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Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Sealord’s Successor,” Part I

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 2013 by New Epoch Press.
Art by Aaron Bradford Starr

Our Arrival

The Sealord's Successor Part OneUpwards the path wound, interminably upwards. Carried upon the shoulders of eight hulking runners, the carriage rocked in a steady rhythm. Clad as they were in oiled cloth, the runners seemed completely unaffected by the torrential rainfall, loping up the winding paths at very nearly a run. Gloren hung almost halfway out the carriage window, exclaiming and pointing out details to Lord Yr Neh. The cat stretched his head far out as well, ears flattened against the rain, peering down into the vistas which the evening light revealed. His white and orange fur was plastered about his face and neck, but remained dry and composed within the carriage, especially his plume-like tail, which he regarded with special pride. His back feet were firmly planted on my thigh to more easily access the window, his claws digging for purchase against the motion.

This minor discomfort (which grew steadily less minor as the journey continued) served admirably to distract me from the terrifying drops and bottomless chasms to which we traveled so close. A single slip by one of our runners could send us plummeting, but Gloren and Yr Neh seemed quite unconcerned. How brave they were! But perhaps they knew what to expect of the Otrock Line.

It is common knowledge that the Otrock Line is the most remote of the Modern Kingdoms. Stretching far out to sea, it is the only land to look, on clear days, upon the northern coast of Tyndel, which is itself a watchword for northerliness. Once having been the steep peaks of a coastal range of mountains, the Otrock Line was transformed by the Turning of Rains into a string of remote islands, occupied by the descendants of the petty nobles that had once held estates upon lowlands lost during the Rains.

These estates, much like the Kels of Sionne to the south, were originally fortified keeps, built with sieges in mind. But where the Kels of Sionne had been transformed into opulent palaces in the seven centuries since the Rains had subsided, the estates of the Otrock Line remained decidedly military in nature. Their tall spires held the finery of nobility planted firmly above the rugged lower levels. Laying siege to these estates had proved to be impossible in the times of the Old Kingdom, and the rise of the Hundred Visible Mysteries had changed nothing, in this regard. Each towering citadel could hold out for more than a year against its enemies, while their foes need cling to the barren rock faces through a winter more terrible than any known elsewhere, save perhaps the highest reaches of the Tyndelian interior.

It was during the rainy spring that we arrived, however, so the wind was only chill, and not a lethal blast. As we stepped from the carriage, Yr Neh perched on Gloren’s shoulder to avoid the rivulets washing over the stone. Before us was the only gate leading into the estate of the Etherbi Sealords, and above us, lost in the swirl and flash of the storm, loomed the towering keep itself. We ran quickly across the water-covered ground and through the open gateway as the runners began disassembling the carriage in order to follow. Without fanfare, we had arrived.

The Last Sealord

We were shown to a guardroom and given simple robes to change into, with matching slippers and scarves to wind around our necks. As cats tend to do, Yr Neh laughed quietly as we changed into these warm, dry, but entirely inappropriate accoutrements. I protested to the guards that Gloren Avericci was an important guest, and was to be treated with greater respect. Gracious as always, Gloren tried to mitigate the sting of my words, downplaying his considerable reputation and importance. The guards took the opportunity he offered, pretending to think us a bunch of self-important fops, but I could tell that they had been somewhat humbled. They made a great show of obsequious manners as they showed us upwards through dank and dripping corridors cut through the stone.

At last we entered more civilized areas of the estate, though it was only the servant’s levels. Here the soldiers passed us off to a simpering and nearly unintelligible wretch from the kitchens. But the man was at least honestly servile as he continued to lead us upward through the floors of the fortress.

After passing through kitchens, workshops, and storerooms, we’d climbed up to the proper tiers, where we were greeted by a distinguished gentleman. The inexpressible nobility of the man caused me to take prompt action in the face of our current wet and bedraggled condition. I stepped quickly to the fore, wishing to preserve Gloren’s reputation.

“My Lord Etherbi,” I began perfunctorily, “let me offer my apologies at the state in which Gloren Avericci, the distinguished and famous Gallery Hunter, now presents himself. There was a terrible accident on the journey from the Shards, and, entirely through my own poor judgement, many of our belongings were burned by rampaging sewage workers on the Maiden Isle. Thus our current circumstance, which I hope does not offend your noble sensibilities.”

“I regret to hear of your misfortune,” said the man, “and I will convey the news to the Lord Etherbi in her chambers. She is quick to give alms to the downtrodden, and to those laid low by misfortune. My name is nothing more than Fletching. I will show you to your rooms now.”

With that he turned and led the way. Gloren, who followed after Yr Neh, turned quickly to me as we set off.

“Well spoken, Aven!” he whispered angrily. “Now the Lord Etherbi is going to think us a pack of beggars!”

“I meant well,” I protested. “I thought Fletching there was the Lord Etherbi.”

“Salianas Etherbi is a woman!” he hissed.

“But then she would be the Lady Etherbi!” I protested.

“Not here! Not until the official viewing tomorrow. Until then she rules as a military Sealord. Her younger brother holds political power as Scion of Etherbi until then.”

“Oh.” I fell silent, mulling it over. Gloren’s knowledge of history and culture was so vast, it overshadowed even my own considerable study. He knew more than anyone I’ve ever met about Pre-Rain culture, and was not far behind in his grasp of modern society as well. To have him know more about such a subject than I myself did was not surprising, and I didn’t let it bother me overmuch. Our journey here had been far more busy and eventful than we’d been expecting, and we’d had little time to discuss the details of his commission here.

“But you will admit,” I said, “it was a simple mistake on my part. Even had I known, Fletching here could have been the Scion.”

“Fletching is a servant, Aven.”

“What, and you can tell so quickly?” I asked. This was the last thing I said however, for my question was answered for me. Entering a long hallway leading, no doubt, to more stairs, we had chanced upon a singular figure standing with a small group of scribes.

As she turned to face our party, silence descended on everyone present. Her pale gray eyes swept over us, her lips, tinted with dusky huru powder, curved upwards slightly in amusement. Her hair hung long and straight in a platinum wave that flowed over her shoulders and down her back. Though dressed in soft robes, her hands were covered by functional gauntlets, bracers cinching the sleeves of her robe tight at the elbows. Wet edging at neck and boot-top betrayed recent travel through the rain, but her stance was of one comfortable in military accoutrements. Her posture was distant, forbidding, as if she stood at a great remove. And yet her features were kind, welcoming. This, unmistakably, was royalty. This was the Lord Etherbi.

She nodded in response to our bows, and we went on our way, Gloren casting one last glance at her as we entered the stairway and began climbing once more. I followed his gaze and saw the almost imperceptible nod she cast his way.

The Reunion

Before I leave for the banquet, a few last notes so that I may reconstruct these happenings more eloquently later. After further upwards travel, we arrived at last at our suite. This was not the dreadful bare cell that I had pictured while traversing the lowest levels of the fortress; rather, it was a charming apartment, the walls covered with tapestries against warmth-stealing stone, a roaring fire keeping the chill of the night at bay while dozens of candles provided a cheerful and welcoming glow. The windows were surprisingly large, and paned in tiny squares of glass held in a lead frame visible past heavy velvet curtains. Rain ran and scattered against the glass, lightning flashing like momentary daylight. In these surroundings, ensconced in warmth and luxury, I found the pouring rain beyond the windows pleasant.

New wardrobes to replace our lost possessions had been prepared, and baths were waiting. The simple robes we had been given were, as it turned out, courtesies to allow us to remove our wet and well-traveled clothing. Gloren and I availed ourselves of the baths gratefully, wine in hand. On return to our apartment, we discovered our clothing had been laundered and pressed, with proper formals laid out. Yr Neh, stretched out before the fire, had completed grooming himself and now lay in a contented stupor, a dish of mulled wine near to paw.

Only when Gloren and I had completed our preparations did Yr Neh crack open one eye and inform us that the Baron Lurec would be there that night, a guest at the banquet. Gloren, who had been swirling a fresh quantity of wine around within his cup, sat up straight on his couch, nearly flinging the wine out altogether.

“Baron Lurec?” Gloren asked. “Are you certain? I had heard he was in Sionne, and would not be able to attend.”

In the peculiar blend of arrogance that is by breeding the province of the nobility, and by birth the right of all felines, Yr Neh replied that servants talked freely and cats have good ears. Someone, after all, had to bring him wine while we had been in the baths. Gloren paced about, his brow knit with concern. Yr Neh put his head down and closed his eyes once more, profoundly unmoved.

“Who is Lurec?” I asked. Gloren shook his head as if intending to brush aside my inquiry, but related the following to me:

The Baron Lurec was the eldest nephew of the previous Sealord. Lurec’s claim to the title Sealord thus came through a previous generation, making it, in any other land, inferior to either the Lord Etherbi’s or her brother’s, the Scion of Etherbi. This kingdom, however, held to other traditions, and he was close enough to be invited to the banquet tonight.

And close enough to participate in the viewing two days hence.

“It’s no matter,” I replied. “The succession is already decided. There’s no need to fight over it.”

Yr Neh, without so much as lifting his head from the rug, replied that the viewing was for the living descendants of the Etherbis. Gloren’s look turned grim. I was shocked.

“You don’t really think it could come to violence?” I asked.

“I should hope not,” a woman’s voice replied. Gloren and I turned in surprise, while Yr Neh closed his eyes once more, content to listen. This, if nothing else ever had, convinced me that the feline mind works in far different ways from those of humans. For what kind of creature could close their eyes on an image like that of the Lord Salianas Etherbi? I was transfixed once more, and I admit my heart fairly leapt from my chest as her face turned into a smile, eyes glowing and teeth glinting. She rushed forward and gathered Gloren to her, laughing as she did so. They began to rapidly talk at one another, speaking and questioning and answering all at once. Even Yr Neh started in surprise, but said nothing.

