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
This is Part II. Read Part I here.
I continue this account by the light of the lantern in our cabin, although the glow of the sky marks the beginning of a morning so many of us thought could not come soon enough. The tiny windows of the room admit the sounds and smells of the harbor as we strike out into the deep channel of Landing Port, leaving Otrock behind us. Through the shifting viewport, I can see lines of ships awaiting their own turn to do the same, and crowds of people massed on the shoreline, desperately seeking transport. Gloren and Yr Neh are asleep behind me, succumbing at last to their fatigue. But I must put into writing at least the beginning of this account, and against the cloud-laden sky I see the citadel looming far above the coast, and, with effort, can make out the winding road that we’d descended in such haste last night, to reach this very port.
Our perilous, mad descent began as I have related, in the middle of a raging storm. The runners who bore us along seemed, as ever, immune to the pounding torrent, striding confidently along a mountain path lit only by flashes of blinding lightning.
If the details of this phase of our endeavors on the Otrock Line are ever incorporated into a theatrical work (as had, to great effect, selections from Volume Two of my humble efforts), great lengths would need be taken to simulate the torrential downpour through which we were conveyed, and thunderous strikes of incessant lighting, seemingly all about. Those dedicated military men who carried our carriage deserve their due, tromping at speed down water-washed trails alongside deep chasms and sheer drop-offs, bearing us in pursuit of those who had left the citadel immediately before.
Dressed as we still were in finery suitable for a coronation feast, neither Gloren nor I were prepared for this sudden chase, and would have been better advised to wait out the journey ensconced within the carriage. But Gloren, much as he had on the upward trip of a few days before, leaned far out into the night, regarding the winding road visible below us with visible distress. Crossing close below us at intervals was the carriage of Baron Lurec, and ahead of him that of the Countess Therissa and her companion Velice. Further on still, but lost from view in the night’s inclement weather, Garder Jho’s medical team was surely nearing the destination shared by us all: Landing Port, the primary harbor of the Otrock Line.
Of all the islands in this small northern archipelago, only Landing Port had clear access to the deep waters of the open sea, and a protected inlet suitable for securing the large trading vessels of the south. I glanced back up toward the citadel, visible only as a dark patch against flickering skies, and noted the beacon there. This signal, a red circle encompassed by a green ring, was, as Gloren explained, a sign the harbor should be sealed, forbidding passage either into or out of Landing Port by water.
We’d have passage awaiting us, with special permission from Salianas, as would Baron Lurec and the Countess. The physicians attending to Garder Jho would be able to show written orders enabling them to commandeer the swiftest military vessel in the port. This meant that those we pursued would part ways at the water’s edge, and we’d have to choose among them.
I had asked Gloren who, exactly, we were chasing after a particularly harrowing turn. He transferred to the opposite window as our carriage reversed direction on the switchback.
“Everyone,” he replied. “But we must learn who’s got the painting while we’re all still in Landing Port. Once the ships are boarded, we’ll either have to split up to follow them all, or take our best guess who stole the painting.”
I felt a twinge of apprehension, as establishing myself as a stowaway aboard a seagoing vessel was not a skill I was well versed in, and Baron Lurec was not the sort to be stalked casually. Nor did the idea of tracking the Countess Therissa and her enigmatic companion appeal. “I can’t imagine why the Baron or the Countess would steal the Succession Painting,” I said at last. “And the other possible heirs are just as unlikely. All four have an equal chance of being chosen, I’d imagine. Nobody knows why the painting chooses as it does, so who’s to say who is more or less favored? Without that painting, any Sealord that takes power will lack legitimacy.”
Gloren nodded, looking away from the window as he silently ruminated, rain flying nearly horizontally through the opening. Lightning dazzled me for a moment, instantly followed by a concussion so powerful we had to struggle to recover our wits. The runners outside, however, never faltered, and we whirled around the next switchback, descending with every step.
“Salianas knows that one of us likely has the painting. My guess is that she’ll use the Ferry Armada to board our ships once we leave the harbor.” The Armada, a shallow-draft force of oar-driven vessels, was the only military force capable of operating in the shallow waters that surrounded the deep channel to the sea, and so was used both for civilian transport as well as inter-island policing. But the captains of this fleet had a dark reputation regarding those who commit crimes on the water, and I shuddered to think of what might befall whomever was found to have the Succession Painting on their person.
I looked up at the Citadel, rising into the angry skies above. From where we stood it was difficult to believe I’d been standing on a balcony on an upper floor not long before, taking advantage of a lull in the weather, waiting for my stomach to calm itself. And, as suddenly as my unaccustomed bout of nausea had come on, it had departed, leaving me ravenous. I thought ruefully of the feast in the great hall, awaiting a celebration that was not to be.
As heart-stopping as moments of our descent were, I still found greater clarity of mind than I had earlier that evening, standing in Garder Jho’s rooms. I mentioned to Gloren the scrapes I’d seen on the wall outside, linking Jho’s balcony to the one far above. Gloren nodded.
“I didn’t mention those to Salianas,” he said. “Not with the Countess present. If it became known we suspected them, our two dear friends Therissa and Velice might pay us a visit similar to the one they paid Jho.”
“Why would the Countess throw Garder Jho out a window?”
“Perhaps she got to know him,” he replied.
A concussion rocked the carriage at that moment, and I recall the vivid sensation of being hurled about the carriage interior, which, comfortable as it might be in its proper orientation, nonetheless provided widespread battering to both Gloren and me as we rattled about within. The environment had finally caught up with the sure-footed worthies who had borne us, and as we got our bearings within our overturned conveyance I could hear shouts of alarm and injury from without.
The head runner, after seeing to our condition and righting our carriage, informed us that we had lost two runners, and asked that they be allowed to join us within the confines of the carriage, thus to be carried along with us to Landing Port. Gloren, with a look of anguish at the injured men who sat in the rain, clutching ankle and knee, refused.
“Our need is urgent,” he explained, visibly uncomfortable in denying aid. But if we’d lost two runners, we’d be slowed even further by requiring the remaining men to carry four passengers rather than two. But Gloren asked that our carriage’s top and sides be removed, so as to provide a shelter for the men from the rain while they awaited their companion’s return. In minutes both Gloren and I were soaked through, our benches open to gusting wind, sheeting rain, and views of terrifying splendor involving various clefts, drop-offs, and jagged-walled ravines. The two injured runners watched from beneath our former roof as we continued on. Gloren leaned close at one point, taking advantage of a relatively flat stretch of road.
“The good news is that the carriage is much lighter now!” he shouted to me, and I clearly remember the sound of his bitter laughter as it mixed with the rage of the storm. Our quarry was no longer in sight ahead or below.
After our eventful stay at the Citadel, we’d returned to Landing Harbor.
Consulting with Various Officials
Gloren’s mood was not improved when, at the guardpost straddling the citadel road, we were greeted by a rueful Yr Neh, at whom the sentries cast pensive glances. To explain his presence there, rather than with Garder Jho, the cat related that the three carriages preceding ours had arrived at Landing Port in a group. Countess Therissa had sent her own runners ahead with orders to prepare the fast medical cutter for Jho’s arrival, and Baron Lurec had departed with Velice with only the most cursory conversation with Therissa. Yr Neh had been unable to hide himself atop the special cart that had been provided for Jho, and had followed the team of medics on foot as they trotted at speed through the streets, the Countess and Peppin following them.
The medics set a stiff pace, and shouldered their way through the celebratory crowds that filled the streets of Landing Port, enjoying the holiday atmosphere that came with the succession. The turmoil caused by the rough passage of this group had made the milling crowds turn ugly, and those predisposed toward being unpleasant while in their cups soon started trouble. This was as far as Yr Neh got, and the cat had chosen to forego risking the melee-stirred feet. Circling around, avoiding the converging watchmen who swarmed to the area, the cat had attempted to reacquire the medical team, but had failed. He had dashed back to the sentry gate in time to join with us once more.
Yr Neh and Gloren were visibly frustrated by the misfortune that had fouled their plans, and stood in the rain, staring about the rush of people. Through the downpour plodded crowds of villagers going about by guttering street lanterns and flashes of lightning, sloshing across the cobbles. The general atmosphere was one of carousing and revelry. I cast a sour glance at the high spire of the Citadel behind us, with its glowing signal light. The disastrous events of the evening had been safely sealed away in that high fortress by the order of Temmel, the Scion of Etherbi, and the signal to close the harbor was doubtless seen as a standard precaution against drunken feats of maritime good humor.
“We need to get to the waterfront,” Gloren said, leaning close to be heard over the din. “Lurec and the Countess both have passes to leave by ship, and Jho’s transport was no doubt waiting for his arrival.”
“So we can hire a fast ship in the morning,” I said. “We know Jho’s bound for Viron.” The man would doubtless be suspended in the half-life that the battle medics of sophisticated militaries could impose on the grievously injured. For all its small size, the naval power of the Otrock Line was formidable, and they were widely regarded as the best equipped force in the region. Still, keeping a body alive was a far cry from healing it, and for that specialists would be needed. The Medical College at the Vironese Academy was the surest bet, though there were closer possibilities. But Gloren shook his head, where his short-cropped hair lay bunched at random by the rainfall.
“That may well be true,” he replied, gesturing for me to pace him as he walked, “but Jho might not be the one we need to follow. Of the four contenders to be Sealord, only Lurec would benefit more by making the painting disappear, since, if his words last night are to be believed, he doesn’t want to be Sealord. Could it be that the choice of the painting is binding? As far as I know, nobody the painting has chosen has ever declined to serve.”
Yr Neh added that Velice could be playing the good Baron for a fool, to benefit her mistress, the Countess. The cat swished his tail about, lashing water in all directions. Her home, Sionne, as the largest of the four principal islands of the archipelago, could even be launching a campaign to claim naval supremacy in the wake of the Otrock Line’s internal strife. With that disturbing possibility in mind, we entered the liaison quarters of the Harbor Master.
This was where the authority of the watchmen of Landing Port ended, and that of the Ferry Captains began. The waterfront was the responsibility of the harbor police loyal to the Captains and the Families of the Armada. Scrupulously clean, the harbor district of Landing Port was an authoritarian place, where papers were on prominent display, and reasons for travel between wharf, dock, marina, and warehouse were never far from one’s lips. If mischief was planned by the Countess, it would have to happen elsewhere. After she crossed this boundary, her high station wouldn’t protect her from justice.
Thus it was alarming to learn she’d not been through.
“I’ve still got her boarding pass,” the functionary said, placing a hand atop a small stack of booklets containing the Countess’s various passports and documents. Garder Jho and Peppin had similar stacks waiting nearby.
“What of Baron Lurec?” Gloren asked. “Has he entered the harbor yet?” The man consulted more papers, as if someone of Lurec’s massive size and stature could be quickly forgotten. But with the soul of a born bureaucrat, he paged through a large ledger as we waited in obvious agitation.
As we did so, I looked beyond the deskman, into an alcove where another sat. This space was evidently to be shielded from view by a heavy black curtain, but this had been carelessly done, and through the gap I could see a rotating disk upon the heavy wooden desk, the outermost band sliding back and forth in ceaseless motion. These movements were accompanied by a glowing yellow gemstone that rode along.
