“Come forth, you rogue,” the prince called into the cave. “I have sought you long. Through misty moor and shattered heath, through songbird madness and blood-red dreams. I am Prince Towerlock of the Shining Kingdom, and I will not be denied.”
No answer came from the cave. The dark opening hummed with malicious thought and dim portent.
The prince stomped his foot in frustration and unslung his golden bow. From the quiver of white birch he pulled a single arrow. A sprig of blonde hair fell across the prince’s forehead and he sighed, then used the point of the arrow to smooth it back into place.
“Come forth, Wizard of Black!” the prince called again, taking aim in a fluid motion. “I cannot miss, even though you hide in shadows deep. Come forth or I will loose!”
A howl of frustration came from the cave. At once two plumes of grey smoke erupted on either side of the opening, and the wizard appeared.
The wizard wore black, as was appropriate. Red skulls adorned the sleeves; skeletal eyes shimmered with wicked glee. His beard was split into two long braids, each end tucked into a wide leather belt. Long, elegant hands clutched the air in wrath.
“I know you, Prince Towerlock — I know you and your bow that never misses. And I know why you have come, what you have come to ask of my Magic Most Foul,” the wizard boomed, grey smoke coiling around him.
“Yes, Sorcerer of Sorrows. I have traveled a thousand-thousand leagues in search of you. All alone I have sought you. Alone except for my will, my golden bow, my broken heart, my determination, my valor, and my manservant Humphrey,” Towerlock gestured toward a small cart behind him.
The cart was a low, two-wheeled rig. A coffin lay on the cart, artfully wrapped in blue satin ribbon. Humphrey was a white-haired man wearing a gravy-stained tunic. He quailed at the wizard’s fierce attention but managed to wave his hand politely.
“A cart pulled by an ass, ho ho!” The wizard raised his arms with a flourish. “Be careful, good Humphrey, lest your master whip you out of sorts on his fool errand.”
Prince Towerlock opened his mouth to retort but was halted by the black-robed mage’s next flourish which terminated in a bony finger pointed at the coffin. The prince also inhaled a bit of the gray smoke that lingered and had to take a moment to cough and wipe his watering eyes. The wizard waited, stroking one long beard-braid.
“It’s not an errand for fools!” the prince managed at last. “It is an errand of the purest sort. A quest of justice, a quest to beggar the imagination of a thousand bards — to drive them mad seeking the proper tune, the true melody, the holy quatrain that can contain its beauty. My quest is made for love. It is made of love. And no matter what dark arts you bring to bear, what evil you hide in your cave of shadows, what Magic Most Foul you hold in your hands — the power of love is greater.”
“Love, pfeh,” the wizard spat. “That is a strange magic, an old magic. I do not waste my time upon it. Enough idle words, Great Prince. Break open the long wooden box your old ass has hauled across the globe, unbind the ribbons damp with your foolish tears. Show me your Bride! For I know it is she that you carry all forlorn.”
Prince Towerlock marched grandly over to the cart, his handsome face wracked with sorrow. Humphrey had to skip out of the way to avoid being injured by the prince’s quiver.
The prince composed himself for a moment, his hands on the clean wood of the coffin. Then, with a grunt, he flipped the coffin to stand on one end. The cart had a cunning lever and fulcrum designed specifically for this purpose. Slowly Towerlock began to cut away the blue ribbons with his belt knife as he spoke.
“My beloved Key, brought low by a foul curse. Even as we climbed the stairs to our nuptial bower, her eyes bright with life and joy, her hand grew cold in mine and she slipped into a dreamless sleep. Her beauty and her breath stopped as still as a broken clock, as chill as winter’s heart. I laid her on a bier and pleaded. With her, with the gods, with the Thirteen Devils, with the inexorable turning of Fate itself. Nothing brought her back to me. The doctors and sages and wise men of the Shining Kingdom all wagged their heads in despair and told me to let her go, allow her to fall into the earth, into death’s embrace. But she did not decay! She stayed as beautiful and unspoiled as the moment she fell under the curse’s sway. As beautiful and pure as she appears before you now.”
The prince cut free the final ribbon and let it fall to the ground. He unfastened the brass clasps of the coffin and flung the lid open. The lid swung on silent hinges revealing the cursed bride within. Towerlock held the lid open with pride and looked at the wizard in defiance.
The wizard’s face was as white as a sheet. His hands moved uncertainly, shaking as they pointed at the bride. The manservant, Humphrey, leaned over and looked into the coffin — his eyes shot wide with panic.
The Sorcerer of Sorrow managed only a vague grunt of alarm.
Towerlock shook his head in irritation and took a step forward. “Err, yes! Yes, her beauty doth rob even such an evil one as you of the faculty for speech.”
“Dammit, Toby!” the prince’s manservant hissed. “Look at her!”
Prince Towerlock of the Shining Kingdom turned in confusion and looked full upon his cursed bride.
Blood. She was covered with blood. The blonde wig that she wore had come askew, and it appeared that she had vomited blood all down the front of her white gown. He could see her natural curly brown hair and the pronounced point of her ears that the wig normally hid. Her eyes were glassy and still; she breathed not at all.
“What? Darla?” He moved towards the coffin.
As if on cue, the body toppled forward and landed on the stage with a sickening smack. Blood splattered across Towerlock’s doublet, his manservant’s tunic, and the skull-ringed robe of the wizard. The Wizard of Black stumbled back in shock, accidentally knocking over his cave mouth — a simple construction of fabric, wire and slotted wood.
There was a moment of no breath followed by the startled scrape of chairs on the polished marble floor of the manor’s feasting hall. The silence was filled with angry and confused voices of many colors. The audience was small, an intimate dinner party. The players had been hired to entertain each evening in the lord’s house. They had performed two comedies the night before, a historical the night before that, and on their first night a crude farce and a pair of romances. Tonight was to be a simple adventure story. A simple fable of Good and Evil, the strength of True Love, and how shadows fall before the light.
The manservant Humphrey — who was neither — stepped close to the fallen bride, ignoring the slow seep of thickening blood that stuck to his boots. He felt vainly for a pulse in his actress’s neck but found none. The wizard was sitting on his toppled cave, eyes wide with confusion. The prince was vomiting loudly behind the cart. The man who was neither servant nor Humphrey sighed and looked out across the shadowed forms of the audience, the guests of the manor. Tonight was to be an adventure story — but now he did not know what kind of play he was in.
