A woman that’s spent all her life in fruitless search is ready to give up the quest and her only remaining symbol of it.
Dry leaves scrabbled their way across the car park in a chilly wind out of nowhere, reminding Marjorie of her own ambitions: sapped of vitality, newly aimless, soon to crumble away entirely.
They’d gone surprisingly easily, in fact, after a lifetime’s devotion to them, especially given how she’d ramped up her efforts in the last few years. She’d considered — perhaps only subconsciously — that, pushing 60 as she was, it was now or never… and that here in the 90’s, with information so much better stored and readily available, her chances were greater than they’d ever been.
But when everything she’d believed might be a lead had fallen through, and her constant absences to chase them had cost her a job she hadn’t much cared for but that paid the bills, she’d begun to think this chimerical business might be less crucial than she’d felt it was for the last fifty years.
She glanced down at her wrist, as she’d done reflexively maybe twice a waking hour nearly her entire adult life. Obscured though it was by the sleeve of her coat, she could picture what lay beneath so clearly it was as if her vision could penetrate the plum-colored wool. And she really didn’t mind. For decades the idea of giving up would have broken her heart, but now, after losing everything to this, she found it didn’t bother her to lose this as well.
Funny she hadn’t been able to take if off, though.
The wind picked up, and Marjorie tried to pull her coat tighter, around a body that had lost at least a stone recently as she’d gradually run out of money for food, without upsetting the holdall into which her remaining belongings had condensed when she’d officially moved out.
The signs of approaching winter seemed less the normal progression of seasons in nature’s long repeating song, and more ominous portents of days to come — a threat, almost, a warning that things would get worse before they got better. If they ever got better. You’ll only become more and more cold, they told her. More and more indifferent, like the world around you. Well, she was fine with that.
Marjorie had chosen this antique shop for her first try not because she’d heard it recommended, but because it stood so close to the flat she’d occupied until yesterday, and she’d passed it regularly on the way to the tube when she’d had somewhere to go regularly. Its old brick exterior, the somewhat tacky fake flowers in window boxes, its warm gold lighting through the warbly paned glass, the car park it shared with the bakery next door — it was all so familiar as to be almost comforting, to seem almost comradely in the overcast autumn dimness.
She nearly smiled when a cheerful bell announced her entrance as if greeting someone it was happy to see. She might as well consider a shop she’d never been into a friend, since she had no real ones. Anyone she’d ever sought closeness with, after all, had eventually drifted away from her driving obsession, and now even her more casual acquaintances from work weren’t likely to bother keeping up with her anymore. But a shop couldn’t drift away; it was always right where you looked for it. Then she really did smile — faintly — as a voice from across the room called out, “Good morning!”
“Good morning,” she replied, and moved farther inside.
In here she already felt at home. This building was full of objects just like her: old, displaced, of unknown provenance, sometimes worn, usually entirely mismatched. Appropriate surroundings for her indeed; she felt she could settle in among the Georgian furniture, the bric-a-brac, the china tea services and ivory tableware, stand still like a statue and let the dust cover her among all these other unwanted things, and that nobody would ever notice.
Ambling up and down uneven rows of miscellany with steps that seemed to have nowhere else to go though she had entered for a specific purpose, she came upon a wall covered in picture frames of various shapes, sizes, and levels of ornate bad taste. Some contained old paintings, some simple printed sheets giving their history (if available) and measurements, while one right in the middle held what looked like a Year 9 art project. Marjorie stepped closer to examine it.
“My granddaughter did that,” said the same voice that had greeted her not long before. Marjorie barely glanced over to see the woman about her age that had joined her in looking at the picture. “It’s dreadful, isn’t it?”
Now Marjorie definitely had to smile, because it was, rather. “How old is she?”
“Fourteen. She painted it for school and gave it to me as a gift. I use it as a demonstration in picture frames that are the right size, and she thinks that’s wonderful.”
“That’s kind of you.”
The painting showed a family gathering — it had probably been copied off a photo — containing, apparently, three generations, some with relatively human features but most of whom could most charitably be described as ‘abstract.’ Marjorie stared longest at what she believed was a toddler on the lap of one of the middle figures, reflecting that this generation didn’t even know how lucky it was not to be comprised of war orphans that would never be adopted unless they were handsome, gregarious, and not too traumatized by whatever they’d gone through before losing their families.
“Is there anything specific you were looking for?” the woman beside her asked.
Anything specific she was looking for. Hadn’t she just spent half a century looking for something specific? “No, thank you,” she replied — and why? “I’m only browsing.” She was here for a reason, not to browse; why not say so?
“All right,” was the woman’s friendly response. “Let me know if you have any questions.” And she headed back to her counter.
“Thank you,” Marjorie murmured, and turned again to the painting.
She found she didn’t really mind it. Yes, it made her think of her lonely childhood in a succession of orphans’ homes and curious psychiatrists’ dark-leather offices; yes, it was a reminder of the loving family she’d never had and never been able to locate so much as a clue toward finding; yes, it was like studying all over again the many, many old paintings and photos in various strangers’ collections searching for familiar features from the right era… but she simply didn’t care anymore. She’d given that all up, that weary and unsuccessful search, that long-running pursuit, that current of longing that had run beneath everything she thought, everything she was, for so many decades. She’d let everything go, and was on the brink of a new life. She was satisfied.
So why did she remain on this spot, staring at a fairly terrible painting in a frame she had no interest in, instead of going up to the counter and asking her real question?
Finally she forced herself to move. Somehow, though, even in motion again, she still couldn’t point herself in a direct line toward her goal. A glass display case full of jewelry, which by rights should have encouraged her since several pieces inside were of a style promisingly familiar, instead of prompting her to walk on with a greater spring in her step, rather caused her to dally pointlessly for several minutes wondering what their prices might be and just gazing down without much in the way of reflection at all.
But eventually she did reach the counter. The employee, who’d been reading a paperback on a tall stool behind the cash register, placed a bookmark and asked, “Did you find something you like?”
“I had a question for you, as it happens.” Marjorie was surprised to find her voice a little uncertain as she began, as if she weren’t perfectly at peace with this course of action. In a motion much the same, she shook her coat sleeve back, pushed her bracelet forward over her bony wrist, and laid her hand on the counter. “I’m wondering if you appraise and purchase jewelry. I’m looking to sell this.” She did not add that she needed to sell it if she was to find a place to stay tonight.
The woman’s breath caught audibly, and she reached out her own hands — warmer and plumper, but with the same prominent veins as Marjorie’s — one to steady the fingers pointed in her direction and the other to examine the bracelet. “Where did you get this?” she whispered.
It seemed an oddly significant moment, a moment in which the world of dusty objects around them grew even more silent as if holding in a great, anticipatory inhalation, and Marjorie found herself whispering in response for no reason she could recognize: “I’ve had it as long as I can remember.”
Delicately the woman twisted the upper half of the piece, which contained a Wedgewood cameo of Queen Victoria set in silver with blue and white stones in the chain around it, upside-down to reveal the one hopeful sign Marjorie had ever possessed that she might be able to track down someone, anyone of her bloodline: the initials MH inside a heart, tarnished from a lifetime of silver polish refusing to reach inside the tiny tight lines, etched into the back of the cameo.
“M.H.,” the woman said, and now her eyes were turned up toward Marjorie’s face rather than the bracelet she still held two fingers against like a blind reader against a line of braille.
“The orphanage named me ‘Marjorie Hughes’ because of it.” She finally returned the other’s gaze, and then she too caught her breath.
“It stands for Morris Hadleigh.” The woman’s hair, dyed a brown not quite natural to hide the grey, had those same wispy and probably uncontrollable spots over the ears. “He had it engraved on each of the four bracelets he’d inherited from his mother, since he had no sisters, and he gave one to his first wife and one to each of his daughters.” Her eyebrows were sparse at their ends disproportionately to their midsections, and she’d filled them out somewhat with pencil the same way Marjorie did hers. “He and one daughter were separated from his wife and the second daughter during the Blitz…”
Terrifying darkness, flashing light directly into her eyes, high wailing and screams and whining and crashes too loud to bear, confusion, loss… brown leather and deep brown wainscoting in one psychiatrist’s office after another… no one wanted to adopt so disturbed and inward-focused a child…
“They identified the mother’s body eventually…” The woman’s lips, telling the halting story, had the same wrinkles around them, the same deep creases down the outsides. “But her bracelet was destroyed in the attack.” Her nose had the same freckles, and — though it was hard to tell from this angle — the same slightly crooked left nostril. “And eventually a step-sister was born to a second wife, so she received the fourth bracelet.” Her eyes, with the same crinkles at their corners and veins in the lids, were a startlingly familiar shade of hazel as they stared in wonder at Marjorie. “But the third bracelet — and the second daughter — were never seen again.”
Something was building inside Marjorie: something huge and overwhelming threatening to break out when it reached the limits of what she could keep tamped down. Was it merely those suddenly wakened incomplete memories of horror and fear from her earliest childhood, eventually put in their proper place but never completely forgotten, that had been triggered by the unexpectedly spoken password ‘the Blitz?’ Or was it something else?
The woman released Marjorie’s hand and shook her own in an eye-catching movement. Tearing her gaze from the stranger’s face was like tearing herself open, but Marjorie looked, and saw the woman’s sleeve fall back to expose a mirror image of what had been the prized possession of her life, the one thing she’d vowed not to part with even in greatest need. “They never found my twin sister,” the woman finished shakily, turning her wrist so Queen Victoria’s matte white face and the shining facets of the blue and white jewels caught the light.
And Marjorie realized, as the hitherto-unknown something broke out in a violent sob like the tears that spontaneously poured down her trembling face, that she did care. The desire to find her family, to discover who she was and where she came from, had never left her or diminished one tiny bit — she’d merely buried it as deeply as she was capable, tried to tell herself it didn’t matter, in the hopes that she could move on to a new and less fixated era. And maybe giving it up, or believing she had, had been the sacrificed required of her to reach the goal she’d so long sought and had lately been so certain she no longer wanted.
The woman — her twin sister — gave an echoing sob and started clutching at her, trying to embrace her across the counter, marvelously unsuccessful and crying just as hard as Marjorie was. They drew back, each with a shaky wet laugh, and the woman jumped down from her stool and came racing around to meet her on the other side for a proper hug that was just as moist.
“Marjorie,” the woman said thickly into her shoulder. “Your name’s Marjorie?” And when her sister made a muffled sound of confirmation, she added, “Mine’s Gladys. Gladys Cross. Née Hadleigh.” And they pulled apart again, holding hands, staring at each other with baffled smiles and tearstained faces. “Where have you been living?”
“Just up the street for the last several years,” Marjorie admitted. “I’ve walked past your store every day. But before that I had a job in Swansea for long while.”
“I can hear it,” Gladys laughed in her much purer RP. “But to think you were in London for so long too — and right around the corner?” She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head at the irony of it all. “Where are you living now?”
“Nowhere. I came in here hoping to make enough money for a B&B for tonight, and tomorrow it’s looking for a new job.”
Gladys stared at her with a slightly open mouth, and her eyes fell to the holdall Marjorie had set down beside the counter when she’d first made her way over here. “You’re really… you’re really without a home and without work just today? Just when you came in here and found me?”
Marjorie nodded. Prior to this meeting, she would have been embarrassed to admit it, but now… now it simply seemed right. As if she’d done exactly what she needed to in order to prepare for this without knowing it. As if the new life she’d hoped for had been specifically lined up for her, ready to start the instant the old one ended — only she hadn’t known what it was yet.
Her sister squeezed her hands and released them. “I’m going to close up. You’re coming home with me this instant to see your new room and meet your new family.” And as Gladys disappeared into the back and the lights began to go down from some rear switch before she returned with coat and handbag, Marjorie looked around the darkening shop again with blurry eyes. She recalled the welcoming feeling she’d had upon entering that had never diminished, the sense that she belonged here as a kindred spirit to everything that had no place, no ties, no history.
It seemed she’d been right about the sensation, but for entirely the wrong reasons.
For November Quick Fics 2018, my co-worker Danielle gave me the following prompt:
There was an old sad woman who was raised in an orphanage, and knew nothing about her family history. She spent her lonely life searching for anyone who may have had ties to her past, and longed for any sense belonging. She tried to be happy with her life, but always had an empty space that she hoped would eventually be filled with love. She possessed only one small token that represented her obscure past, a unique handcrafted silver bracelet with encrusted jewels and intricate details. The initials “**” were engraved on the inside of the bracelet, but the woman was clueless as to their meaning. She cherished this object more than anything else she owned, and it was her only comfort when she grieved for her lost family that she may never find. She eventually fell upon hard times: losing her job, failing health, and a recent break-up that only added to her ever-present feeling of abandonment. Eventually she succumbed to poverty and misery, and in desperation made the most difficult decision she ever made. She decided to sell her treasured bracelet in hopes that it would be worth enough money to buy food and possibly shelter for a little while. She took the bracelet to an antique shop to see if they could appraise the bracelet and maybe even find a buyer for her. When she came into the shop, an older woman greeted her with a friendly smile, and asked how she could assist her. The woman took out her bracelet, and the shopkeeper gasped. The shopkeeper’s eyes filled with tears as she asked, “Where did you get this?” Her hands trembled as she reached out to touch the bracelet. The woman replied, “Unfortunately I’m not sure… I’ve had it ever since I was young, ever since I can remember.” The shopkeeper rolled up her sleeves, and revealed an almost identical bracelet. The old woman’s heart fluttered, as she thought this shopkeeper may somehow be able to help her find her family. “Could you tell me any information about these bracelets and where they come from?” asked the old woman timidly. “These are the only 2 bracelets like this in the world. The were made by my father for myself and my sister. My mother and sister were tragically lost in one of our city’s bombings during the war. My mother’s body was eventually found, but we never found my sister…” The two women looked at eachother, realizing the remarkable similarities in their facial features, eyes, and even hair. “My father’s name was “**” explained the shopkeeper, and the old woman realized now what the initials in her bracelet represented. The women immediately knew that they were meant to be reunited, and embraced tightly for several minutes while they both sobbed tears of joy. After several hours of conversation, it was settled that the old woman would come home with the shopkeeper, and be integrated into the wonderful, loving family that she had waited for all this time.