This was the most sophisticated military communication device ever created: the back and forth movements brought the lines scribed into the surface into differing alignments, and these motions could be used to convey whatever code its user desired. When activated by two identical stones placed on different disks, the movements of one stone would be mirrored in the other, regardless of the distance between the sets, allowing an operator in one location to move the disk of the second set far away. But, should either stone be still for a heartbeat, it would go dark, losing its ability until recharged, a long and expensive process. Thus such methods were used only in emergencies, and, if the hurried transcription I saw was any indication, tonight qualified. The signalman glanced up in surprise at the message coming through, saw me watching him, and jerked the curtain closed.
“Baron Lurec hasn’t been through either,” the front man finally said.
“Which is surprising,” said a voice behind us, “considering his haste to be away.”
We turned in time to see the Scion of Etherbi enter and stand just inside the doorway.
A Voice of Authority
It would be fair to say that Temmel Etherbi radiated distaste as he regarded us. The younger brother of the acting Sealord, Temmel had not been overly friendly during our stay at the Citadel, but, with the theft of the painting that might have made him Sealord in his sister’s stead, his disposition had grown as stormy as the weather outside. Unclenching his jaw with a visible effort, he pointed an accusatory finger.
“Well, Gallery Hunter? What have you to say about the sudden disappearance of the Baron my cousin, as well as a foreign dignitary and two of your comrades?”
“Two of my- here now,” Gloren protested, “Garder Jho and I are far from comrades, and as to your good cousin, we were here to enquire whether he’d boarded ship yet.”
“Your words mean nothing,” Temmel snapped. “As a possible conspirator, you’ve threatened the stability of my nation, and the safety of her people. Tell me it’s coincidence that a mob of Gallery Hunters are present when a priceless work of the Mysteries goes missing, along with a certain Countess who stands to gain immeasurably by infighting here, and a jealous relative who would love nothing so much as to see my sister and I swept aside. And now I find that this entire cast has vanished, save for you two-” (“Three,” I corrected softly, and was pinned by his icy stare for my troubles.)
“– you two, who were not fast enough, it would appear.”
Yr Neh jumped up onto the countertop, so as to better look Temmel in the eye, and from this new vantage point he glared, ears flattened. He reminded Temmel that Jho had been hurled hundreds of feet into the sea, which was a poor method of escape, and that the rest of us hadn’t made any move to flee the Citadel during the investigation, but had been allowed to leave by Salianas herself.
“Ah, yes, my sister,” he said, nodding. “She will learn of your detention after this has been resolved, and I believe her to be innocent of any collaboration.”
To the voiced outrage of Gloren and Yr Neh, Temmel made no reply, but waved his hands to guardsmen outside, who crowded in after he departed. His voice drifted in from the storm. “Take them to the holding cells.”
Guests of the Scion of Etherbi
The darkened corridors and narrow passages cut into the stone of Landing Port had been converted to handle the heavy police presence at the busy harbor, and had a mix of offices, holding rooms, and storerooms where contraband was kept after seizure. The revelry in the streets had swelled the ranks of the detained, and, as we walked the halls, we could hear shouts, arguments, and groups singing in various stages of inebriation. The halls were dry, save for the floors, tracked muddy by guards and prisoners alike. Still, though the steady drumbeat of the storm faded quickly beyond the thick stone all around, I could detect the sounds of running water somewhere nearby.
We were shown to a large chamber behind an iron-banded door, lit only by guttering torches around the periphery. Fastened to the stone floor were ornate shackles set at regular intervals. Across the broad floor many sat huddled, affixed to their spots. Most were clearly revelers whose high spirits had gotten out of hand, and the arrival of our guards hushed the otherwise raucous group, determined to have what fun they still could while sitting in an underground cell.
The sound of rushing water was louder here, creating a second murmur beneath the hushed whispers and laughter as the cell’s denizens watched us get locked into place. My own space was, to my great dismay, not on the dry, flat stone of the floor, but in the center of a metal grate of exceptional roughness. To my protests the guard offered little more consolation than a rough shove that sent me sprawling, the better to fully appreciate how uncomfortable I could be made. The metal bands bit through my court garb as easily as bare skin, and I gritted my teeth at my location’s considerable abrasive qualities. Gloren helped me to sit upright once more, and the three of us took stock of our new quarters.
“I liked our rooms better,” Gloren said, and I shook my head, thinking of how we’d been clean and comfortable earlier that very evening, expecting a night of undiluted carousing. Yr Neh spread out on his patch of stone, tail thumping, saying that the goodwill of the Etherbis was short lived. Gloren pursed his lips, looking around at the company into which we’d been thrust.
“Salianas will release us, once she hears of this,” he said.
“Ah,” said an old man secured next to me. “The acting Sealord. Originally, they were called Seal Lords, perhaps on account of the animals in the northern bays.”
“Do you know her?” Gloren asked. If some local favorite of Salianas had been swept up in a mass arrest, a representative of the Sealord might already be on the way. But the man shook his head, to our consternation.
Yr Neh grunted, noting that Temmel and Salianas controlled two rival police forces, and these were unlikely to share information on any regular basis. And if Temmel were to become convinced we’d had something to do with events (the details of which Yr Neh refrained from stating outright, given our present company), we could be made to disappear before Salianas ever found out.
“That could happen,” offered my opinionated neighbor. But he had no examples of such disappearances he could share when pressed for details. Yr Neh waited out this exchange with fraying patience before continuing, noting that Temmel seemed to suspect Salianas as much as he did the three of us.
“It’s true,” interjected an old man shackled next to me. “Those two never were close. Those of my generation saw nothing but trouble, should one of them succeed their uncle as Sealord. Better that Baron Lurec character, though he’s not well known hereabouts.” Yr Neh, his mood already dark, growled that perhaps we should conduct a poll of all those present, on the theory that aggregating dozens of uninformed opinions was surely superior to just the one. Huffing with indignation, the man turned away, shoulders hunched.
I looked down through the vertical metal bands I sat upon, eager to have any distraction from my growing discomfort. Visible through the mesh, running water ran in a steady flow an arm’s length beneath me, the source of the subterranean rumble I’d noted as we were shown to this cell. I sat crosslegged, aware of the growing discomfort of my posterior through my formalwear, but unable to rest upon my knees, as Gloren was, (as that felt even worse), nor to stretch out bodily, as Yr Neh had.
Gloren sighed, after a moment, and I glanced over at the sound of his muttered conference with Yr Neh. Around us, the other prisoners had returned to their loud conversations, and ignored us entirely. Seeing my interest, Gloren shook his manacle, allowing the chain links to rattle softly.
“These are Ventrosi handkeepers,” he said. I waited, and, seeing I wasn’t following his meaning, he let his hand drop. Yr Neh focused on me, his consternation plain.
The cat explained that the manacles we were wearing were of his own design. He’d suggested them to the High Commissioner of Ventrose after he and Gloren had helped put down the uprising some years ago. The need, at the time, had been to subdue the mindlocked masses, while preventing Thoughtweavers from using their powers. The sheer number of mindlocked foot soldiers dictated the Ventrosi government implement a mass production of the manacles we were wearing. The Commission was said to have detained nearly a million people, and captured all seventy-three of the Thoughtweaver cabal. This was made possible only with the handkeepers, given three qualities they had in common.
Firstly, the cat continued, the manacles had shifting designs embossed upon their sides, and these I noted as he spoke. The designs were evenly spaced around the heavy manacle, and had been given the aspect of twining rope knots, including the twisted threads of a heavy cord. As I watched, the design rolled along the course of the rope, looping over and under itself. The manacle’s chain was mounted in the center of an ornately inscribed pentagon, but this didn’t move of its own accord. These designs, the cat explained, were to fascinate the mindlocked drones until the grip of the Mindweavers could be broken. They had sat passively, staring at the slowly twisting reliefs.
The second quality of the manacles was to detect and react to the use of any Mystery involving channeling. The Mindweavers, of course, were deeply trained in both channeling and focusing, and, having hidden themselves within their massive force of solders, it had been assumed they would seek escape once the Commission was fully burdened by hundreds of thousands of prisoners.
“How would the manacles keep them from using their skills?” I asked. “A Mindweaver could snare a guard, and make them unlock the cuffs.”
“As soon as it detects any form of channeling, the cuff opens of its own accord,” Gloren said.
“That makes no sense at all!” I objected. Yr Neh laughed silently, saying, at length, that this was the third special attribute of the shackles. He reached out a paw, resting it on one of the shifting designs of my cuff, his own being awkward to handle (affixed, as it was, around his neck). Under the cat’s paw the snaking design spasmed briefly, changing to an entirely different configuration. With another tap, it changed back. Each of the five designs controlled one of the edges of the pentagon around the manacle’s chain. I peered at my pentagon, noting how one of the edges changed back and forth as I manipulated a raised knot. Yr Neh explained that the pentagon’s safe configuration was randomized every sunrise. When a cuff’s pentagon was properly set, a sharp tug was all that was needed to release the cuff.
“There can’t be many combinations,” I mused. “Two states each for all five designs. Thirty-two possible ways for the pentagon to be set.” I admit a small flush of pleasure at the rapid calculation under the circumstances, and Yr Neh gave a rare nod of approval.
“Why not simply test every possible combination, then?” I demanded. “Discovering the correct symbol is the work of moments! If a tug on the chain is all that’s required to test a combination-“ I began, taking a hold of my chain as I did so, meaning to demonstrate as I spoke, but Gloren grabbed my hand, alarmed, and Yr Neh sat up as well.
“No, don’t!” Gloren hissed. “They don’t call these handkeepers for nothing. The very first wrong guess, and you’ll be free, but you’ll lose your hand!”
“Try a guess on the cat,” suggested the sullen old man next to me, facing away but apparently still attending to our every word. Yr Neh, his manacle clasped around his neck, narrowed his eyes and lay back, letting the heavy clasp thump to the floor.
I let my arm rest between my feet, as so many of those around me had done, the better to avoid accidentally tugging on the chain. That devices such as these should be put into use after the fall of the Vetrosi mindweavers made sense, as those masters of gesture could entrance with the motions of their hands, and, worse, enable their slaves to do likewise. To lose a hand would have meant sacrificing the means to wield their power. In our current circumstances I found them to be diabolical indeed. I quickly counted the prisoners in the cell: thirty-three. Even if we all tried a different combination, only one would keep both hands, with dim hope for a second to be as lucky.
The iron-bound door to the chamber rattled as the locks were undone, and it soon groaned open once more, allowing guards to usher in another group of drunken revelers. These, like their fellows already locked securely in place, were the sort to not notice that the police forces had nearly shut down the town in an organized attempt to catch whoever had stolen the Succession Painting. While revelry was tolerated, the police’s appetite for disobedience or any other anomalous behavior seemed at low ebb, given the clearly nonviolent nature of those in the chamber around us. Yr Neh noted the same thing, remarking that this was by far the most pleasant crowd he’d ever been locked to the floor with.
As the cat lay flat once more, resigned to a night of waiting, I blinked in surprise as a tightly folded square of parchment bounced off my forehead, spinning out of the shadows where one of the new detainees had been secured. Startled, I was unable to intercept it before it headed for the grating all around me, arrested only by the swift reflexes of Yr Neh, who pinned it against the jagged metal grating, his claws extended, foreleg stretched out to its greatest length. Gloren, as surprised as I had been, breathed cautiously.
“Well done, Yr Neh,” he whispered. “Fetch that carefully, Aven.” With utmost caution, then, I saved the paper from tumbling through the grating, and unfolded it while Gloren peered into the dim recesses around us in the direction the paper had come. The old man next to me craned his skinny neck to see what the paper said, and I turned away from him. The paper’s upper corner showed a pentagon such as that inscribed on our manacles, each edge clearly delineated. Below this design was a network of carefully drawn linework reminiscent of that done by skilled draftsmen when working with exceptional rapidity. What the meaning was, however, was not immediately obvious. Gloren and Yr Ne took the paper, then, studying it intently. The cat indicated a tiny circle on the lower part of the line diagram, and Gloren nodded.