The House of the Heart-Broken Lion was the manor’s name in the common speech, and its lord was renowned both far and wide for his wealth and his knowledge. His guests clustered around speaking words of anger, concern and fear, demanding to know what had occurred. How murder could find its way within the stone walls of his house? The lord of the Heart-Broken Lion did his best to calm his guests and promise them answers, but his eyes were focused beyond them. Focused on the two strangers that sat at his table. Everyone within the hall was here at his employ or his invitation. Except for these two strangers, who arrived at his table tonight under the thinnest of pretenses.
Two strangers at his table. And now a murder.
One of the strangers, a young man with a square face, leaned over to the other. He whispered to his companion, face tight with concern.
The second stranger, a small young woman with a swath of bone-white hair belying her age, backhanded her companion’s shoulder without taking her eyes off the guests and the players. Her eyes moved from person to person, taking every detail in as if she meant to draw the scene from memory on her deathbed.
“Who are you?” Lord Bellwether asked, his voice quiet.
The two strangers were sitting across from his grand desk. It was all gleaming white, edged with gold. Behind them Funnicello crossed his thick arms in displeasure. The dwarf served as butler, chef, tailor, and sergeant at arms for his household.
The two young strangers exchanged glances. Lord Bellwether ran his eyes over their garb. Travel-stained tunic:, a ragged brown cloak with a hood on the boy, a wide-brimmed planter’s hat made of straw in the girl’s thin hands. They were both soaking wet, unsurprising as it had been raining for days. His dwarven butler held the only two things they had carried with them: a battered leather satchel, and a longsword with a wooden handle. In the middle of the performance the butler had heard the rude clamor at the great doors of the manor and had moved swiftly to silence it before the performance or his lord’s guests were disturbed. Funnicello had glowered up at the two water-logged travellers and dragged them in with a polite ferocity. Over the girl’s protestations he’d removed their gear and escorted them bodily to the banquet hall where he could keep an eye on them until his lord was free to deal with them. Two scenes later the bleeding bride hit the stage.
“I am sorry to have intruded at such a late hour, Lord Bellwether. We are newly arrived in Carroway and I have important business with one of your guests. My name is Rime Korvanus and this is my associate, Jonas,” the girl said with precision.
Korvanus? The name tickled his memory, but Bellwether could not place it. The girl’s demeanour put her as high-blooded.
“I know it must seem unlikely and strange our arriving moments before the body was discovered,” she continued, pushing damp white and brown hair out of her face. “But I’m certain you realize that very fact proves that we could have nothing to do with this incident.”
Bellwether sighed. “It proves nothing of the sort, young lady. We know very little about the circumstances surrounding this poor woman’s death. She died in my household – that is all that is certain. And I take the duties of a host most seriously.”
“We had nothing to–” Rime began.
“Please allow me to finish.” Bellwether stood and watched the rain batter against the wide bay window.
The window was sectioned with thick channels of iron, splitting the glass into a vast grid. Lightning flashed and he saw his reflection. A long face, auburn hair eroded by gray time, a thick mustache, split into four by the iron lines of the window. He waited five slow heartbeats before speaking again.
“Thank you for your courtesy, Lady Korvanus. Or would you prefer Doma?” Bellwether turned to see his butler doing his best to loom over the girl’s shoulder and prevent her from interrupting his master’s reverie. Her eyes were brittle with impatience. “Doma in the old speech, as is common in the Great Houses of Valeria. I apologize that it took me so long to place your family; your current attire and tonight’s events have clouded my perception.”
“Either is acceptable. I would prefer the customs of your house, as we are your guests, Lord Bellwether,” Rime replied.
Intelligent. Quick on her feet. How neatly she has evoked the guest-right, and tied my hands with the manacles of propriety. Bellwether nodded in approval.
“My House of the Heart-Broken Lion is far-removed from the streets of Carroway and the shields of the garrison. The dark forest that surrounds us offers a measure of peace and solitude, but it also teems with the dangers and perils of the wild. My household is small. Only I, my daughter, and Funnicello reside here. We take great care with our safety and even more care with that of our guests. My manor is built like a fortress, iron at every window and stone for every wall. The only point of entrance is the Lobby, two broad doors of darkwood and steel kept barred and locked at all times. The only keys reside safely on my person and on Funnicello’s chain.”
Bellwether pulled a golden key from his sleeve, securely tied to his wrist by a length of blue leather cord. It was of simple design, with the head of a lion etched in clear relief. The dwarf followed his master’s lead and pulled a chain of keys from his pocket. It took him a moment to rustle through the dozens of others that he carried, but in short order he displayed the lion key’s twin.
“I’m sorry, sir. Thank you, kindly,” the young man in the brown cloak said with uncomfortable deference. “But why are you telling us this?”
Rime sighed in embarrassment. “Because Lord Bellwether is trying to make it clear the predicament that we are in. The door to this manor is always locked. This means that no one can enter or exit without his knowledge. If the actress was murdered, then one of his guests is the killer.”
“And they are still here.” Lord Bellwether sat down at his desk again with weary calm. “I must find justice for that poor young woman, protect my guests, and discover the bloody hand in our midst. At dawn I will dispatch Funnicello to summon the Third Regiment from Carroway to conduct a thorough investigation. Until he returns, no one will leave this house. And I am afraid that includes you both, Lady Korvanus and Master…Jonas.”
“Oh, I’m no ‘Master’, sir,” Jonas apologized. “Just a simple squire.”
“A squire? Then where is your knight?”
“Ah…” Jonas’ mouth flopped open.
“He is on loan to my family,” Rime interjected calmly.
Bellwether peered at the young woman. He couldn’t discern whether or not she was deceiving him, but something didn’t ring true. “You said you had business with one of my guests?”
“A simple matter of some funds he holds in trust for me. I encountered some difficulties on my journey and have need to resupply and equip myself. Master Waters has been one of my family’s financial agents for many years,” Rime rose from her seat and Jonas awkwardly followed suit.
“Funnicello will show each of you to one of our guest rooms. I am afraid that my daughter is somewhat older than you, but I’m certain we can find some of her old clothes that would be appropriate. And I believe I have a spare tunic that might suit your associate.” Bellwether nodded to the dwarf, concluding the interview.
The dwarf ran a finger through his brush of a goatee and did little to hide his displeasure. He opened the door for the two travelers and shoved his vast chain of keys back into his pocket.