It’s my first original NQF, so that’s cool. I’ve rated it
hishighnesshiko‘s prompt (“Hiko/kiln”):
Kenshin did not have the temper for true resentment, but had accepted his punishment of an extra thousand repetitions of the move he was supposed to be learning with as little grace as possible. He didn’t think he deserved this, disagreed with Hiko completely on the point that a twelve-year-old wasn’t qualified to criticize a grown man’s fashion sense even if that man was not his kenjutsu instructor (let alone if he was), wasn’t even entirely sure why such annoyance had been occasioned by his remark about Hiko’s cloak, and still thought the thing was very ugly. So he waved his shinai in the prescribed movement with more vehemence than correctness, actually almost hoping to annoy his master further with his carelessness.
Instead, it seemed his behavior had instigated a circumstance that it had also at certain times in the past: Hiko, looking extremely irritated, heading for his kiln and the seat in front of it to do something that would inevitably clear up the invisible thundercloud of distemper that seemed to hover about him when Kenshin had stepped out of line.
What exactly this cheering activity was Kenshin really had no concept. Hiko only did it when he was annoyed with Kenshin, and as such Kenshin was, whenever Hiko did it, relegated to the corner of the yard where punishments were traditionally carried out — from which spot he had no view past the bulk of the kiln. Hiko wasn’t firing anything, for he carried no clay; and he wasn’t drinking, for he carried no jug. As to what else he could possibly be doing there, Kenshin could not guess.
Despite his high level of curiosity, he couldn’t ask… Neither when Hiko was busy doing whatever it was and still in a bad mood nor when he was finished and had somehow put himself into a better seemed a judicious moment — one because it would undoubtedly worsen the situation, the other because it threatened a return of the anger that had for the moment been so relievingly averted.
But Kenshin’s hearing was getting better, especially as far as he was able to use his growing ki-reading ability to augment it, and he hoped this time to be able to discern something more than he had last time — something, perhaps, to give him some kind of clue as to what was going on over there.
His master seemed to be speaking — he usually did while at this pursuit — but, strain his ears as he might, Kenshin could not make out the words. Some seemed to have a good deal of breath in them, others a good deal of vowel, but none were distinguishable. His remaining senses were equally useless; though he stood on tiptoe and craned his neck, he simply could not see the other side of the kiln, and wasn’t good enough yet at getting more than a generalized impression of what someone was about through their ki. So, though his curiosity did serve, in large part, to distract him from own annoyance, yet it went unsatisfied.
Eventually Hiko became visible again, appearing a good deal more cheerful, moving around the kiln and walking toward Kenshin. The latter resolutely did not look at him, and (having abandoned along with his pique any desire to irritate his master further) simply concentrated on doing his practice properly in the hopes that Hiko might let him off the remaining five hundred repetitions.
No such luck, but the man did say in a perfectly equable tone, “Well, you might as well finish after supper. Come inside.” He didn’t smile — he rarely did when he wasn’t talking about himself — but was quite clearly now in a much more amiable mood: the whatever-it-was had had its usual effect. Kenshin was pleased at the prospect of eating before he continued his punishment, but still more than a little curious what activity could wreak such a profound change on his master’s temper.
Well, maybe next time he would throw caution to the wind and just walk over there and see.
Next is fe‘s prompt (“more Yae”):
A relatively decent frame of mind was depressed somewhat when, turning a corner, Yae came upon a corpse immediately in his path. The blood from the gunshot wounds was clotted, and everything anyone could possibly use had already been stripped away, but he got the feeling nonetheless that it hadn’t been there long: the rats hadn’t found it yet. It did smell rather terrible, though; he might have anticipated its presence if he’d been paying attention to that particular sense.
Frowning down at it and reflecting on the rudeness (if it could be called such) of leaving one’s victim entirely choking up one side of the street, he tried to recall what he had done with the last dead body he had occasioned. Well, that body had still had stuff on it for people to take; really it should be the responsibility of the last plunderer to move the thing. And as for this one… well, he was here now; he might as well do it.
He wasn’t about to touch it with his hands; Downside was not exactly clean in general, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t get more than an earful if Cai ever found out he’d been voluntarily pushing dead people around. After another moment’s thought, he started nudging it with his boot. Once there was room between the body and the wall for him to stand, he braced himself against the latter and put both his feet against the mottled flesh of the corpse. His back sliding slowly down the slimy stone behind him, he caused the body also to slide, leaving a dark, shining fluid trail across the brickwork as it moved. Eventually it toppled over the edge of the walkway into the thick, variegated water with no discernible splash. Standing straight, he watched the viscous liquid swallow it up entirely.
“Why would you do that?” asked a somewhat tremulous voice from the opposite walkway.
Wondering who would ask such a stupid question, Yae looked up and across. His incredulity didn’t last, however, as it was evident at a glance that she was very new. There was an Exit in this sector, he was fairly sure; she might even have made the transition within the last few hours. So he merely shrugged and replied, “No reason to feed the rats.”
Even from across the channel he could see her shudder. She was flattened against the wall, looking bright, clean, and vulnerable. At the moment she didn’t seem even remotely capable of the kind of thing they supposedly sent people Down here for — though he’d long since stopped trying to understand the logic of their system — and would probably be dead by the end of the day, if Yae was any judge. But she was obviously trying to sound brave and disinterested as she said, “I guess it’s a nice thing to do, then… the only funeral anyone ever gets around here.”
Yae nodded, and turned to walk away.
“Wait!” she cried in an almost pleading tone. When he looked back at her, he saw she’d stepped forward nearly to the edge, her fists clenched. “You haven’t tried to kill me,” she said all at once, evidently trying to make it seem light-hearted. “Can you help me?”
The poor stupid things always asked for help when they hadn’t seen him fight yet (if they had seen him fight, they usually just ran). “Could still try to kill you,” he pointed out.
“Well…” Again she was attempting to speak cheerfully, with very little success. “That’s better than having it come out of nowhere when I turn a corner. Please can you help me?”
The next difficulty was, “How?”
Now she looked almost on the verge of tears at being forced to try to think of a way a complete stranger could help her in this miserable place that was beyond help. After a desperate moment she finally said, “Can I walk with you for a while? I’ll… I’ll give you… anything I have…”
He knew that, for the moment at least, she meant it to the fullest extent of the term, though she probably didn’t understand to what unfortunate point he could take advantage of the promise if he were so inclined. He wasn’t so inclined, but neither was he eager to let her walk with him. He always felt bad for them, of course — especially the Fallen, which she rather seemed to be — but he didn’t need Upsiders (or the closest thing thereto) trailing around cluelessly after him.
Unfortunately, he could never bring himself to say no.
He shrugged again. “For a while,” he acceded.
For some reason her expression of intense relief made him feel a little guilty, as if there were something more he could be doing for people like this — people that didn’t have a clean, safe home with a food synthesizer and working showers and lights to go to — and he wasn’t doing it. He knew there wasn’t anything more. They’d tried to do more, once upon a time, and it had just gotten everyone killed.
She was already making her way down the street to a bridge and coming across to join him, noisy and pitiful and grateful. Yae knew she’d be like all the rest: she’d find a protector she preferred to him and leave, she’d get herself killed sometime when he was otherwise occupied and couldn’t prevent it, or he would leave her when he decided he felt like going home.
“And will you…” Which of the three options she considered most likely was evinced by her next request. He thought her continued tone of forced bravado was very badly-done, but preferred it to anything that might inspire him to one of his clumsy attempts at comfort. “Will you push my body into the… water… when I get shot?”
He grunted his assent. That he would definitely promise her; it was what he’d do for anyone.
Warm sunlight and an intermittent sea breeze through the open windows made the royal study the perfect place to spend the afternoon. This was just as well, since Jiomosu had records to catch up and would have been here even if it had been storming out. Fortunately, this particular set of records was his final task until the evening, so there was nothing wrong with taking his time and enjoying the salt smell and the light.
He wasn’t the type to get so involved in a project that he forgot his surroundings, but neither was he too easily distracted. So although the fineness of the day was ever present on some level of his mind, and though the hue of a loose strand escaping his hair-tie reminded him again that he was starting to get old, and though a thoughtful servant did interrupt him once with a tray of drink and delicacies, he made good progress. When he’d been at it for an hour or so, and was taking an extended break with his by-now-cold cup of giruou, the door opened.
“Father, are you here?”
One of the large carved-oak bookshelves blocked the desk’s view of the door and vice versa, so he replied in the affirmative.
Kurine rounded the shelf and came to stand before the desk. In the bright sunlight she appeared thinner even than she was, and almost dusty in the grey she generally favored. “Good,” she said with a slight nod at having found him. “I wanted to talk to you.”
Usually this meant she wanted his advice on something. Past events, remembered all too keenly, as well as Kurine’s great intelligence and capacity made this a compliment Jiomosu never disregarded. “Of course,” he said, setting aside his work, prepared for whatever matter she needed to discuss. He suspected it would have something to do with whatever had been taking her from Encoutia so much and so quietly in recent months.
She seated herself in one of the reading chairs by the window, the leather barely sinking under her slight weight and her perfect posture uncompromised even in the privacy of a chamber used only by herself and her father. Staring through the window for a long moment, she didn’t seem to be observing the courtyard below them, nor the beach and sea beyond that. The sunlight glinted off her absent eyes, buried itself in her loosely-wound hair, and Jiomosu knew that she had something particular on her mind. Something, if he was any judge of the subtle changes in his daughter’s attitude, that had little to do with politics, which she tended to manage quite well on her own with minimal assistance from him.
Finally she said, “It seems odd to me that I’m twenty-two years old, and a queen, and yet know next to nothing about my mother.”
Jiomosu tried hard not to show his surprise that this was what she wanted to talk to him about. As it always did when Kurine referred to her sensibilities — even something as relatively unemotional as ‘it seems odd’ — the statement struck her father with a mixture of pathos and skepticism: pathos because it felt like such a shame that she was so inhibited, her self-expression so restrained by her nature; skepticism because, despite having known her all her life, he was always led by her demeanor to doubt that she really felt anything at all. It had been exactly the same with her mother.
“You’ve never told me about her,” the queen went on, “so I’ve always assumed that her death affected you too much to talk about her. But lately I’ve been curious.” There it was again — the instant reactionary doubt, although Jiomosu knew better, that anything like curiosity could ever touch that indifferent heart. Though Kurine was less cold than Imau had been — thanks to her father’s genes — he knew there had to be more prompting the question, and wondered what her motives were. Kurine, just like Imau, never did something purely on an emotional basis.
“I’ve asked others about her,” she continued in that same cool, measured tone, “and though they tell me what they think they know, there’s a distance about them that leads me to believe none of them really knew her.”
“I doubt they did,” Jiomosu agreed calmly. “Very few people really knew your mother.”
Grey eyes regarded him steadily, and it was that same calculating look Imau had given him often enough during their years together. “I would appreciate it, if you don’t mind, if you would tell me about her, and your relationship with her.”
‘Your relationship with her.’ That, perhaps, cast some light on the subject. Kurine was four years of courting age, after all, and had been absent from the palace a good deal lately. Not that Jiomosu was going to demand she explain why she wanted to know; honestly, he would tell her whatever she asked, whatever the reason. Far be it from him to deny her anything so harmless.
“Of course,” he nodded again. Pushing past the somewhat heartwarming possibility of his daughter having come to him for… well, he couldn’t actually call what she’d requested advice… but perspective, at least, that might help her in decisions regarding some relationship of her own… he pondered where to begin.
“I never met Rionura or Kaemei,” was what he finally chose, “but my understanding of them was that they were both very cold and calculating men. Maybe they loved each other, but I’m certain neither of them loved their daughter.”
Kurine’s face remained unchanged, her attention unflagging, but something about her gave him the immediate, tacit warning to keep his story succinct and free of unnecessary emotional detail. He also felt she disapproved somewhat of his casual use of her grandfathers’ names without title…. but he couldn’t help regarding them with a certain measure of contempt. He would never overtly speak ill of a former king, pretender though that king might be, especially a father of the woman he’d loved… but sometimes his quiet disdain for their memory couldn’t help but show in his speech. Behind closed doors, at least.
He nodded again, slightly, and went on. “She was raised by a steward in an estate outside of town, raised on the idea of what her status was and her right to be queen.”
It was one of the first things he remembered hearing about Imau, told him by his gossipy steward that had handled his estate after his parents’ death until he was of age. “That’s no way for a child to be raised,” the man had remarked critically. “It’s enough to give someone any number of strange ways and thoughts, being away from her family and always drilled with the idea that she should have something that’s never been certain.”
“Don’t think I ever questioned that right.” Jiomosu chuckled. “Frankly, I was somewhat oblivious to the fact that I might really honestly have a claim to the throne.”
“Why isn’t it certain, if she’s Gontamei?” he’d asked his steward.
And the man had sighed and made some disparaging remark about the performance of Jiomosu’s tutor if he didn’t know. Jiomosu had always considered this a trifle unfair, given that he’d only been nine years old at the time. There was a good deal royalty needed to learn, it was true, whether they were destined for rulership or not, but childhood was childhood; there was no purpose in trying to force too much knowledge into a young mind.
Recovering quickly from his chuckle for fear of driving his daughter away with his candid expression of emotion, he continued seriously. “You’ve heard, I’m sure, about the debate over whether Imau should have a regent, and how that ended. I agree that the process of deciding on somebody for the position might have recreated the very problems we were trying to escape at the time… but it would probably have been easier on her to have a regent until she was of age. Because the division of duty that they chose instead had no declared ending point. When she was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen… I could see it irritating her more and more with every passing month.”
And that was saying something where Imau was concerned. He knew she’d shown him more of what she really thought and felt under that façade of perfection simply because he’d been her fiancee and always around; and that he’d seen more than anyone else of what she did show simply because he watched her so obsessively. Even so, it had always surprised him that others hadn’t observed her ever-increasing resentment.
“All the court had settled into their tasks so comfortably, so irrevocably it seemed, that there was little left for Imau to do, and that didn’t change with time. It was insulting and humiliating and unfair, and nobody seemed to notice except herself. And me, of course.” He strove to keep his voice level, not because he minded admitting how much the memories bothered him, but because he knew it would bother Kurine if he strayed too far from detachment.
One particular instance among others still stood out clearly in his memory. The issue of who was responsible for the upkeep of the Giretor’sa Pass had escalated past local authorities, given that Esaikyou, Egiretoro, and Etoronai, who all had a vested interest in the road, had each had a differing opinion on whence funding and labor for its maintenance should come. Delegates from the three parties had been sent to seek the queen’s mandate.