“We’re here,” he said. That turned out not to be the case at all, but this will become clear shortly.
Our Escape is Effected
Just then the grate I was attached to dropped a handspan, and I with it, allowing me to reacquaint myself with its destructive qualities. After a heartbeat the metal began to slide slowly aside, and I scrambled to reach the edge of the stone floor as soon as my manacle would allow. I watched my chain links begin to disappear into the slot along with the grating, curiosity as to this strange development transmuting into escalating alarm. When the manacle around my wrist was pulled under, I’d lose my hand in a most slow and gruesome fashion.
“Take the key!” Gloren shouted, thrusting the parchment at me. Heart hammering, I turned it around, and then over, trying to orient it so I could find the manacle’s release diagram. It occurred to me after I altered one design and studied the effect on the release pentagon that the five sides could be in any orientation. As the chain grew shorter and shorter, I shifted the diagrams, finding by elimination which went where, since, though each design could put one of the five sides in one of two states, there were five different states in total: a straight line, a loop, an inward-facing point, an outward-facing point, and a circle splitting the line. Often I’d have to change what side on the answer diagram belonged to which side on my manacle’s pentagon due to a mismatch in the offered choices, forcing me to return to the same sides over and over. The room had grown excited as the rabble watched me struggle, and this added a considerable amount of pressure to the proceedings. The old man next to me watched my feverish labors with wry amusement, betting the fellow next to him that I’d lose a hand. His contribution to my efforts were unappreciated, and if time had not been so pressing I’d have taken a moment of it to clout him with a boot.
The puzzle would have been a pleasant distraction, were a limb not at stake, but I had solved just three of the five sides before the last link was being lost under the stone lip of the floor, and the cuff began dragging into alignment with the slot as I finished the fourth. The pentagon design was pulled under the stone as the cuff began to slide into the slot. With a deep breath, I tapped the last diagram, effecting I knew not what change in the pentagon design.
“Fifty-fifty, boy,” the old man cackled as my manacle slowly pulled tight.
Gritting my teeth, I knitted the fingers on both my hands together and yanked on the manacle, acting before my surging fear could force hesitation. If I chose wrongly, a part of my mind reasoned, I’d lose a hand, but would at least not drop it onto the water the grate had originally covered. Since I knew that fingers could be restored (to my chagrin), given our recent adventures on the Maiden Isle, a part of my mind perhaps reasoned that a neatly severed hand might be similarly reattached.
After opening my eyes, I sank in relief to see both wrists intact, and I raised my arms in triumph to the cheers of our fellows and the rueful laughter of the old man next to me. It was, I believe, near to what Gloren and Yr Neh must feel on a regular basis, the surge of excitement and relief carried on a wave of success, washing away a looming potential for disaster. But I remain a lesser man than either of those two worthies, as I admit to shaking slightly as I handed the paper to Gloren and Yr Neh.
From down the hallway, the voices of our guards could be heard, shouting for quiet. Footsteps approached, and Gloren and Yr Neh worked each other’s manacles as quickly as I had, the cat unable to see his own manacle’s designs, latched, as they were, around his neck. Gloren was free first, as the cat had use of both his paws. In one swift motion Gloren tore the release diagram from the parchment and handed the map portion to me to secure in my waterproof folio before returning to his task. The guards outside the door began to unlock the heavy door, keys rattling. Our fellow prisoners began shouting in excitement, standing as well as their bound wrists would allow, and stomping about. It occurred to me that a stumble might jerk one of those chains hard enough to snip off a hand, but there was no controlling this bunch of rowdies.
In moments the door burst open, and three guardsmen surveyed the chaotic scene inside the shadow-filled chamber. Yr Neh’s shout of relief at his freedom drew their eye, but the cat was away down the hole in the floor in a flash of orange and white fur, Gloren fast on his tail. I dropped into the breach, my feet on the pathways straddling the flowing aqueduct, but felt a tug on my tunic. It was the old man, beyond whom I could see the guards shouting for the prisoners to sit, pummeling those who didn’t comply as they waded into the chamber. The old man pointed at the release diagram, sitting on the stone where Gloren had left it, on the other side of the hole from where the old man was bound.
“Give it to me!” he whispered urgently, and, driven by an unseemly tide of anger over his glee at my earlier predicament, I grabbed the scrap and tore off one of the five edges of the pentagon, leaving the other four intact. This abridged diagram I tossed to him.
“Fifty-fifty,” I told him, then I ducked into the aquaduct beneath the floor and began crawling.
The Route from Landing Port
No sooner had I begun my scrabble toward freedom than the grating through which we’d escaped slid back into position. Had it opened nearly so rapidly while I’d been chained atop its surface, this account would have had an entirely different character, if anyone were to record it. As it is, however, I can personally attest that the initial phase of our escape was less than promising, being, as one might imagine, an interminable dank crawl. The narrow passage through which we crawled was wet with accumulated spray, and colonized with mosses and other such inconveniences. But the perfect smoothness of the stonework bespoke Pre-Rain architecture, and the bare hold the opportunistic plants had managed confirmed this hypothesis. Were this a modern aqueduct, the walls would have been patterned with any number of maintenance sigils, and these were entirely lacking. The route we travelled was part of the original design of the complex that included the Citadel high above.
My numerous minor injuries combined their powers of annoyance as I crawled along, and I set my mind to speculation about our situation as a counter to my growing discomfort. My thoughts were of little value to posterity, I’m ashamed to say, interrupted as they were by frequent large patches of slime, through which I was obliged to crawl. But the way ahead was perfectly straight, and tending ever so slightly uphill, thus allowing the water to flow freely in the opposite direction.
A Contest of Wits is Entered
At long last the passage widened, and the left side of the tunnel expanded into a small room, with a ceiling of normal height. The waterway continued along the wall exiting the room through a tunnel of the sort we’d just arrived from, but the way ahead was blocked by stout metal bars, and only darkness beckoned from beyond. Next to this was the only door from the room, a portal made of solid metal, unmarked by corrosion or any other sign of age. The floor was dry and featureless, save for a small grating in the center, toward which the surface subtly tilted, allowing any spillage from the channel to drain efficiently. The wall opposite the water channel drew the eye, however.
A large circular relief shimmered there, glossy as still water, yet glowing with the warm hues of solid gold. The circumference of the disk extended nearly from floor to ceiling. From the central circle radiated a number of concentric rings, each inscribed with careful linework from which dim lighting flowed, the cool soft blue of the sky. Some of these lines led from ring to ring, creating extended pathways. If there was an overarching logic, my mind failed to grasp it.
“What do you make of this?” Gloren asked. Yr Neh sat, studying the design, while I stooped over, hands on knees, trying to ease the ache that had gripped my lower back. I was nearly as taken with the truly incredible disrepair of my formalwear as I was with the circular design before us, but I gamely lifted my eyes to it, trying to fit it to any heraldic method, or indeed any artistic school of which I was aware. But it struck us all as being of Malduan, and thus of Pre-Rain significance. I noted that it did bear a passing resemblance to the heraldry of the Etherbis.
“That, however, is just three nested ovals,” I allowed, “while this is something more like eight or ten circles.”
Yr Neh pointed out the fact that there were major divisions to the design, with two of the bands being essentially blank, and acting as barriers. Three circular divisions. The modern interpretation of the Etherbi seal was that of concentric ripples spreading through water, but this design before us could easily be the basis of the modern design.
“We’ve seen this very design before,” Gloren said, rubbing his chin in thought. “It was the pattern on the dance floor of the citadel, I’m almost certain of it.” Yr Neh walked back to the flowing water and lowered his head to take a drink, keeping one ear cocked at Gloren as a sign he was considering, and would have more to say presently. I filled in the silence with a startled memory, spurred by his words.
“It was on the ceiling above, as well,” I said. “Beneath the floor of the throne room.” What I had taken to be intricate but functional stonework was indeed, if memory serves, the very design before us.
Gloren sighed, imagining, perhaps, Salianas in that very room this moment, awaiting our efforts to return the painting. “My mind cannot seem to escape the chaos that must be unfolding in the Citadel,” he said. “Temmel’s decision to imprison us bodes ill for our immediate futures.”
“Is it possible he’s behind the disappearance of the Countess and Jho?” I asked. “His outrage could have been a show for his men. Maybe he’s taken Lurec and Velice, as well.”
“I can’t see Velice being taken prisoner meekly,” Gloren said, thinking, perhaps, of our late night in the Citadel’s vaults, and the thoroughly dangerous woman who’d revealed herself to our hidden gaze. “And Baron Lurec, too, would be hard to subdue quietly or certainly. We can be held on a whim, but not the Countess or the Baron. Temmel’s brash, but no fool.”
“Terring, then?” I asked. “There’s a man who’s been living in the shadows for long enough. The man’s been associating with commoners and the disgruntled serving class for years, now. Who’s to say they haven’t taken to whatever cause he might champion? And none outside the Citadel even know he’s a possible successor. They would serve him readily, thinking he’s the loyal Hallmaster. He could claim service to the Etherbis lineage to stage a coup. Until the painting is recovered, of course, which would never happen. Who would doubt him?”
I could see my words disturbed Gloren, who put hand to chin, brooding over the implications. Yr Neh, meanwhile, wondered out loud who might have affected our escape from Temmel’s holding cell. With wide eyes, Gloren produced the parchment map this unknown benefactor had provided us, murmuring about the rush of events making him shortsighted. As the cat stretched languidly, arching his back in a way I would have given much to emulate, Gloren stared at the parchment, turning it this way and that, tracing lines on the circular diagram, and trying to find some correlation between the sketched route and the metal design.
“Of course,” he was muttering. “This isn’t the route from the prison. We travelled in a straight line from there. This must indicate some portion of the diagram.” I knelt, seeing how Gloren’s attention gravitated toward the bottommost portion, near where dark lines in the wall led outward and away. We both agreed that the sketched route must somehow match the linework of the circular rings, and that the marked circle would coincide with the position of one of the glowing circles in the metal, and thus we persisted, moving further and further around the design, and closer and closer to the center, until, with a groan, we met near the top of the diagram, tracing routes with our eyes where our fingertips could no longer reach. As I dropped my aching arms, defeated, and Gloren sighed and leaned onto the metal doorway to reconsider, Yr Neh padded silently across the floor, requesting to see the sketch for a moment.
The cat set this down on the floor and pondered it, then turned his attention to the buttery golden surfaces of the disc. The glow of the circles and lines made his orange fur a pattern of shadow across his features, while the white fur of his breast and whiskers shone with uncanny brilliance. Without hesitation, he stepped forward, lifted a paw, and placed the pads of his feet firmly upon one of the outermost rings. Moving gingerly, he shifted the ring, rotating the design of the luminescent azure lines, and making Gloren lurch forward in surprise. As the man tried to formulate a response, the cat slid a second ring likewise, then traced the route depicted on the parchment, ending in one particular shining blue circle.
“You knew the rings moved?“ Gloren began, his frustration turning into indignant anger, for Yr Neh was not above letting others cast about haplessly while he rested nearby, awaiting a lull in purposeless action to present the solution. But Gloren’s question was interrupted by a deep groan from within the solid stone walls all around, building up to a shuddering rattle before ceasing. The sound was accompanied by a vibration in the stone, as if the mountainside we were ensconced within were trembling ever so slightly. These developments caused Gloren to hesitate, and Yr Neh to flatten his ears, eyes widening in the halflight.
