“May I interest you in some lavender mead, Maestress Yswein?”
From across the room, Charrin Ghar lifted a delicate glass bottle, its handle curved, its belly filled with a pale purple liquid. He smiled just enough to show the tips of his very sharp teeth, and when he blinked a transparent membrane slid back and forth across his bright golden-red eyes.
He had the overall appearance of a Southern Human — dark-skinned, dark curling hair that fell in braids down to his waist, wide chest and shoulders — but his mixed Drakyn ancestry was obvious.
And it had proven to be a formidable mixture, if the gossip I had gleaned in local markets and temples and pleasure houses was to be trusted. Ghar had sailed into Esyllt’s central harbor twenty years ago with only a bag of rare spices and the clothes on his back. He had quickly built an import empire, bringing in more spices from the south, selling them to merchants who then carried them further into the interior, east to Memnas and north as far as Svartha. He was the youngest person in the city’s history to be awarded the honorific Charrin by the Merchant League.
According to that same gossip, he had recently expanded his operation, hunting out rare and unusual spices and herbs from the north that he could send back south.
But he had apparently run into a little problem ….
“Yes, thank you, Charrin.”
I lowered myself into a plush leather chair on the near side of his desk. There was a matching chair to my left, but the chair on his side of the desk was wider and taller, and the studs that lined the leather were gold, not brass.
The rest of the room — the thick woven rug, the tapestries and paintings, the massive carved desk, the wall of windows that looked out over the harbor — only served to emphasize the message: I am rich, I am powerful, and I will get what I want.
Ghar smiled again as he set down a glass on the desk close enough for me to reach, and then lowered himself into his cushy chair. The tiny golden bells woven through his braids tinkled.
I returned the smile and took a sip of the mead.
Honey, lavender, a hint of vanilla.
It was delicious.
I dipped my head towards him. “It’s … good.”
Just enough of a pause to make him frown.
I set the glass back on the desk and waited.
He studied me for a long moment. No doubt he had done his research before summoning me — and it had most definitely been a summons, not a request — but there would not have been much for him to learn. It was likely that he knew just as much about me as I did.
Like so many in the Third Realm, including Ghar, I was a mutt. My ancestry was mixed, but the exact mixture was a mystery. My general size and stature and skin tone indicated Southern Human. The green shimmer to my otherwise dark hair hinted at Merran somewhere in my maternal line; not unusual in coastal communities. My cloven hooves could have several different sources, but the antlers ….
Ah, the antlers.
Only one source for those. Cervini. And the Deer Folk were not known for mating outside of their own population.
I resisted the urge to rub the painted knucklebone in my pocket, and continued to wait.
Ghar blinked again, only the inner transparent membrane gliding across his eyes. “I am in need of your services as a mediator. A solver of problems.”
“Hadrasith has a temple here in Esyllt, fully staffed by clergy more than willing to resolve any issue or negotiate any sort of treaty that you require.”
“Pfft.” He waved one hand dismissively and gulped a mouthful of the lavender mead. “I have tried them already. The first, Maestress — oh, what was her name — Ilurienne. That’s it. Maestress Ilurienne gave up after a moon and returned home. The second … oh, Maestren Leith, I think … disappeared completely. Eaten by Gobelings, according to my on-site administrator.”
I felt my eyebrows curl up in surprise. “Gobelings don’t eat Awarents. They don’t eat meat, at all, actually.”
“Sharp teeth for herbivores.” Ghar flashed his own fangs, grin wide. A ruby glimmered from the surface of one serrated tooth.
Not intimidating. Annoying.
“They subsist on roots and tubers, with a few nuts and some bark for extra flavor.”
Ghar grimaced and took another sip of the mead. Depending on the strength of his Dragon Folk ancestry, he was probably a carnivore. Lavender mead aside, I doubt that he had eaten anything leafy or green in his entire life.
“No,” Ghar continued, “it is you who must take up this task. You negotiated an end to the Basteti harvesting the Merrans’ egg fields. After that feat, this should be no trouble at all.”
I pressed my lips together. “The Basteti were not eating the eggs. They were eating the tadpoles.”
“Ah. Of course. And yet you, out of all of the Maestrens and Maestresses and Maestri in the city, found a solution; something that Cat Folk and Sea Folk alike found acceptable.” He set down his glass and leaned forward in his chair, fingers intertwined. “Deliver a solution to my problem that I find equally acceptable, and you will be amply compensated.”
That was the wrong reaction. A hint of smoke drifted from Ghar’s left nostril.
“My apologies, Charrin.” I raised a conciliatory hand. “But I am of the Peripetatic Order. What need do I have of money?”
That was closer to the response he wanted. He grinned again, the ruby flashing. There was an emerald, too, embedded in an upper fang. “You were found after the Massacre of Tuundira.”
My laughter disappeared. The dark fur on my lower legs stood on end and my scalp twitched at the base of my antlers. This time, I did slide my hand into my pocket, wrapping my fingers around the painted knucklebone.