Evening had been turning to night when they had arrived in Encoutia, and court attendance had ended for the day; so, instead of ‘disturbing’ the queen personally, a minor official dealt with the problem, arbitrating an equal division of resources among the three groups. Not all entirely pleased but assuming they would do no better pressing the issue, the delegates had departed the next day.
It had been more than a month before Imau had even learned of the matter, and she had been as close to furious as Jiomosu remembered ever seeing her, radiating a sort of white-cold heat that nobody else seemed to feel. “Esaikyou and Egiretoro are little more than waystations,” she’d said when she’d heard what decision had been made. “What could lead anyone to think it was fair or proper for them to share any expense equally with the richest city in this kingdom?”
And the response had been a polite apology and the offhand comment that if Esaikyou or Egiretoro found the division a burden, they would surely repeat their petition and the matter could be dealt with then.
And nothing had changed.
“Even I had more responsibility than she did,” Jiomosu continued. “They didn’t intend to slight her; I don’t think anyone ever frankly thought her incapable — how could they? The woman was born capable. Kaemei was head of one of the most successful and long-standing noble trade families west of the Akomer’sa, and managed to run that and the kingdom quite well for half a year.” He said it with grudging respect; little as he liked what he knew of his late father-in-law, he couldn’t help recognizing the man’s talents. This seemed to please Kurine, who, like her mother, measured people by their ability more often than any other indication of personal worth. “Anyway, it was the court’s habit, and had simply become custom by the time she was twenty, to find any means possible to take the queen’s duties out of the queen’s hands.” He stifled a sigh.
“By the time I was courting age, I adored your mother with all my heart,” he went on bluntly. It might disturb Kurine to hear it, but she had asked. “But she didn’t return my feelings. I don’t believe she even liked me. I don’t know if she’d been taught to disdain me… it’s possible… there were quite a few Barenor’meishou vying for my kingship before she and I ever met; Kaemei might well have considered me just another enemy, and had his daughter instructed so. It didn’t seem appropriate to ask her, especially once she was queen and all the conflict had ended, but perhaps that was the reason, or part of the reason, she didn’t like me.”
The set of Kurine’s mouth indicated to him that she was simultaneously slightly uncomfortable listening to this emotional analysis of her parents’ interaction and somewhat unwillingly interested. Jiomosu wondered more than ever why after so many years she had broached this topic now.
He went on. “Of course she tolerated me because of the advantage of our marriage. I was a capable administrator, if not as talented as she was, and she could see as well as anyone else the benefit of having me for Dantaoji — but she didn’t look forward to it.
“But the court did. Somehow I think that, as our wedding approached, they were finally starting to realize that Imau was grown up, that all those duties that were rightfully hers could in good conscience be returned to her. They seemed to regard the wedding as a symbol of that, a coming of age of sorts, despite the fact that she’d been of age for two years and capable of handling the business of ruling for far longer. But it was only after the wedding that they finally started treating her like a queen rather than a child.
“Your mother misinterpreted that. As I said, she’d been justly chafing under their treatment of her for years, and it’s no surprise she saw their attitude in a different light than I did. She really believed they thought her incompetent, and she felt that their looking forward to the wedding was their anticipation of the day when she would finally have someone who was truly capable at her side. As a consequence, she resented me for being that supposedly more capable person.
“I discovered this just after the wedding, when were alone in our shared chambers for the first time.” It was difficult to talk about this, even to his daughter — perhaps most particularly to his daughter, given how much she reminded him of her mother. “She admitted it in frustration and bitterness. She didn’t like confiding in me, but she had nobody else to tell, since she believed they all looked down on her.”
Imau had stared out the window just as Kurine was doing now, but in the dimly-lit evening wedding suite her hair had swallowed all light completely and her eyes had been even duller. Jiomosu hadn’t had any idea what to do or say. Her face had been an impenetrable stone mask all day; she’d performed her part of the wedding ceremony as flawlessly as she did everything else, but apart from that she’d hardly spoken a word to him that entire week. He’d rarely been alone with her in the past, and knew full well how she felt about him… but they were married now…
While he’d been dithering, she’d broken the silence. “And everyone finally gets what they want.”
Surprised into speech by the bitterness in her tone — one of the most emotional statements he’d ever heard her make — he’d asked stupidly, “What do you mean?” As her words had sunken in, he hadn’t overlooked the inclusion of himself in the acridly-referenced group that was getting what it wanted. It had caused his heart to fall from the uncertain heights of that day, and he’d held his breath for her reply.
“Lately I’m lucky if they even remember I’m the queen. But now that I’ve married you…”
Almost instantly he’d understood, and been shocked at the implications of her words. Of course he’d known all along how she resented the court’s behavior, but he hadn’t realized the significance she’d attached to it or to their anticipation of the wedding.
“It’s not like that…” he’d faltered. “It was just because you were so young at first, and I think they’ve finally realized… I don’t think of you like…”
“Not like that?” Her face, reflected dimly in the black glass, had still been that expressionless sculpture, but now had shown signs of cracking. “They’ve been counting down the days. You’ve been counting down the days. They never thought I could do this, not from the beginning. Worthless daughter of the usurpers, crowned because she was the older of the two options. I’m surprised they didn’t find some excuse to forget about that and crown you instead.”
“You’re a better ruler than I could ever be.”
“I know that, and you claim to know that, but they…” The tight control of her tone slipping, years-deep frustration and pain had escaped into her voice. “I’m descended from Gontarun the Unifier, and both of my fathers ruled this kingdom — what other queen in our history can say as much? I was raised on nothing but the proper qualities of a ruler; how can they doubt my qualifications? Doubt me to the point where they’re unwilling even to give me a single chance at proving myself, afraid to take that much of a risk because they’re certain I will fail so terribly that even what I might learn from the experience would not be worth the disaster it would cause?”
Once she’d started, it seemed she hadn’t been able to stop; the words had poured from her mouth toward the smooth glass of the window in a rough, desperate stream.
“Meanwhile every idea I have for the betterment of my country is left to fester unaired while incompetents make my choices for me… because I’m a child, a weak, frail, breakable child who is therefore foolish, set up because she’s from the right family but not allowed to take a single step on her own because she might fall and take the kingdom with her. What will they say of me, of my reign, in future generations? ‘Thank the divine she married when she did?’ Just as they’re all doing down there.
“And you–“ She’d turned, cutting off her frantic tirade when she found how far toward her he’d advanced. She’d stared at him, face twisted, emotion chaotic in her eyes.
“And you…!” Her tone had lost its volume but none of its intensity. At her raised hand he’d thought she was going to strike him, but instead she’d just grasped his embroidered wedding shiiya and the shirt beneath it in a tight-clenched fist. And for the first time, she’d leaned against him, forehead resting against his chest and slim, fragile body pressing slowly, tautly onto his.
Jiomosu shook off the memory with some difficulty. It was one of the heaviest and most painful recollections he carried. “She came to me in anger,” he said slowly. “Not love or even friendship, not even willing to admit that she needed comfort and reassurance. It was the only time I ever saw her like that, but once was enough: she hated me for that night, for seeing her hurt and afraid, and perhaps for taking advantage of that state.”
Had he taken advantage? This he’d always wondered. She’d needed him whether or not she’d been willing to admit it… they were married, and required an heir… she’d initiated, and taken the lead in, their lovemaking… but none of that changed the fact that she hadn’t been herself. He’d wanted her so desperately; that coupling had been the culmination of years of wanting her… but perhaps he had done wrong, and in so doing had destroyed any chance at future happiness. For she might have come to return his feelings, given time… but it was the results of those actions that stole all that time from them.
“It’s lucky you were conceived that night,” he remarked, “because she never let me touch her again.”
If Kurine felt at all uncomfortable hearing such things about her parents, she didn’t show it. Her father was not surprised; surely the physicality of marriage was more palatable to her ears than the emotional aspects.
“In fact,” Jiomosu continued after a long pause, “she would barely tolerate my presence from then on. We had no day-to-day life together; it was as if we didn’t even live in the same palace. She treated me as coldly and professionally as an out-of-favor prince, moreso than she ever did before we were married. I didn’t even know she was pregnant until it became visible.”
He remembered the shock he’d felt the day after their wedding when Imau had met him at the door of their new suite for the express purpose if informing him that she was returning to her old chambers. “You may stay here or go back to your own, as you please,” she’d added, half pointedly, half indifferently. It hadn’t really been a surprise, but somehow… somehow he’d hoped things had changed.
“But I still loved her,” he went on. “I still love her even today.” He smiled slightly, wryly, the only warning he was willing to give Kurine that he was about to wax unnecessarily emotional. “After that… for years… the pain and the confusion and the questions I asked myself about what I could have done better… well, perhaps it’s better that I don’t detail all of that. I won’t even tax you with how I felt when she died. But when the labor was over and the doctor had given up hope of saving her, she didn’t turn me away. She talked to me more openly then than I think she did any other time.”
“Even after everything, we haven’t done too badly by the kingdom…” Somehow Imau hadn’t seemed entirely pleased to be making this acknowledgment — doubtless because it had almost been as if she were admitting that her court hadn’t actually disordered things too terribly during those frustrating years.
Jiomosu, at first, hadn’t been able to concentrate very hard on her meaning, distracted as he’d been by her use of ‘we.’ But eventually he’d felt compelled to reply, to defend her. “You’ve done Akomera nothing but good.”
“One wouldn’t think it was possible to be too loyal to the queen, but you do manage it. After how I’ve treated you…” And though her tone, devoid of energy, had been nearly emotionless as usual, he’d thought her a little disgusted with him.
“I…” He hadn’t really been able to continue. She had treated him badly, and he’d loved her in spite of it… and he hadn’t known what to make of her reaction to this.
“Perhaps I’ve been too hard on you,” she’d gone on, her volume dropping even further. “Neither of us could help our heritage or avoid our destiny, could we?”
“Did you want to?”
“That was why I was so hard on you, you know… because of what we are. It was inescapable.”
Recalling even part of that scene still brought tears abruptly to his eyes. Closing the latter, he sighed. “I’ve spent your entire life,” he addressed his daughter again, “trying to decide what I think of what I learned from her then.”
“And have you decided?” Kurine’s tone, as usual, was feelingless — but in this situation she wouldn’t be asking if she weren’t specifically interested. He thought he’d been right in omitting any account of the specific conversation that took place at Imau’s deathbed, however.
“I believe,” Jiomosu said slowly, “that she never stopped fearing. She was someone who thought every risk through thoroughly before she took it — a quality that made her an excellent queen, when she was allowed, and that makes her daughter an excellent queen now — and she’d been taught by the era, and how she was treated by her fathers and her court, that a ruler should be detached, that closeness with anyone was too great a risk for a queen to take. This built on her natural coldness and made her nearly unapproachable. During that last hour she accepted me, but I don’t believe she ever loved me.
“Maybe if she hadn’t been raised the way she was, or hadn’t become queen so young, hadn’t been informed by others whom she was going to marry, or hadn’t had the weight of the era on her shoulders, or…” He shook his head. “There are a dozen circumstances that may have caused things to go wrong, but I don’t know that they ever could have gone right. Maybe she and I were just…” And again he shook his head, with another wry smile.
Kurine was nodding slowly into the ensuing silence and looking steadily out the open window. “I believe they could have gone right,” she said flatly.
Jiomosu stared at her, not less because of her words and their implication than because, sitting there fixedly facing the aperture as if she were unwilling to look at him, she reminded him so much of Imau in the first controlled moments before the breakdown that night twenty-three years ago.
“Speaking as the queen whose regent you were and the daughter whose father you are,” Kurine went on very professionally, “I doubt that anyone could ask for a better husband.”
Jiomosu was frankly astonished, and not a little touched; he had no reply for this.
She stood, still not looking in his direction. “I understand now what they mean when they say I’m just like her; perhaps I can avoid her mistakes. Thank you.”
He didn’t have her restraint, and absolutely couldn’t stand to let it go at that. “You’re welcome,” he said. “I hope I’ve helped.”
She turned toward him at last, recognizing his prompt for what it was and seeming to calculate whether or not she would respond to it. Finally she did. “You have. It had never occurred to me that I might be afraid.” Though this was said in her usual collected tone, it didn’t seem to be an easy statement for her to make. “There were certain objections to the family, but none great enough to justify my level of hesitation. I understand now.”
“What family?” he asked, equally curious and hoping to ease her discomfort by talking business.
“Ryuuonmei, in Etoronai,” she replied. “Their nobility is in question.”
Jiomosu was somewhat surprised; he hadn’t realized she’d been going as far as Etoronai on her frequent journeys. He was also still vastly curious about the attributes of the member of said family that had managed to capture his daughter’s attention. But he kept to business. “It isn’t crucial for you to marry nobility,” he stated neutrally.
“I believe it is important at this point,” she replied, “at least not to marry a commoner. But a semi-noble family will suit my purposes.” She was obviously preparing to leave the room, quite possibly to plan her official suit of whatever heir of Ryuuonmei she had her eye on. Jiomosu couldn’t stand it.
“So who is this person?” he demanded, his tone conveying at once his awareness that she was under no obligation to tell him and that he was dying to know.
She paused in her movement toward the door. “The second daughter. Her name is Sukorie.”
That told him essentially nothing, and he couldn’t help being disappointed. But then the queen turned slowly, almost hesitantly (for Kurine), back to look at him again, just the barest hint of a smile on her face. “She sings like a green proxy,” she murmured, and he could hear a touch of admiration in her tone, subtle to match her smile. Then she was gone.
His heart was throbbing with pride and love for his daughter, whom he adored every bit as much as he had her mother… and with the pang of old wounds. Would Imau have smiled like that, almost as if under constraint; would she have given such high praise so nearly grudgingly, if she’d ever loved? She’d been so intelligent and perceptive; would she eventually have come to realize what her coldness was robbing her of, as her daughter had now done, if the birth of that same daughter had not robbed her of life?
But these questions could never be answered, and it was better not to aggravate the pains of the past. A more pressing question was whether Kurine would have better fortune with her Sukorie than Imau had had with Jiomosu. The latter wished with all his scarred heart that it might be so.
Somehow… perhaps trusting in the good will of the lady who’d granted someone a singing voice that could touch the untouchable daughter of the untouchable queen he’d loved and lost… he had the feeling that it would be.
