned and started walking, with the cat on my shoulder, the long orange hair of his tail fluttering. I noticed that most of the wheelcarts along the way were filled with riding cats, the humans pulling them at a quick trot. Of course, no cat would lug a human around in that way, even if they could, so for Yr Neh, the journey was the same either way. I hurried along on foot, eager to be at the Gallery of Days.
“See here?” I showed the page to Yr Neh, who studied it intently as he sat upon the glass of the display case. He cocked his head forward, a sure sign of intense concentration. He agreed with me. The drawing was indeed of the key I had sold to the Gallery, the very one which sat in the case before us, on black velvet. Gold, and delicate, it shared the case with other items of the Royal Family of Southern Rotthe. I had long supposed the key was part of this family’s possessions, discovering it as I had in a ruined Rotthean fort off the Coast of West Rotthe. But now, with the page in front of me, it was clear that I had been wrong.
The seal on the top of the paper, so carefully depicted, was of the Duchess of the Circlet Sea. Though the page never said what such a key might be for, I had my suspicions. I had hopes. And Yr Neh and I had information about this key and this seal that no one else possessed. I smiled at the cat, and in the subtle way cats do, he smiled back. We went to find a procurer for the Gallery.
I walked back to Ravanon with a spring in my stride that hid my trepidation. Even had I wished to hire a wheelcart for the return journey, I was destitute. With the key in a pocket and a cat trotting quickly at my side, I made the long journey back down the wide avenue to the city streets. As dusk was falling, there was little traffic, but the bustle of evening brought me back to the present. Yr Neh hopped to my shoulder and I hurried us back to our rooms.
Yr Neh was clearly in high spirits, as he immediate jumped to the window ledge and began yelling out into the darkened streets. I rolled my eyes as I sat on my bed, trying to remove my boots.
“Oh come on, Yr Neh,” I protested. “We have a busy day tomorrow, and I can’t have you sleeping it through.” But the cat persisted, and soon there came an answering yowl from outside our very room, and a soft pawing. Yr Neh rushed to depress the latch, opening the cat door at the bottom. Another cat slinked in, a female, who brushed past on her way beneath my bed. With an arrogant swagger, Yr Neh followed.
“Oh, no!” I said, shaking my head at the retreating cat. “Yr Neh, you get her out of here, we’ve got too much to do. Yr Neh? Hey!” Sighing in frustration, I went out and down to the docks to sleep in the boat. At least it would be quiet there.
The morning sun was bright, throwing off the low clouds of dawn. I adjusted the sails slightly, allowing the wind to carry us swiftly westward. The westernmost of the Shards was a dim gray patch on the eastern horizon, and we were already almost due south of Candalon. We had turned from the open routes long before, and Yr Neh sat high up on a perch atop the mast, acting as navigator, his sharp eyes peering into the shallows before the boat. From where I stood on the small deck, the buildings beneath the waves were dim shapes, obscured until too late. Yr Neh called out course corrections which I made using the rudder. Though submerged, the buildings from before the Rains were still standing, and lethal to craft that ran into them. But there were streets still, under the waves, and we swept along these, careful to avoid plazas, with their fountains and monuments, which might rise near the water’s surface, or even protrude a few inches.
It was said by many that the architecture of the Kingdoms of Malduan had been the finest ever seen. I had to admit, for structures that had been under water for seven hundred years, fully seventeen Turnings, they still looked quite solid. I couldn’t think of why that might be, as the people of Malduan had left not the slightest sign they’d adhered to the Five Principles. Not in architecture, nor in anything else. They had been completely ignorant of the Hundred Visible Mysteries, following instead the will of their strange gods. I smiled at the thought, thinking, as most do, that these were the teachings of the ignorant. This was years before I met any of the Ellehia, of course, and long before I even suspected what the Obelisk of Kinadann might really mean. The things I’ve learned since that time can be better told to you by my Chronicler, though he may err on the side of the dramatic.
Now, I have said that a Gallery Hunter must travel far, and you have no doubt heard the tale of my finding the Pearl of Yonti Barawessi. If you recall the course of Yonti’s flight through these very same waters, you will better understand how I came to be in these courses before, and how I might have seen the key. For it was to the very tower in which I had waited before that I went again, but this time it was not to lurk in darkness for Yonti’s lover to pass by for her secret meeting with the candle boy. This time there would be no frantic escape from a burning ship, and no struggle beneath the waves for possession of a single dagger. No, this day was to be far more sedate and, I hoped, far more lucrative. Such was the trend of my thoughts, anyway.