Ghar spread his arms, bracing his hands against the edge of his desk as he leaned towards me. “One of only a handful of survivors, all children. Taken in by a small pod of Gobelings who lived in the forest nearby, and only discovered by more … civilized Awarents some five years later. Rescued, and returned to civilization. The other children were all eventually restored to their extended families; grandparents and aunts and such. Except for you. No family could be found.”
I smiled thinly, took up the glass again with my free hand, and sipped the lavender mead to cover my discomfort. When I didn’t answer, he continued, leaning even closer. His long braids dragged across the desk, the little golden bells jingling.
“What if I were to tell you that there was another survivor? An adult? And that they had information about you and your parents?”
I snorted. “I would say that you are lying. Or that you are being lied to.”
He inhaled long and slow, seeming to consider my words and his response. He leaned back in his chair, fingers steepled. “I will tell you something now that I have never told another soul. I do this to convince you of the sincerity of my proposal, and the truth of my words.” A brief pause. “I have made no secret of my Human and Drakyn ancestry. How could I? But a third bloodline flows through me. Monokeri.” He gestured at his forehead. “I lack the horn, but I retain that most unique and useful of Monokeri qualities.”
“You know a lie,” I whispered.
He nodded. “I know a lie. And when this man told me that he survived Tuundira, he spoke the truth.”
I took another sip of the mead, then another. Then I guzzled the rest of the glass and banged it down onto the surface of his desk. “What, exactly, is it that you need of me? What is this … problem that you need solved?”
“You are familiar with Svartha?”
“I have visited that city several times, yes.”
“Four days’ travel west of Svartha lies a narrow valley, and in the center of that valley is a lake. No rivers flow to or from its shores. Instead, it is fed by rain and snowmelt. It stands alone. Unique. As are the flowering grasses that bloom above its waters for only one short moon every year, when the sun is high and the air is warm.”
“Flowers that you want to harvest and export.”
He nodded. “Perfume. Seasonings. Possibly even medicinal applications. I could expand my fortune considerably.” He scowled, jaw tight. “But I have been unable to harvest more than a few bags. Gobelings.”
“They’re interfering in your operation? That’s … unusual. They normally wouldn’t care about such things. Unless you’re planning to drain the lake.”
“Huh!” he snorted. “And risk driving the flowers to extinction? Never. I plan to exploit that particular resource for decades to come. No. I have no idea why the Gobelings are behaving the way they are. According to my administrator — Viria is their name — the Gobelings are sabotaging boats, harassing the workers, stealing what little they manage to collect ….”
“And eating priests of Hadrasith.”
“Just so.” He gripped the arms of his chair and leaned towards me. “Figure out what the little beasts are up to, put an end to it, negotiate a treaty, convince them to move on, whatever you need to do to get my operation back on schedule. And, when you return, I will take you to the man who has information about you and your parents.” He stood, tilting his chin to look down at me. “Do we have agreement, Maestress Yswein?”
I drew an unsteady breath, weighing his words.
Charrin Ghar was known as a ruthless merchant, manipulative and self-interested. But I had uncovered no gossip — not even a whisper — that he was ever false in his dealings. Once he made an agreement, he stuck to it. He kept his word.
The Monokeri in his blood, perhaps. Or maybe even the Drakyn.
Any scrap of information about my parents, my origins, my family was more than I had now.
Even a scrap was worth whatever price Ghar demanded.
I stood, pulling my hand from my pocket, leaving the knucklebone hidden. I nodded once. “We have an agreement.”
Esyllt was a long city, not a wide one. It followed the curve of the bay, from the north headland all the way around to the south headland, taking full advantage of the beauty and strategic value of the natural harbor. Dockyards lined every bit of the shore, even crowding around the mouths of the three shallow rivers that rolled into the harbor from the interior. Massive, intricately carved lighthouses stood sentinel at each headland. The bay’s opening to the Karys Sea was so narrow that only a dozen ships could pass through at once, their hulls nearly touching.
As I discovered not long after my arrival, it was part of the city’s Foundation Day celebrations to string a rope between the two lighthouses. Brave idiots would try to cross, with the winner claiming an obscene amount of money and a free night at Esyllt’s most exclusive pleasure house.
Along with thousands of other Folk, I had watched from the docks as a dozen idiots fell to their deaths before a Basteti — no surprise — scampered across and claimed the prize.
I stood on that same dock now, looking across the water towards the lighthouses.
The harbor was filled with boats of all shapes, sizes, and points of origin, while bright yellow and white buoys bobbed over the kelp beds where Merran laid their eggs. Crew of every Folk and every possible mixture of Folk dodged back and forth across the decks, up and down the sails, around and around the docks. Elephatati and Kentauri and Drakyn passed heavy loads hand to hand, while Humans and Sciuri and Gazali carried messages, checked paperwork, bundled ropes, and pushed carts filled with warm sandwiches and soups.
A Gazali dodged around me, her stripped flanks rippling under a pair of messenger bags stuffed with papers and small packages. A Human yelled over my head to a Drakyn, who hissed in annoyance, spitting a small tongue of flame. A Kentauri snarled at me to “get out of the way” as she hauled a heavy wagon behind her, the crates reeking of pickled fish.