It did not take a well-educated cat to tell me that these two had met before.

An Odd Personage

Almost as quickly as she had arrived, the Lord Etherbi took her leave, casting Gloren a departing glance while verbally hoping we would all join her at the high table that night. I sputtered some form of startled acceptance, completely drowning Yr Neh’s more polished response. But I could have declared myself the Porpoise King of the Anderglade Coast for all she heard. When her eyes left Gloren she was already in the hall, and gone.

Allowing the Lord Etherbi some time before us, so it did not seem we crowded out on her heels, we adjourned to the banquet. Intercepted mere paces from our door by a liveried servant, we were escorted through the winding halls and up to a room where numerous others waited in small groups. Here we were commandeered by one of those servants whose social class is a blur, such as Fletching, the man who had fooled me earlier. In their own element, these high functionaries were more the equals of the nobility than members of the working classes. This gentleman was no exception.

“And you, sir, would be?” he inquired of Gloren.

I stepped forward as Gloren drew breath, as if to answer.

“This is none other,” I announced, “than Gloren Avericci, Master Gallery Hunter for the Gallery of Days within the Floating Palace of the Shards. His companion is the great Yr Neh himself.”

“Ah,” he said, as if remembering. “The art critic and his assistant. The Lord Etherbi told me she’d allowed you to attend the banquet.”

“Not merely attend, my good man-” began Gloren.

“But we shall be sitting at the high table itself!” I finished triumphantly. Both the servant and Gloren turned to me with a stony gaze. “It’s true,” I asserted quietly.

“Who is this man?” the servant asked Gloren.

“My Chronicler,” Gloren replied simply.

“How wonderful,” the man replied. “A novelist.

Just then another servant rushed into the room, and bowing, handed the senior man a folded note with the Seal of Etherbi stamped on it.

“Sir,” the arrival said softly. “This comes from the Lord Etherbi herself.”

The head servant cracked the wax seal and read the note, then looked to us.

“Did she say anything else?” he asked.

The other shook his head slightly. “No, Hallmaster Terring.”

“Very well,” the man Terring replied. With a wave he dismissed the man. Addressing us, Hallmaster Terring’s voice grew somewhat more civil than it had been. “It seems you are indeed sitting at the high table. Wait here for the heralds to announce you.” With that he looked away, drawn toward a commotion near the back of the room.

I turned, intending to belittle the Hallmaster to Gloren, but he was crouched in conference with Yr Neh. He waved me into the conversation. I squatted down.

“Did you notice the crest worked into the tunic of the Hallmaster?” Gloren asked me.

“No,” I admitted, somewhat irritated with myself.

“Well, neither did I. You see, Yr Neh? I’m not certain we can see it.”

“What’s this?” I asked. Yr Neh bowed himself out of the conversation and wandered over to keep a closer watch on the uproar, where a group was arguing with Terring. Gloren and I stood.

“I’m not sure if it’s his pattern-manipulation training, or just the fact that his eyes are so much better than ours,” he said, “but Yr Neh noticed a recursive pattern woven into the man’s tunic.”

“Perhaps, during his studies of the Hundred Visible Mysteries, Lord Yr Neh touched on Weavewatching,” I said.

“Perhaps,” Gloren replied. “But how he saw the pattern is not important. When he allowed his eyes to focus just so, it became the Seal of the Eidnine Knights.”

“What!”

“Yes,” Gloren replied. “And you heard the man’s name. Terring. This would be one of the Southguard Terrings. And to be made an Eidnine Knight-“

“He’s tied to the Etherbi line!” I exclaimed, but softly lest we be overheard. “But it could be a distant tie. Almost any relative would do.”

“Yes,” said Gloren, watching as the Hallmaster Terring brought the commotion to a swift end. “But as such he’s in line for the succession as well!”

“Excuse me!” Terring’s voice rose over the din of the crowd. “Are there any other members of the Tyndelian nobility present? Ah, yes, I’m so sorry, my lord. This presentation room is provided for the commoners! Please, follow me.”

“I need to find out who that man is,” Gloren said to me. “I can’t believe he’s in line for the succession tomorrow.”

“I’m beginning to wonder who isn’t in line for the succession,” I replied.

Behind us, heralds began to announce the nobility as they entered the banquet hall.

A Most Convoluted Meal

It is easy to forget the vast size of the fortresses of the Otrock Line, even while within them. So much travel is up and down between levels it creates the illusion that one travels vertically because there is no great flat expanse on any given level. This assumption was clearly shown to be in error by the uppermost floors of the fortress, which included the banquet hall. This immense chamber was over one hundred feet from wall to wall, a vast circular space unbroken by supporting columns. The buttresses which held the vaulted ceiling at bay swept far overhead before curving into the dome above. The radial pattern of that stonework dome was marvelous, made even more so by the realization that the pattern was merely the underside of the vast circular stairways to the next level: the throne room itself.

Heralds called out Gloren’s and Yr Neh’s names, and they were led forward. I trailed somewhat self-consciously behind, as my name had, through some manner of oversight, been omitted. There were seats for all three of us, thankfully, so I was spared the humiliation of milling about aimlessly.

The high table was just what it sounded like, standing as it did fourteen feet off the floor of the chamber. It was round, in the manner of northern guest tables, with the Lord and Scion of Etherbi seated together. Ranged around the expanse were eight additional seats, each a sturdy cradle of wood, velvet and suede, suspended by flaxen ropes from the ceiling far above. The logic of this arrangement was to keep chairs from sliding back from the table and sending their occupants tumbling backward down the steps that they’d had to climb to reach their places. The cords which held the diners also suspended banners displaying the heraldry of the occupants. Of the three of us, only Yr Neh had a crest. Gloren and I had blazons of guests of the House. Once seated, these banners would be lowered, to lend the high table valuable privacy.

The table was served from the center, where a large central opening afforded the servants access to the diners. Their silent work was done nearly eye-level with the tabletop, so as to be unobtrusive, and not become an unwelcome centerpiece. This ploy to remain nearly invisible was successful except in the case of Terring, who stationed himself directly below the Etherbis, and kept a watchful eye on servant and guest alike. Under that unrelenting gaze, I found myself growing self-conscious of both my manners and posture, as refined as they are, and resolved to pay the man no mind. The nerve of the provincial serving class!

In the manner of the north, there were no elaborate customs before the meal. The Sealord and Scion of Etherbi stood and raised their cups, and silence fell through the hall. Without a word, they tipped their cups and drained them without pause, then slammed them down onto the table, where they were refilled. With the retort of pewter on wood still echoing, the hall relaxed and the banquet began. The banners around the high table lowered, largely blocking our view of the hall.

It was only then that my eyes wandered over my fellow diners. It was with a start that I recognized the droopy, self-indulgent face of Garder Jho, seated to my immediate left. He raised his cup in salute, and I nodded dumbly in response. As conversations began around the table, Gloren leaned forward to speak from my right.

“Well,” he said. “Hunter Jho. What a wonderful surprise.”

“Hunter Avericci,” Jho responded. “I had heard you would be here.”

“Yes,” replied Gloren. “I’m here to confirm the authenticity of the Etherbi Painting.” This, I thought, would irritate the other Gallery Hunter, but to my surprise Garder Jho beamed.

“How wonderful for you Gloren! And you, Yr Neh, must be rather proud to be assisting in such an important task.”

Yr Neh did not deign to reply. Not even looking at the rival Gallery Hunter, he touched a paw into his dish of wine and began to lick it off. But I noticed the slight flaring of his feline nostrils, and the hint of flattened ear that betrayed his dislike for the man.

“Important, yes,” Gloren said levelly. “But certainly not as important as whatever brings you here…”

“No, no,” Jho said, waving the thought away. “I’m just here as a second opinion.”

Gloren and Yr Neh could not hide their reaction to the insult, and both cast sharp glances across the table at Salianas Etherbi and her brother, Temmel. The Scion of Etherbi smiled. He shared his older sister’s pale complexion, with the exception of his eyes, which were an arrestingly deep brown.

“I see you’ve met Garder Jho,” he said. “A colleague of yours, I believe?”

With typical feline understatement, Yr Neh replied that Jho was something of the sort.

“He is here to study the frame of the Painting,” the younger Etherbi continued.

Gloren sighed softly in relief, while Yr Neh gave no outward sign but turned his attention to a tuna steak that was placed before him. Garder Jho saw their discomfort, however, and laughed as if in camaraderie.

“Why the frame?” asked a large man to Yr Neh’s right. Though larger, and sporting a full beard worked into a great sea-braid, I recognized the distinctive cast of the Etherbis in his features. This was surely the Baron Lurec, cousin of Salianas and Temmel Etherbi, and a contender for the succession.

“Because, Baron,” Jho replied smoothly, “The Gallery of Days is interested to a great degree in art and craftsmanship from before the Rains. If the frame is truly Pre-Rain, a mere rubbing of charcoal to preserve its patterns would be a treasure. They say that this frame was the original that held the Calias Portrait. If so, then the designs on its borders are a piece of code, used by the members of the Vironese assassin’s society, The Order.”

“I see,” replied the Baron. “I suppose if you believe in such myths as The Order, the frame would be truly fascinating.”

“I heard that Gallery Hunters stole much of their treasure,” said a voice from beyond the Baron. Sitting near the Sealord was a striking woman, her short dark hair and pale skin a remarkable contrast to Salianas’ sun-darkened skin and snow-pale hair. With a quick glance at the heraldry above her, Jho nodded to her.