At a shift in the steady sound of flowing water, we turned, Gloren’s lowered brows easing. We watched the water level of the aqueduct lower steadily, soon becoming naught but a trickle. “Any other alterations to our environment you’d like to affect?” Gloren asked Yr Neh, spreading his hands to indicate that the room, and all it held, were the cat’s to do with as he pleased. With a feline smirk that is the envy of many a cat, Yr Neh stepped to the golden design again, and pressed a paw to the blue circle he’d indicated earlier.
With a rumble, and the grating sounds of metal on stone, the door set into the wall began to slide aside. I gaped openly, and Gloren glowered, letting the cat bask for a moment in his superiority before waving a hand at the door in mute invitation. The doorway was deeply nested into the stone around it, and the first crack didn’t appear for some moments, slowly widening far enough for Yr Neh to slip through. As he did, the cat explained that whomever had given us the map and manacle codes had meant for us to escape, not to reach this small room underground. Clearly we’d been provided all an agile mind would need to proceed.
Gloren gave me a long-suffering look, then motioned me to precede him through the doorway.
“He waited until we got through the entire design, didn’t he?” Gloren asked me in passing. I sighed by way of an answer, and he grumbled as he followed me.
There are rare moments such as these where Gloren and Yr Neh are revealed to be, in a certain sense, rivals, each sharpening their wits against the other like a grindstone. Humiliation served to drive Gloren and Yr Neh both to ever-higher peaks of mental acuity, but for the nonce Gloren fell silent, brooding over the ease with which Yr Neh’s insight had bested his own. Thus, I imagine, he failed to note the tremendous thickness of the door through which we passed, being nearly substantial enough for me to lie down in the channel it rested within. But no sooner had we stepped out than it reversed course, to slide closed once more.
Awaiting us on the other side was a passageway, on the floor of which rested another parchment map. Yr Neh was already studying intently. Gloren crouched next to him, and they stayed that way for a moment, unmoving. Then the cat placed an extended claw onto the map, and Gloren nodded, tracing the route they’d silently agreed upon.
“Rockface it is,” he said, as they started forward once more. The map was returned to my care, as the two strode ahead in unison.
The Journey to Rockface
The underground corridor we walked was lit by globes set in the ceiling, providing warm light, however dim. These resisted easy examination by Gloren, being enclosed within glass containers which were cool to the touch, and filled with some manner of fluid. Even so, he occasionally cast a wistful glance at them as we passed. They would be welcome additions to the Gallery of Days, could any be returned functional.
Other than these, the only regular feature of the corridor was the occasional drain set into the floor, which was smooth, dry, and absolutely level. Though there were occasional side doors, these were secured most firmly, and so we continued, counting doors as we passed, allowing us to know when to turn. The passage curved subtly but consistently to the left, in such a gradual manner that we could see nearly as far as the low lighting conditions would allow.
As we went along, Yr Neh commented on the absence of any vermin, nor any sign of such. The floor and walls supported no cobwebs, and none of the detritus which accompanies places long abandoned. While Gloren speculated that this might mean these passages saw regular use, Yr Neh disagreed, his keen sense of smell detecting naught but time and the faint scent of rainwater. Even the salt of the surrounding seas were sealed away from this place.
At last we arrived at the first turn of the route, confirmed by a quick re-examination of the map. The doorway looked identical to the others, but it opened with the click of the well-maintained latch, its hinges silent. We followed the winding stairway thus revealed down to an exit. This new section was of an entirely different character, being a tremendous vaulted space, with both ceiling and floor lost to the darkness. The way ahead followed the same curve as the passage above, but was now a catwalk attached to the wall, which loomed like a cliff face along our right side as we pressed on. The illuminating globes were present here, mounted on the wall well spaced apart, allowing us to judge the scale of the massive open space, where they dimmed with distance.
Looking out into the abyss on our left, there could be seen narrow channels stretching outward from the wall, each flowing with reverberant water, the echoes of which filled the space, making speech difficult. The chamber sounded like a hall of courtiers all whispers and murmuring. These channels spanned the gulf between the wall we followed and some inner boundary, as if crossing a gently curving canyon. If the waterway we’d followed from the prison had exited into this chamber, it would have looked much like these, and this allowed us to judge their distance from us. The aqueducts were unsupported, stretching like taut strings, the sides of which glinted with glowing blue lines. The effect of numerous threads of azure light was quite beautiful, but also allowed us to discern narrow columns of gleaming metal rising from unseen floor to unseen ceiling, and waterfalls dropping into the gulfs below, graceful and perfectly smooth sheets of water through which the lighted bands shimmered.
At length, counting inner doorways, we exited this vault, pausing before we did so to marvel one last time. Gloren and Yr Neh exchanged a silent look, perhaps vowing they would one day return. The remainder of the journey was made up of variations of the initial corridor, all of them curving as the first had, following the shape of that central space.
One last item of note was the new construction near the end of the route, as we approached Rockface. There appeared a new surfacing on the hallways, made of thin sheets of worked stone, which perfectly enclosed the walls along both sides and hid all the doorways. Had this alteration been completed we’d never have known of the doors to either side, but where it began, just the bottom half of the wall had been completed, with sealed doorways partially visible above. We exchanged looks at this oddity. Yr Neh peered closely, for this was no modern resurfacing. The cat ran a paw along the incomplete edge, musing that the work had been suddenly interrupted.
“The Rains,” Gloren said, leaning close. “Whatever they had begun here, they never got a chance to finish it once it was clear the Rains weren’t going to stop.”
“They were covering up the doorways to the inner vault,” I said. “Hiding them, almost.” As far as is known, incomplete construction was rare, and obviously altered construction was virtually unknown in the artifacts of Malduan. Current theory suggests that incomplete structures lacked the special resilience Pre-Rain architecture and artifacts were known for, and thus were destroyed by the Rains. But this hidden network hinted that alterations might exist even in well-known places, perfectly concealed by our assumptions that every wall was equally solid.
Gloren and Yr Neh were afire with curiosity, but I was getting tired and hungry, and, to be honest, was more than a bit nervous, especially as I considered the massively thick doorways that enclosed this place. To find the inhabitants hiding the elaborate construction of the central space was not reassuring. I welcomed the end of our journey.
The dead end was visible as we walked up to it, and Gloren and Yr Neh were appalled by the possibility of having made some mistake on our way. But before the blank stone wall lay a black-banded disk, a cut amethyst sitting upon it. I recognized the military communications setup from our brief encounter with Temmel’s men. Gloren crouched to study it, not touching the faintly glowing gemstone, which sat on one of the markings of the circumference. With a shrug, Yr Neh swatted the stone from its place, and it rattled to a stop on the floor, its glow extinguished. Within moments, the wall before us began to slide slowly upward, and it became clear that the cipher device was the only signal that could penetrate the doorway’s tremendous width. Yr Neh’s action had signaled our arrival. A mere three handspans from the floor the door stopped, and Yr Neh scrambled through.
Gloren turned to me. “Now we get to finally meet our secret benefactor,” he said, and followed. Peeking after his retreating feet, I sighed, and began navigation the passage, uncomfortably aware of the gear-like stone teeth above and below, which would mesh when the doorway was closed, sealing whatever lay on one side from whatever might be on the other. I passed through in moments, dragging myself forward as quickly as I could manage.
A Well Deserved Rest
The chamber into which we emerged was the common room of a small suite, and bedecked in plush rugs, tasteful tapestries, and a large table set with a feast. A massive chair, well upholstered, sat near the fire, and the black-clad figure resting there took a sip of water before setting the goblet aside.
“I expected you three sooner,” Hallmaster Terring said. The sharp-featured seneschal of the Citadel had lost any hint of being a member of the serving class, and rested with confident ease. Gloren stared for a moment, wordless, apparently having expected Salianas, while Yr Neh hopped to the tabletop and batted a crispy shrimp from a platter. Settling himself to eat, the cat replied that we had been distracted by the scenery. Terring smiled at that.
“I suppose it was to be expected,” he said. “I assume you have a great many questions, at this point, but there is no time for them at present.”
Gloren sat, and I followed, relieved at the chance to rest my feet. The distance between Rockface and Landing Port was not inconsiderable, and we’d been walking for hours. I accepted a massive flagon of water with a nod of thanks, and set myself to attend the conversation as best I could, though I longed for deep sleep, not deep thinking.
Terring began by explaining some of his reasons for freeing us from Temmel. “I have but five people who can identify the Countess Therissa on sight, only three who know her companion, and just one who could identify Garder Jho. Of the boy I can find just one person who may recognize him. The Baron Lurec is more readily spotted, it’s true, but that assumes no attempt at disguise. All three of you, by contrast can identify every one of our chief suspects.”
“But why bring us here?” I asked. “Surely any escape with the painting must happen by way of Landing Port?” Gloren shook his head at this, his eyes already staring inwardly, as his mind roamed the possibilities. It was a look I knew well, and Yr Neh provided me an answer.
Rockface was the easternmost point of the island, a city carved underground within a stony prominence of land that jutted far into the seas. The people of Rockface had been isolated from their fellows for most of the Turning of Rains. By the time those grim forty years were over, they had become sullen and unpleasant; an insular community that had resisted acclimation for all the centuries since. But the true source of their alienation from their fellows was a conflict dating to the twenty-fifth year of the Rains. Knowing of the location of a stores facility to the southwest, the inhabitants of Rockface had tunneled to it through long years of labor. The people who had taken shelter within the stores depot (which in later years, would grow into the harbor town of Landing Port) resisted this invasion. The fighting in those underground warrens so near the Citadel made for grim tales, and the two populations had ingrained distrust for one another to this day.
But Rockface and its people had proven their worth in the centuries to follow, when wars for naval dominance raged around the northern and eastern sea routes. The waters between most of the islands forming the Otrock Line were treacherous with sunken cities and rocky escarpments, and this left the deep waters to the north the only safe route connecting the north to the eastern lands. Fast-reaction forces from Rockface, sailing out of grottoes and coves on the coast, had kept those waters from Otrock’s rivals for decades, until the seven Sealords rose to supremacy and consolidated them as the modern Ferry Armada.
Yr Neh, chewing mightily on sautéed mussels, replied that the hidden coves and ship launches from the wars of the northern passage were supposed to have been made unsuitable for use, to avoid smuggling. Terring shrugged. “Many things are not what’s commonly believed,” he replied. “Baron Lurec would know of this fact, and the Countess, perchance, as well.”
“As would Salianas and Temmel,” Gloren retorted, pausing to murmur appreciation at the seasoning of the stuffed mushrooms he’d begun consuming. “Salianas doubtless has a ship on station, ready to intercept anyone who leaves from Rockface.” Yr Neh, pausing in his lapping of water from a crystal goblet, disagreed this would be effective. A ship there might well be, but any chance of capture could send the Succession Painting to the bottom of the sea. The only way to be certain of its safety would be to keep the secret outlets from being used at all.
“I’d pack every one of them with my people, if I could,” Terring said, “but I don’t have nearly enough to guard them all sufficiently. Not while keeping a presence in the Citadel and Landing Port.”
“Perhaps if you’d trust Salianas and Temmel,” Gloren said, “you wouldn’t have to keep your forces where they aren’t of use.”