I leaned forward and lashed the boat to the tower. Though it was fifty feet from the floor of the sea, the tower lifted only seven feet above the water, its shallow dome seven more. Projections such as these were strictly avoided by the merchant traffic of the seas, and the underwater streets of such places were littered with the hulks of wrecks, further hazards to travel. With the slightest of swells on the water, the tower would almost disappear. The sea routes from one island to another were firmly laid out, and woe to those who drifted astray. Attempts at leveling the cities had long since been abandoned. The buildings were simply too tough to be rammed by even a heavily modified ship. I remember speculating with Yr Neh about why some practitioners of the Mysteries didn’t get together to demolish the dangerous structures. He had admitted it was puzzling. Of course, the Mysteries don’t work well around the water, as everyone knows.
I climbed over the low wall and into the expansive open-aired room at the top of the tower. This space was sheltered by a slightly domed peak held up by eighteen stout columns. The floor was of blackened mosaic tiles, discolored through centuries of exposure, yet still intact. I wondered, as I had the last time I had been here, if there was any way to lift the entire floor from this tower and bring it to the Gallery of Days. I haven’t done it yet, however; it’s still there, waiting for more Turnings to pass. Now I recognized it for what it was, the pattern matching exactly the drawing I had of the Seal of the Duchess of the Circlet Sea. That would explain the wide median around this tower: it was part of a palace. But why so far to the east of the Circlet Sea? Of course, the historical Duchess had not really been associated with the Circlet Sea at all, as that tremendous scar on the land of Rotthe had been created long after the Rains had buried most of her lands forever. If this building had been part of her estate, it would have been a summer home, on what had been the coast, away from her highlands palace. I was hoping there was some accuracy to the tales, and that I hadn’t spent the last of my money on a key that was a mere bauble. All morning I had reviewed the facts in my head to bolster my confidence.
You all know the story of the young Duchess, but here are the relevant parts. First, her father was supposed to have a small estate on the southern coast. That could well be this very compound. If so, it was here that she met the Baron of Sionne during his first trade expedition. Now, if the Baron were as hungry for the riches of the south as the story reports, he may have come here to barter his homeland’s fine weapons. And if the Duke of Rotthe sealed the bargain with a marriage against his daughter’s will, as the story says, well then, the logic is obvious. Somewhere there truly was her infamous Dowry Box, with which she plotted to destroy those two schemers forever. And in my hand I held the Dowry Key. Thinking back on it now it seems unreal. I was holding part of a legend in my hands. It had yet to become a familiar feeling, as most of my career was ahead of me.
Yr Neh hopped into the tower room and looked around. It was featureless, and I had no idea of how to find the entrance to the tower itself. The floor was unbroken. But Yr Neh had speculated, in the hours we’d last waited here, that there was definitely some way down, if one were clever enough, and had opportunity of the sort we hadn’t been afforded on that first occasion. I was glad he was with me now, for I had no idea where to begin. He told me to clear off the tiles, and this I hastened to do, ignoring for the moment his superior tone. When Yr Neh gets involved in a tricky mental problem, social niceties fall by the wayside. He studied the revealed patterns for some time without moving. Then, without a further word, he walked around the circumference of the tower, and then navigated to the center of the seal, placing his feet just so with every stride. A large circle of the floor lowered away with a grate of old stone, leaving me to scramble for balance on a thin ledge nearest the wall. The main portion of the floor was untouched and unmoved, but at my feet, spiral stairs descended. I looked down into the darkness. From where he stood in the center of the room, Yr Neh chuckled.
“How did you do that?” I demanded. Yr Neh sat smugly, explaining that it was a simple mathematical function to discover the correct order of depressing the tiles. The route itself had been dictated by the symbology of the seal, or so he said. I waved away further elaboration and swung back into the boat for a lantern. Yr Neh waited where he was, saying something about his own lack of need for light. In due course I followed him down the stairs of the tower, muttering about the arrogance of cats.
