Ah ... what do I say? Well ... all I can really say that if you are still reading this fan-fiction then you have my undying gratitude. I started to write this story when I first started to read the original Abhorsen trilogy, which was a while ago. (high school in fact). I can't believe how busy I have been since then. First it was university, and now it's work. Its getting increasingly hard to spare some time in order to write. So I apologize if any of you have been waiting. Actually, when I look back at my earlier work, I do shudder somewhat. I can't believe what a hodgepodge of thoughts and ideas it all was! Even my writing was, to put it mildly, somewhat lacking. I wish I could go back and change all of that. It's kind of embarrassing actually ... but I don't think I will. I think it serves as a reminder of past times. Quite a tie down to reality, actually.
To all my readers who have given a review and encouraged me to write more, I cannot thank you enough. It is because of you all that I can hunt and scavenge some time to write something, anything, without any monetary incentive - lol ... as you start taking steps through the adult 'corporate' world, monetary incentive becomes more of an necessary ideal than the dismissive claims of an exuberant teenager, filled with grand dreams. It does feel good to do something - just because I can - without any schedules, guidelines, etc., etc.
I would like, however, to make a special dedication of this chapter, to one fan whose constant encouragement, correspondence has been instrumental in getting my butt into gear and start writing. A very special thanks goes to BookWormTiff. This chapter is dedicated to this amazing person.
I hope you like this new chapter. Please send me your thoughts. I like to hear anything you may have to say.
Lirael's Last Peal – Act I
'CARMINA'S KEY LOCKET'
"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you."
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Chapter 4: Est Affectus
Steam, thick and roiling rose out of a merrily singing chute which was blackened with soot and tarred oil, a sign of recent and often use. The exhaust vents which were equipped to muffle the chute's rather strident tones, rattled unsteadily atop a brass drum covered with eerily flickering gauges, pressure meters and a thousand other paraphernalia sticking out in every which direction. Some of the pipes and wires were so long entangled that their beginning and their end could no longer be distinguished; each rose to towering heights above the poor shivering drum which looked ready to burst. Where they presumably joined the lost ceilings above … although that too would also be hard to discern; the thoughtful lack of well lit lanterns gave birth to a gloom that had swallowed everything higher than two lengths of man. Of course if the room - or dungeon depending on the mindset of the person and definitely on their present mood - were to be judged, it wasn't a very cheery sight; what with a thousand sets of strange looking instruments that lay scattered around the floor, some driven into the floor, others just lounging about on the absolutely reliable edge of a rumbling stove.
The tools alone would have scared any randomly inquisitive person, who perhaps was more curious than normal, as a garish sign painted on the door outside loudly proclaimed imminent possibilities of bodily harm inflicted on intruding persons. And if the tools did not frighten, then certainly the large stone tables should have, etched with strangely glowing symbols and burning glyphs that flickered now and then out of sight as if with will – which put into image a demented gaoler's or a grand Inquisitor's room of nocturnal joy. But all of this strangeness … especially the taunting sign outside, meant that it provided a perfect place for more than a few to wonder and fantasize what darkness and mystery went on the other side of the door. Some would dream up a masked demonic necromancer working on his damned spells, and all those who had proclaimed their thoughts aloud would shiver happily … never having seen an actual Necromancer and too ignorant of the actual brutality of their many ceremonies. Then too were the many … more cautious of the lot, who'd have a second of respite to think about the actual possibility of a true Necromancer inside the domain of the High King, which brought many a moment of desperate thought and anxiety.
After all, fantasy and reality often mingled here in the City Regnum - Belisaere, and in many cases reality was far harsher than what fantasy could ever dredge up. And so, the inevitable would occur - the crowd would dispel, dark mutterings following the dispersing crowd, speaking of possible darker things than necromancy. That is not to say any of them truly knew what could possibly be darker and evil than necromancy itself.
But the important thing was: they left the door alone. They damned well left the door alone.
A shame really, since the beauty of the doors in interest were nothing short of spectacular, and in reality had more of mystery and whispered 'magic' in it then visible to an untrained eye - untrained in that it was unable to look past crafty illusions of deeply carved, intersecting swirls and edges that were etched impressively into the dark wood. Therein, flowing within the darkness of the wood, a rapid cascade of Charter marks and Cantrips easily distracted the mind that was not used to such subterfuge. For those who had been trained to look past such traps, there existed far greater powers embedded within the mostly decorative charter marks idly wandering up along the door-sides reaching higher than two tall men atop of each other. Powers that would induce the overly insistent minds to other matters, such as the dire possibility of a burning oven back at home, or an object of immense value lost that would be mysteriously be forgotten once the over-curious person had passed by that door.
In other words - it was a gate and a threshold of such potency that none had ever passed it without authorization from the one who had the intelligence, and not to mention the soul of a meddler, to make such an impossibly distracting and visually arresting artifact amidst one of High Castle's busiest corners. Of course … it should also be amended that the devious person in question was in truth not really trying to be meddlesome, but was just ignorant of the attraction and chaos such a thing would surely cause … After all, he was known to be insufferably absent-minded, more forgetful than a lazing mole and certainly just as ignorant about the world outside his hole.
Which were the very thoughts of a dark figure lost in the shadows beyond the closed door, quick brown eyes scanning across the absolute chaos. Dark eyes roamed past the heaps of littered paper, instruments of all kinds and shapes strewn haphazardly all over the ground. He even spied a heap of tennis racquettes in one corner, stacked together in even packs of dozen.