“This is a reputation caused by the independent actions of some of our number, Countess Therissa,” he replied. Gloren gritted his teeth, knowing that Jho referred to the incident in Penekal where Gloren had first met Garder Jho and had come away the worse for it.

“Surely you don’t think anything of the sort could happen here?” the woman asked. Her eyes burned an intense green as she asked the question. Jho, if he noticed, and I am not inclined to believe he did, smiled and shook his head as if addressing an equal.

“I’m certain that will not be a danger, Countess. The frame alone is quite heavy.”

Therissa nodded slightly, casting a glance at her companion, a golden-haired woman dressed in deep amber silk, matching her eyes.

“Would it be so bad if something were to happen to the Painting?” Baron Lurec asked the table in general. Salianas paused with food near her lips, but Temmel’s eyes flashed angrily and he leaned forward.

“Only if you consider throwing the succession into doubt a bad thing, Cousin.”

“I don’t think there would be much question of who would ascend the Sealord’s Throne in that case, Temmel,” Lurec replied softly. “Whoever possessed sufficient will to take and keep it.”

“And sufficient force of arms, no doubt,” Salianas replied softly, answering for her brother.

There was a moment of silence around the high table.

Countess Therissa leaned forward, and light from the candles gleamed off of the rings she wore on her fingers and thumbs.

“I trust you can verify the authenticity of the painting, Hunter Avericci?”

Gloren visibly rallied under the scrutiny of so many members of the ruling class. With a salute of his cup to Salianas Etherbi, he smiled reassuringly.

“I will reward your faith in me, my Lord,” he told her.

She smiled back. “And you will be rewarded in turn, Hunter Avericci.”

If any at the table were unaware of Gloren’s past friendship with Salianas Etherbi, that smile told them much. I exhaled, took a drink, and wiped my brow.

A Dance After Dinner

After a time the banquet adjourned, and the tables in the hall were cleared away. The guests moved to the outermost perimeter of the hall, where further refreshments were available. Those of us seated at the high table waited where we were until the preparations were completed, then stood and walked down the stairs as our seats were lifted silently upwards towards the ceiling. The guards along the upper balcony filed out, and were replaced by musicians, who began tuning and otherwise preparing for a night of performance.

The elite at the high table quickly mixed into the crowd, and I lost track of my companions. Momentarily, however, the mildly discordant plucking and piping of the musicians ceased, and there rolled from the upper balcony the first strains of Coldeon’s Enevo. Even as the first notes washed through the chamber, the crowd fell still, watching as the Sealord led the first dance out onto the floor. I gaped, for there at her hand was none other than Gloren Avericci, standing with regal composure, awaiting the opening of Enevo’s second fifth which would signal the dance’s beginning.

As the first fifth ended, and the high strings announced the beginning of the second, Gloren swept Salianas away from him, the beginning of the Vironese werenda. That he would choose such a dance here, to this song, and with this woman, caused a stir through the crowd. He stepped back as Salianas retreated, her unbound hair flowing behind her in a white stream. Slowly, as the measures of the Enevo proceeded, they circled, stalking each other around the center of the floor. The Vironese composers deal in different measures than do the Sionnese like Coldeon. Thus to dance the werenda to the Enevo required delicate half-steps at intervals to keep in time. This complexity the two executed in perfect unison, drawing closer together as the second fifth ran its course. The crowd watched entranced as the pair drew closer together, their steps in time and yet opposed, their dance never synchronizing completely with the music and yet never falling completely away. I have never witnessed a more complex dance between two people.

Just as their outstretched hands met in the center of the floor between them, the third fifth began. After that initial touch, the two never left physical contact with each other, blending and sliding together when close, an undulating stream of arms and hands when distant. This intimate interaction sent a ripple through the watching crowd, whose men whispered to one another in admiration and whose women glowered in ill-concealed jealousy.

It was during this interchange that Yr Neh chose to tug on my pants leg. I had no sooner turned to look at him when he leapt up onto my shoulder, with momentary stops at thigh, belly, and chest to establish brief and painful footholds. Having achieved his objective he nuzzled close to my ear to whisper unheard. Temmel, the Scion of Etherbi, had left the hall in disgust after a brief conversation with his cousin, the giant Lurec. Yr Neh had not attempted to follow the Scion, but had loitered near Lurec as the man had moved about the hall. Lurec had been seen to speak very privately to the companion of the Countess Therissa, from Sionne. I thought on the Countess, the dark-haired woman with the blazing green eyes who had questioned Garder Jho so intently. Her companion, the blonde-haired woman, I remembered only for her beauty and quiet demeanor. Yr Neh reported that this companion, whose name was Velice, was apparently very close indeed to Lurec, who had been spending his time in Sionne, as Gloren had been informed.

“So what has this to do with the Etherbi succession?” I asked the cat, awash with the complexity of these courtly interactions. This is the sort of high-order society that sophisticates like myself revel in, the sort that baffles the wits of mere commoners. Even so, I admitted to drawing less than a conclusion from this new information. Yr Neh snorted with feline scorn.

Lurec, the cat explained, would be in a position to give Sionne a valuable military trade partner if he could secure the succession. Lurec need only borrow a force from Sionne to take the Sealord Throne. Then he could trade a force back to the Countess for her own ambitions, if she had any along these lines. His personal involvement with the Countess’ friend, Velice, showed how closely the two courts would act if he were to assume power.

I shook my head in disbelief. The Countess Therissa was not a power-mad woman, I told Yr Neh. Surely she would ultimately suffer from such instability in Sionne, which, after all, relied on smooth foreign trade, and this would be hopelessly disrupted by any civil war or military uprising. Yr Neh wagged his whiskers forwards as if to yawn, as cats will do when they consider a point beneath their arguing. Instead he theorized that human’s lack of tails hindered their ability to judge one another. With that point made, he hopped down to the floor and trotted away.

The dance regal was over, and couples swept out to cover the floor as the first open dance began. I turned, shaking my head and thinking to perhaps catch the arm of an attractive aide to one of the attending Bridge Lords whom I had spotted earlier, but found myself face-to-face with none other than Garder Jho. He handed me a wine and clapped me on the back as if we were friends. Laughing heartily, the Gallery Hunter led me away from the dance floor and nearer to the windows, where rain and lightning played. The shadows were deeper here, and it was an excellent spot for conspiracy. But Garder Jho was more in a gloating mood.

“So,” he began. “Painting appraiser. How wonderful that Gloren finally found a vocation at which he could succeed. And you must be proud indeed to follow him about and detail his exploits of heroic art criticism.”

“Master Avericci is present as a personal friend of the Sealord of Etherbi.” I replied imperiously. “Perhaps you’ve noticed his close ties to the nobility here?”

“Ah, yes. It’s always nice to have a friendly port this far from civilization.” Garder Jho closed his eyes in silent laughter as his own crude wit. I rallied my patience.

“See here,” I snapped. “If you have such an opinion of this place, why have you come all this way during the spring storms? Surely not for some mere charcoal rubbings?”

He crinkled an eye and regarded me with a sidelong glance. “My estimation of what is valuable is based on knowledge you cannot hope to contain, Penworthy.”

“Undoubtedly. But tell me, Master Jho. With the Succession Painting so near to hand, possibly the single greatest artistic application of the Hundred Visible Mysteries, how can you be so excited about an old frame? The Calias Portrait is a fiction, and you know it.”

Jho eyed me appraisingly. “It is very important how you surround your artwork. The frame can be as important as the canvas it holds. You’d be surprised.”

“I can’t imagine otherwise, at this point,” I replied. “Would you care for wine? I think I’ll have another before I join the dance.”

“No, thank you,” he replied, surprisingly civil. “I don’t drink wine. Only tea. Ah! Here’s my boy now. Peppin!” Gesturing, Jho summoned a young houseboy to him, who was bearing a cup of steaming tea. Bidding the two farewell, I wound through the crowds to find a partner. I spent the remainder of the evening on the dance tiles, and had no further conversations or interactions proper to relate.

The Inspection

The next day, after the noon hour, we met with the Hallmaster and select others in the vaults. This name was misleading, for the majority of the level was neither secured nor containing valuables. The term came from the Turning of the Rains, when it was sealed against all inclement weather, keeping it completely dry. The doors to the vaults were thick and heavy, with leather seals in their inner surfaces to keep out moisture. Candles and torches were kept continually burning here, carefully apart from the dry contents of the room. Between these and the shadow-creep vines that still wound around the netting near the ceiling, the Etherbi Sealords had kept stores of books dry and safe for the day the Rains ended. They had protected their lore and knowledge during the Rains in this way, and people had died as a result. For the Sealords had been unbending in their rules. Better food begin to spoil than the writings become endangered by storing rations in the Vaults.

Only military discipline, maintained with harsh measures during all of those dark years, had allowed the Etherbis to keep the store of information intact. When the Rains had passed, they went abroad, to islands now become nations of their own. The first of the Sealords had traded knowledge and military might to the newly awakened world. But the Otrock Line remained an isolated kingdom, and their tale is not well known to outsiders.

In brief, the Etherbi Sealords were from the start the greatest of all the Sealords of the Otrock Line, served by lore from these very chambers. They had quickly made close ties with the information-hungry people of Viron. In return, the Vironese brought the concepts of the Five Principles to the Etherbis. They were the first to send practitioners of the Hundred Visible Mysteries to the Otrock Line. These wondrous people, with their almost magical abilities, spurred the Etherbis to send a contingent to the Vironese Academy at Penekal, who became the first of the War Artists of Viron.