The room we entered was mostly dry, though its floor was almost twenty feet beneath the waves. Again, the architecture of the old cities amazed me. Even the glass of the windows was still intact, though fogged with greenish slime. The weight of the water pressing in on the stone must have been massive, and I could not fathom how the glass had survived without so much as a crack. I, like most, had grown up on the coast, and just diving and swimming down ten feet or so one could feel the pressure build. But these walls withstood the sea, though condensation had left the rugs and walls a moldering ruin. Centuries before, to all evidence, this had been a luxurious, opulent bedchamber. Paintings, canvases in tatters, hung limply from the walls, and golden lantern hooks were green with sea-coloring. But the most marvelous thing in that tower’s uppermost room was the Dowry Box.
It was shaped just as the story said, more tall than flat, covered with red lacquered wood. The top bore the Seal of Sionne, symbolic of the Duchess’s coming change of allegiance. Within it, according to legend, was the Star of Sionne. A single diamond the size of a human heart, cut so that it gleamed almost too bright to look at. Her dowry.
Of course, in the stories, the young Duchess has other plans than marriage to a coarse foreign baron. But to affect her escape, she approached her betrothed as an ally. She plotted with the man, promising to return his gold to him by sneaking it away with her Dowry Box. This was the opening gambit in her destruction of the Baron and her father both, two men who dared to barter her like bags of milled grain. Removing the Baron’s gold from her father’s treasury –and I don’t know how she was supposed to have done that – she had a faithful servant craft it into a single heavy spike.
Now, I never really believed this part of the story. No spike of pure gold can pierce the hull of a war galley. In the story the princess brought the Dowry Box on board and put it in her room. When they were out to sea and riding out a storm, she used the spike to punch holes in the hull of her stateroom, below the waterline. The ship went down, and the Duchess drowned or escaped, depending on who tells the tale. The Baron of Sionne drowned, and the neighbors the Duke of Rotthe had hoped to fight with Sionese weapons invaded him instead.
The Dowry Box was lost at sea in all cases.
But remember when I said I never fully believed the legends. They are often exaggerated to make the facts fit. “Beware of the storyteller with an agenda,” as the old saying goes. Here is a case in point: whatever happened to the Baron of Sionne, the Duke of Rotthe, and his daughter, her Dowry Box had evidently been left right here in this tower, and had remained for over seven hundred years. I thought of that for a moment, the trunk sitting silently here while ages passed, and the great Kingdom of Malduan fell, destroyed by the Turning of the Rain. Forty years as the water rose outside, the sea inching higher month after month, creeping up the tower walls and covering the windows, leaving the room in darkness as well as silence. In a single lifetime the old world was destroyed, becoming little except myth.
Oh, that brings me to another important difference between the reality before us and the legend I’d learned as a child. The box was far larger than I’d expected. In the legend, the Duchess carries the chest into her rooms on the galley. How much gold could she have carried? Not much. But this chest in front of me was large, three feet tall and two on each side. I shook my head in wonder. To carry within its hold such a tremendous weight would invite a breach of even a wargalley’s hull. Who would be foolish enough to bring such a block on board a ship, anyway?
Apparently not the Baron of Sionne, for here the load sat. Now, I must make clear that on coming here, I didn’t expect to find the box so soon. I had fully expected to have to search the sea bottom somehow. Yr Neh had some interesting ideas along those lines. As expected, not one of them involved him getting wet.
I approached the box to look more closely, and recoiled as I realized that just on the other side, resting against the lacquer, was a dead body. A skeleton, to be precise. A man, judging by the clothes, his flesh long since disappeared, his bones slowly following. But they had filmed over, preserved somewhat. No gashes in the clothing signified a wound; no weapon that might have protruded from his flesh lay about. I looked to Yr Neh, where he sat on the red lid of the chest.
“Who do you suppose this is?” I asked him.
His answer surprised me. “The builder of the box?” I said. “However did you come to that conclusion?”
Yr Neh’s answer was a shrug, as if the details were not really interesting. But after a full minute, he padded over and nosed the golden buttons that hung from the fetid cloth. I peered at them carefully, aware that here were items of value to the Gallery in their own right. Worked into every one was the crest I’d seen before on pre-Rain artifacts, designating a Fabricator, in this case a household master. In my travels I’d seen many a mechanical miracle that men and women such as these had created, marvels to be pitted against the boldest effect of the hundred visible mysteries. Whatever had been gained during the forty years of rain, there had certainly been something lost in trade. Something besides the ancient Kingdom of Malduan.
