Forbidden Knowledge Seekers

Chapter thirty: Forbidden Knowledge Seekers

No matter what she did, the walls kept tumbling down. The floor collapsed on itself with a thunderous roar, the foundation giving way like paper. And she ran and ran, and still she wasn’t fast enough.

There was a mortal scream, like a soul lost at sea.

Alapar raced down the halls that lit up with lightning, throwing patrons and attendants aside as they tried to intercept her. She ran toward the yelling, careening down flights of stairs and narrowly avoiding breaking her neck. She knew where to find them – the Correction Chamber. But her stomach wasn’t used to being stuffed with food, and her legs weren’t used to running, and when she burst through the heavy wooden doors, she nearly collapsed in exhaustion. Gasping, she clutched a nearby railing, forcing herself to straighten.

“Stop!” she commanded hoarsely to the Dedicated Corrector. He and three of his assistants had clubs and straps raised above the heads of a pile of women, scantily dressed, trembling in the corner. The missing shaleis. Alapar recognized Nari, Shifra and Erieda among the dozen others. The Correctors paid her no mind, and a strap came down on Erieda, who cried out and cowered against Nari. Nari kept fierce eyes locked on the Corrector the entire time.

Alapar staggered to her feet and lurched across the cold stone floor, throwing herself on the Corrector who was about to club a woman she didn’t recognize.

“Stop it!” she screamed with more force, as she knocked the man to the ground. The other Correctors were on her in an instant, pulling her roughly to her feet. Hanging her manners, she kicked one in the side and flung her elbow into the throat of another. Her panic reflex heightened. She remembered another group of men, trying to hold her down when she was younger, not caring how much they were hurting her. She screamed, aiming to poke out the eyes of her nearest captor, but a third one jumped in, pinning her arms to her sides. She scowled, and then spit in his nose.

“Now!” said one of them, keeping a tight hold of her hand. “What is the meaning of – ”

What is going on here?” thundered a voice. The double doors blew open, crashing against the wall, and Prat blazed in with about twenty others behind him. The Correctors faced him, their weapons still raised.

“Your Majesty,” they murmured, falling to their knees. Alapar stayed upright as they finally let go of her. She could muster no expression other than disbelief as she stared at her cousin.

“Praithelon,” she whispered.

He seemed to notice her, small and surrounded, for the first time. Impossibly, his anger seemed to deepen. “And what have you done to my dear, sweet cousin?” He reached for the collar of one of the Assistant Correctors, yanking him up. Alapar, afraid of what he might do, stepped forward.

“You…you punish your wives like children.” She took a shuddering breath.

His look of murderous rage cleared and strode over to the women, his robes blowing behind him like banners. “Cua lahra, lirigweis?” he asked gently, reaching out to touch the hair of the nearest concubine. She shuddered against his touch, cowering away. “What are you doing?” he roared, whirling on the Correctors.

“They disobeyed your command, Sire, and brought shame on the kingdom in front of your guests,” one of them mumbled, his eyes trained on the floor at Prat’s feet. Alapar shook herself awake and sank to the floor in front of the women, taking Shifra’s hand and the hand of someone she didn’t know. She tried to cover them with the layers of her dress. They crowded nearer to her, away from their king. She held them and glared at Prat.

“And did I order that any action be taken against them, Corrector?” Prat asked, his voice icy, his brown eyes dark with malice.

“No, Your Majesty, but it is written in the law – ”

Prat took one step closer and clasped the man’s arm, wrenching him to his feet. “Look at me,” he said quietly. “Do I look like I care about the law right now? How dare you hurt my wives!” He turned on the attendants that had followed him in. “What are you still standing here for? Tend to them! Don’t let them sit there half-naked and cold!”

In a flurry, the women were helped to their feet and shepherded out of the room through a secret door, all of them gazing back at Alapar several times. Most were still crying, covering their faces in shame. Prat watched them go, a look of forlornness on his face. When at last the room was empty, he turned to Alapar.

“I am sorry,” he said. “I am so sorry that your first night home is turning out so disastrously.”

Alapar shook her head, mute. “I just don’t know what happened. I only told them to talk to you, not completely rebel.”

There was a moment of silence. “What do you mean?” Prat asked finally, in a dangerous, cold voice that made Alapar take a step back. “What are you talking about? You mean, this happened because of you?”

She raised her chin. “Not because of me, because of how these ladies have been feeling for quite some time now. Because of the fact that it seems around here women are lesser than men, and men think themselves the kings of all that has breath.”