This story takes place 261 years before Heretic’s Reward. The king from the primary royal family, Gontamei, died childless, so the next ruler to be crowned was Jiomosu, senior princess of the secondary royal family, Barenor’mei. Rionura, a lesser prince of Gontamei, largely under the influence of his husband Kaemei, believed that he should have become king, and usurped the throne from Jiomosu. During the next several years there was a lot of conflict (involving three others, not important to this story, who also laid claim to the throne), and both Jiomosu and Rionura died. Kaemei ruled the country for about six months as well before he too was killed. Eventually the remaining potential rulers were Jiomosu’s grandson, also named Jiomosu (of Barenor’mei), and the daughter of Rionura and Kaemei, Imau (of Gontamei). It was decided that, to avoid further conflict, Jiomosu and Imau should marry; and Imau, being older, should become queen.
[two girls breathing, crunching footsteps approach; branches swishing aside]
TESCHIA: I swear, this jungle’s thicker every time we come!
URAWHA: And Honor always wonders why we’re in such a bad mood when we get there.
TESCHIA: When she bothers to get there on time.
URAWHA: Ah, ooh, branch in my face! [snap] Ow!
TESCHIA: Serves you right for laughing at me the other day. You almost got me caught!
TESCHIA: When I was grabbing that little kid’s scarf.
URAWHA: [giggle] Oh, yeah. How much do you think we’ll get for that, anyway?
TESCHIA: I dunno. Fifty, maybe more. I wouldn’t give it to my little kid.
URAWHA: Yeah, people around here aren’t so bright. You wouldn’t believe what I [snap] Oops, sorry. You wouldn’t believe what I got from this lady in the middle of the street just before we left.
URAWHA: [grunts] Let’s see if I can… get it out… dumb pack… yeah, here it is.
TESCHIA: It’s pretty. What is it?
URAWHA: I have no idea. She was wearing it around her neck on this cheap leather band; didn’t even notice me. It looks like gold, doesn’t it?
TESCHIA: Yeah, but it’s no bigger than a coin.
URAWHA: It’ll still bring a price; it’s pretty heavy.
TESCHIA: You know, I’ve seen that twisty design somewhere before.
URAWHA: That’s what I kept thinking, but I don’t know where. C’mon.
TESCHIA: Maybe you should just give it to me instead of selling it.
URAWHA: [laughs] You may be my sister, but I don’t like you that much!
TESCHIA: Hmph. Look, there’s the rock — we’re almost there.
URAWHA: Twenty sols says Honor’s not there yet.
TESCHIA: Honestly, I think she’s afraid of the place unless we’re there.
URAWHA: Well, who wouldn’t be afraid of a ruined city in the middle of the jungle? That’s why it’s the perfect meeting place.
TESCHIA: Yeah, I guess it is kinda weird.
URAWHA: And awing. Every time I look down at this view, I’m amazed. Who the heck built this place anyway?
TESCHIA: Well, if you listen to the dumb legends —
[footsteps restart, on stone this time]
URAWHA: — which I don’t —
TESCHIA: They say some mystic clan of healers used this as a hospital or something.
URAWHA: Well, let’s go sit on the hospital and wait for Honor.
TESCHIA: Like always.
URAWHA: [grunts] These carvings are getting weathered to the point where we can’t even climb them anymore.
TESCHIA: Here, give me your hand. [grunts] There we go. Eventually we’ll be able to get up just using all these vines, I bet.
URAWHA: What a view!
TESCHIA: Yeah, it’s… oh, my!
TESCHIA: Urawha, look! Look!
URAWHA: What? Where?
TESCHIA: Over there, on that other building?
URAWHA: What, that tall, crumbly one?
TESCHIA: No, the one that’s mostly intact. Look at the door!
URAWHA: Oh, my goodness! Is that the same…? [rustling] It is! It’s the same design as this necklace!
TESCHIA: Quick, let’s go look at it! [feet thud on the ground]
URAWHA: Wait for me! [feet thud, run]
TESCHIA: It really is the same.
URAWHA: What a coincidence! That something I stole would be from the same place we meet our contact to sell all our stolen stuff!
TESCHIA: What do you think is behind this door?
URAWHA: Is it a door?
TESCHIA: Yeah, look at the seams. They’re kinda hidden in this twisty pattern.
URAWHA: Oh, I see. I wonder… What’s this little indentation here?
TESCHIA: It’s about the size of that pendant.
URAWHA: Lessee… [click] It fits! [rumble] Oh, my goodness! [rumbling continues; silence]
TESCHIA: We’re probably the first people to have opened this door for hundreds of years!
URAWHA: Well, what are we standing around for? Let’s see what’s inside!
TESCHIA: Honor’s not here yet… maybe we should leave something so she’ll know where we went.
URAWHA: You sound like you’re worried we’ll never come out of there.
TESCHIA: Well, it is really dark inside. There’s probably a million spiders.
URAWHA: Don’t worry, we’ll light the torches. [rustling] Here’s one for you.
[fire; footsteps resume; all noises get reverb]
TESCHIA: This is steep.
URAWHA: At least it’s dry.
TESCHIA: Honor’s going to freak when she gets here and we’re not there.
URAWHA: And then she’ll be even later next time.
URAWHA: Which way?
TESCHIA: Let’s go back.
TESCHIA: No matter which of these three we choose, it’s sure to get us lost. They’re all the same width as this passage.
URAWHA: Look, I’ll leave something here. [rustling] See, when we find that cloak across the tunnel we’ll know this is the way we came.
TESCHIA: [sighs] So which way do we go?
URAWHA: Who cares? [footsteps resume]
TESCHIA: Ah, a level passage — much better.
URAWHA: See, this isn’t so bad. No spiders, even.
TESCHIA: I think they like moisture.
URAWHA: That would explain why the jungle’s so full of them.
URAWHA: Oh, and here’s another one.
TESCHIA: Now which way should we go?
URAWHA: Feel the wind from this third passage? Let’s go that way.
TESCHIA: All right; this time I’ll leave my cloak. [rustling; footsteps resume; wind]
URAWHA: Pleasant breeze here.
TESCHIA: Yeah, right. I’m freezing.
URAWHA: Hey, is that light ahead?
TESCHIA: You’re scaring me.
URAWHA: But look! Here, I’ll hold my torch down behind me. See, it’s light!
TESCHIA: It’s probably a door outside, which would explain the wind.
URAWHA: The light looks kinda red.
TESCHIA: You’ve been in the dark too long.
[foosteps, reverb increases]
TESCHIA: Well, I guess it’s not a door outside.
URAWHA: What is this room?
TESCHIA: And how can all these torches still be lit after however many years?
URAWHA: It’s so huge…
TESCHIA: It feels so empty…
URAWHA: You’d think it would be dirty or broken down or something.
TESCHIA: What’s that, on the opposite wall? [footsteps run]
URAWHA: It’s… weird.
TESCHIA: Yeah. Who carves a giant face into the wall of a big empty room?
FACE: I might ask who creates this ridiculous humanity to run around being absurd.
URAWHA: [softly] All right, there’s a giant stone face talking to us…
TESCHIA: [softly] Yeah, I noticed that…
FACE: In response to your rude question, nobody “carved” me. I grew, just like you did. When the people of this city found me in the jungle, they presumed I was some sort of mystic spirit and brought me here to their temple.
URAWHA: Then what are you really?
FACE: I’m merely myself. I do possess a perception greater than that of humanity, but I am no god.
TESCHIA: You seem to be immortal, though.
FACE: That I do not know.
URAWHA: So, who were the people that lived here?
FACE: They were a hard-working race; they hunted and gathered fruit and built up their great walls. They were very honest.
TESCHIA: [softly] I think that was aimed at us.
URAWHA: So, what?
FACE: If I were to reveal to you the hiding place of a great treasure, would you abandon your evil, thieving ways?
URAWHA: Not so fast… money always runs out eventually.
FACE: If it is used to begin a respectable trade, it can, in a sense, last forever.
TESCHIA: Sounds good to me.
URAWHA: Well, what do we have to do?
FACE: First you must swear.
URAWHA: All right.
FACE: Swear that, once you have gained the treasure of the ancient people, you will never steal again.
TESCHIA: I swear.
URAWHA: I swear.
FACE: Very well. The destruction of the city came about through war, but the leaders were determined that their enemies should never have the city’s treasure that they sought. They hid it in the jungle so that someday it could be found and used for good.
TESCHIA: How did they know someone would ever find it?
URAWHA: Or that their enemies wouldn’t?
FACE: That someone would eventually find it they had no doubt, since they had entrusted to me the duty of revealing its secret. That their enemies would find it they did not fear, as they had placed a severe curse on any who did not seek it in the correct manner.
URAWHA: And why are you willing to give it to us?
FACE: The purpose of the treasure is to do some good. In giving it to you, I am setting you on the path to honesty; that will help both you and the people around you.
URAWHA: Ha! How do you know we won’t just take the treasure and live like we have? [silence] What, why are you looking at me like that?
FACE: I told you that I possess a higher level of perception than humanity. I can see the goodness in your hearts, and the willingness to abandon your path of evil. Otherwise I would not have greeted you at all, despite your sister’s rude remark.
URAWHA: All right, I get it. So where’s this great treasure?
FACE: It lies beneath a stone hill two miles to the east; it is the hill from which I was born.
TESCHIA: Beneath the hill?
FACE: To retrieve it, you must speak the correct verse. It is inscribed in the wall to my right.
URAWHA: It’s in the old language… read it, Teschia.
TESCHIA: Bala hiero to ute / Meno u niwakawe / Raditama ikori / Ken daima sortei. But I don’t know what it means.
FACE: It is nothing more than a children’s rhyme used in ancient times. The leaders thought that would be cleverest to keep their enemies out.
TESCHIA: I’ll write it down. [rustling pack / paper]
URAWHA: So what else do we need to know?
FACE: Just this: that if you speak the treasure’s location to anyone else — forever more — you will turn instantly to stone.
URAWHA: Harsh! Well, that shouldn’t be too hard. You done, Tesch?
URAWHA: Well, sir giant face, thanks a lot. You want us to come back and report to you or something when we’re done?
FACE: I will know. Only see that you keep your promise. That I will also know.
TESCHIA: We will. Thank you!
[footsteps recede; silence]
HONOR: There you are! When I saw that that door was open, I was seriously worried; I shoulda known you guys would do something stupid like going down in there!
URAWHA: How’s it going, Honor?
TESCHIA: How’s life in the big city?
HONOR: Dull, as always. How’s the tiny town?
URAWHA: Interesting, as always. But, we got bad news.
URAWHA: We’re going straight.
TESCHIA: We just decided that this whole thief thing isn’t right for us.
HONOR: Whaddya mean? You guys are the best thieves I’ve ever marketed for!
URAWHA: Well… we just decided.
HONOR: That’s going to cut into my business something big. [sigh] Well, what do you have for me today?
URAWHA: Umm…. there’s more bad news. We’re returning all the stuff we’ve stolen since last time.
HONOR: What?!? How can you do this to me?!?
TESCHIA: But we’re going to pay you a cancellation fee!
HONOR: Oh. How much?
URAWHA: We’re not sure yet. Can you wait here for a couple of hours?
HONOR: You’ve got to be kidding me. You guys are just going to run off home and leave me here, right?
TESCHIA: C’mon, Honor, you know us better than that. We’re serious.
HONOR: Oh, whatever! Why should I trust a couple of thieves?
URAWHA: We’re not thieves anymore; I just told you that!
TESCHIA: Besides, why would we fire the flare and come all the way out here to meet you if we were just going to run off?
HONOR: You must think I’m crazy.
URAWHA: Look, either you wait here for us and we bring you the cancellation fee, or you go home unhappy. What will you do?
HONOR: [sigh] I’ll wait for you. Where are you going?
URAWHA: To get your cancellation fee.
HONOR: Whatever. All right. I’ll wait.
TESCHIA: See ya in a few hours.
URAWHA: Just what I wanted — another walk through the jungle.
TESCHIA: And you sound so unhappy.
TESCHIA: Ah, we’ve been walking for an hour! Shouldn’t we be there yet?
URAWHA: Yeah, I think so. We’ve been going straight east.
TESCHIA: Who would ever have thought that we’d be this lucky? I mean, a treasure buried under a giant rock hill just two miles east of a place we go all the time, and all we — [grunts, gasps; crackling]
URAWHA: Oh, my! Teschia! What’s…
TESCHIA: Help me… [chokes]
URAWHA: But… how can this be happening? The face said we’d turn to stone if we told someone where the treasure was hidden! Oh! [cries]
HONOR: I guess that’s my fault, then.
HONOR: I’m sorry. I was so curious about what you guys were up to, I followed you and heard what Teschia said.
URAWHA: It is your fault! What am I going to do?
HONOR: Who is the face?
URAWHA: A strange creature we met inside the building in the city. It told us about the treasure…
HONOR: Then let’s go ask it how to save Teschia!
URAWHA: We can’t just leave her here!
HONOR: Do you want to carry her? She looks like a piece of art… she must weigh a ton!
URAWHA: [sighs] Tesch, I’ll come back, all right? Don’t worry; I’ll save you somehow. Let’s go, Honor.
HONOR: It’s getting dark.
URAWHA: That happens when you’ve been walking around in the jungle all day. Look, there’s the city ahead. [footsteps on stone] Hurry up. [footsteps run, get reverb, continue; girls pant] Face! Hey, face! Wake up!
FACE: I do not sleep.
URAWHA: How do I get Teschia back from being stone?
FACE: Are you willing to make a sacrifice?
URAWHA: Of course!
HONOR: Urawha, are you crazy?
FACE: City child, you would do as much for someone you love. Urawha, you must smear the statue with your blood, and she will return to life.
URAWHA: H-how much blood?
FACE: That is all I can say.
URAWHA: All right… let’s go back.
FACE: Humans are so intemperate.
[crunching footsteps, swishing branches]
HONOR: Urawha, are you sure about this? [metal ringing] Urawha!
URAWHA: I don’t know if I can do this…
HONOR: But you just said…
URAWHA: I mean, actually cut myself with this dagger. I guess I’ll just think about Tesch… [gasps]
HONOR: Oh, my…
URAWHA: Come on, Tesch… [gasps] Wake up! Ooh…
HONOR: Teschira! You have to wake up!
URAWHA: [gasps] I can’t lose this much blood… Tesch! Tesch! Tesch!
HONOR: Urawha, you’ve got to put something on that… it’s going to kill you!
URAWHA: Teschia! Please! [grunts, falls]
TESCHIA: [gasps, grunts] Oh, I’m covered with… [gasps]
TESCHIA: Urawha! What happened?
HONOR: To rescue you, she cut her wrist. I don’t know…
TESCHIA: Quick, help her sit up. I’ll tie it. [rip] Are you all right?
