Chapter 4 ~ Barriers
She departed to allow the wind to cool his abrupt show of temper. Trinket cuddled against Fliss’ breast and thought, He’d a fine leader make, if he wasn’t so concerned with the threats he cannot see.
Yes. Time has not brought him near enough his quarry. Cowardice, that breach of the unknown, haunts him.
Would a good meal give him courage? Trinket asked. It would for me! Are we going to eat soon?
Soon. I think perhaps it is too much to expect, but I intend to try. A cursory preview of the ingredients at hand and preparation tools told her that creativity would be her best option. These flatbreads are not quite stale… if I roast them with the potatoes, perhaps. But we will not having any more turnpike, she thought, fixed upon the idea of obtaining enough of the green beans from the garden to feed them both.
Amustere had not expressed any preference, and made no overture when he returned from the field. He started a fire to heat some water for his bath, and Fliss timed it so that supper was ready by the time he was cleaned up.
At the table he skeptically eyed the folded flatbread and stood to retrieve a knife. Fliss negated him and said a word of thanks before she took up the flatbread in both hands to sample it. He quirked an eyebrow and imitated her. At first the potato was a surprise, but the sharp contrast of aged cheese and thin slices of meat entreated the gratitude he had promised to provide. It was the most gracious period of silence he had shown her since their first meeting.
“What was that? It was delightful. Is there more?” Amustere queried, not conscious of his enthusiasm. Fliss quietly fetched seconds, and then thirds. Leaned back, he let out a loud satisfied belch. “Pardon me. What was in that?”
She described it to him and the one ingredient he did not have; a rare spice applied in very small amounts to balance the bitter and the sweet. Amustere’s discontent amused her, as she would only smile when he asked if it was a local spice or a ‘traditional’ flavor. The idea of asking for the secret wrested his heart with a deeper question he hesitated to confront.
That night Amustere proffered his bed to Fliss and slept in his hammock again when she showed signs of fatigue early in the evening. She is a dignified young woman and I’ve done her some discredit. But she is so impatient, I would sooner bathe in broth than admit it!
The moon, full and pale in the cloudless sky, bore down upon the preygivers, favouring the daring and disdaining the lazy. It was when the howls and shuffles stilled that Amustere heard Fliss’ anxious breathing. He clambered out of his woven hammock to observe her through the kitchen window, rolling thunder in his chest. Trinket had oriented ears and head toward her tensing face. There was something fearsomely amiss.
Oh what a time to have my suspicion confirmed! I swear I could not have abandoned her any more than you, beloved, Amustere thought, and his eyes darted. What hope you had for me I now partake that it might suffice for the life of this young woman of dawn’s light!
Amustere entered his cabin and presented a palm to Trinket, after which he retrieved a small stringed instrument and its bow from a hook on the wall. He retreated without the cabin and stared intently at Fliss’ tense face. What melody would ease her tremors? When he put bow to string, he could not conceive of any memorized phrase of notes or past orchestration that he could trust.
There is nothing I know that will meet her need, he thought. He began to play and put his heart into improvised melodies which he felt were the only correct course. Was she hearing me? He wondered, a thought followed by the stern words of his teacher, carved in stone: ‘Reduce the tempo, reduce the tempo! A child hears warmth, desires comfort and safety. Play for her, play for her as though your heart will break!’ Amustere relentlessly strove for the balance, but it eluded him for a time, until… There it was. Melodies he had never heard but felt to be correct, at times discordant then peaceful, astride and beyond his talent and skill.
Yet every note blended well and spoke the language of peace. Feverish moments were rendered restful, and the quakes in her frame eased. The muscles of arm and shoulder relaxed until at the pinnacle moment all strength passed out of his limbs. He carefully lowered them to rest, sweating from head to toe, and while she soundly slept all memory of melody left him.