“Alapar – ”

“And what’s more, that they are beaten for having different opinions, for wanting to be treated like equal people? I thought that all we talked about as children was finally being able to live the way we want to when we grew up. Of never having to answer to anyone but ourselves.” She took a breath, fighting herself again. “How could you, Prat?”

He crossed his arms. “How could you, Alapar? Why are you telling me how to run my kingdom? If you think that – ”

“They are women, not animals – ”

“If you think that for one minute you can tell me what to do –”

She turned from him, striding for the door. He clipped up to her and caught her elbow as she opened the door, spinning her around. The fabric of her dress tore in his hand, and he quickly let her go, his arms dropping limply to his sides. “Prat,” she snapped. “I thought I could do this, but I cannot. Coming home was the worst thing I could have done. I can’t stand to look at you right now. You – you’ve changed.”

She watched as her words hit him, as he cringed with every verbal slap. He looked lost now, and tired. “Alapar, wait.” He reached out again, this time taking her hand. She was frozen in place. Held captive by sentimentality, as usual. “Wait, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I keep losing my temper. All I’ve wanted for all these years is for you to come home, and I am so sorry that I keep messing up.”

But he didn’t apologize for how he had treated her or the women he supposedly loved. Still, she let him draw her toward him, wrap her in his familiar warmth. “I don’t want us to fight. We got along so well as children, but you’re right. I have changed, and so have you. We can’t expect to be like we once were.” She dropped her gaze, staring at their clasped hands, feeling the friendship that had held them together for all their lives. This man, who would kill to protect her and her family. He was the only family that she had left. After a moment she smiled, and he grinned back. “It is so good that you’ve returned to us, Alapar. To me.” He threw his arm around her in the easy camaraderie that they had shared. “Now we can be married! I was worried about who I would pick to be ruling queen, but now I know.”

***

Belladia had been trying to find Osarius’s chambers, but the Palace at Adlin was vast and it was dark. The shadows cast by the lit sconces made things even more confusing. The halls were nearly empty, everyone, even the servants turned in for the night. She was exhausted in a way that prohibited sleep, and she was suddenly worried about Chimley. She was worried about everything, as a matter of fact. They were pressed for time. How could they stay even an extra day in Rena? To attend a party, no less? She needed her brother’s vexing calmness, his reassurance and his strength.

But all the corners and staircases in this palace didn’t seem to be taking her there. Vaguely, she was aware that she was a few levels lower than she had originally been. However, there was now no other way to describe herself than “lost.” 

She thought she heard voices down the hall, and headed in that direction. She didn’t see the figure step out of a doorway before running into her.

“Oh, pardon me!” she begged of the serving woman who righted herself with a startled expression. “I don’t know how I ended up down here, and I need to get to my brother Osarius. Can you take me to him?”

The woman smiled and spread her hands. “Osarius of the Desparatan Escort?” she asked, her Caredish accent studding her words. Belladia nodded. “This way, lirigwin.” They headed in the direction of the voices she had heard.

They passed a set of wooden double doors, one of them slightly ajar. Belladia thought she recognized King Praithelon’s voice, though she wasn’t sure considering it wasn’t wheedling or whining or wailing. The servant sped up her pace, and out of propriety Belladia felt she had to as well. But still, she caught the King’s words as they passed by: “…so good that you’ve returned to us, Alapar. To me. Now we can be married.”

“Princess?” said the servant, and Belladia realized that she had stopped dead in her tracks. The light from a nearby flame touched the servant’s annoyed face. Belladia smiled in apology and hurried on before she could hear Alapar’s response.

Up and up, so many flights of stairs she lost count. Finally, the servant stopped in front of a door. “The chambers of Prince Osarius. May I announce you?”

“Yes, please do.”

The woman knocked on the door and then opened it, speaking to someone just inside. After a moment the door opened fully. “Good night, Princess Belladia,” the woman bid her, and left.

Belladia entered the front room, and another servant bowed to her and opened a second door. Inside, Fredric was sprawled across the bed in a silver silk robe that made his hair look like blood. Osarius stood at the window, watching the lightning in the night. “What are you two doing?” Belladia asked, taking a seat at the large desk. Resting right in the centre was the chest, seeming to draw energy from the air to emit a foreboding aura. The room bore an essence much like the storm outside: restless, unnerved. Fredric, with a mighty groan, drew himself into a sitting position.