URAWHA: I… I don’t know… Are you?
TESCHIA: I feel fine.
URAWHA: Then so do I.
TESCHIA: Can you stand?
URAWHA: Yeah… Let’s go get that treasure.
HONOR: This is too weird.
TESCHIA: You’re telling me.
HONOR: It’s enough to make anyone go straight.
TESCHIA: Let’s go.
HONOR: We’ve got to talk about this…
There really isn’t much point to writing radio dramas considering that nobody makes radio dramas anymore. However, I’d read one that someone had posted somewhere, and was totally fascinated by the format’s ability to create a setting through nothing but dialogue and sound effects. That was really the point of this… to see if I could do it… I succeeded fairly well, I think. The only real problem is that when read aloud it’s difficult to figure out who’s who; with an actual cast of distinctive voices, I think it would work, though.
Just ten more minutes.
It was such a hot, beautiful day. Waiting was hot, but waiting was not beautiful. At least there were only ten more minutes, which was something to be able to say after the many days and hours. Still, these last minutes seemed to drag by like the long years of eternity. She drummed her fingers nervously, pressing her ear to the ground to catch the vibrations as each fingertip made contact with floor so close beside her face. Ten… more… minutes…
Araki had been so excited to go to the fair — begged and begged for days when the news of its coming had hit town. Had, in fact, begged too much.
Nobody liked her now.
She was so impatient to get going, she almost screamed. Seven minutes left.
And what a fair! The guards were out in force, naturally, so there was no loitering. Everyone who was not buying and selling was just staring. Araki had been so eager to see it all.
She wanted to be the one staring. She would be staring soon. Five more minutes. Bubbling with joy at the thought, she grinned and looked around impatiently, ceasing her nervous drumming for just a bit. Then she sighed.
The endless begging really had been too much, hadn’t it?
She had crossed the line from aggravating to being seriously in the wrong. Still, there was no reason to feel this guilty, right? Everyone had wanted to kill Araki after about an hour’s complaining that chores too look long and they should leave for the fair now.
Everyone had wanted to kill Araki. Some of them, their patience worn out with the endless talk, talk, talk about the fair, had even threatened to.
What reason could they have to wish her dead?
Maybe they felt differently now, she reflected as she lay, silent and impatient. Two minutes.
She turned to gaze up at the ceiling. She couldn’t help the increasing pace of her heart as she counted down the last seconds. The huge clock, out there in the town square where the fair was taking place, began the lesser chimes. Her ears strained as the last seconds ding-donged away, strained and hungered for the eventual twelve notes — she couldn’t remember whether the strike of the hour was the highest or the lowest tone the clock possessed. Twelve, eleven, ten — ah, it was the lowest! — six, five, four — ah, high noon! The reverberations of the deep tolling faded. Finally! Finally! Finally!
The hooded guards arrived on cue. “Any last words?” one of them asked.
She shrugged. “It was Araki’s fault,” she said, briskly stepping out between them. “If he hadn’t begged and complained so much, I wouldn’t have killed him.”
I’ve rated this story . What do you think of it?
Tixi Pax was a very normal rancher until a dragon entered her life; now she’s hopping worlds, getting herself kidnapped, playing magical harps, and possibly falling in love.
There was a storm outside, and it made me nervous. I hated thunder, and the constant applause of the rain was just annoying. After I’d gone through my accounts, which had taken twice as long as usual with the distraction of the summer shower all around me, I lay down on my bed and closed my eyes. There was no chance of sleep with that noise outside, but it was good to rest. Eventually, though, I became sick of inactivity and rose again. Taking my harp from the wall, I sat by the window, with my back to the storm, and played something softly. It was, I believe, the ballad of Sorril and Mai. As I watched the harpstrings ripple under my touch, I began to feel a familiar light-headedness creeping over me, like a thread of silver in my thoughts. I did not resist, only let the flashback take me.
“I raise horses, Sati, not dragons.” I was leaning against the shaft of my pitchfork, its prongs buried in the fragrant hay under my feet, returning her placid, violet-eyed gaze with a slightly exasperated look. Clad in soiled trousers and a tunic, my hair tied into a sloppy bun at my neck, I was sweating from the effort I’d been making before my neighbor arrived. “Where’d you get a Shoer-blasted dragon from anyway?”
“I told you,” she replied patiently. “The parents are from Sharaani and can’t get back; they have a nest but no clan to raise the hatchlings, and I’m trying to find homes for all the eggs.”
I shook my head at the name, inadvertently loosing several clumps of hair into my face. “Sati, the wizards at Chul don’t understand Sharaani. I certainly don’t want any part of it.”
“But Tix,” she pleaded, her eyes getting larger as she gazed up at me, “these babies won’t grow up right without individual attention!”
“I can’t afford a dragon,” I said, but of course it was a lie: I’d been planning for some time to add two Schic’qer geldings to my stock and build add-ons for them. If I could afford that, I could certainly keep a dragon. She knew all about my plans, and merely gave me a crooked-mouthed look. “Besides,” I said, weakening, “I wouldn’t know what to feed it.”
She grinned. “Come down here and I’ll tell you.”
With a sigh I slid down the haystack and stood beside her. A gust of early fall wind into her face blew her orchid-colored hair dramatically back behind her and undid the rest of my pathetic bun. “First tell me all about these parents. I mean, are you sure they’re from Sharaani?”
“Of course I’m sure; they told me.”
“Since when do you speak dragon?”
“Oh.” I was one of the few who knew about Sati’s mental talents. “So what’s the story?”
“I thought Arran could tell you better,” she said cautiously.
“Arran…” There was suspicion in my voice. “Who’s… Sati, you didn’t bring a dragon here, did you?” She was looking past me. I swiveled and slapped a hand to my face. “Shades of Roneraat, girl! One whiff of him and my whole stable’ll be antsy all night!”
“Arran says hello,” said Sati.
The dragon was about four and a half feet tall and shaped structurally like a cat, except for his long neck and angular head. He sat before me on crouched hind legs, a lizard-like tail curled around him. His front claws were more hand-like that I would have expected, and his wings looked a bit small to hold his weight, but, then, what do I know? One of these was tied up in a sling of sorts. His pointed scales were green, and his huge eyes were bright and yellow. As creatures went he wasn’t particularly ugly, nor was he very attractive. “Hello,” I said, giving myself up to fate. There was something about my odd neighbor that did not let me argue with her for long, even in a friendly way. “Let’s hear this story.”
“Arran says: my mate’s name is Gwen, and we lived until recently in Sharaani, in the human kingdom of Flosho. We were headed skyborn for the nesting-grounds of my people in order for her to lay her eggs when a rift in space opened before us and we came through to your world. When we landed in a forest” — Sati extrapolated that he meant the Roshwood — “my wing was broken and Gwen and I were forced to remain where we were. She laid her eggs there. Now, knowing that the only dragons here are far away and not friendly with humans, we have no way to raise our babies, since to do so requires a clan. Thus Sati has taken it upon herself to find homes for all our hatchlings.” She smiled as she spoke of herself in third person, translating the dragon’s thought-speech for me. “And you really should take one, Tixi. Once it gets older, it’ll be a great watcher for you.”
“I have dogs,” I said in a last-ditch effort to keep a dragon out of my home. We both knew it was futile.
“I know how friendly your dogs are. They’ll welcome another pet.”
“Very well,” I said at last with a long breath. “I’ll take one.”
“Great!” she said. “I’ll bring the egg over today!”
And that was how I got my dragon. It was strange even to think about having a dragon. Of course the dragons of Raharsaa are huge, bigger than buildings even, and live in the Drashier Mountains in the south where they feed on people’s flocks and burn down towns just for fun. There aren’t very many of them. But in Sharaani, our parallel world, dragons are smaller and much more common, like birds almost. I suppose I should explain Sharaani as well, since I’ve come this far. I was going to make this a nice dramatic account and follow all the rules I learned in school for grabbing the reader’s attention and not dumping all the information on them at once, but I guess that’s just not going to happen. You’ll just have to get used to the Tixi Pax style.
Sharaani is also called the Exchange because that’s what it does with us. Every now and then some stranger will appear in a tavern somewhere completely lost and ask for the way to Rholsat or Aanris or some other town no one’s ever heard of. They’ll ask him some questions and eventually figure out that he’s from Sharaani and got here when he saw what looked like a giant black rip in the air and accidentally stepped into it. Then one of our people will disappear, and the next person who comes from Sharaani will bring news of him or her. Nobody knew at the time I got my dragon why these random rips in space occurred, and the wizards had found no way to duplicate them. Thus, rather needless to say, the chances of someone seeing two in a lifetime were fairly small, and those who were carried off to Sharaani, or brought here to Raharsaa, never got back home again. So you can see why I was slightly worried about taking in a dragon from Sharaani. You never knew what might suddenly trigger a rift and pull me away, forever, from everything I knew.
She did come back later that day. Sati, I mean. I could always tell when she was coming, for she was one of the few people I knew for whom my dogs would give their happy-bark, and the only person I knew who had brilliant white skin and black-streaked purple hair. She looked ethereal, almost. I opened the door and called my dogs away, beating my flour-covered hands on my apron as I did. I’d just recently given my cook the bag since I’d caught her in my wine cellar less-than-lucid, and so was stuck with the extra chore of cooking dinner for the hired men. I was so overworked it wasn’t even funny. And here I was adopting a dragon, for Shoer’s sake! Shoer is the capital of the kingdom, by the way, and if you wonder why I swear by it, don’t ask because I don’t know. The kingdom’s name is Kopier.
Anyway, Sati was coming up the walk to the front door of Thesar carrying a large brown egg, spotted with off-white. I sighed and smiled at her. “So this is my baby dragon,” I called, then shouted at the dogs again. They were excited by the smell of the egg, I guessed, and thought Sati was bringing them food.
“Actually, this is an egg,” said Sati with a laugh, which is just what I had expected. “It won’t hatch until tomorrow.”
“And what will I feed this small thing?” I asked, worrying momentarily what I’d gotten myself into: having forgotten to inquire farther about a dragon’s eating habits earlier, I had never discovered whether or not the thing would need special food or something.
“Give it whatever you feed your dogs until it can fly,” said Sati as I prohibited the entrance of those particular animals with my foot and shut the door behind her. “Then it’ll find its own food. Wild rabbits and such,” she added as she saw the worried look on my face. I have a pig and a few chickens.
“Did you find homes for all the other eggs?” I asked, wondering: what effect would a set of baby dragons have on her trade?
“All but two.”
“How many were there?”
“Mailiw’s ghost! How did you find that many people?”
“I’ve been looking for a few weeks,” she said. “You were the last.”
I gave her a mock-accusatory look. “Sati, your own neighbor!”
“Well, I knew you’d be the easiest to convince, so I saved you.”
“Unh!” I put my hands on my hips and gazed around the cluttered room. I hadn’t tidied up in a while, with all the extra things I’d been doing lately.
“I don’t suppose you need any help around here, do you?” she asked as she followed my indifferent gaze around the room.
“Not really,” I said affably. “I complain ’bout the extra stuff, but I’m going to hire another housekeeper as soon as I can. Thanks, though.”
“Cause if you need help, I can always come over. Gwen and Arran can take care of two babies just fine.”
I waved her inquiry away. “No, thanks,” I said, and meant it. She had things to do just as much as I did.
“Well, here’s your egg. Put it on some cloth by a fire. You’re going to hate this, but it’ll have to be turned once an hour.”
I swore with an oath slightly more serious than naming the capital or calling on the dead king Roneraat or queen Mailiw. “Every hour?” She smiled innocently, eyes glowing. “All right.” I took the egg, which was a great deal heavier than it looked. “Wow, this thing’s going to be big.”
“Thanks, Tix,” she said sincerely. “I really appreciate this. So do Arran and Gwen.”
“Well, you know how I love surprises,” I said dryly. “I’ll take good care of… it. When it hatches. Is it likely to stay with me forever, or run off once it’s full grown?”
“I’m not sure about that,” she said, brow furrowing. “I’ll have to ask Arran.”
Suddenly I remembered my quiche in the kitchen and balked. “Oh, my idiotic meal,” I gasped. “I hate cooking.”
“I’ll leave now,” she said with another smile. She smiled a lot.
“Sorry to be rude,” I apologized. Though Sati and I had never been best friends, I liked her all the same and didn’t want to offend her. Though I never had heard of Sati being offended by anything.
“‘S all right,” she said, and walked to the door. “Remember, if you need any help or anything, I’m just down the lane.”
I nodded. “I will.”
“Thanks again,” she said.
“Ma’am! Mistress Pax!” I shook myself, realizing the memory had receded. Standing shakily, I reeled towards the bedroom door.
“What is it, Luiti?”
“Ma’am, Isolia won’t come when I call her.”
“I’ll get her,” I said. Luiti was always a bit too passive when it came to bellowing pet-names into the rain. I headed for the front door, smoothing my wrinkled tunic as I went and untwisting the chain around my neck to right the silver and green amulet. I opened the door and got a gust of wet air in my face. I stepped outside to avoid soaking the front hall. “Isolia!” I called at the top of my lungs. “Come inside! Isolia!” There was no response, and I could not see three feet through the rain. With a snort of annoyance I went back in. “Get my cloak,” I told the worried housekeeper as I pulled my boots on.
Stepping into that mess of swirling rain took a bit of courage, but once I was there it was not so bad. Not so bad as some things I’d done, anyway, but it was up with them on the list. So I picked my way along the muddy path to where it turned into the stable yards, thinking Isolia might have hidden from the storm with the horses. Not good for the horses. Suddenly the rain began to weave together into one silver sheet of confusion, and the fence post before me became very real. Why in the name of Roneraat did I bring this Shoer-slighted harp? I wondered as I clutched at it. I struggled to remain standing while the dizziness swept over me and I had another flashback.
Standing upright, I added the newest honeysuckle to my bouquet. I didn’t know why I was in such a flowery mood, but wasn’t about to argue with silly urges when my only witnesses were horses and a dragon. All I needed now was a flowing dress and long wavy hair to billow and spread behind me in the wind. But ranchers don’t wear dresses and my hair is straight as a board. I looked around, smiling: it was a beautiful day, and the horses were certainly enjoying their romp around the flower-filled meadow. It was near the center of the Roshwood and quite a trek
After the egg had hatched — a singularly unpleasant experience for my callow self — the dogs had wanted first to baby and then to play with the little lizard-like creature, blue-eyed, with which I now had to deal. After I’d had Sati confirm the dragonette’s sex, I named her Isolia and tried to hire another housekeeper. It had not been particularly easy to find one who was willing to work in a house with a dragon from Sharaani, but you know what people will do for money.