So great had the power of the Etherbis become that with the death of Randis Etherbi, the First Sealord, a mad scramble for the title began among his two eldest children. Draquen, Randis’ eldest daughter and chosen successor, was soon killed by her younger brother, Weshel. Elru, the youngest son, overpowered Weshel in a duel and had him arrested, assuming power himself.

Elru, however, had never prepared for the role of Sealord. Being third-born, he had committed to a life of study and scholarship. His close ties with the fledgling Academy at Viron had led him to summon the greatest practitioner of the Hundred Visible Mysteries that he knew, a figure known as Dhend Atren Aon.

History has left little to detail Aon. For so impenetrably shrouded has Aon become, there is controversy over every detail of his life and person. In any case, Aon came as requested, and secluded himself with the young Elru for five days. When they emerged, they carried with them a painting the likes of which had never been seen before.

Elru declared that this painting would for all time decide the true successor of the Etherbi line. Never again, so long as the painting existed, would blood be shed for the title of Sealord. Summoning all of those with a claim to the title, Elru gathered them together in the throne chamber where stood the shrouded painting. Explaining to them the reason for their coming, he abdicated his title and left them alone to view it. Legend has him on a boat to Viron before they even flipped away the velvet covering.

When they emerged from that throne room, they all declared one of their number, Elru’s cousin Tenni, as the next Sealord. Thus it had been ever since. The viewing was held in the presence of all the living successors. With a glance at the painting, so the story went, one of them was chosen.

Gloren and Yr Neh were beside themselves with a desire to see this amazing work of art. Gloren had theorized and wondered at the mechanism the painting used to convey its choice, and how, indeed, it chose. Yr Neh was equally as curious. They had discussed the painting often before, so I had heard of it long ago, though I had never thought to see it myself. But such is the life of one who associates with Gloren Avericci.

The vaults were filled with bookshelves. Row after row towered over the narrow corridors between, coming almost to the level of the netting that still supported the air-drying shadow vines. The cramped spaces were dimly lit by torches set into alcoves, ceremonial trappings from the Turning of the Rains. A space near the entrance was free of shelves, and had a raised dais before the locked door which secured the treasures of the Keep. This stout door now stood open, and the Painting itself rested on a great stand, covered in black velvet. The group gathered around it.

There were few people present. Hallmaster Terring, whom Gloren, Yr Neh and I secretly knew to be an Eidnine Knight and possible successor, was present, as was Garder Jho and his houseboy, Peppin. In addition, there were ten courtiers of various rank.

Terring stood to the side and slightly behind the painting. Gesturing Gloren forward, he swept the drape aside. He stayed where he was afterwards, as if in acknowledging his place as one of the servant class. As an Eidnine Knight in line for the succession, however, he dared not look at the painting before the formal viewing, so he kept the mysterious work out of view.

At first, I was unsure of what I was seeing. Then the colors and forms became evident, then obvious. Masterfully done, the painting showed little but a small patch of sun-washed beach. As the view was from about a foot over the sand, and looking mostly down, there was nothing but a thin strip of horizon visible near the top, blue ocean clouds standing in anvils above the edge of the sky.

In the sand lay a single object, a cut stone of shocking red, dropped in the soft sand at the surf’s edge. The flat, dark expanse of the beach, washed smooth by the action of the last high wave, was marred only by row upon row of runes drawn in the wet sand, the sharp edges and patterns of light and shadow making it clear that the designs had been drawn with the discarded red stone. The displaced sand from the jewel’s marks, rising in crumbly banks on either side of each line looked so real, their details so exactly capturing the delicacy of the material, I held my breath, waiting for some tiny bit to crumble and obscure one of the lines that had been drawn.

It was instantly mysterious, this image. Who had drawn these symbols? What did they mean? The composition itself was intriguing, for, as a viewer, who were we supposed to be? Were we the one for whom the messages had been drawn? Or were we a stranger, happening upon a treasure worth a fortune, a huge red jewel, but hesitating to lift it from where it lay, surrounded by a mysterious design? Could this be the view of the one who had cut the designs? For surely these would not last past the next high wave.

The stark image, with its questions, would have been interesting enough. But as we stared, the painting moved.

A sheet of water swept over the sand, obscuring the designs. I gasped, taking an involuntary step forward, staring in awe as the paint changed on the canvas. Brushstrokes bent, blended, warped and curved as the image altered before us. Pigments flowed on the surface, changing the image as we watched.

Then the water swept back into the ocean, as waves will, sliding over the smooth, compressed sand, the thin glimmering layer of ocean left behind slowly sinking back through the ground. The jewel was worked loose by the action of the wave, and glinted from a new position on the unmarked expanse. Before we could react, it blurred, moving rapidly across the wet sand, the paint on the canvas blending and streaking to show its rapid movement. When it was done it lay in a new place, and runes again covered the image, cut once more into the sand. Even though I had only seen the other sigils briefly, I could tell immediately that these new designs were different.

Terring spoke from where he stood just beyond the painting, addressing the members of the Etherbi household. “Is this indeed the Succession Painting of the Etherbis?”

They all nodded, muttering agreement. From where I stood, transfixed by the settling pigments, it seemed strange that such an assurance was necessary. But this was for Gloren’s benefit. From all simple examinations, this was indeed the painting. Terring dismissed the others, leaving only myself, Gloren, Yr Neh, Garder Jho and his houseboy, Peppin in attendance.

Garder Jho stepped forward and stood before the painting, peering intently at it. “What does the writing mean?” he asked. Involuntarily he cast a glance at Yr Neh. The cat lifted his brows speculatively, assuring the man that they were not Sigils as taught at the Academy of Viron, and he’d never seen their like. Gloren moved forward, silently crowding out Garder Jho, who stood aside wistfully.

“Can you positively identify this as the original Succession Painting, Hunter Avericci?” Terring asked. There was an expectant note in his voice, and I knew that he expected a certain answer, proof of Gloren’s abilities to do the job he had come to do. We all stood and waited for Gloren to answer as he peered closely at the surface of the painting. After a moment, he nodded.

“With some help perhaps.”

“What type of help?” Terring asked, eyes narrowing.

“I will require one of your hairs, sir, if you would kindly part with it.”

“A hair?” Terring asked, clearly surprised. The rest of us were similarly perplexed. “Whatever for?”

“I believe this painting will know a member of the Etherbi line, no matter if they are distant,” Gloren said casually. “I know you cannot look at the painting with the succession still to come, and I will not ask you to touch the painting yourself.” Terring’s look of astonishment was so complete he was completely transformed. For a moment he gaped wordlessly, then nodded. Plucking out a long dark hair, he held it out. Gloren took it and held it out towards the surface of the painting.

When it contacted the surface, a transformation occurred. A golden swirl spread from the point of contact and spread through the painting in tendrils of light. With a hiss, the pigment recoiled from the contact, exposing the white ground beneath. Gloren moved the hair about, examining the smooth, unmarked surface, until he found what he was looking for. Near the upper right corner was a tear in the cloth, stitched with infinite care and covered with the whiting under the paint. When he withdrew the hair from the canvas, the paint flowed back in a rush, the glow disappearing at once. The surface was unmarred, the small repair to the canvas undetectable. The hair in his fingers was a pungent, smoking wisp. Gloren let the fragment drop.

“This is the real painting,” he said simply.

The Night Watch

Before I retire for the night, let me record all that happened since the appraisal, so it does not fade with time.

Earlier this evening, after a simple meal, Gloren went off on personal business and I joined Yr Neh as he returned to the vaults to look through the hundreds of Pre-Rain books there. At this time of night the vaults seemed almost forgotten. Though without any windows, the fires that normally burned there were banked, the coals glowing a sullen red where they peeked out from under their layer of ash. The hallway leading from the stairs to the vault’s main room had been dim before, but now it was almost completely without light. While Yr Neh padded along without trouble, I slowed and strode forward with one hand casually held out before me, trying to not look helpless in the dark. But rather than mock, Yr Neh whispered I should be careful: the room ahead was not empty.

I slowly eased open the heavy door to the vaults, allowing the leather seals to slide silently past one another. Through the slit between the doors, the two of us peered into the vaults.

The dais was lit by a single torch, positioned well away from where the Succession Painting stood. It was by this low light that the figure we saw worked. Though I’d only seen him a few times, it was unmistakably the figure of Peppin, Garder Jho’s houseboy.

He slowly crossed in front of the uncovered painting, placing one foot directly before the other. He paused and wrote on a slip of parchment. Then he took the parchment and a small dark lump of charcoal, and working with evident care, copied the pattern of the frame beneath. Yr Neh and I exchanged glances. There was nothing sinister going on here. We entered the chamber.

Peppin gave a squeak of alarm when he noticed us. With a guilty start that is the habit of all the low-born who are suddenly thrust into the presence of their betters, Peppin dropped his work and bowed hastily.

“Forgive me, sirs,” he piped. “I was merely doing some slight work for my master, Hunter Jho.”

Yr Neh dismissed the boy and glanced at the painting. At that moment another wave washed over the scene, and we stood entranced as the view resettled. Peppin, with the impetuosity of his youth, broke the spell first, quickly collecting his papers and charcoal and shrouding the painting once more. With a bow in our direction and a hasty good night, he was gone. Yr Neh glanced at me and shrugged. With a flick of his regal tail, he padded toward the dark rows of shelves, the closest of which stood before us like a wall, rising into the shadows.

“Why aren’t there any guards?” I asked the cat as he strode around the shelf and into the gloom.

Rather than answering, Yr Neh told me I’d need a light. I shook my head in irritation and ran to find a candle. When I returned, I found the orange and white cat sitting on the fourth shelf up, wedged between two thick volumes. Behind this first row of books, there was another, so thick and crowded were these shelves. He hopped down and asked me to retrieve a book for him. I did so. It was a very old authoritative work on the composition of Pre-Rain symbols and warning markers. The book had nothing to do with modern Sigilism or any of the other Mysteries. I followed behind the cat for some time, collecting books as he directed.