When Fliss awoke the sun was well over the treetops and Amustere had unusual company. A dusty, cloaked figure stood with him and assessed his cows. They bartered, even to raised voices, but at some juncture Amustere thrust out his hand and other shook it, vigorously. The stranger placed a pouch in his hand and shouted for his caramel, white and brown shepherd dog to assist in rounding up the animals.
Fliss met Amustere in the garden, and he seemed humbled in speaking. “Make ready. We’re going to Traviel this morning.”
“And your cows?”
Ambling by, Amustere regarded their bulky reddish coats and dark eyes indifferently. “Back to Greenswede Farm. Now don’t look like that. Take some eggs and show me what you might do with them.”
Fliss nodded and said, “Very well.”
In spite of Amustere’s answer, Fliss wondered if he ever spoke without lacing his words with hidden meanings. There was an undeniable bond, shadowy and slithering, that impeded their conversation and amplified the discomfort between them.
Amustere did not keep chicken, and with only three eggs in the larder, Fliss was again given to innovation over recipe. Five strips of bacon and six oranges for a breakfast meal, she lamented. It would be enough, especially after she cut and pan fried the last two potatoes. Amustere could well have been taking notes, eyes on like a fascinated boy.
He did whatever she asked and washed up afterwards, leaving no scrap or counter untended. At the table he displayed the epitome of manners and served with abundant kindness. He ate with utmost enthusiasm and Fliss chose to allow him the uninterrupted pleasure of the moment, though it was apparent she could have had any answer she desired. She consumed her portion and prepared for the trip to Traviel.
“Thank you, Fliss. That was a fine breakfast.” Amustere stood at the table as if his gratitude warranted some recognition. “I will prepare some supplies and we will be ready to leave. Ah, yes, a fine breakfast!”
Perhaps a pat on the head? she mused. So she smiled at him and said, “You are welcome.”
“You couldn’t…” he hesitated in speaking, gathering up various items and tools into a large satchel. “You wouldn’t. Would you? Teach me? How you do that?”
“You will learn much if you pay as close attention as you did this morning,” she told him lightly. Flustered, he grumbled and resolved never to ask again.
The birds previously frightened away by Fliss’ actions made pretty song in thick brushes of needled and narrow leaf branches. Trinket playfully chased some of them, but relented when called to Fliss’ side. The main road was a ways off, and Amustere conspicuously avoided it. When asked why he told her, “There is a chance we will be known, and we will be fortunate to delay the investigation of a third party.”
“I see. Trin, leave that,” she ordered, and Trinket dropped the small pinecone and trotted over to her side again.
Everything smells so interesting, Trinket told her.
Does that mean you are not worried about our safety?
We are on protected grounds, she replied. When we leave them I will not be happy anymore. I am certain we are prey.
A tumble of fresh smelling water crashed into a broad cerulean pool under the bridge they crossed. It inspired Fliss’ with the hope that she might find a bathhouse in Traviel. Amustere declared with mock authority, “For Traviel’s many bathhouses, all but one have doubtable water.”
“You are a churlish man,” she snapped.
“I’m no cheesemaker.”
“Oh!” Fliss gasped. “And puns, besides. It is no wonder you lived alone.”
“It is no wonder,” he repeated, as if it made the most sense in the world.
“I suppose you carry your sense of humour in your bag?”
“Naturally, if I should ever need it.”
“Then it must be an unseemly burden,” she retorted. The contents of his leather satchel were as light as their conversation, in point of fact: Some food, hand tools and axe, violin and bow. His rule of thumb was to pack a days more provisions than would be required.
“Just a day?” she puzzled, fingers at her lower lip. “Do you never get lost?”
He perked an eyebrow and quipped, “Birds are not fierce competition for their stock of berries, and shell-blues are plentiful this time of year.”
“Just shell-blues, then.”
“Each season has its bounty.”
“Oh, I see,” she replied, as though reassured. “What a splendorous repast that must make.”
“Aye, aye. What will you do when we get to Drawsdale?”