Then for the next half year Isolia had grown, and grown, and grown, until she was almost fully grown. The dogs loved her, the horses withstood their terror in her presence with much coaxing. I liked her, I must admit. She followed me everywhere.
It was this that made me wonder what was going on when she suddenly disappeared into the trees, looking almost wild with excitement. Perhaps she saw a deer, I thought. Tucking my bouquet into my belt, I followed her leisurely, though with a certain amount of caution: the Roshwood has around it a number of odd legends which I’d never believed until I found myself in possession of a dragon from Sharaani. Not to say that I really believed them now; but I did feel more ready to admit them the causes of the undeniably strange things that periodically occurred in the area.
I followed the crunchy sounds of Isolia’s passage into deeper and deeper brush, the forest growing twilight-dim around me with the thickening trees. Annoyed, I called out my dragon’s name and ordered her to come back; but she seemed always to run faster. After several more minutes of this, I stopped. Let the little weasel come back in her own good time, I thought. The crashing noises before me also stopped. As a matter of fact, all sound in front of me had ceased entirely. Behind, faintly, I heard the rustling of leaves in the wind and the chirping of birds and crickets. But ahead all was silent, unless it was for, perhaps, a hint of voices as if from far off. I also became conscious at that moment of the light that bathed the forest around — a strange purple tint that seemed to glow from some point ahead, turning the enforced dusk into eerie, artificial day. I pushed forward through the dense trees and came into the light, if you will. Sharaani, was my only thought.
A novelist once write a book about Sharaani called The Rip in the World, and she was right. It was this black tear shining purple at the edges, looking for all the worlds like a place where reality had just been torn away. It seemed to suck sound into it as well, though now standing before it I thought I could hear from its depths forest sounds, soft, similar to those that should have surrounded me. I also heard voices, far-off and nearly inaudible, so indistinct that I could make out no words.
I had no doubt — no doubt whatsoever — that Isolia had gone straight through this doorway into whatever lay beyond.
I stood there glumly for a while. I really was going to miss my stupid dragon, though Sharanni was where she belonged. After several moments the thought hit me that someone should be told about this portal; perhaps something could be done. I looked around, realizing I had no idea in which part of the Roshwood I was. Suddenly, a shout issued from the rip and startled me half to death. Of course, it didn’t even reach normal speaking level on my side, but the pained surprise in the woman’s voice left little room for debate as to its volume over there.
I think it must have been the surrealism of my situation combined with the vague familiarity of the voice and my nerves already on end that drove me in; but whyever in Mailiw’s name I did it, it was done: the moment I head that pleading voice I darted forward, hands outstretched, and plunged into the unknown.
I was in a forest, very like the one I’d just left. Stumbling into a tree before I caught myself — I’d expected more resistance in the portal, but it had really been like walking through a doorway — I looked around after a moment for the rift. It was not there, but the voices were much closer now. Shouts and grunts met my ears as if a fight were going on nearby. That voice was there, too — it had to be… whoever she was — and I was determined to help. My heart still beating rapidly from the excitement of this entire business, I moved towards the sounds.
Now, I’ve had my share of fistfights. Being the youngest of six, all brothers except me, taught me early to defend myself from what was for them good-natured play-fighting but which was for me somewhat dangerous. Then, too, I’ve had to deal with the occasional highwayman seeking a couple of nice horses and thinking I was an easy target. This is not to say I’m the be-all-end-all in a slugfest, but I certainly can hold my own; every good rancher can fight, my father used to say.
This situation didn’t look too bad: two thin, scruffy men against a very nicely-dressed, quick-moving woman with dark hair. She was the voice, I knew — a rich traveler, perhaps, set upon by these bandits — but there was something familiar about her. I tried to catch a glimpse of her face as she dodged and ducked her way around the other two, but she was moving too quickly. I darted out and knocked one of her dirty attackers soundly on the back of the head, sucking in my breath at the pain of fist meeting skull. The man turned in surprise and took a swing at me, which I barely managed to dodge. I aimed a blow at his shoulder and got a kick in the knee before I hit him, losing all the force from my arm.
Stumbling backwards, I regained my balance in time to meet the bandit’s charge with a heavy punch to his chest. I sidestepped his flying fist and watched as he stumbled just as I had. My next hit was better aimed. Before I connected with his face, though, I caught a glimpse of Isolia behind him and smiled. She whipped her tail forward, even as my balled hand met the man’s cheekbone with a crack, and rapped the man’s ankles out from under him. He fell with a look of pain and surprise as Isolia darted out of the way, and I looked around for the woman I was defending. My eyes met her back, but then my left knee gave way. The bandit Isolia and I had knocked over was on me in an instant, wrenching my arm up behind me as far as it would go (which was, incidentally, pretty far; I’m rather flexible) and punching me repeatedly in the back. I struggled to get up, but soon his blows found the more sensitive areas at the base of my skull, and my struggles stopped.
The rain awakened me… …no, that was just the storm. The flashback had ended, and I was on my knees beside a fencepost holding a harp to my bosom as if it were the most priceless thing in existence. Climbing to my feet, the rainwater and mud running down my already-soaked leggings, I attempted once more to pierce the rain with my not-so-superior night vision. Clambering carefully over the rain-streaked slats of the fence, I headed for my original destination, the stable, fervently hoping no more flashbacks would take me before I found Isolia.
“Isohhhhhlia!” I called into the horse-smelling darkness, squelching the urge to calm my frightened animals. Stepping fully into the building I closed the door behind me, desiring peace for just a moment. The rain’s irritating drum on the roof and walls was certainly provoking still, but at least for the moment it was not drumming on me. Isolia was obviously not in here; rain and thunder would alarm horses this much, a dragon much more. With a sigh, I shook the rainwater off my harp — a futile gesture, I know — and stepped back into the storm. Running the length of the stableyard, and luckily only slipping two or three times in the rain-churned mud, I found the fence at the other side that separates the yard from a cropped-grassy embankment sloping down to the lane. As I switched the harp from one hand to another, I accidentally drew my fingers across the strings, rippling a wave of storm-drowned sound inaudibly into the chaotic night. I swore loudly, though my voice was nearly lost in the after-rumblings of a thunderclap. If the previous events of this evening were any indication, I was particularly susceptible to flashbacks tonight. Strumming the harp would only bring on more. I determined to wait it out here rather than risk going out into the lane and possibly collapsing under someone’s carriage wheels. But I stood against the fence for so long, enduring the uncomfortable torrents as best I could, I began to think I was done with flashbacks for now at any rate. Slowly I pulled myself up onto the fence, and then of course it came. Frantically I tried to climb down before I was gone completely, but my body was falling too fast. I felt my hands’ grip relax and then the memory took me.
I lay on my back securely bound, bare wrists already chafing in the tight ropes. The light to which I opened my eyes gave me a sudden, pounding headache, and a pang of hunger twisted my stomach. “Roneraat and Mailiw,” I groaned, regardless of who might hear, squeezing my eyes shut and attempting to hold still.
“What did you say?” she gasped from behind me. It was the voice, the rich stranger to whom I’d been so useless. Pain or not, I had to see her face. She was only just behind me, to judge from the sound, so I struggled into a sitting position and scrabbled myself around to look at her. My next oath is not repeatable, for my fellow prisoner, stripped of her rich clothing and clad now in rough, dirty linen; bruised, broken, bound as tightly as I; the woman I’d left my world, come to Sharaani, to protect — the woman beside me was none other than Haering of Chul, crown princess and heir to the throne of Kopier.
I choked out, “Your hiiieee!” and ended in a shriek as she kicked my ankle sharply.
“Quiet!” came a savage command from nearby, and turning I saw a bandit, apparently our guard, reclining against a tree with a knife at his side. I glared at the princess.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered harshly, “but you realize what they’ll do if you call me that?”
Still annoyed with her for my stinging ankle, I responded, somewhat surly. “All right. Haering.” She nodded her pretty head with its mussed dark auburn hair, and I looked away; she had a black eye. I took the time, rather than speak again in anger, to look around at what was apparently a camp. We lay a little way off from the large fire pit in the center of an oblong clearing. Around the edges were perhaps twelve tents, square, many with their front flaps rolled up to revealed raised wooden slat platforms holding a couple of padded cots and often a chest or two. At one end of the clearing, near where our anything-but-alert-looking guard rested, stood a wooden shed-like hut, weather-worn and sturdy. Gazing upward, I guessed it must be about noon, for the sun was directly overhead. Above to either side were the impossibly steep, tree-covered sides of the narrow ravine in which these brigands obviously felt themselves perfectly safe. Turning back to the princess, I whispered, “You are the last person I thought to meet here.”
“I didn’t exactly expect to find myself here,” she responded. “Who are you?”
“Tixina Pax, from Lottingdell-Roshwood. I’m a horse rancher.”
“Pax? I know your brother, then.”
I nodded briefly; Saquell, the second oldest, was at Chul studying to be a wizard. Though the Wizards’ Academy and Kopier University are technically two different institutes, they are in the same set of buildings; so it was no surprise that the school-going princess should be acquainted with my wizard initiate brother. “So what do we do now?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she responded glumly. “These fellows are slave traders and bandits of the worst kind.”
“How do you know?” I asked, shocked.
“They failed to knock me out,” she replied. “I kept fighting after you were struck down, until more of them arrived and subdued me. I’ve had to listen to their vulgar jaw since last night. Most of them are gone off now, to do whatever they do during the day; they’ll be back tonight, no doubt.”
I sighed. “So how do we get away?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said again. “I’ve no idea.”
“Does the guard ever change?” I asked.
“He has not moved more than twice all morning,” Haering said.
“Well, do they go to sleep at night?” I asked.
“They leave a guard out at night as well,” she responded.
“Well, don’t you have any ideas?” I asked, frustrated.
“About what exactly should I have an idea?” she demanded. She was apparently very frightened, more than was I, and I determined not to ask her anything more.
“Don’t worry, I’ll think of something,” I said. However, long monotonous hours passed and not an idea had come to my mind. The day dragged on, darkening immediately a few hours after noon when the sun fell beyond the lip of the ravine, with the occasional brigand coming and going, and I began to rethink the opinion of our guard. Though he remained fairly lazy-looking throughout the day, there was a wariness to him I had not observed at first, and he never went to sleep or left the camp. No hope there, then. I would have to see what the night guard was like.
Haering didn’t speak much, and I became more and more convinced that she was terribly frightened. I suppose the thought of being a slave was even more repulsive to a rather pampered royal university student than it was to me. I decided to try to lighten the mood a bit. Looking around, I commented on the first thing I saw — whispering, of course. “This ravine’s pretty, isn’t it?” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wished I could take them back: I doubted the princess would be able to see the beauty in the area of her captivity. But she surprised me by saying immediately,
“Yes. The way the shadows fall into it and make the trees on the sides seem, by their shadows, to be double — that is lovely.”
I lowered my brows. I certainly hadn’t observed the tree-shadows, at least not like that, and admitted as much.
She sighed. “I enjoy painting,” she said. “I notice things like that.”
“Do they let you study such things at KU?” I asked curiously.
“Yes, we have art instructors there. Saquell paints better than I do, however. Sometimes I suspect him of using magic for it.”
I laughed softly. “Of course. He probably just wants to show you up. He couldn’t care less about art.”
I shrugged. “I like music. I’ve never really tried my hand at painting.” We fell silent, but I thought the tension had been loosened.
When the darkness became serious, our guard lit the fire. Brigands began returning to the camp in earnest, one at a time mostly, occasionally bearing chests or backpacks. One set up a large pot by the fire, not throwing us a glance like the rest of them, and began to cook something that smelled sickeningly good. I was becoming frustrated with the entire situation: no one so much as looked at us, and my back was tired from sitting up with my legs to the side. The princess had not said a word all day, and I guessed she was still frightened out of her wits. That’s what came from being a college girl, and a royal one at that: never fought a man before yesterday in her life, probably, and certainly had never had to deal with wolves or coyotes trying to get at her horses or chickens. She was beautiful, though.
A man came striding through the camp then, clad in mail unlike his patchworked group. The sword hanging at his belt was longer than the short blades of the rest of his people, and the sheath appeared actually to match the weapon. He stopped just in front of us and looked down. “Somebody come feed these,” he ordered. “Kelvin do it.” That was all. No greeting for us, no insults. Better than it could have been, and worse. With that level of disinterest, I didn’t think I was in danger of rape any time soon, but if they would talk to us we might find some weakness we could use to escape. But nobody spoke a word to us. At least, not until Kelvin arrived.
“Hello,” he said, crouching. “I’ll bet you’re hungry.” Looking over his shoulder he shouted. “Tiner! Vasey! Get over here and help me!” He addressed us again. “Now, I’ll untie your hands so you can eat, as long as you don’t try to escape. If you do, Tiner and Vasey’ll stick you.” He had a gentle voice, and his face in the firelight looked more refined than that of anyone we’d seen so far, especially the two great men that appeared at his back. Without a word they took their places at either side of us, short swords drawn. Kelvin knelt behind me and I felt practiced fingers loosing the ropes that bound my poor wrists. Shaking my hands out in front of me at last, I tried to rid them of the odd tingling that came from bad circulation, then rubbed my sore arms that had been pulled behind me all day.
“Thank you,” I said inadvertently, realizing the next moment that being polite to my captors might not be the best idea in the world.
“You’re welcome,” Kelvin said as he untied the princess. I looked at him more closely. He had high cheekbones and wispy blonde hair, and his face was bruised multiple times as if he were often struck. I wondered what his status among the brigands was. “I’ll get you some stew and bread — we don’t starve prisoners who are destined to be slaves, after all.” I imagined that as he spoke the word ‘slaves,’ his lip curled up into an expression of disdain. At what this emotion was directed I could not tell, but I stored the gesture away for future reference.
Haering sat up, rubbing her wrists and glancing apprehensively at Tiner and Vasey. “Still alive, Tixina?” she asked, somewhat less despondently than I might have expected.
I grimaced. “Tixi,” I said firmly. “Looks like we get to eat after all.”
“Shut up,” said one of out watchers — whether Tiner or Vasey, I could not tell — and kicked me. I almost fell over, hip smarting, and took a deep breath before sitting up fully again. No use mouthing off to someone who could so easily kill me.
