Book I |
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue
The Yurdon river cut into the base of the ridge upon which Yesulam crowned like a golden diadem. Its blue waters met the shore line in a profusion of grass and reeds. Irrigation dikes drew the water inland to nurture farms and pastures, while outlets from the intricate sewers dumped waste water into the river. A complicated series of pumps brought fresh water from upstream to keep the sewers flowing and the city clean. The greatest Suielman engineers had designed it a millennia ago, and the greatest of Ecclesia engineers had improved it in the centuries since.
Down upon the wharves at the base of the ridge, few appreciated the intricacies of Yesulam’s water works. While waiting for the promised vessel to return them to Stuthgansk, Sir Petriz of Vasks had little else to do. He had grown weary of this northern land where few knew his tongue, and the tongue commonly spoken phrased everything so awkwardly that he knew he sounded like an idiot every time he opened his mouth. He felt unnerved to see the sun in the southern sky, or to see such strange constellations at night. He yearned to see the low forests and scrub of Stuthgansk again. He yearned to see his home, a land where things would be as they had been.
The Patriarch had finally opened the city gates to commerce, and so Sir Czestadt and he waited for the merchant vessel to finish loading its cargo. With them waited Kashin and Father Akaleth. The other two priests had been unable to escape the duties their clerical office required, but they had made sure to offer Eli’s blessing before the two knights had left the city walls.
Now that they waited to depart, none of them seemed to have words for each other. Sir Petriz sighed and studied the water flowing through the aqueduct for only the fifth time. To Czestadt he said in a mumbled whisper, “When the Magyars held me, I had no choice but to wait for weeks to do anything of my own volition. I thought my patience had been tested then. Now that we are to return home, I find I have no patience left to give!”
Sir Czestadt grunted and leaned against a piling as he stood on the wharf. He dressed only in his tabard and chain mail with a dagger at his side. All his other weapons had gone with his belongings into the vessel’s hold. “Patience is not something you give; it is something you receive.”
A faint smile cracked Petriz’s lips. He’d once said the same thing when describing the many years he’d spent praying and dreaming of being a Driheli knight. Turning away from the aqueduct, he met the ever intent gaze of Father Akaleth. How well he remember the day Akaleth had appeared beneath Ahadi’s Inn, beaten and whipped, barely able to talk. But even then Petriz couldn’t miss the fierce determination in his every act.
“How is your hand?” Petriz asked, gesturing to the bandages wrapped about Akaleth’s right hand.
Akaleth did not look at his hand, keeping his focus upon the knight. “It continues to heal,” he replied in the southern tongue, his accent mangled but comprehensible. “Another week or two and I shall be well. A scar will remain, but what is one more scar?” His eyes narrowed. “You have a wound in your eyes, Sir Petriz. Does knowing what you know set you ill at ease?”
“A little. We did find the evil and expose it, but how could it have ever gone so far? How did it corrupt so many of the Ecclesia?”
“We are men,” Czestadt replied. “Do you need to know more?”
“But we have been given special charges,” Petriz pointed out. His eyes stole to Kashin. The one-armed man still dressed in black, and he watched the dock workers load cargo on the vessel. Kashin knew the Southern tongue better even than Akaleth, but he did not seem interested in the conversation. Petriz continued, “Special charge to uphold Eli’s will. When we ask the best and most of men, and when we do so with the aid of Yahshua and the Most Holy Ghost, do we not receive it?”
“From those we know to be Saints,” Akaleth replied, “we have. From many others we do as well; those saints known only to Eli. But we are all sinners, as the Canticles remind us. Not a one of us can escape sin. Not even the Patriarch, and certainly not men like you or I.” Akaleth frowned, his eyes seeing Petriz, but they looked elsewhere – inward. “We are at our most dangerous when we think those special charges grant us impeccability. That is as much contumacy as is heresy.”
Petriz sighed and nodded. He had seen as much amongst the Driheli. How many of his fellow knights rose to the standards of honour and chivalry he applied to himself? Did any? Did he? But there had always been that certainty that something pure existed that was worth every sacrifice. Now even that surety was no more.
Unable to hold it inside any longer, he asked, “But in what can we trust if the Bishops and even the Patriarch are subject to evil the same as the rest of us? Where lies the purity of the Ecclesia?”
“Where it always has,” Father Akaleth replied. “And where it always will; with Yahshua. It is He who gives the Ecclesia her authority, her holiness, and it is He who preserves her, despite the succession of inadequate men who have led her.”
“And despite her inadequate servants?”
Sir Czestadt turned on him, one hand gripping a pylon to steady his weak legs. “What cause have you to call yourself inadequate? You sacrificed your life for your men, aided your captors when the elements threatened their lives, and even saw the truth and helped me to see it! I have never met a knight possessing such devotion as you. Not a knight of the Driheli would dare utter a word against you. Are you a sinner? Aye, but so are we all. You prayed to be a knight to defend Eli’s Ecclesia. You have received the fulfilment of your prayer, and you dare to question Eli’s wisdom?”