“How’m I to know that? You’re being obstreperous,” she replied curtly and stretched arms with fingers interlinked. She caught a glimpse of her cobalted hand and tucked it into the opposite sleeve. “It won’t wash out, do you think?”
She looked startled and asked, “Aye?”
“You saw the distance those stones were flung, did you not?”
“I did.” Fliss inhaled deeply, brow furrowed. “Will you tell me what you can?” she pleaded. The crunching of gravel under her feet ceased as she stopped. “Please?”
“Words are not the answer, and I have nothing to say besides. To you is entrusted the weight of all I forged and the guilt I carry,” he said and tapped the branch-become-walking stick as a hint to keep moving. When they did, he continued: “A brat would be walking alone now. You’re like her, and that’s why I am here. That is all I will tell you.”
He blinked, stupefied, tapped the ground again and pressed four fingers to his lips. With a grumble he walked and kicked scuffs of gravel along the way. Mystified, Fliss pressed him for additional information, but he would only make dismissive sounds.
So he is bound as he says, but why has he chosen to accompany me? she thought.
He saved your life, Trinket observed. To be part of your pack now and be in such a tizzy about it is quite silly.
Fliss amused at the tone of laughter in her words. Quite right, Trin!
They travelled with as little conversation as Amustere could tolerate until they arrived at the unmanned gate to the fishing village. People bustled in surprising numbers inside the stone walls and Amustere muttered something unsavoury under his breath. He turned to Fliss and said, “Something is not right. Traviel is not a vacation spot. We must go speak to Moise. He’s the keeper of the long bridge to the mainland.”
“Aye,” Fliss nodded.
He drew up short and caught her mid-step so they were nearly nose to nose, hand raised in warning with just a raised forefinger. “Not a word. We’d best not gather attention. Wool, either. Bah. Humour goes back in the bag.”
Amustere and Fliss neared Moise’s post at the long rope bridge to Drawsdale, and were instantly crestfallen. The elderly Alruna already had company of the official sort. A tall man in green and gold-trimmed finery stomped his feet and waved his hands. Moise grunted, chirped and whistled in protest and the man deposited a scroll into his hands after which he departed with his face a disgruntled scarlet.
Why give him the scroll and not gain entrance? Fliss mused.
“Some manner of communication he’ll pass on to the guards, I’d wager,” Amustere supplied, gauging Fliss’ interest in the exchange. “Like as not he’d wanted passage with it, but Moise is a rough skinned old felor. Letter o’ the law fresh as cooling iron.”
“You may, but he doesn’t, and we need it to stay that way for a while longer. We’ll find another way,” Amustere decided and turned away. Fliss caught the crook of his arm. “Wait.”
The line at the red-posted gate was not long, but they discerned a pattern in the interaction Moise had with each individual who expressed interest in passage across. He would examine the person then put out his four digit hand expectantly. Gold pieces did not permit, gems and valuables did not open the way. A stout, short woman in black tresses haughtily slapped a gold-sealed ticket against his chest, and this appeared to cause him to open the solid panel doors to the narrow bridge beyond. She snatched the ticket back and continued her journey preceded by a loud huff.
Amustere intoned to Fliss as though she had no idea, “I’ve a hangnail that has better odds of tearing loose than we have chance of opening that gate.”
Fliss stuck out the tip of her tongue at this. “You don’t, do you?”
“No, but I would die for a glance at that ticket. What was on it, official writ?”
“Moise is employed by Rainwall, is he not?”
Amustere nodded, but was not content with this idea. He removed them both to a narrow grove of trees and waited for the crowd to disperse. While they waited, Amustere made casual conversation with passers-by. Most were none too communicative, but a young woman with shrewd eyes and understated but fine apparel explained that a decree from the palace limited travel to Drawsdale except by official authority.
She patted the brown, wavy hair that curved toward her neck and said, “That’s a lovely dress, miss, but I daresay they’re going to know you in it.”