Kelvin came back with a large bowl of stew and a small loaf of hard bread. It smelled so good I thought I’d die if he didn’t hurry. “Here you go,” he said, “and don’t fight over it.”
There were two wooden spoons in the bowl, and the bread was easily broken in slightly uneven halves. I gave the princess the large portion, and set to on the stew with a vengeance. It took me a moment to realize that her highness was not eating, but was staring at the food with a blank, slightly dismayed expression.
“You’re not going to do yourself any good if you don’t eat,” I hissed at her. She nodded, and with a look of distaste at the bowl joined me in my efforts at emptying it. So that’s her problem, I thought: the food’s not good enough for her. Well, at least she’s not complaining. She rose a great deal in my esteem, just for that.
When we had finished eating, Kelvin returned to take our dishes. “I’m sorry,” he said jovially, “but I’ll have to retie you.”
I grimaced, but forced myself to say, “Don’t worry about it,” in a tone that suggested I knew it was not his fault. He was probably just another brigand, but since he seemed so friendly I felt it would not hurt to try and make a friend of him. Haering just snorted.
Our guards had wandered off, and the camp had settled down a great deal with the brigands eating their supper. A cry arose for a song, and I was surprised to see Kelvin step forward, unslinging a harp from the strap around his back. I frowned. So he was a bard, which was for some reason considered lower-class among brigands. That made no sense. But I paused reflection to listen to his song, which was of middling length and rather bawdy. He had a nice voice, though, and the melody was endurable.
Strange, though, what happened to him as he began singing: his face went blank, his eyes closed, and he seemed not to notice anything around him. I swear, if that fire had leapt up and burned his trousers I don’t think he would have felt it. Only at the very end of the song did he come out of his odd trance, and then staggered a bit as the brigands laughed and clapped. By that time the fire had burned low, and the men were starting to roll their tent flaps down as if to go to bed. The cook pot was taken down and washed, the area was tidied up, and things generally began to quiet. A guard was set. The door of the chief’s hut (for that it must have been) closed with a bang. After a little while everything was still.
I was going to watch that guard all night if it killed me. There was no way I was going to be sold as a slave on Sharaani when I had a ranch, three servants, and a dozen friends back on Raharsaa. But I’d just eaten, after being hurt and sore all day; my headache was somewhat subsided, and despite my valiant efforts I was asleep before an hour was up.
The first thing I saw the next morning when I awoke was Isolia peeking out at me from between two tents. She gave one of her hawk-like dragon calls, and I sat up in fear. Glancing quickly around to see if anyone was about, I called her softly. I held out my hands as far as I could and ordered, “Bite.”
She knew this command — because she was so naturally gentle, I’d trained her to bite when I told her to, in case I was ever in trouble or needed something broken. She advanced and looked at me confusedly, obviously puzzled as to why she should bite my hands. I strained the latter and managed to tap the rope between my wrists with one finger, repeating the mandate. But at that moment I heard the rustling of a tent flap, and hissed at Isolia with no real reason other than wishing her to get out of sight. She did that on her own, hopping off between the tents again and disappearing. No doubt she was hiding in the trees beyond.
“Good morning,” came the cheerful voice of Kelvin from behind us, and I cursed him mentally. Still, I resolved to be friendly.
“Hello,” I said. Struggling to face him, I smiled weakly. “I liked your song last night.”
He frowned. “Did you? I’m sorry.”
He did not appear eager to speak further, and had turned his attention to getting some food from what appeared to be the supply tent. I felt now was as good as any to speak. “My father was a harpist.”
“Was he?” asked Kelvin absently, as if he had not heard. In the light I could see how gaunt and tall he was.
“Yes; he taught me a song.”
Kelvin glanced at me, now mildly interested it seemed. “Oh, really? What song?” There was not much hope in his voice.
“The balled of Sorril and Mai.”
He turned to face me, brows flickering downward. “I never heard of that. Is it a high ballad?”
I had what might be called, if I were a dramaticist, a plan at this point, so I feigned ignorance. “I dunno,” I shrugged. “It’s pretty. ‘T’s long.”
“I’d like to hear it,” he said; I’d caught him now. At least, I hoped I had.
I forced a sigh. “When my father died he left his harp to my brother, whom I haven’t seen in four years. And now –” It wasn’t much work to make my voice bitter — “I’ll probably never play again.”
“Well,” he said slowly, coming over to me, “I’ll let you play mine.”
“Are you allowed to do that?” I questioned doubtfully.
He shrugged. “As long as you don’t escape, I can do anything I want.”
The uncomfortable double meaning of this was not lost on anyone present, and Kelvin looked somewhat abashed. Haering, whom I had not known to be awake, said fiercely, “Watch what you say to her.”
Kelvin frowned and replied, “I didn’t mean anything by it.” Looking at me — I made sure to smile — he continued, “I don’t think your sweetheart took it that way either.”
Now I was blushing. Kelvin untied my hands as I studiously avoided looking at Haering. It wasn’t the first time someone had made that kind of insinuation about me.
“Here you go,” he said, unslinging his harp and handing it to me. My heart was beating rapidly; this would be my only chance at escape, as far as I knew, and it was not likely to work. I wasn’t the worst aim in the world, but I wasn’t the best either… maybe if I played and sang very quietly I could get him to come close enough. It was a shame to use such a nice instrument for such a sad purpose, though.
“Thishud be fun,” said someone, and I saw a brigand who hadn’t been there before.
“So you’re finally up, are you?” Kelvin asked. “Sondor’s not going to be happy you slept so late when you were supposed to be guarding the prisoners.”
“Who cares? You were up.”
“I haven’t been for long. Anyway, she’s going to play me a song, so be quiet.”
My hopes of escape vanished. Where had he come from, anyway? Trying my hardest not to look annoyed or disappointed, I ran my hands along the strings to get a feel for the instrument — I really hadn’t touched a harp in four years — and began to sing.
The balled of Sorril and Mai is a pretty song, a high ballad as they call them and very poetic. It tells a story of two lovers divided by war and reunited under miraculous circumstances, and it’s always been my favorite song. However, I do not remember singing a single word of it that day, for as I stroked the harp the world took on a silver shine and I was suddenly not there anymore. Abruptly I was reliving a scene from months earlier when Isolia, a hatchling yet, had frightened my big Contiu mare so badly the horse had jumped three fences and bolted across the lane to Katzi Leik’s field and out thence into the Roshwood. It’d taken half a day to find her, and as I supposedly played that song I retraced every step in acute detail as if for the first time.
And then it was over, the last notes of the song still hovering in the air as the last words faded from my lips. I felt dizzy, and the world took several moments to come back into focus. Then suddenly I felt violently ill and shoved the harp back into Kelvin’s hands, combating nausea as I leaned forward to the ground. The laughter of the late-sleeping brigand filled my ears. When I was finally able to sit up without seeing three spinning copies of the camp I demanded angrily, “What in Shoer’s name was that?”
Even Kelvin seemed mildly amused. “This harp brings flashbacks to whoever plays it. I suppose I should have warned you.”
“I suppose so!” I said.
“Are you all right?” asked Haering quietly.
“Fine,” I responded.
“It was a lovely song,” said Kelvin. “Thank you for playing it for me; now I have to tie your hands again.”
I felt weak and hopeless as he again bound my wrists. Don’t despair, I told myself, there’s still Isolia.
“Goodbye,” the bard then bade me, and left without words farther.
“What were you planning?” whispered Haering once Kelvin was gone.
“I was going to throw the harp at him,” I said, “or something.”
“A good plan,” Haering sighed.
“Don’t worry — I’ll still think of something. I mean, all it takes is for one of us to have our hands free when they’re not watching. I think you and I together could take them, right?”
“I don’t know. I have been trained in self-defense, but it was little use before, as you saw.”
“Hey, but there’s only two of them now.” She did not say anything. I had to get her to talk. “So, would you paint this valley from your current position, or would you stand up?” I asked, aiming at humor.
I think I caught a weak, brief laugh from her before she answered. “This vantage is pleasing, but I think I would sit up if I could.”
“Do you always use paints, or ever other things? Like pencils or something, I mean?”
“I have occasionally used pencils. They are not as versatile as paints, though.”
I nodded. This almost made sense, but I didn’t want to puzzle through it. “What kinds of things do you usually paint?”
“Landscapes. City streets. The occasional portrait.”
“Hmm.” I had run out of things to ask her, knowing nothing of this branch of art. I tried to think of something else to talk about. “So what’s it like living in the royal palace?”
“It is home. We are not so privileged as many believe us to be, and there is work to be done for everyone. I do not ‘live’ there now, of course, but in Chul. Sometimes I think I would rather be there.” She did not say whether ‘there’ meant Chul or Shoer, but I didn’t ask.
“What does the palace look like?” I’d been to Shoer a few times, but had never gone so far as the palace.
She sighed, and seemed reluctant to continue speaking. But at last she began slowly to describe her home, after which I told her about Thesar and what it was like to live on a ranch. Our whispered conversation continued for a good long while. If the guard ever noticed we were talking, he didn’t react.
I noticed that throughout the day Isolia peeked her head into the camp once or twice, but seeing our guard quickly ducked out. By suppertime my stomach was growling, and I swore that if I ever got home again I’d be glad to do my own cooking — yes, and cook for the hired hands, too — forever more.
This night Kelvin fed us again, and for a second time I watched in interest as he went into his flashback trance while singing. Halfway through his song, however, the chief — whose name I believed to be Sondor — approached him and struck him, not gently, across the face. Kelvin stopped singing, reeling, clutching the harp to his chest like a highly precious thing. He shook his head and looked around.
“Is there a problem?” I now understood all the bruises on his face, if that was what it took to get him out of the flashback.
“Have the wench sing for us,” he said. I wondered who’d told him.
“Yes, sir,” said Kelvin, not seeming to notice he’d been struck. He came over to me and quickly untied me, giving me brief instructions as he did. “Play well and you may escape slavery. Don’t look anyone in the eye when you start the song.”
For the first time in two days I was able to stand, and my legs almost gave way. My left knee was still hurting from where I’d been kicked, and I was afraid I’d be limping for some time. But the glorious feeling of finally being able to stretch my legs overrode all the pain, and I gladly stood and took the harp from him. Standing before the fire as I’d seen him do, I looked at nowhere in particular and began to sing the ballad of Sorril and Mai for the second time that day.
This time the waking memory was that of my father teaching me to ride — an event that had occurred almost fifteen years ago now, and in as vivid detail as if it had happened yesterday. I was jarred back suddenly, to the dark, spinning camp, where I fell to my knees squeezing the harp convulsively to my chest, tears running down my face. Sondor was walking away from me, and I barely realized he was speaking to Kelvin. “That song’s too long. Does she know any others?”
“I don’t think so,” he answered, unsure.
“Teach her some. Maybe I’ll let you keep her.” Hope sprung up again in my heart, hope of escape and freedom — freedom at least from the slavers if not from this world. But depression filled me again at the thought of Haering — I couldn’t just leave the princess here! — and at Sondor’s next words. “Tie her up again, for now.”
I returned the harp to Kelvin and took my place beside her highness once more so the bard could tie me. Haering whispered to me, “Did you know that monster just struck you?”
I frowned. “I guess he must have,” I said. “I didn’t finish the song.” I felt no pain.
“It’s better than the alternative,” Kelvin murmured, giving the knot on my ankles an extra tug. “I’ll talk to you later.” With that he stood and walked off, and the camp began to quiet once more for the night.
This night I was able to stay awake, but to little avail. The crescent moon became visible and then disappeared again, and the guard never stirred. Yet I did not think he was asleep. I grumbled a little to myself, almost silently. And then there was a bustling from the other end of the clearing, and twisting around I saw a figure emerge from one of the tents. He made his way across to the guard, and then I knew who it was. “I can’t sleep, Notsly. D’you like me to watch them for you?”
“You’re a pal, Kelv,” Notsly replied, yawning. “I’ll take yours sometime.” The seated guard stood and headed for his tent. “Night.”
“Good night,” said Kelvin softly. All was quiet for several moments, the only sounds those of Notsly arranging himself in his tent. When the noises of the night forest were the only things audible, Kelvin came silently over to me. “I’ll help you escape, if you’ll help me,” he said in a whisper. Our further conversation continued at the same level.
“Help you with what?” I said with sudden excitement.
“I’ve seen the dragon that comes to you sometimes. Is it yours?”
“Can it bite through metal?”
“Sondor stole my real harp and has it locked in a metal strongbox in his hut. It’s the only reason I stay with these bastards. If you can get your dragon to break open Sondor’s box and get my harp for me, I’ll get you and your friend out of here. There’s only one way out of the ravine. It’s a little opening in the rocks that always has a guard at it. I can take care of him. The only thing I can’t do is get my harp.”
“I’ll do anything to get out of here,” I assured him nervously, “but I don’t know if I’ll be able to find Isolia, my dragon, in time.”
“Can you walk quietly?”
“I think so,” I said very doubtfully.
“Well, your dragon’s usually watching from nearby. It shouldn’t be too hard to find. Please try.”
“Why don’t you just break open the box yourself?”
“It’s enchanted against all humans but Sondor. It would kill me.”
“Ohhh,” I nodded exaggeratedly. “I’ll try it.”
With a swift motion he cut the ropes, then helped me quietly to my feet. “Please hurry,” he said. I started to tiptoe off. “Wait!” he said, a little too loudly. I froze. “One more thing — put these in your ears when you come out with the harp.” He handed me a pair of carved, cloth-padded woodchips that fit perfectly into my ears. I looked at him in confusion, forgetting he could not see my face in the pitch-black night.
“Why?” I asked.
“Trust me,” he said. I shrugged and continued towards the wood.
After I was a good way in — or so I thought, for the camp was to the forest what night was to oblivion — I began whispering Isolia’s name. Silence was my echo, and I found no sign of my dragon. I started to feel panicky, fearing that Kelvin would heartlessly tie me up again if I did not retrieve his lost harp for him. “Isolia!” I whispered again, and this time was answered by a rustling in the leaves and a glint of nonexistent light off two very blue eyes. A moment later Isolia thrust her scaly head under my hand and nuzzled me, exceptionally happy. “Come,” I commanded, and began feeling my way backwards, not daring to turn lest I lose track of my path, towards the camp.
I knew I was there by Kelvin’s slight hiss. Turning to face him, I saw he’d aroused Haering and the two were crouching near the fire pit watching me. Haering’s eyes were wide as she saw me leading my dragon: she had apparently not been as acutely observant as Kelvin. I turned and headed for Sondor’s hut, Isolia still following obediently. “Hey,” whispered Kelvin, coming to my side, “did I mention that Sondor is not in there?”