Rime stopped in front of the door and turned back towards the lord’s desk. “Thirteen. I counted thirteen, my lord. Is that correct?”
Lord Bellwether looked up from where his hand had come to rest on a book bound in blue leather. “Thirteen what, my lady?”
“Thirteen guests at the dinner. Four members of the players. You, your butler, and I assume your daughter sitting at your side. Six other guests beyond that. Master Waters, the trader. A priest of the Nameless God. A bard from Gate City. A Nai-Elf shaman. A wealthy woman in red. A Yad-Elf scholar. Is there anyone else in the house? Any other servants or visitors?” Rime asked, the list and questions filling the air with hungry order.
“Only you two,” Bellwether replied, bemused.
“I know that we didn’t do it,” Rime said.
This is the nicest shirt I’ve ever worn. Maybe touched. Maybe ever seen.
Jonas stared at himself in the mirror.
The shirt was a brilliant white, with black cord to lace up the front. Tiny lion heads were embroidered at the cuffs in black, the stitching so fine that each small tooth could be seen. The squire gingerly tried to push his curly hair into some sort of order, but gave up in defeat. Soft gray leggings had also been provided, along with an immaculate black vest dotted tastefully with round silver buttons.
Only his travel-worn leather boots remained and he had taken a few minutes to rub the grime off of them with a corner of the coverlet on the guest room’s wide feather bed.
He slid his hands down the fine fabric of the vest and turned sideways to admire the profile. Jonas attempted a florid bow, bringing his hand to rest over his heart.
“My Lord? My Lord. My Lady? My Lady. My Lady! My Lady? My Lord?” He punctuated each greeting in the mirror with another grandiose gesture.
“Having fun?” Rime asked from the door.
The squire froze. His eyes flicked up to the edge of the mirror where he could see her reflection.
Rime was wearing a simple blue dress with a high hem. It looked slightly juvenile as if intended for a ten year old. She had mitigated the effect with a white half-cloak. Rime turned to shut the door, and he could see a hood with a long black tassel nearly brushing the floor. Jonas turned to face her, hastily assembling the fragments of his dignity.
“I like the cloak. It goes with your hair,” he said. “Well, at least the new part.”
Rime scowled and tugged on the lock of bone-white hair. When they had met, her hair had been a light forgettable brown, but now a thick swath had been drained of all color.
“I’m glad you approve,” she deadpanned, scanning the room. “Where’s your sword?”
“Uhhh,” the squire began to cast around the room with chagrin.
She crossed her arms in disgust as he began tossing damp articles of clothing around the room in his search. He was pawing through the dripping mass of his travel cloak when she spoke again.
“The dwarf didn’t bring it. And you didn’t notice. We are locked in a house with a murderer, and you are too busy polishing your buttons in the mirror to notice that the only weapon we have wasn’t returned to you. You are proving to be an excellent guardian, Jonas of Gilead,” she plopped down on the wooden chair next to the dresser.
“Look, Rime, I’m sorry! But maybe it wasn’t a murder. Maybe the actress-lady just got sick, or something. And yeah, I feel really stupid about the sword, but you are a much better weapon if things get murderous.” Jonas tucked the beautiful shirt tail into his leggings to cover his absolute mortification.
I was trained better than this. Master must be rolling in his grave.
“If things get murderous. I’m a better weapon.” Rime didn’t snarl, but the squire still took a step back.
Rime was a wild mage. Jonas was still a little loose on exactly what that meant if he looked it up in a library or queried a scholar. He knew that most people who used magic were called wizards and went to school in a place called Valeria, where Rime’s family was from. He knew that they had different ways of making things happen, hundreds of years of study, whole libraries crammed with the rules and laws that governed the correct way to cast spells. And he knew that somehow Rime was different. Somehow Rime ignored all that. He had watched her do amazing things – impossible things – things that were beyond any wizard that he had ever heard of. He also knew that her magic hurt her. That it could kill her if she wasn’t careful. That her hair was white because she had gone too far. She had gone too far and saved both their lives.
The mage sighed and pushed the heels of her hands against her forehead. “It’s not that simple. We were in the wilds before: no witnesses. Now that we are in the city, no one can know what I am. I had to use my family’s name or Bellwether would have locked us in the pantry. As far as the world knows my father and brother are great wizards, and I’m the sad little bookworm deprived of any magical skill or aptitude. If these people discover the truth, we will have a host of problems. Master Waters will not release my gold, for starters. I don’t want to have the Third Regiment engaged to execute me, or my name hung on signposts from here to Gorah.”
“I didn’t know you had a brother,” Jonas offered.
“So I will use my magic only if there is no other option available or if I can do so without discovery. It would be best if we were on our way tomorrow before the Third arrives, the better to avoid inconvenient questions. We have tonight and however long it takes that dwarf to bring the garrison tomorrow. We must solve the murder and be on our way before then.” Rime punched her palm emphatically.
“Rime,” Jonas began, suspicion forming. “Are you…excited about this?”
“What?” Rime replied blandly.
“You just seem pretty excited. Like you’re enjoying this.”
“That is ridiculous,” she sniffed.
“Because that actress-lady is dead. I’m sure she was very nice and her friends are very sad.”
“Don’t patronize me, Jonas. I am not excited. This is just an obstacle in our way that I am working to remove in the most expeditious manner possible.” Rime stood up and straightened her cloak. “You worry about getting your sword back, and I’ll worry about solving this mystery.”
“Okay. I can handle that, I guess,” Jonas said.
“You talk to no one if you can help it. One of them is a murderer and all of them are not to be trusted. You are my manservant. You received your training in Valeria from my father’s house guard. You are not very bright, and talking to such grand lords and ladies makes you uncomfortable. Simple enough?” the mage instructed.
“My Lady. My Lady! My Lady?” The squire sketched out three increasingly absurd bows.
“And whatever you do–” Rime put two fingers on his chest just under his right collarbone. “Don’t mention that you’re from Gilead.”
“Weren’t you listening in Bellwether’s office?” Rime turned and opened the door. “One of the guests is a priest of the Nameless. It’s your religion, so that makes it very likely that he is from Gilead. I won’t pry again into your past there. I just don’t want it complicating our situation. Now come here.”
Jonas swallowed hard, the fine shirt at once feeling like sandpaper on his skin. Only one life is given… The prayer came to his mind unbidden. He walked over to the much shorter mage, where she bent his left arm into a crook. Rime placed her arm through his and squared her shoulders.