I plucked the buttons, self conscious before the unseeing stare of the long-dead Fabricator. I felt like a petty thief, and would have apologized if Yr Neh hadn’t been sitting right beside me. Yr Neh could be terribly sarcastic, and as everyone knows, there is nothing so unbearable as a sarcastic cat. It was as I flipped up a loose fold of the man’s coat that I saw the portfolio it had hidden. Lifting it carefully, I sat fully on my knees so Yr Neh could step forward and view the contents with me. This was turning into quite a treasure trove!
The leather of the cover was puffed and cracked, but still strong enough to serve as a binding. Within the portfolio were a number of technical diagrams for the constructing of the duchess’ device. So complex were they, however, that had there not been a view from the chest’s exterior detailing the carvings, I would never have known what I was looking at. These plans remain the only known example of a Fabricator’s diagrams surviving the Turning of the Rain. These, along with the Dowry Box itself, would make me both rich and famous, and restore Yr Neh to his rightful place among the nobility of the Shards. We exchanged wondrous glances.
I stood and considered the situation. Yr Neh was thinking along much the same lines as I, and preceded me back up the stairs and into the sunlight. I put the portfolio into the waterproof chest in the boat’s stern and lugged the bags of tackle back through the stairway into the tower. Moving such a load from a swaying skiff over even a low wall such as the window ledge was no easy task, and Yr Neh stood well back, allowing me to grunt and strain. If I were to plunge into the water, the cat wanted no part of my flailing about to gain the boat once more. I muttered some long soliloquy to the effect that my life would have been easier if Yr Neh had been a practitioner of a useful mystery, such as levitating heavy loads. Yr Neh chuckled to himself as I sat, exhausted, the tackle blocks all around. The rope was little easier. Yr Neh transferred food, however, so I figured the score was even. I eat a lot, and the cat had a graceless time jumping about with heavy pouches in his mouth. It was my turn to chuckle.
As we ate, we discussed how we would transport this treasure back to the Shards. I was confident that my little boat could do what even a war galley of Malduan might have hesitated to attempt. For while such a ship would undoubtedly have held more weight afloat, my boat, with its triple hulls, could risk such a load in one spot. Also, the wood of my boat was in no place thinner than six inches. The weight would have to press her entirely under for her to capsize.
After eating and resting for a bit, I set about rigging the top of the tower with hauling gear, knowing that there was absolutely no way of moving it up those circular stairs by hand. Had I tried such a thing, Yr Neh would have laughed until I burst one or more of my innards, at which point he would likely have had to admit it wasn’t very funny.
I ran down into the bedchamber, carefully but forcefully driving the mounting bolts of the tackle gear into the floor. Then it was merely a matter of stringing the rope through it all, back and forth, up and down, until at last I had two ends near the box, the ends of a two-hundred foot length of stout rope, one hanging from above, the other strung through tackle on the floor. I wove the Dowry Box all around with the hanging end, and then hauled on the other.
The Box moved not at all. I looked at Yr Neh, and he looked silently back. I continued to haul. As my boots skidded across the floor, the ornate black feet of the box lifted an inch or so. I released the rope and the trunk clumped back down into the outline it had left in the floor’s coating of lichen. Scowling, I wondered if my little boat could really hold such a load afloat. But I was certain it could; water was heavy stuff, and to push it so far aside was more than even this ornate trunk could do. So I told myself.
Clearly I would need more force multiples before the load would rise easily. And the only other source of tackle and rope I had was the rigging of my boat. Now, though I know this was the method I used to retrieve the Head of Sharadon from the Vendurious mines, it was not something I wanted to try here. My rigging was not quite as stout as my tackle rope. It was as I stood there with my hands on my hips that I felt the key in my pocket.
I laughed aloud as I brought it forth. Yr Neh rolled his eyes in exasperation that such an obvious possibility had eluded such a subtle mind as his. I knelt near the box, and made certain the lid could lift somewhat even while bound. It might be too restricted to allow me to withdraw whatever was inside, but I could untie it if I absolutely had to.