“You were saying about a guard?” I prompted at one point. Yr Neh, from somewhere atop the first shelf, asked me to bring the books up to him. I cast about for a ladder, and, with a certain amount of unseemly grunting and straining, managed to haul the books to the highest possible position in the chamber, overlooking the stand that supported the Succession Painting. Yr Neh, in the inscrutable manner of cats, had found a cache of scrolls on his chosen subject on the top of this shelf, and rather than bring these light, portable objects down, had made me lug heavy, unwieldy books up to him. The candle, however, I doused and left behind, not wanting to become a living torch halfway up the ladder.

“Now,” I panted, as I crawled toward where the cat sat, “why is there no guard? Surely a painting as important as this should be kept safe?”

Yr Neh chuckled and replied that the Painting was quite safe. It could be pitched into a fire and lay untouched.

“That can’t be true,” I protested. “It was damaged before! What of the stitching Gloren uncovered?” This was, as Yr Neh informed me, from before Dhend Atren Aon ever primed the canvas. Aon was supposed to be the one to have stitched the canvas before working.

“Why do that?” I asked. “Why not simply get a fresh piece of canvas?”

Yr Neh motioned to me to be silent. It was a puzzle, he said, and that was that. It had happened long ago. I sat back, somewhat put off at being rebuffed. With a glance at the vines so close overhead, I resigned myself to wait.

Well, I had not waited very long when the vault doors opened and Gloren strode in. Pausing by the doorway, he peered about the shadows. From the lighted area where he stood, the darkness beyond was quite impenetrable.

“Hello? Yr Neh? Are you here?” he called uncertainly. With Yr Neh’s answer, he smiled and strode over, walking about the base of the shelf looking for the ladder.

“I hope you two had as wonderful a time tonight down here in the dark as I have had,” he said. “But I rather doubt you have, seeing how you are encumbered with books, scrolls and whatever else. How did you get up- oh, I see. One second, I’ll be up. I nearly killed myself on a candle someone left carelessly underfoot! I-“

He fell silent as he pulled himself onto the shelf top, then froze, peering at the door to the vault. Yr Neh, too, turned his full attention to the doorway. I was just about to whisper an inquiry, when I saw the door move slightly, pulled outwards by the door beyond being opened. In moments the inner door, too, opened, and into the vault crept a woman whose piled silks indicated nobility. Her stealth spoke of some illicit purpose, and her short-cropped honey-colored hair declared her to be the Countess Therissa’s companion, Velice.

Soundlessly, she approached the painting that stood covered on the dais. Standing before it, she furled the cover aside, revealing the rune-covered sand in the image. As she did so, the waves swept over the shore, and even from a distance I was captivated once more. Velice gasped and stood rooted as the image slowly stilled itself. Taking a breath, she leaned close, peering at the frame, then walked around to the back. Her layered skirts remained visible under the lower edge of the painting as she moved slowly around the stand.

Just as she completed her circuit, however, she stopped, head cocked. Without further hesitation, she flipped the cover back over the painting and turned toward the bookshelves. Jumping down the steps of the dais with a single leap, she ran faster than any proper lady should toward the wall of books before her. One hand reached around behind her narrow waist, while the other reached –shockingly- into the shallow valley of her cleavage. With a tremendous leap, she propelled herself upward to the third shelf, her hands coming into play as she scampered up the side at a run. As she did so her dress unwound in a single long piece, a complex creation that, when undone, looked nothing at all like a woman’s formal attire. So fast was her traversal of the bookshelf, however, no details could be made out. The moment before she reached the top edge of the bookcase, she arched her back and hurled herself in the opposite direction entirely, up and away from the shelves. A flick of her wrist sent her dress –or whatever it could be called- sailing in a continuous flow of silk over our heads and into the isle between the rows. Velice, meanwhile, hit the netting from which the vines hung and clung like a spider, a glistening web of overlapping bands covering her body in a tight case of boiled leather body armor.

This companion of the Countess was no retiring flower. In her current position she could not see us, as she was facing away, but we froze in place, amazed. She hung where she was, head dangling so she could watch, motionless and silent as the doors opened. Where Velice had stood moments before, there now stood the hulking form of Lurec.

His stance expressed the sort of belligerence one immediately attributes to drinking. With his head thrown to one side, he addressed the covered painting.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. He spoke quietly, his rumbling voice easily crossing the vault. There was no slur of drunkenness, but the impression was made stronger somehow by his words. “If you could speak to me now,” he continued, his voice bitter. “I know what you would say. You would say, How could you do this, Lurec? But you never knew me, Father. You never knew me well enough.”

The figure turned away from the velvet covering the painting and laughed quietly. Lurec looked back over his shoulder. “You thought you knew everything. You and all of the Etherbis before you. Well, this time, Father, things will be as I want them!”

He wheeled towards the painting once more, his voice rising in rage. “Wherever you are, do you hear me? Of all the family, I will be the first to be freed of a mere painting! Are you listening? You will see, tomorrow. Succession be damned!”

With that, he stormed out of the room.

Velice waited until the sound of his footfalls faded, then dropped down to the floor, so far below. She landed in a deep crouch, absorbing the enormous impact without a sound. Standing, she walked quickly around the shelves to where her dress lay in a heap. By the time she had circled around into the light once more, she was swishing in her silks, to all appearances a lady of the court. With a glance at the covered painting, she left.

Some Welcome Unfortunate News

Gloren, Yr Neh, and I discussed the odd sequence of last night over breakfast in our rooms this morning. Theorize as we might, there was no simple answer to the odd puzzle. If Lurec was to attempt some form of coup, he would have to do it alone unless he had somehow corrupted a significant portion of the garrison. How could he have done that from Sionne, where he had been of late?

And, come to the subject of Sionne, who were the Countess Therissa and her companion Velice? Were their interests here merely political, as was thought? Clearly Sionne had much to gain from the military power of the Otrock Line, but who would best serve that purpose? What would Temmel, chafing under the duties of Scion, do to exercise greater power? Would he follow Lurec, if that was who the painting chose? How great was their mutual dislike? And Salianas, how complete was her loyalty to her brother? Greater than her desire for peace?

“Salianas would act for her kingdom before all else,” Gloren insisted. “I know her that well.” On this point he tolerated no other opinions. Before we could work around the matter, we were interrupted by a knock on the door, which led in due course to the admittance of a page.

“Master Avericci, Lord Yr Neh,” he said. “Please come quickly. Hunter Jho asked that you come to his room immediately. He needs help.”

“He said what?” I asked. “Now, see here, young man, Gloren Avericci is at the beck and call of no man, not to mention some second rate-“

“He asked us for help?” Gloren cut in. He and Yr Neh exchanged malicious grins, and with that we were off to Hunter Jho’s apartments, breakfast forgotten.

Hunter Jho’s room was in a disorderly state, a fact Yr Neh pointed out in lieu of a proper greeting. Where our room was neat and tidy, Jho’s was strewn with papers and their protective cloths, carrying tubes and sketching tools. The hearth’s mantle and nearby shelves were scattered with what appeared to be jars of a variety of teas, whose strange aromas filled the air. For such a wealthy man, Jho had certainly fallen short on training proper help. Peppin had set himself to boiling a kettle of water and mixing ground herbs in a bowl.

“Thank the seas you’ve come,” Jho said. The arrogant lilt of his voice was muffled by a veil of nausea, his head barely held off the table’s surface.

“Well, now, Garder Jho,” Gloren said heartily, “how does this morning find you?” He clapped the other man soundly on the back, to which Jho groaned.

“It finds me close to death, I fear,” he whispered. “It is the oddest thing. I felt wonderful last night!”

“Odd, nonsense,” Gloren responded. “It’s just a touch of the Tyndelian fever, I think.”

“A touch, nothing,” Jho gritted. “It is an intimate embrace.”

“Well, we all need to feel loved, after all,” Gloren replied, to which Yr Neh chuckled.

“I need your help,” Garder Jho said softly.

“Help!” Gloren said sharply, leaning close to the other man. “You stranded us on the Templetop of Maura Taun! You had us arrested in Darniel Market! On false charges!”

“Those charges weren’t false!” Jho worked up the energy to retort.

“Technically they were, and you know it!” Gloren responded.

“Then I apologize!” Jho responded.

Yr Neh hopped up onto the table and stated that it was too late for such gestures.

Jho hung his head for a moment. “Listen, Yr Neh, Gloren. The designs on that frame are priceless to me. I think I’ve found a pattern that will finish the Code of Abrio Nenda!”

Gloren and Yr Neh both started at this news, while I –and Peppin with me- stood unmoved, having no idea what they were talking about.

“Really?” Gloren asked, mollified.

“Yes,” Jho replied, gaining some strength. “And this is the only chance I’ll get to copy those designs. You know the painting will be sealed away until the next succession.”

Gloren though for a moment, then nodded, obviously torn.

“Very well,” he said, “I’ll help you. But I go with you to unlock the City of Ravens.”

“Done!”

Well, Gloren’s interpretation of his helping Garder Jho consisted of my carrying a huge load of supplies for Peppin, who was, after all, a mere apprentice and serving boy. How I got such a low assignment is not worth recording. Suffice it to say that while Gloren and Yr Neh stayed with Jho, I followed Peppin down to the vault once more. While he carried a bale of papers separated by sheets of fine silk, I hauled chests of tools. The lower classes never had it so good!