“Escort me to the parlor. Let’s go find a murderer,” the mage instructed.
The two travelers walked arm and arm out the door and down the grand hallway of gray stone and white marble.
The House of the Heart-Broken Lion was an egg – a granite-gray shell with a golden interior. When Rime and Jonas had finally topped the long winding hill that led to the front gates, it had seemed a rude beast — yellow eyes burning through the pouring rain. Sharp, triangular edges at the top of its main tower were echoed by flat lines along the shoulders of the great house. The dark forest surrounded it like a vast pelt, thorny-wicked and dense. The mage had not quailed at the monstrous edifice, only taking a long, calculating look back across the dark valley toward the distant lights of Carroway to the east. The squire had simply pulled his hood close around his head and stamped his feet with impatience.
A double dozen steps and a triple dozen knocks on the wide door and the rude dwarf had hauled them inside. Into the center of the egg, golden and white and gleaming. White columns with inlaid brass; a quiet edge of green verdigris left on the metal to subtly remind of the age and time that slept in the house. An ornate staircase descended on either side of the vast marble lobby.
And now they descended the same grand staircase of white marble wrapped carefully with a blue silk cord. Jonas’ gait was almost a march, but provided a suitable accessory for the effect Rime hoped to achieve. In the clamor and uproar of the play’s sudden finale she was certain that her attire and presence had gone mostly unnoticed. It was very important that she enter into this investigation on an equal social plane with the other guests.
She was very excited. The library of her mind whirred with activity and preparation.
Outside, her body glided down the stairs. One hand lightly clasping her escort’s arm, her face composed and wearing a reasonable approximation of demure. Inside her mind, she ran down row after row of books and scrolls, hands going eagerly to choice titles as she passed. Rime pulled the ones she needed and tossed them to the swarm of glowing green numbers that buzzed in her wake. The lambent numerals snagged them from the air but began to sag as the stacks grew taller. A grumpy looking seven dropped his burden with a clamor and floated away to sulk between the pages of a friendly story about cats and their affairs.
Rime directed the remaining numbers to place the books on a long table near the windows. She glanced out of them to see Jonas pulling at his collar, his thumb lingering on the black lion’s head embroidered at the lapel. “Someone likes being pretty,” she smirked.
The mage touched the spine of each gathered book. The Unusual Murder, Daggers in the Dark, The Horror of Marwell Abbey, Blood in the Crossroads. Rime had always thought that it should be ‘Blood at the Crossroads’. Sanguine Sundown, Inspector Kyng and the Hazaari Queen, Mother Goodbread and the Case of the Purloined Pups, Murder Most Dwarf, The Collected Evidence and Postulated Theories Regarding the Suspicious Events Surrounding the Death of Caliban Dragoon, Gate City Garrote, Thieftaker, Murder on the Lodestone. There were two dozen more, and she smiled a rare smile as she arranged them in reverse alphabetical order. The really interesting stuff was always near the end of the alphabet, and ‘A’ always seemed entirely too smug in her opinion.
Mystery books. They always began with a murder, then a clever investigator would appear on the scene to unravel the evidence, interrogate the suspects, and bring justice by the next-to-last chapter. The last chapter was usually a bore, just tying up loose ends or the investigator breaking things off with their paramour of the moment in a storm of tears and regretful glances at airship terminals. Rime usually didn’t bother reading the last chapter, once the mystery was solved she considered the book complete and avoided the ponderous fluff at the end, leaving it for its intended audience: dowagers, dullards, and dreamers. This errata was not what attracted her.
The puzzle. The questions. The surprise, the chase, the truth shining in the dark. The investigator clasping hands behind his back as the suspects gathered in the parlor; his voice quick and clean as he laid out the evidence and revealed the killer’s identity. The books in her head were exact replicas of the books in her father’s library and the few she had gleaned from passing scholars, family friends, and her venomous tutor. The mystery books had been few and far between, deemed ‘pulp trash’ by the sage and ‘ridiculous nonsense’ by the learned. Rime had resorted to rifling through the servant’s quarters in her quest for more, ghosting through her father’s house in the middle of the night then dashing back to her room to feverishly cram the new mystery text into her mind. She always tried to return the book before dawn, its content safe forever in her mental library.
The mage turned to a large chalkboard that waited in the clear space near the eye-windows, the white reading stool adjacent. She took one more quick glance outside. They were approaching an ornate archway, the sound of several voices arguing from within. “Not much time,” she said and picked up a long piece of chalk.
With deliberate haste she made thirteen columns on the chalkboard. The board was originally only wide enough for nine, but extended itself obligingly when needed. At the top of each column she wrote the name of each guest she knew or the quick descriptor she had assigned in her earlier survey.
Funnicello, the Rude Dwarf
Rime frowned for a split second, then wrote across the first three columns HOUSEHOLD.
The next six columns she used for the official guests.
Master Waters, the Trader.
Priest of the Nameless.
Wealthy Woman, Red Dress.
The last four columns remained for the performers. Rime wrote PLAYERS in block letters at the top.
Black Wizard [?].
Toby, the Hero.
Darla, the Damsel.
The mage stepped back to admire her handiwork. The structure comforted her with its thin lines separating each suspect. It was a possibility that Bellwether had lied or been unaware, but for now she would assume that his words were sound. These were the only people in the house; no one else had come or gone. One of these people was the murderer.
One last addition, a chalk slash through the Damsel. Twelve suspects remaining. She would fill these columns with evidence, with facts, with the truth. She would solve this mystery long before the Third Regiment arrived, conclude her business with Master Waters, and be on her way. The puzzle would lay defeated behind her.
Rime turned from the chalkboard and left her library, back to the physical world. She and Jonas stepped through the archway and the hum of voices went quiet.
She was very excited.
The grumpy seven floated out of the children’s book with a shudder. There are only so many cat antics that a prime number can stomach. The other numerals cavorted near the windows, buzzing over the mystery novels and considering the list of suspects with airs of studious curiosity. The seven floated the opposite direction with sour disdain, toward the edge of the library.
It settled on the end of a bookshelf and looked out into the dark. Things moved beyond the light of the library. Large shapes made of teeth and scales and cicada-chitter. Madness walked beyond the library and waited.
The seven yawned with scratchy boredom and flopped over for an impromptu nap.