“No!” I protested. “Now it’s going to be easy!”
“Not necessarily. He and several of the others are away on a very tricky raid. Depending on their success, they could be back any minute.”
I sighed far too loudly, afraid again. “Then we’d better get going,” I said.
“Don’t forget the earplugs when you come out. You’ll have to watch me carefully, but the earplugs are very, very important.”
Nodding sharply, I told Isolia to heel and went forward quietly into Sondor’s hut.
I couldn’t see a single Shoer-blasted thing in there. I stumbled around in the total absence of light for a while, making a bit too much noise, until my hands alighted on what must have been the strongbox. It was nothing more than a large chest of metal bearing a metal padlock, but I drew my arms away in fear of what Kelvin had said about it. Seeing, however, that I was not instantly incinerated or whatever, I figured he must have meant it was enchanted against other humans trying to break it open. I hoped. I took the padlock in my hand and commanded Isolia, “Bite.”
She made short work of it. The lock fell into my cupped hands dented and bent out of shape, and the chest opened relatively easily. Reaching hesitantly inside, my other arm already shaking from holding the thick, heavy lid open, I felt what must be Kelvin’s harp.
At that moment I heard voices outside, and from under the door I caught the glimmer of tiny lights entering the clearing. “Kelvin, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” That was Sondor. In fear I seized the harp and let the lid fall. That proved to be a mistake, as the chest closed with a wrenching clackudd that must have been heard through the whole camp. “What was that?” shouted Sondor. “Who do you have in there, you sorry shit? Well, you little games are over. Kill them both!” I knew he must mean Kelvin and Haering; I had to do something quickly. Throwing the door open I sprang out, harp under my arm, and remembered the earplugs at the last moment. Still wondering why they were so important I fumbled them into my ears, cutting off Sondor’s shout. “She’s got a dra-”
The brigands rushed forward to attack us. But Kelvin stood calmly in the center, holding his harp, and began to play.
I don’t know what song it was, but even with the earplugs on I felt dizzy, and the world took on that silver tinge I now associated with flashbacks. However, no memories came, and I suspected that was due to the earplugs. I felt like I was being swept up in silver wind and carried far, far away, blown in endless musical eddies forever. I shook my head, pulled the sliding harp up under my armpit, and ran forward. All the brigands had stopped moving, and stood where they were, rapt, dazed in the flashback. I took the torch from one of them and looked to Kelvin for instructions. His face was stone in concentration, but he began walking forward and it appeared we were to follow. Haering and I, tailed by Isolia, fell into step behind the harpist and left the slavers’ camp.
The harp under my arm was heavy, much too large to be played standing like the one Kelvin held now. I could barely hold my torch and keep it from falling, so presently Haering relieved me of the flickering light. We made our way through the forest, Kelvin playing at every step, and soon were moving upwards as the ravine sloped, tapering, to its end.
The guard at the opening was charmed by the song before we reached him, and Kelvin was forced to stop playing as we clambered through the narrow crevice leading to the brigands’ hideout. Once out, the weary-looking Kelvin tapped his ears, and I removed my earplugs. Handing the torch to me, Haering did the same. “Now we ride,” said Kelvin. “We must make it to the gates of Landington before they find us.” Shouts already echoed up the canyon walls behind, and I did not hesitate to follow the bard when, after one longing look at the harp under my arm, he broke into a run.
In a carefully-hidden cave nearby we found several horses, and paused long enough for Kelvin to catch his breath before we mounted. He looked pale and grim, his strength apparently having been taxed by whatever song he’d been playing to get us out of there. The angry cries of the slavers not too far away drove us to our mounts, though, and we broke out of the cave almost on top of our pursuers. Swords flashed and hands clutched at us, and I nearly dropped Kelvin’s precious harp before we were free of them and galloping down a rocky slope towards what looked like a road in the now-visible moonlight. I guessed the brigands would not be far behind once they found their own horses.
On the road we pushed for higher speeds, the annoyed whinnying of hard-pressed beasts following us on the chilly night air. Giddy, I focused on holding the harp and holding the horse, letting Kelvin lead the way. Haering was beside me on her own mount. Even in all the excitement I managed to see that these were no plough horses — probably stolen from rich travelers just as they’d taken Haering to be, these were top-breed stallions.
The wind of our speed swept my hair out behind me, carrying my panic, perhaps, to our pursuers, for they seemed to be gaining. Urging our steeds onward we made for the lights ahead, the salvation that disappeared in each dell and reappeared all the closer at the top of each hill. It was a desperate chase, but in the end we made it. Shouting at the top of his lungs, Kelvin managed to arouse whatever porter was there, and the gates were open when we arrived. They closed on the faces of the bandits, hard on our heels and irate at our escape.
It was not long before the men of the town, clued by our gasped-out story, were up in arms and marching from their gates against the now-exposed brigands only a mile from their doors.
Kelvin bought us rooms at the inn.
Haering and I sat in a small upstairs parlor at The Ball and Racquet while the bard was downstairs getting us drinks. Sitting on opposite sides of a round table, we seemed both to be in a kind of exhausted, relieved stupor. Finally I shook my head and asked, mostly from a desire to break the silence, “So, how did you get here?”
Haering, who could not take her half-glazed eyes off the dragon whose head was on my knee, answered, “I was on my way back to Shoer to visit my parents. They did not know I came, for I had left University secretly. I wanted to travel on my own, understand, not with an escort. I was walking when a portal appeared in front of me, and I stupidly walked into it.” She looked at me strangely. “Though I do not think I mind so much now.” I was sure I must be blushing, so I looked down at Isolia and scratched her head. She rolled her eye up to look at me, happy to have me back. I couldn’t say I disagreed.
“This silly dragon led me to a portal,” I said, “and I heard you yelling.”
She smiled. “You came to help me?”
“I didn’t know it was you, but yes.”
“You were brilliant in the camp.” This was unexpected, and I looked at her curiously, knowing my cheeks were red again. She explained. “I was frightened out of my wits, but you kept your head the whole time.”
“Thanks,” I said. What else could I say?
Kelvin, entering and setting three drinks down on the table, remarked, “I’ll sell those horses tomorrow,” settling himself into the vacant chair to my right. He was cradling his harp lovingly, and I could now see the intricate gold threadwork that spiraled up and down the black wood of the instrument. His eyes never strayed from it, and he continually stroked soft chords across its strings with his delicate hands. “You won’t need them,” he continued, “now that I have my harp.”
Haering looked up, fixing her gaze on the object in Kelvin’s arms. “Why?” she asked.
“This harp of mine, that your friend so kindly retrieved for me, is magical, like the other; with it I can send you anywhere you want to go.”
We both sat bolt upright and stared at him, all trace of weariness gone and our eyes alert. “Anywhere?” we echoed with one voice.
He narrowed his eyes, brows lowering. “Why? Where are you from?”
“Raharsaa,” I said.
“D’sh…” I think he was cursing rather vigorously, but I could be wrong. “You are joking me, I swear it.” He looked almost frightened.
“Both of you?” We nodded. “Who are you?”
“I am Haering, daughter of Hebald, crown princess of Kopier,” said her highness. Her tone was so casual, it was terribly regal.
Kelvin stared at me. “And you are…?”
“Just a rancher,” I laughed. “Tixi Pax, from the lowlands at Lottingdell-Roshwood.”
Kelvin shook his head, and downed his drink in one gulp. I had only sipped mine; it was not too bad. “I can’t thank you enough for getting my harp back,” the bard said, “but you must understand I’m not at all comfortable with people from Raharsaa.”
“I understand,” I said. “Perfectly. Just send us back and we’ll be fine.”
“First I want to give you this,” he said, gesturing to his old harp in the middle of the table. “It’s not much, but, hey, I don’t have anything else.”
“Um, thanks,” I said. “But won’t it give me flashbacks every time I play it?”
“Yes. And you can only come out of a flashback, before it’s over, if someone hits you or takes the harp away. That one makes you very sick. And only one song will never give you a flashback.”
“The one you played to stop the brigands,” Haering guessed.
“Most songs you play are very likely to give you a flashback. Only your True Song will give others a flashback instead of you. To find your True Song you must clear your mind of all other thoughts and look into your heart until your hands just play the right music. It is a great gift to know your True Song, but with this harp it can also be a great weapon.”
“Thank you,” I said, now more seriously. “That’s really great. So that was your True Song you played earlier.” I took the harp in my hands with a new respect for it. “I heard it somehow, even with these.” I handed the earplugs back to him.
“If you ever see me again, perhaps I’ll play it for you on this harp. I call it the Wind Ballad. One more thing — the True Song charm works only on human ears. Don’t forget that and try to use it on some wild animal that’s attacking you.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever use it,” I said.
“Is it all right if I send you home now?”
Haering and I both laughed in spite of ourselves. Taking a draft of whatever drink I had in my cup, I nodded, smiling. “Good luck in your new life,” I said.
“New life?” Kelvin looked confused.
“Not being a brigand anymore,” I explained.
He smiled, the warmest and most personable smile I’d seen from him. “You gave me that. Thank you. Take hands, and hold that dragon somewhere. I’m not sure if this will work.”
Blushing mightily, I took Haering’s hand, and put my other on Isolia’s back. “Goodbye, Kelvin,” Haering said. “I owe you my life.”
Kelvin gestured, whether at me or Isolia I couldn’t tell. “You owe her your life. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” I said as he started to play.
Music swirled around us, black and gold and warm, and we were falling, falling through the depths of gilded darkness, comfortable and happy, knowing that we were headed home.
We landed — it seemed like landing, anyway, gently and with no jarring — in the middle of a street that I recognized as being about ten miles from my ranch. And about thirty-five miles from Shoer.
I laughed out loud with pure joy at being home. “Looks like you’ve got your walk cut out for you,” I said to the princess, releasing her hand with a grin.
“Tixi, please don’t mention this Sharaani affair to anyone,” she said worriedly. Her face looked so serious! “Or at least, don’t mention me. I don’t know what the wizards would do to me if they discovered I’ve been to Sharaani and back; I don’t want my life ruined.”
I shook my head, brows lowered; I hadn’t thought of that. “All right,” I said, slightly downcast. Looking around for Isolia, I felt my legs telling me to walk towards home; there were still several hours before dusk, apparently, and I could make some progress before finding a place to sleep. But my mind and — yes, I’ll admit — my heart would not let me move. I just stood there like an idiot staring at Haering as if expecting something.
“Thank you for rescuing me,” she said.
“Kelvin did it, really,” I replied.
“Then thank you for helping Kelvin.”
“I was rescuing myself too, you know.” Why was I so stupid?
“Well, take this… as my royal thanks.” She held out a green and silver amulet on a thin chain, letting it dangle from the hand which was about as far from her body as it could be. How had she hidden this from the brigands…? Oh, Kelvin must have given it back to her before we left. I took it, thinking, Royal thanks? I’d rather have your personal thanks.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I suppose I will see you again sometime.”
“I hope so,” I couldn’t help but say.
Then she just turned and walked away. Just like that! I mean, it was, goodbye, goodbye, and then she was gone! Down the hill and out of my sight in an instant. Well, there is normalcy and there are conditions, I supposed glumly.
Feeling empty and alone and terribly depressed, I turned for home, curtly bidding Isolia follow.
I was lying on my back in the pouring rain, deafening thunder filling my ears and drowning out the rhythmic sound of my footsteps as the flashback faded. The harp held tightly in my arms, I sat up. I was literally soaked, covered in slimy mud from head to toe and shivering convulsively. I’d better find Isolia fast or these flashbacks were going to kill me. But why so many tonight?
I hadn’t played the harp much, though I knew it worked differently here than it had in Sharaani. I wished I could find my True Song and just stick to playing that. But that might cause trouble with the hired help. As if I didn’t have enough trouble with them threatening to quit if I ever disappeared like that again. For Shoer’s sake, it had only been a few days!
I climbed the fence, making it all the way over this time, and ran down the slope into the road. “Isohhhhhlia!” I called into the torrents that practically washed the syllables away from me, as if the roar of the storm did not already drown me out.
“Tixiiiii?” came a call through the rain. My heart fluttered — why did that voice sound so familiar? I pressed forward past all semblance of visibility and kept walking until I ran into a tree and realized I’d reached the other side of the lane.
“I’m here!” I called, clutching fiercely at my harp as another gust threatened to tear it from my hand.
“Where?” bellowed the faint voice. Instead of answering I made my way towards it, through the trees, over a fence, and into someone else’s pasture. Katzi Leiks’s, no doubt.
I almost ran into her arms, which would not have been the worst way to meet up with her. “Haering?” I gasped, totally inaudibly. I raised my voice. “What are you doing here?” I wondered how much she heard.
Her hair blew into my face as she leaned close to answer, but I only caught half the words. “I wanted… …see you again. But… …saw Isolia… …that way… …follow.” She raised an arm, which wavered in the wind. I seized the hand at the end of it and pulled her in the direction she’d indicated. We ran together, stumbling and swaying as errant gusts altered our course for us. Was it just me, or was that a light up ahead?
And here was Isolia before us, standing straight and unmoving through the storm. “Isolia!” I shrieked, barely able to be heard over the din that kept growing louder. As soon as the little wretch saw me, she turned and vanished into the storm. We took off after her again, I still holding Haering’s hand and trying to keep my harp at the same time.
It was a light. A purple light. Springing from the violet edges of a black rift in the pattern of space. All the noise and cry of the storm was sucked into it, and as we stood before it we could for a moment hear each other, arriving just in time to catch a view of Isolia’s tailparts disappearing into it.
“Wha–she’s gone in there!” cried Haering.
“Isolia, come back!” I called, but it was to no avail.
We looked at each other.
“Well?” queried the princess with a smile. The strains of the Wind Ballad seemed to echo around us.
I squeezed her hand, returning her smile, and with her stepped forward into a new adventure.
Somebody I knew rather casually online (Sati) had started a dragon-adoption site… you know, where you get a little .jpg dragon and it hatches and grows and stuff and everyone does a lot of free linking back and forth? Yeah. The premise of this site was that Gwen and Arran were far from home and needed help raising their young; from that I wrote this story, and it endures as something I really enjoy even years later, which is unusual for an original piece. There has been a sequel in the works for quite a long time, about Tixi’s equally-gay brother Saquell, but that will probably never see the light of day.