"Ellimere…," the hidden man whispered, a slight knowing smile lifting his lips and dry laughter following. "No doubt about it…"
The man spun around to his left, startled more from a resounding crash echoing across the room, than at the enraged bellow coming from behind what looked like a shaking and tottering car, with its hood transformed into a giant cylinder with pipes reaching out to the aforementioned missing ceiling. A figure seemed to be engrossed in some sort of primitive dance behind the contraption.
"Sam! What are you doing there behind there?" Try as he might, the tall man couldn't repress laughter at the sight. He rushed from the shadows of the doorway to help pull out a slight struggling figure enmeshed in wire netting and bits of plaster from behind the metallic monstrosity.
"Nick! Where's Ellimere? …. Stop laughing, damn it!" A weakly struggling, black ermine clad arm waved urgently at him. "Oi, and help me out of this!"
Laughing aloud, Nick grabbed the proffered arm, wincing slightly at the sight of shorn and ripped expensive silk. With a desperate heave, which was made tenfold harder by stomach rending mirth at the sight of an indignantly struggling Royal Prince, he did manage to pull Sam clear off the debris. And then collapsed to the floor. Having finally been extracted like cork shoved too deep into a bottle, the ruffled Prince glared at his wildly laughing friend sprawled in a messy heap near him.
"Well … at the very least someone is happy! You were supposed to be here two hours ago!"
Nick just roared even harder.
Glaring one last time at his befuddled friend, Sam resignedly turned to picking out bits of plaster stuck to his coat, commenting on the utter absurdity of the situation as it was in his mind. "You realize … this would never have happened if you arrived earlier, and I didn't get bored enough to start working on that infernal materials compressor." Grumbling slightly, he tried half–heartedly to pull out one particularly troublesome piece of wire holding on to a sleeve of his gown, seemingly for dear life and all lovable eternity.
Charter help me … I am going to have to sit through another of Ellimere's lectures …He shivered slightly at that particular thought, and gave up entirely upon trying to pry lose the offending piece. Turning around he glanced in annoyance at his primly dressed friend.
Not a native of the Old Kingdom, not even a regular resident of Castle Regnum, Nicholas Sayre - now named as Niccolais Maronis Saire, the middle name and title of the land of Maroni granted to him by the King upon his instigation as a Royal advisor and Reginald Magister to the Abhorsen - looked spiffing amazing in his silver surcoat, pants, and his polished black boots. Whereas before Nick had kept his dark hair almost brazenly short, now it flowed just past his shoulders in a dark silky wave; a source of much delight to the ladies of the court, who increasingly found reasons to sit near him or talk to him, or the braver few - to ambush him in a dark corner, hoping he would return their smothering looks and burning fervors of passion.
Of course, it did not help that Nicholas – or rather Niccolais – Sam amended, glaring harder at his mirth felled friend, was easily the tallest of the 'eligible' men, with the pale aristocratic features acquired from his Rebirth and none of the self-assuming pompousness of regular courtiers and all the fun loving geniality of the court jesters. Oh … and not to mention: Nick was one of the few young court members with their own land and county that was richly prospering under a young overlord, with the power to ask for the King's hearing at anytime, along with a fast rising popularity as a great Charter mage – yes, it was hard not to see why many of the girls longing after his dark gazes were rumored to go to sleep crying when Nick would gently rebuff their attachments. What was even more astounding was the attention he had among the older council members – much older. After all, a counselor of less than thirty years of age in the Kings Counsel, was deemed by most as a cub amongst lions. Too bad for the other members, that Nick turned out to be a prince amongst lions. Sam had overheard their Finance minister and the Turgeon council member deep in discussion about the political prowess of his friend one day, when he had gone for an absurdly late lunch in the castle mess. He was disgustingly tired after the twentieth failed attempt to purify a particular metal that resisted all his attempts to make it Charter ensorcerelled.
Old Raizon, whose stooped figure and mass of white hair hid the vitality and strength in his blue eyes, was a staunch supporter of what he thought was an up and coming youngest Minister yet. Bent over his half finished plate of roast mutton, he muttered to the grim faced ambassador from the far southern Barony of Turgeon.
"That was a clever, clever move in the end my friend, asking for an eighth share from the Melane and Braithe trade route franchise - in return for increased border and river patrol. He knows his geography well and better the state of economy within your Barony, that he does that Saire." Raizon chuckled, eyes twinkling as he glanced at the reaction of his 'guest', and lifted a perfectly cut slice of meat to his mouth.
Sam keeping his head ducked over his own cooling vegetables, made no motion to attract attention. He seldom paid any heed to court politics, but the mention of Saire had somehow managed to sneak past his glum mood and irritation at failed purification methodologies. He peeked at the grim faced Turgeonean, who looked more deadly as a deep frown creased the bushy eyebrows.
"I do wonder how it passes that he knows so very much about the major trade routes, when the King does not even land trade?" There was just a bit of animosity in that tone, clear from his voice and features.
"Not what you may be thinking, he needs no spy in your trade routes. In fact, I'd be surprised if he knew much at all about the trade routes that your merchants and caravans use. More likely, his interest was piqued by the new trade profile you presented to the King. Increased patrol in Salin Path and Ratharian Way in return of higher levies upon entry to the city?" the old man merrily pronounced. "You left him too wide an opening there my friend."