“Oh of all the predictable,” Amustere groused. “Smidge, help me out. Are they looking for this girl?”
“How’d it happen, Goldie? What’d she break? Price like this? I’m not a proud woman,” she smiled, and though her words could have contained sarcasm, Amustere pressed a coin into her palm as he knew they did not. She unfurled a printed page marked with the seal of the royal presses. Smidge eyeballed Fliss. “Real awful likeness, elsewise they’d be running at ya now. Nevermind, sweetie. Five hundred gold pieces is too much for me. I’ve a likesay, ‘there’s no tool bigger than your gob’ and my taste of wealth was fine, fine indeed. And plenty. Goldie’s known as a soft’eart. Reliable, too.”
Fliss blinked at this and buried her embarrassment. Smidge grinned. “Nothin’ to say, eh? Imalikesay you’re bound t’ some oath’r curse’r some rot. Nevermind dear, you’d best keep that. Show it ‘round when you’ve got t’ throw eyes off you. Assat? Aye. Smart girl. No trouble like royal trouble. ‘Ave a look.”
Fliss’ portraiture could not have consisted of more than a dozen strokes, hastily angled into the slender face of a young woman with long hair. Text in the common tongue underneath read: ‘Wanted Alive For Theft Of Royal Artifacts. Reward Upon Delivery. 500 Gold Pieces.’ An especially painted cobalt tear angled downward from the left eye and Fliss traced her left forefinger over it. She said, “Alive… right? Who else could know?”
“Ask the oceans, Fliss. Anyone — ” Amustere began, turning to thank Smidge who was gone. “That woman. Peh. We’d best be — eh?”
“Let’s find a clothier,” she countered, plucking Trinket up and into her arms. “You know one?”
He arched an eyebrow. “There is only one in Traviel. August Browfine.”
“And as you know him he’s trustworthy?”
“I’m to tell you?” Amustere jibed. “As you’ve asked me we’re fortunate he is.”
A chill wind ripped across the fields from the fifty foot drop to the ocean just a half mile away, disinterested in Traviel’s two man tall walls. Fliss noted how plain the plank-and-beam buildings were, sturdily built with the barest of decoration. A crude, if decorative, fountain in the market square formed a hinge between the connected main roads of travel. Amustere cupped a palmful of water to his lips and slurped noisily while Trinket hinted her own desire for the clear substance. Fliss lowered Trinket to the fountain rim and sat, pondering while her companion lapped at the surface.
“We’re fortunate all business is at the gates and… elsewhere,” Amustere pointed out and waved at the nearly empty square.
“You didn’t plan our timing, then.”
“I might have done, if I’d your skills. I’ve no reason for mistrust, here. Not until now, at any rate,” he said with a note of regret. “I’ve a notion you might pose as my niece.”
“And that would convince no one,” Fliss remarked and hovered her hand above the shimmering fountain water. She submerged it abruptly with a gasp.
“We must do something,” he said, half-hearted. “Listen, Fliss, I don’t know what that fellow is going to tell you. I know it’s trouble, but I’m not so skilled to know what kind.”
“You misjudge skill and re-purpose it as knowledge.”
“An’ what does that mean? Tell me you’ve any notion of the technology that Rainwall possesses?” Fliss shook her head. Amustere gestured at the carved stone angel and her eyes followed. “They’ve fine lensed tools for distance viewing, and who knows what more.”
Fliss’ expression became unreadable. She said, “Drawsdale has had many advances in technological accomplishments, somewhat abruptly.”
“That it has, and he’ll have seen the cornerstone of Tilith temple flying on the horizon. Shards, girl, the stones were thrown out near to the mainland!”
“They did see me, this poster is testament to that!” she exclaimed and shook the excess water from her hand which she wiped it on her dress. “Oh what trouble I must be for you, Amustere.”