“I couldn’t sleep because Osarius won’t shut up about…well, everything. I can sense him all the way down the hall.” Osarius shrugged at his friend and continued to stare outside. Deprived of a squabble, Fredric changed the subject.  “That was quite a dinner! Too much. I don’t know what to think of it all. Alapar, a princess? I never would have guessed. She’s just so…” he made a vague motion with his hand. Belladia could tell from his essence what he meant.

“Not just a princess,” Belladia corrected. “She’s going to be queen of Rena.”

Osarius turned, his eyebrows raised. “I’ve never understood the Renian marital system. How many queens can there be?”

Belladia crossed her ankles and tried to remember her political lessons. Something that Osarius shouldn’t have forgotten. “Well, I guess there are the Leading Three…I think someone said that at the moment they are Chephir, Nari, and Sonet. But the King may or may not choose a woman to be nearly equal to him in power and stature, to be ruling queen alongside him. Usually he chooses one of the Three. I overheard Praithelon telling Alapar that she would take up this position.” She watched Fredric carefully. She caught a spark of something – shock, disappointment, or jealousy, she wasn’t quite sure. It was quickly gone, however, and she was surprised. She had been sure that Fredric cared for the strange girl a great deal.

“Oh, well at least we were able to bring her home safely. The Kingdom owes us a favour!” He wiggled his eyebrows in that way he had, but to Belladia it seemed a little forced.

Osarius glanced at Fredric in concern. “Are you alright?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well, it’s just…you and Alapar – you two seemed to get on quite well.”

Fredric laughed merrily, throwing his long legs over the bed and standing. “Well, she was fascinating! And temperamental. But we’ve got a job to do, my friends. Tomorrow, the festival, and then we depart for Siyemeir. Please, Osarius, keep it down in here so I can get some sleep!” With another strange laugh, Fredric was gone.

Osarius looked as his sister. “Well.”

Belladia moved to stand with him. Slowly, a feeling much like joy came over her. Alapar, finally gone! She had begun to worry that the wench may want to stay on with them. She was certain that Fredric would propose, or some scant-brained idea like that. She breathed a sigh of relief. Most days, she cared for that lunatic Fredric nearly as much as Osarius did, and she had the feeling that Alapar’s dark eyes were ones that would break his heart.

The siblings remained silent, watching the rain pour down the window, the storm lighting up the room. “Are you looking forward to the festival tomorrow, Osarius?” Belladia asked at last.

To her surprise, he smiled and brushed his hand over her hair. “Yes, I certainly am. It will be a good opportunity to smooth over the diplomacy issues that Xarthanias has been creating. We’ve still got to protect the kingdom, no matter how far away we are, and I have a bad feeling about all of this.” He moved to the desk and picked up the chest, sliding it under his bed. He yawned. “Don’t forget to be good to Xarthanias tomorrow – the festivity will help you to temper him before we set sail.”

She didn’t say anything, but bowed her head to her brother and left. It was the only way she could keep from kicking him. He was almost on her last nerve.

***

A jewellery box sailed through the air and smashed into the wall where Archer’s head had been. “What do you mean he’s asked her to be ruling queen?” Sonet shrieked, sending a small glass heutan after the jewellery box.

“Sonet, my lady, you must calm down! You will wake everyone!”

Sonet heaved deep breaths, trying to cool her boiling blood. That bumbling idiot. How could he humiliate her like this? She was first queen, she had birthed the king’s first son. Sleid was to be the next king, and it had been assumed that she would be queen. And even if she wasn’t, why would he choose that outcast? How could that little strumpet have harnessed him so easily, in only a few hours? How had she have slithered her way into his heart after being away for so many years?

Archer touched Sonet’s arm, unknowingly where the Corrector had brought down his club. She jerked away, stalking to the other side of the room. The spot was still very tender. As a matter of fact, Sonet had many bruises forming all over her body. Alapar, that wench. That witch, that wretch. Sonet had been so easily enchanted by Nari’s speech, claiming that they didn’t have to perform the terrible ishaleyn that night. She had said that Alapar, whom everyone knew was always on Prat’s mind, would protect them from harm. Nari had said words were worthless to men, they only understood action. And so, while the guests had dinner downstairs, the women had taken their meal in the gardens on the roof. And when the ishaleyn was called, they had locked the door and played a game of eliest, laughing when Erieda drew a wild card and had to take four shots of serac in a row. What a merry time it had been, and though Sonet knew that she should call it off, it had been such a long time since she had been able to feel so carefree with her sister wives…she just couldn’t bring herself to end the beautiful rebellion.