At a harsh noise made by the newcomer, Sam shrunk even lower pretending he was eating with all his might.
"No, I'd say he did not know the trade routes, but knowing that silk and cotton to be your primary trade-off merchandise, he guessed that Salin and Rothari would be the last possible route for your caravans in that particular ware, am I right?" The old man leaned back to look at the disgruntled man, who grudgingly nodded.
"Braithe road connects directly to Kings Way - a cleaner and safer path to Belisaere doesn't exist - and there has been that recent excavation and a strong bridge connecting Braithe to Salin. Guarding Salin would mean horseback soldiers a mere two scores of woodland path away from the bridge…" admitted the disgruntled man, wrapped in triple layers of silk clothing – a fashion statement from the far-off barony. It was very clear that his admission had not come without a blow to his ego.
An openly grinning Raizon, interrupted. "And of course knowing the condition of Salin Way and Rothari at this time of year, a good portion of your silk wares could be ruined from those salt marshes. There is no way to transport the likes of silk fare there. Once you've traded in silk for Turgeon's most desired goods – salts and spices – those would suffer not a whit on your return through Salin."
Another grudging nod.
"And that Saire…," shaking his head in admiration, Old Raizon leaned forward toward the glowering Ambassador. "He looked right through that ruse, he did. He reasoned that Turgeon's silk wares, which have been clamored to be in a premium drive this time of the season, would have to take the cleanest route if your merchants wanted to get to the city in time and still expect to get the first cut prices."
"True enough…" Acknowledgment barely dripped out of the Ambassador's grimace. "However, why push for a tariff past the Melane road? Melane road is even more ill fitted to our particular mercantile, and only used in our winter trades."
"Hmm … even I can't tell all he's thinkin', although … the King certainly agreed readily, no? Which makes one wonder why the Melane roads were even mentioned at all…?" Silvery brows arched up in question, as the Ambassador dropped his gaze down to the goblet of wine cradled in his hands.
"Discussions have already been finalized, what does it matter now?"
"Nothing at all, old friend." Raizon chuckled as forked over the last of the tender meat. "Well, more succinctly - old me. But … watch yourself, Saire is no easy target. Less than a year in court and already he sits in the meetings. Mark me now … that boy will go far."
It was true; Nick had gone far. The following two months into the summer, Nick's predictions came to fruit. Of the merchants traveling to Belisaere from distant baronies and locales, most would lose a valuable portion of their wares to hardships faced on the path. But Turgeon's merchants, having the bonus accessibility to a personalized franchise trade route, protected and aided by the King's own people, had the most profit to make from rich manses along the way and into the City Proper. The eighth portion as levy, turned out to be quite a hefty sum. It also meant that Turgeon's merchants got to transport huge quantities of spices and salts back home without losing much, if any at all – the King had to be magnanimous after all. But silk was a precious commodity in the Royal City. Which may sound strange for the wealthiest city in the Kingdom, but as a hub for commerce, politics and court – silk and cotton defined society.
In short, the King had made a killing as they would say it back in Ancellestaire.
Even though a sizable portion of it went into the settlement plans made for the Southerner refugees, enough had remained to lighten the payload on royal treasury in reimbursing the nobles and other dignitaries for their routine services, and the King was spared to ask for more taxes from the businesses in City Commons. So the King looked generous and fair, the city gentry had more new silk to haggle and empty purses over, and the city merchants and folk got away with less taxation and more savings than ever. An almost disgustingly cheerful summer. So how did the summer end?
During that summer's festival, the King had proclaimed his newest, youngest and very likely the most brilliant Counselor – Niccolais Saire – rechristened after his near miraculous survival and return to the Kingdom.
Grunting to his feet, and shaking off what dust he could from his ermine furred night coat - which was not much considering his less than valiant effort – Sam strode over to his still slightly befuddled, over-popular and primly dressed friend, who was just shaking the last vestiges of laughter sprung tears. A slight sparkle above the breast insignia of two owls and the royal crown caught his attention. Embossed in pale silver, shone the diamond cross and silver key of his position: Royal Counselor and Personal Attendant of the Queen Abhorsen.
"You know … it is mostly for show." Still grinning, Nick waved at his chest region not having missed Sam's stare. Nick rarely ever missed much these days.
"Right … that's why Father has you in his conferences three or four times a day, and Mother has you attending the Private Council whenever she can get the first glimpse of you … no matter how much you try to evade her."
Nick shrugged, not bothering to conceal the lazy grin. "Well, the Queen … ah … well the Abhorsen for some reason thinks that the nephew of a big shot politician from Sudbury is a rare commodity."
"The Queen is wrong … how? You are a commodity … don't be too modest." Sam irritated, brushed again at his torn sleeve and shuddered at the thought of his impending doom in the morning. "You were never much for modesty."
"One must keep up the appearances, chum." Nick stood up and then fastidiously brushed off, what looked like to Sam, imaginary dust. Albeit, Sam's perspective often left much to question. "You haven't forgotten Somersby, have you?"
"What do you mean appearances in Somersby? You never paid much attention to anything beyond your nose in some strange research report!"
"Of course, but there you are. At that time, it kept those free-timing blokes who hung around the town bars from me and my work." Nick grinned disarmingly, knowing that it would rile Sam all the more.