“Trouble is a lifemate of Rainwall, and I its forlorn brother,” he orated theatrically. Fliss’ brow threw up narrow lines of doubt, and Amustere shrugged. “I mean to say that he’s not important in the way that the taint is. You see, distance viewers are awful at little things… at, seeing little things.”
Trinket leapt up at Fliss’ chest from the fountain rim, and midair she caught the gravity defying wonder. Fliss said, “You are not able to guide me, though you will not tell me so. I must intuit these things.” She sighed. “What must we do that we may find this scholar of yours?”
“Find? ‘We’ don’t find. We see August,” he concluded. Fliss seemed to want to speak, but said nothing. Amustere shifted on the uncomfortable carved ferodite. He insisted, “We must see August. Was it not your idea? Come, he’s not far from here.”
His shop was visible by line of sight, as a matter of fact. ‘Rivet and Thread’ was the name of the tailoring shop, but not in so many letters. The spool and thread sign of carved wood over the door was a misnomer, but upon meeting he assured them he was the best tailor in town with no sense of irony. Tall and a little overweight, August sported a full black beard and wispy eyebrows. Round cheeks and pearl-opal eyes examined his new customer liberally.
“Can’t see much ’til you take off that gown,” he said, thumbs hooked into the band of his fine stitched apron over which stomach and chin jutted.
Fliss negated, “It’s just a dress. My travel dress.”
“Off with it.”
Fliss blushed in front of the triad of mirrors. Underneath she wore undershirt, pants and heavy black stockings. Self conscious, she clasped thin arms in front of her stomach and fidgeted with her discoloured hand. She glowered and snarled, “Amus will you stop staring!”
“Don’t you mind him,” August demurred. “His roving eyes never chanced on anyone so like his own.”
Fliss looked puzzled, and asked, “His own? What do you mean?”
“You’re the framed painting of Allegory, his wayward daughter. Except for that… hand? What have you done to it?”
Fliss’ eyes darted, awkward and shamed. She tucked her hand under the other on her chest and murmured, “Some variety of accident. I do not want to talk about it.”
“As you will, then.” August eyed a pair of gloves amongst a collection on a shelf and said, “Mayhap a pair of riding gloves would ease your discomfort? Yes, they suit you just fine. Tell me, do you mind long pants?”
“I’ve never worn pants before…”
“Whatever you want,” Amustere yawned and rolled over so he lay faced away from them on the thin cushioned bench seat. “Wake me when it’s time to pay.”
Soon enough he snored and drooled enough to ward off customers. August was thoroughly engrossed by the fitting process, and gave future business no thought. Fliss had selected a commonplace riding outfit, and August indicated they were reasonably priced. He said, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re mad at the fool. Rightly so. He owes you, but take my advice: Save your money.”
“Why does everyone know him?”
“He’s a local legend, for what little that’s worth. His family once owned the land from shale to mountain. That he breathes this day is a miracle, to be sure. Exhale. My, that does look good. You look plain, totally ordinary. That is what you wanted?”
In long, baggy brown pants, dark brown leather vest (which August suggest to ward against the cold), off-white long sleeve button down shirt, red neckscarf and loose leather jacket, Fliss felt ten pounds heavier. The gloves were comfortable enough, and she quickly felt at ease with them on, not to mention the idea of wearing them constantly. The boots on her feet clunked and thudded as she consciously shuffled in them until she exerted more effort.
“What else can I do?” she asked, pulling at her new collar, dejected.
I think you smell strange, Trinket opined, sniffing the fresh boot leather.
Oh, but… at least, will it throw off trackers? Fliss asked.
No! Why would you think that? They’re not going to track your old clothes, Trinket replied. But do not worry, I will tell you if we are being followed.
“You’d have a time in Rowland Meadow. Pretty girl like you’d make a name for… oh, dear. I’m sorry, Fliss,” August said, but wasted no time in managing the mood for the better. “You should have a hat, I think. Be yourself and hide at the same time, as the stage actors do. To get into Drawsdale you’ll need to give a good performance. Come on with me.”