Jonas tried not to stare – at the room, at the seven people gathered around some finely appointed couches and divans, at the table piled high with cheese, meat, and other oddments that made his stomach moan – but most of all he tried not to stare at the princess.
She floated towards him. Well, she was floating towards him and Rime, but he was positive that her eyes were fixed on his fancy new shirt. The other people in the room faded into obscurity and the squire wished desperately that he had his sword. Partly from a knee-jerk terror, but mainly because he was certain he’d cut a more dashing figure that way.
The princess approached.
She was blonde-strawberry, not the common reverse. Her gown was distinctly a gown, and the fabric was a color. She smiled, and Jonas realized his brain had deserted him.
She had a tiny scar on the bridge of her nose, and her eyes were also a color.
“Welcome!” the princess said. “My father has asked me to entertain our guests while he and Funnicello see to the security of the manor. I am afraid I have shared your names and a tiny part of your tale with the other guests. All of us were understandably alarmed after what happened during the play, and I wanted to reassure them that you were not strangers and could not have caused this awful event. Please forgive my lapse in courtesy.”
She inclined her head in apology, a stray curl falling across her forehead. Her eyes are…green? Blue? Is light a color? Jonas thought in desperation. Oh no, she’s looking back up–!
“It is no lapse to comfort your guests, Lady Bellwether,” Rime said. “I completely understand.”
I don’t understand. What is happening to me? Jonas shifted nervously but found his movement halted by the mage’s fingers pressing firmly into his forearm.
“Oh, please don’t stand on formality, Lady Korvanus,” the princess winced. “I’m so bad at this! Here I am asking you not be formal with me, but then I call you by your proper title. Just call me Neriah. Even Neri would be better.”
“That is just fine, Neri. And you can call me Rime if you would be so kind.”
“And your guard only goes by Jonas, so no way I can mess that up,” Neri laughed with relief. “I’m afraid I must seem like a country girl to you. Compared to your city of Valeria this must be like a trip to the dark side of the globe.”
She…she said my name. Jonas felt his stomach fold over and he moved to flee the parlor. Rime’s fingers dug in like a rake’s teeth.
“Not at all,” Rime said airily. “My guard was just leaving to take his customary place near the window. It’s part of their training to keep an eye on the surrounding terrain, having all exits and entrances from the room in clear view. I’m afraid his training doesn’t cover much in the way of etiquette.”
The mage removed her hand from his arm and gave the squire a subtle push.
Are they brown? Light brown? No, her eyes are darker than that.
Rime sighed and gave him a much less subtle shove.
“Now, if you would be so kind. Could you please introduce me to the other guests? It seems we must spend some time together and it would be best to spend it in the company of new friends.” The mage took Neriah’s arm and nearly dragged her away from the entrance.
“Of course, Lady Rime! It would be my pleasure, and–” she looked back over her shoulder in a flash of blonde-strawberry curls. “–your guard can help himself to any of the refreshments. We don’t have any servants but Funnicello, so we don’t stand on a lot of ceremony. I hope you won’t find us rude, Rime.”
“Not at all, Neri. Not at all.” The mage’s voice fluttered with false bird-sound then faded as the two women moved away towards the other guests.
Jonas stood where he had been left like a mushroom flicked from a cutting board for having a bad spot.
“My name is Jonas. It’s nice to meet you, Neriah,” he said to his princess’ back.
After a few minutes of blank time his brain reported back for duty and his stomach moaned. He took Rime’s advice and moved to a window where he could see the whole room, snagging a tray of cheese and bread on the way. He munched disconsolately. Out the window the rain and dark revealed nothing but the watery outline of the distant trees.
Rime added information to the column freshly labeled ‘Neriah’ on her mind’s blackboard with quick strokes. Lord’s daughter. Mother dead or absent. Pretty.
Why had she written that? The mage considered Neriah again. She was attractive; Jonas transforming into a songstruck cow was evidence enough of that. Her face was wide with frank lips and a few stray freckles, and her hair seemed to curl without artifice or rancor. Rime estimated that Neriah was only a few years older than her. The mage found herself gazing at the older girl’s pleasantly curved chest with a vague sense of unease.
“I’m so glad to have someone here closer to my age,” Neriah’s bosom confided. Rime corrected her vision upwards. “Father’s guests are very nice, but they’re a little difficult to talk to about girl stuff.”
“I completely understand,” the mage made herself smile and pour more sparkling glitter and lamp oil into her speech. “I am pleased too. Do you know the other guests very well – are they common visitors here?”
Rime despised conversation without purpose, but she had to admit that slipping into the elevated vernacular her despised tutor had drilled into her contained a surprising appeal. She felt like Mother Goodbread, affecting the speech and manner of a simple country woman to allay suspicion while she teased information from her unsuspecting quarry. At the end of the book, the murderer’s rage upon realizing the old woman’s steely intellect and how easily she had manipulated the situation always gave Rime a small, fierce smile. Now she could do the same, pretend to be a vapid young noble far from home, cordial and curious and eager to hear the guest’s tales. Every conversation could contain evidence – clues – to help her unravel the mystery.
“Only dear old Trowel and Master Waters. Trowel is a scholar and comes here often to use my father’s library, and Master Waters conducts some of my father’s financial affairs. But let me introduce you officially!” The two young women had arrived at the far end of the parlor.
Three people sat on a low divan. The scholar, the trader, and the sea-elf looked up at her with curiosity. Rime made note of the others in the room. The woman in red sat alone sipping her wine with the quick motions of anxiety. The bard stood with his back to the room, a floor-length coat of cobalt blue shining with reflected lamplight. He seemed to be leaning over something, his shoulders arched oddly. From a nearby open case she surmised that he was fiddling with his instrument. The priest was nowhere to be seen.
Trowel was a plump Yad-Elf with gray hair twisted into a tidy bun. Her ears came to slim points that curved slightly around her head. She wore a brown coat that seemed large even on her generous frame. “Ah, our new guest! I’m so sorry that you have arrived under the auspices of such a horrendous event. Are you familiar with the word ‘auspice’ child?”
“She is,” Neriah said with a practiced haste. “She is from Valeria after all, some of the finest schools in Aufero.”
The older girl gave Rime a sideways grin. Trowel’s face seemed to manifest a pair of brass spectacles as her plump hands erupted from her sides, placed the lenses on her broad nose, and went to dancing in the air.