Sam on the other hand had resigned himself to yet another of Nick's favourite past times – bringing up painful, and some very humiliating memories. "Right … and that one time, the brute Andy – you remember 'im don't you?" He was happily rewarded with Nick's more than slightly obvious cringe. "Yeah that's right … how could you not? We found ourselves on the wrong side of Principal Harvey's desk…"
"Hiding I believe, weren't we?" Nick's grin grew wider.
"What happened to 'appearances' on that day?"
"I had mine tacked on perfectly, remember? You decided to be a Prince, and demanded a little more respect than a brash-mouthed brute would offer you willingly, and proceeded to hex him – of course at that time I wasn't even sure what you were doing. Only that you ended up hitting someone else." Nick couldn't help but grin wider at the memory, even if he couldn't help but cringe further at what had ensued after that. Three purpled eyes – one on each of them, and one on the hapless caretaker Sid who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sam had demonstrated a surprising skill at dodging punches thrown his way; or perhaps it was lady luck who decided she wanted to flirt with a wayward and out-of-place Prince.
Sam was trying mighty hard not to remember the heart-pounding chase that followed from that brief courageous encounter. "Please stop. I don't want to remember Harvey's expression when he entered his office and sat down at his desk …"
"Yes. If I remember Harvey's exact words: 'I believe the school is for students, not rodents?'" Nick shook his head. "Ah, but Principal Harvey had a way with words!"
"Then it's a good thing we don't have to work so hard in keeping up appearances." Try as he might, Sam couldn't restrain his disdain at the very notion of 'keeping up' appearances. For Sam, keeping up appearances meant wearing fancy clothing imbued with dozens of infernal ties and buckles, all conspiring to tangle him into a giant knot; a sight that sent many a maid scurrying forward to help the ruffled Prince – while trying their damnedest hard to keep their laughter contained. Never mind his Royal dignity.
"No Sam, I think that tradition falls more upon you." Nick arched one finely shaped eyebrow. "Would it really be so terrible to dress up in those state robes? If you just straightened up a little bit more…"
Sam eloquently managed to shrug, sigh and scowl at the same time. "Spare me, please. I think nagging about social norms for a Prince should only be in the doctrine and practice of Ellimere."
"As you wish, my Prince." Nick bowed with a grace that was half teasing and half mocking. Noting Sam's resulting glower, he grinned. "Well, aside from discussing wardrobe status, and the oh-so-forseable reasons why you were loitering around that metallic contraption and reminiscing about high school, was there something else you wanted to see me about in the middle of the night?"
Oddly enough, Sam shifted his gaze and the mirth hidden behind his glower stilled. Nick noted the sudden change in mood, but decided not to call him on it. Sam rarely tried to dissemble from a topic – that is, with intent.
"Ah … well … yes." The Prince shuffled forward a few paces towards the right side of the room, where enormous shelves lined the high ceiling wall with books crammed all the way to the top. A ladder leaned haphazardly against the hard wood and metal shelving units. "I heard the birds talking yesterday. It seems you might be in the need of a detailed map of the Melane passages and surrounding country? With some haste as well?"
This was intriguing. It was true. Nick was looking exactly for that, although how Sam knew about such a personal inquiry was intriguing in itself. More interesting was that Sam was actually making an effort at subterfuge – an art Sam had never successfully utilized let alone tried to embellish. Which meant ofcourse, Sam would eventually get to what had soured his mirth.
"In this one instance, the 'birds' were correct." Nick watched as Sam slid the rickety ladder towards the middle of the shelving area, leaving behind a trail of dust. His tone cooled as an unwelcome thought sparked. "You've been keeping Master Raizon company of late I see."
"Yes…" Sam grunted slightly as he mounted the ladder which had absurdly steep metallic rungs, well worn down the center. "Met the old bloke yesterday noon in the western courtyards. What is it about counselors and the western courtyard? Absolutely dreary, that space is!"
Trust Sam to employ colloquialism even when referring to one of the oldest and respected counselor of their Kingdom. Nick shook his head, not half as aghast as much as in rue; it was true, he was losing in his ongoing war to correct much of Sam's regular forgetfulness. Maybe it had to with his 'Prince-liness', Nick often mused. Although, it was more likely Sam just very conveniently forgot honorifics when they most suited him. Which was of course - always.
"And pray tell, what did Master Raizon want to discuss in those dreary hallways? As I recall, Master Raizon decided to retire early from the council yesterday, citing particular disinterest in the Melane venture with Turgeon."
"Oh come of it, Nick! Don't you start your lecture again on how Old Raizon should be minding his own business and I should mind mine own." Sam poked his fingers through the leather bindings of maps and books, stuffed two times more than the shelves would allow. Which made it damned hard to find what he was looking for. He glanced down his slightly irate friend. "You should realize the old codger really cares about you …"
"Yes, and that 'old-codger' as you refer to him, had promised on his honour that this time he would not meddle." Nick seldom interrupted others, and it was with an effort he let his strained words drop.
"True, he said as much. Which is why…" Sam grunted again as he worked out the volume he thought was what he was looking for - the regional map of Melane County. The map was ensorcerelled and quite precious; moreover it was acquired some many months earlier at a very personal cost – something even Sam couldn't quite forget. Well, he amended, the cost was not something that was truly unpleasant – and in many lights, and some times not that many, it was even quite pleasant, "…which is why, he asked me to meddle."