Terring scoffed. “You of all people know the limitations of those two,” he said. “Salianas is a good tactician, and a skilled warrior, but she doesn’t know the difference between leading and ruling. Temmel is too self-conscious, always pulling back too much, or overreaching himself, as his reactions tonight prove. Neither one is ready to trust in the other, or give up the power they’ve wielded since the death of their uncle, a mere year ago. I need to know they’re not turning on each other, and that requires skilled operatives all around. So I don’t have the eyes left to guard these escape routes.”
“How many routes are there?” I asked. Terring rose to his feet, his boots silent on the thick rugs.
“Four,” he said. “One for each of us.”
Walking in Rockface
After our abbreviated attempt at refreshment we left, walking quickly through the dimly lit streets of Rockface. Modern Rockface was far removed from its military roots, filled with gambling dens and pleasure palaces, all of the highest repute possible for such places, and the sunless city felt no need to honor day or night. The Facians, descendants of Rockface’s original population, were present still, but served mostly as the serving class, police forces, and other necessary but suspect groups.
Our rooms were part of an upscale inn, nestled in the Westwall district. The most distant from the open terraces overlooking the storm-wracked seas, Westwall’s streets were bustling with foot traffic as people enjoyed the endless evening. The Succession celebration was subsumed into the continual low-level party that swirled along the wooden streets, which ran like wide porches and decks between the buildings, some of which rose from the floor, and others of which hung from the ceiling far above. And the revelers, even had they known anything about the disruption to that happy event, were not of a mind to pause in their carousing.
We walked among the diffuse crowds as if we belonged, and I trailed the group, trying to keep an eye out for our quarry. But the shifting mosaic of garb in styles from many lands, laughter from all sides, and calls from overhead bridges and lower levels visible past stout rails defeated me. The others seemed less concerned, keeping in mind the fact that these upper reaches were not the sort where fugitives were likely to linger, and that Westwall was in the opposite direction from the Southwest Corridor. This was the only official route connecting Rockface to Landing Harbor, a greatly improved and widened remnant of the original tunnel the Facians had burrowed so long ago. This pedestrian thoroughfare was well monitored by the police forces of the island, and thus under the strict control of Temmel, who, as we had seen, took few chances with security.
“But,” Terring had said, “your own route here was on no maps, either.”
“About that route,” Gloren began, seeing another opening onto the subject, “isn’t it possible that the Countess had access as well? I assume you’ve at least got the entrances from Rockface monitored?”
Terring nodded, pursing his lips. “That effort is what has taken my remaining personnel, though I didn’t want to dwell on the subject. But the Underhold’s security is nearly absolute. The Etherbis have guarded that complex since before the Rains.”
“They could have housed the entire island within that place!” I cried, caring not, at that moment, how accusatory my words might sound. But Terring took no offense.
“Like the vault in the Citadel, the Underhold isn’t meant for shelter. Also, like the vault, this was a rule the lords didn’t consider bending.”
“And the people accepted this?” I asked. Gloren cast me a warning look, but Yr Neh smiled softly, I dare say impressed by my tenacity. Terring was less pleased.
“The people understood the importance of keeping the place empty. And secret.” To this, Yr Neh replied that Terring himself had led the three of us through.
“This is because I understood you to be capable of discretion,” the man said, in this way ending our polite probing, while Gloren’s scowl to us forbid further questioning. He turned the topic to our foes, who, we believed, to be travelling in two groups, with Velice and the Baron in one, and the Countess and Peppin presumably hauling Garder Jho about in the other.
The group divided at the border between the Westwall and Centermost districts. While I had assumed this central part of the city would be most crowded, it was almost deserted, the celebration of the masses being confined to the newer sections of town to the east, overlooking the storm-swept autumn seas. From here the scent of salt hung in the air, in contrast to the perfumes and fine wines that rode the fan-swept breezes of Westwall. Gloren and Terring continued to the southeast, while Yr Neh and I descended a few levels and tended to the southwest. We soon reached the Southledge district, where the wooden planks of the street gave way to cobbles laid atop solid stone. The ground level of this district was built upon the hard rock of the ledge itself, and supported the traffic flow through the Southwest Corridor.
Yr Neh gave me a quizzical glance as we went, as I found myself humming the Ventrosi sailing tune I’d used as a mnemonic device. Though not loud, my humming enabled me to remember the route Terring had given me, being complex and heard only once. Whatever method Yr Neh employed, it had the benefit of silence, and my low humming soon set his tail to swishing in irritation. He wondered aloud if I might be able to pick up the tune later, when he’d gone his own way. Regretfully, I told him I dared not risk forgetting the associations I’d been forced to make so quickly, and that I’d appreciate his understanding. Shaking his head, the cat trotted ahead, and I soon found myself navigating alone, with just a tune to remind me of the proper way. The white fur of Yr Neh’s backside remained in sight ahead; though the streets of Southledge were dimly lit, they were mostly deserted.
I had drawn breath to call him back, perhaps thinking that one last consultation before we went our separate ways was in order, when a familiar voice raised itself in semi-drunken song from up the lane I was crossing. I paused, stepping back into the shadows, and had skulked there for perhaps three heartbeats when Baron Lurec appeared along the next street over, on a path parallel to mine, but clearly coincidentally so, as the man was making no attempt at stealth. The others with him seemed temporary companions, as they saw him to the doorway of a middle-class inn, and then continued on their way, to revel elsewhere. Lurec vanished inside, his laughter audible from the street for a moment, after which came no further sign of him.
I shot an excited glance down the street where Yr Neh had gone, and whispered his name with an urgency I hoped would carry somehow. He was nowhere to be seen. I risked a quick shout, then turned back to the inn, lest Lurec sneak out again while my attention was elsewhere. It was just then that I felt the hand snake around my neck from behind, to grab the opposite shoulder and turn me, the better to slam me bodily against the nearby wall. I felt the hard point of a dirk press into my back.
“I have no money,” I whispered, but my hopes of a simple mugging where dashed as Velice chuckled into my ear.
“It took you long enough to get here,” she said. “How many of you are there?” As I drew in a breath, she pressed the point of her weapon just a tad bit harder into my back. “Please don’t lie,” she instructed.
“I’m a writer, my good lady,” I managed. “I never lie. There are four of us.”
“Not any more,” she whispered. With strength I still find hard to credit given her slight frame, I was propelled rapidly along the street, toward the door to the inn Lurec had entered, the knife never leaving my back, but not plunging deep into it, either, as it could have at any moment. I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit to my growing apprehension.
Time Spent Alone With Velice
Our trip across the common room to the stairs was a convincing playact, wherein Velice laughed at some witticism I had supposedly just shared, while I supported her suddenly unstable gait. Of her weapon there was no sign, and she became, in that brief time, the pampered courtier I’d first met at the high table just a few nights before, albeit further into her cups. So amiable was her manner, and so delighted and interested her gaze that I felt myself confused and conflicted. Even with my heart still hammering from the sudden threat of her arrival, I still found myself, on some instinctive level, believing her act. The rational part of my character may have been alarmed at developments, but some inner core was thrilled that Velice found my imaginary cleverness so endearing. It was a powerful ability she had, and without my fuller knowledge of what she was, I would surely have believed anything she’d told me. Baron Lurec would have stood no chance against her wiles.
The moment we’d entered the side stairway, however, all pretense vanished, and the dangerous Velice returned, following close behind me like the specter of my own mortality. We continued to the third floor, the narrow hallway silent. Velice halted me at a certain door, and I entered at her prodding. She followed me in.
The suite in which I found myself was plain, but comfortable, with the sitting room’s far wall dominated by multiple narrow, glass-paneled doors leading to a slender balcony. These were thrown wide, allowing fresh air and the sounds of Rockface nightlife to drift in. Through those windows was freedom, if I could just win free of Velice long enough to fling myself into the drop to the cobbles below. It was a fall I’d likely survive, perhaps without serious injury. But the woman seated me into a plush chair facing those windows, and set herself across from me, her back to them. I’d never get past her, and I’d have to rise and turn away from her to make a break for the door.
Her sea-green eyes bored into mine, her manner suggesting she was reading my expression intently, weighing my every reaction as we sat in uncomfortable silence. Her calm, unruffled exterior beauty combined with what I knew of her nature to make my tension escalate steadily.
“Lurec will be here any moment,” she said at last.
“Why didn’t you leave the island when you had the chance?” I ventured.
“And be apprehended at sea?” she said. “I think not.”
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” I continued. “And there would be no reason to risk an international incident by arresting the Countess.” Velice smiled at this, leaning back a little and relaxing. Shifting in discomfort, she took a small dirk from the vicinity of her hips, and placed it on the side table between us, the tiny sheath loose, blade half free. This must be the knife she’d used on me, and a pathetic thing it appeared, too, the sort of blade a pampered woman might use to fend off the unwanted advances of her cuticles, but not a weapon of any true worth. I shifted my eyes away, trying not to betray my interest. Striking from surprise, this small knife might be just the thing to win me free of this room.
“Incident or no,” she replied, oblivious to my interest, “Countess Therissa has a sudden need to speak with Garder Jho, and cannot risk being detained, nor the man dying during a voyage to Viron. With the Succession Painting gone, the man has become of renewed interest.”
“Garder Jho?” I asked, genuinely struggling to assess how a pompous Gallery Hunter might be of sudden interest to a woman who, to all appearances, had tried to kill him last night by throwing him from a tower window.
“Don’t play the fool with me, Penworthy,” she said. “You know of the man’s interest in the Calais Portrait, and his research regarding the City of Ravens.”
I scoffed, as I had seen Gloren do. “Pre-Rain mythology was a specialty of Jho’s,” I replied. “The portrait tale is based on the religious texts of Malduan. It’s supposed to show the face of the Acolyte of the Dawn. The frame on the Succession Painting is just a fancy frame.” My thought was to stall, and perhaps blunt her attention with a steady stream of scholarly minutiae, but Velice waved my words away, not willing to be drawn into the topic.
“The frame is exactly what Jho thought it was,” Velice replied, and I felt a chill, as the knowledge of my escalating danger settled in. For, if Jho was right, and the frame of the Succession Painting was that mentioned in legend, the designs so intricately inscribed upon it were a sort of primer. With them, one could decipher the few written documents captured from the Order. It was widely thought that discovery and confirmation of one member of the Tyndelian Order would soon reveal another, as they trained through the generations. The frame could reveal the identity of members from the first or second Turning, over seven hundred years ago. This could, in the right hands, allow the Eidnine Knights and others to ferret out current members, should the historical chain remain intact. For Velice to admit even this much to me almost certainly meant my doom. But why, I wondered, should I have been kept alive even this long?
Just then, as my hope of survival plunged, I saw Yr Neh, creeping with the utmost silence from the open balcony doors. The breeze ruffled his tail as he crouched, and he met my eyes with a small nod, signaling that this was to be the best chance I was likely to get. I sat forward, as if intrigued by Velice’s words, and Yr Neh sprang, claws and teeth bared, all aiming at the soft scalp beneath Velice’s short-cropped blonde hair.
My hand flew to the side table, locking unerringly around the knife’s handle. But my attempt to sweep it off the surface and perhaps plunge it into some vulnerable spot was completely foiled, as the knife refused to budge even a hair’s width. It felt, in that brief instant, as if I had gripped a knife-shaped carving atop the table’s surface, different in appearance, but a part of the same material. The entire table slid rather than give up the weapon.