Grimacing, I picked my way to the relative safety of the very end of the dock.
A dark green head popped above the water, then disappeared again.
Merran blood was strong. My Water Folk ancestry could be my grandmother or a hundred generations back.
Questions. So many questions, and even the Divines had refused to answer them, despite my pestering.
I thought that I had set aside my questions years ago. I would never find the answers that I wanted, so why torture myself?
And yet here I stood, having made a dubious agreement in vain hope of learning something from a man who shouldn’t even exist.
There had only been six of us. There had only ever been six survivors of Tuundira, though why and how we had been spared no one could say.
Tuundira. A tiny village in the middle of nowhere with nothing of value to anyone. There had been a lake for fishing, and a communal orchard and herb garden, and forests nearby for hunting and gathering mushrooms and wild vegetables.
Nothing of value. No reason for the village to be attacked. Even less reason for the entire population to be slaughtered.
But that is precisely what had happened.
If the why was unclear, the when was equally uncertain. The outside world was unaware that anything had happened until a pair of Peripetatic Maestrens let chance guide them down the overgrown road to the overgrown village.
The bodies had long turned to bones, but it was obvious that something Aware was living in the area. So the Maestrens waited, and when the Gobelings came in search of useful things, the Maestrens greeted them kindly and offered them trade and full use of anything that the Maestrens possessed that the Gobelings might need.
And so they learned of us, the children. Taken in by the Gobelings and raised as their own, because that’s what Gobelings did. What they do.
I had been an infant at the time of the attack, probably not even able to walk yet. By the time Maestren Wyller put me on his back to carry me away, five years had passed. My hooves were sharp and rough, perfect for running through forests and across the wet boulders around the edge of the lake. My hair was long and smelled of wildflowers and green leaves. And I knew all the best spots to find the tastiest mushrooms, knew which trees grew the sweetest bark, and I could sing the Gratitude Song louder than any other youngling.
Five years as a Gobeling. Perhaps I was fortunate, after all, that no kin of mine had ever been found and that I had been taken in by the Peripetatic Order. I can’t imagine that the other children had an easy adjustment to “civilized” life.
I stayed with Maestren Wyller for three years, until chance led us to cross paths with one of the wandering schools. Maestri Kildira took me under their wing — literally — and I stayed with the school until chance brought a painted knucklebone into my possession. Maestri Kildira declared me old enough to strike out on my own. And so I became a Maestress in the Peripetatic Order of Polymaths.
I randomly assigned a direction to each face of the die, then tossed it into the air. At every crossroads, I tossed the knucklebone again. And again. I had seen the ice palaces of Svartha and the oasi of Kahirri. I had taken passage to the distant Red Islands in the Karys Sea and wandered the Jinirri Desert with a band of poets and balladeers. I had ridden alone across the Great Grass and sheltered with a tribe of Elephatati artists in the dense jungles of Chennais.
And in all those wanderings — down every road, in every village and city, on every island and continent — I had never met another Awarent like me. I was unique among all the Folk, a curiosity that even the Divines chose not to explain.
But I kept traveling, seeing, learning. Always learning. Always seeing. Always allowing chance to guide my steps.
Until a toss of the knucklebone brought me to Esyllt. Another toss took me to Ffequira’s tavern, where I overhear a conversation about Merran tadpoles and Basteti cubs.
And so it went. Until chance led me right back around to my own mysterious origins.
A curious creature, chance.
Something bumped my left antler, knocking me out of my reverie.
Another bump, and I turned, looking up and up to find an Elephatati looking down and down at me.
He wore the short, sturdy hemp trousers of a dock worker, but they were a brilliant red with gold thread around the hem. Flowers painted in red and gold traveled the length of his trunk, splitting at his forehead to curl across the top of his head and down the edges of his great ears. Gold filigree caps glinted on the sharp ends of his tusks.
“Your antlers are beautiful,” he said, ears flapping in appreciation.
I had opened my mouth to snap at him. But he was Elephatati. The compliment was sincere and heart-felt. The Elephatati valued nothing more than beauty. It was their highest virtue, their true calling. Whole herds had been known to cross continents just to hear an opera or to see the sunrise through a stained glass window.
I closed my mouth, turned fully towards him, and pressed a hand to my heart. “We partake in the beauty of the world ….”
The Elephatati placed a thick-fingered hand over his chest. “… And so we become more beautiful ourselves.”
We stood for a moment, silent, the docks around us noisy. And then he dropped his hand and turned back to his work, hefting a massive crate onto his shoulder and carrying it down the dock to a waiting ship.
My thoughts settled.
Charrin Gar had consulted with the clergy of Hadrasith about his little problem. At least two of them had traveled north and at least one had returned to Esyllt.
Perhaps she would be amenable to answering a few questions from a sister Maestress.
Decision made, I turned my steps towards the temple.
[End Part One. The complete Yswein and the Gobelings will appear in 2022. Stay tuned!]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]