Nick grimaced and then abruptly let go of his irritation, choosing instead to brush back a dark lock of hair that dangled past his face. His hair was too long he mused, but that too had a reason; almost everything he did nowadays had a reason and a purpose. The problem was neither reason nor purpose – with him it was always the 'means' that provided the headaches. While he appreciated Master Raizon's aid more than he could possibly ever tell the jolly old man, in his calculations the addition of extraneous 'aid' almost always heralded disaster when combined with his 'means'. His 'means' to tackle a problem bordered always on the thinnest edge of knife blade: a balance between insanity and stroke of genius. Which meant that his plans did not allow much meddling. And Sam's meddling would be a sure kick to disaster's jester.
"He said to meddle did he?" Nick began cautiously, "And exactly how are you supposed to meddle?"
"Oh … that, it's quite simple really. Here catch." Having finally pried it loose, Sam tossed the leather bound book down at Nick. While he didn't miss Nick's disapproving glance, Sam wasn't fazed the tiniest bit. Nick hated cavalier treatment of books, but according to Sam's extraordinary powers of observation, Nick hated cavalier treatment of even a tea napkin. He grabbed the shelf edge's pulling himself and the ladder forward a few more paces. He was sure there was an accompanying almanac somewhere…
"I'll be traveling with you. To Melane. Tomorrow."
"I see… Did dear Old Raizon deem to enlighten you about a reason of some importance whence I requested the King to lend me the aid of two-score Knights Royal?" Nick peered curiously at the pinkish ribbon tying the booklet shut. It was silk he noted, and of good quality too; which begged the question what something like this was doing in Sam's library. For a moment Nick considered probing his friend's memory with just a bit of teasing, after all the silk was embroidered with faded hints of hearts and roses – not really Sam's type of décor; that is when he was of mind for beauty over functional. However, the moment of fancy passed and a more immediate concern took its place.
While Braithe road always seemed to be in a perpetual state of expansion, regular updates on land markings, bearings and distances were sent to the Royal Cartographers and the Librarians without delay or fail. This allowed the mercantile industries to plan their prospective vending routes according to standardized travel costs, maximize profits and of course – entirely bypass the possibility of an ambush by rogue bands of bandits, cut-throats and worse. To Nick however, the human scum were almost a blessing compared to what else could have been lurking in those woods but a year ago. Only by the grace of the Abhorsen Queen's endless and almost legendary efforts did the land surrounding Braithe road retain its relatively safe status.
Melane Passage-ways however, were an entirely different matter, and the Principality of Melane even worse. Darker things than depraved humans still lurked amongst the densely forested areas surrounding the shoddy road - if it even could be called a road. Deepest game trails in the forests surrounding the High Castle were reputedly in better shape. Melane road was studiously avoided by even the bravest, who had very colloquially termed it the 'Stinkin' Rotten Roads of Melane'. Myths almost always surrounded the forests of the Kingdom, but Nick supposed that this was inevitable after ages of Necromancy and Free Magic had terrorized the country. Even though nearly a year had passed since the Destroyer's binding, many of the oldest - therefore more dangerous and doubly devious - free magic creatures and their ilk still roamed the deepest and darkest shadows of the world, awakened by the Ninth's enormous presence. As much as the Destroyers Binding seemed to have driven them from open human populations, there were still the occasional disturbing rumour and even rarer reports from the rural regions of the Kingdom. Such reports were thankfully seldom. That was another testament of the Queen Abhorsen's endless excursions into the many terrifying remote areas of their Kingdom, and her lone war against the creatures of the deep. She had succeeded in driving them away from the human settlements, chasing them far, far away from the many more secluded ones.
However, the Queen was mortal. Even if her legend, and her people strove to make her into something else. A 'something' that Nick, as the Abhorsen's Aide, found disconcerting. A bad sign, to be thinking about the duties of the Abhorsen here.
He looked up at the slightly disgruntled figure atop the ladder; clearly Sam was having yet another one of his forgetful episodes. Granted the room's chaotic nature, Nick didn't begrudge Sam his moments of confusion about the whereabouts of possessions.
"Sam, please do tell me you know why we travel two score strong, and two times as fast?"
"Why certainly, my troubled friend! The old codger did in fact tell me about your request, whereupon I took it upon myself to confirm my officious presence amongst your grand entourage, and even grander venture! And before you ask, yes, I asked father. No doubt most of your entourage will be trying their very best to hide their disdain by being what they look best – ostentatiously officious." Sam grinned down at an exasperated Nick. "Did I detect a faint note of suspicion in your voice?"
"Sam, the last time you tried to be officious and asked a Kingly favour…"
"Oh posh! I'm not always buried my books! I do know quite a bit of politics, all theory of course, but that is of no matter." Sam, having finally spied the illusive green-black leather bound booklet he was looking for, pulled himself even more precariously across the ladder and into the shelf edge. Curiously, he found it nearly hidden, sandwiched between two massive encyclopedias – almost as if it was intentional. If he had hidden it, Sam could not remember now, why he ever would. Prying it free, he stared at the illusive tome.
For some odd reason, he could not for the life of him fathom why, his mind threw up the image of the Book of the Dead. They were nothing similar he knew, shuddering as the thought of the cool dampness of the dreaded book, slid down his spine like ice cold fingers. He stared at the dusty tome in his hand until the dark images faded. Then shrugged, the matter forgotten. The Book of the Dead would never stop haunting him that much he knew for certain.
Still … there was something. Something about this booklet, something … something… Something he had forgotten. All of a sudden, he felt a strange reluctance to part with it. Which was so very unlike him, that he forced his fingers to unfurl from their death grip around the bound volume. He didn't like holding into things forever or with any great attachment.