“Ah, Valeria! Home of the Archivus Eldracon. Many of my colleagues argue that it is the finest library in the world, though I personally lean towards the Primex Loghain in Pice because of their expansive collection of primitive texts. Actual scrolls, tablets, even part of a Precursor ring excavated from near–” As Trowel’s hands soared with mounting enthusiasm, the blue-skinned sea elf adjacent rolled her eyes and reached for the cheese tray.
“This is Lady Rime Korvanus,” Neriah blurted. “I believe she is already known to you, Master Waters, but I wanted to introduce her to Scholar Trowel and to Coracle. Coracle is a shaman for the Nai-Elf Dragonfish Tribe.”
Coracle popped the last morsel of cheese from the tray in her mouth and stood. She bowed and the bones and shells knotted in her hair rattled as she moved. White silk wound around her body in intricate knots. Rime could see in the elegant blue of her skin markings and whorls of darker flesh. Tattoos perhaps, or are they naturally occurring? Nai-Elves were a reclusive race, rarely bothering to emerge from their ocean home. What is she doing in Bellwether’s manor?
“Winds and waves and the spirits of the lost. Banu bless your journey, your memory, your spear, and your fertility.” The shaman pulled a small vial of white sand from her belt and sprinkled it liberally in the air around both Rime and Neriah. The sea-elf reached out with both hands and seemed to grip the air that the sand fell through, and her head reeled back, transfixed. Rime started to say something but was immediately forestalled by Neriah’s quick gesture and Trowel’s imperious shush. They both seemed enthralled by the shaman’s trance; the mage bit her tongue and tried to brush the sand off her cloak surreptitiously.
Coracle sat back down next to the scholar, clattering. Rime blinked and looked to Neriah for a cue. The young noble shrugged and reached over to assist the mage in getting the sand out of her long hood. Rime decided that the shaman must have done this to each guest and no one had yet mustered the temerity to question the practice.
“Thank you for that…” dusting? The mage searched for a proper euphemism. “…greeting, Shaman Coracle. I’m afraid I know so little of the Sea-Elves, perhaps you could teach me of your religious traditions, tribal practices, and–”
Coracle’s eyes narrowed slightly. The shaman shrugged with mystical patience and went back to her cheese tray.
Am I going too far? My voice is getting so high pitched, I sound like a flash terrier. Rime berated herself. She turned to the trader to cover her misstep.
“It has been some time, Master Waters. How are you?”
The trader was an ink-quill. Thin, black, and bristly at the top. He had attempted to fold himself up properly on a nearby ottoman, but his long legs still bent in half like an awkward arachnid. He frowned in response, sourly collecting some words in his mouth before begrudgingly pushing them out the slot.
“Doma Korvanus. I am well. Your trip, successful?”
“Quite,” Rime replied. If you consider a prolonged period of being death-adjacent punctuated by discomfort and pain successful. All to discover the thing you’ve sought for years – the thing that you were so certain would save you – was a foolish fantasy.
“Your gold. It is safe in my counting house.”
“We will speak more of this later.” Waters closed the iron vault of his mouth.
“Absolutely.” Rime did enjoy conversation with the taciturn trader.
The mage turned back to the two elves on the divan and smiled. “I’m sorry to discuss business. I did encounter some difficulty on the final leg of my journey, and Master Waters is holding the balance of my travel expenses.”
Coracle waved a hand in disinterest, but Trowel perked up at the word ‘journey’.
“Where were you traveling, child?” The wood elf had wide eyes; an errant strand of gray hair flopped between them as she leaned forward. “Please be as specific as possible. The history of this land is filled with secrets both shallow and deep. Did you pass any Precursor sites? Perhaps some Dwarven constructions?”
I am terrible at talking. I’m supposed to be finding out about them, not prompting questions about myself.
“Some family friends a few days journey to the north. It was lovely to meet you, Lady Trowel and Lady Coracle. I’m sure we’ll have more time to talk later. Neriah, let’s go.” Rime scooped up the blonde girl’s elbow and set a course for the anxious woman in the red dress. The less people know about me the better. I don’t want questions hunting me when it is time to leave. I’ll come back to these three when the attention is off me.
“Thanks for saving us,” Neriah snickered. “When Trowel gets wound up, it’s best to get out of the way as quickly as possible. She’s in rare form ever since her presentation last night.”
“Oh, I didn’t go. I stayed in my room and read. She found some relic on her last expedition.”
“I see. I’ll have to ask her about it later. I find matters of history interesting.” The Trowel column on Rime’s mental chalkboard began to gather notes. “Though I will make sure I have a chair ready and some free time.”
Neriah laughed as they approached the next guest.
The woman in the red dress was staring into her nearly empty wine glass, eyes unfocused. It afforded the mage a moment to inspect the woman’s fingernails. They were painted a ceremony-shade of violet. Rime’s sharp eyes picked out some flecks on the left ring finger and pinky that appeared to be tooth marks. What do you have to be so nervous about? The woman was fine boned and thin, her face drawn in acute angles.
“Lady Karis? I’m sorry to bother you, but I wanted to introduce our newest guest.” The blonde girl gave the mage’s name and Rime inclined her head.
Karis’ eyes came into focus and stared at the mage intently. Her gaze spoke of a natural sense of humor that had been brutally murdered behind a shed in her formative years. “Another buyer? A representative from the Orvales?”
“I’m sorry, I am afraid you are mistaken. A buyer for what?” Rime’s curiosity growled, but she kept her tone level.
Karis smiled and put her wine glass down on a table, delicate and precise. Her hair was dark brown, and her eyes were purple. The irises matched her fingernails if not her dress. Her age was unclear to Rime, somewhere in the wilderness between youth and middle age. “I see. I am interrogating a child. That is where I am at. That is the fact that I am presented with.”
“Please, Karis. I’m sure that what we all just saw has upset you, but there’s no need…” Neriah began.
“My apologies. I need more wine. This wine is less than satisfactory. Excuse me, ladies.”
Karis rose and stalked away with a slight wobble in her gait. Neriah grimaced and watched her go. “She arrived before the rest of the others last week, so I had a day or so to get to know her. She’s really not that bad, just crazy wound-tight. Everyone is here to bid on the relic that Trowel found and I’ve gathered that she’s under some intense pressure to win the auction. She is an agent for Seafoam Trading Company.”