Work in the Vault

When we arrived, I deposited my load on the floor rather less gently than I could have. But Peppin didn’t seem to notice, absorbed as he was in unpacking and putting his tools in order. I sat sullenly, in a dark enough mood to ignore the numerous books around me in favor of scowling at the boy’s back. At one point he opened one of the chests I had carried down and pulled out a heavy cloak. Spreading it on the stone tiles of the floor, he sat.

“A cloak?” I asked, my mood turning even more foul. “You had me carry down your cloak? In a chest? Why didn’t you simply wear it down here?” I raged.

Peppin shrugged. “I wasn’t cold,” he said.

“Well, you’ll wear it back up, that’s for sure,” I retorted. “And you can carry the trunk it came in as well.”

“If you insist,” he replied.

“I do.” This houseboy, I thought, certainly had a ways to go in understanding his place in the world. But with a teacher like Garder Jho, what could one expect? No, this boy was what Jho had made him into. I settled down and waited, figuring it couldn’t take long. I was wrong.

Hours passed. Peppin worked steadily, having flipped the cover off of the painting. He drew and did rubbings. He compared and traced. He sprayed solutions on the drawings so they wouldn’t smudge. Time and again he sharpened his drawing sticks, so patiently that I finally became fed up with the process and sharpened them while he worked. At one point he set aside all of his other gear and arranged a number of bottles, each holding a clear solution.

“What are you doing now?” I asked, exasperated.

“I need to mix more fixative,” he said. “I’ve run low, and I can’t have my drawings smeared.”

I have been around Gloren long enough to recognize the Gallery Hunter’s obsession with accuracy. This boy would sit for the rest of the afternoon, mixing, if I let him.

“You have no more?” I asked.

“Well, Master Jho has some, but it’s back in our room. And he’d be irritated if I were to use his, when I could just as easily mix my own.”

“Just as easily,” I asked, “or just as quickly? How long will this take?”

“No more than an hour or two,” Peppin responded. I gasped.

“The viewing’s this evening!” I shouted. “I’d like to bathe and relax before then!”

“It won’t take that long!” he insisted. “I’m done with the drawings.”

“Nonsense,” I replied. “You finish your drawings, and I’ll brave Garder Jho’s displeasure.”

“He’ll be quite angry,” Peppin warned, flipping the velvet cover back over the painting.

“I’ll risk his wrath,” I said, watching as he began to put his tools away. “Besides, he’s so weak right now, even you could toss him on his head.”

“I’ll finish here,” Peppin said, shaking his little misting bottle between us. “There still a bit left.”

I left the vaults and returned to Jho’s room. The thought of sitting in the cold vault for another hour or two when this trip took a fraction as long was completely alien. I sighed as I entered their room. Peppin was just a youth, after all. Jho could, I supposed, seem pretty overwhelming. Now, however, Jho was huddled in a corner far from the hearth, Gloren and Yr Neh facing him, sitting on chair and table, respectively.

I explained what I needed, and Jho lifted a listless finger to point. Fierce indeed! I rooted among the bottles as the others continued talking. At last I found, by smell, the solution Peppin required. Turning, I retraced my steps.

The halls of the fortress were bustling now, as everyone prepared for the Succession Viewing this evening. I wove through the crowds as quickly as I could, but was nearly dancing with impatience when I finally arrived in the quiet stairway and empty level of the vault.

It was now much cooler down here, and Peppin wore his cloak. I handed him the solution without a word, and he sprayed his drawings quickly and handed the bottle back. The Succession Painting stood on its stand, covered as Peppin had left it, to be moved only at the last moment to the public rooms above.

Collecting his carefully separated drawings, he began to walk towards the door. I cleared my throat, indicating the empty trunk that had held his cloak. With a groan, he grabbed the handle and carried it as well. I smiled, seeing him gauge whether he could fit his drawings in it and thus carry only one thing. But the parchment sheets were far too large, and the cloth between them was bulky as well. With a sigh, he started towards the doors.

With both of his hands full, I contemplated carrying the other three heavy boxes back up the stairs to Jho’s room. One of them hadn’t even been opened!

“Now what in the world is in here?” I asked the boy. He glanced over his shoulder to where I pointed at the trunk and smiled sheepishly.

“Sorry, sir,” he said. “That was a mistake. It’s not even my box.”

“Well,” I said, nudging the heavy box with my foot, “it was your mistake, so you come back down and bring it back!”

“As you wish, sir,” he said, clearing the first of the vault’s three doors.

Carrying only the two chests, I followed.

One Last Scramble Before I Relax

I fell behind, not only because I was carrying a far greater load, but because the boy was yelling at the top of his young voice that he had urgent documents for the Sealord! He scrambled past as people hastily made room for such an important messenger, his billowing cloak clearing a wide swath. I trudged in the wake of the confusion he caused. By the time I reached Jho’s apartment, Peppin had already settled in and brewed his master a fresh cup of foul-smelling tea.

“Well, Peppin,” I said with relish as I sat before the fire. “One last trip to retrieve that final chest, and you’ll be done for the night.”

“Yes,” he replied, forlorn, ”I suppose I’d better get to it, then.” But as he finished what he was doing and headed for the door, Garder Jho began to protest loudly that he was moments from being most violently ill. With looks of alarm, and hasty farewells, Gloren and Yr Neh bid the man good evening. I was about to follow suit when I took pity on the youngster running frantically about the apartment, looking for a pot.

“I’ll go get the chests for you, Peppin,” I said. He cast me a grateful smile.

“That is very kind of you, Master Penworthy!”

So with Jho’s more audible symptoms disappearing into the background din, I worked my way through the crowded halls of the fortress and back down into the vault. The chest was undisturbed, and I was in that gloomy chamber only moments before I reemerged into the bustle, passing the guardsmen descending into the vault to retrieve the Painting.

This last chest was unusually heavy, which I’d noted while carrying it down. Now, however, moving through the cramped hallways, I shifted it from one hand to the other to relieve my tired fingers, waiting as I was for long stretches while the corridors jammed up tight with courtiers and servants. Finally my fatigued fingers lost their grip on the chest, and it clattered to the floor, its many contents scattering across the tiles, causing chaos.

Ball bearings and thin metal rods slid and rolled underfoot. Screws, tacks and dozens of tiny nails punctured thin leather soles. Tools such as wide-lipped pliers and small hammers made the few falls that occurred painful and hazardous far in excess of what they normally would be. Soon I had any number of people helping me load the strange collection back into the trunk. This incident did little to improve either my reputation or disposition. I found myself hoping that few here knew I was with Gloren Avericci, so as to not sully his reputation.

Suffice it to say, when I again stood in Garder Jho’s apartment, my mood was abrupt at best. I dropped the chest just inside the doorway and collapsed into the nearest chair.

“Please do try to be more quiet, Master Penworthy,” Peppin whispered from where he sat on the floor. “Master Jho is sleeping at last.”

With a glance at the figure lying comatose on the divan, I opened my mouth to make some angry retort. But in the end I merely nodded to the boy, who was after all, only doing his job. Peppin smiled from where he sat by the fire, his cloak spread out on the floor. He was apparently mending a hem, for sewing gear was strewn about his feet, and there were small pins glinting from the cloak’s edge, shears on the floor beside him. A serving boy’s work was never done.

“Can I get you a cup of tea, Master Penworthy?” Peppin asked from where he crouched, holding himself ready to bound to his feet at my slightest request. I sighed.

“No, lad,” I said. “Finish whatever you’re doing and then rest. I’ll let myself out, and hope to see you tonight at the Viewing.” With that, I left, and headed for the baths, to prepare myself for the ceremonies.

A Small Complication Arises

I must be careful here in my record. I must faithfully relate the details of this night as they happened, even as chaos envelops the fortress, and the future holds such uncertainty. But let me retrace my steps, rein in my spinning head and turn it fully to the task of chronicling the history of this evening.

When I returned from the baths, Gloren was relaxing with a cup of wine, reading the pages of this very record I had so far written during our time here. He was not without comment, on one point or another, and I took his suggestions to heart. But whereas most would insist they had been shown in too ordinary a light, Gloren, as he always did, insisted on toning down my presentation of him. I promised to heed his advice, as well as artistic integrity would allow, during the composition of my second draft.

Yr Neh entered just then, looking as if he had spent the greater part of the evening preening. As this was his habit nearly every evening, it was no great feat to imagine he had indeed done so, and he certainly looked well-managed, his orange and white fur neat and fluffed, tail plumed to its maximum degree. Without a wasted word, he informed us that the Viewing was to occur in the coming hour, and we would be summoned soon.

When we arrived in the viewing chamber, it was as guests of the Sealord, and thus we stood in the front ranks of those gathered to see the Painting make its choice. From all reports, there would be little enough to see. Once those who could succeed the last Sealord were gathered, and the Painting shown, they need only wait for the painted waves to crash once. Whatever experience those who would rule had in that moment, no one knew. But among them there was an accord, an agreement between all the legitimate heirs. One of them would be, from that moment on, the ruling Sealord of Etherbi, Master of the Otrock Line.

Peppin stood uncertainly in the front, beside Gloren.

“So where is your master, Garder Jho?” Gloren asked the boy.

Peppin shook his head, ill at ease. “He told me to come along, that he was still feeling quite ill. He is not at all well.”

“Perhaps you should consult a healer,” Gloren suggested.

Peppin nodded, but said nothing more. Gloren could not hide the smile of satisfaction from his face.