A hat? I hate hats, she thought. “Broadfloat, I don’t see any… hats…”
They passed through a fogged-glass door into sea of endless head adornments; shelf and rack of every attitude imaginable. From the cheapest bowler to the finest feather weighed fashion she had ever laid eyes upon. “It’s Browfine, if you don’t mind. I have a sister who married a Barrowfire… her husband left me his collection of hats before they moved to Aurest. There are no Broadfloats in the family. None at all.”
Breathless, in part due to the thickness of dust upon every surface, Fliss perused the collection with mouth half open. August made his way to the counter in the back and opened the side door to take a feather duster out of a closet.
She gaped and said, “Where do I even start?”
“Ponytails,” August concluded after some pointed study of her head. He produced a pair of red ribbons that curiously matched her new scarf, and expertly tied her hair into two long tails in bows. “Cute. You might cut it, or dye it. But… having said that, no one knows what colour your hair is.”
“That we know of.”
“Who…” August coughed as a wave of dry dust wafted into his face. Fliss, likewise, sneezed. A thin limbed figure stood at the side entrance and he squinted at it. With a slump of shoulder he sighed, “Seasmoke. You’ve unlocked my doors again.”
“Just to see in and have a word, Brownflop. Pardon me if I stay out of that deathtrap.”
Diver closed his eyes and tilted his head in place of a shrug. “Good afternoon, Fliss. You look well. Have you thought of something else to be called so we can get into Drawsdale?”
“Yes,” she replied easily. “Agate Longfeather.”
“Very good. Where is Amustere Goldfinch?”
Automatically Fliss reached to smooth out a skirt that was not there. The heavy material in its place was constraining, but protective as a bastion. August recognized the motion and reminded her what they were about. She nodded and related to Diver where Amustere’s snoring might be located.
“Mayhap I’d have heard it, searching, but I’d rather stay on the sly. I have need of Goldfinch, but we will return soon. Briarflip, will you see that she is fed? I will make repairs on your costs when I return.”
August’s exacerbated sigh abated. “Ah what’s the use? I’d open this shop if I thought the money would be of use. No, no, best not admit you were ever here. The Brute will send his loping moles ‘long soon. You’ve only marks with you, I’ve a notion. Bain Marie’d only report on the change to coin. She’s got the loyalty of a whitefin on the hook.”
Diver croaked, and it implied comprehension. “The Ryone who serve Rainwall have no pride, but scattered to the shales as they were, what pride can be had? Oh, hello little brave one.” Trinket swirled around his feet and leapt into his spindly arms. Fliss raised eyebrows at this display of trust. “It is a kindness to welcome you once more.”
Amustere welcomed Diver with practised courtesy with the calm falsetto one employs when attempting to conceal intimate pain. Diver was quietly disinterested. The wallboards creaked as early spring winds nudged the building. Noon and lunch was provided by Canor and August in turn, and received with much gratitude.
“No come off it, you’re trying much too hard,” August chided.
“Less emphasis on your ‘l’ sounds and more on the ‘r’,” Diver hinted.
“More on ’em vowels, too, coz Yyoners sure love those vowels,” Amustere groused and Fliss flattened her eyebrows at him. He presumed not to notice and said, “Don’t waste your time imitating an accent. Just play up yours. Southern Starwise taught in the lands to the north can have any accent, it’s just not common knowledge.”
“How d’you know that?”
Amustere grinned and folded his arms, leaned against the wall. “You do. Why should I explain when you’re so sure I can’t guide you?”
Fliss jutted her chin at the obnoxious point. She said, “That won’t fool Rainwall’s allies, nor his… um, what did you say?”
Amustere had made a face, and it brought her up short. He said, “It will, but if you get flustered — and you will — play dumb. Distract. Mutter, panic, flirt, whatever you must do.”