My thought was, obviously, that if the legend had erred on so many points thus far, perhaps it was wrong about the contents as well. Perhaps there was no golden spike, or the package had contained gold and some separate mechanism to scuttle a ship from within. This was what proved to be the case, after a fashion, but I get ahead of myself.
I inserted the key into the lock, amazed at how free of corrosion or accumulated grit the inner mechanism was. Yr Neh cocked his ears forward in surprise as well. Our eyes met, and we smiled to each other as I turned the key.
It didn’t open. I felt the tension in the key, then its complete freedom of movement. Yr Neh walked forward, ears perked intently. He asked me what I thought the sound was. Puzzled, I put an ear to the side. It was ticking softly. Yr Neh backed away warily, and I had begun to do the same when the box jumped into the air before me.
The feet kicked off from the ground, sliding on hidden tracks, launching the red lacquer shape powerfully from the floor. I can still see it as I did then, suspended for a moment as its inertia fell away, the light from above glinting and shining on the red lacquer as the sides and bottom unfolded like a flower, revealing the bright gold beneath. Flashing and turning, the Box changed its shape as it fell, landing again on the floor completely transformed. No longer a trunk of any kind, it was now a complex faceted spike of brightest gold. The point pounded into the floor and continued through the stone. Near me, the rope I had used to try to lift the box jerked aside and away, the pulley wheels mounted on the floor squealing. I lunged for the rope, diving through the shallow water on the floor to catch the unbraided end. I succeeded, but only because the Box stopped where it was, pounded straight into the stone of the floor. As we watched, it pulled the glimmering spike clear of the floor and reversed its transformation, folding and interweaving its geometry of gold until its red shell pulled tight, and it was a chest once more, a single loop of rope still strung just below the keyhole. There followed a moment of silence, broken only by the squeak of the rope from which I still clung, soaked to the skin. Yr Neh sighed in relief, and I joined him. Then the shattered floor collapsed.
I was still holding the rope, and as I dropped, it was being pulled up tight to the last of the pulleys, attached to what had been the floor at my feet. Soon I was swinging free as the restraining knot caught on the tackle. I remember my relief that I had not grabbed the rope above the knot, as I would have had I caught hold more quickly. I dangled there for a few moments, somewhat surprised at the development, but thankful that things had not been worse. Then the bolts for the pulley pulled free of the cracked floor, and the box fell further as I was yanked suddenly upward into the pulley system, coming to a halt near the bedchamber’s ceiling. Beneath me, a dark hole yawned leading down into the tower.
This time my hands were in for something of a beating as I clung to the end of the rope. The pulley that had formerly been rooted to the floor locked up in the ropes where the lines came together. I had enough time to wave my legs in the air once or twice, searching for one of the intermediate loops of rope. I knew they had to be close. I was desperate, my hands weak and clearly about to fail me. I considered using the same rope that supported the dangling box, but knew that the pulleys would give way with the additional load. Looking right at them as I currently was, inches from the straining wood, I was certain that no one could contradict me on that point. And, thinking of arguments made me think of Yr Neh, and a concern for his safety consumed me.
“Yr Neh!” I called out weakly. From below I heard his reply, clearly a wet, miserable cat. He was far too eloquent in his complaints to be a miserable, injured cat.
“Yr Neh,” I shouted, “shut up and listen! Tell me where the ropes are! I can’t find them!” As I was struggling, I noticed the pulleys sagging even further, the bolts I’d driven squeaking slowly from their holes. Was this due to my struggles? I hung nearly motionless, feeling my hands weaken moment by moment. But the pulleys continued to shift.
“Hurry!” I yelled, sweeping my legs about frantically. I could hear the cat calling to me from below, but couldn’t hear what he said over my own labored breathing. Finally, my foot hooked a rope, and I pulled myself closer, winding my legs more securely. I hung there panting, listening to the ropes creak, still gripping the end of one with my hands while clinging with my legs to another. I smiled, gratified I’d survived. Yr Neh called out from below, and I peered down into the shadows, faintly seeing his gold eyes glowing up at me. He was in whatever room had been directly beneath the bed chamber. He paced about, shaking water from each foot as he lifted it. Even from where I was, I could see his misery at being not only wet and cold, but dirty as well. I chuckled at the sight of his mincing steps. At least he’s safe, I remember thinking.