Velice, in this same heartbeat, shifted aside, her motion a liquid ripple of soft silks, as the cat continued past. But the woman’s pale, delicate hand snapped out and back in a single focused strike, her fingertip tapping the cat’s shoulder in passing. Yr Neh struck my chest and dropped limp into my lap. Horrified, I stared at his glassy eyes and gaping mouth.
“You’ve killed Yr Neh!” I gasped. Velice swept the knife from the tabletop without trouble, and, with a flick of her wrist tossed the limp cat onto the bed. The knife vanished somewhere on her person.
“He’s not dead,” she snapped, all pretensions of civility gone. I realize now, looking back, that our entire conversation had been a ruse to draw Yr Neh out, rather than have him run for help, as he might otherwise have done. However she’d detected his presence, her placing of the knife on the table had been for the cat’s benefit, seeming to give me a ready weapon, if only she could be distracted for a moment. Though the subtleties eluded me in the instants following Yr Neh’s failed effort, I still felt a rush of admiration for the cat, who had taken a terrible risk for my sake.
We heard muffled sounds from the next room, as Lurec entered his apartments, perhaps having completed some brief hygienic task. The man hummed to himself, and Velice did not hesitate, her hand flashing out without warning, the delicate rings on her fingers leaving the impression of streaks of light in my memory. So fast was the blow that I didn’t feel it at first, but it was powerful enough to jar my entire skull, and I felt the various bone complexities underlying my face creak most disagreeably.
As the first shock of pain washed over me, Velice gripped the front of my shirt, pulling me to my feet before I could get my bearings. Her eyes on the door connecting Lurec’s chamber to this one, she pulled me close, whispering fiercely as my eyes blinked without pause.
“You’re the luckiest man on the island tonight, Penworthy.”
I opened my mouth, worried about the structural integrity of my head as a whole. “How so?” I managed, aware that my mouth and nose were bleeding, but not profusely. To my growing surprise, she gripped the front of her gown and wrenched it violently, tearing the fabric of her bodice. With a rapid swish of her hand she swept up blood from my nose and smeared it on her own face.
“I need turn Lurec’s mind from dangerous paths,” she said, “and get him thinking of more important things. You’ll help me do that.” Before I could ask how that might be achieved, she turned, and, in some manner unclear to my recollection, threw me bodily over her back. My impact with the solid tiling of the floor felt much as one might imagine it would, and Velice was atop me before I drew in my first gasping breath, replacing that which I’d lost in my unglamorous fall. But Velice continued rolling, and, as Lurec’s door opened, I found myself atop her, her eyes wide and fearful, clothing torn, blood upon her face. She pelted my chest ineffectually with tiny fists, and I had the briefest moment of horrified admiration before Lurec descended upon me.
The Baron is Displeased
I remember the sensation of being hurled bodily through the air with near continuous acceleration as I was heaved at the far wall. Lurec’s strength was considerable, and his rage lent him opportunity to display its full extent. The impact with the wall is less clear to me, coming, as it did from such a surprising and unaccustomed angle. I found myself on a heap upon the bed, struggling to right myself as Lurec turned his concerned attention to Velice. Stumbling toward the door, I fought for some modicum of control, willing my flailing limbs to work as I wished. But Lurec had seated Velice and turned again before I got half the distance.
His strike seemed slow after I’d experienced Velice’s, the way a rockslide is slow when compared to lightning. My brain, addled as it was with the abuses being heaped upon my person, reacted with an alacrity far beyond my norm, and I ducked smoothly under. Bracing my shoulder against the center of the larger man’s chest, I bulled into him, and this crude attack served to send him staggering back in surprise. Grabbing Yr Neh where he lay, forgotten, near the foot of the bed, I spun about and wrenched open the door. Slamming it behind me, I dashed desperately to the stairs, and stumbled down them in a rush which I am lucky to have survived.
With the clatter of Lurec in the stairwell behind me, I tumbled into the street, almost dropping the limp cat as I rose once more. My entire face hurt with every step, and my tongue probed about my teeth, as if to count them. I was dizzy, and it took a moment to orient myself, but when Lurec gained the street, I was already pelting down it as well as I could, Yr Neh cradled in my arms. I heard Velice call out to him one time, but Lurec was in no mood to give up his chase.
My dash through Rockface was a half-remembered haze, with the song I’d chosen as a memory aid being disrupted by Lurec’s shouts of rage from behind me. Desperate, my skull aching abysmally, I recited the verses of my mnemonic song backwards, and then inverted the directions these brought to mind, trying to trace the route back to the inn we’d left in Westwall. Soon we’d pulled ahead, and Lurec was no longer hot on our heels. But I could hear the larger man behind me not conceding his pursuit. The not inconsiderable bulk of the cat began to weigh me down, and I shifted him from arm to arm, so as to not let his head bob too violently with my strides. I flexed my face nearly continuously, unsuccessfully trying to right whatever wrong Velice had done to me.
“Yr Neh,” I gasped to the cat as I ran along wooden streets, “wake up!” But he continued to hang limp in my arms. I could feel the pulse in his neck, strong and steady, and I felt an instant of jealousy for his blissful unawareness. I must have presented quite the spectacle, dirty, disheveled, and bearing with me a large and unconscious orange cat, and to those young children in the crowds who noticed, I now extend my apologies.
At long last we arrived at our origin in Rockface, and I pelted up the stairs, to enter our room and collapse at the half-eaten feast we’d left not long ago. I swept aside a space, and lay Yr Neh out among the platters, as I was certain he’d have wished to be. There, in Gloren’s elegant hand, was a note, written, as far as I could tell, in Old Ventrosi, a language which I could neither speak nor read.
Following Gloren’s Note
There was no time for courtesies, and so I upended a pitcher of water onto the cat’s head and forequarters, bringing him to growling animation in the briefest time possible. After weathering his initial poor humor, I thrust the note at him, and, as he puzzled over it, I peered into the street below. After a moment of stillness, Lurec appeared, breathing heavily, and I turned once more to Yr Neh, who was ruminating silently.
“Yr Neh, I know you’ve been unconscious, so you may not be aware that we’re in something of a hurry,” I said, sliding to one side and peeking past the window frame to where Lurec stalked the streets a few floors below. Whatever suspicions he’d been developing regarding Velice were, to all appearances, dispelled, replaced by rage and concern. As the Baron had been subject to her considerable allure and none of her alternative facets, I could well appreciate the man’s anger. He seemed to consider his options, looking from one building to the next. “What does the note say?” I asked.
Yr Neh said Gloren and Terring had been recalled from their posts almost the instant they arrived, summoned by Terring’s secret police, one of whom, through chance, spotted Peppin in the streets and recognized him. I felt my brows lower at this, knowing how my own “chance meeting” had gone. But there seemed no subterfuge here. Gloren had hurried to the rooms where Peppin had been seen to go, and instructed this note was to be left for us here. My greatest hope at that moment was that Gloren had been cautious in doing so. The Countess could well be as dangerous as Velice, and not one to corner unprepared.
As the cat related these things, Lurec walked from my field of vision, intent on entering this very building. This, I assumed, was not a lucky choice. As an heir to the Sealord’s title, who knew what secrets Lurec might be privy to? He must have known of the route through the Underhold we’d taken to get here, and the exit in this very room.
“We need to get out of here,” I whispered, opening the door and cautiously looking down the hallway. Yr Neh, taking a moment to carry the note to the fireplace, agreed. With a sweep of his paw, he sent it into the dying flames, where it flared briefly. With one last mournful look at the feast that remained uneaten, we left the rooms. There were two stairwells from the guest floors, and Lurec could be coming up either one. I shook my head at the repeated even-chance gamble I’d be forced to make. Such odds could not be defied for long! We turned to the left, raced down the hallway, and dashed down the stairs. My face was throbbing with every step, and I had to pause on the first landing as my vision grew faint. My breathing was labored, and I worked my face gingerly, hoping for some relief from the odd internal sensations I was subject to. None was forthcoming, and we continued. Lurec was nowhere to be seen, and Yr Neh led the way out into the night. As I crossed the threshold of the building, I expected to run full-speed into Velice, but she had not followed, and the street was occupied by just a few revelers trudging from one celebration to the next, weighed down by the heavy hand of inebriation.
Yr Neh explained, as he ran, that Gloren had found a safehouse Therissa and Velice had used, perhaps one maintained indefinitely. Gloren would await us there, hopefully with Peppin in tow. I grunted some form of positive response, afraid of what might happen should I nod as I ran. I flirted with unconsciousness, but, through an effort of will I kept moving. Unconsciousness had evidently done Yr Neh good: His step had unaccustomed spring, and his white fur glowed, taking on the hues of the multi-colored lanterns that swung from every arch and overhang and dangled from the rarely-seen ceiling far overhead, like constellations.
Finally we turned into another establishment on the western wall. With nary a pause, Yr Neh bolted across the brightly lit vestibule, and swept up the spiral staircase, his tail pluming magnificently. I, panting and groaning, staggered after, unaccountably fatigued and weak. I took the final few stairs on all fours, and barely spotted Yr Neh waiting for me down the broad hallway. I straightened and strode to where he awaited me. The cat looked me over critically, but, mercifully, remained silent. I waved him into the room without comment.
It was empty save for furnishings and the cat. No Gloren, no Peppin. Not even Terring’s man was in evidence, which made me doubt we were in the right room. “After all,” I told Yr Neh, “it would have been a simple thing to misread that note. Maybe you shouldn’t have burned it.” I leaned against a side table, having caught a glimpse of myself in a wall mirror. My eyes were uniformly blackened, and my face looked subtly splotchy, as if my bruises were yet undecided on their ultimate configuration. I gripped my nose, but the bone seemed the most stable feature of my skull’s exterior, at the moment.
The cat, having given the master bedroom a cursory examination as I spoke, sat, winded after his extended exertions. He gestured to the bedroom as he cleaned a paw, saying it was unlikely he’d misremembered or misread the note. I glanced in, feeling my heartbeat with unaccustomed strength behind my eyeballs. When I understood what I was looking at, a smile spread across my face.
There was no bed present. The opposite wall had been opened like large doors, exposing shelves filled with stocks of modern battlefield medicines. Another wall had been broached as well, exposing a large glass tank filled with clear fluid, within which the body of Garder Jho was suspended. Clothed only in a white loincloth and a black sleepcord tied around his temples, the man’s pale, somewhat flabby flesh was unmarred by the terrible discolorations I’d remembered seeing earlier. He was asleep, as the cord assured, with the occasional drift of bubbles rising from his nostrils. Yr Neh, smiling, waved a commanding paw, and I rushed to the tank and plunged my head into the fluid.
The sensation was uncanny, like fast-moving water flowing through my skin, gripping internal structures, moving tissues, manipulating at smaller and smaller scales. The repair was fast, and not without pain, as the bones that had been damaged were realigned, and knitted back together. Muscles clenched and I felt my face grimace, teeth gritted together. I knew, from Garder Jho’s example, that I could inhale the liquid without drowning, but thankfully didn’t need to do so. My eyes I kept open however, and I saw Yr Neh step from the room, to continue his investigation.
I lifted out of the water and gasped for air, letting the fluid run back into the tank from my hair. I felt revitalized, the sluggish reactions and weariness vanishing. Yr Neh called to me urgently, and I rushed from the bedroom, fearing Lurec or, worse, Velice had found us. But Yr Neh was in the opposite bedroom, alone, peering into the gap near the floor, a near duplicate of the one we’d crawled through on our arrival in Rockface. This building, like that other, had been constructed against the western wall of the city, and this was another entrance into the Citadel’s Underhold. If Gloren had entered this room, he hadn’t waited for us. We exchanged quick glances, and Yr Neh stepped cautiously into the dark opening. With a last glance at the empty rooms, I followed.