Rime’s chalk danced. Relic. Auction. Bidding. Motive? She was already familiar with the Seafoam Trading Company, a merchant conglomerate mainly concerned with airship travel and ocean freight. They were at the forefront of Precursor research, using rediscovered technology to power their ships, to make them faster and more efficient than any other in the world. Their corporate headquarters was in Gate City, outposts in most major trade hubs, and an expansive research site in Kythera, the ruined capitol city of the Arkanic civilization. Rime had devoured a travelogue describing some of the ruins and there had been expansive footnotes about the STC as they had underwritten the publication.
“This is a strange group to all be here to purchase the same object.” The mage looked around the room. “You have no idea what it is?”
Trowel is interested in Precursor artifacts and sites. The Seafoam Trading Company is very interested in Precursor artifacts and sites. She switched to red chalk in her mind and drew a bold connecting line.
“Oh, Trowel explained it to me once over dinner a few nights ago. She lost me about two paragraphs in, partly because of, well Trowel. But also because I was seated next to Geranium that night.” Neriah gave an appreciative sigh.
“Geranium?” Rime said distantly, completing her internal notes. Don’t jump to conclusions. Meet all the suspects. Objectivity is key. Her instructions were sound, but her hand had a lot of red chalk dust on it as she returned from her mental library.
“Oh, no. You haven’t met him yet. I saved him for last. The best for last.” Neriah carefully pushed her long blonde curls over her shoulder and tugged at the front of her dress. “Do I look okay?”
“I guess?” Rime hazarded. “What’s so special about this Geranium?”
“You’ll understand as soon as you meet him. I am so glad that there’s another girl here now who can fully appreciate him.” The older girl straightened and gently took Rime by the shoulders. “Let’s go meet a god.”
This is the best cheese. I can’t remember ever having better cheese than this.
Jonas had attempted to remain vigilant at his post, but after his first bite the storm of flavor had completely distracted him. It had even temporarily pushed the princess out of his thoughts. He was engaged in scraping the tips of his fingers across the plate to gather the tiny morsels of cheese that remained when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
He spun around in alarm and stared at the Past.
The Past wore a black cassock and an amused smile. His gray hair had abandoned the top of his head and was establishing its last line of defense just above his ears. On his chest a blue circle was stitched,three blue swords crossed within.
Rage. Fear. Despair. The three weapons of the human soul. Bound in a thin circle of Valor. This is Faith, my son. The words came unbidden to the squire’s mind.
“Hello,” the priest said, then pointed at the empty tray Jonas clutched. “Good cheese here, right?”
The squire did his best to swallow and nod emphatically. “Yes. Yes, Father.”
“Ah, are you a follower of the Nameless? Most of the other guests here go to great lengths to avoid calling me ‘Father’. ‘Master Gallowglass’ or ‘Andrew’. That’s the best I can expect from this pack of heathens.” The priest grinned and slanted his eyebrows towards the rest of the room.
“Oh. Heathens, right.” Stupid, stupid, stupid. The one thing I’m supposed to do is not let people know that I’m from Gilead. Jonas waved his empty tray around, vainly looking for a place to stash it. He finally settled for tucking it under his arm.
“I’m sorry, son. I didn’t mean to catch you off-guard.” Father Andrew folded his hands together. “I was just excited to meet a new guest here. It’s been a long few days of being patted on the head by the more worldly members of our company.”
The priest reached over and pulled the tray gently free from Jonas’ armpit.
“Scholars and wizards and businessmen. A bunch of sharp knives that like to think a man of the cloth is a dull spoon. As if faith was a feature of a weakened brain,” Father Andrew snorted.
“My father is from Gilead — he taught me the Faith.” Jonas blurted. The squire had heard somewhere that lies were best if they were close to the truth. What did Rime tell me to say? What was the name of her home town? “I grew up in Valeria. I’m Lady Korvanus’ manservant.”
He almost sighed in relief but caught himself. He had managed to repeat what Rime had told him to say and cover the mistake about his religion. See, I can do this spy-stuff.
“Manservant?” the priest cocked an eyebrow. Jonas realized that Father Andrew used his eyebrows like battle flags signaling the march of his thoughts. “You seem more like a house guard that’s been stuffed into a dandy costume. The buttons on your vest are all crooked, and most gentlemen don’t tuck their shirt only in the front.”
Jonas looked down in horror. The bottom of his vest gaped, a spare button shining in the lamplight. He had been so proud of his reflection in the mirror; how could he have missed this?
Father Andrew chortled and tucked the cheese tray under his arm. With a grandfatherly air he nimbly undid the buttons as the squire’s face burned with embarrassment. Jonas risked a quick glance back towards the other guests. Everyone’s attention seemed to be focused on Rime. She and the princess were moving towards the tall man in the blue coat.
“Just a little moment of humility, son. The Nameless sends me plenty, I assure you. They are reminders of our simple natures, deflate our pride. They are healthy and harmless and help us remember to show kindness when we witness others in their own tiny moments of shame.” The priest smiled as he fastened the last silver button. He handed the cheese tray back to Jonas with calm deference.
“Thank you, Father.” Jonas turned his back to the wall and shoved the errant shirt tail down the back of his leggings as stealthily as he could manage.
“Nothing to it. Now that you are properly chastised and attired, shall we exchange formal introductions? As you may have gathered, I am Father Andrew Gallowglass, a simple Shepherd of the Nameless from Corinth.”
Corinth. The capitol city! I must be careful. He may have heard about the trial and Master. He considered offering a fake name but didn’t trust his fledgling skills at deception. And after all, his name was as common as dirt in Gilean families. “Jonas is my name, sir. It’s nice to meet you.”
Plus, I’d probably forget whatever made-up name I said.
“Walk on, Jonas, that the Nameless may see your path.” Father Andrew bowed his head after saying the old blessing.
The squire wondered how long it had been since he’d heard the old words. Weeks? Months?
“Only Once.” The words came as if from a stranger’s lips.
“Only Once,” the priest echoed with a trace of surprise. “Your father taught you well.”
Jonas nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“We must find a time to pray together.” Father Andrew’s eyebrows waggled with elation. “A shepherd doesn’t feel right without a flock to tend.”