“Do not be quite so angry,” Kashin said. Petriz felt the swell of indignation at his master’s tirade fade with those words. “Sir Petriz is merely learning a lesson you learned a long time ago when you left the Kankoran to become a Driheli.”
Czestadt glared at the one-armed man and asked, “What lesson is that?”
“The difference between innocence and virtue. Until now, Sir Petriz remained ignorant of the evils that Bishops are capable of when they turn away from Yahshua. Now he has seen it, and he has struggled against it. Virtue is lonelier work, but it is the greater. Do not weep for lost innocence when virtue is at hand. For a knight of the Driheli, can there be anything greater than virtue?”
Petriz shook his head. “No, it is our highest calling as Driheli and as Followers. I have been mourning when I should have been girding myself for greater challenges, haven’t I?”
“In a sense,” Kashin agreed. “We never know what will bring us good. I certainly didn’t think the Magyars would have brought me any good, as I know neither did you.”
Czestadt grunted and slapped his free hand on his thigh. “Enough of this! Sir Petriz, Knight Commander of Vasks, I remind you that you are a man with authority. Others will see you. Should you lose your faith, they will not follow you.”
“I haven’t lost my faith,” Sir Petriz replied, standing as tall as he was able. He set his jaw firm, eyes hard, and met Czestadt’s level glare. “I haven’t lost my faith at all. Each of you,” he nodded to all three of them in turn, “have given me the means to strengthen it.” He smiled then, a soft sure thing, and he knew what he said was true. “The greatest challenge that I can know is to train our squires to be true knights who give their lives in service to the Ecclesia. And I will begin with Karol.”
“Begin?” Czestadt snorted, “You have nearly completed the job already! I can think of few squires, even my own Hevsky, who are more likely to be knights with your virtue.” The elder knight frowned and then shifted his legs back and forth. “I owe you an apology, Sir Petriz. I once thought your piety a weakness. I never said so to your face, but I thought it in my heart. I saw my prowess and my charisma, and my devotion to seeing out the will of the Bishops as sufficient. I do not know your kindness.”
“You choose me to be your squire,” Petriz replied, feeling anew the love he had always felt for this man. It pained him to hear Czestadt speak ill of himself. “That is an act of kindness I will never forget, nor stop thanking you for.”
Father Akaleth nodded to them both, and pulled his black cassock more tightly over his shoulders. “We have all experienced great difficulties in the last few months. We are all better men for it. But enough of this now; I think your vessel is ready.”
As one they turned to the vessel and noted that the hold was sealed again, and men scampered along the rigging while others fitted the oars into their locks. The merchant who had been greedily fussing over his wares as they were loaded no longer stood on deck. The captain barked orders, and cast glances at the knights every few seconds. Czestadt waved to him, and he waved back, gesturing at the oars and the sea.
“We should delay no longer.” Czestadt walked stiffly to the gangplank and then turned back to Akaleth and Kashin. “If we never see each other again, it has been a great honour to know you both. Eli’s blessing be with you.”
“And also with you,” Father Akaleth replied. “I shall say prayers for the Driheli every day of my life.”
“I shall miss you both,” Kashin said. He offered his hand, and in turn, both Czestadt and Petriz clasped it. “You are true knights. Go, ride the seas safely, and may Eli bring you home.”
Sir Petriz followed Czestadt up the plank, turning at the ships rim to wave one last time. “Thank you, for everything. Yahshua bless you both!”
And then, when their feet hit the deck, sailors rushed in behind them and pulled the plank on board. Czestadt and Petriz stood by the railing, even as the ship began to slide southwards with the current. Father Akaleth and Kashin stood waiting, dwindling, until they disappeared around a bend in the river. The two knights looked at each other, smiled as only their eyes could, and retired below decks. Their labours were finally over.
“I’m glad I’m flesh. I’m glad I’m flesh. I’m glad I’m flesh.” Charles muttered this mantra to himself as they carriage bumped and jostled along the wharf-front.
“What’s that, Charles?” James asked. The donkey sat next to him in the carriage, long ears nearly brushing the lacquered interior roof.
Charles turned away from the evening sky and back to his friend. “Oh, nothing. Just happy to be flesh again. Honestly, I had begun to forget what it was like.”
James smiled and shifted about on the carriage seat, repositioning his tail. The one drawback of the Duke’s hospitality was that so few of his chairs bore accommodations for tails. Charles sat on the end of the seat that his might not be so painfully cramped and to avoid crushing the ivy that cloaked his back and chest. Jessica did not even bother trying to sit down; as soon as she climbed into the carriage she’d shrunk down to the size of a normal hawk and perched on Lindsey’s leg. Habakkuk sat between the opposing benches and leaned back against his long tail. Only Kayla managed to lean back, her long and voluminous tail an extra cushion for her head.