And when the Corrector’s Assistants had ripped the doors from their hinges, dragged the women downstairs to the Correction Chambers, and stripped them to their underclothes, everyone had looked to her. Queen Sonet, the First Queen, leader of them all. Alapar was nothing. It was Sonet’s job to protect them and guide them like she always did. And yet Prat the Brat would make Alapar ruling queen.

“I am not going to let this happen, Archer.” Sonet said darkly. No way was her world going to be swept out from under her by that girl.

“My lady,” Archer replied, wringing her hands. “You must calm yourself, lirigwin. It is much passed the time for your sleep. If you do not get your sleep, you know how insufferable you are in the mornings.”

Sonet cast her old servant a cold look before settling heavily behind the vanity. Archer quickly moved to undo the first queen’s hair bindings, and then ran the brush through her light brown tresses. “What am I going to do, Archer?”

“Do not fret, my lady. I have known little Alapar before her exile, and she was a child quite ruled by emotion and passion. Surely she will not accept his Majesty’s proposal – I have seen how she regards that red haired young man. Prince Sedric?”

“Fredric,” Sonet corrected, her mind already processing this information. She had yet to meet the travellers from Despartus, had yet to even see Alapar with her own eyes. But it was impossible for any whispers in the palace not to be heard, and she had heard tell of the ungentlemanly way that the young prince regarded Alapar. Someone had laughed and said that though the wench tried to suppress it, it was obvious that she cared for the young man as well. “Fredric, Zonderban Dalen’s son. I met him several years ago. What a strange little bat he was, so jumpy and devilish.” He almost managed to steal the key to the royal Carter Hall, and even reminded Sonet of stories she had heard of the infamous, trouble-making Princess Alapar. “Very good, Archer. Perhaps all is not lost.”

If there was one thing she knew, love was the undoing of the Renian Royals.

***

Fredric wasn’t quite sure where to begin, but he figured the stable was as good a place as any. He yawned, closing his eyes against the late morning sun. Osarius had not been silent enough to permit a useful sleep. It was no matter. Nothing could keep him from his mission.

The stable yard had shrunk since the last time he had been here. Or at least, he was pretty sure it had. Perhaps it was just because he was taller, his mind bigger. But he did distinctly remember the north tower, where the grain was kept, the one he had set on fire and nearly burned to the ground. They evidently hadn’t bothered to rebuild it. And the jockey office that Fredric and some of the palace children had crashed a military cart into had been torn down as well.

It was so odd, he thought, how many times that he had come here. He had heard talk of a wayward cousin of the king who had run away with his daughter, a daughter who often caused trouble and strife. Could that be Alapar? He just couldn’t see it.

He knew he had to be careful. Considering all the damage he had done to the stable yard, he knew that anyone who saw him there would more likely shoot him on the spot than ask him to leave. Which is exactly why he knew the key would be here. Fredric rearranged his cloak about the weapons on his belt, and then rose from the bushes where he had been hiding. His long legs covered the space to the east barn in five seconds, and he crouched within shrubs behind some oat barrels.

His father had warned him to behave, to be respectful and mature. Sweetly Fredric had reassured his old father, reminding him that he was a grown man and had no need of such warnings. Never mind the Ice Tombs in Rolo. But even as he said the words he was making calculations in his mind, trying to discern where they could have put the key this time. He hadn’t quite figured it out until last night, when he was gazing out the window and trying to block out Osarius’s brooding essence. The stable yard was alive every hour of the night and the day. As he watched the candles bobbing to and fro in the tropical storm, remembering all the destruction he and the palace children had caused there, it came to him. Old Pratty would put the key to the Carter Hall where Fredric was obviously not allowed to go. Where it would not be odd for him to be cast out.

As a boy, his father had told him stories of the Renian Carter rooms, telling him that the maps and charts contained information about treasure and mysterious beasts. As he grew older, and after his first attempt to find the key, he stopped believing his father’s nonsense. Fredric knew his father was keeping something from him about the Hall. Of course, secrets are attracted to children, and before long Fredric heard his father talking to another navigator about the Carter Hall. And they were talking about meirens.