“And how pray tell shall I…”
August eyed Amustere something savvy and chimed, “C’mon girl. You’re attractive. Can the fellow for his type. He a soft-sole? Charm him. A blustery rock-noggin? Whine and cajole. I married a woman who was the best at those things.” Fliss fulminated and blushed at these notions. August leaned forward, brow furrowed, “Act! Listen, my dear wife always said a good lie has a bit of truth in it. And so it is with stage performers.”
“I won’t lie,” said she, indignant.
Amustere gave a sigh. “Say that now, girl, but you’ll do what you must.”
“Aye, that you will,” August grunted and nostalgia arrested Amustere. Fliss set August with a subdued glare, and he continued: “If you wish, speak of your past as a blight upon the soil. The sadder, the guiltier, the less curious people will be.”
“Ah. I see. You are to imitate me,” Diver stated glibly.
“Yes. That’s what I mean to say.”
“That is reassuring.”
Fliss felt it unladylike to gape, and so merely astonished at her company. Diver did not show an outward reaction, August was… well, August. Amustere seemed uncomfortable, though the misery about him seemed to slip away. He stood from the wall and agreed, “August’s words alight. You have the gift. Use it.”
“I do not believe my ears. What ploy do I rely upon when none of that succeeds?”
Amustere shrugged. “There is valour in survival. Run.”
“Of that you would know much. Are we settled? Good then,” August said, “I’m to know what your plans are. If you’ve any heart left in you, Goldfinch.”
Speaking of guilt. Twice struck, once in the eye and the other at the heel, Amustere thought. He said, “Then I take it you’ve not had enough danger? You’d be a glutton for it and deprive Pewter of her surviving parent?”
His round cheeks reddened angrily. “Am I not permitted the grace of forgiveness?”
“Who’s to forgive you, August? What wrong have you done?”
“You misunderstand my… I mistook that to mean, oh… shards!” He clenched his hand around the stein in it, took a breath and then said, “You try my patience continually, Amus. Why?”
“To see the truth of your emotion unveiled by rawness.” He stood from the table and laid down the coin for August’s services. “You court mercy but do not comprehend it, my friend. I must away to prepare for our journey, but I shall return for supper. Diver.”
Diver glanced up and made a noise that was either a burp or an acknowledgement. Perhaps both. Amustere was halfway to the door when he looked back and said, “We go to answer the question my grandaunt posed. Be safe, Fliss, until I return.”
He crossed the threshold and could tell that August was about to regale Fliss with tales of the unusual and quirky people who were his customers. It was when they passed the town centre waterfall that Diver intoned, “Where do we travel?”
“There is an indisposed scholar whose services shall meet my needs.”
“And what makes this fellow indisposed?”
“It is that he is a woman.”
Just how many women does Amustere know? Diver thought. The likely answer was ‘most of them’. They passed through the western part of Traviel, behind the barnyards of the Tequebrand family and into the secluded forest of Gravemire. A narrow path, trimmed with expert care, brought them to a clearing in which a small abbey stood. Grey stone, angled roof and stained glass above a narrow door bore the promise of sanctuary and a sympathetic ear.
Amustere stepped in front of Diver and held out a warning arm. Diver retreated a few steps and did not ask for an explanation. Amustere rapped on the door and noticed that it was new wood joined by metal bars across its length on the upper and lower sections.
“I have no need of company, and you’ll not find mercy here,” rasped a voice from within.
“Honourable servant of the Pillars, we beseech you. We have dire need of a skilled hand. The hour is early though we are late.” There was no reply for a span. Amustere added, “And we come bearing ill will against the crown.”
Diver heard it first, the abrupt shuffle and crank of cloth and metal. It was loud enough to jar him where he stood. The door creaked with the draw and clank of a lock. Amustere pulled it experimentally, and then drew it wide open.