"… Here, this should contain all the landmarks and elevation". Sam tossed this one down at Nick as well, and was happily rewarded by another irritated look from his friend. It was good to know he could still get to Nick, after all that happened. The thought of that almost got his mind off the strange unease that had come over him since he'd spied the almanac. Almost.
Sam shimmied down the ladder and shoved the rickety ladder across the shelving units, shrugging at Nick's pointed glare when the most infernal shrieking noise resulted from rusted unused rails scraping against each other. Well, noise wasn't a problem here after all. He'd made sure nobody outside could possibly hear anything that was occurring inside. Instead he strode over to Nick and this time gave his own pointed and famous 'Sam' look, one that was supposed to say: 'I am the Prince, and I'm going to do whatever I want to do'.
Unfortunately, Nick, like so many other important people had somehow gained immunity to that particular look. It was something of a surprise to him that his 'look' had gotten more and more ineffective ever since he was ten… as far as he could recall it had worked so well when he was a kid.
"You can stop that Sam, ain't going to work on me." Nick sighed, and tucked both volumes inside his jacket. "Look, I know you've always been interested in some of the spell works and runes laid into the ancient paths surrounding Melane, but this isn't the time. Seriously, this time …" Nick trailed off, hesitating slightly.
"This time, you're going to find and escort the last branch of Southerners to Maroni." Sam finished for him, watching his friend's face closely. Because now that the topic had come up, even so late at night, his friend needed to hear some things long left unsaid.
"Yes, and you know how they react in the presence of anything 'magical'"
Sam did know. While it made no sense to him, it was one of the main reasons he hadn't gone for more than a cursory visit to his best friend's principality. Which made him angrier than he cared to admit. He wanted to see how his best friend governed his own people. He wanted to see his best friend's lands, castle, his estate, his retinue and life style. But he could not.
"Hostility. Towards anyone caught using it. Except you." He replied, flatly.
Nick winced. "Yes, I suppose hostility is one way of putting it … and before you even say it, I'm doing all I can to reduce their …ah … more aggressive sensitivities."
"'Aggressive sensitivities'? Nick, last time Allene went to heal a child who'd fallen off a wagon because his quarrelling uncles couldn't be more responsible, she was attacked with a pitchfork! That's not aggressive sensitivity, that's pugnacious violence!" The skin between Nick's brows crinkled slightly. Good, Sam thought. It was high time Nick realized that in spite of all his graces and smarts, he was blind to some issues that he couldn't afford to be.
"Yes, and I intervened and did discipline him, as you will recall. It was fortunate Allene was not seriously injured, but circumstances with that group …"
"Fortunate?" Sam exploded, in disbelief. "Nick, she was attacked with a three pronged farming tool!" He knew he was shouting, but as he'd admitted earlier, he damn didn't care now. "Three gashes across her face! Her face! Or doesn't the most fortunate bachelor in the Kingdom not care about a maiden's face?" That last bit wasn't fair, he knew. He saw Nick's fist clench and stared straight back at the decidedly unfriendly glare directed towards him, but again he knew it was past time for some things.
Nick gritted his teeth. "I said 'not seriously'. I didn't say she was not injured. If you'll let me finish… the circumstances that group had found themselves in was distressing to say the least, nor were their moods charitable after weeks of isolation. They were amongst the last ones who had tried to flee, and was simply caught between Necromancy and our own mages."
Sam took a small step closer to Nick, his own anger starting to boil. It was getting harder and harder to remember that Nick had his own demons. But demons or not, he wasn't feeling very keen on sympathy right now.
"What did you do for Allene at that time?" Sam asked quietly. Try as he might though, he couldn't keep the contempt out of his tone. Nick turned paler, a sure sign as any that his mood had just turned dangerous. And it seemed to Sam, as it did every time someone spoke something about the Southerners.
"What are you trying to say, Sam?" Nick's voice was cold, cold.
It didn't even faze Sam. He knew Nick. He knew him better than he perhaps even knew himself. They'd been best buddies back in Ancellestiere, and while he would be the first to admit he didn't completely comprehend the present Nicolais, he knew the older Nick. And that day, when Nick had come between a bewildered girl bleeding from three ugly wounds across her face just underneath her left eye and her red faced assailant, he'd thought for a moment that he didn't know Nick at all.
"I asked you, what did you do for Allene as she lay on the ground stunned and bleeding?" His tone was just as cold as Nick's.
"I saved the girl from getting hurt any further. While you stood there pole-axed, I calmed Darren and his friends." This time it was Nick who took a few aggressive steps towards Sam. "I made sure that they all went back into their wagons, so that the girl would be spared any further injury to her person. She was a Healer, and she could cure her wounds as bad as they were! They couldn't if she'd decided to retaliate. You saw them! They would die first than let any mage touch them with power!"
"Retaliate? Allene?" It wasn't disgust at Nick's words that made his voice hoarse, or his lip curl. It was a strange sort of pain.
The concept of retaliation to Allene was more foreign in nature than Necromancy was to a Charter mage. One of the two men who'd once proclaimed that fact was scowling at him, as if he couldn't understand why Sam had chosen to pick out those words, those particular words, from his wonderfully orated explanation.