The others of their company followed in the next carriage, and before them Duke Schanalein, his son, and the Bishop rode together out to the wharves. Captain Tilly rode with the Duke, a fact that Kayla had groused about at length. She had hoped the sea captain would have ridden with them, that they might have had a chance to allay his concerns about their presence on his ship.
Habakkuk had assured her several times that there would be more than enough time for that once they were on board, but he only managed to reduce her complaints to muttered grumbling.
Now they sat in relative silence as the carriages rode alongside the wharves. Charles stared through the small carriage window and admired the long row of merchant vessels docked, and the men scurrying like ants to load and unload cargo. Flags from several different kingdoms topped the masts, many of them from the Southlands. None from Sondeshara he noted with some disappointment, but it probably was for the best. Had any Sondeckis seen the spectacle of their entrance as prisoners of the Bishop, they might have recognized Jerome. Though the man who had corrupted the Sondeckis may be dead, he still had no desire to return to Sondeshara and answer for his disobedience.
Although, this would be the first time in nearly ten years that he had come so close to his once beloved home. He sighed, wishing that things could have been different. Had he never left, Zagrosek might not have been corrupted by Marzac, and his friend Ladero Alanez might not have been killed. But then he would never have met his friends, nor his wife, Lady Kimberly. And he would not now be a father of five. How could he give any of them up just to change the past?
He shuddered, feeling the absence of Kimberly and his children, something he had not truly felt in all those months of stone. He shut his eyes tight, pressed his fists into his cheeks, and sought his Calm. He brought to mind the desert sands, and the crisp blue sky, stilling all the anger and rage he felt. A hand lay at his back, but he ignored it as he focussed his being on the Calm.
And then, all his heartache left, leaving him only with a soothing sense of peace. He remained there for several seconds before opening his eyes. James, whose hand pressed into his back asked, “Are you all right?”
“Aye, I’m fine now. As I said, I’m still not used to being flesh.”
“You aren’t thinking like stone are you?” Habakkuk asked, worry in his voice.
“Not much,” he admitted. After all these years, he couldn’t lie to the kangaroo anymore. “I’ve had a few moments when I’ve wished to feel that way again, but that’s all. Stone really is different. Even after we left the mountains, I still began to think more and more like granite. If not for each of you, I might have stopped caring about fleshy things altogether.”
“I never really knew that stone thought at all,” Kayla admitted. “What are you trying to get used to again?”
“Having feelings,” the rat said, shifting some in his seat. His long tail curled around one ankle, and he began to pet it, trembling slightly at the scaly flesh and stubbly hairs. “I’ve missed my family, but until now, it was just something I thought about. I didn’t really feel it. I didn’t miss them the way you miss Rickkter. More like how you would miss playing a good game.”
Kayla blanched. “That sounds awful!”
“At the time, I didn’t know how awful it was. Even now, I have to assure myself that the things I enjoyed as stone are not worth the things I will lose.” He sighed and spread his paws. “If you see me looking forlornly at any bit of rock, please distract me with something truly important. I don’t want to feel that temptation, not now.”
The carriage began to slow, and then it rocked back and forth on the cobblestones. James winced as his tail pinched beneath him, while Habakkuk had to grab at the wall to keep from falling over. Lindsey grunted and offered Jessica his arm; she hopped onto it. “Well, we’re here,” the northerner said as he climbed to his feet, being careful not to smack Jessica’s head into the carriage ceiling.
This section of the wharf had been cordoned off by the Duke’s soldiers. Only a single ship, triple masted with square sails, docked at the long pier. Salt choked the air, as well as the reek of human sewage. Charles and the other Keepers put their paws to their noses as they stepped out of the carriage. Sailors turned to stare at them, most of them making the sign of the yew over their chests.
Their other companions exited the carriage behind theirs, except for Guernef who had flown and now began circling to make his landing. A quartet of soldiers immediately flanked Duke Schanalein as he and his son stepped from their carriage. Bishop Hockmann followed behind; the spectacled priest also rubbed his nose to hide the malodorous odour.
Captain Tilly walked beside the Duke, gesturing to the large ship and saying something they couldn’t hear. But their eyes were struck from the ship by the sound of a dozen horses neighing in relief. Along one side of the docks, several ostlers struggled to mollify the golden-furred Rheh.
“The Rheh!” James shouted with delight. The donkey ran towards them, and so too did the other Keepers. The ostlers saw them coming and as one broke and ran down the pier. One of them dived into the water to get out of their way. The magnificent equines pranced, hooves clattering on the stone pier, and then rushed up to greet their riders.
And with graceful ease, the Rheh found each of their riders, nuzzling and hugging them with their neck. The Keepers laughed, and even Andares broke into a mirthful grin as he touched the steed that had chosen to bear him. Behind them Guernef landed, startling the Duke and Captain Tilly.
“You bring chaos to my ship as she has never seen!” Tilly declared as he crossed himself. “None of my men can bring your horses below decks to their berths. I assume that you will be able to do what they could not?”