Velice entered the hall, casting about with her eyes. Gloren, Yr Neh, and I watched her intently, all of us, I am certain, trying to reconcile the dainty, powdered lady of the court with the swift and sinister figure we’d seen the night before. Her dress was a deep plum wrap of velvet and lace, modestly high at collar and low at the sleeve. But I thought I could make out the defined contours of muscle beneath the thin covering on her arms, now that I thought to look for it. And as to modesty, was she armored as well? Was every article of her wardrobe false, a facade? I watched as she moved past us and stood near Peppin, patting the boy affectionately on the head. He stared at her.

The Countess Therissa of Sionne, meanwhile, had entered with a group of petty Otrock nobles, mostly Barge Masters and Knights of the Ferry Armada. Though she walked in among them, she was separate, and broke away as they moved to their own location in the hall. Wiping her hands carefully on a silken kerchief, rings glinting, she nodded to Yr Neh and Gloren as she passed by, and began a whispered conference with Velice.

Lurec strode in alone, relaxed and confident. He seemed in better spirits than I’d ever seen him, talking and laughing with those he passed by. With a smile for me, a nod to Gloren, and a brief bow to Yr Neh, he paused near the Countess of Sionne.

“Pardon me, Countess,” he was heard to say. “But I would like to say, before the viewing, that it has been a pleasure to have been your guest these past months, and I hope that what I must do here tonight will not impact our friendship, after the discussions we have had regarding our two kingdoms.”

The Countess raised an eyebrow. “And what must you do, Lurec?” she asked.

He smiled and took Velice’s hand in his own. “What is best for me. You were right all along.”

Countess Therissa smiled at him. “You will do as you must, Lurec.”

With these words, Lurec strode across the small expanse before the painting to wait where he and the other potential heirs were to stand, none of whom had yet arrived. I saw Therissa cast a glance at Velice, full of some hidden meaning. With a quick motion, too rapid to see save as a blurring of her many rings, the Countess secreted her kerchief somewhere on her person, its location a feminine mystery. But the motion betrayed a dexterity I’d seldom seen before. Gloren cast me a glance, having seen the sleight of hand as well.

At that moment the acting Sealord and Scion of Etherbi arrived, the crowd dropping rapidly into silence at their presence. As was customary, there were no heralds calling out titles during the viewing; the ranks and titles of the heirs were considered uncertain, especially those acting as Sealord, and Scion. Salianas and her brother, Temmel, walked directly to where the heirs were to wait. Temmel turned and gestured at the back of the hall. Then, with a smile, he repeated it, imperiously commanding someone to join the group of heirs. The silence of the gathered crowd dissolved in a rumble as Terring stepped forth, his Hallmaster’s tunic incongruous amid the rich clothing of those with whom he stood. Salianas lifted her hands for silence, her presence instantly stilling the crowd.

“Know all gathered here that Hallmaster Terring is of the Southport Terrings, and is Eidnine Knight. From this day forward, his rank and privilege are those of the highest of the Eidnine Knights, as is his right by dedication to the Kingdom and feat of arms. He is also, by the same lineage, among those who can be chosen to lead the Kingdom in the future.”

There was a loud mix of shouted acclaim and muttered speculation as the surprised gathering absorbed the news, from the nobility down through the ranks to the commoners who spilled out into the hall. Terring bowed humbly to Salianas and Temmel.

With a gesture, Salianas led the potential heirs forward, to stand in a line abreast before the painting. The crowd fell silent once more, watching as a young page came nervously forward to lift the velvet cover away.

The image of the four figures standing there, waiting to look upon the painting that would decide the course of their lives, will stay with me forever. Salianas, her long hair a brilliant milk-white wave down her back, stood straight and tall, arms at her sides, waiting expectantly. Temmel, her brother, had a hooded, brooding aspect, conflicting emotions playing across his face as if only now realizing what the next moments could bring. Lurec smiled slightly, his confident and relaxed demeanor unruffled. Terring stood resolutely, facing the unknown future before him as I imagine he faced every unexpected event of his life: with cool determination and unbending will.

I could see all of their faces as they stood watching. Thus I clearly saw the confusion and consternation that crossed their faces as the velvet was swept aside, revealing a perfectly blank and featureless canvas.

Wits are Collected, and Theories Discussed

“You treacherous shark!” Temmel exploded, wheeling on Baron Lurec, his cousin. “What have you done with the painting?”

Lurec’s brows lowered dangerously, and he leaned forward to tower over the smaller man. “You accuse me of stealing the painting? What would that gain me?”

“Uncertainty!” Temmel stormed. The crowd drowned out the rest of his words, their shouts of alarm and consternation becoming a painful roar. Terring stepped forward and gestured to the soldiers on the balcony above.

“Clear the hall!” he shouted, his military-fashioned voice rising above the din of the confused masses. Within seconds, guards poured into the hall, emptying it as quickly as possible, enforcing order with an unwavering grip of authority. As the nobles and guests were led out, however, Terring stepped forward and gestured to Gloren, Yr Neh, and me.

“These three stay,” he said.

“The Countess as well,” Salianas said, stepping forward to stand beside Terring. “And her companion.”

“Are you suggesting I had something to do with this?” Therissa asked incredulously. “How dare you treat your guests in such a manner, and to make such an accusation!”

“I am still the Sealord of the Otrock Line until the succession is complete,” Salianas said.

“And then what?” Therissa asked, her violet eyes narrowing.

“Perhaps the Sealord still,” Salianas answered. “And you are merely a Countess, after all.”

Therissa bared her teeth preparing to respond, but refrained when Velice placed a hand on her arm. The woman composed herself and smiled, nodding. “True. Merely a Countess, after all.”

At this point the hall was empty, save for the Sealord and her brother, their cousin Lurec, the Countess and Velice, Terring, and the three of us. And the guards, of course, who stood around the circumference of the room.

“Well, Terring,” Baron Lurec replied, “or should I call you Cousin? Yes, as a Southport, you are indeed my cousin. It seems you managed to perform an effortless coup. I salute you.”

Terring shook his head impatiently. “What are you babbling about, Lurec? What coup?”

Lurec cast a wave at the surrounding guards. “We are prisoners here, right? You do control the guards here, don’t you?”

I control the guards,” Salianas snapped.

“For how long?” Lurec retorted.

“For as long as I remain Sealord!”

“That time may well be over even as we speak,” Lurec replied. He looked at Terring. “Well, Cousin? Is her tenure as Sealord over?”

“You dare accuse me of plotting to overthrow the succession?” Terring raged.

“Even the Countess Therissa has not been spared that inquiry!” Lurec shot back. “A visiting noble!”

“How was I to know I was going to be called up for the succession?” Terring asked.

“You didn’t,” Lurec responded. “You thought you’d be a servant and bodyguard forever!”

“And for the legitimate heir I would have been!” Terring shouted, his composure cracking. “Even if it had been you! Everyone knows you’ve always coveted the title of Sealord!”

“I was going to refuse the throne if chosen!” Lurec shouted back. Terring, poised to counter the point, paused.

“You were going to do what?”

Salianas and the others voiced similar questions, while Lurec shook his head. Therissa stepped forward.

“It is true,” she said. “He spoke to me of it during his time in Sionne.”

“But why?” Temmel asked. Lurec smiled, a small, bemused smile.

“Because, Cousin, I found something I wanted more than a title.” He smiled, then, at Velice, with such an open caring that I was for a moment awash with inconvenient emotion, and missed the wording of her response. Whatever it had been, she looked away, avoiding his gaze.

“Well, if you knew of Lurec’s choice, Countess,” Temmel said, “clearly you were not conspiring together to place him on the throne.”

“And yet her interest is clearly not just a question of Lurec’s feelings, is it?” Gloren asked suddenly. Thus, in a twinkling, the three of us came under scrutiny once more, much to my discomfort and Yr Neh’s evident displeasure.

“What do you mean, Gloren?” Salianas asked, bewildered.

“The Countess knows that a smooth succession means undisrupted trade,” Gloren said, stepping forward. “Her companion, Velice, would know it as well. They both, then, have an interest in keeping the succession intact.”

You, however, do not,” said Temmel.

“I?” Gloren asked, genuinely at a loss. He rallied his wits, then tried once more. “I?”

“Yes, yes, you,” Temmel said, irritated. “You took the Painting to avoid the possibility my sister might become the Sealord!”

“Temmel,” Salianas said, “That is quite ridiculous.”

“Is it?” her brother snapped, stepping close to Gloren and peering, as if to examine the details of his character. Gloren stood as cool and collected as total surprise and confusion would allow. Temmel continued.

“The entire fortress knows of the relationship between the two of you!” he snapped. “It was made most plain at the High Table. Rewards indeed!”

Salianas blushed, looking towards the floor. “Temmel, you forget I’m your sister,” she said.

“It is the fact foremost in my mind!” Temmel said, almost hissing his words at Gloren.

“Well, then,” Gloren said, recovering somewhat, “that would explain your overlooking a few other points.”

“Such as? And remember, dear sister, that not only does he get you, but the Gallery of Days would no doubt be displaying the Succession Painting in a hundred years or so as well! These Gallery Hunters are all the same.”

“You wish to hear facts,” Gloren said, “Well, there is the fact that when Garder Jho’s boy, Peppin, was working on the frame studies this very afternoon, the picture was there!”

“But your man Penworthy was the last to enter the vault,” Terring said, glancing at a soldier standing nearby, who nodded in confirmation.

Gloren looked to me, at a loss. “Very well,” he said. ”To prove our innocence, please feel free to search our rooms this very moment!”

There was a general consensus at this, and, with an escort of soldiers clearing the way ahead, the group moved to the apartment where Gloren, Yr Neh and I were staying. There the soldiers made a careful study of our belongings while Gloren and I watched, irritated and insulted. Yr Neh stood out of the way on the hearth, cleaning his paws, completely unconcerned, as he had no belongings to speak of. Finally, the soldiers relented, and Salianas smiled in relief.