Sam stared at this suddenly unknown stranger with pinched nostrils and whitened knuckles starting to step closer with belligerence. An unknown, self deceiving belligerence. " 'That Girl'? Allene is just that girl now?" A deep satisfaction took hold of him, as he saw Nick falter suddenly. Or maybe it was relief. He couldn't be sure, so shocked he was from Nick's words. "Allene was her name … or do you not remember you used to whisper that out of all the girls flocking around you, you could never forget her name. Sure, fine. That was a long time ago for Councilor Nicholais, and his stately routines. Then let me ask you this … who amongst all the people in Belisaere welcomed you first to the Kingdom?"
Sam stalked forward not hesitating in the slightest this time, his hands twitching as if he would like to do something imminently; something that involved slapping clear Nick's suddenly stricken face. "Who made you welcome in a court that whispered nothing but lies and hate towards the foreigner?"
As ironic as it may seem now, Nick wasn't always popular. Not until Allene had come into Nick's life.
Memory struck Sam, even as rage threatened to choke him. Which was actually quite strange, his more logical part noted detachedly. He never got angry … and even rarely at Nick. Oh, this was a long time in coming for certain, but he didn't think he'd be this angry.
"She was there every single time to bring us food when we'd stayed up late poring over the books of Charter, every time we went riding. How many times did we take her with us?" He could see a black remorse shrouding his friends face as if he were awakening from a drunken stupor, and just realized what he'd said over the past few minutes. Sam wouldn't let simple remorse deter him though. Where he was going with Nick right now, charity was not in his schedule.
Because Allene was special. It wasn't her gift as one of the greatest healers, it wasn't her dedication to the court orderlies, or the district developers, or the medical staff… it wasn't even her status as younger daughter to one of the court's most influential nobility. It was her personality, a sound goodness of heart and being that was nigh impossible to resist and even harder to not try and protect. Because it was so damned precious. Her purity, and yes, Sam would be the first to admit it, her naiveté, was something that those who befriended her came to cherish.
And that day, her bleeding, bewildered on the ground, Nick acted the diplomatic intermediary and forgot about protection or justice. He'd left her, turned his back, and it wasn't until much later that night he'd even come to see Allene. After he'd attended to the tender sensibilities of the Southerner who had injured Allene. Politics had a place and time; but politics went out the window when someone of their own had been attacked with undue violence or restraint. When the assailant got off with nothing more than a few placating words.
Sam had never been the type to spill blood, but something stronger than he'd ever realized existing within him, had stopped him from blowing off the bastard's hands. He didn't care a whit about what the idiot had borne.
"Yes, Nick. That girl. Since you seem to have trouble remembering … why don't I refresh your memory? You left her on the ground bleeding, and took your precious refugees to their precious camps and sung to them about precious civility and tolerance."
He could finally to see it; Nick's controlled façade begin to crack, the guilt sweeping in past the seawall built to hold back the waves of emotion long past overdue. But that was no penance for him, Sam decided. Guilt should have come a long time ago. The Nick he knew, would have felt more than guilt for what happened that day.
He watched coldly as Nick struggled to form words. Struggled, then failed and then tried again.
"I had to… Sam. I had to … take them away from her. Before they could do any more harm… I had to." Nick's voice had sunk to a ghostly whisper. Gone was the proud line of his jaw and the arrogance of a straight spine – so domineering in the court room. There was nothing but vulnerability in Nick's posture now. Sam found no satisfaction, but neither did he feel any guilt. In fact, he could feel his own control, what sample little he had left, start to slip.
He closed the last bit of distance and grabbed Nick by the collar, seething. The fool still did not see beyond his nose; still attempted at delusions.
"You didn't stop them from hurting Allene any further, Nick. You indulged them." As cruel as it was, he added the dagger thrust of his words with as much contempt he could. "Where were your vaunted Oaths? Your Justice?"
"You left Allene sitting on the dirt, after you swore to protect her on the journey. Nick the Courteous did. You deserted her, for your own sake." He glared harder at his best friend, and made his tone steel cold and hard. He was good at working with steel. "Next time … if I should fall from an attack by your precious Southerners, what are you going to do? Calm them?"
And that was all he really needed to say. Everything went out of Nick at those words, and like a puppet with cut strings he fell to the floor. Sam let go of his collar, and stared at the more familiar face he recalled from earlier days. A deep haunted look filled Nick's eyes, and a terrible weariness settled upon his features, making them look suddenly gaunt as if from great hunger.
It wasn't what he'd wanted. This wasn't how he'd wanted to get through to Nick. Yet, this was the only way he would listen.
He crouched in front of Nick, trying his hardest not to think about how calm and mirth struck his friend was moments ago. What he had become in a moments notice when his Southerners were mentioned. And what he was now. He couldn't let it distract him, because he had a lot more to say.
"Why Nick, why?" Sam hadn't wanted any weakness to creep into his voice, but the pain still leaked through despite his best efforts. "If the King's Own were present, that man would be judged within the full extent of the law. However, as that man was not yet a citizen, the sentence would have been less severe. Yet, you simply shirked that responsibility and chose to indulge him based on his station and circumstance." He could see Nick begin to shake his head, as if in denial.
Soul sick of this entire conversation and his anger fading, when Sam spoke his voice was clear once again of any harshness. Perhaps it was for the best, because he didn't know if anger would get any further through to his dumb struck friend. "Nick, who was it that said the strength of the law started in the hands of the citizens?".
Nick looked up, his gaze faltering as he tried to meet Sam's.