“The Rheh will only go where they wish to go,” Andares replied. “That they have consented to go with us any further itself is a gift granted. And without price. They will follow us into your vessel’s hold, but your men should not attempt to treat them as horses. They are passengers with equal standing to the rest of us.”
Captain Tilly scratched his short beard, bemused. “Are they not just horses?” One of the Rheh stomped his hoof and snorted derisively at the sea captain. Tilly blinked and nodded his head. “Forgive me then. I am but a simple sailor, and do not know about these things.”
Andares and Qan-af-årael began walking up the wide loading ramp, the Rheh following after them. “We shall guide them where they must go. If one of your men would show us,” the younger Åelf suggested. One of the ostlers hurried up the ramp first, eyes wide in astonishment.
Guernef squeezed past them, squawking at the captain who quickly danced out of the Nauh-kaee’s way. He then followed the Rheh up the ramp and onto the ship. The Keepers waited, sensing that the Duke wished to speak still. Kurt managed to stand still like the soldier he’d become, but his eyes betrayed his eager impatience. Bishop Hockmann looked both wearied and fascinated, though whatever gratefulness he felt he kept hidden.
“Once again,” Duke Schanalein said as he came to the edge of the pier, “I and all of Breckaris thanks you for saving us from du Tournemire. I wish you Eli’s protection on your journey ahead. If there is anything more I can do before you depart, please ask it.”
Charles stood as tall as he could, and still did not equal Kurt’s height. “If you will be sending Tugal to Metamor, in the company of the Holy Sisters or not, I also ask that you send a message to our Duke, and to our families, that we are safe and have hopes of returning to them in the new year.”
Schanalein gave him a quick nod. “You have my word that it will be done.”
“Father,” Kurt interrupted, “perhaps there is something more we can still do.”
“What is that?”
“You said that their liege is to be married upon the Winter’s Solstice.”
Schanalein smiled, both to his son and to the Keepers. “Very true. In gratitude for thy efforts, I will send an official delegation to Metamor to attend Duke Hassan’s wedding, and also to open up diplomatic channels with your kingdom.”
“That is wonderful news,” Kayla said. “Thank you, your grace. I know Duke Thomas will gladly receive your men and afford them every courtesy.”
Kurt fidgeted and then added, “Father, I seek the honour of leading this delegation to Metamor.”
Charles and the other Keepers smiled. The rat nodded and said, “Who better to lead it than he who led us to you. Thank you, Kurt! Your people will delight in you when your day comes.”
Duke Schanalein appeared a little less pleased than the Keepers. “I have my son back, and you would risk such a dangerous journey?”
Kurt gestured to the Keepers. “For them? Aye, Father, I would.”
“Then so be it.” Schanalein smiled again, and patted his son on the shoulder. “You shall lead the delegation to Metamor, and provide protection for Tugal and the Holy Sisters. Your grace, is there any impediment to their intention of establishing a convent in Metamor Valley?”
Surprised at being addressed, Bishop Hockmann fumbled with his spectacles before nodding and stuttering, “There is... is but one matter, your grace. I have no authority to establish any such convent. They will need the permission of Bishop Ammodus who overseas that diocese. I will write them a letter of intent and have it delivered to Kelewair.”
“Then it is settled,” Duke Schanalein turned back to the Keepers. “When you return to your home, I hope you will find Tugal there, and the Holy Sisters.”
“I do as well,” Kayla replied, and her words were soon echoed by the other Keepers.
“I hope our paths cross again,” Kurt said, smiling and extending his hand. “Thank you all for everything you’ve done.”
One by one they shook hands with Kurt, before starting up the ramp to the ship. Duke Schanalein waved them on board, and Bishop Hockmann prayed a blessing over their voyage. On board the sailors worked hard to ready the ship, one of whom busied himself hanging lamps from the fore and aft decks to keep the light even into the approaching night. Captain Tilly shouted orders from the helm, while one of the sailors nervously gestured the Keepers to the hold.
Beneath they found the two Åelf and Guernef securing the Rheh in a series of paddocks. Foodstuffs and other supplies were stacked in boxes towards the bow and stern. The hold ended in a blank wall at the fo’c’sle, and also at the aft castle. No one else lay down in the hold. After they had all climbed down the stairs at the aft castle end, the sailor shut the door behind them. Lamps hung from the ceiling providing some light, while portholes lined the top of the hold, but through them they could see nothing.
“Well,” Lindsey said as he glanced around, “looks like we’re sleeping on the floor again.”
“At least now we can use straw,” James pointed out.
“You’re a donkey, you like sleeping on straw!”
“I’d rather have a bed,” James admitted, long ears folding back, “but straw is better than many things we’ve slept on in the last few months.”
“Isn’t that the truth!” Lindsey said with a sullen laugh.