Zonderban had sensed his son in that way that parents had, and Fredric had to flee before he could hear more. But the overheard words never loosened their hold. He read and inquired all he could of the meirens, and though the general consensus was that they were fantastical myths, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. All of the stories added up, unlike other myths he had heard. He tried to tell himself that he was being ridiculous, but his mother’s face, draining of colour, kept pressing into his eyes. If only he could have another chance. Just one more chance to be the son that his kind mother deserved.

When he met Chimley, he really began to wonder. The boy claimed to have meiren blood, which obviously wasn’t the case, but something was obviously off when only considering the natural world. If Chimley existed, couldn’t meirens exist as well?

He had read that the creatures could bring people back to life. He only needed one more chance to do what he hadn’t been able to do for his bleeding mother.

The gravel crunched under someone’s boot and Fredric stiffened, stabbing himself in the eye with a branch. He convinced himself that this was the reason for the tears streaming from his cheeks. He held his breath until the sound of boots faded, and then he darted from the barrels to another bush near the gates to the yard. One thing hadn’t changed – the place was still horrifically laid out in terms of security strategy. It may as well have been designed by thieves. He quickly scanned the area which was currently unguarded, and identified his next check point. He simply needed to hop over the fence and run to the carriage hangar, and then take the steps up to the –

“Hello, Prince Fredric.” A head popped up from the shrubs on the other side of the gate. Fredric made a sound that was halfway between a shriek and a hiccup, dropping back into the brush. “Oh, get up, you little fool.”

Slowly he raised his head. It was a woman, crouching in the bushes. It was…”Queen Sonet!” He tripped free of the branches and fell into a sloppy bow. “What are you doing here?”

Elegantly she stepped out of the shrub, sweeping bits of foliage from her plain green dress. She extended her hand to him, and he hastily kissed it, lurching to his feet. “My dear boy, I should ask you the same thing. Surely you aren’t up to your old tricks?”

He remembered her only a little from his previous visit. She had spent most of her time shut away with the other wives. She had visited with his father a handful of times as they discussed the borders of Rena and its satellite provinces. “No, Your Highness, I was merely looking for a button that I lost.” It was his go-to response when he was caught where he wasn’t supposed to be. She glanced at his body, and he refused to follow her gaze, reddening as he realized that Renian clothing didn’t have buttons.

“Come with me, dear, sweet Fredric.” He hung back suspiciously as she pushed open the gates to the stable yard. She gazed back at him, her pretty lips curled in amusement. “You wanted to see the Carter Hall, did you not?”

This reeked of some sort of trick. What would become of him if his father found out how childishly he had acted?

“No, my lady,” he said slowly, stepping toward her. “I merely sought the key. I have a way of needing to be where I am not wanted.”

She smiled at him and took his hand, half-dragging him into the office of the nearest stable. Despite her attempts at grace, she moved stiffly, often sucking in her breath, as if in pain. Through the other door, they entered the main part of the stable. Alapar was there, to his surprise, next to the stall of a red-and-white spotted horse. “That’s true, and I’m glad of that,” she whispered, finally replying. “Have you ever been in love, Fredric?”

He laughed, a little too loudly, and she glared at him. “Love isn’t real,” he whispered back. “It’s just an excuse that someone made up.”

She frowned. “Surely you do not truly believe that.” Her Caredish accent reared its head. He peered at her annoyed face. “I have seen you. You have got more love in you than most people I know. And your friends love you.”

“There’s admiration, convenience, duty, loyalty, and lust.” Fredric narrowed his eyes in Alapar’s direction. A hand was saddling her horse, talking to her. “But there is no love.”

“I see you,” she said again, jabbing a finger at Alapar. “I and others have seen you look at her. As though she holds the secrets of the world.”

“She holds the secrets of her world,” he conceded. “But I am not in love with Alapar.”  His voice was so aloof, so detached, that she had no other option than to believe him. He bowed to her and strode into the stable. He placed his hand on Alapar’s shoulder, startling her, and dropped an exaggerated bow. The girl glared at him, so fiercely that even Sonet flinched. Casually he slapped the shoulder of the horse and said something that almost made Alapar smile.

“You fool,” Sonet hissed, whirling and storming away.