"It was you."
The child with tangled black hair was slightly bewildered. She didn't quite understand what had transpired, as haunted and mindless with fear as she had been. That was two days ago, a lifetime it seemed to her now. In some part of her mind that had not simply shut off, she could attach the passing miles and time to two days. Two days in which she was taken from her ravaged and burning village. Two days since that man with the grotesque smile had found her in the barn, scared witless. Two days since her family had been slaughtered amidst pain, fire and darker things she couldn't put images to.
It hurt too much when she thought about it, somewhere in the back of her head and deep in her chest. She had not expected to live past that night in the barn, but she had. She had even been treated well since her discovery, and was given a new warm coat, blankets, pillows, food, water, privacy and luxuries such candied meats that she never remembered having in her life at the village. However, remembering was getting harder and harder.
The girl looked down at her hands, small and pale. They clenched something hard and cool. The same part of her mind that could attest to time, knew that it was a key to the golden box that the man with the horrible smile kept in his pocket. The man that had murdered her family.
She opened her fist with some effort and bent her head to look at the innocuous object. It was made of gold and something silvery. The key had intricately branching indentations that teased at her gaze, almost challenging her to determine their beginning or end. Somehow, she knew she liked puzzles. She knew she liked this one. As she leaned forward to see a detail her fingers caressed, strands of black hair swept in front of her eyes, but she didn't push them back. It wasn't necessary and it seemed a waste of effort to lift her arms and brush it back. As so many things lately seemed to require more effort than necessary.
And just then, a sharp pain echoed inside her head. The girl winced and quickly clenched her stinging eyes shut. In the past two days, sometimes even when not thinking about anything in particular she would start to recall an image, but it would always bring back the throbbing hurt. This time, she could see behind her closed eyes a vague image of a woman holding something in her hands, clucking at her from behind and doing something with her hair.
The girl shook her head vigorously, forcing those images to disappear and the pain with it. She didn't want to see anymore of that woman who brought strange feelings of warmth to her. It wasn't like she could remember much anyway. And besides, she thought tiredly, toppling sideways from her upright position to curl into her warm blankets, it wasn't as if she was cold any more. It was warm here in the wagon, even if it rattled and bumped. No ... she just needed to lie down and the discomfort would just fade away.
She clamped her fist around the cool metal, and buried her hand underneath her pillow. She didn't want anyone else to see it. Not that anyone would hesitate to take it from her, but something told her to keep it hidden, keep it out of sight. She twisted her head from the pillow and glanced once outside the rattling window. It was all very confusing to see lands familiar and more unfamiliar pass by. More confusing as she didn't know where they were going... and why they hadn't just killed her, or took her precious key. That man had wanted her key after all.
Not much made sense.
Except ... she thought she had an inkling.
It had to be the Dark Lady. The lady with long, black, black hair, dark as deep night and shinier than a moonlit lake. The first night when she had been taken to her wagon, the Dark lady had come. And she brought with her a cold, cold breeze, that wrapped around her and filling the small area in every crack of wood and folds of clothing. Almost threatening in some manner to burst through solid wood - as if it was an invisible, breaking tide. It was strange; she didn't care much for the cold, but whenever the Dark lady came the cold seemed so much more easier to bear. She didn't even need her blankets.
She hoped the Dark lady would come tonight. She like to watch the Lady appear within her small cell, her form molding smoothly into solidity from dripping shadows off the ceiling, congealing into a sleek shape with mesmerizing eyes and hair. Not much more could she tell about the Dark lady as the rest of her features remained a mystery, and her overwhelming presence anything but. The first night she had thought she was dreaming, but when the Lady with features of shadow and clothing made from the depths of night sat down beside her, she couldn't deny that she was real. Because that man with the smile had burst into her wagon with cruel furious anger on his face, no doubt sensing something was amiss within her gilded prison. However, one look at the Dark lady had withered his expression to servility. He'd mumbled something and slunk away. The Dark lady had said nothing, but just sat beside her on the blankets. A silent immobile figure, with long black tresses that coiled and slithered of their own will.
Eventually, exhausted she had fallen asleep, but not before she had felt a ghostly cool hand on her forehead.
The girl turned away from the window and the blinding light outside. Buried her head deeper into the pillow and listened to the thumping of springs and latches as the wagon bumped along the road.
She dearly wished she could feel that hand on her brow again. It was a shame she thought, that the Lady didn't come in the mornings. But she supposed the Lady couldn't very well drip out of shadows in the noon day sun. A shame, she thought sadly, because she really, really could use that hand upon her brow again right now. It drove away all the hurt and pain. Her head would feel cool ... and inexplicably clean.
At that thought, her lips twisted into a small smile. She reached out with her other hand, fumbling a little bit because it had tangled in her sheets, and dug beneath the blankets to take out her only other treasure in the world. Unlike the key, it was soft to the touch. And warm. On the second night, before she had fallen asleep gazing at the Dark Lady, the Lady had pulled out something from inside the shadows of her chest. There were grey shadows wreathing that hand when she pressed the thing into her own small palm. It had seemed like the object was glowing with great light but was enveloped by the Lady's shadows. When she had looked questioningly at the Lady, the glorious head inclined slightly. The cool hand had once again lifted and settled on her forehead. She'd fallen into a calm sleep then.
Now, she opened her hand slowly and looked at her gift from the Lady of shadows.
It was a small soap stone figurine of a dog.