Jessica flew down from the northerner’s arm and returned to her normal height at the bottom of the hold. She stretched out her wing claws and glanced back and forth between them. “We shouldn’t be too critical of his grace. We do have a lot more than what we thought we’d have. We should find ways to help Captain Tilly and his crew on this voyage. I can watch from the crow’s nest; my eyes are better than any man’s could be.”
“You might be the only one,” Charles pointed out. “I suppose I could find where the rats live on the ship. I have some experience with that.” He pondered what turning into his animal form would do to the ivy. Would it shrink with him? Perhaps caution would be the better guide as far as the ivy was concerned. He’d already been stone; he didn’t need to become a plant too.
“Before you do that,” Abafouq said, “We need to learn one thing. Jessica, you must teach us this spell that will protect us against Marzac.”
The floor lurched beneath them; only James fell to the floor, catching himself with his hands, hoof-like nails thudding into the wood. Jerome helped him back to his hooves and said, “We’ve cast off. The next time we step on land, it will be on the Marquis’s land.”
Qan-af-årael nodded and invited the others to sit with him. “Then let us discuss what we shall do these next few weeks both on board and on land. Jessica, please start by telling us this spell.”
As they all gathered together, Jessica began to speak words that made no sense to Charles and most of the Keepers, but to the Åelf, the Binoq, the Nauh-Kaee, and to Kayla, all seemed a revelation. Qan-af-årael smiled as he listened. Beneath them the ship began to rock gently back and forth.
The door to Nylene’s chambers opened and the grating voice of the acolyte Thelina carried through, “It is my duty to assist you in preparing you for your pilgrimage, Priestess. As an acolyte, it is my place to tend to the needs of those inducted into the full sanctity of the Lothanasi priesthood.”
Nylene’s gentle step crossed to the middle of her room. Elvmere, still a normal raccoon, stirred from the bundle of clothes in the prayer cell. After returning from his investigations, he’d found Nylene’s chambers empty, and so had made a small bed for himself out of his clothes. If any interlopers should find him, they would see only an animal, and hopefully, would bring no more suspicion on Nylene hin’Lofwine.
The acolyte followed Nylene into the room and shut the door behind her. Nylene replied in a pleasant voice, “I am grateful for your concern for our respective stations, Thelina, but I would much rather pack for this journey myself. The Lothanas has asked you to accompany me, and so you have your own things to tend to ere we depart on the morrow. Have you contacted Master Elsevier as I asked?”
“I have, Priestess. Master Elsevier says he will be delighted to dine with you this evening and discuss our voyage. Metamor is a very long way, even by boat. We will be gone for months. There is much you will need, and you will need another to oversee their proper comportment.”
Elvmere crawled to the door frame and pressed his head against the base. He shifted about, trying to see beneath the jamb, but with his beastly proportions, he couldn’t quite manoeuver himself into position. His claws, scrambling at the door, began to scratch it far louder than he’d expected.
“What was that?” Thelina asked. Elvmere jumped back into his pile of clothes and buried himself there, poking his snout and staring at the line of warm light coming under the jamb. He heard the acolyte’s footsteps coming further into Nylene’s chambers, but the shaft of light remained.
“I merely asked when Master Elsevier would arrive. It is nearly dusk now, and I do hope to partake of my evening meal before the nightly blessings are sung.”
“I heard you, Priestess,” Thelina replied. “But I thought I heard something else. It sounded like a rat in the woodwork. Filthy vermin!”
Elvmere felt indignant at being called a rat, and huddled deeper in his clothes. But then he realized that if Thelina opened the cell door, he would be seen. His best option would be to leap and run out the balcony, so he tensed his leg muscles, and waited.
But Nylene’s voice was as smooth as crystal. “Then ask one of the other acolytes to come through these chambers after we’ve left and lay traps. We have far too much to do, as you say, Thelina, to worry over an adventurous rodent.”
Elvmere didn’t move a muscle as listened to Thelina turn about a few more seconds. Finally, she said, “Very well, Priestess, I shall have Helene set traps in your chambers after we leave tomorrow. It is fruitless to argue. Two hands work faster than one. Together let us arrange your things.”
Elvmere twitched his tail and had to bite back the churr of irritation. They certainly couldn’t let this woman come with them; he’d have to stay a beast the entire voyage. Even spending his day in this form had heightened his animal instincts, a fact that bothered him. Would he act like an animal at an inappropriate moment and reveal himself to Thelina or the ship’s crew? That would prove disastrous for himself and for Nylene, and he would not risk her any more than he already had.
But Nylene seemed always to know what to say. “Of course, you are most thoughtful to suggest it. I will want to celebrate all of the standard rites on the pilgrimage, so the proper prayer books and instruments must be collected and prepared. Also, I believe it would be fitting, in any pilgrimage to our most holy site, to wear the most traditional and ancient of attire. I fear I have none of these things in my chambers. If you would prepare those items for me, as you know better than I where they lay, it would greatly ease the burden of preparation.”
He could hear Thelina shuffling her feet as she tied to find a reason to stay in the room. “That is... is wise, Priestess.”