As I thought that, the box slid free of the ropes and fell almost ten feet, slamming into the floor less than an arm’s length from Yr Neh’s pacing orange body. The floor buckled immediately. I saw nothing of Yr Neh’s reaction, though, as my hands popped free of their grip and I dropped like a stone, the loop of rope winding along my legs. (I am somewhat ashamed to admit that the fall was a terrifying one, and I let forth a single continuous shriek for its entire length. These are the sorts of details that a Chronicler such as Aven Penworthy will leave out of their accounts, thus preserving for their subjects and their audience a seamless illusion of boundless bravery. This is, I assure you, a purely literary convention.) I vividly recall passing the spiral stairs, dropping into the chamber below, passing through this as well, and coming to an abrupt halt hanging within a dark and ruinous hall still lower yet. Accompanying my jarring stop was a painful sensation from my ankle and knee, for I was pulled up short of the floor by my right leg, which had been wound about the rope during my descent. I swung there face down for some small time, recovering my wits.
Yr Neh brought me back to myself, calling for help in a small voice from above. I glanced up (by tilting my head down, curiously) and saw the bony, skinny thing that had once been the proud (and dry, and clean) Yr Neh struggling to reach secure footing as he slowly lost ground and slid further down a sloped piece of floor, water and mud running in rivulets around him. The fall to the floor of this lowest chamber could not physically hurt him, of course, but I think the humiliation would have been more than the beleaguered cat could have tolerated. So he struggled and slid, and at the last moment, with his back legs hanging free and kicking wildly, he shoved off and twisted in the air as cats will, aiming his feet to the floor and endeavoring to relax. He did not fall as far as the floor, however, but managed to intercept me first. His claws sank into my calf and the back of my knee as he clung.
But he didn’t cling very well, and continued to slide downward, digging longer and deeper furrows with his clawed feet. I writhed and swore at him to just jump down onto the floor, but he would not listen. Whenever he would dig sufficiently deeply to root himself, the pain would send such a spasm through me that I would dislodge him once more. This continued, with the cat working his way entirely down my leg and torso, while both of us yelled to the other to be quiet and hold still! He wound up in the shallow water anyway, and I felt I had received nothing but the dregs of that bargain.
Well, with newfound rage to fuel me, I virtually tore at my boot, and not in any coordinated manner either. It slipped off my foot before I even realized I was falling, and I hit the ground along the entire length of my back. The only thing I could think of in the following minutes of pain was to be thankful that I hadn’t hit the box instead, wrapping my spine along its lacquered upper surface. With that thought, I struggled to sit up.
The Dowry Box was undamaged by its fall, though the floor where I sat was sagging perceptibly, long cracks radiating out from the impact point. Yr Neh hopped up onto the lid, asking casually how I liked having wet feet. I looked down at my bare foot, then up to where my boot still hung, the end of the rope twice my height from the floor.
“How will we get the box up now?” I asked him irritably. The long cuts from his claws burned in the wet darkness. Peering into the shadows, past the water streaming from above, I realized that somewhere above us the tower had been damaged by the Duchess’ contraption, and whatever feature of the architecture that had held the seas at bay for seven hundred years had been compromised. There was not much time left for this place.
Yr Neh was of the opinion that rather than thinking about a way to get the box out, better to think of some way to save ourselves. He hopped down into the water, to my considerable surprise, and nosed about, peering carefully at the patterns on the tiles. He reported that there was no upward stair pattern.
“We have no choice,” I said. I was beginning to realize that riches and fame were not all we could lose this day. Going down did not seem like all that good an idea to me. But that did not matter, for Yr Neh soon reported that this large chamber had no pattern to lower the stairs. He presumed the only means of accessing the stairs would be from the chamber below. I was as mystified by this at the time as you are now, but whether the tower had been a prison, a workshop of secrets, or something else was a detail lost to history.
While we had investigated the tiles, the floor sagged further, so that I feared for the collapse of this newest level. In addition, the water from above was now streaming in, a cascade that shook the stone even more. I thought quickly, head bowed, rubbing my chin, eyes fixed on the middle distance. The glimmer of the golden key caught my eye.