***

 Blinded once again, Chimley could only listen. And even this was hard – Voices thick as syrup surrounded him, warning him, urging him to run away. He pressed his hands over his ears, and they became louder. Giving up, he tried to focus on the three men before him. They were surrounded by sheer cliffs higher than palace tops that extended about a hundred metres into the ocean. It would be impossible for anyone to climb or jump down the cliffs, and anyone who tried to swim or bring round a boat would be dashed against the rocks. It was a well-chosen place to ensconce the strange collection kept there. Statues of women dressed in heavy clothing surrounded something that resembled a garden. There were four or five tree-like objects where colourful stones were tied, so that they looked like fruits. Several smaller, ankle-high statues were within the ring of gem-trees, shaped like open hands. Some adlins grew within them, of all the colours of the rainbow. To his shock, he even saw a couple of white ones. White adlins. But they didn’t exist… Nearer to the cliffs where ten humungous statues of giant butterflies, some with outstretched wings, some at rest, delicately curved antennae reaching in every direction. These were inlaid with stones that Chimley couldn’t even guess the name of.

To Chimley’s chagrin, everything emitted the blue light of the Verien forest, a glow that obscured his vision. Earlier, food had resolved the issue for him, but now he could not determine what caused this problem.

The incessant crashing of the waves on the rocks added to the din, and made the words of the men nearly incoherent, but Chimley managed to catch a few scraps.

“…a man – no , a boy, really – he went…no essence, but he could use telepathy…not sure, but there’s a good chance…it’s true though, Pavliona is afraid…”

Frustrated, he crept a little closer, ducking behind one of the butterfly sentries. The harsh glow diminished a little, and he could make out some writing on the stone creature’s giant thorax: Kreptis etsi elea. He didn’t try to figure out what it meant, though he guessed the words were Mauyish. He kept his eyes on the people ahead. They seemed to be standing in front of another statue, and when one of them moved out of the way, the glow became brighter. Chimley reached out with his mind, feeling the strange object, but unable to determine what it was. He did detect water, however, and it seemed to draw in his conscience, inviting him to partake in some sort of communion with it. Quickly, he snatched away his awareness.

“…might be best to stop looking and simply prepare for war. Who knows what’s happening in Wespiser, now. I’m sure the queen will show herself once the fighting begins.”

Now Chimley could distinguish the different voices. “Why would she?” inquired another man. “We’ve had many wars, she’s never cared about the others.”

“Because this one is actually about her. Well, the meirens anyway, and their bloody land. Surely she will show some interest?”

A third, elderly voice replied. “No, this will not make her appear. We must continue to search for the afpavda, and that’s all we can focus on for now.”

“But, Nacherin – ”

“That is all,” said the old man in a quiet and final tone. “I bid you good night.” There was a small bit of grumbling, but after a shuffling of feet on the sand, a door opened and then creaked closed. After a moment. Chimley made a move to sneak a peek into the cove. “Peace, my child, you may come out,” said the old man. Chimley flinched and then slowly came around the big butterfly. The glow was unbearable. He could barely see like a normal person, and couldn’t make out the face of the figure before him. The man was barely taller than he was, wearing trousers and a cloak that came only to his knees. He reached for something, and suddenly the blue glow disappeared, replaced by softer, more amicable torchlight.

The man’s face matched his voice – soft, elderly, and wise. Dark silver hair. Green eyes. He and Chimley faced off on opposite sides of a waist-high fountain. It was shaped like a butterfly, with water pooling on its back, cupped in its cherubic wings. Faintly, against the flame of the torch, a slight blue light emanated from the butterfly.

What is this place? Chimley asked, more than ever unwilling to speak.

The man smiled slightly and regarded Chimley, seemingly trying to decipher the meaning of his being. “My child, I cannot tell you.”

Beside the butterfly fountain was a small stone table in the shape of an open book. On it rested a soapstone carving of the butterfly with musical notes on its wings. The carving was made of two wings that folded open on black hinges like a book. Chimley glanced at it passingly and then turned his attention to the rest of the cove.

This is a beautiful place. Most interesting.

“Well, youngster, I should hope so. Tell me, where is your orbalite pendant?”

Chimley took pause. I ate it as a child, he confessed, casting down his eyes. It hasn’t yet dissolved in my body, and so I can still use the telepathy quite well.

The man laughed and reached for the water in the fountain. Without warning he tossed a handful of it into Chimley’s face.

It was not water. The spray burned and smarted in his nose, making his eyes run with tears. Spluttering, he angrily reached to wring the old man’s neck, but his fist closed on air. The torch had been doused and the blue glow was back. Somewhere to the left, the old man laughed.

“Just as I suspected!” he exclaimed. Chimley turned toward the silhouette, murder in his veins.