“And I know you must prepare for the pilgrimage as well. Surely there are thing you wish to bring.”
“I am but a humble acolyte and have nothing of my own. It will not take long for me to prepare.”
Elvmere’s ear twitched at the sound of booted heels coming up the hall to Nylene’s chamber. But the two women continued their verbal sparing for another minute before they were interrupted by a knock on the door. The raccoon curled his tail around his paws and relaxed. Maybe this would drive that insufferable acolyte away.
“Ah, Master Elsevier,” Nylene said with genuine politeness. Elvmere could hear the gentleness in her voice, and it delighted him. “Please come in. Thelina will return shortly with some food for us to share. Thelina? Bring more fish if you would.” Elvmere buried his muzzle in the clothes to hide his delighted churr.
“As you wish, Priestess.” Thelina’s footsteps echoed down the hall, and the door shut firmly behind her. Elvmere drew his nose from the clothes and immediately smelled the odour of a man who worked with vellum; it was a musty scent, like rifling through old books.
“Ah, Priestess Nylene, it is a pleasure to see you again.” The man had an urbane voice, rich with the now familiar accent of Silvassa, poetic much like their city. “Your letter arrived at a fortunate time. I am planning to set sail soon, but if your needs demand, we can leave early. I am ever in your debt.”
Nylene replied in a rather soft voice. “What we have to say can wait until dinner arrives. Here, sit and make yourself comfortable. Oh, and I do hope you brought some of your new inks with you, and some vellum that we might try them out on.”
“For you, of course, I would be happy to provide a sample of our wares.” Elsevier set something down on the small dining table. It clinked like glass. Following it Elvmere knew to be a sheaf of loose vellum.
“Perhaps you can do one thing more before you grow too comfortable?” Nylene asked. “I am feeling somewhat cold this evening. The hearth is clean, and wood awaits its consumption. If you would, build a fire that I might have warmth.”
Elsevier chuckled and said, “I will gladly do so for you, Priestess.” The chair scuffed on the carpeting as the man rose. Elvmere relaxed in his pile of clothes and let his eyelids begin to droop as he listened to the man striking tinder and coaxing the fire to life. They shared a few more words, all of it respectful, but none of it saying anything revealing. Only that Elsevier was readying his grandest ship for her pilgrimage to Metamor.
So Nylene had told the Lothanas she wished to make a religious pilgrimage to Metamor. Apparently her request had been granted. But how was she going to bring Elvmere along?
By the time Thelina returned with their dinner, Elsevier had brought the fire to life. It crackled and hissed as he added bits of wood. Thankfully, the bothersome acolyte did not stay long this time. After she had left, and Elvmere knew she’d left because he could hear her footsteps recede, Nylene and Elsevier continued their almost vacuous conversation as they ate. But the whole while, he could hear them writing. Elvmere squirmed and clawed at the cell floor, angry that he could not read their words.
After what seemed an interminable time, Nylene rose from her chair and said, “Forgive me, Master Elsevier, but your discourse on the waterways of the Silvassa have reminded me of a history that I wished to share with you. I will bring it presently.”
Unable to help himself, Elvmere huddled deeper in his clothes as the footsteps approached. He wanted to stand up to meet her, but the stronger part of him kept urging him to hide. Her feet blocked the light before the door, and then she gingerly lifted the latch and drew the door open. Elvmere covered his eyes with his paws and blinked until they adjusted to the light. Nylene stared down at him, her mouth agape. In one hand she held a piece of paper. A bemused smile crossed her lips, and she lowered it for Elvmere to read.
“Please reveal yourself to my friend.”
Staring past Nylene’s legs, he saw a balding man with ruddy jowls and a decided paunch leaning forward against the table, staring wide-eyed at the raccoon. He said with a sardonic twist to his lips, “I don’t quite see what could be new or surprising in any such tome, at least not to one who has seen such things before.”
Nylene favoured Elvmere with a questioning glance, and he knew she was wondering if he’d switch back to his man-like form. He wanted to whisper, “Not in front of him!” but of course, his vocal chords didn’t work properly as an animal, so he said nothing and shook his head and pointed at Elsevier.
“Perhaps it merely needs to grow. Like any bit of knowledge, it takes time to digest.” She stepped back and half-closed the door. Elvmere took advantage of his privacy to do as Nylene hinted and grew back into his morphic shape. He pulled on his clothes, smoothed out the rumples, and then stepped out, wary that his claws did not scratch the floor.
Elsevier’s eyes grew wider, and his hands began to tremble. “Oh my...” he stuttered. “That volume! I have heard of it, only never seen it before.” He hastily scribbled a note and held it up that Elvmere might see.
He nodded and gestured to the pad of vellum and the other quill. He could see several notes that the two had already written to each other. Elsevier handed him the quill, then took those notes and tossed them on the fire. The paper blackened and curled into ash.
“Are spies listening?”