Still nestled in the lock, or what had appeared to be a lock, it triggered a chain of thought that I quickly followed, looking from the key to the floor, to the rope far above. A groan from the foundations made further hesitation unattractive. I scooped up Yr Neh, who protested at such an indignity, and scrambled up onto the slick upper surface of the duchess’ Dowry Box. Yr Neh looked up, then at me, understanding. He grabbed a double pawful of wet shirt cloth (with some closely affiliated skin) and clung as I crouched. I heard the floor groaning louder as I reached for the key. Looking up, I turned it in the lock, then plucked it free, pocketed it, and waited as the water poured down.
The box jumped up powerfully beneath me, lifting Yr Neh and me easily as it lofted what must have been ten times our combined weight or more in gold. I jumped from this surface as forcefully as I could, reaching for the rope as the box unfolded beneath us. As I grabbed hold and began to fall again, I heard the box crash entirely through the floor and continue falling. We dropped once more, the slack of the rope lowering us past not only the room above, but down through the one from which we had just escaped.
It is perhaps not entirely accurate to call the immense space we dropped into a room. It was an entire underground citadel, a vast cavernous expanse, with towers and walls, and streets winding between them all. Deserted and empty, it was lit from a hundred windows that looked out into the sea. This was the first glimpse of the fabled city with which Aven has made most of you familiar, and which I had certainly never expected to see again. But I did not know its true import until much later. Though Yr Neh and I stared in wonder and surprise for as long as we could, it was a short time indeed. Water threatened to wash us free of the rope, so powerful had the flow become. Of the Dowry Box of the Duchess of the Circlet Sea, there was no sign through the gathering haze far below. Turning my attention to the sunlight above, I climbed with my last remaining strength.
I didn’t allow myself to dwell on what I had come so close to claiming. What I had touched and lost. With the driving press of water threatening to sweep me back, I let no hint of despair touch me, lest I succumb. Attaining the bedchamber, I scrabbled across the floor to the stairs, and climbed. Reaching the top of the tower, I dragged myself onto the sun-warmed tiles, closing my eyes in exhaustion, intending, truthfully, to let fatigue and disappointment have their way with me. Only Yr Neh’s low growl roused me enough to crack an eye, peer through the balustrade, and gaze out over the waves.
As if the day had conspired against me, the sea held a number of small ships surrounding mine. They of course belonged to the sinister Lord Grenorary, the Shamed Admiral himself. These were the final days before his attempt to wrest the throne of West Rotthe from the Lady Kianne, and his mood was foul from his long exile. But the tale of my escape from his villainous clutches, as well as those small things I may have done to save the Lady Kianne herself, are well known, and not worth repeating here.
Aaron’s first published story was “Mortal Star” in Black Gate 8. The tale of a warrior woman who leads her desperate people across the plains, pursued by hordes of mindless monsters — and something far worse — “Mortal Star” won praise far and wide. In her SF Site review Sherwood Smith said:
This again is a fantasy world, one complex and fascinating in design. Anakira is leading her migratory people into battle against the groundlings… Starr gives us a fascinating world and characters strong and real enough not to be overwhelmed by the detail and action. A very fine story that is impossible to predict.
And Tangent Online said:
According to the mainstream media — so reliable on other topics — there are no original writers in fantasy except for J.K. Rowling, right?
Aaron Bradford Starr must not have read the memo before he wrote “Mortal Star.” As regions slide into Tolkienesque if not Lovecraftian darkness, the world’s Nations have become nomads (and geographically stable nation-states are a dim memory). They’re led by near-ageless Wielders, distinguished for their ability to handle steel; in this universe the stuff can’t touch normal mortals, but is deadly to the hierarchy of elemental beings who plague humanity. A leader named Anakira has led her Nation for generations; she’s fought alongside her own great-grandchildren, and buried too many of them. Now her time is almost up: her star in the sky has spoken to her, naming her final destination.
Starr skillfully works in complex background without slowing the story. I particularly liked that Wielder pregnancies can last from a couple of months to a couple of years. I was left wondering, too, whether this story is fantasy with a really strange cosmology or actually sf, but I’m willing to read more to find out.
Art by Denis Rodier.
Aaron Starr currently maintains an underground base of operations in a volcano under Cleveland, Ohio. Within it, he monitors the progress of two young apprentices with his enigmatic and intriguing wife. A single nonhuman creature resides alongside them.