The Inner Rings
The passage began much like the other had. The same subtle curvature and identical stonework. The same interrupted alterations, this time with stacks of thin-cut stone ready to be placed onto the walls, obliterating signs of side doors. Near one of these exits a dark streak was drawn on the floor in what appeared to be charcoal. Yr Neh waited for me to open it, which I did with appropriate caution. But the stairwell beyond was empty, and led downward. We dashed down as quickly as we dared in the dim lighting, which consisted of glowing white strips at the front of each stair. I can only imagine the inner agonies of Yr Neh and Gloren, for whom these details would be cause for serious study, in less desperate circumstances.
We exited into the massive echoing space we’d navigated on our approach. But now the way led forward, over the rumbling expanse of darkness, an open-sided bridge sloping slightly upwards. All around, the sounds of falling and flowing water buffeted our ears, and Yr Neh trotted forward without hesitation. I followed, keeping to the center of the span.
Yr Neh was able to see more clearly than I, and continued forward with confidence, while I merely trusted there wasn’t someone ahead with a crossbow, waiting for us to get within range. But we reached the inner wall of the space without event. It terminated in an open portal, but the slab set overhead to move into place was three paces thick, like so many of the other main doorways of this place, and I marveled at the metal gears and gleaming works meant to shift it. These mechanisms might never have been used, for all the signs of age upon them. Even in the scant light, they threw back glints and twinkles from every surface and edge.
Yr Neh and I continued out of the massive chamber, hearing the sounds of activity ahead. The short hallway we crossed proved to be an opening in a thick-walled cylinder, like a perfectly round castle wall, for we were soon overlooking an interior space much like that we’d just crossed. Water ran along channels above and below, and fell in misty columns into the darkness. But here everything radiated from a central hub, a great shining column extending from the shadows below, far above which the vaulted ceiling rose to an apex. The entire core gleamed as if polished brass, with blue and white bands of color reflected from the walls and channels all around, repeated and broken by the complex details of the surface. This was the circular centerpiece of the vast underground complex
Between where we stood and the round plaza atop the center column stretched another bridge, the twin of others that radiated out from that centerpoint, grouped closely together on our side of the chasm with the exception of the last, which was a quarter around the circumference from our own, though they angled upwards or downwards more steeply, to give access to different levels.
I looked to where Yr Neh indicated, and perceived, at last, Gloren, huddled near the far side of this inner span. Even with the visual clues provided by our bridge, I’d underestimated the scale of what I was seeing, and so hadn’t noticed the tiny figure. Gloren peered around the stout pilings on the bridge’s opposite end, and I saw a miniscule figure on the brass-floored plaza, moving about industriously. I recognized the movements of Peppin, though his work ethic had markedly improved since earlier that evening. Or was it late last night? I didn’t have any notion, as we’d been underground since Temmel had thrown us into his holding cell. Weary as I was, I followed Yr Neh as he dashed across.
The Gathering Begins
Gloren’s glance back to us as we drew close was pleased. Crowded into the shadows gathered where the bridge’s rail joined the platform, he waited for us to get settled into the darkness before speaking, keeping his voice a faint whisper.
“I’m glad you two got here before Terring,” he said. “We might not know where Velice or the Baron went, but Peppin was more or less dragged here by Therissa. She’s off somewhere, down that bridge.” He indicated one of the spans to the side, and I cast an anxious glance behind us, disturbed that the Countess was still free to roam out of sight.
Yr Neh communicated our recent adventures to Gloren, while I studied Peppin, trying to determine what his activity was meant to achieve. The boy was attaching rods one at a time in sockets mounted in the floor, screwing them in meticulously. These he took from a storage space in the floor, through a tiny hatch that was flipped open. So confident were his actions, I would have had to say the boy had a deep understanding of what this place was, and Yr Neh made a comment to that effect. But Gloren corrected this impression. “Therissa gave him his instructions before she left,” he said.
“So that makes another person who understands what this place is,” I muttered, shaking my head. It seemed to me that Hallmaster Terring should have been here by now.
Gloren looked at the ceiling far overhead, lit only by the dim illumination from the lines scribed into the walls and floor. The churning rush of water all around gave us freedom to speak without fear that our words would reverberate in the immense emptiness, but also set my nerves on edge, muffing one of our only warnings should others approach from behind.
“We’re right under the Citadel,” Gloren said. “This is part of the original fortress complex, from before the Rains. Therissa must be trying to get back inside from down here. That would allow her to reach the fire ramp.” Yr Neh nodded, remembering, perhaps, the small port Salianas had mentioned on the north side of the isle, below the sheer cliffs supporting the Citadel. Of all the routes from the Otrock Line, this was the least likely to have special security. All of the suspects had, after all, departed for Landing Port, on the southern side of the island. So Velice and Baron Lurec were to have taken one of the secret passages east out of Rockface, while Therissa went north with Peppin. With Yr Neh and I known to be absent from our guardposts, those two would have an equal chance of slipping through unseen. Again, even odds, but this time someone else was rolling the dice.
Bringing my attention back to our present circumstances, Yr Neh commented that we were the only people present to not know what this place was for, it seemed, with the possible exception of Peppin. Gloren agreed as we watched the boy draw forth another rod from the storage space in the floor. Sighting along Yr Neh’s pointed paw, I spied Peppin’s cloak folded near the center of the space, and Gloren nodded, eyes narrowing in thought.
“Good eyes, Yr Neh. We’ve got to get that cloak back.”
“His cloak?” I asked. “Whatever for?”
Gloren fixed me with a pitying stare. “To ensure the succession, of course. Really, Aven, don’t you read your own writing?” He indicated my folio, which held the earlier pages of this very account.
“First drafts are delicate things,” I pointed out. Gloren shook his head, and stepped out onto the platform, his tread stealthy, closing on the boy’s cloak. My only warning of Lurec’s return was Yr Neh’s shout of surprise.
I turned and ducked as swiftly as I ever had, and for that reason Lurec’s clenching grip missed my throat, and closed on my skull, fastening around it much like a man of lesser proportions might grip a large, hard-shelled fruit. My own hands flew up in defense, to close on his wrist in an absolutely ineffective bid for freedom. Before Gloren or Yr Neh could react, I was lifted clean off the floor.
But whatever method Baron Lurec was intending to use to assure a radical escalation in my discomfort, he stopped at that very moment, stilled by the lone appeal to pierce the hiss of falling water. “Lurec,” Velice’s voice called out, “stop!”
I shifted my eyeballs to their utmost to better record this welcome new development, and so saw Velice on the next bridge over, hair disheveled and clothing torn, revealing a hard black expanse of armored torso beneath. The golden clasp around her neck gleamed, the handkeeper manacle recognizable even from this distance, the chain held by Terring, who kept his captive at a distance by the expedience of a razor-pointed spear. The chain in his grip was kept taut, the better to cleave the woman’s head off with a quick snap of the wrist. Knowing how dangerous she was, I could appreciate his caution, and yet I felt a wave of distaste for the man. But clearly his victory over her had been hard won, as his battered appearance indicated, and he had no intention of letting it slip away.
“That will be quite enough, Baron,” Terring said. “You, boy! Stop what you’re doing this instant!”
Peppin, eyes wide, dropped with a clatter the rod he was moving into place. Raising to his feet with a grimace, Gloren walked over and grabbed Peppin’s discarded cloak, then scooped up the abandoned rod as it rolled near.
“What are you doing here?” Terring demanded of Peppin, stopping his advance while still on the bridge, while Velice was standing on the central platform, eyes fixed, I imagined, on me. But her gaze was for Lurec, and I could read her reactions as he spoke. These, I truly believe, were genuine. The boy gave no answer, but stared from one to the other of us in confusion.
“Velice?” Lurec’s voice conveyed his shock at this new arrival. “What’s the meaning of this, Terring? Release her!” His voice boomed even in such a large space as this, the command given as only one born to power can give it. But Terring only sneered.
“Have you lost one of the two wits you rub together?” he snapped. “She’s a member of the Tyndelian Order, and will kill us all.”
“It’s true,” I offered, and Lurec, seeming to remember the embrace of my head by his fist, freed me to turn his attention on Terring. But Gloren spoke first, gestured to Peppin with the metal rod, keeping well away from the boy.
“And Peppin, here, is trying to help them escape back into the Citadel. Aren’t you?”
Peppin, eyes unblinking, was either a consummate master of the arts of the stage, or terrified, but in either case, his only response was an open-mouthed squeak. He took a deep breath, and, eyes roving the many bridges leading away from the massive pedestal upon which he stood, began to stammer a response.
“I’m not one of them,” he said. “I’m not a killer!”
“One of their shadows, then?” Gloren asked. “A helper? You led them to Garder Jho when he came here to investigate the frame of the Succession Painting. Much as it pains me to admit, this must actually be the frame of the Calias portrait, and thus it holds the key to the earliest of the Order’s codes. It was the Countess tossed Garder Jho from the window, I expect.”
“I was trying to escape the Order!” Peppin said. “But there was nowhere to go. Garder Jho was the first person interested in what I had to say; he came here because of me. I knew that if the succession was completed the frame would go back into storage for decades, and so I took the painting, hoping he’d have time to complete his studies.”
“Thus putting his life at terrible risk,” Gloren noted.
“I protected him as well as I could!” Peppin protested. “Members of the Order only know three other members at most, and nobody knew who I was except my master. When he died, I saw my only chance to escape.” He looked over to Velice. “I may not be very brave, but I’m not heartless enough to be one of them.”
“You’re an assassin?” Baron Lurec asked Velice, and I could hear the notes of disbelief. Velice had the good grace to drop her gaze, and I detected, for the first time, a flicker of actual emotion, stripped of all artifice. She opened her mouth once to speak, but remained silent.
“She is,” Terring said, his voice pitiless. “And a more valuable captive I’ve never known.” He nudged her with the point of the spear at her back, and she grimaced in pain. “I’m impressed, Baron, that she imagines you’re worth seducing. I believe I’ve saved your life tonight; she’d have second thoughts were you to be passed over as Sealord.”
“Don’t listen to him, Lurec!” Velice shouted.
“Who should I listen to?” Lurec asked, the pain in his voice evidence of the impact of Velice’s confession.
With a roar of spinning chainworks, the central capstone of the ceiling began to lower rapidly toward the dais where we stood clustered, and Gloren stepped aside to let it descend unobstructed by his body. Riding the lift down was Salianas, her silver gauntlets gleaming, the pure white of her hair and cloak shining like new snow. The squad of soldiers surrounding her stepped in all directions as soon as the lift stopped, and she addressed her cousin.
“You’d be best served, I think, if you listened to me.”
A bark of laughter came from the southernmost bridge as Temmel strode across its length in angry steps. Behind him came gray-cloaked members of the police forces. “Oh, some might disagree with that, dear sister.”
The Last Sealord of the Etherbis
Temmel pointed, addressing the men behind him. “Arrest my sister, and Hallmaster Terring as well.”
Yr Neh dodged aside with a growl as the men surrounding Salianas drew their swords. “Have you gone mad, Temmel?” Salianas asked, “I am the Sealord of the Otrock Line!”
“Acting Sealord!” her brother said. “Conveniently descending to the Underhold, after having told me the Countess’s people had been spotted in Rockface! And who should join you here but Lurec and Terring.”