Behind the door there was nothing but the narrow path of hall into which coloured light poured. Built to frustrate drunkards and impatient soldiers, Diver thought. The smell of metal filled his nostrils and his knees buckled at the threshold. Amustere caught his hand and steadied him. Close to his head he whispered, “Are you unwell?”
“Let us not search these environs. I shall stand guard here.”
“Are you — ”
“Sensitive to her true labour,” Diver said as he sat beside the nearby marsh. “Go on. I will recover.”
“As you wish.”
Diver assured Amustere that he was steady on his feet. He bid Diver rest and then proceeded though the narrow passage into the main hall of the abbey, both broader and higher. Memory flooded his mind, and the joys he chose not to reflect upon. His heartbeat quickened.
Upon the raised podium-stage sat a figure in hooded cloak. Amustere noticed that the building was clean and the pews polished. He mounted the steps and knelt on one knee before the seated figure. A raspy, asexual voice bid, “You are not alone. Tell me who is your companion?”
“Coldwire of the Alruna.”
“Very well. Tell me of your need.”
Amustere rose and recited his tale, “Heuron’s faithful Ryone, Snaredraft, has the records of the Three Heart Star. The time comes for the Reproach of the Throne.”
“You omit the recent passing of events.” Amustere did not reply, and so the voice continued, “You would not neglect this, but I sense a constraint within you. What is it?”
“A curse I might renounce, but to do so willingly would risk the venture upon which I have wagered my life,” Amustere said in a cool, collected stream of thought.
“A wager implies chance.”
“The chance is not mine.”
The raspy voice shifted tone and Amustere heard a distinctly female persuasion. She said, “Do not heed the deception of heedless artifice.”
A tick in Amustere’s cheek twitched and he countered, “Many years ago I chose not to interfere. I paid a price for which I had not bargained.”
“You propose to know the arrangements of this bargain?”
Tension rippled through Amustere and he had the impression that she wore a smile. The feeling did not last, for she was correct. Amustere composed himself and said, “I begin to see the terms and there are answers I would have. Do you believe I received another object for my price?”
“You are here in pursuit of those answers. Do you presume to know the route of the courier? His travails? Can you tell me the weight of his package?”
“And what of your questions?”
Amustere was stoneheeled. What was she asking him?
“What do you see in this girl?”
This was a familiar phrase, its objective clear. He closed his eyes and visualized his silver thread in his mind. Around it, turned many times, was another of a deep silver. It shimmered, but was marked with a toxic cobalt tone that dripped and sizzled. He said, “She clings to me, desperate and afraid. Where we part I do not know, but should I abandon her, she will perish.”
“Yes, and the other?”
A white thread also was turned about his, and for a longer stretch did it remain. Warmth, trust and worry glowed brightly from this thick thread. Amustere did not recognize it, so he said as much. The woman’s hooded head tilted forward, and she said, “It is your duty to recognize this relationship.”
She chuckled. “You are prepared then?”
“Yes, I am prepared.”
“Then let us carry on this business. Furnish me with your coin and script.”
From a small pouch at his back he retrieved an even smaller rolled script and placed it on the palm of her gloved hand. He reached for his coin purse but she closed the hand swiftly. She said, “Halt. Heuron requests the loyalty of Foxtear. What say you?”
“I am at her behest.”
“Then our balances are checked. Good hunting, and be safe.”
“Good hunting,” Amustere echoed, “and be safe.”
Diver awaited in good humour, the dense fog of Gravemire’s swamps refreshing to him. Amustere, irked by the previous conversation, remarked to him, “There is a saying that a diligent teacher is forever a student.”
“There is also a saying that there exists a mystery for every understanding.”
Amustere let that pass and did not speak for a while. They were in Traviel when he spouted, “A child runs at every hill because they scarcely know fatigue.”
Diver blinked at this and asked, “By that, what you do mean?”
“It means for every mistake there is hope renewed. Come, we must see Olgive before we return to August and Fliss.”
To Be Continued