“There,” she said. “A foregone conclusion. Gloren, accept my apologies.”

Gloren nodded, deep in thought. “Well, if Gallery Hunters are to be treated as all the same,” he said, “we should really search the apartment of Garder Jho as well.” Yr Neh smiled covertly at this, knowing Gloren only wished to visit some small measure of humiliation on his ill rival. The Countess Therissa looked up quickly.

“Yes,” she said. “Let us see about this other Gallery Hunter.”

So it was that the entire group, flanked by soldiers, moved up to the next floor, where Garder Jho’s apartment was situated. To the vast surprise of us all, there were already soldiers there, standing about in a cluster. They bowed when we arrived.

“There’s been an accident, my lords,” one of them said, bowing to our group. “It would appear that the man staying here has tumbled out the window to his death!”

More is Forthcoming

To this startling news, there was little response. Gloren and Yr Neh, I believe, were shocked, for though Garder Jho had ever been a thorn to them, I cannot say they had desired his demise, however much they might relate a joke or two on the subject. Temmel and Salianas were horrified that one of their guests might have perished while in their care. Terring lifted a single eyebrow. Velice glanced at the Countess, who merely cocked her head.

“When did they find him?” Therissa asked. “Where is the boy?”

The guards were uncertain, and one of them ran off for more details. The group spread out to wait. Temmel gestured for the soldiers who had come with us to proceed in their search, but Gloren held up a restraining hand.

“My Lord, if I might have a moment to examine the room first? There might be items of importance to be learned from the things as they stand.”

Bewildered and tired, the Scion waved his hand in assent and slumped into a chair. Gloren walked slowly about the room, turning his powers of perception on the everyday items there. I, meanwhile, swung a kettle of boiling water off the low, dying fire and measured some tea leaves into a cup. After a quick stir, I sipped it cautiously, prepared to watch and wait, relaxing as best I could. But moments after the foul-smelling brew hit my stomach, I was retching and gagging most unpleasantly. Even as I apologized, mortified, Gloren was staring into the fire. He cast about for a fire-rod, and fished about in the coals, sending cascades of sparks into the air-draw. Though my stomach continued to clench and spasm, I could still muster the interest to crane forward for a better view, gripping a chamber pot, should my suddenly unruly innards require one

“They’re Peppin’s drawings,” I gasped, recognizing the charred fragments.

“Why burn the drawings?” Gloren whispered to himself, wiping the soot from his hands with a nearby cloth. The gesture sparked some recent memory, but I was ill-suited to bring it forth, as my stomach slowly squirmed within me. Gloren turned and went to an open doorway which gave access to the balcony, where the roar of the surf could be heard far below. The rain had paused momentarily, and Gloren peered upward and pointed in the moonlight.

“What is that above us, my Lord?” he asked. Salianas stepped out to join him, and they both stood for a moment looking up. I joined them there, hoping to see what they saw, so as to better record it, and also to settle my roiling innards with fresh air. Far above us, balconies jutted out from the wall of the fortress. Below us, the sea thundered into a foam-filled cove.

“That next balcony is the stormwatch,” Salianas said, pointing. “It’s part of the upper keep. The next one up is the guest level where heads of state and visiting nobility are quartered. We are far above any threat from outside during a siege. The drop to the surf is over eight hundred feet. The other side of the fortress is preferable, as the balconies are larger.”

“Oh?” Gloren asked. “Why is that?”

“The spring storms are terrible this time of year. On our seaward side they are doubly so. Those apartments above us are empty during the spring. Even now, when the fortress is crowded.”

“Ah. What’s below us?” he pointed to a square of stone overlooking the sea. I reeled with sudden vertigo, my stomach twisting anew.

“The fire ramp,” Salianas replied. “It’s our first line of defense against invaders from the sea. It is actually eighty feet above sea level. The ramp serves a sheltered harbor for the navy, though all of the warships are out to sea tonight, guarding the north passage, and blockading the harbor until the succession is complete.”

Gloren rubbed at the wall beside the door, then returned inside, mumbling. I stayed outside, letting the cool evening air wash over me. From inside, I heard the sound of the soldiers conducting their search, and the others talking. Breathing deeply, I looked again at the balconies above, then let my eyes drift down the length of the wall, amazed as I always was at the unparalleled architecture of the lost Kingdom of Malduan. Even after seven hundred years, over seventeen full Turnings, these walls still stood. These balconies were safe indeed from any invading force from the sea. I looked at fresh scratches on the stone, peering closely at the marred surface, an intermittent trail leading up the wall. I turned back inside, where the search was concluding and the runner had returned with remarkable news.

Garder Jho had survived his fall into the sea.

A Conclusion, of Sorts

The entire group ran with haste down to where Garder Jho was being tended. It was chill here, far from the main living areas of the fortress. Peppin was standing nearby, the stricken, teary-eyed boy in his heaviest cloak. The physicians, trained for the worst of the battlefield, had done an amazing job. The man’s bones, they reported, were likely all broken, but his vitals were still functioning. Though his breathing was so shallow they’d at first thought him dead, his heart beat still, albeit weakly. Where a heart beat, they knew, healing could occur. But Garder Jho was beyond their abilities to tend properly. They recommended immediate transfer to Viron, where a Practitioner of the Mysteries could heal his body.

“We have no time to send for someone, my Lord,” the physician said, speaking to Temmel. The man nodded, and within minutes Peppin was loaded with the inert and heavily cushioned Garder Jho onto a carriage held ready in the flat ground before the fortress’ front gate, the runners standing nearby. Minutes later the group was off, running down the winding path, the physicians trotting along behind like the soldiers they were.

Temmel sighed as he watched the carriage pass out of sight at the first turn. Before it returned to view on the next switchback, far below, he faced the Countess Therissa.

“I apologize for these events, Countess.”

Therissa smiled sadly, nodding. “You have more important troubles than my discomfort, my Lord,” she replied. “Would you like to search my rooms before I leave?”

“Leave?” Salianas asked.

“Yes, my Lord,” Therissa replied. “With the succession here in doubt, I must make the proper arrangements for our future trade. You will need my help, and the help of Sionne, to keep the Etherbi holdings without a proper heir. You may rely on my aid. With your leave I will depart at once, so as to catch the last of the ferries.”

Salianas nodded, grateful. Without collecting any of their belongings, the Countess of Sionne and her companion Velice were gone, borne down the winding path to the sea by another set of runners. Velice cast a look back before their carriage disappeared around the bend.

Baron Lurec stood uncertainly, watching. “I suppose you’d like to search my apartment as well?” he asked. Salianas sighed.

“You needn’t wait for that, Cousin,” she said softly. Lurec turned toward her with a great smile. Clasping her in a tremendous hug, he bowed to Temmel and strode out into the night air, calling for runners and another carriage, urging them to speed. Gloren turned urgently to Salianas, but she lifted her hand to still his words.

“I know,” she said. “I know.”

Now I must write quickly, for our own carriage is nearly together, and the runners are waiting. Gloren leafs through this very journal as we wait, a slow counterpoint to the rapid conversation of the Otrock nobles speaking among themselves. His reading is feverish, and he is talking to himself. He turns to peer at the roads below, waiting for the first carriage to come back into sight, bearing Garder Jho and Peppin. And when it does so, he waves urgently. From within the carriage there is no reaction, and the runners do not see. But there is a clear flash of an orange and white plume waving in response, from the cat hidden beneath the raincloths secured to the top of the carriage. Then it is gone. The runners are calling now, our carriage is ready and Gloren tells me that we must be quick!


END PART ONE

Continued in Part II


daughters-dowry-cropAaron’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 called it “A very fine story that is impossible to predict.”

“The Sealord’s Successor” is the third story featuring Gallery Hunter Gloren Avericci and Yr Neh. The first, in which the two seek a legendary treasure in a sunken tower, was “The Daughter’s Dowry,” published here on October 14.

Cyd Athens at Tangent Online described it this way:

A tale… that has the feel of being told around the fireplace in a fantasy setting. The protagonist, Gloren Avericci, is a freelance Gallery Hunter. This may be code for thief, but to hear Gloren tell it, he is an adventurer in true fantasy style. Even after knowing the story, it is debatable whether his cat, Yr Neh, is a familiar or a travelling companion, though said cat is presented as former royalty and sentient.

That very little is resolved in this tale is part of its charm… This was a fast and pleasant read. A story such as this deserves a world of its own and more adventures from its hero.

“The Daughter’s Dowry” is a complete 9,000-word novelette of heroic fantasy offered at no cost, with original art by Aaron Bradford Starr. Read the complete story here.

tea-makers-task2The second tale, “The Tea-Maker’s Task,” published here on December 30, 2012, saw Gloren Avericci and Yr Neh accept a dangerous commission to investigate a deadly island.

Here’s Louis West at Tangent Online:

Aaron Bradford Starr’s “The Tea-Maker’s Task” is an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek fantasy about Gallery Hunters Gloren and his cat companion, Yr Neh. Their adventures take them from the rancid food of Burrow Deep Lane in the city of Ravanon to the workshop of a Tea-Making master then through the forests of Candelon, wherein lurks the Walker of the Woods, until they finally reach the ruined city of Vandelon.

All the while, Gloren and the cat engage in constant, silent banter, much like two brothers or war buddies… I wanted more.

The complete review is here.

“The Tea-Maker’s Task” is a complete 9,000-word novelette of heroic fantasy with original art by Aaron Bradford Starr. Read the complete story here.


aaron-starrAaron Bradford 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.

Aaron’s first published story was “Mortal Star” in Black Gate 8. Author photo by Idit Zehavi.

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