“I came here because the manual lift controls were being prepared, as you can see,” Salianas said, pointing to the rods Peppin had been putting into place. “There’s no plot afoot here.”
“I’d beg to differ,” Lurec growled. “You two are so busy keeping track of each other, you’ve thrown away everything you hope to one day hold. A man was murdered in your Citadel, dear cousins, thrown from his rooms while the Succession Painting was busy being removed from its frame! And you both pretend to have a claim on the title of Sealord? Bah! I say good riddance to the painting and the succession, if this is the best it can produce.”
Into the silence that followed, Yr Neh, sitting near Salianas’s feet, commented that neither painting nor succession was lost. Gloren, smiling, stepped forward. “It’s true,” he told them all, though his words were directed to Salianas herself.
“You found the painting?” she asked, her eyes widening in sudden hope. Gloren gave a modest nod, but I felt it entirely unwarranted, given the magnitude of the revelation.
“Of course he found the painting!” I shouted, letting my oratorical training carry my voice to every nook in that place. The multitudes gathered around that nexus turned to me as one, including Gloren and Yr Neh, who waited for me to elaborate. I demurred, gesturing for one of the pair to continue.
Gloren shook out Peppin’s heavy cloak. “It’s in here, sewn behind the inner lining. He took it without Garder Jho’s knowledge, which wasn’t difficult once he started inducing nausea with a specially blended evening tea.”
“You’ve endangered this entire land,” Salianas said, staring at the boy as if for the first time, which, I now imagine, it may well have been. I felt thankful her icy blue gaze was not directed at me as she continued. “We deal with espionage and sabotage very harshly here.” Her soldiers grabbed the boy from either side, who squeaked in alarm. Lurec stepped forward, with a curt gesture to Temmel.
“Let’s get this over with, then,” he said. Temmel, after a moment’s pause, nodded.
“Penworthy!” Terring barked. “Come here!” With a start, I realized he meant for me to take possession of his prisoner. My protests he ignored, as they were accompanied by my quick compliance. In moments I found myself with a spear tucked beneath my arm, its point resting on a small bloodstain on the slender back of a woman who, earlier this night, had dislodged a significant section of my skull. Through the tip I could feel the rigid armor beneath her clothes, though the edge of the spear seemed to have cut through easily enough. My other hand was wrapped tightly with the links of chain holding to a golden cuff sufficient to surround the woman’s neck. The designs of this clasp writhed visibly. One quick tug of this chain by either of us, and her head would come free. I did not feel entirely secure, even so.
Gloren and Yr Neh stood at the center of the knot of onlookers, the four possible successors arrayed before them, the entire group surrounded by soldiers of the two most powerful factions on the island. Gloren was cutting the seams of Peppin’s cloak, the very stitches the boy had been working on as we spoke to him earlier that night.
“Therissa’s still out there, somewhere,” Velice said to me, her voice barely carrying to where I stood at the end of my spear. “It isn’t safe here.”
“Be quiet!” I snapped, trying to sound confident.
“Listen to me, Aven,” she said, her soft voice earnest. “The boy isn’t the one we were sent to eliminate. The Order is so compartmentalized we were sent in blind, to find our target once we’d arrived.”
“Who is it then?” I snapped, trying to keep one eye on the proceedings in the center of the circle, and one on Velice. Gloren was nearly finished with the cloak, and had straightened it. He stood, gripping something inside, and shaking it so the fabric would fall free. “Why should I believe anything you say?”
“Because it’s me,” she said, turning her head to meet my gaze. “I’m the one trying to escape the Order to be with Lurec, and I’m telling you, all of us are in danger down here.” At that moment, the cloak Gloren held dropped away, and the Succession Painting was revealed. A wave crashed over the sands, and the four potential rulers gasped as one. As the wave retreated, three of them dropped their gaze to the floor.
The last raised both hands to the darkness above.
“Not me!” shouted Sealord Lurec. “Not me!”
The City of Ravens
“Lurec!” Velice screamed. “We have to leave! We’re not safe here!”
The soldiers dropped as one to a knee, shouting acclaim for Lurec. The Sealord let his glassy stare drop to where Velice stood, and I could see the intense conflicts going on behind his eyes, and the sudden realization.
“Velice!” he shouted. “You’re safe, Velice! You’re safe from them all!” He laughed then. “I hereby pardon you of all suspicion of membership in the Order. Penworthy! Release that woman!” I recall the joy in his eyes, the falling away of the guarded, shadowed look he’d carried with him, the brooding weight of his responsibility to his lineage. With Velice’s capture, Lurec had found at last a reason to desire becoming Sealord. His long battle with fate was over. But not as he imagined at that moment.
I remember a flicker, an impression of silver glinting in the dim light, flying out of the shadows. I can see still the confusion crossing Lurec’s face, and the bloody fingers he took away from his neck. And then nothing. Sealord Lurec was dead as he began to fall, and his weight bowled Gloren over as he toppled backward.
The second assassin of the Tyndelian Order had returned.
“No!” Velice screamed. There came a blinding flare, a shockwave of power as the flesh of the dead Sealord of Etherbi contacted the Succession Painting. The golden wash of light was accompanied by a tremendous crack, the air splitting and thunder reverberating around the chamber. In my tear-streaked vision, chaos ruled the platform.
Velice whirled, catching chain and spear shaft both. With a deft twist she had them from me, yanking the chain from my grip with the fierce strength I remembered from our last encounter. Continuing her turn in a smooth arc and dropping to one knee, she hurled the spear with all her might, and it sped with perfect accuracy toward the one who had just taken the promise of love from her: the Countess Therissa, her companion and partner. Visible only as a wisp of movement amidst the crowded plaza, Therissa bounded toward the platform’s center from one of the outlying bridges. But the chaos on the platform defeated this effort as a soldier staggered back and took the spear in the shoulder with a shout of pain. Countess Therissa continued past, oblivious to her salvation. Before I drew another breath, Velice was past me, a dash of incredible speed seeing her over the bridge in moments.
The violence of the painting’s destruction continued, visible at last as people began retreating from the growing conflagration. The golden light was running off the canvas, while Lurec’s body had been consumed entirely, with a fierce heat that had injured many of those on the platform. Eyes mere slits, I rushed forward, to help whomever I could, but most concerned with Gloren and Yr Neh.
Gloren skittered back from the edge where he’d been bowled over by Lurec’s fall, and he slid Yr Neh unceremoniously across the slick metal flooring, giving the shining canvas a wide berth as thunder shook the cavern. As he scuttled forward, a massive chunk of the platform broke completely free behind him, to drop with shattering force among the waterways and spillways all around. These were sheared off instantly, water flowing unchecked from the devastated channels. The air began to move in great gusts, and I could hear the deep, reverberant sounds of the Underhold’s passages moving around us, as they had when Yr Neh had shifted the wall diagram. Velice, I remember thinking, had found her way to a control room.
There was a moment of relative quiet, an instant where the energies pouring from the canvas were stilled, and Gloren, Yr Neh, and I, each from our own vantage point, gazed on the piece of cloth used so long ago, stripped of paint and Mysteries, a tear carefully mended near one corner. We all saw the young woman whose face gazed out at us, rendered in careful charcoal, a work hidden by the famous Succession Painting long ago. Then the winds lifted the canvas away, to swirl into the darkness.
Salianas and Temmel confronted each other angrily, their armed followers brandishing drawn weapons. But their incipient melee was forestalled by the shattering crack that rolled through the chamber, the dense material of the platform giving birth to hot glowing lines, which widened into fissures as the metal ran red. Whatever forces had been absorbed by the platform were yet to be stilled. The soldiers broke, many scattering down various bridges from the central platform. Gloren rushed forward to Salianas, Yr Neh at his heels.
“Get us to the Citadel!” he shouted. Another concussive blast rocked the platform, and everyone went off their feet. A few screams came from the unfortunates who went over the edge, or fell too close to the flowing rivulets of metal, and when we looked up again, it was to the rattle of the ascending lift. Saliana’s despairing shout rang out, but the Countess laughed from her rising perch. From my vantage point I had only a glimpse of the woman, her body encased in a sheath of black armor, her dark hair ruffling with the sudden winds that tore through the cavern. Therissa, it seemed, would likely achieve her goal of escape via the Citadel’s small northern seaport. It occurs to me now that the woman may have been of a mind to visit the vaults once more, to see to the disposition of the Calais frame, but, as of this writing, there has been no chance for me to check this suspicion, as will become clear shortly.
I struggled to the newly vacant center, joining Gloren, Yr Neh, and Salianas, who knelt with a grimace of pain, her hand around one ankle. Temmel had joined his men in retreating down one of the bridges, while Terring had rushed full speed and alone after Velice. Peppin lay looking over the edge of the plaza, and I went over and dragged the boy back from the precipice. The vast mechanisms of the cavern began to grind into life as the Underhold’s rings continued to move.
The central platform began to slowly turn, the massive columns around the edge of the walls sliding into a rhythmic rise and fall, waterways dropping away as if on hinges. All at once we were within the heart of a mighty mechanism, a thing rather than a place. The light from the etchings on the walls grew brighter, illuminating the water-filled depths of the cavern. But these depths drew back as the churning waters flowed away.
“We have to get out,” Salianas said through gritted teeth. “The Seal is breaking.” I saw the haunted look in Gloren’s eyes as he gave her his arm in support. That inner look that bespoke mental connections made and realizations coming to fruition, and the rueful pain of knowledge gained too late. That historian’s conjecture about the original purpose of the Citadel had been wrong, and that the Etherbis had, indeed, been Seal Lords before they became Sealords, as the old man in the prison room had told me. And now the destruction of the Succession Painting had undone that as well.
Together we started toward the bridge Gloren, Yr Neh, and I had arrived from, but before we could reach it, hindered as we were by Salianas’s slow pace, it detached itself and began rising away. Peppin dashed forward, as did Yr Neh, while I helped Gloren assist Salianas.
“This is the end,” she whispered to Gloren. “The end of the Etherbis.”
“Not yet,” he told her, but I could hear the lie in his words. Without the Succession Painting, there could be no uncontested claim to the title of Sealord. We helped her get atop the rising bridge, and then clamored up ourselves, our feet being pulled off the floor as the span moved more quickly. As we climbed onto the upper surface, Yr Nah hanging his head over the edge to call out encouragement, we stared down into the abyss beneath us as it emptied of the last of the water that had filled it. Two surfaces moved there, the lower visible through gaps in the upper. And as we watched, this lower surface revealed openings into darkness, and a black tide drifted out. From where we crouched atop the rising bridge, we could make out no details, but the sounds carried.
The shrieks brought to mind thousands of birds, though the forms that filled the air, and scuttled over the surface of the walls, were no mere birds. Sliding down the length of the bridge, we rolled beneath the descending portal, blessedly thick and heavy, and began a nightmare journey through the shifting hallways and corridors toward Rockface, pursued at every turn by the shadowy tide, their screams filling the air. However massive the portals may have been, some damage to the system kept the danger from ever being fully contained. And so we fled as best we could.
Daylight shines now through the porthole, and I must soon consider sleep. Of the siege of Rockface from what had inhabited the Underhold, and the evacuation of the island of Otrock, I must say little. Of the changes that had come over the Citadel by the mechanisms hidden beneath it, I can say less. The ferryboat we’re on needs to return, to save those it can, so those are subjects for another time.
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 called it “A very fine story that is impossible to predict.”
This 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.
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.
Here’s Louis West at Tangent Online again:
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 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.