Nylene came behind him, one hand resting on his shoulder, and she nodded. “As you can see, there is cleverness in this tome. I think you’ll find it a bosom companion for those many nights upon the sea. But tell me of the arrangements for our trip. I hope to grant you this book as a gift in repayment for your kindness to an old priestess seeking one last bit of excitement in her life.”
“I hope the journey will not be exciting. Squalls can sweep down on a ship unsuspecting in those waters at this time of year. I would rather we did not face such adversity. Ah, Wvelkim grant us a steady wind and a friendly sea!” As he spoke, he scribbled on the next sheet.
“I have two ships, my chief vessel Indigo, and a simple transport named Calf. You will board the Indigo with her.”
Elsevier pointed to the raccoon-man and over at the monastic cell which hung open. “Now that is a fine book, good Nylene! Something of so small a size, that I can easily take with me tonight, and I would be glad to do so.” He gestured to an expensive knapsack that leaned against his chair. Elvmere would be able to fit inside should he be an animal, but not much else would. He’d already been lugged around in a barrel by the Sondeckis, and now this paper and ink merchant wanted to tote him on his back like a parcel of bread?
Elvmere took the quill and furiously wrote.
“I will not be separated from the journals. And what of my clothes?”
The merchant looked between the raccoon and Nylene, a questioning look on his face. “Perchance you might have more volumes than this on the subject?”
Elvmere carefully walked back to the cell and lifted out the satchel with Akabaieth’s journals. The merchant frowned, revealing a second chin. “Several more volumes! Ah, I do not think I can fit all of them, but I do happen to have an older ragged knapsack that I keep for such dreadful emergencies.”
Nylene smiled and replied, “How very fortunate, Master Elsevier. It is no wonder that you have prospered so; your foresight serves you well.”
Elvmere set the knapsack at Elsevier’s feet, and then snatched a bit of fish from the platter on the table. Like their morning meal, it had only been lightly seasoned, but to his tongue, it still tasted like manna. Elvmere then picked up the quill and wrote:
“Will Thelina come with us?”
Elsevier shook his head, the frown deepening.
“Thelina will see to extra baggage for Nylene. While away, Nylene will slip aboard Calf. Ships will sail in opposite directions.”
“Well,” Elsevier added, leaning back in his chair and smiling heartily to them both. “Let me tell you about the Indigo, the mighty vessel we shall sail upon tomorrow. You have given me much to ponder with your books. I will give you much to anticipate.” And even as he spoke, he managed to write. How he could handle two separate lines of thought at the same time, Elvmere could not imagine.
“Make sure you have what you need in one bag. I do not want to risk moving more than that. The switch must be quick.”
Nylene nodded and said, “I assure you, Master Elsevier, I will prepare for this illuminating venture with the proper level of austerity. But there is much that must come along, as a priestess of the Lothanasi, and of Silvassa. Thelina, a most helpful acolyte, is attending to those garments and tools.”
Elsevier smiled, and tossed the used bits of vellum in the fire. He ate some of the fish, and then gestured at the plate to the raccoon-man. Elvmere would have to ask him why he acted so calmly around a Keeper. Had he been to Metamor before?
But Elvmere gladly accepted the plate, scooping the rest of the fish in his paws, noting the soft pinpricks of a few bones the cooks had missed against his fingers. His claws removed them with exquisite precision and then he devoured them as politely as he could. Elsevier watched him out of the corner of one eye.
Nylene laid her hand on his back and pet through his neck fur with one finger. “I am growing weary, Master Elsevier. I look forward to hearing more about your magnificent ship, but you must excuse me for the night.”
“Of course. We have only to pack those books we discussed and I will be on my way.”
Elsevier gestured to the expensive cloth knapsack and pointed at Elvmere. He held both his hands out, and then brought them closer together. The raccoon man nodded and headed back to the cell. Nylene followed him, covering the sound of his footsteps. When he stepped inside, she whispered to him, “Are you comfortable doing this?”
He nodded. “It is no worse than what I have had to do already. I just don’t want him to see me unclad.” He smiled to her, and she stifled a laugh. He stepped back out of the merchant’s sight and willed himself to return to his beastly form. Nylene watched with awe-struck eyes as he shrunk down into his clothing, head flattening, thumbs changing into a fifth finger, and his height dwindling away.
When he finished, he crawled out of the pile of clothes and waved at her. His paws reached no higher than her knees. He gestured at the remnants of his clothes, and she bent and retrieved them. Outside the cell he saw that Elsevier had opened his knapsack and had replaced the jars of ink and the remaining sheets of vellum in one side. He held open the other; this pocket was large enough to hold Elvmere and a few books, or Elvmere and his clothes.
Nylene quickly folded his garments and handed them to Elsevier. The merchant stuffed them into the bottom of the knapsack, and then held the flap open for the raccoon. Elvmere climbed inside, curling up in the bottom on top of his clothes. And then another bit of cloth was dumped on his head. He squirmed and poked his head above the fabric and saw white. The robe of a Lothanasi acolyte. Elvmere ran one paw across the coarse wool and twitched his whiskers.