Nacherin, how dare you –

“My child,” the old man interrupted. “My name is not Nacherin. You are perceptive but not very bright. I am Anteluc, the Nacherin of Leng-Repthi.”

Anteluc lit another torch, and his eyes seemed to emit blue rays from their green irises. This torch he attached to a sconce on one of the giant stone butterflies. He smiled and spread his arms.

“Welcome to Leng-Repthi, Pavliona’s Listening Cove.”

“Pavliona who? The old Queen?”

The man smiled conspiratorially. “Ah, my child, but she is not old in the sense that you mean. She is current, very present, and very, very angry. Can you hear her?”

The Voices, which at length had faded from his primary thoughts, reared once more. Run, Chimley, run, do not fail us, Spider King.

No, Chimley replied snappishly, wishing he could conjure up a fiery, threatening essence like his cousins sometimes did. I do not hear anything, you insipid old man.

Anteluc frowned and reached into his cloak. “Take care when you speak to your Nacherin, my child. Look and see – you bear the mark of the Evil One.”

Snorting in amusement, Chimley stepped forward and gazed into the small, frameless mirror that Anteluc held out. His amusement soon turned to confusion. Where the liquid from the fountain had touched him, his face glowed faintly blue. There were bright splotches all over his skin.

What evil one?

“It is her blood – the blood of her kind, meiren blood – revealed by the canpraia from the fountain.”

Chimley stared unseeingly at his reflection in the glass. The old fool had to be lying. Just like Chimley lied jokingly to anyone inquiring of his strength, speed, or general strangeness. Meiren blood, was the usual response. An excuse, nothing more. It was the spiders that gave him his strength.

There are no such things as meirens.

The old man waved him away. “Oh, my child, it is no concern of yours anyway. We come across many people who’ve got the mark. They are of little use to us. We need one with the blood of the evil one and the blood of Thegin Fin Despartes. Blood of fire, blood of gold.” Anteluc looked down his nose at Chimley. “I do doubt, my little one, that you are of royal blood.”

It began to rain, then, but Anteluc seemed to take no notice. Lightning flashed, and for a few moments everything glowed bluish green, including the canpraia in the fountain. The torch, shielded by a giant butterfly’s wing, flickered in the stormy breeze.

What is all of this? Chimley asked, his curiosity getting the best of him.

“You are an outsider, an intruder,” Anteluc continued politely. “I do think it is time for you to go now, little lirigwin.”

Chimley considered for a moment. What conniving trick could he contrive to get this man to talk to him? Or perhaps a trick wasn’t even necessary. I heard that chant that the others were going on with. What is the meaning of it? “Blood of fire, blood of gold, remind us of the days untold.” What days untold? I assume this is a reference to the birthing days of Despartus.

Anteluc seemed amused. “Why do you think this, my child?”

Chimley shrugged. It is not hard to figure out, now that you have told me what the blood of fire and gold part means. And what else? “Days of ashes, days of kings.” It cannot be called a riddle.

Anteluc regarded Chimley, again seeming to decipher his reality. “I cannot tell you. It would cost us both our lives.”

Our lives lost because of a superstitious legend! Chimley chortled out loud, thinking of his poor fragmented father, giving himself so fully to a cause that no one else could perceive. He pushed back a mass of his soaking wet hair and took a step backward, intending to leave. Something stabbed him in the back. It was another statue, but this one was delicately carved from one massive piece of wood. It was the stark naked form of a sumptuously curved woman, slightly bigger than life, and a tree bearing fruits the size of fists. In her hand she held one of these fruits. The torchlight revealed her curious and uncertain expression. Every strand of her hair was perfectly carved. Each leaf of the tree was expertly formed, the veins faintly visible against the whorls in the wood.

Capraiwan,” Anteluc murmured, gazing reverently – or lustfully, who knew – at the woman.

Oh, yes, that little club of the Pukwaoi. Chimley touched the tree. If he closed his eyes and didn’t test its strength too much, he probably wouldn’t have known he wasn’t touching a real leaf.

“No,” Anteluc insisted. “This is Capraiwan.” Suddenly, the man gripped Chimley’s elbow and pulled him into a small cave behind the Capraiwan statue. Another torch was lit, revealing a small bench and an even smaller alcove filled with about a dozen books. “Sit.”

Resisting his urge to vehemently rebel against adult authority, Chimley forced himself to sit patiently. He did want to know, after all, about the strangeness of Listening Cove.

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