The tall man in the blue coat was standing with his back to the room, in front of a window filled with night and rain. Rime meticulously noted the fine material, the deftly stitched buckles and piping, the high collar studded with machine-forged snaps. The bard was still hunched over his instrument, his shoulders and arms tight with concentration. All at once he relaxed. His head straightened first, revealing a brush of cotton-candy hair floating over dark skin the color of coffee. The neck of his guitar appeared, cradled by his left hand. He wore a pink, fingerless glove that matched the shade of his hair with mathematical precision. The bard’s fingers tightened on the strings of his guitar and an expectant vibration filled the air.
“Oh,” Neriah sighed. “This is my favorite part.”
The strings yowled and dipped into a steady beat. A melody skipped into view and began to unfold itself like a tiger stretching, low and hungry. Then the tall man turned to face the room.
Rime watched her thoughts turn into letters made of glass. He is beautiful. So beautiful. The bard’s eyes were closed as he turned, lips pursed as his hands flew across the guitar strings. His face was thin and sharp. Nose, cheekbones, chin all drawn with a razor — the face of a cat, fine and precise. Cinnamon coffee, the expensive kind, Rime amended. The parlor grew still as the bard opened his eyes and sang.
His eyes were the same color as his hair and his gloves, though they seemed to shine brighter than the lamplight.
Watch all this wither
Watch as we gather
the leaves and grass
and broken things
and three-cross kings,
we sleep in the heart
we wait in the dark
until the cobblestones give way…
Watch all that glitters
Watch all that stains
the sun shines on the city
but tomorrow will rain
but tomorrow will rain
we dream in the earth
we dream of the sky.
Green bone and promise
even blue dreams can die.
When the cobblestones give way
When the cobblestones give way…
The music grew in concentric circles, rippling through the parlor. Rime’s temples itched as she sensed the bard’s magic at work. She had read several books concerning the strange manner in which the bards of Gate City had learned to harness magical energy in the form of music, but this was her first opportunity to witness it.
The melody and lyrics were mournful and odd, but the tall man’s voice rang with easy sincerity and joy. His voice was higher than she expected but clean and true.
“Isn’t he amazing?” Neriah whispered. Rime could only nod in agreement.
The bard sang a final verse, then let his fingers fly across the guitar strings as he brought the song to a close. The guitar itself was a gleaming ebony with white inlay that appeared to be some sort of bone. The pressure in the mage’s head increased as the musical spell began to resolve. What is he doing? All spells have a purpose, a function. What is he trying to do?
The guitar sang out, and the bard added his voice again in final harmony. The notes faded away into silence, and the pressure in Rime’s head vanished. A smattering of applause came from Trowel and Coracle; the others in the room simply nodded with appreciation.
“Lady Rime, I am most pleased to present our honored guest–” the older girl gushed.
“Geranium.” Fluorescent pink eyes flashed and a fluorescent pink glove took Rime’s hand. “Geranium the Eruption.”
Rime blinked once. The bard was extremely impressive, but she would not allow herself to be overwhelmed as the blonde girl was. Not by his music, not by his unknown magic, not by his perfectly symmetrical cheekbones.
“I enjoyed your song very much, Geranium the Eruption. Lady Neriah tells me that you are a bard of great renown. Are you putting us all under an enchantment?” The mage did her best imitation of a winsome smile.
Geranium laughed and flew through a sudden chord on his guitar. “Nothing so grand, kitten. Nothing so grandiose. Just a simple song.”
Rime’s eyes narrowed. I know you did something.
The bard let his ebony guitar fall and it hung in the air, as certain as a hummingbird. She saw that there was no strap holding it in place.
“The shadows hang, kitten. They hang on us all after seeing such a sight, a sight of horror. My song, my simple song. It lets you feel the shadows’ weight and nudges you to step out from under them,” Geranium said.
The blonde girl leaned in eagerly, hanging on each word. Rime realized Neriah’s fingers were digging into her arm. I don’t know which is more irritating: her fingernails or that ridiculous explanation.
The mage pried herself free from the older girl’s grip and took a step closer to the bard. Geranium smiled wide — a cat looking down on a canary. He is very pretty, Rime admitted to herself.
“What brings you here? The auction, I presume?” She kept her face still.
“Of course, kitten. The technology at work in the Sound Crystal would be immensely valuable to the Symphony. Are you planning on buying it out from under us?”
Sound Crystal. That’s what they’re all here to buy. More chalk danced in her head.
“Perhaps,” she replied nonchalantly. “I know I missed Scholar Trowel’s presentation, but I’m hoping to convince her to give me an abbreviated glimpse.”
“It was remarkable. Even if I am not successful in the auction, it was worth the trip alone to hear such an amazing thing.” Geranium turned to put his guitar away, ebony instrument floating obediently towards its case at a simple gesture. “Sounds from a forgotten age, kitten. Worth much travel, and even the horrible sights we have seen this night.”
Doesn’t seem too shaken up by the murder, for all his words of horror and terror. ‘Sounds from a forgotten age’? I need to find out what that means, but I can’t show too much interest. Also, it should probably bother me that he keeps calling me ‘kitten’, but it really doesn’t. What does that mean?
“Ah, you have reminded me. I had hoped to visit the Players and offer my condolences. They, of course, are struck the hardest by this foul happening. Neriah, would you be so kind as to take me to them?” Rime turned to the blonde girl.
“Huh, what?” Neriah said, her eyes glassy and wide, reflecting Geranium’s tall form.
“The Players. I want to visit them. To tell them I’m sorry for their loss.” Rime grabbed the older girl’s arm and spun her away from the bard.
“Oh, okay.” The blonde’s eyes still trailed back towards the shining blue coat, but her faculties seemed to return as Rime increased the distance between them and Geranium.
The mage shot a glance toward her guardian. He was refilling his plate, while carrying on a lively conversation with the priest of the Nameless. Rime let her nails scratch down the chalkboard of her mind to unleash her frustration. She snapped her fingers until Jonas finally looked up with a guilty expression. He said his farewell to the priest and lumbered over. His eyes came a little unfocused as he approached Neriah. The blonde girl nodded politely, but she still beamed across the parlor towards Geranium.
She took Neriah’s arm gently and indicated to Jonas with a stern expression that he should follow them.
The main doors lead back into the lobby of the manor and the grand double staircase. The mage lead her small entourage towards a single door on the north wall that, according to her quickly expanding mental map of the House of the Heart-Broken Lion, would lead to the banquet hall where the performance of Towerlock’s Travels had ended so abruptly.
Rime made note of all of the information she had gathered on the chalkboard of her mind but refrained from drawing any conclusions as yet. It was time to meet the Players.