Glancing up, he saw Nylene smile to him and nod. He nodded in return, and then slipped back underneath the robe. He just hoped none of the temple guards thought to inspect Elsevier’s bags.
The merchant closed the knapsack and Elvmere felt his world rocking back and forth. He braced himself in the bag until it settled. He felt something solid on one side; probably Elsevier’s back. “Thank you for your hospitality, Priestess Nylene hin’Lofwine, and for the opportunity to pay a meagre portion of the enormous debt I owe you.”
“You have paid back more than you know. Good evening to you, Master Elsevier.”
Elvmere managed to calm his instincts enough to curl against one side of the knapsack. He poked his nose up over the acolyte’s robe for fresher air, but otherwise stayed hidden. He listened to the sound of Elsevier’s boots echoing along the tiled halls of the temple, and the soft voices of acolytes tending their duties. He could smell the rich incense, and the gentle scent of a people who regularly cleaned themselves.
The merchant stopped when accosted by the guards, and Elvmere ducked back down beneath the robe, curling as tight as possible. They exchanged a few words, and then the guards let him leave. Elvmere waited until he heard the merchant speak again. “We’re safe now. She wrote that your name is Elvmere.”
He poked his head above the robe, but with the knapsack closed, there was nothing to see. Elvmere chittered as loud as he could, hoping the merchant heard him.
“You’re probably wondering why your appearance did not startle me. I have been to Metamor since the time of the curses, though only once. But I had never expected to see a Keeper here in Silvassa! I will...” he paused and Elvmere heard the sounds of other footsteps nearby. After they receded, Elsevier continued, “I ask that you stay hidden until we are a day downstream.”
He said nothing more for several long minutes. Elvmere found his confinement strangely comfortable and began to doze lightly. When the steady rhythm of the merchant’s footfalls stopped, he perked his ears and blinked open his eyes to the darkness. Elsevier no longer walked on stone, but climbed up a wooden plank. And then the wood echoed differently, and a few words were exchanged between Elsevier and another man. Elvmere could not make out the words.
And then they were walking again. But only a short distance this time. Within a few seconds, he heard a door close and latch, and then Elsevier set the knapsack down and opened it up. “You’ll be safe in here for the night. This will be your quarters with Priestess Nylene. Do you sleep in a bed or in a nest?”
Elvmere crawled on all fours out of the knapsack and surveyed the room. He stood upon a solitary bed of reasonable quality for a sailing vessel. Beside the bed, the night stand bore an oil lantern and a small reflecting glass. A clothes chest sat beneath the single porthole looking out onto the night sky of Silvassa. Apart from these few things, the room was empty.
Elvmere stood on his hind legs and made a turning motion with one paw. The merchant nodded and turned around. After changing into his man-shape, he slipped into the acolyte’s robe. Though a little tight around the waist, it provided ample room to hide his tail, and the sleeves came right to his wrists just as he liked them. The collar was a simple V, exposing some of his chest fur, but nothing indiscreet.
“I prefer a bed, but if none is available, I will make a nest of my clothes. These are far better accommodations than I had on my last voyage, Master Elsevier.”
The merchant turned around, and appraised him with a warm eye. “So you are joining the Lothanasi order? Good man. With Nylene as your guide, you will bring great things to the Order.”
“Thank you. Do you think your plan will work? And aren’t you jeopardizing your position as a respected citizen of Silvassa?”
Elsevier waved one hand and shook his head. “Not significantly. If things grow desperate, I will relocate to Isenport.” He took a deep breath and then extended his hand. “I have much I still need to prepare. I must make it appear that all my efforts are going towards Indigo’s departure. I very much wish to talk with you more, Elvmere.”
Elvmere clasped his hand, careful not to nick him with his claws. “And I you, Master Elsevier. I do wish to hear of this debt you owe, Priestess Nylene.”
Elsevier smiled and shook his paw firmly. “You will, young acolyte. You will.”
Elvmere had to shut his muzzle tight to keep from laughing out loud. It had been decades since anyone had called him young! But now it was true. Dressed as a Lothanasi acolyte, bearing the marks of a raccoon just come into manhood, he appeared even younger than when he’d pretended to be Malger’s apprentice.
“And now I bid you good night. I shall bring you something to eat in the morning. That will be all I can offer until we are on our way.”
“That will be fine. Thank you, Master Elsevier. And good night. May all the gods bless you and your family.”
Elsevier smiled, a soft gentle thing that brought a warm light to his face even in the gloom of the single oil lantern. “They have. They have.” He shook Elvmere’s paw firmly, and then patted him on the shoulder. “And may the gods bless you, Elvmere of Metamor.”
When the merchant closed the door behind him, leaving the raccoon-man alone, Elvmere whispered softly, “I pray that they do. I pray that they do.”
Book I |
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue