ChaulE: Round of the Holy Well

The Story

Lynk Star.  Two primary planets periodically joined by a great navigatable river in space.  Chal’Iss—home of the ChaulEr xilumbearers, Guardians of the Holy Well.  Crus’Ybl—ruled by QortL, Orphans at Infinity’s Door, whose armadas have many times traversed the Lynk Sea to lay siege against the Rounds of ChaulE,  with hopes of becoming the new masters of the Well… and of all Lynk Star.  Paun— rise-to-fame heroine and Sinner chieftain of ChaulE’s ground forces— is betrayed by her lover, kidnapped, tortured and imprisoned.  At length she is rescued by Jyl, a mariner from Crus’Ybl.  His primary interest is the location of the Well.  Suspicious of his true intentions, the ChaulEr Qeenmother assigns Siress Stryyx, the Aul Council’s master sleuth, to construct him as the enemy.  It is a tale of ferocious battles, elite female warriors, witchcraft, serpentlords, flying elkstallions, venomous clouds, very foreign lands, romance, treachery and mystery.  It is a time of rare strength and courage.  It is a time of deeds.

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ChaulE: Round of the Holy Well

by loujen haxm’Yor

 

Thank you, Jenny—

Dearest Wife—

for More than Everything

 

HELL IS WHERE YOUR MONSTERS ARE.

(Runes above the gate to Round Serpens)

  1. Tiro

Her heart and mind were shivering… with indecision.  All around her.  Shafts of poison and fire.  The clash of rokkonz scimitars and xilumswords.  Shrouding nets swooped every which way over the bulwarks to Above.  Their deafening cries assailed the air.  As did the cries of their victims… and their killers.  Legions of trampled dead.  Some of them— her sisters… from the school.  Just yesterday they were but tiros, fresh out of phase one to soldiery.  And today Reelam Bell had summoned their need to join their hardened compatriots in meeting the onslaught by another order of Infinity’s Door—the QortLites from the Cavern of Cqaz.  The enemy had braved the treacherous reefs, even their exposed pontoon runways under the hail from scatterbows, to try and overrun the unfinished fortress of Round Reelam.  Their sheer masses were enough to drive themselves between the large rampart breaks on the seaward side.  By the time Bofesh Cloud blew its breath upon Firth Falls, the serpent lace uniforms of QortL were overwhelming the red sphairacloth Within.  That’s where the young girl was.  Within— Reelam’s ground floor.  For the moment she sensed idly that she was alone.  In the midst of some unreal storm.  Surrounding her were the broken and bloodied bodies of her comrades.  They had been cut off from their primary defending force.  An err in command by their tiroleader.  Also dead.

She was aroused by the screaming charge of a QortLite soldier.  Her hands fisted hard on the hilts of her xilumswords.  She knew the precise movement for countering his attack.  But she ignored the discipline.  She ignored all that she was taught to survive in battle.  Her closest friends were all dead now.  And she was ready to die too.  One QortLite at a time.  She met the soldier’s charge.  The sinew of a dark spirit had cursed her metal, as a dozen maddened slashes clove through his weaponry and scaly frame.  She had drawn her first black blood.  Another figure appeared with rokkonz sword and shield.  And in like fashion he too was dispatched to dead night.  Little by little the children from Infinity’s Door filtered out from the rest of their assaulting mass to challenge the young ChaulEr.  Each time their limbs was crudely hewn from their bodies.  Before long the new ground was the blood and flesh of QortL.  With every swift and furious stroke the mound of dead night rose higher and higher.  It was a pyramid of butchered soldiers, who failed even with their crushing numbers.  Slaughtered unmercifully by the relentless demon whose xilum blades seemed indestructible.  The sacrificial mound rose to such a height, that all eyes fell upon it.  Till at last a dooryhorn blast was sounded.  And the attack upon the lone tiro was halted.  In fact, the battle itself ceased to dead silence, with the sphairacloth defenders resetting themselves at ready positions.

This time the King of Cqaz himself scaled the mountain of flesh.  He was an Emocar.  Half man, half gilabeast.  Huge and robust as a glenbear.  With weapons to compliment his size.  When he reached the top, he glared at the adversary who had slain so many of his men.  Her red leather tunic was so shredded, her ebonskin body so drenched with her enemy’s blood, she appeared almost naked.  Like a depraved priestess born Under Bblonfen and baptized into witchhood.

The QortLite bared his venomous fangs, flashed his serpent tongue, and pointed his long scimitar down at her.  “Ah!  Little ChaulEr.  The Dilmatoyn Sun shines upon both of us on this day of deeds.  But I am the Roy of Cqaz.  A Throe Wielder… of Infinity’s Door.  Feel privileged to be devoured by me, as I add your brave spirit to my own.”

By now the king imagined her a tired and weakened soldier.  An easy kill.  But the young woman mustered her power.  Once more she thought of yesterday’s laughter and celebration… and the faces forever damned to dead night.  Damned by the enemy who boasted before her.

Cautiously she approached the Emocar, and in a plain voice heard by the legions of warriors, she said, “I am called Paun.”

Hissing in anger, the QortLite king rammed his bulk against her.  But her rooted stance did not allow his strength and size to press forward.  He flailed his sword spastically, searching for something— anything of her.  He could feel and hear the collisions between the rokkonz and xilum.  And when he thought he had finally seen the opening for his final thrust… there was nothing to thrust.  He looked down to see his sword and shield laying upon his massacred followers— with parts of his arms and hands still gripping them.  Two xilumswords stabbed his sides.  Grabbing his head, the ChaulEr sunk her jaws into his throat, tore the flesh from his neck and spit it back at him.  He screamed a silent scream.  And in a final rapid stroke, she cut off his jeweled head and hurled it down the corpse pyramid.

The QortLites gasped in disbelief… and despair.  The Roy has been killed.

Like a runaway mob the army from Cqaz raced across the pontoon flattops.  A barrage of barbed arrows and spears chased them to their ships.  From there the enemy fleet hastened towards that area of ocean water called the Firth.  There they would drop anchor and wait for the Falls of the great sea bridge to reach Chal’Iss.  Wait for the explosive crashing contact between the Lynk and Nalfin Seas.  Wait for that battle to settle to a calm.

And with the event of the mighty Rises the ships of Infinity’s Door unfurled their huge parasails and locked onto the swiftest currents anywhere.  The dewsen clouds that travelled along the Lynk provided enough breathable atmosphere for the mariners who dared the space crossing.  Five to eight days to Crus’Ybl—depending on the integrity of the ships.  And the QortLite hulls were the fastest.  Their helmsmen—the best.  They prided themselves in taming the Rises and Falls.

Today, however, the King of Cqaz had been killed.  It would be a long ride home.

Scatterbowers rained their arrows upon the corpse mound.  They were careful to avoid the lone figure braced at its peak.  A young girl, dressed in a saffron gown, began climbing the steps of QortLite dead.  She was surrounded by several Buukliair, her guardians, who stabbed their xilum blades into each foothold—just to make sure.  Reaching the top, she was cautioned by one of her bodyguards.  But headlong she approached the blood-soaked warrior.  She removed a small cloth from her pocket and used it to wipe the blood from the tiro’s face.

The motionless intense soldier slowly lowered her swords, as she listened to the sweet voice of the young girl.  “Do you remember me, child?  You did well today.  Really well.”  She meticulously uncurled the soldier’s grip, took the swords, and handed them to her Buukliar.  Then she removed her own outer cloth and wrapped it around the rounder.  She held the sides of the soldier’s face and looked into her eyes.  “Who am I… Lady Paun?”

The tirosworder awakened from her blind gaze, bit her lip, and whispered, “Qeenmother.  You are Qeenmother.”

The young girl smiled, and with hidden tears she embraced her compatriot.   “That’s right, child.  It’s me.  Qeenmother.  We’re all safe now.”

Those that lived the battle of Round Reelam told a fabulous tale.  Which spread from the world of Crus’Ybl across the celestial Lynk Sea to the planet Chal’Iss.  The newest legend of Lynk Star.  The legend… of Paun.

With their single periscopic eye and melded minds— and while relaxing cross‑finned atop a sketsal leaf, still warm from the molten dew— the curious ruskalik casually scanned the chandeliers of roofless night: from the fertile Goronz Wood, ilyons of Holton centuries to everywhere; and young Milchy Pass— now glittering in the shape of the streamered crown of Yan Sull.

Tolerantly compromised, their thoughts assembled this event…

At midlunar dawn, while Bofesh Cloud intersected Firth Falls, and Dilmatoyn Star hovered astern between the Gates of Mauv Wu’Pree and Gyer’s Peak— Lady Paun, a tirosworder from Neked’s Lair, slew the Emocar Roy of Cqaz and over two hundred QortLites Within Round Reelam.

By the third Spout Rises, on the field of Urfacis Lloc, she— with no arms but her own—had vanquished the Great Semdrak, Ods Uf.

With his inexpedient defeat the Well of Sut UnBii had lost her strongest ally.  The Crown of Five Kingdoms rehearsed Ayopee.  Construction of Fool’s Brigerpin was undertaken at Precem Turr.

 … and Jyl was coming. 

           

from Now

convey Thyself

to Then…

ChaulE: Tide of Dyydz.

  1. The Lynk

There are two major civilized worlds in the Lynk Star system.  Crus’Ybl and Chal’Iss.  And it is because of their wondrous planetary interaction that Lynk Star bears its name.

On Crus’Ybl is a great conical mountain rising out of the blue Wancium Gulf called the Spout.  On Chal’Iss is a fixed point on the green Nalfin Sea called the Firth.  Both planets are in close proximity to each other.  They have opposite but equal time rotations.  Weeks of various periods of day and night are experienced during each turn, depending on the drifts of the nearby suns.  Every full rotation the Spout and the Firth are aligned directly across from each other.  During their third quarters of rotation the waters of the Wancium surge through a vast tunnel in the Spout and spill away from the Threshhold, the peak of the mountain, past the atmosphere of Crus’Ybl and into space.  This phase is called Spout Rises.  The narrow flow from the Threshhold continues for days, until the fourth quarter, when the great Lynk Sea reaches the Firth and crashes into the Nalfin Sea.  Shorted Lynk Falls.  As the planets turn from here, the Wancium Gulf ceases its awesome tide and the tail end of the Lynk Sea separates more and more from Crus’Ybl.  Firth Falls.  Finally, the stern of the Lynk splashes into Chal’Iss.  What’s left is open space.  Open Lynk Falls.  At the next third quarter, the action is reversed, with the Firth Rises being the source of the Lynk Sea and its course until Spout Falls.   During its journey through space the Lynk Sea wears a lavender hue, due to the magical song of the suns and moons and nearest stars.

The years are like Holten centuries in this part of the Lynk Star entity.  And for those mariners braving their ivoctenwood hulls and parasails along the Lynk currents, so seem their journeys.

  1. Driftwood

They call the suns of night— HevN’s Brew.  And the flocks of clouds grazing her meadows—Casm’s Harem.  This evening the Harem is at war, as his half-bred sheep, bleating tempered scorch, are jousting furiously and routing themselves into rabid stampede.  The grating wind and the burning rain.  They have become the unholy choir from the Post.  Souls of afterdeath scourged unmercifully.  Their waxes perspiring to infinite swarms of disharmony.

Chellis Bell!  A song of driftwood.

Over a jeweled plinth a figure of grace swirls herself and trips the carillamond beams that envelope her.  And again the howls of this dreadful night must humble themselves before her voice.

Chellis Bell!

Rounder, cwolwisan, saurian, Herbager.  Throughout the breadth of this isle of legend, their houses bloom to second nature.

An ivoctenwood gauze is propelled over its watertrack and sails one panel length.  Synthetic starlight, harvested within the ostealstone walls, pierces the drawn casements to better accelerate the movements of awakened troops.  With organized haste they proceed to their assignments.  To Above three hundred roofers, keen eyed bearers of the scatterbow.  To Below, commonly recognized with bitterness as the Pits, a legion of tiros and secondary frontliners.  And rounding out the Order of the Cloth, the dancers, four hundred primary sworders, to the Bench— Doorway to Within, which was presently tarped against the storm.  For the moment only the roofers would be exposed to the stinging downpour.

Meanwhile all other rounds and connective perimeters were on strict Subdefiance.  Erroneous alarm?  Surprise drill?  The latter was the more popular guess.  There were two consecutive sets of clangs of equal temperance, thus eliminating the chance of any signal miscue.  The other assurance was the night itself, whose disposition alone easily unbalanced the odds.  Honn Kolcher would never risk death without some journstar’s blessing.  And he was far too experienced a seaman to sail too near the wind his formidable armada and challenge Dalhexxer’s Lash upon the Nalfin Sea.  No.  Somewhere beyond the Spout’s Threshhold, Infinity’s Door was very asleep.

Chellis Bell!

“Spew on your matrons’ pyres.”

Belting her scabbard, Oaera thoroughly cursed the untimely disturbance of her sleep.  Her troops were still smarting from the new g’Wesh movements.  Drills.  And more drills.  From when the setting moons of Talrit’fyamp shed their luster on Byngol-a-bur.  Until Open Lynk.  All the daylight, and then some.  Sweating indoors in the Pits no less!  While the lucky rounds held springdrift exercises.

“Goddessdamn Ch’Chencylwhores!”

Her guardians were in total agreement.

A sentry relayer, drenched to the bone, burst into Daamquarters and shut out the storm behind her.  “Daam Oaera.  There is a lifeform on the water slowly approaching the breaker zone.”

“It’s called driftwood,” commented one of the buukliairs.  “We knew that from the tune.”

“Yes, Lady Frindexy.  Driftwood.”  She was a new tiro, fresh from the school.  Much of a round’s language was limited there.  “But from Above we cannot tell if the form is conscious.”

“We hope so,” said the Daam, having warmed herself with a dish of lwaen sporf.  “Bring the body Below.”

“Yes, Daam Oaera.  We are retrieving the form now.”  And she dashed out the door.

Oaera drank the rest of her broth and wiped her lips with the back of her hand.  “Is that what the school’s come to?  The form?  Bevleba!

“V’Bokk.  Get the roofers inside and send everyone back to bed.”

With a nod the guardian acknowledged.  “See you in the Pits.”  Then she disappeared into the foulness of the outside night.

“Well, sisters.  Shall we go and inspect… our lifeform?”

Descend Daam Oaera, bitch and governess of Round Chellis Beach.

Down Below the last of the tiros headed for the barracks.  It had not been exactly a time of savage rapping.  Just a solitary victim agitated by the Nalfin Sea.  And probably dead anyway.  But it was all enough to bleed into a round fable of sorts.  Twenty feet above the blood stained Pit, just beyond the crater pocked ceiling, could be heard the scraping of the sleeted wind against the tarpaulin.  It was through one of these combs from Within— the tarp section nearest the breaker zone having been partially lifted— that the nettee was lowered and set by a warm fevorock station.

What had been driftwood was a weather beaten soldier.  She was garbed in a familiar brinebreaker and a sphairacloth.  And her drenched ringlets were adorned with a set of ribbons— distinctive ChaulEr.  An empty sheath indicated a coerced tribute to Lokker’s Garrote.

“Poor woman,” sighed Physician K’Triff.  “Almost frozen.”  With a moan, the helpless figure stirred.  “Ah!  But still singing!  Perhaps Casm has been gulled tonight.  Just try holding Scrimej, woman.  Like a real good soldier.  While we thaw you out.”

“Daam Oaera.  The Sinners have arrived,” announced an emerging sentry, who was signaled away by an affirmative gesture, then instantly recalled.

“Trace these.”   Oaera pulled out a handful of cordons from the victim’s hair.  The Menagel Register, which listed the maternal lineage of all Houses, would provide the soldier’s identity.

Leaving the doctor to her own proceedings, Oaera headed for the junction ramp to the Bench, where could be faintly heard, “Mistress Paun…”

Outside the round she was a beauty, this woman Oaera.  A natural fairling, tall and slender, with maroon skin, a midnight mane generously streaked with aureate sunshine, emerald eyes, and shapely breasts.  In uniform, however, her face was almost always cruel.  Her heart— empty.  But to be a soldier… and to know her.  To look up to her and to know her fury.  To have witnessed that fury in battle.  Against Infinity’s Door, Serpentlords, giants.  And to want to become like her and be held in such wonder.  By everyone.  It was a trademark of all Daams.  It was why they ruled.

It was also an aspect that rekindled the possibility of suffering for her newest prisoner— should she even survive for such suffering.  Any explanation short of venom sorcery, and this driftwood might have been better off as driftwood.

Oaera faced the foremost of the eight arrivers—the Sinners.  The Daam had known her since Neked’s Breed.  And yet her mind still wavered for just a heartbeat at every encounter with Paun.  Paun— of the House of Gwil Fyr.  Her skin was stained with both the winter night and the Semdrak’s fire.  A scar, raised as thick as a gatterene’s grip, flowed from the left side of her head, down her neck, across her left breast, and ended at the navel.  It obscured her more womanly features.  Lignumpearl eyes.  Lips like the wavelets of a summery stream.  Charsheen hair, dressed in a brigerpin’s knot and streaming to her waist.  Mask all of that with her cynical grin— and she belonged in that uniform.  She was that uniform.  The Cloth of legends that were not of the everyday babblings of the brine.  The Order of the Cloth.  The Guardians of the Well of Sut UnBii.  And though their numbers were adequate, most considered them to be the mightiest warriors on Lynk Star.  And she was their chieftain.

There was a distinctive proverb applied to her.  It rumbled the very bowels Under Bblonfen.  It was damnation with honor.

Hers was the Fenmare’s Light.

“Mistress Paun.”  Oaera noticed Paun’s sardonic grin but kept up her noble formality.  “What a pleasant surprise.”

Though her own Buukliairs enjoyed the banter, Paun was not so amused.  She heaved a heavy breath.  “Who’s the lifeform?”— which drew a burst of laughter from Oaera’s guardians.

“Must’ve caught you napping, huh?  Anyone we know?”

The mistress flatly answered, “Your father, trullmate.”

“Oh, he’s always wanted you,” laughed the Daam.

Despite Oaera’s droll relief, Paun did like this woman, as she did all her Daams.  Even those who were her civil competitors.  Deep-rooted devotion to the homeland pulled eternity.

Suddenly a medic shouted, “Daam Oaera!”

Oaera motioned towards the therapeutic activity.  “As you can see, we’ve been fishing.  Netted a really unique species of driftwood.  One of our very own.  And a rounder.  K’Triff’s confident she will live.”

Lady Nether spit into one of the candent fonts.  “Whose round?”

“Not mine.  We’re tracing ____”

“Mistress Paun!”

At once she and her company converged near the semiconscious figure being comforted by the fevorock’s warmth.  And spying upon the driftwood’s nakedness, their senses were taken unawares.  It was sunrise at Tharm.

“Oaera!  I want a squad of roofers.  The best eyes. Scour the brine.  Real hard!  Send relayers to all the other rounds.  Tell them to do the same.  Then report back to me.”

“Paun.  There are no ships.  There’s nothing out there.  Not in this storm.”

“Do it now!”

Their visions shifted from the exposed individual to the doffed red uniform—back and forth— till they were moderately spellbound.  For there revealed before them was a disquieting sign.  An uncanny reminder of an olden embarkment.  Anymore, a mythological memory heard in passing the time conversations.

The marks of a man.  Could it be?  If not—what a very bad joke!

  1. Ayopee Take

…“Madonnine?”

“Fidya!”

“You have my sympathies.”…

“Much better.  Let’s try it again.”

  1. Nephowoods

The men were running in all directions now.  Their chances were better this way.  Dimsighted by the profuse blue mist which lingered in the Nephowoods, they were already at a disadvantage.  And to complicate matters was the fierce pursuit by a female doorybeast, angered by their accidental encroachment upon her nest of fetal shells.  Thornhiders, on all sixes as tall as a man, they were well known to doggedly continue a chase until an exhausted invader was overtaken, then soundly pelted by their venomous spines.  Run hard and hide.  Take a breath.  Then run some more.  Don’t rest too long.  Gain the fog’s perimeter.  It was the natural moat for the Outsiders.  That was the primary scheme.  None of the mistbreathers ever risked the Clearing.

But escape from here would not be easy.  The behavior of the cloud itself had to be considered.  Here the ever shifting breeze was the molding element.  Somewhere, if not along the entire border, the territorial shape was changing, although the nucleus was practically stable.  Nevertheless, it was not unusual to experience drifters even up to a half league.  Normally a rather short separation— but to at least one man, enough to make the safety zone appear quite remote.  That dwarf nichli palm, its hispid bark all abloom with beryl light, was certainly telltale.  He remembered seeing it well in the Clearing, before he and his five companions penetrated the Nephowoods.  Well in the Clearing, where it was now extremely dense with a cool blue sweat and no noticeable edge.

Without warning, the impendent sounds of charging hoofs impelled his stance behind a broad ayern tree trunk, then faded in the distance after someone else.  Every so often the man would catch a glimpse of the large spiny creature, galloping madly in some other direction.  He wondered how his friends were doing.  Tuxhil doory nest!  This was supposed to be a routine gawstone collecting assignment.  Just gather an ample amount of the infant thermal rocks and bring them to the Boglequay for transplanting.  A simple task turned into a bungled escapade.

Actually it would have been less troublesome to chisel out large chunks of this energizing rock from the mature ridge portion Outside.  Although such pieces immediately lost their growing ability, they would continue to endure considerably as heat providers.  But to excavate from ancient lifeforms which took ages to develop was a grievous offense against Nature and those who worshipped her.  Tribes might rival tribes to extinction.  Yet, for the most part, everyone reverenced the non-tribal, more integrated natives who never spoke—so it was believed.  Who only were— though truly much more than that.  For even that which was neither food nor shelter was worthy nourishment for anyone’s appreciation of Being.  Instead, only the sylvan eggs and the fallen crags bearing the stone seeds were taken from their geodoms for cultivation.

He realized that today’s efforts were wasted.  That the only sensible option was to seek safety—which meant the Clearing— and hope that the others succeeded.

Having regarded ground level as becoming much too hazardous for his wearying legs, he decided to climb the nearby gawstone ridge, while the beast was still preoccupied.  It was only a fifteen-foot ascent to a moderately flat surface, about twelve feet wide, with occasional fissures caused by decayed crag knots.

Once he reached the top his anxiety was soothed, for this particular rock formation was a most familiar parental shoot.  It grew straightaway from Qewo Qewo River, where the fog never settled.  There the aroma of ripe fullela melons, which clustered the western bank, sweetened the air.  Next, beyond this tributary of the Wancium Gulf, Phirj’lowner Forest stretched boundlessly past the Crystal Moon horizon like a Vokexingiant’s meadow.  And finally but foremost, projecting a hundred leagues from the southern border of QortL and towering above Crus’Ybl’s Lower HevN— the majestic Spout, whose Rises and Falls helped to circulate the vital juices of the fraternal planets.  But all that was at least a league away.

What the evader needed to do now was to remain as low and quiet as possible during this final passage.  Out of habit he chanted to himself, “In the Palm of the Bearer.”  Then cautiously he crept across the ridgeroof towards sanctuary.

Whatever seemed like forever covered less than a league for the crawling figure.  His exposed body and garments perspired with glutinous dew.  Fortunately, this was a gawstone mass.  The moisture absorbed into the fissures kept the surface comfortably warm, thus offsetting the wintry chill.

A translucent image pierced the vaporous membrane.  It seemed almost within reach.  The Spout.  An eternity away.  But there it was.  And judging by the embracing brightness: still postsolar noon.  “Thay’s wilderness be fertile!” he whispered with relief, as he rested from his progress.

If not for the mist, he could have easily scampered past the perimeter and all the way to the river without even stopping to rest.  If not for the mist.  There were crevices all spread about.  Waiting for him to stumble upon.  Must be sensible.  And keep the slower pace.  And after a deep breath he felt his way forward.

All of a sudden.  From the left below.  A brief movement.  His concentration interrupted, he froze himself like a shadowtail.  Muffled his breath.  And his heartbeat.  And waited.  Until out of the corner of his eye the motion reappeared, this time accompanied by the rustling of footsteps onto leafling sacs.  Again the obscure figure halted.  To the same stillness as the one ornamenting the ridge.  And through the sporadic patches of thinner fog, the man’s strained vision was able to piece together the unwelcome silhouette of the huntress.

Tuxhil doorybeast!

His first guess was that she had seen him— or was at least aware of his presence.  Without a doubt her vital receptors were far more acute in this neighborhood.  What wasn’t certain was her climbing ability.  If indeed the thornhider had spotted him, she as yet had made no attempt to scale the smallish slope.

A scatterbow would be convenient right now.  Except it was unsound to hunt in the Nephowoods, especially with shooters.  In the past there had been to many foolish accidents.  Local seed gatherers.  Innocent resident creatures.  Even other hunting party members.  All unnecessarily wounded, often fatally.  Therefore, as a general rule, propelling weapons were never brought here.

And against the doorybeast his sword was useless.  Unless, of course, some serious disorder prevented her from discharging her spines.

He clenched his jaw.  Go back to your damn nest!  Please!

Not chancing to make a run for it, yet at the same time lacking the patience to hold his frozen position, the man slowly lowered himself till he was flat against the surface.  Presently the mistbreather was engrossed with her back towards him.  To his right and within reach was another fissure, it’s volume resembling a shallow grave.  Thereinto he silently rolled himself.  Backresting with his arms at his side and a xilumsword clutched in one hand, he waited and listened.

Despite the jaggedness of the crevice floor, he was quite cozy.  The stone was warm.  So was the blanketing mist.  Perfect for an endless nap.   Until at least the beast was gone.

The man’s vision was taken on the great sea that fell from the Spout of Chal’Iss.  Fifty thousand leagues it fell.  Rushing and winding through the blind currents of space.  And finally crashing into Crus’Ybl’s Wancium Gulf.  It brought with itself precious silt, kelp, plankton, clouds and atmosphere, which was repaved during the Rises— when the Wancium erupted and rebridged the course to Chal’Iss.  But with the fruits of the sea there came the adventurers.  They braved.  They wrecked.  They died.  But eventually they conquered the Lynk.  And in their wakes sailed the other conquerors.  The ones who mastered entire war fleets like rafts on a dead night lake.  Such were those who drove the armies under the banners of QortL.

All at once, like thunder smashing the southern icesphere, a terrible roar shook the environment.  That was not the guttural voice of the doorybeast.  It was unlike any sound he had ever heard.  Certainly such a cry implied something huge.  But curiosity surrendered to the importance of concealment.  And the man kept low inside the ridge.

The ascending hoof beats on the sidewall were those of a climbing thornhider.  But was she searching?  Or fleeing?

Again— the savage howl from something horrible raging very near the fissure opening.

The reclined evader stiffened the grip on his sword.  By now he was noticing an agitation in the mist caused by the creature’s wobbly advancement.  And he knew that the unhoped for confrontation was imminent.  Better to die onsetting the charge, than being a foothold for the stampede.

“Gercand’wyl.  Can you hear me?  Remember our pact.  And cherish our memories.”  More pronouncedly he chanted, “d’Glejerian S’fongbis!”— which flexed his courage.  It was time to rise and engage the enemy.

But something was wrong.  When he tried to raise himself, his limbs failed to respond.  His arms and legs were inexplicably pinned to the crevice floor.  Holding a strong breath, he exerted his utmost, only to remain paralyzed.

And now gradually coming into view was the horrid face of the executioner.  That gleam in her eyes spoke for itself.  Having recognized her quarry, the doorybeast yawned that deafening bellow which was not her true voice, her sweltering breath pervading the tomblike cavity with almost a suffocating effect.

The man cried out aloud.  Not out of fear.  But because of his helplessness.  His lifeless muscles.  His dead night blade.

Meanwhile the mistbreather poised herself for the attack.  As she flexed her offensive systems, the toxic thorns which covered her hide pointed directly at the trapped victim.  Any moment they would be discharged, and her anger would be satisfied.  And he would be but forgotten compost on some gawstone ridge.

Finally, with all the force he could muster, the powerless warrior’s blatant voice was cast where his sword could not.  And he damned his enemy For The Stars, cursing out loudly, again and again, until…

  1. Qul House

he awoke.

A bad dream?  He wasn’t sure.  What was equally uncertain was his present situation.  This was not the accurst gawstone fissure in the Nephowoods.  There was no mist.  No mistbreather.  From what he could discern, he was enclosed in a pleasantly warm, well lit room, about the size of a small burial chamber.  In fact, the absence of any door or window suggested that this was indeed a sepulcher— except for the dim light… and the warmth, both of which emanated from the walls.  He was still unable to move.  Glancing along his front, he saw why.  There were very peculiar fasteners imbedded in the floor and locked onto his wrists and ankles.  And he was wearing a black cloth.

“Egrit’s Flue!  Where am I?” resonated his question inside the stone cell.

He was answered, as the narrow bulkhead past his feet descended with a rumble.  Two soldiers entered and stooped on either side of him.  They wore red uniforms.  Blood red leather tunics.    Sphairacloth.  Just like his own.  He was overjoyed… at first.  But… they were women.  Female sworders.  Personal roost ribbons flowing from their hair—just like him.  Proud runes and glyphics branded on their arms and legs.  Was he was still dreaming?  He shut his eyes grittingly and squeezed his empty hands.  No.  He was convinced.  Absolutely!  This scene was quite real.  And the doorybeast was a fool’s event.

At length, one of the guards spoke to him.  “We’ve heard your sleeptalk.  So we know you understand us.  You do understand me, yes?”  It was an unfriendly voice.  “Your waxing your fears if you can’t.”

Yes.  He well comprehended her speech.  But if he was going to expose himself____  Well.  He had his own protocol.  “Milchy Pass?” he asked rather formally.

While one soldier snickered, the other shook her head in mocking disbelief.  “All right, big boy.  From now on your lips are dead night until you’re asked to speak.”  That unfriendliness again.  Typical of prison wards.  “We’re taking you for a short walk.  You try blowing the hook on us…  You try resisting— in any way…”  With one hand firmly gripping his hair, she withdrew a xilumsword and held its blade in front of his face.  “…And we pray For The Stars that you do…  And it’s cleanup in the Pits.  Understand?”

Must be steadfast.  “Milchy P____”

“And dry up on the goddessdamn signing, okay?  We’re not interested.”

His eyes became more affixed upon the fine serrate cutting edge.  “I understand.”

“Good boy.”  And she resheathed her weapon.

As they unbounded him, the confounded prisoner noticed that the odd looking gyves were each an arrangement of various stone shapes simply puzzled together.  But no sooner had this new interest formed, when he was lifted to his feet and led out the open wall.

Crossing a circular corridor whose outer rim was the donjon keep, the three penetrated a tunnel through the central body and proceeded to a spiral rampcase.  Continuing upwardly seemed more encouraging to the man, who was unaware of the actual exitance below.

All the while he had been quite impressed with the military mien of his escorts.  They were soldiers to the bone.  Not gracious amiable women shaped into uniforms.   Real soldiers!  How they managed him.   With their ingrained habits.  All very striking.  So the rounders of legends… were not legends.  And if that were true, then perhaps the greatest myth of all was just as real.  There was much to be learned here.  But despite his intense urge for information, the prisoner remembered their insistency on his temporary silence and remained unspoken.

A short round in the newel flight brought him to a large cylindrical room, not as well lighted as the rest of the structure, and purposely so.  Woven metal cables, each weighted by a single hook, hung forbiddingly from an overhead pulley system, which extended into chain link stripes down along the entire wall to below the deck.  Already some of the fetterish devices were ornamented with victims— men and women dangling in their nakedness, their untreated wounds flowing freely.

Three fevorock stations, containing only over ripened coals, were centrally localized.  Because of this room’s immense volume, they could hardly be sufficient as heat providers.

Adding to the offensiveness of this place was its foul odor, reminiscent of the mirelands near Eyicar.  Having smelling this would be punishment enough.

Punishment?

Yes.  Without a doubt.  This was the terminal for it.  The infamous Scurjatory, where lawbreakers were soundly treated… or mistreated.  In any case the man disliked being brought here.  He much more preferred the constrained coziness of the donjon cubicle.

And now he too was being prepared for shackling.  A spreader bar, a hollow metal shaft about a yard long with looped leathery ends and two ringlets centered about a foot apart, was introduced by one of the guards.  After the captive’s feet were fitted through the loops, one of the rings was turned in order to tighten the bight around each ankle.  Once the desired grip was attained, another shaft was threaded through both rings to hold the tension.

The discomfort from these initial bonds conveyed the man’s attention to the other limp forms. And he wondered if he was to share the total extent of their unpleasant fate— tributaries of blood drawn with a gattarene whip.  He had been still long enough.

“Milchy Pass?  Mil____”  A swift backhand knocked him to a sprawl on the coldstone floor.  It wasn’t a pulled blow or a swish hand.  It was a man’s force.  It was a soldier’s force.  Momentarily stunned, he glared at his assailant, then rose to his feet.

“Ooh!  Rowdy’s rind, huh, big boy?”  The guard pointed a fist at him.  “Next time it’s cleanup.”  Somehow the tone of her threat was enough to validate her ability do whatever cleanup had implied.  “Now rest your speech.”

At once another fettering bar, shorter but similar to the first except for a single ringlet, was fitted to his wrists, the loops being left slack.  As one guard maintained the man’s position, the other inserted an ostealwand into a floorlet just behind him.  This opening led to a mirrored fluidic cavity, at the bottom of which rested a frozen tedoclod.  The darkness having been extinguished, the submerged weight slowly transformed to gobs of bubbly whistling gel, which floated to the surface.  Gradually the lightened anchor gave way to the hook’s mass, descending to within reach of the arm spreader.

Affixing the catch of the ringlet, the dispassionate warder scoffed at the man.  “Enjoy the View, big boy!”

The candle unkeyed, the buoyant gel hardened and sank.  And as the hook ever so quickly jerked and ascended, the applied force on the ring tightened the loops.  The sudden intense pressure on his wrists during his surprise airlift brought on a stifled cry of anguish from the prison’s newest tenant.

“Milchy Pass?  Tuxhil hulshintrulls!”  His voice stabbed at the departing jailors.

“When the Sinners get here, big boy, you can tell them your story.  Better make it a good one.”

Her comrade concurred.  “Genj blue.  Oh, by the way… Who is Gercand’wyl?”

They heard that?  He sighed, rolled his eyes and aimed his voice to nowhere in particular.  “My mother… hulshintrulls.”

The rounders already had their backs to him, as they disappeared down the rampwell.

The Sinners.  He shook his head and murmured to himself, “Egrit’s Flue.  Where am I?”  Then he shouted to his suspended company, “Will someone tell me where I am!”  But he attracted only a few heedless glances from them.  Even when he requested the name of the land where he had put ashore, they remained ignorant of him.  They cared less.  It was too painful to speak.  It was too painful to think.  “Wandering reef!”  As far as the man was concerned, the nightmare persisted.

Through the chilled stinking murk the stranger’s vision was drawn towards some obscure transition occurring high along the wall’s curvature.  Each time the interference would become briefly visible and vanish at equal intervals around the enclosure.  As soon as the movement passed a section of bulkhead barely scored with a sheen from a fevorock manger, the man noticed small portholes and guessed that they completely encircled the Scurjatory.  And, therefore, whatever he saw had to be outside the cylindrical partition.

He cried out to the shadows, “Hoigh, there!  You!  Beyond the wall!”  But there was no answer.

Finally, the darkness did speak— with a vicious roar which echoed like a bursting feverite.  So concentrated was the vibration that even his own bones seemed to quiver.

“Tuxhil ____”  He remembered.  It was the same fool’s yowl of the doorybeast in his dream.  And no doubt the reason for the foulness which plagued this devilish grot.

“Never took the tour, huh?”

Turning himself about, he saw several soldiers below.  And though he should have felt glad that he was finally being lowered, the figures coming into view were as cold as the Scurjatory itself.  But he was lowered… to just a breath above his expected footing.

Naturally the big one caught his immediate attention.  The skysail spar of this malign crew, she’d look down upon most men.  Wober Fel felt his stare.  The way that everyone stared at her for the first time.  Grabbing his crimson mane, the brawny white haired Huntress lifted him off the hook, and yelled “Timberfore!”  Then she flung him across the deck, where he bounded like an unripe tarimelon.

Another unsympathetic clamp to his head yanked him upright and posed him for the Gypsy’s convergence.  Removing a web of precious beads from one of her hilts, Himmwast draped her amulet over his navel, and incanted to him eye to eye.  “Entrails be in.”

A maroon bandeau, wholly shimmering with a print of swimming tadpoles, completely mantled her unfeathered skull.  From a forehead clasp there hung a gleaming zircon in front of her right ____

Her right eye.  It was missing!  No, not missing.  There was no socket to contain it.  Only a natural unaltered surface of flesh.  His vision was locked there.  For a moment he imagined himself standing in some outlandish desert.  It was night.  Very overcast.  No stellar campfires.  And in the gloomy distance the contour of several baleful minarets was heightened by a faint acraviolet glow.

Suddenly he felt his upper body being crushed.  He snapped out of the trance to find himself being suffocated by someone else’s embrace.  The Rowdy.  She finally uncoupled from him like the collision of two ivoctenwood hulls.  And with a merry smile she greeted him.  “Yebirulp’s drift, pretty boy!”  Fortunately for him she had restrained herself.  Built like a qaithwine cask, Emgroy had arms that could have very well snapped the neck of a rikester bull.

Like graceless shadows the rest of her sisters scuffled over their unadorned driftwood.

“Welcome to Qul House, boy!” hailed L’Sar, whose perpetual scowl rivaled the whip coiled around her left shoulder.  Not only was it the disdainful feature of her uniform, it was her nickname.  The Gattarene.  She held up his confiscated riband, and said, “I think this belongs to you, right?  No one here seems to recognize it.  So, like a good boy, tell me where you roost?”

Her demand seemed incredulous to him.  Roost?  “Wandering reef.”

“What’s that?”  She was annoyed by his mumbling.   “You’ll have to sing from the heart, boy.  Okay.  Now once again— your roost.”

The numbness in his hands was beginning to melt away.  Tuxhil trulls!  Damn your procedure!  And he reverted to more scrupulous measures.  “Milchy Pass?”  Come on, woman.  Follow through with me.

L’Sar rejoined with a sigh of cold comfort.  She turned her dissatisfied self away from the man and retaliated.  “The boy loves Silverstream.”

In this light he could barely make out the lustrous sheen of Irn V’Shae’s long trusses.  Starting from the center of her crown, her sphairacloth spiraled about her face and trunk and down to her thighs,  exposing only her eyes and a parallel coil of gray skin.  A swift but firm hand darted— the man never saw which one— and walloped the donjon dawn into him.

Then someone yelled, “Winger!”

Once more his head of hair was stretched skyward and released.  His wrists were strangled as his feet stood in the offensive air.  A wand unkeyed from the tedoclog compartment.  And he was jerked fiercely back to his former suspension.

He heard “Stoneheel!”— then saw one of the figures somersaulting upwards and at him.  A fleet kick thumped his midsection, knocking him almost breathless.

Again he was lowered, and his last assailer was there to receive him.  Nether was the star stunner of this notorious group.  Her tiers of golden locks covered more of her than did her uniform.  Clasping her hands affectionately around his neck, she blew over his face and chest.  Then she pressed her voluptuousness against him and seized his mouth with her own starving lips.  All the while he was gasping, struggling for breath.  At long last their lips unsealed.   And he was granted his much needed air.  However, the beauty’s sensual smile varied more sinisterly.  She spit onto the chill deck and swore.

Another powerful heel sent his shackled body swinging past Strek, who snatched him by his hair and slowly guided him to a hangstill.

“Like playing soldier, big boy?”  This time it was Paun who was nose to nose with him.  She squeezed her own tunic just below her neckline.  “This uniform belongs to us.  Not you.”  He could see she was the darkest one.  Darker than her comrade Strek who stood beside her.  And with her hideous scar, she was darker than this Scurjatory— in both flesh and soul.  “Never mind us.”  We can dance like this till HevN’s Rebirth.  Now… Chellis Bell!”  She lurched his head back, until her saurian glare had gnashed into his innocent red eyes.  “Where Under Bblonfen is your goddessdamn roost?”

Till HevN’s Rebirth?  In here?  He didn’t doubt her threat.  Not in the least.  “All right,” came out a little painfully unclear.  But it sounded much more conforming to the Sinners.  “Looks like you girls need some coaxing.”  Wober Fel raised her eyebrows at his boldness.  He went on, “See if you know the answer to this one.  Milchy Pass?”  A little louder, he repeated, “Milchy Pass?”

Paun spit into the darkness and teethed her lip.  “Stole me out of my warm bed.  And my handsome whore.  And he annoys me this way?”

“I’m only trying to ____”

“Post pattern!”

Paun’s incensed words delighted L’Sar.   She became deranged, and obliging herself, she uncoiled her whip.  Like a sower despising the void, her eyes drooled at her prey’s unscarred back.  The shrill of the gattarene whished the malodious air.  Her fangs tore into his flesh.  An agonizing cry resounded.  And the spectres of Qul House were gratified.  Yet, the unfortunate man persisted with his peculiar discipline.  “Milchy Pass?”

“Xyyamu!”  The Brewist broke in before the next lash could be delivered.  “Give me a moment, sisters.  Maybe… just maybe… maybe this one’s genuine.  Let’s find out.”

Guardian Strek was the most civil of the Sinners.  She felt something sincere about this man.  He was certainly no prankster.  Not to have committed himself to this length.  “Look here, boy.”  She put an arm around his neck and spoke directly, but politely, into his ear.  “Here’s your chance of redemption.  Whatever you do, don’t summon the cacklings of the afterlife.  I’m going to play the game.  And together we will formulate a resolution.  Okay?  If there is none…”  Procuring another whip, she waved it in front of him.  “… you will be scourged by two gattarenes.  Simultaneously.  And I will be the thrashing whore— on this side!

“Harvest Moon.”  She slapped her palm with the gattarene’s handle, strolled away from him.  “I’m waiting.”

“Milchy Pass?” came instantly.

Certainly the intonation was there.

“Brewflake,” she rejoined.

“Tun’El’s Gain.”

Rare.  Very rare.  Sometimes a soldier might slip with her lover and mention one of the codes.  But there’d be a genj warning on its ever being used.

Strek stepped back over to him.  “Halley’s Loss.”

Thay’s wilderness be fertile!  The man made two fists.  He strained to open only the thumb and first and third fingers of his left hand, and the second and fourth fingers of his right.  “Five Points.”

The Sinners focused puzzled glances at each other.  Nether laughed, as if she had just heard some quibbling punchline.  “Bevleba!” added V’Shae.

Then the demon with the horrible scar combed her fingers through his hair, gripped it tightly and aimed his face at hers.  “Who are you?”

He responded with the same question.

The Sinner chieftain looked at Strek, who gestured an introduction her way.

“I am called Paun.”

“I am from Yuud.  My name is Jyl.”

The responses had produced a riddle.

“Then tell us, Yuudm Jyl.  How is it that a foreigner wears the Order of the Cloth?”

“I am a Trustee.”

“Trustee?”

“Of the Kingsmen.”  He stressed it with a sense of pride.

Emgroy showed him an impressive fist, and snarled into his ear.  “Dribby ready for cleanup?  What Kingsmen?”

“Kingfather’s.  Who else’s?  From ChaulE.”

The Sinners’ coupled expressions were taking votes.  The Harem under Dalhexxer had been a rune, thought Himmwast, who now pressed her clouding net over his heart.

“Look!  I’ve just come from Crus’Ybl.”

“Just you, huh?  All arms and legs?  Across the Lynk?”  The Silverstream grabbed his jaw and searched his face for a fool’s sincerity.  There had to be a ship.  A very grand ship.  And a full crew to navigate the great expanse of river joining the two planets.  Before he could answer, she rapped his cheek hard a couple of times.  “Fool’s goddesses!”

“He will see Dowser Iiq,” directed Paun.  “Right now!”

  1. Ayopee Drill

“…Madonnine?”

“Fidya!”

“You have my sympathies.”…

“I think we’re ready.”

  1. Dyydz

Their right fin stroked the left side of their eye.  “Now what are you pondering?  Probably something dumb.”

“No.  I was just thinking… about our domestic elkstallions.  Their fear of the sea.  And how crazy they get, when they’re pushed past their limits… and they smell or see the Nalfin.  Their wings flapping frantically towards the nearest safety.  And what more of the Intruder’s steeds.  Forced to assail our rounds… to almost always certain death.  If I could just manipulate Lower HevN well enough to define the travellings of a mad brigerpin as an orbital path, the interpretations of the so called dead night objects alone— that I would like to see.  Having no initial view of repetition.  Yet, in the end, seeing precision.”

“You’re so silly!” giggled his other half.

“How’s that?”

“Don’t ask me How?  You just are.  Look.  Let’s just sit here and listen to Myim.”

Her cultivated desires embraced his, while the melody from above pervaded the ruskilik’s watery grounds in a phantasmic splendor.

“Our line of sight reads love.

Yes it does!

A smiling glass reflects

Happiness…”

As always, it was such a pretty song.

 

  1. Qasr’Kwen

Inside the entrance to Qasr’Kwen the alien found himself situated on an ebonstone foyerblock.  From this level and upwards the character of the structure easily paralleled the perspective from the outside.  But it was the chasm below which drubbed his senses.  At his present position the man stood on the equator of a vast irregular sphere.  It appeared impossible to advance any further from the vestibule.  The curvature of the wall supporting him was too slight to allow a safe descent to the floor a hundred feet below— an ellipse formed by a plane cutting the sphere’s lower portion.  There was the initial visible evidence of a formidable flat surface.  And besides the foyerblock, the only granitic area that didn’t glow like the rest of the palace, whose enormous monolithic shell was variantly patterned with tinged rays of light.  About the far side of this arena he could discern a solitary torch and something which resembled a dead tree.

Directly across the canyon and facing him was a broader level furnished with a single row of nine unoccupied chairs, each mildly adorned with a printed drape different from the rest and spaced an arms distance from each other.  Like the foyer, this level’s supporting curvature sloped downwardly to describe the ground floor’s major axis— whose contact with this wall was defined as the Prym.

“To the Heart will descend the man!”  It was a woman’s voice, which seemed to reverberate from everywhere.

Far above him, just beneath the great dome, encircled a narrow ledge bestationed with soldiers, who could better monitor the activities below.  They were all shooters.  And their scatterbows were already affixed with sagittal varieties of death.  Their posts were mobile, but unscheduled.  And within Qasr’Kwen their aim was perfect.  Yet none of these gave any indication that the order was hers.

So naturally the man inquired of the void, “And where is the Heart?”

At once the very center of the ellipse throbbed with a reddish glow, as if the arena itself had been roused.

And how do I get there?  Fly?

Somewhere his problem in thought was heard, for directly below him a passage of individual steps protruded from the wall.  Still he remained at the stairhead, his eyes transfixed upon the breathing ellipse, his curiosity being challenged by apprehension.

“To the Heart will descend the man!” was repeated the order, this time with a tone of impatience.  “The way is before you.”

Here I come.

Standing on the first step, he imagined himself on solid ground, so sound was this structural stem.  Upon surefooting on the second projection, the previous step regressed flushly into the wall.  And so it was also with each succeeding stair.  On the way down he browsed with excitement, admiring the medley of artwork which dominated the mural enclosure.  There were various depictions.  Aerial combatants borne along by winged elkstallions.  Agricultural landscapes.  Children romping in an ancient wooden stronghold.  The bows of great ships piercing tidal waves.  A golden infant saurian nestled in the arms of a foster Cobratain.  All of these under the unbiased vigilance of HevN’s Brew.  When at last he reached the base slab, the man looked back to review the path he had taken forever to alight.  It was gone.  Only a smooth wall sloping upwards to infinity had been restored.  His mind fluctuated from the enchantment he had witnessed to the craftsmanship responsible.

“Be the center of the Round the Heart.”

He ignored the instructions for now and turned his attention across the gallery to the far wall.  To the right of the Prym was a rostrum, whose caryatid supported crown gave birth to a fountain of flame.  Equally distanced to the Prym’s left was a nine-foot wooden pillar with a calloused surface of unordered notches and gouges.  Here, inside this edifice of polished stone, it seemed so unworthy.  So out of place.

I wonder what ____

Something stirred.  He reshifted his gaze towards the flame.  A veiled figure shrouded in a shimmering prismatic cowl now occupied the pulpit.  His vision searched for another entryway, but recognized none.  To have approached so undetected…  She must have ____

She.

Happy to see someone out of uniform, he hastened towards the faceless shape.  “Hello!  At last I can ____”

“To the Heart!” commanded the iridescent form, pointing at the pulsar and halting his advance.  The light reflecting off the imposing walls dimmed a little, so that the trembling Round became more prevalent.

The light.

The walls.

The glowing walls.  It was actually the stone which radiated the light— just as it did in the donjon cell.  Was it H’Laynlith?  There were no other lanterns about.  The rostrum torch did not change its breath.  And the Heart of the Round did not effuse an intense beam.

The Round.

The stranger was more aware now of the surface on which he stood.  Not only because of the Heart with its pulsing glow.  But this syncline itself.  Unlike the rest of Qasr’Kwen, no harvested light energy shone here.  It was unpolished.  And cold.  Perhaps it was this coldness of the stone rivaling the comfortable air.  No.  There was more.  The ellipse seemed to be abused.  Bruised.  Yet unbroken.  No fractures.  With signs of blood blotched randomly everywhere.  The symptoms of a sacrificial altar.

He conceived a dislike for this place with its deceptive décor.  He thought of Qul House.  That memory alone revived the gnawing pang on his backside.  But he was here… to verify himself… and his captors.  When he reached the Heart he faced the platform’s occupant and awaited her instructions.  With every red pulse he felt the light invading his body.  Penetrating his pores.  Sweating his insides.

Once again the illumination from the osteralstone faded.  This time to darkness, leaving alight only the Heart, the blazing font spouting the Fire of Fidelity, and the spectrum of Dowser Iiq.

His body began to tremble, but not because of any inner dread.  Rather the tremor wavered beneath his stance like a snoring pyrecone.  At the same time the flame and its mystic companion levitated together, while the concave enclosure drew nearer the Heart.  Tuxhil witch!  During the pulsating moments the mural patterns appeared similar to those on the irregularly tiled floor, except the former designs were also ascending.

Ascending?

The man suddenly realized that the Round itself was actually being lowered, and that a considerable ledge remained to support the rostrum.  After a thirteen-foot descent the vibration ceased.

Now what?

Intently he kept his eye on the Dowser.  Reaching into the Fire, she withdrew a handful of the burning substance and hurled it high above the center of the ring.  In midair the granule exploded into a tremendous fireball, then extinguished itself to form a smoldering cloud of lavender vapor.  It simmered further to create a pyroscope of imaginary visions.

“Wandering reef!”

Perplexed by the scenes in the aerial projection, Dowser Iiq promptly commenced with her examination.  “Getwinn’s Laugh.”

Here we go again.  “Fool’s Rain.”

“Cromlech’s Wand?”

And now he would commit himself.  He said nothing.

The witch’s next words were expected.  “Who are you?  And from where do you come?”

He tried to ignore the cloud’s presence.  “I am Jyl, of the Roost of Raa J’Lec.  My homeland is Yuud.  On Crus’Ybl.”

As he answered, the flame crackled haphazardly, perspiring a variety of colors, while the hovering Conceptual Net retained the apparitional distortions.

“This time close your eyes and concentrate hard on the image of your mother and describe her to me.”

Jyl complied.  Countless misshapen faces appeared in the cloud.  But the actions of the Fire did not change.  There was no evidence of falsity.  Nor of truth.  Somehow the Fire of Fidelity was confused.

“You claim to be one of the Kingsmen.  Then how is it you have become driftwood on Chal’Iss?”

“I was foraging the Channel.  For gawstone.  When a patrol spotted me.  QortLites.  They had me cut off.  From the Wancium.  So I had to outrun them.  Knew they’d probably take me at the Threshhold.  Nobody’s dumb enough to ride the Rises— not in a channel craft.  Well I didn’t care.  I’ve never sailed the Lynk before.  But I wasn’t going to be a Hulknot at Precem Turr.  So I let myself get dragged out.  Right into the Rises.  One parasail on one tiny mast.  And stayed upright.  Believe that!  Coasted the entire Lynk.  Took only a few days.  Didn’t realize how fast it would be— getting here.  Someone explained it to me once.  About holding normal sails.  While the whole stretch of sea races to Crus’Ybl.  Wrecked at the Firth Falls though.  Knew that would happen.  Don’t know how those big ships do it.  Anyway, I remember swallowing a lot of water.  Then waking up at the tuxhil fenden.”

“You are referring to Qul House?”

“It’s a fenden.  No matter its name.”  The recollection instilled a harshness to his tone.  “By the way… who are you?”

“My identity is of no consequence to this interrogation.  Presently it is you who must be verified.  There will be ____”

“Oh, really?”  Gritting his teeth, he stepped out of the Heart and towards his inquisitor.  “Then tell me, witch.  Is it too much for Sir Jyl of the Kingsmen to be assured of his goddessdamn whereabouts?”

She was moved by his anger.  “Forgive me, Yuudm Jyl.”

Extending her hand toward the Conceptual Net, she whispered a spell, and the visionary cloud was inhaled back to the Fire of Fidelity.  Again the stone trembled as the Round elevated.

“I am Dowser Iiq.”  Then slowly she faded away.  And as she did so, her voice reverberated once more.  “Yebirulp’s drift.  And welcome to ChaulE.”  Finally, her glittering luster blended into the caryatid.  And she was gone.

Egrit’s Flue!  “Thank you— wherever you are,”

Unseen by him, the several observers rose from their seats and departed for the Aulhall.

 

Notice that picture?”

On the wall behind the bench was a large floral mosaic showing scores of soldiers and civilians.  They were gathered around a man and a woman, both of whom wore ornate crowns.

“Do you recognize Kingfather?” inquired Gyel C’Mize.

Jyl did not study the picture long.  He went up to the far end of the mural and pointed to a small boy, who was struggling with a plowbar and some tiller fittings.  “He has the face of the King.  And this…”  Next to the boy was a yellow bearded man cradling a sleeping child.  “…Is Pryoes Lind.  Fine seaman.”  Scanning for more faces, he saw “N’Tomarz!” and laughed hysterically.  “Wandering reef!  Look at him here!  What a gut rapper!”  He looked at the Aul members, some of whom shared his amusement, but with more composed smiles.  “Isn’t that N’Tomarz?”

“He had us laughing all the time,” replied a voice to his right.

Jyl turned to see another woman, with pearly lake skin and dressed in a saffron robe, which matched her braided hair.  A single verdant gem, the color of her eyes, adorned her left ear.  But she appeared to be younger than the rest of the council.  Very adolescent.  And winsome.  She must have been standing there the whole time listening to him.  Meanwhile, from a concealed passage inside the muraled wall emerged more soldiers, including the Sinners.  The noblewoman approached the newcomer with two of her personal guardians, while the others spread their coverage more relaxingly.

“So, N’Tomarz has survived the privateering on Crus’Ybl?”  She took his arm and guided him to the bench.

“Yes.”  The man noticed that this was no ordinary table.  It resembled a tub of sorts, in that its stone bounded interior was filled with water.  Yet, the upper rim was wide enough to accommodate meals as well as court- related implements.  A harder look revealed the presence of seamice swimming about.  “At least when I left he was fine.”

Servings of river gourd stew and pretberry juice were set before the two.

“Ah!  Thay’s wilderness be fertile!”

“Come again?”  She was intrigued by his dialect.

“Hey!  Even with all that has happened, I didn’t forget how hungry I was.”  And in a few motions he gulped the entire contents of the bowl and refilled it.

Meanwhile Gyel Neked, the only male member of this court, emptied a small basket of seeds and plant trimmings into the aquarium.  At once the appetites of the seamice matched the newcomer’s.

“Did Marz ever speak of his sisters?”

That was refreshing.  To hear his friend’s name spoken here.  “He only talked about Whicey.  That she was… a cheerful woman.  But the worst cook on Lynk Star.  What’d he say?  A dead dribblen suffered more on her stove?”

The young woman choked on her drink.  “The poor truth about his jest is that he was right.  I myself lost many an appetite at her table.  And, yes— Whicey is a very sweet person.”

In her company he was much more at ease now.

“Then her house must have been a merry one,” added Jyl.  “Especially knowing Marz.  A friend at first sight.”

He thought back to an earlier question by this amiable lady.  “Are you one of his sisters?  Marz never mentioned anyone else.”

“Not a pure blood sister.  Just a good friend.”

Before he could ask her name, she inquired of him, “And what about the King?  How is he?”

Jyl took the bowl up to his lips and slurped up the stew.  He wasn’t just hungry.  He got pleasure out of eating.

“He is well.  Works hard.  I mean physically hard.  Harder than any of his followers.  Not your normal king.  He’s like that picture there.  Sharing his sweat in the fire and mud.  Praising his men… through victory and defeat.  He’s what motivated us.

“Before I was Trustee I had wondered about this king— who wore no crown, no elegant robes, no precious jewels.  Pyroes told me to first consider the bearer behind any title.  That he or she is but flesh out of flesh For The Stars.  Since then I have always done so.  And the King: I can tell all of you— he is truly Kingfather.”

A queer feeling took hold of Jyl’s listeners.  They had grown unaccustomed to hearing…  Kingfather.

“He’s got Trustees from everywhere.  Foresters, Eyicarif, Utscrabians.  All full of heart and stout.  Too bad we couldn’t enlist out of QortL.  Some inside help could really help the Boglequay.  That’s what we call ourselves.  The thorns in Infinity’s Door.  The Boglequay.”

“No defectors?”

“Never.  They’re mindless.  From birth the QortLites are fed Honn Kolcher’s doctrines.  ‘Enthralled For The Stars!’ a pure blood Kingsman would say.  Never mind that.  They’re bodies are different.  Not just flesh wise, but…  Well, you know what I mean.”

No.  We don’t know what you mean, thought Gyel Hegged.  We’ve dissected the enemy.  Flesh and blood.  What else is there.

“Talk about dread of night!”  He laughed and spooned up his third helping of the sporf.

Accordingly, his dining partner said, “Oh, yes.  Their religious superstition unglorifying death during the night.  On behalf of this fear, our security is most grateful.”

The Yuudm was about to quench his thirst, when he lowered his goblet.  He was a bit confounded.  “Fear— maybe.  Yes.  But not because of any religion.  You’ll never catch a QortLite without a couple of H’Laynlith wands on his belt.”  His eyes were browsing at the hall’s assemblage.  “You all know they become comatose after sunset… and will actually die if not treated in time.  Don’t you?”

There was no immediate response.   The bewildered aspects spoke for themselves.  This fresh data was of great interest to everyone.  So that’s what those wands were for.

Gyel Stryyx left her chair, and with her arms folded, she slowly paced the floor.  “Then tell us, Jyl,” she urged him.  “How does a retreating QortLite ship, trying to maintain the luminescence of the setting journstar’s, which is not always possible, survive?  Or better yet, what nightly measures are taken on QortL?  You mentioned something about a…treatment…?”

That the Kingsmen had never relayed this information to ChaulE and her allies surprised the sailor.  He was also becoming cognizant of the present nature of all this conversation.  More and more it sounded like a formal inquisition.  For the moment he would avoid those last questions.

Instead he spoke to his hostess.  “First, let me ask you…  You know, you still haven’t told me your name.  Of course, I’m not as yet familiar with your customs of introduction… But anyway, when did you last see the King?”

This time she looked away from him and sighed deeply, her mind traversing the stellar trains…to the time of mariners… and their magnificent ships, designed after the Nalfin surfacers.  And gracing those summits, the proud banners bearing the ensign of the Cloth.  Nuvellum Bell: a seaman’s farewell; or even better—his return.

Downcast, she answered, “Since HevN’s Rebirth… I think.”

One of her guardians stepped over and put a comforting arm around her.

“I’ll be all right, Yers.  Thank you, child.”

Child?  The soldier looked to be the girl’s older sister.

At this time Stryyx reintroduced the matter concerning the Intruder and his nocturnal adjustments.

Jyl, on the other hand, had just been reminded of a tall tale sown by the seafarers of Lynk Channel.  It was a wild hunch.  He looked right at his hostess, and said “Brigerpin’s fears.”

“If you will pardon me, Yuudm Jyl,” said Stryyx, “But it is no longer necessary to maintain codification.  By now I believe we are all quite exposed.  Don’t you think?”

“No I don’t.  Not the way you mean.  Brigerpin’s fears,” he repeated, and stepped away from the bench.

The young woman with the braided mane stood up and faced him.  Passively offended, she loosened her tight lip, and answered, “Not Herbagers’.”

He saw the hurt in her eyes.  Realizing he had overdone his part in password secrecy, Jyl knelt before her and bowed submissively.  “My lady, your servant begs forgiveness for having tested you beyond the manner he was taught.  I would never have dreamed of such an event as this.  And I blame my ignorance in following the discipline too strongly.  I only hope I have not blemished the integrity of the Kingsmen.”

“And what special command has Kingfather imparted to those of his Order?” she demanded of him.

“That I shall obey Qeenmother… as I did the King.”

Her hands touching his shoulders, she beckoned him to rise.  “Welcome to ChaulE, Yuudm Jyl, Trustee of the Kingsmen.”  Already her tone was a forgiving one.

But she noticed a disturbed look in his expression.  “You seem troubled, child.  What is it?”

Child again.

“We all thought—at least the Yuudm thought – that this place was just… a tall tale.  When we and the others on Crus’Ybl met the Kingsmen, their stories of home were so distant and unreal.  Fiery cliffs.  Armed lizards.  Flying elkstallions.  The fortresses they called rounds.  Even their conquering of the Lynk in their… I thought they were just ordinary ships.”  He glanced over at the Qeen’s Buukliairs.  Like the Kingsmen, they wore red tunics that fell to just above the knees.  Double scabbards with xilumswords.  Runes and glyphics branded into their arms and legs.  And like the Kingsmen— there was no visible armor.  Such was the boast of the Order of the Cloth.   “And no one ever mentioned about the ChaulEr women— being soldiers.”  As he looked around, it came to his attention once again… the youthfulness—of everyone.  “And the story of the Well.  The holy water.  That is also true, isn’t it?”

But the Qeen ignored his last question.  “In time you will learn that certain innovations have been made since our early history.  Particularly in our defense system, which has been entirely restructured.”  She motioned for the Sinners to come forward.  “However, we have continued to be respectably formidable, while retaining our nationalism.”

She then raised a recent welt.  “This is Mistress Paun.  She is overseer to our army.”

Paun?  This woman?

She was never looked upon for loveliness.  Only that one might be able to say that she was beheld at all.  A once beautiful face turned rugged by bloodthirsty rounds and Urfacis Lloc.

Still, like the other female rounders, he had to admire Paun for her military role.  To see her. Donning sphairacloth and metal.  To know of her bearing.  Her prestigious title.  Her eminent accomplishments.  The lore of which propagated throughout Lynk Star.  He felt privileged in her company (though he would not openly admit so.)

Qeenmother, observing their confrontment, tried to soothe Jyl’s tempered discord.  “I regret that you and my children have had to meet earlier under less than hospitable circumstances.  Perhaps we should begin anew.”

Jyl’s heart was in full agreement.  Affably he offered his hands, palms up, and said, “Lavender Lynk… Paun.”

But before his greeting could be returned, Daam L’Sar, who stood next to him, broke in, “Mistress Paun to you, sailor boy!”

Sailor boy!

Jyl was ready to fire back.  He was too proud.  Too able a seaman.   And since Qeenmother took the matter lightly, he would fend for himself.

Glaring at L’Sar, but keeping his composure, he remembered something from Qul House.  Knowing the Sinners, it was probably an adage of their own.  “Stoneheel!”

The rest of the Aul gathering could not believe the man’s outspokenness towards the Gattarene.

Just as surprised as the others, the confident Daam braced herself for Jyl’s thrust… or bluff, while her sisters eagerly awaited his being soundly thrashed.  It would be a mismatch.  Not only was L’Sar the Principal of the Tiro School, she was also a gifted contributor to all of the major movements.  And she was a Sinner.

Jyl recollected something else from their game.  And appearing intent on Daam L’Sar, he returned a favor, as Nether was taken unawares, and buckled with a pang from his sudden kick.  A follow-through punch was misdirected by Irn V’Shae, while catching him off balance was a lightning fist from Emgroy to his stomach.  Collapsing from that blow, Jyl was then overwhelmed by the rest of Paun’s sisters, who restrained him like an open target.  Once more it was Winger’s turn, who took vengeful aim at the vulnerable challenger.

“Xyyamu!” ordered the Qeen, and the Sinners reluctantly ceased from any further abuse.  “I will not tolerate any more of this nonsensical brawling.  It is true: we must compensate for our differences.  And we must start now.  Right away!  We must try making these amendments.  Keep in mind that this man is a prospered link between the Kingsmen and ChaulE.  And because he is a Trustee, your foolish harassment can only sour a beneficial relationship with our distant allies.

“And you, sir!  You are advised to refrain from any further outbursts.  There is enough arrogance on Chal’Iss to last till HevN’s Rebirth.  So save your courage for the QortLites.

“Let him go!”  And the Sinners released their grasp on the Yuudm.

The meeting having tentatively concluded, Paun saluted the Qeen.  Before she could leave the courtroom, however, the man stepped in front of her.

“I am called Jyl.”

“Really!”  With one hand Sinner Paun effortlessly brushed him aside.  Then with her snickering comrades she withdrew from the chamber.

“Your boldness must be restrained around them, child,” cautioned the Qeen.  “They have become too used to their vulgar ways.  I know—I am much to blame for not having curbed them.  In such prosperous times I have overlooked their rowdiness.”

“That girl.  Paun.  Mistress Paun.  She’s quite a rapper.  In fact, they all are.”

“You have never heard of her—on Crus’Ybl?”

“Oh, everyone has.  Except we assumed it was a man’s name.”

“You mean the populace of Crus’Ybl is not familiar with the deeds of ChaulEr Paun?”  She sounded disappointed.

“Hey.  After any news has passed so many generations of sowers—and there’s a lot of Lynk between us—it’s a miracle For The Stars that even the name survived.  Never mind the title.”

“I see.  Well, anyway, do try to avoid her… and her friends.”  She put a comforting arm around him.  “I am not discounting your manliness, Sir Jyl, for we all know the Kingsmen to be gallant warriors.  Hopefully our mutual adjustments will be compromised sooner than expected.”

“All the same.  If I could have but one small craft— I’ll even build it myself—I will sail immediately and rejoin Kingfather beyond the Threshhold.  Now that I better understand the behavior of the Firth, it should be no ____”

But the Qeen’s attention was elsewhere, meaning he would not be leaving.  At least not anytime soon.

“There is much I wish to learn from you concerning the progress of the King.  However, we are presently occupied with preparations for treaty renewals, which will be reviewed soon.  Until then, you will be staying here at the palace.  As a special precaution, there will be guards just outside your quarters.  They will accompany you wherever you may be permitted.  And you will heed their directions on your activities.  Should you attempt to stray from their watch, they will comply with whatever force necessary to control you.  So please behave yourself.  Okay?  We will continue our discussion after my birthday.

“Ard.”

“Qeenmother?”

“Give him a room by the garden.”

Jyl remembered Paun’s departure.  And saluting in that manner, he bid them all good day.  “Lavender Lynk!”

Stryyx.”

“Qeenmother?”

“We will hear from you now.”

The Gyel—elbows propped on the bench, hands folded against her shut eyelids—stood up and walked unmethodically around the seated council and commenced her report.

“We reel in a piece of driftwood.  A shipwrecked sailor… without a wreck… so far.  He’s wearing a red tunic.  And he speaks our language.  Says he from Yuud.  A Trustee of the Kingsmen.  He’s most certainly been in their company…  at one time or another.

“Now we all know that when the Fire of Fidelity listens, the impurities of one’s speech are sifted out and burned against the truth.  Or should I emphasize, against a convincing intonation of the truth. One’s acceptance of a falsity is like a reception to controversy.  One’s opinion is influenced by credibility.  Hence, one’s sincerity, which would be impossible to feign in the presence of the flame, stimulates the fire to blue.

“Numerous subjects, both foreign and ChaulEr— even H’Gaumz— have been scrutinized at the Heart of Qasr’Kwen.  Each time those responses of theirs outside the category of notions have produced stimuli inciting the Fire of Fidelity to a determinate reaction.  However, in the case of Jyl, there is none.  Instead the resultant flame was as fanciful as his projected mind.

“Which brings us to the Conceptual Net.  Funny how his thoughts resembled unconscious experiences.  What can be understood from these?  Were they composed from his knowledge, the elements of which were interbred at random?  Facts… falsehoods… providing scenes which neither began nor ended?  Nevertheless, the existence of such ingredients— what they are— can be informative… usually.   Even if a dream were related, its elements did at least exist.  They did have some pertinence to the dreamer.

“But to have concentrated on such fantastic images and to have simultaneously spoken with the straightforwardness that Jyl did— I find that improbable.  We would be considering a condition beyond habit.  I don’t care how much he might practice, he’s not that good!  Not to so beguile the Flame and the Cloud.

“For the time being, let us assume that something incomprehensible and capricious about the nature of this man has thwarted our most dependable method of pre-investigation.  Whether this influence is voluntary or unintentional remains to be determined.”

She stopped pacing and faced the bench.  “Lady Himmwast… the Gypsy… she pulled me aside.  She told me… she felt something… when she touched him.  And I always consider her impressions… no matter how obscure.

“Now— for the more immediate problem at hand.”  Reaching into her robe, she produced one of Jyl’s ribands— a black band embroidered with red mastheads with white bumblebird’s wings.  She brandished it in front of the Aul and flipped it onto the table.  “As if matters weren’t complicated enough!”  And she resumed her stroll.

“It seems that standard procedure has presented us with some intriguing evidence.  The heraldry on that exhibit just happens to be listed in the Menagel Register— under the Roost of Raa J’Lec.  It shouldn’t be, not if we accept Jyl’s statements regarding his home of record.  But it is.  And the big mystery is… that there are no names—for the entire family tree.   Anyway, our conclusions ought to be routine.  That our driftwood is actually ChaulEr, which would feasibly explain his acquaintance (even as a cwolwisan) with the Kingsmen.  That somehow, either through a security leak… or a major acceptance of trust, he has acquired access to priority codes.  And that our subject has been playing a serious hoax.”

Stryyx paused a moment, opened one of the windows, and let the gentle breeze stroke her face.  Ah!  R’nai blossums.  How fragrant they are.  The Lynk was becoming more visible with the storm’s temporary departure. It appeared as a distant river flowing downward from the Threshhold of Crus’Ybl.  But it still had several days of space to cross before reaching Chal’Iss.  “Spout Falls.  Maybe I’ll get to ride today”

Normally the Aul would have found such a report this far along to be most redundant, especially if the final verdict were to rule on an act of prankterism.  But they all knew that Gyel Stryyx was not one to waste time with her eloquence.

Presently she seemed disturbed, as if her own thoughts were making a final desperate search for that artifact of resolvement.  Closing the window, she returned toward the bench.  She remained standing, hands clasped behind her back, and finished her presentation.

“Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to us as yet, there is no neighboring cross-reference for the House of Raa J’Lec.  A check of the King’s Roll— of those who sailed to bring the fight to Crus’Ybl—has also turned up a Pit’s View for those family members.  Facsimiles of Jyl’s ribbons are now being circulated throughout ChaulE for possible recognition.  By the way, earlier identifications by the relatives of Pyroes Lind and N’Tomarz have also proved negative.  If we could only locate his House!”  She sat down and held the hairband.  “Or whosever’s House this represents.”

Murmurings of disbelief and interest were mingled across the seamice habitat.  The Qeen rose and thanked Stryyx for her presentment.

“My children,” she said.  “Although this case involving our driftwood bears great significance, most of us will focalize our efforts on the upcoming treaty renewals.  Until after that time, Jyl— Yuudm Jyl, trustee of the Kingsmen— will be our honored guest, with his movements discreetly monitored.

“Also, have everyone’s water supply, including the saurians’, capped off.  I also want the Vestry’s activities minimized during his stay.

“Stryyx.”

“Yes, Qeenmother?”

“Unless any newfound evidence proves otherwise during your investigation, you, child, will construct him as the enemy.”

  1. Eld

Dusk is the limit of their leeway,” explained Jyl.  “And if the weather’s off the Post, or if the air’s fluffed with smaze, the Orphans will huddle home for the day.”

“Orphans?”

The man turned to Ard’m Ol, and said, “Yes— the QortLites.  Orphans at Infinity’s Door: Abandoned.  Something religious… I think.”

Tonilk wondered.  “So that’s the reason for the wands.  H’Laynlith—right?”

“Genj blue.  You see, H’Laynliths have to develop into large rocks.  I mean really large rocks!  Too heavy for any of us to carry.  During the day they are stored where the sunshine is best.  The more sun, the more they’ll shine steadily in the night.  Eventually they stop growing.  Smaller chunks of stone are then cut away to make wands.  Set those in the light.  Good for the night… and a QortLite’s life.  The excess pieces are reburied in the soil.  And the growing process is repeated.

“Every structure in QortL is embedded with the misshapen stones.  The bastion towers, the pavements, all the houses, their ships.  The QortLites will occasionally try to set up H’Laynlith stations in the rurals or in the Thick of Phirj’lowner.  But unless they’re heavily guarded, the Boglequay usually confiscates them, then breaks them up and drops them into Wancium’s Lokker.  That way they can’t grow.”

As they conversed atop the coastal slopes facing the Stone Bar, Jyl noticed a heavy blanket of steam sizzling off the cliffs’ seaward side.  Tonilk illustrated to him that this was the reaction between the salten spray and the air and the fevorock, which became blistering enough to act as a natural defense against shrouders.  Even a drenched belfry would blaze as readily as wood shavings in a pyrecone.

As for the heights themselves, they formed ChaulE’s lengthy perimeter with the Nalfin Sea.  The balance of the country’s border extended along the faultline, a miry displacement which separated the xilum realm from the Serpentdom of Ror.  No fevorock ridge encircled Ror.  Yet, no outsiders ever went there.  Even the Intruder never braved his battalions to cross this region, which geologically was a more accessible approach to ChaulE.  Most everyone avoided the lizards.

“So, Lady Tonilk.  Tell me more about this place.”

“Like what, for instance?”

“Tell me how this land of legends came to be.  Some history.”

Tonilk was amused by his style.  “Ard can tell you better.  She’s always entertaining her students with marvelous tales.  Some true, some not so factual.   And more interesting than I’d be able to relate.”

Ard’m Ol seemed demure in her response.  “When I’m not shielding Qeenmother, I instruct in civil applications, both orderly and metaphysical.  A personal devotion of mine.  Helps to offset the tensity of the sphairacloth.”

“A teacher?  Wandering reef!  A fortune on your efforts.”

She wanted to thank him for his compliment.  Normally she would have, if he were anyone but Yuudm Jyl.  She couldn’t put her finger on it.  Maybe it was just this assignment.  There just had to be something more to him.  Why else would the Aul appoint Qeen’s Guardians to escort him, when any team of dancers would do?  After all, he was a Trustee.  Then again, his being a Kingsman probably called for a show of dignification.  Whatever the case, Ard had this on and off queer feeling— almost as if she were the visiting foreigner.

Time for another vacation, I suppose.

“So, Jyl.  Where would you like me to begin?”

“How about ____”  With a sweep of his arms, he indicated the surrounding scope.  “ChaulE.  That will do.”

“Very well.”  Closing her eyes, she cupped her hands in front of her face, and whispered, “I call upon Dyydz… to share your thoughts… with my words.”

They sauntered their way in the direction of Fomucuf Plains, welcoming whatever sunshine could permeate the imperfectly porous overcast.

Buukliair Ard’m Ol now donned a teacher’s role.  Sharing her erudite knowledge of the ancients was a favorite pastime.  And today she would be noteworthily appreciated, for Jyl, like her own attentive pupils, was a good listener.

Dismissing dutiful vigilance for reflection, she envisioned the forced marchings of heavily armed legions, tramping away the lavender lushness of the territory they invaded, and leaving in their wake a guttered ravine, which expanded into what is presently— Bblonfen.

“Many Holten centuries after the Cataclysm, the peaceful tribes of the H’Gaumz lizards fell prey to a warring horde from across the fault.  The larger, more powerful foe, led by an unscrupulous, half-breed Cobratain, had abandoned the harshness of their own unkempt land for the paradise of the Lower Saurians.

“In those days the Serpentlords ruled their vassalage with unreasonable terror.  Murdering the more resolute.  Ravishing the nests of the fairest maidens.  And oftentimes, whenever maddened by the spirits of orshyve, devouring those too sluggish to escape them.

“Then from beyond the Threshhold of the grand Lynk the first ships from New Moon landed, and what became as the Time of People.

“Sympathizing with the plight of the H’Gaumz, the weaponeers befriended them.  And together they launched a campaign to overthrow the domination of the Serpentlords.

“During the course of that bloody resistance, close friendships between some allied members occasionally produced passionate instances, admonished by the elders from both sides.  The offspring of these somewhat sodomistic occurrences were the foresires of a new race, who matured with both parental traits.  Detesting their status quo as outcasts, many of them withdrew themselves across Zumenhyxx Fault to the land of Ror.

“K’Sois Mist was breaking Cosanc.  The trijournsuns of Lef burned brightly above Rem Idi.  On that day the backbone of the Alliance had surrounded Urfacis Lloc, the last stronghold of their cruel adversary.  But because of the strategic makeup of the refuge, it was feared that a vast majority would be unworthily sacrificed in its taking.

“Yet, while the chiefs of People and H’Gaumz analyzed their plans for the assault, a lone green figure arose from the shadows of their ranks and unmethodically made his way to the Lloc.  He was the sole outcast who chose not to exodus with the others of his kind.  He had groomed himself in the ways of both weaponeers and serpents.  His name was Ods Uf.  To the coalitional populace, he was simply—  the Semdrak.

“Brandishing a xilumsword in each hand and wearing no armor he penetrated the open ingress to the bouldered fortress.  And from within there bellowed the scouring cries and hissings and horrid wailings of devils and fenmares.  And interbreeding these—  the shriekings of torment. The insensitive tolling of the death bell.

“A murmuring chorus ascended from the masses outside, as a staggering Serpentlord appeared at the entrance, his scale-covered bulk bleeding profusely from his mutilation.  His anticipated collapse brought on loud and vigorous cheers.  A multitude of swords gleamed under the suns.  Gyaghorns blared to the motivated charge upon Urfacis Lloc, an onslaught so furious, it would almost spell the demise of the Order of Serpentlord.

“Having toasted their great victory, the elders drew up a charter, the saurians bestowing upon themselves the magnificent valley that bears their name, with the balance of the region this side of the Fault going to the seafarers.  Both parties realized the eventful problems of even peacetime compatibility, despite their joint efforts during the previous war.  And so, the charter was mutually agreed upon.

“However, before the H’Gaumz could be conveniently relocated, a roundup of all the saurian eggs, carefully hidden during the reign of the Serpentlords, was necessary.  Because many of the potential offspring were concealed during spurs of the moment, an all hands searching party was initiated.  Anyway, they gave a name to their exhausting search— Kor’Al.

“And there you have it.  The H’Gaumz continued their peace in the Valley.  The settlers from New Moon built their own Fortress— called it Goronz Wood.  Many of them set out on new adventures.  Some never returned.  Those of our grandelders that remained… well from them— here we are!”

Jyl liked this story.  “Whatever happened to Ods Uf?”

“The Great Lizard?  He was given free rein of all the land, so long as he behaved himself.  He became a master of the xilumsword, though he achieved the most honorable distinction in that he was quite formidable without it.  A mighty warrior!  Certainly the Intruder remembers.  He was once a very strong ally.”

“Was an ally?”  Jyl wondered aloud.  “Where is he now.”

Ard’m Ol’s reply sounded ambiguous.  “Under Bblonfen.”

“Genj blue!” agreed Tonilk.

“Bblonfen?”

“In the end he abused his power.  He didn’t behave himself.  He was punished severely.  His saurian followers pulled out of the Alliance.  And since then have kept to themselves at Ror.”  But Ard gave no further explanation.  “Come on, Yuudm Jyl.  It’s getting late.  We can talk on the way back.”  She could see the storm clouds blowing in over the distant shores of Chellis Beach.  “Looks like the Casm’s Harem is gathering for a rematch.  I can’t wait till we drift out of this.”

The next afternoon the two guardians and their guest took their conversations almost as far as Round Cosanc.  The frosty drizzle and the early night warned Ol that it was time to return home again.  She marked that the Yuudm was standing right on the edge of a sheer slope and looking down inquisitively.

“Better heel this side of the fringe, Jyl.  The wind can be tight up here, and it’ll ____”

“Jyl!”

All at once his arms wavered frantically.  But there was nothing to grab but the emptiness of the briny air.  Tonilk dove towards his feet and swore as she missed the handle.  The guardians were seized with enraged alarm, as a scream erupted and shadowed the longsome plummet and was finally hushed by the throat of the sea.  The man never resurfaced.

“A gust of wind!” barked the Silverstream.  “Breach a goddessdamn vestal!  Then you can both thank the wind for having helped you forfeit your free time till HevN’s Rebirth.”  Irn V’Shae, who was in charge of Aul security, would put off informing the Qeen of this unpleasant news, until a thorough scrubbing of the granite had been made.  “I don’t care if you have to swim the entire coastline under Dalhexxer, I want that sailor boy’s body found.  Or you’ll be tacking your saurian asses on hooks.  Now wing it!”

By the fourth day of the search, Casm’s Harem was at its peak, its clusters of icy squalls staying with the ChaulEr drift and now bombarding the entire land mass, while the optimism about recovering the lost driftwood was at a dead night low.

An acute eye, however, sounded Zoyet Bell. The Sinners found themselves scurrying a ledge somewhere between the citadels of Zoyet Woods and Reelam.

Tonilk yelled into the gale, “He’s got a raft!  Over there!”—as she pointed to a figure making very slow progress against the breaker zone’s convulsions.

“What do you think, Huntress?”

Paun watched her sister finish knotting a thick cord onto a huge pike, with the other end of the line secured around her waist.  Wober Fel lifted the harpoon over her shoulder and winked at the chief Sinner.  “Bovaseals on the terrafan!”

Then letting out a powerful bellow, she thrust the hefty spear—with no mite of arc—straight and true.  It rammed the bed of ivoctenwood scraps so vehemently, the man was unable to dislodge it.

The Huntress pulled the rope taut.  Her sister Strek looped a similar cord over the trailer and slid down its ravening trek.  The mariner was still muscling the pike, before her kick jousted him overboard.

He roused to a sore chest… a different chamber… and wearing a white tunic.  Outside of the sole oriel casement, a blue sun was beginning its well-known pass over a fallow journmoon.  A hundred feet below the window was the turfy pavement of the metropolis.  The same distance overhead was the roof.  And more than likely Ladies Tonilk and Ard’m Ol were just beyond the locked door.

Thay’s wilderness be fertile!  He was smiling.

  1. Ayopee

Omata shells, their melodical peal whispering fables of the subterranean seas.  Fimwor leaves caressed to enchanting shrills.  Polyrhythmic yurlstone drums.  And the melodious twitterings of memperoats in flight.  This was the festival music heartily played by the men of Pangr’lol.  Her mind erotically absorbed in the seductive rhythms, a young Unvesyn girl, a concubine from the harem of Viceprince Eccoei, teased her emblazoned nakedness within an auroral ring.  Rem Idi’s kings, the Hesoc Twins, presently regarded as the strongest men on Chal’Iss, were convincingly demonstrating their abilities by crooking various wesneg bars and maneuvering floican blocks, their few challengers being embarrassed failures.  And all the while, goronz barrels were brimming with the finest batches of orshyve to compliment the grand platter of arbourquail roast, tarimelons, dribblen stew, pretberry cake, and stuffed gadofer leaves, to name but a few.

Although all guardians were conspicuously armed, their fashions were like ornaments of Ib’ktide—the difference between that holiday and Qeenmother’s birthday being the presence of foreigners.  Today, as during their previous times whenever Xam Star eclipses Gidawru, the allies of ChaulE had come to renew their coalitions.

The treaties, in the form of individual roles to control the QortLite influx, were indited by the Aul, and were enforced indirectly, but effectively, according to the Qeen’s will.  For the allies, however, there was an even more primary reason for these treaties.  The greatest incentive of all.  The water.  Not just water.  Very sacred water.  Water that would sustain the current age of anyone.  A measure of cupped palms daily was all that was needed.  Miss a day: age a day.  Take away violence, disease and accidental death—it was the nearest dream to immortality.  And it existed in only one place.  The Well of Sut UnBii.  In the land of ChaulE.  Upon those who would neglect their covenant: they would be deprived of the water. And despite subsequent efforts to redeem themselves, an entire generation of a kingdom might expire before being forgiven, if ever—such could be the wrath of Qeenmother.  Honorable signatories, on the other hand, were generously rewarded.

At length, the entourage from Bidet made their entrance.  They were led by Lord Sorsun Riffel, a handsome man, who at Qeenmother’s last six birthdays, was Paun’s personal pleasure—as was expected today.

Attending with him, of course, was Princess Vajjarere, the lone daughter of Emperor Phycom Swenn’s six children.  Among the host of all splendor, she would be the most captivating jewel—highly wooed and evenly envied.  A fiery mane crowned those carnelian eyes with their enslaving twinkle, and those florid sodden lips which fueled a man’s thirst.  And it draped her pale sorrel flesh, so that her large breasts and generous posterior and elegant legs were deliberately stranded to punish the wanton fantasizers.

She was the most beautiful woman on Lynk Star.  Her nation, above being the most powerful ally, had responded honorably to all past agreements.  Thus, it gratified the Qeen to preserve such extraordinary fairness with the nectar of ageless time.

Since the days of the Dycas Breed, hers was a familiar face at Qasr’Kwen, always displaying herself with that conspicuous vanity.  However, notwithstanding her enticing appearance, she was not so easy to sweet talk to one’s couch, no matter the rank of the caller.  King Wedad of the Aspirlac Islands one partook of her amorous attributes.  But it cost him two warships, three hundred workers for the fiery genj mines, and most important of all, the Isle of Ov—once the home of sweet crusm trees and the golden billows gull—now a towering seafortress.

For today’s business, her servants, as usual, would carry two huge ornate chests.  One containing exquisite gifts for the ChaulEr sovereign.  The other, Vajjarere’s personal wardrobe.  People everywhere jeered about her travelling toilet, and rightly so.  Even the crew of her ship had witnessed her redundancy in changing apparel and jewelry no less than four times during a short day’s journey.  Here at Qasr’Kwen her clothes carriage, conveniently parked near the dignitaries’ bathhouses, was visited just as regularly.

In more recent trips to ChaulE her stays were brief.  Contract formalities and the social gaiety that accompanied them did not interest her.  In fact, she was patently bored at the whole affair.  But as Sorsun Riffel would apologetically explain, it was her family’s insistence that she represent them here.  So after scantily mingling with the ministry and guests, she and he servants and baggage would leave the palace, and with half the escorts, set sail for home.  Today her ambassadorship from the Bidet Empire would be no different.

On the contrary, Lord Riffel was as robust a banqueteer as he was a soldier.  His broad shoulders had steered his country’s first ships through the rampage of the Firth Rises.  Here at Qasr’Kwen, however, is where recognition was initially set upon him.

It was his first visit to ChaulE.  At that time he was a brash young retainer to Prince Xemochy.  Even then the women admired his neatly trimmed beard, which jutted from his crop of auburn curls.  And genj blue eyes—as powerful as the rest of him.  It was all that well-favored admiration which got him pitted against two bodyguards from Citau Bwec.  His victorious duel, due to his shrewd proficiency with the juyag saber, launched him on the course to gallantry.

Despite the precedence of the treaties, which he reviewed in all seriousness, his chief regret was his limited stay.  Therefore, he made the most of his visitations, which always included some sensual fun with his part time lover, ChaulEr Paun, who was also the mother of his son.

“Ah!  My Princess!  May H’Shauf continue her blessings upon you!” greeted the Imfiheg from Leet with a bow.  And he reached for Vajjarere’s hand.

But before he could touch her, one of her guardians stepped in and tactfully halted his advance.

“I’m not your Princess, Kuom.”

“I was hoping that we might talk.  Perhaps I have something of special interest to you.”  He spoke while keeping an occasional eye on her guard. “Something we could bargain ____”

“Not with you, Kuom.”

“But you haven’t ____”

“Never with you, Imfiheglet!”

“Oh, come now, Vaj,” intervened Paun, who walked unhindered through the Bidet’s guard and put a pretending-affectionate arm around her.  “Let’s not be rude to our distinguished guest.”

The princess blew a hateful sigh and looked away from her adversary.  Meanwhile her bodyguards watched her helplessly, as there was no interfering with the Paun.

“Why this is our very noble and trusted ally, Imfiheg Kuom.  I’m sure there must be something of great value you could obtain from him.  Some servants.  A few ships.  Maybe even the city of Racyayoler.  You know, there’s a really nice view of Z’Gahl’s islandrise ____”

“Excuse me!” snapped Vajjarere, who turned away and headed towards the balneal rooms.

But Paun cut her off.  “What’s the matter, melonmaid?  Don’t you like our parties?  Always figured a pretty whore like you to be fun loving.  Of course, I suppose with your For The Stars asking prices, all the worthy suitors are avoiding you now and going elsewhere.  How about it, Vaj.  Competition getting to you.?”

“Competition, soldier girl?  Surely you don’t include yourself.”

“Oh, pray tell me, fairest Vajjarere.  Why not?  Show me a nobleman here who would not have me.”

“That is precisely the point, ChaulEr Paun.  I have at least enriched my empire with ____”

“Your empire?”  Breach a vestal.  But is it Empress Vajjarere already?  You must be careful, Vaj.  Your ambition’s really tripping the Heart.  And what would your brothers think?”

Fumbling with her silken orange riggings, the Bidet beauty continued, “I have at least strengthened Bidet, and with performances by the Greater Nobles.  On the other hand, you have managed more than your share of lesser men—and women—I am told.”  The Sinner’s expression tautened.  “It is no wonder that Chal’Iss has acclaimed you its Lizard Whore!”

The princess held her look of defiance towards Paun.  A brave act indeed.  For of all of the debasing remarks, that last was the most detested by the ChaulEr.  Naturally Vajjarere’s courage was made easier in the presence of Qeenmother’s party.

That never made any difference to Paun. The princess should have known that.   In a burst of anger Paun clenched the Bidet’s luxurious mane and yanked her to her knees.  Vajjarere shrieked at the top of her lungs and the great hall became silent.  Her guardians flinched apprehensively, but maintained their ground.

“Mistress Paun!” yelled Gyel Molug, who was rushing towards the confrontation.  “Release her!”

Paun complied, with a swift blow that buckled her victim and left her bleeding from the mouth.

While medical aides tended to the unconscious princess, Molug hammered her disproval at her testy friend.  “Saurian’s ass!  What’s the matter with you, woman?”

“She said the wrong thing to me.”

“And for that you clobber her as if this were a half-limbs match?

“Yes.”

“At Qeenmother’s birthday?  Dumb drunken Serpentlords!”

“Seems like an appropriate time.  Don’t you think?”

Shaking her head, the war councilor went on, “You realize, sister, I won’t be able to help you out of this one.  The Qeen will smother you.”

“But not until after Bidet’s seal on the treaty is formalized.”  She smiled confidently.  “By then this will all be forgotten.”

“Sorsun Riffel will approve the pact’s conditions far ahead of your slutting time, sister.”

“I said formalized, Molug.  You see—his being with me tonight is sort of… part of the bargain.  And the Qeen knows this.”

“Bevleba!  I don’t know, Paun.  Your boldness will either burn you one of these days or ____”

“Himmwast calmly barged in.  “Whilst an idle woman be thrown under…”  Her single eye pointed towards the approaching Lord Riffel, who addressed the group, while directing a handsome smile at his lover.

“Yebirulp’s drift, gracious noblewomen.  Please accept my most humble apologies for whatever my cousin did to incense you.  At times she can be ____”

“Riffel!” shouted a restored Vajjarere, being helped to her feet and forcing her way to him.  “In the name of the Emperor, my noble father, I order you not to engage in this woman’s company.  In fact, you will take care of our business here immediately, so that we may depart on the next tide.”

“I realize you are very upset, cousin, but any examination of our contract with ChaulE must be thorough before ____”

“Today you will modify your procedures, Riffel.  Now I order you ____”

“I am sorry, Vajjarere, but as chief representative of the Bidet Empire, I must advise you to make preparations for leaving as soon as possible.”

“You advise me?  For the moment I shall pretend that the orshyve has already affected you considerably, Lord Riffel.  Nevertheless, I insist you meet with the Aul now and ____”

“Ats-gisab!”

“Lord Riffel?” reported one of the Bidet ship captains.

“Princess Vajjarere will be leaving now.  You can still catch the turfemlic winds and reach Ov by Kir’s midrise.  Just leave me with Lim and four escorts.”

“What do you mean Ov?”  Vajjarere was fuming.  “If I am going anywhere, it will be to Dun’s Fortress and nowhere else.  And there I shall make a full report to my brother, Xemochy, of your misconduct towards me.  Then he will see that ____”

“He will see that you are properly sympathized with, after I have updated him on our recent treaty renewal with ChaulE.  Until then, cousin, enjoy the Aspirlac rain market until Xem and I send for you.”

He motioned to the ship’s captain, “Ats-gisab.”

Who then faced Vajjarere.  “Madonnine?”

With her perfumed sudary the princess blotted her lips, glared at the Bidet lord, and swore at him.  “Fidya!”

“You have my sympathies,” grinned Sorsun.

Then she looked at Paun with that hate.  That genj hate even dead night could perceive.  And as she did, Paun clung to Riffel’s arm and gloated.

Bitch!  Lizard bitch!  Vajjarere left to pack her bags… humiliated.

“Fidya?” asked Paun.

“In her most vulgar sense—she hates me.”

“Good.!”  Her eyes sparkled and her grin began to show that prurient look.  “Hello, Riff.”

“Hello, Princess.”

And they discreetly traded lips.

“When can we be alone?” he asked.

“As soon as you can remember a good place to hide. Got somewhere in mind?”

Yes.  And they slipped away.

The special rooms reserved for Qeenmother’s guests were temporarily sealed off, and wouldn’t be available until after Open Lynk.  But Paun and her lover, desiring more immediate private surroundings, utilized one of the many individual bathhouses.  A shining lockhole at their usual hideaway indicated an open station.  Inside were a fevorock basin, a dry slab, and another door to a deeper subterrene conservatory, whose osteal footpath led to the presently locked overnight quarters.  Thinking only of their libertine appetites, Paun and Sorsun went straight to the warm tub.  They became drunk with both spirits and lust.  And as their lips and loins wrestled with one another, a loaded brush syringe raked her backside, and the daughter of Gwil Fyr astrayed into the Brewless waste.

The second ascent of the gibbous moon, Kir, had not so much as haloed the Rainlands.  Yet, the horizon towards the west was now void of any traces of ChaulE.  The Bidet ships had made remarkable time tonight—better than expected.

Vajjarere didn’t think so.  She was pacing nervously along the taffrail, starboard to port, her vision struggling through the blacktide which engulfed this vastness of broken swells and troughs.  Had she the ableness to attain the masthead—for whatever visibility it was worth—she would have done so.  Even HevN’s Brew fell under her restless vigilance, as if the time recorded by the astral sea might outweigh the hope not offered by the Nalfin.  Finally, a discomforting mist from a newborn breeze settled upon her, and she shivered.  At the same time she heard the captain give a command.  The air collectors shifted, turning the vessel from its Raeyev Cluster heading and aiming towards Tun’El.

“Ats-gisab!”

Having finished with his instructions to the crew, the ship’s captain answered her summoning.  “Madonnine?”

“Ats, I thought we were supposed to have good weather for the return trip.  It seems the scouts of the Harem are nigh.”  She sounded like a seasquire on first sail.

“My lady, we are having excellent weather all the way home.”

“You call this rain excellent?”

He grinned.  “Princess Vajjarere, this drizzle you feel belongs to the turfemlic current.  This moisture may be somewhat of an inconvenience to you, but the accompanying wind is most appreciated.  Our partial fleet and secondary escort will reach Dun’s Fortress way ahead of schedule.”

Ahead of schedule?  That’s some relief.  “Speaking of escorts, how soon till our first rendezvous?  I’ll feel better with those others flanking us.”

“We have already done as such, Madonnine—about six leagues ago.”

“But where are the ships from Ov?”  Like lost driftwood her eyes scanned the dark brine about them.  “I thought they were supposed to meet us directly.  Lif even talked of boarding our vessel to celebrate.”

“Lif Ubju has part of his fleet spread out behind us… just in case.  He’s been dawdling the long way around Aspirlac.  They’re far in the direction of Five Points.  It’s why we never encountered them.”

“They must be quite some distance behind us, Ats.  In Kir’s light I can barely see but a spec of the Rainlands.”

The Bidet captain concentrated his visual attention midway between the pluvial archipelago and the Aspirlac Islands’ most eastern isle, Enro.  “Okay.  Let me see… There are the masts of Sminard…”  He took his time, pointing only with his gaze.  “Bity… Looks like either Hees or… No.  It’s Zruth.  They still haven’t fixed ____”

“You have the eyes of the Strigfolk, captain.”  The princess was more relieved now.  “But I shall feel better when I myself can recognize their colors.”

“My lady, please come with me.”

Ats-gisab led the royal beauty towards the ships prow and one deck below.  The quarters they entered was an auxiliary lookout, complete with a large centerboard and numerous bunks to accommodate the sentinel shifts.  At the bow of the cabin a long narrow window had been framed into its curvature.  Presently four of the crewmembers were stationed there, spicing their vigilance with seafaring yarns.

The fleet commander ordered one of the men to bring some food for himself and his tense passenger.

“Oh, I’m not hungry, thank you, “said Vajjarere.

But the captain insisted.  “A small whethpion platter… and, Ong Kep—some miamwif sap.”

“Very well, sir.”  And he left for the galley.

“Why don’t you men go topside.  We’ll handle it from here.”

And as they headed for Cicer’s main deck, a lewd remark concerning the couple now occupying the lookout was stretched into another mariner’s tale.

“I really am not hungry, Ats.”

“So you say.  But I’ll bet your stomach’s been growling since we left port.  Also, a little food may help to steady your nerves.  Besides, I am returning a healthy sister to King Xemochy.  Seeing you with a plump smile will make him smile, which will make me smile.”

“You needn’t worry, Ats, about your handling of this mission.  You’ve done beautifully.”

“Nevertheless, you shall dine with me now.”

Ong Kep entered the cabin and arranged a tray of food, using the place setting indentures which marked the trestled slab—a feature designed in the event of and any sudden or sporadic turbulence.

“Your evening meal, Madonnine.”

Vajjarere picked up one of the goblets and swirled the warm puce fluid.  “I’d much rather have some qaithwine.  Perhaps that will ____”

“There will be plenty of that once we rendezvous with Lif,” said the captain, who dismissed the other shipmate.

“But when will he catch up to us?”

“I said that only part of his fleet was behind us. He will meet us directly as planned.  But only after you have finished your dinner.”  And he handed her a colander spoon.

She cooperated.  Although an occasional misdirection during her consumption would remind her of the painful confrontation with Paun, her dining and earthy conversation with her brother’s loyal subject did relax her.

When they finished their meal, Ats-gisab poured themselves another goblet of miamwif, and asked, “Do you recognize any of them?”  His head motioned towards the window behind her.

The noblewoman turned and saw a light hovering high above the churning sea.  Running to the prowbay, she beheld more of these glowing mastheads, each displaying a familiar banner—an open hand with royal garlands banding the fingers.

“Our ships!  Ats!  Our ships are here!”  And with her cheeks streaming with tears, she flung herself into his arms and kissed him.  “We have done it!”  Her words echoed all during her scurry to the main deck.

As the grand vessels of Ats-gisab sounded their victory bells, so too did those of Lif Ubju rejoin.  Exultant voices For The Stars thundered from their hearts.  And together with undulating juyag sabers, they vaunted of their boldness under HevN’s Brew.  Not since the first conquering of Firth Falls had such jubilation clamored upon the Brine of Chal’Iss.  Indeed this glorious hour belonged to Bidet, whose own talent to achieve eminence would not end here.

Gradually the fleet’s celebrating frenzy became one synchronized chant.  “Ayopee!… Ayopee!…”

Father will be proud thought Vajjarere.  Soon the heraldry will change, as she envisioned on her nation’s flag a sixth finger of regalia—her own.

“Ayopee!”  She threw her head back and shouted aloud with the others.

On the birthday of the ChaulEr Qeenmother, the Crown of Five Kingdoms had endeavored a great deed… and won.

“Ayopee!… Ayopee!…”

Nether kept looking back at the far corner.  Down the other intersecting corridor were the fevorock.  Come on, Sister!  You’re going to miss the fight.

Meanwhile, a second man had just pierced the Kitrin Post with his own cordon-signed poniard, thus formally accepting the challenge of the first.  With both rivals clutching their swords at ready positions, the Round at Qasr’Kwen began its descension.

Those guests who were gratified by such duels gathered close to the brim.  Qeenmother’s personal viewing would be done from just out front of the Prym, where her protectors maintained their guardian ring about her.  For her, this was a welcome occasion.  Her last two birthdays being without incident had disappointed her.  It was hard to imagine someone with the countenance and dignity of the Qeen to be tinged with any vices whatsoever.  But how she loved a good fight!

It had been hours since Princess Vajjarere’s abrupt departure.  All the better perhaps.  Her Royal Vainness was never one to stick around for the ruffians anyway.

Nether touched Emgroy’s arm.  “Hey!  I’m going to vex some Silence.”

“Need some help?”

“Never you mind, Lokker lips.  Just watch the fight and let me know who what happens.”

Sorry to interrupt your fun.  No I’m not.  Guardian Nether fashioned a wicked grin and leisurely strolled toward the scene of their lovemaking.  Besides, Paun would understand.  The Sinners had been chided enough by the Aul over their irresponsible bending of regulations.

“What happened to Winger?” asked Wober Fel, holding a renewed dish of choice viands.

“In the back, peeping in on a couple of whores,” answered Emgroy, as she snatched a gadofer leaf from her sister’s plate.

“Ah-ha!  A little relief work, huh?  Or is it g’Wesh series this time?”

“I doubt either of them, Wobe.  Paun’s greedy, and Riff’s not into Bottsfold.”

“I know.  Neither is Winger.  But she’ll probably want to see this,” referring to the upcoming duel.

The Rowdy agreed.  “Should be back any time now.”  And she reached for another scrumptious leaf.

Only this time her sister pulled the plate away from her.  “Hey, vulture!  Get your own!”

The clashing of angry swords lured their attentions to the Round.  A carefully planned maneuver.  An unthwarted stroke.  And Silbin Menork drew first blood on the retainer from Glyp.  Trying to ignore the gash which throbbed bitterly on his left side, the ill-tempered Fawl continued to stalk his old rival.

“Those two have been rapping spleens since the last time,” remarked Gyel C’Mize.  “Over that Unvesyn whore.”

“Sometimes men are such fools,” added Molug.  “Especially those two.  For The Stars to one she ends up in someone else’s bed.”

The next engagement was filled with a barrage of embarrassing efforts.  His sword missing its mark, the Glyper was having greater success with his intermittent kick flurries, a skill which often broke his opponent’s guard.  However, during another exchange of thrusts the noble Remal feigned a forward lunge.  Then whirling himself about, he slashed the leg that had been so advantageous earlier.  With a shriek the crippled combatant sank to his knees.  Fawl held a defenseless saber.  A final blow crossed his throat.  And the Crazed Glyper was dead night.

Once the arena was again level with the main floor, the victorious Silbin retrieved both daggers from the Post and disappeared into a throng of congratulations.  Then the countrymen of Fawl removed their comrade’s body to one of their ships outside the Harbour in the anchorage zone.

Though not a lengthy contest, it proved entertaining enough for the palace gallery.

Wober Fel and her sister turned to see Nether hurrying towards them.  “Too late, Neth,” said Emgroy.  “Crazy Fawl just got ____”

“I can’t find them!” she broke in.  There was an uneasiness in her speech.

“Who?  Paun and Riff?  Don’t worry.  They’re fooling around somewhere.”

“Genj Blue on that!” concurred the Huntress, finger-wiping an empty dish.  “By the way, it looks like poor Menork went into the round for nothing.  I see that dancer’s ____”

“Will you shut up about the goddessdamn fight!”  It was unusual to hear Nether over the edge.

“Hey!  Down on the hook, pisslocks!  I mean, you know Paun by now.  Those two probably grabbed a different tub this time.”

“Or even one of the maprooms,” added Groy.  “Did you check the garden?”

“All right.”  Crooking her neck, the Winger stiffened her arms straight down and squeezed her fists.  “Then you trulls help me find them… right now!”

“Bevleba!” Now it was Wober Fel who hissed back.  “Why don’t you go fill your goblet and quit worrying.”

“Just a feeling Wobe… okay?  Where’s Himm and Strek?”

“There’s Strek—solving the problems of the Abyss with Regentari ____”

“Get Gypsy!”

Nether then steered herself toward her intellectually chatterbox sister.  Over on the rostrum side, beneath the mural of the old Fortress, sat Guardian Strek with Uskog Ranip.  As was guessed, their discussion would be too disinteresting for most of the attendance here.  The Phadine diplomat was also a Brewist, a sower of possibilities.  At the moment she and the Sinner were reasoning the nature of some worthless piece of mineral rock, which the legate used as a bauble in her home.

The Sinner went on, “Sometimes… I can sense the so… mischaracterized … dead night objects…  How are they?… Or why?…  To serve… or to rule… or just to pass the time with us?”

To which Uskog replied, “Possibly our presupposed control over them is their way of regulating our performances—both regular and unnatural.”

“Taking the light, Ranny,” Nether hastily apologized.  “Let’s go, Brewbird.  Got a bell.”  And before Strek could muster a word, she was whisked off under her sister’s arm.

“What Under Bblonfen ____?”

“Look.  Just dry up and listen!”

Strek could see that her sister was too serious.  Not like Nether.  “I’m listening.”

“I went looking for Paun… and Riff… and I can’t find either of them.  And don’t feed me any of your hunches about where they might be.  I’ve been through that already.  If you start one of your godessdamn lectures. I’ll shut this party down so fast ____”

“Okay!  Okay!”  Strek put her hands on Nether’s shoulders, wanting her to relax.  “If you listen to yourself, you’re lecturing me.”

“Strek!”

“Okay.  Settle down.”  The other three sisters were just arriving.  “Now when did you last see them?”

“I told you: I’ve already checked ____”

“When did you last see them?”

She was explicit.  “Right after Paun knocked the donjon dawn into Vaj.  They headed … I assumed, to the bathhouse.”

“And you checked their usual compartment?

Nether related how, having seen the unexpected lockhole, she entered the customary room.  The tub was empty.  There were no clothes strewn about.  And the conservatory was just as vacant.  A clear wandlet, a sign that the holdfast mechanism was still secure, rounded out the sleeping quarters’ entrance.  Thinking that the two lovers might have chosen another toilet, she made inquiries at all of the occupied ones with no luck.

“Then we’re going to have to get thorough,” said Strek.  “I’ll get some help from the Bench.  You trulls start searching all the rooms.  All of them!  And mark the ones you’ve checked.  Chase everyone out of that area.  But be discreet, okay?  This may be overdoing it, but we’ll have to unlock the dignitaries’ quarters as well.”

The search was underway.  While the Qeen’s guests indulged in their merriment, the word was passed to all on-duty personnel to be alert for the missing couple.  Together with members from the palatial Bench, where more of the sovereign guardians were on hand, the Sinners combed the entirety of Qasr’Kwen—from even the temporary security brig to the secluded passageways, known only by those with special clearances.  What made the situation more incredulous— the memory of the foyer sentinel matched the outgoing log entries.  Paun and Sorsun Riffel had not as yet left the palace.

“Now what?” asked a more concerned Wober Fel.

“We can silence this party, that’s what!” suggested Nether.

“Wait!” said the Brewist.  “Let’s talk to Molug first.”

A close friend of the Sinners, the hard-nosed Gyel stepped into their midst, as if she had been telepathically summoned.  “All right. What’s going on?  You’ve got rounders running everywhere.  This is supposed to be a birthday party—in case you’ve all forgotten.”

“Molug,” spoke the somber Brewist.  “We have a problem.”

“Genj blue!” snarled the Winger.

“What’s wrong?”

“Paun’s missing.  As is Lord Riffel.  Don’t bother to ask.  We’ve looked everywhere— even in the passageways.  And they never passed the foyer.  Besides, who could overlook those two from here to Above.

Dammit!  Now this!  Molug pondered momentarily, while observing the persisting movements of the palace guards.  They couldn’t hide in here.  “All right.  Scrub the granite again.”

“Molug, we’ve ____”

“Make another thorough search.  Only this time we’ll assume that our sister was uncaring enough to disregard the Inside rule.  Nether, go to her house and your sisters’ homes as well.  Himm, arrange a meeting with Mig Lo Duk.  Explain the situation.  He’ll know it’s gravity.  Besides, his people will be done before we are.  And Gypsy!  Yebirulp’s drift when you greet him.  Wobe, check the Harbour log.  Groy, send relayers to all the rounds.  Whoever can be spared.  I want a wand in every nook from the View to the Valley.  Get everyone else on Subdefiance.  Keep at it until Kir’s halo has faded.  Then all of you meet me in the Aulhall.”

They acknowledged her orders and proceeded to their tasks.

“Hold it!”  She recalled them.  “Where’s Silverstream?  I know Sari’s on vacation.  So where’s Irn been hiding?

Hesitating, the Sinners looked reprehensibly at one another.

Finally, Emgroy spoke up.  “She really didn’t feel like partying today.  And well… she had other plans.”

“Bevleba!”  The Gyel frowned and shook her head.  “Get her into uniform at once.   Before Qeenmother finds out—if she hasn’t already noticed her absence.  Wing it!”

After the second exploration of Qasr’Kwen—with no success—Lady Strek met with Molug and a political friend of the Qeen.

“Strek, Gyel C’Mize and I are in agreement to stop the celebration.  By now we fear that something very dreadful has happened this evening.  So far all the guests have been questioned concerning the couple’s whereabouts.  We have drawn a Pit’s View.  We shall hasten the treaty arrangements and send the respective nobles to their overnight quarters forthwith.  We shall explain to them that some condition has arisen to cut the party short.  However, it is important that no one should leave anchorage until the midjourn tide.  The remainder of the search will continue until something turns up.”

Molug looked at C’Mize.  “Now comes the really hard part.”  It was an easy guess to an uneasy task.  “We must inform Qeenmother.”

Not since the time of Kor’Al had so extensive a search been undertaken.  And they went the distance with this one as well.  Zoyet Woods took the longest to cover… while Bblonfen was the Pits.  (Yebirulp’s drift if you’re a mireling.)  The castle’s secret tunnel to Hoonwaw’s Labyrinth was ferreted out—this time all the way to the stretch of beach lining the Stone Bar.  Nothing there but printless sand, packed level by the gritty tide.  As was expected, the H’Gaumz lizards, through their spokesman, Mig Lo Duk, were diligently cooperative.  For ages they were, for the most part, recluse from the ChaulEr.  But the memories of the Alliance preserved their neighborly accordances.

“Hey, Gypsy!  Time to pack up,” said V’Shae.  “There’s nothing more we can do now, except… do it again.”

“Let’s then reecho!”

“I’m with you, sister. But first let’s get an update at the Aul.  See?”  Irn showed her the crystalline grayness around Kir.  “The halo’s been gone for hours… which means were overdue.”

Himm’s burdened sight cursed the scornful nightscape.  “Be not our sister overdue?”

You have the face of a Sinner, child.”

“Qeenmother?”

“Qeenmother, at the moment ____”

“I am talking to Sinner Strek, Molug,” and she returned her attention to the Brewist.  “Have you indeed sinned, child?”

Her spirit was depressed.  “We have been lax in our duties, Qeenmother.”

“Lax!” shouted the normally reserved monarch.  “Spew on your matrons’ pyres.  I sometimes wonder if you and your sisters had any duties at all.  Not lax, Lady Strek.  Worthless For The Stars!—as Buukliairs.  I have been lenient only because of your past achievements.  But lately your laxity has been overshadowing your history of deeds.  No sense dwelling on what we already know.  How have the Sinners offended me this time?… besides ruining my party?”

She avoided the ruler’s unpleasant stare.  “Qeenmother… Mistress Paun… and Lord Sorsun Riffel… have disappeared.”

At last, Gyel Molug took over.  “Another shift of searchers has recently relieved our first major scouring.  But so far… it looks unpromising.”

The Qeen reviewed the forlorn aspects of Paun’s Guardians, then turned and went to the Bench and sat down.  For a quiet moment she would share their anguish.

Molug went on, “We have delayed notifying the Bidet officials at anchorage, in hopes that something might turn up before morning.”

But the daughter of the Roost of Idsp’ruu wasn’t listening.  She was lost in her thoughts, her fingers tracing nonsensical patterns atop the courtroom table.

All heads turned as Daam L’Sar, still clad in her civilian attire, made her entrance into the grand silence.  The sketchy details disclosed from various hunting parties caused her to cut short her holiday time.  Molug met her first, and in a low voice, broke the latest news to her.  Then the Gattarene greeted her sisters, with a clasp of hands calling for help.

Though out of the proper order, L’Sar finally approached the preoccupied sovereign, saluted and sat next to her.  “Qeenmother…”—who kept her eyes on the unproductive doodlings— “Qeenmother, Paun would never break the Inside Rule.  This I know.”

Appraising her comment, the Qeen got up and once again found herself among the Sinners.  This time she was facing Irn V’Shae.  “Nor would her sisters ever abandon their vigilance over her.”

She had quoted from the Buukliair’s Oath.  It was the one regulation most frequently abused by every team of bodyguards—save the Qeen’s.  Ironically the Silverstream happened to be the overseer of Qeenmother’s Ward—the swells of the fire, as they were lauded by the rest of the swordship.

In the minds of the Aul, they agreed with the Daam.  No matter the affections of Paun, she would betray no more than was allowed—which covered the jubilee area and the diplomatic compartments.

However, this did not alleviate the problem at hand.  At length, L’Sar, fed up with this forsaken atmosphere, stood up and addressed the group irritably.  “All right!  Maybe their carousing.  Maybe they’re not.  We can’t just sit here gammer-moping about and fish-sweating.  Any ideas?”  The only response was a hush.  Bevleba!  “Not even an educated guess?… Anyone?”

“Lady Stob.”

“Yes, Qeenmother?”

“Please summon Dowser Iiq.”

Whatever impressions you might acquire, child, will be appreciated.”

With these words from ChaulE’s First lady, the Magus of the Fire and Net entered the ritual nest of the lovers-at-large.  Within there she removed her glimmering, veiled haik and released her psychic radiance, flushing out and captivating the sediment diffused by lifeforms, while obscuring the impulses of the less related dead night structures.  Her search did not take long.

“So many counteractions.”

The Qeen was aware of the complications.  “Please do what you can, child.”

“Much has been neutralized.”

“Whatever you feel, Iiq.”

Such a rare appearance by Dowser Iiq.  Seldom did she present herself at close quarters before a small audience as this.  Actually it was the majority of the populace who shunned her.  Probing under the banners of the Cloth was still regarded as witchcraft.

She went on, “Naturally… the searchers… have sown their emanations… everywhere…  In the floral plat… the vegetational functions… are overdominating… since they persist… However, they have been shocked… by a toxin… The basin is mystified… with atoe…”

“Paun’s perfume,” said Nether, who watched Gyel Hegged cross a finger over her lips.

The Dowser continued, “…the halitus of their lust… the aurae of these fragrances… were diffused yesterevening…”

Emgroy let out a fistful of breath.  For this we needed the witch?  We have at least a dozen witnesses, who saw them enter here together.

“…Poison!… There’s poison in the air… and blood!…”

While the mystic adjusted her meditative energy, Irn V’Shae pulled L’Sar aside from the other observers.  “Funny how we never gave it much thought, this being a lavatory area.  But notice the roof?”

“I don’t know about your eyes, Irn, but personally I can’t flex my vision down corridors and around secondary overheads… unless you’re referring to that,”  pointing at the lower ceiling just above them.

“That’s precisely my point, Sari.  The roofers can’t see down here either.  And why should they?  Qeenmother and the Aul use their own toilet by the Hall. This here is just a slutting ground.”

“Wait!”  It was Dowser Iiq.  From where she stood, her faceless gaze aimed at the floor. “There is too much interference… too much congestion.”

“Let’s spread out,” advised Neked.

With their compliance, the shining figure became motionless, like the caryatid which rendered her.  Her concentration was transfixed to the floorage just outside the bathhouse in question.  On the surface of the stone before her stature their materialized eight orderly-spaced blots, each about the size of a man’s palm, all sparkling with that opaline brilliancy of the woman’s robe.

Out of her own occultish intuition, Himmwast crept up to the glower nearest her.  Stooping down, she confidently pressed her filigree of beads to the spot, then shut her eyes.

“Gypsy!”  Strek started towards her.

“Leave her!” ordered the witch.

In her dream Himm perceived the arousing of the Conceptual Net.  The serene air ripened to a gentle wind, whose swirling currents thinned the vaporous density, until a cold image appeared.  It looked like… a hoof.  A brigerpin’s hoof.  Yet the fetlock had a dispirited evenness.  Gradually seven more dead night limbs came into view.  Since their positions imitated those of the more tangible glittering spots, Himmwast imagined two elkstallions in sleeping stances, one directly behind the other.  Then the breeze blew harder, lifting the lingering mist, and awakened the dawn.  The details of the feet were focused now.  How they were all so identical!  Like they were molded from the same carving.  Carvings?  The Sinner began breathing heavily.  She strained to see above those matched limbs.  She looked at where the legs ended.  Her jaws were foaming.  Agony possessed her.  Then painful dread.  A conflagration of hate erupted from her tortured soul, as she confronted the demon whose legs they were.  In a cry rivaling a wounded Lagartvipe, the Guardian blasphemed the spirits of Yargolett.

The journstar was setting.  It began to rain.  And from the seanic ordeal the Sinner collapsed.

While her sisters rushed to her assistance, Himmwast mumbled hysterically.  “Anchorage!  Binders to our cause!  Rouse them!  Now!  Be wings our necessity!  Forthwith!  Pid’yn Ba!  To him a promise of genj truce… Anything!  Anchorage!  To anchorage fly!”

Trying to get up, she kept stumbling from her drained apperception, her tearful anxiety garroting her speech.

Just then a messenger arrived.  “Qeenmother.  I’m sorry to disturb you at this late hour, but a party from flagship Lim insists on an audience with you and the Aul at once.”

The troubled ruler looked around to thank Dowser Iiq for her services, but, at some time or another, the priestess had vanished.

As for the Gypsy, an eternity Under Bblonfen seemed gracious compared to the memory which mocked her.  Eight legs.  Those eight elegant furniture carvings supporting an accurst travelling toilet.

 

A jubilant Vajjarere was the first to welcome the Emperor aboard flagship Cicer.

“And Lif Ubju!  How happy I am to see you!”

“And I—you, Madonnine,” as he bowed to her in his noble fashion.

“…and Ats!”—with whom he shared a hardy handshake and friendly, foul words, as was becoming of comrades of the helm.

“Let’s be underway!” said Ats-gisab.  “And____”

“And let’s break out the qaithwine!” hinted the Bidet princess.

Already prepared for celebration was the ship’s refectory, though it did not appear that way to Phycom Swenn.  In the middle of the large dining room he saw a tall and very long banquet table covered with an emerald lace cloth, which hung evenly to the deck.  The height of this bench explained the absence of seats.  Against the bulkheads were a line of sealed casks containing the prized vintage, some of whose lids were now being removed.  And slightly levitating above a shallow well of fevorock were three figures completely enveloped in yellow rippling cowls.  Witches.  Their presence disturbed him.

For now, the king turned his attention to the empty table.  “What kind of … no food?”

Renowned for his hearty appetite, the Emperor’s immediate concern drew an applause of laughter from his subjects.

“Father, you are an incredible Bedlamite!  But don’t worry.  We haven’t forgotten you.  The gallerymen will satisfy your hunger pains later.  In the meantime, let us toast the gods for having blessed our wonderful scheme.”

The daughter of Five Kingdoms raised her goblet overhead with outstretched arms.  “To the Sacred Body of Yargolett.  We of the Empire of Bidet thank you all again for your divine assistance.  And to show our gratitude, we shall offer this night a special sacrifice in your supreme honors.  We hail thee, honorable gods!”

“Honorable gods!” repeated the others.  And they drained their cups.

“And now, one of the moments for which we’ve dreamed since HevN’s Rebirth.  Ib’ktide comes early this season, father.  For you we have kindled the dawn of a new empire.  When the suns shall serve their vigilance only upon us.  We lay at your feet the substratum of Bidet Star… and eternity.  We have acquired that which even the great chests of Vokexingiants could not afford.  Nor over which the swells of QortL’s fire could prevail.  To our great emperor it gratifies us to present the guardian chieftain of the Well of Sut UnBii… the Heart of Round ChaulE.  We give you one from the Order of Gran Saurian.  We give you… Paun!”

Vajjarere took hold of the table cloth, walked the length of the woven-gem covering, and unmasked her captive.  It was the ChaulEr mistress—her battle-scarred nakedness clamped to a genj plate.  Props set up outside the geometry of the framework had feigned the shape of the table.  Paun’s body rested on a central slab.  On either side of this support was another block pressed flush against the trunk section.  This permitted the total encasement of both the arms and lower legs.  Sustaining all of this was an axletree to allow horizontal to vertical positions.

Genj was the strongest known metal on Lynk Star.  Once the blue ore had been forged, it was at its peak hardness.  And would be that way till HevN’s rebirth.  Hence, the Bidets had effectively overcompensated for their prisoner’s capabilities.

And finally, a stone-braided bridle curb, the only piece not made of genj, was tightened across her bite.

As for the Rak, the more prevalent name for this fettering device, it’s substance and design were compliments from the furnaces of Wulscastle— a stronghold of infamous witches, loyal to Infinity’s Door.  And three of them were here.

There was dead silence.  A murmur.  Another.  And more.  Until a deafening forum of applause and rejoicing filled the room.

Alas!  The subjugation of the beast!

The narcotic was wearing off.  In a moment, Paun, her fog-shrouded vision awaiting some clear image, would become conscious of her vile predicament.

Vajjarere.  Ats-gisab.  Various other Bidet nobles.  Their faces loomed like the cackling phantoms of Qul House.  Except… this was not Qul House.  Oh, if it only were!  She could sense the room’s oscillation.  The room was oscillating.  The cymbals of keel and hull clashing with waves of water.  A ship.  The Nalfin Sea.

Mustering her fighting spirit, the renowned Sinner clenched her jaws and flexed her sinews.  But her limbs were cursed with numbness.  She roared and spit like an ensnared Krokolander on the verge of devourment.  There would be no honorable death.  Only life.  The nightmare had begun.

“Hello, Lizard Whore!”  Vajjarere turned and motioned at the feverock station.  One of the witches, R’Shkiel from Nevztower, ran her hands over a smoldering jewel.  In turn, the Chal’Iss beauty was herself levitated to just above Paun’s face.  “Remember me?  And this?”  She pointed to the bruise on her cheek.  Then she stomped her heel twice onto the bit area.

Paun growled through the taste of her own blood.

“Didn’t hurt much, I bet.  Well, I can hit harder than that.”

Balanced by the witch’s power, Vajjarere was lowered, so that she paced along her helpless victim.  “So!  Where are your sisters, Lizard Whore?  They say that during the centuries the Intruder has rapped the invincible shores of ChaulE, he has always returned home… Empty handed.  No souvenirs.  Well, we have taken you in the midst of your qeenslut and buukliairs.  Right out of the heart of your impregnable homeland.  Not so impregnable, it seems.  Which is understandable.  With saps like you running the show.  You see, you helped us.  Because you’re a very special whore.  A wanton sap—as I have always boasted.

“And now, Lizzy… What a precious little name!  Oh, it’s perfect!  From this moment forth you shall be my darling Lizzy.  Anyway, it’s time for our ceremony.  You should feel honored.  The observance of Ayopee, which by the way is our newest national holiday, is being dedicated to you.”

The princess called out to Lif, who handed her a razor-sharp dagger.  Squatting down, she held the blade in front of Paun’s face.  “First rites.”  Then she shaved her captive’s head completely, ignoring the Sinner’s incoherent degrading cries.  “Send this with her clothes back to the Aul.

“My father, the great Emperor of Five Kingdoms, has promised you to me.  Therefore, you shall be marked like all of my other cherished possessions.”

Vajjarere shot a glance at a second witch, Shaman Xiirbuud.  He gestured with his lightless wand.  A branding iron floated from the feverock to Vajjarere’s hand.  She smiled at its glowing tip.  It satisfied her to see the shape of her newest coat-of-arms.  The hand with six crowned fingers.  She strolled with confidence towards her prize prisoner, and boasted, “Did I say Five Kingdoms?  I’m one more.  And for you I shall be merciful.  You will not be deprived of the holy water we’ve stocked all these years.  A mirror shall keep you company till HevN’s Rebirth.  Day after day, gazing upon your own reflection—you shall never forget me, Lizard Whore!  Never!”

Then she stamped the brand hard into Paun’s forehead.   Through the bridle bit a howl from Under Bblonfen echoed loudly off the bulkheads, up the ladderwells, past the sails and cursed the overcast herd of Casm’s Harem.

As she held her refilled goblet, Vajjarere toasted the assembly.  “To our dishonorable designers at Precem Turr… for their beautiful chest.  And to Wulscastle… and their magnificent Rak.”

Then the cruel noblewoman took a sip of her drink.  The rest she slumped over Paun’s bitted mouth.  The genj mechanism checking her every wincing move made the misery that much more unbearable.

“What’s the matter, Lizzy?  Don’t you like our parties?  We only wish to give you something to remember us by.  And you will remember us, won’t you?  And you shall never forget me.  I promise you For The Stars.  You shall never forget me.  Ever!

“Only my glyphic marks her face.”  Addressing the other ships’ captains, she authorized them to burn their own runes into whatever flesh was exposed by the Rak.  More cries of grief and rage blasted through the eternal night.

And the last man to abuse the Sinner arrived at dawn, when Xam Star faded to a cold gray, and Gidawru burned brightly to expose the first shores of Bidet.

“Welcome to your new home, princess.”  It was the voice of Sorsun Riffel.

Him too she would never forget.

This message just arrived by carrierhawk: ‘The Crown of Five Kingdoms wishes to express its gratitude for your cordial invitations these past centuries.’”

Having delivered his statement, the Bidet spokesman, who demonstrated no courtly behavior upon his arrival, dropped a bundle of fabrics onto the Aulhall floor.

A gesture by Gyel Molug, and the party from flagship Lim were apprehended, while the items were inspected.  No one needed a second look.  In Qeenmother’s hands was the principle evidence—a black glistening brigerpin knot, marked with the Roost of Gwil Fyr.  The Sinners became more repulsed by the sheer pteroncloth, with its forest print freshly soiled with their sister’s blood.

What became more puzzling was the second set of articles.  A crop of blond curls and a silver robe, whose collar and cuffs were embroidered with bouch scales.

“Whose is this?” inquired Molug.

“Oh, him?  We have quite a collection, don’t we?” smiled the seaman.

“Who is it?”

“Surely you have heard of the great Zebfax Goothil Oan, Brigadier Dar of Rem’s rubbish.”

His opening attribute was correct.  The whole of Chal’Iss knew of Dar Zebfax and his reputation with the Remal cutlass.  From his seldom challenged performances at Qasr’Kwen round, he was considered the equivalent of Daam’s Buukliar, a firmly respectable rank.

But Rem Idi was hardly rubbish.  After Bidet and Leet, her forces were the most powerful and reliable of ChaulE’s allies.

Another gesture, and a Qeen’s Guardian made haste to the diplomatic apartments.

“Why?” demanded Molug.

“They make such a nice couple.  Honorable guests of the Rak need companionship too, you know.”

The envoy gasped once, as a xilumsword pierced his breast.  Before Nether could be reprimanded, she coolly resheathed her blade and stepped back with her sisters.

The war councilor turned her attention to the dead man’s comrades.  “Certainly all of you here didn’t expect a rousing send off at the midjourn tide.  Or anything less than a lifetime membership in the Scurjatory.  Did you?  Or are you all just cheap sacrifices?”

Keeping an eye on the Sinners, another Bidet crewmember spoke up.  “Actually you could say we are a sort of bargaining committee, here to discuss noteworthy matters on behalf of the Bidet Empire and ChaulE.”

“We are listening,” said Molug.

“We are not listening!” blurted the Qeen.  “We do not parley over lost ones.”

“But, Qeenmother____.”

“They are dead!  Whether they are suffering now or not—they are dead.”

Nevertheless, Gyel Molug ordered that the Bidets, a few of whom were also in the dignitaries’ quarters, be taken to the donjon keep until morning, when the Aul would at least hear their demands.

The ambassadors from Leet and Unvesy were promptly awakened, briefed on the night’s troublesome events, and told to assemble their troops and seize what was left of the Bidet convoy at anchorage.

A female visitor, accompanied by a palace guardian, hurried into the chamber, where she was shown Goothil Oan’s belongings.

She fell to her knees, sobbing.  “Zeb!  Dear Goddess Ildra!  What has happened to my lord?”

C’Mize stooped next to her.  “Eatri.  I know you’re upset.  But tell me—why didn’t you report his absence to us?”

“Wasn’t he with Bwale?” asked the Remal princess.

“Bwale?”

“That’s right!” broke in one of Hegged’s bodyguards.  “He was with the Bidet handmaiden.”

“When?” asked the Gyel.

“Just before Mistress Paun’s confrontation with Princess Vajjarere.”

“Let me see the list of our Bidet prisoners,” said Stryyx.

Bwale’s name was not to be found.

She must’ve slipped out with Vajjarere’s company.”

“Yes, she did,” concurred C’Mize, checking the foyer and Harbour logs.

Gyed Neked was grumbling.  Paun was a proud memory from his more rigorous days at Sirequarters.  A clever plan, Riffel.  I pray that someday you might bless us as driftwood.  Knave bastard!

Awhile longer, and the Bidet ships at anchorage would be found void of any crews.  In fact, the great sailing vessels there—were mere prefabrications, equipped with fool’s riggings, and could only be conveyed by towlines.

“Yers.”

“Qeenmother?”

“You will arrest these imposters, who call themselves Guardians—for dereliction of duties.  Their homes of record will be transferred to Qul House.  See they are properly fettered.”  Compared to her passive anger in the past, this had been the height of the Qeen’s rage.

“L’Sar.  You will surrender your swords and remain under palatial custody until after the sentencing of your sisters.”

That very early morning at her home, the lovely ruler of the xilumbearers caressed the mane of the child she had seen grow into womanhood… and whom she loved.  That exceptional child warrior, who was special enough to become a prominent symbol of ChaulE.  And now she was gone.  She would never be seen again.

First my lover.  And now you, child.

Aloud she cursed the Crown of Five Kingdoms.  And afterwards, the name of Pid’yn Ba.  Then she wept For The Stars.

Presently Paun was alone, although being alone was only a purgatorial break from the violent abuse.  At least no one was touching her now.  She had been mildly drugged and force-fed, then scrubbed satisfactorily without being removed from the Rak.    Never would the Bidets chance an unbound ChaulEr Paun—not even stupefied.  Innumerable exercises—both at home and on the sea—had been practiced to second nature, in order to accomplish their successful kidnapping.  And they weren’t about to risk their efforts by becoming another wretched victim of her potential.

Goddessdamn Lizard Whore!  The detestable scheme haunted her.  Even more so than the treacherous Bidets, she and her sisters were mostly to blame.  They had become too cocky with their dignified ranks.  They sloffed their discipline.  They fed their vulnerabilities.  Then while they flaunted themselves before the Chal’Iss nobility, they were burned like first season tiros.

Paun was still in disbelief at the setup which had taken forever to prepare.  Daring—but simple.  The retinue from Five Kingdoms had barely arrived, when two of the company’s hardy servants, each carrying a large sack of raiments, entered the bathhouse and stationed themselves just inside the locked doorway.  In due time, Vajjarere’s train, parked nearby, was readying itself for departure.  As soon as Paun and Sorsun were seen stepping into the corridor, any one of the Bidets could have signaled the toilet’s occupants, who then unlocked the entrance and slipped into the private floral plat.

A shining lockhole.  Straight into the tub went Lord and Mistress, where their lovemaking was given the utmost attention.  Such a thorough lover—Sorsun Riffel.  Paun never heard the slithering poisoner.  She felt only the sting from the brush syringe.  Then nothing.

During the most crucial step, the coast had to be clear for just a fleeting instant.  When that moment appeared, another code signaled the rapid exitance of the first servant, whose arms were ladened with a large bundle of royal garments—supposedly—which were carefully positioned into the chest.  A short while longer—another signal—and the other clothes bearer responded in the same manner.

Wardrobe secured.  Down the corridor.  Up the stairway.  Past the foyer and escort depot.  Through the Labyrinth— with ChaulEr escorts.  To the Harbour, where an outgoing conventional inspection of the chest’s contents would be, as always, no problem.  Raise anchor.  Farewell, ChaulE!

Her spirit was tormented.  Lizard Whore!  Goddessdamn Lizard Whore!

She imagined G’Lian’s Orchard on the Eve of the Singing Swans.  The continuous procession of tallowbar holders, extinguishing their fires against the Cromlech—in remembrance of those who were sacrificed from Eternity.  Of those interred there, many had been felled by the sword.  They at least were able to manifest themselves proudly in the face of Death.

Not so—myself.  Instead the Genj Burner gets abducted from a toilet room—and not executed, but permitted to live as a perpetual prisoner, exhibition, and a source of bargaining power (if that last condition even existed.)

She wondered how everyone back home was reacting to her plight.  Aunt Uil’fr… Roit… M’Sish.  I’m sorry, M’Sish!… the Sinners… the rounds… Qeenmother…

There would be no fleet coming to her rescue.  Not all the ships of all the ChaulEr allies would be enough to overwhelm Bidet.  Nor would there be any waves of brigerpineers vaulting the seawall bastions of Duns.  Damn merphobia!  Venimbi on your goddessdamn wings, Pid’yn Ba!

It wouldn’t be long before Emperor Swenn would be skirmishing the Nalfin for greater control of the seaways.  Conquering all the lands on Chal’Iss, however, was as distant a task as it was for Honn Kolcher.  ChaulE was still quite solid in home defense.  So were Leet, Rem Idi and Citau Bwec.  Unfortunately, most of the others relied too much on comestible imports to sustain their populations.  Even when the QortLite armada infested the view, the Intruders assaults could always be offset by the presence of the Bidets—who were now exposed as fool’s comrades.

Outside the tranquil night air was broken by a clamorous cheer from the crowd far below on the city streets.  Another mirthful toast to Ayopee.

She remembered those same celebrating voices from early morning, when she was disgracefully paraded upright, in her maimed nakedness, down the canal, through the Grand Pulon, and on to the main hall of Duns Fortress.  There she was introduced to Princess Vajjarere’s brothers, the Five Kings of Bidet, and their noble subjects.  The ostentatious display had actually been a grateful intermission between the brandings at sea and the continual brandings at the citadel.

At least no one was touching her now.

Her new accommodations were cruelly planned.  It was an unholy sanctum, where the forces of comfort and misery clashed.  Where the spirit so willing to surrender was made to endure.  This retribution was undoubtedly Vajjarere’s handiwork.  The Rak was centralized in a studioden, the size of a royal matt, the only furniture being a yebirulp-feathered lounge and a small sunstone easel.  A glittering jeweled relief of ChaulE was the subject of the smooth mineral frame, which was situated midway between the Rak and a large open sashway.  Fevorock planters, level with the ornately carillamond-tiled floor, encircled her and provided a pleasant warmth, while the ceiling and walls intimidated her with their depictions of revelish behavior.

From her genj pallet Paun could see the far end of the canal, joining the maritime boulevard which separated Duns from his brother island and Syds fortress.  And vaguely backgrounding the melancholy View was the Lynk—Chal’Iss and Crus’Ybl holding hands …

…which could be seen tonight from Aunt Uul’fr’s bedroom balcony.  The reminder choked her into another bellowing rage.

How fitting!  Justice being rendered to the Sinner.

Her solitude was suspended, as the broken light at the entryway announced several armed soldiers.  Their flashing sabers bowing the courses of the impinging rays, the Bidet Guardians gamboled in rhythmic unison around the chamber with its opalesce glitter.  Atop Duns Tower the Ayopeean Bell, which chimed at the slightest movement over either the Rak or the gemstone floor, heightened its vile toll.  One by one they inspected the blue crystalline tree.  And when they were satisfied with the effects of the sure-fire bond, they departed as they had arrived… and their heroine came in to pay her respects.

“Hello, Lizzy,” greeted the princess, whose hand passed gently along one of Paun’s arms, recently branded with her insignia.  All the while the carillamond beams activated the Ayopeean Bell into an untuned melody.  “Oh, has my Lizzy been wailing her saurian blood again?”

The Bidet’s attempt to stroke the prisoner’s face was answered with a dissonant growl.

“Now you must stop this sort of behavior, my love.  After all, we are going to see a lot of each other.  This is your home—forevermore.  And the more you behave… the more you cooperate… that will determine my congenial treatment of you.  I could let your hair grow back.  I might even remove your muzzle.

“I intend to make rewarding use of your services here.  I’ve even given you a title, which is befitting one of such renownment.  The Royal Studfemme of Five Kingdoms.  Our future will be blessed with strong aristocrats, some of whom—we hope—will inherit their mother’s powers.  Your powers, Lizzy—beyond the genj block, of course.

Paun’s imprecations were muffled by the bridling line.

“I understand, Lizzy.  It’s going to take time.  But you will get used to it.”

Vajjarere smiled.  She grabbed a gattarene handle, which hung on the side of the Rak.  Humming to herself, she slowly danced about the room, while waving the leathery piece every which way through the gemstone light.  Then she walked towards her prisoner and struck her on the side of her face.  Outside the festival’s ears applauded the telltale song.

Vajjarere stepped to the window and looked out into the View.  The spirals of Tun’El were obscured by the overcast.  Then she went back to Paun, and said, “We are already becoming closer—you and I. So you might as ___”

This time Paun managed to spit past the bit successfully and struck the royal wench in the face.

“All right, Lizard Whore!  You want to play hard?  Just remember.  You’re being given a chance to have an easier time of it.  Normally I would only allow the noblest citizens to partake of you.  But after rude moments as this one, you must be punished accordingly.  If after tonight you still persist with this impudence of yours ___.  Oh, well.  I’m sure by midmorning you will have a change of heart.”

Resentful of Paun’s indignity, she went over to the easel and pushed her palm against the gemstone map.

Sloth rock.  Ha!  Paun’s thoughts scoffed at the sparkling projection, which further demonstrated the Vajjarere’s inexperience with the floor beams.

Moments later a soldier arrived.

“Tell Brezolag to come here,” ordered Vajjarere in her native tongue, and the messenger was on his way.

The beautiful Bidet stood by the window and finger-teased her fiery mane.  “Do you like the View, Lizzy?”

When she turned about, she saw that Paun’s attention was on the easel and its painful reminders.

“For the time you can imagine your old hunting grounds from here.  Just think.  Someday our lands will drift within sight of each other.  And that will be the closest you’ll ever get to ChaulE… my love.”

There was a chime at the door.

“Come in, Brez.”

A soldier of large stature entered the studioden.

“Ah!  Coffarj Brezolag!  Come here, my dearest.  I want you to meet someone.”

He bowed to her.  “Madonnine.”

What Paun saw in the soldier’s garb was a hideously disfigured being.  His face and arms—and no doubt the rest of his hulk—was covered with unordered patches of sanguine and green cobblestone rind.  He had bright yellow eyes, that were inset finger deep into his hairless skull.  And when the monster spoke, his sonorous voice was like a Semdrak’s, only it seemed to rebound out of some immense cavern.

“Brez, this is my darling friend, Lizzy.  She has been asking about you.  And by that twinkle in her eyes, I’d say she finds you quite desirous.”

The ChaulEr had easily guessed tonight’s fate.  The entities of her will had forsaken her previous plea to succumb.  However, she strained herself again, entreating the Scythebearer to reap the lifeblood from her awareness.  But this time too the Sinner’s prayers were rejected.

Vajjarere grinned contently at her victim’s depressed spirit.

“You must not devour her, Brez.  If your performance tonight pleases me, you will be requested again— as I deem it necessary.

“Don’t you find him attractive, Lizzy?  They say his Bidet mother was captured and raped in the Caves of Cqaz… by an Emocar.  But don’t worry.  He’s quite loyal to me, and seeks only your undying pleasure.  See you in the morning, my love.

“Be kind to her, Brez.”

The princess was about to depart, when she stopped to look back at her prized possession.  She couldn’t resist one final sneer.  “Fidya!”  she shouted in a serious tone.  Then she laughed her way past the door and down the waterwheel flight.

The Emocarman was feeling especially privileged by Vajarere’s invitation.  Normally it took a small fortune in precious commodities or some personal distinguished service to purchase a worthy brothelline’s time.  And in Brezolag’s case, his ghastly semblance boosted the price considerably.

Having shed his hauberk and sword, he placed his claws against the Rak and leaned just off the helpless tenant and her threatening snarls.

“So this is the great Mistress Paun.  You don’t look like a rapper swell to me. But you do look… delightful enough.  Let’s see what you and I can do together, okay?”

He began by blowing his warm beastly breath upon her entire front.  Her odious moans burst into a raging howl.  But this ferocity, together with her restrained writhing, only gratified him more so.  The ChaulEr’s wailings seemed to echo throughout the fortress, and together with the Bell’s voice, were harkened with amusement by the jubilant guests in the main hall below.  At length, Brezolag pulled himself closer to his pleasurable quarry.  While his serpentine lips were abusing her, his mouth dribbled a heavy flow of thick fallow saliva over her front side.  Suddenly his facial composure froze.  And Paun followed his collapse to the floor, where more of his fluid emptied out.  Only this time it was black blood.

He was dead.

Standing in his stead was a man in a rumpled tunic holding a knife.  Trying to focus through the jeweled twilight, Paun’s senses were astounded For The Stars.  It seemed like a dream.  How Under Bblonfen could this be?  But there he was.

Yuud’m Jyl.

 

What do you mean he’s escaped?  Weren’t you specifically told not to let him out of your sight?”

“Gyel Molug.  We never left our post,” defended Tonilk.

“Oh, I see.  Well.  I’m greatly relieved to hear that.”  Like the rumblings of an awakening pyrecone, Molug’s tone was growing more and more vicious.  Too much was happening at once.  All this recent turn of events didn’t help matters.  “In other words, you came here to report about the tunnel he scratched down through several levels of palace stone—with a sporf spoon.  Is that correct?”

“There is no tunnel, Gyel ____”

“That is not correct!” she snapped.  “Well then.  It must mean that you found his broken corpse on the grounds below his window.  Right?”

Ard’m Ol could only shake her head.  Bitch!  Her partner would agree.

“Wrong again, huh?  Interesting.  Very interesting.  The pattern is quite familiar.  Do you see it, Lady Tonilk?”

But the confused Guardian did not answer.

“Well.  Just you ponder that one for a while.  How about you, Lady Ard’m Ol.  Can you recognize it?”

“A pattern, Gyel Molug?  I don’t understand.”

“Neither of you see it?  Neither of you realize that this is twice you’ve bungled a simple assignment?  Bevleba!  Is it so goddessdamn difficult to keep tabs on one man?  An outsider—no less?

“First he takes you for a walk… and disappears.  Then he takes himself for a walk…  ‘Oh, don’t mind me.  I’m just a gay traveler, who only looks like a Bidet undercover agent.  Just making myself at home’… while you two are busy, probably playing Fools’Bells!

“How Under Bblonfen did you peepers ever get to be Buukliairs?”

“By their deeds,” intervened the Qeen, who had stepped unnoticeably into the minister’s private office.

“Ard.  Nilk.  C’Mize and Iiq are at the Prym awaiting your report.”

That’s more like it, thought Tonilk.  And the two of them saluted and took their leave.

“Just because your friends got careless, Molug, doesn’t allow you to clasp the hook on everyone else’s pride.”

Qeenmother.  I felt they needed the reprimand, especially since ____”

“Don’t intimidate them, child!  Not on a whim.  At least let the Fire have a shot at it first.

“Anyway, while our people are searching for Jyl, you might as well hear the latest in distressing news.”

“Let me guess.  The grand redemption fee, as stipulated by Phycom Swenn.”

“Not even close… or worth mentioning.  Besides.  I’m remaining firm on my decision not to expend any ransom on any fool’s guarantee.  No water—not a single drop.  No xilumswords.  Not a cinder of the Fire.  And most certainly not a foothold of our land.  They’ll have to come and take it.

“As far as I’m concerned, Ayopee is only the beginning of some boundless treachery.  Bidet’s only gains thus far have been: two people—mind you, they were prominent figures, but not important enough to matter critically for their individual nations; and a moment of glory.

“On the other hand—this is especially bad news—Rem Idi has pulled out of the Alliance.  They’re blaming us, and rightfully so, for Goothl Oan’s abduction.”

Molug was shocked.  “They would give up their water rights?”

“That is apparent for now.  I’ve doubled this last share, hoping to soothe them somewhat.  But unless the Remals moderate themselves to a change of heart, we will be without two major flankers come next round.”

“I cannot believe all this, Qeenmother.”

“Nor can I, child.  Get something to eat.  We’re having another session at before Spout Falls.”

Molug hated to think about the ChaulEr casualty list after the next major attack.  Without Rem Idi… Thank Hev’N’s Brew we’ve still got Leet!

Sorry I’m late, people.”  Stryyx flung her pluvicloak onto the fevorock grating.  “By the time I disentangled myself, I stepped right into another breathless cloud and almost suffocated.”

The Aul were accustomed to the inspector’s tardiness.  But her deducible treatment of case facts was an excusable allowance.

“At this time I should like to extend my commendations to Farpir G’Llay, a hardly-eminent cwolwisan—though noteworthy in my book—for his simple proposal of the reception schedule.

“In reviewing the Foyer and Harbour logs, we might also accredit those having duty along Hoonwaw’s Labyrinth for their efficiency in containing our visitors properly.

“Of course, it never fails.  The only congruity happens to be a major one.  It seems there’s a discrepancy with the Bidet head count.  Both of the outgoing registers match perfectly. However, either of them added to the list of prisoners sums up to one more than the incoming tally.  If we compare names, we find that a certain Uolesto, one of the infamous toilet porters, embarked at the Harbour.  Yet, he was also apprehended later in one of the visitors’ rooms.  It was necessary for the opposition not to allow the real Uolesto to return home.  Therefore, who left in his stead?

“I think we can discount ChaulEr Paun and Remal Zebfax Oan as attiring themselves as Bidets and defecting to Five Kingdoms.  And although it is not probable that any of our escorts could personally identify all the guests at Qeenmother’s birthday, they are genj positive that Sorsun Riffel was not among those who made the trip from Qasr’Kwen to the Harbour.  The Bidet lord was a uniquely attractive man.  Just about any other noble could pass unnoticed, but not Riffel—such being the general consensus.

“As far as our other allied guests are concerned, all are accounted for.

“An interpretation of Dowser Iiq’s exposition suggests a fool’s bottom in Princess Vajarere’s wardrobe receptacle.  Quite a large piece of furniture… and carried by very large bearers.  Still, it must’ve been a tight squeeze—for three people in their secret compartment.  Using Qeenmother’s gift chest as a reference—it has always been a close replica of the travelling toilette—we ascertained that two average-sized adults could just about adopt their forms to this space.  A third person?  We’d have to give the designers the benefit of ingenuity.

“So.  Who is our mystery embarker, who tips the balance of our schedules?”

Out of her pocket she procured Jyl’s colors.  “This man?

“As of yet, none of our allies has spotted anything resembling a wreck.  Not a splinter of hull or yard of mast.  Nor a thread of sail or rigging. Not a single trace.  Which doesn’t mean that his vessel couldn’t have been pulverized or sunk completely during the storm.  Such radical misfortunes do occur.

“Ladies Tonilk and Ard’m Ol stated that they never left their post outside of his assigned room unattended.  We have a genj blue reading on that one.

“And, of course, we’re all familiar with the open air exterior of the palatial custody rooms.  There’s not a degree of incline to the century droppers.  And nothing in those rooms is suitable for an easy climb—either up or down.

“So who’s the friend with the brigerpin?  I mean… how else?  If he didn’t use one of our steeds, he’s either a flyer, or he’s invisible, or we’re all suffering from a severe case of driftwood hallucinations.

“Anyway, he does escape.  Where does he go?  Out to the bush to build another craft?  Appearing as one of us, he could easily make his way to some isolated outgrowth close to a minor break.  Having assembled his crude vessel, his only worry then would be trying to outsail our range—at which he’s already failed once.  But he is a persevering one.  After all, he’s given us the slip again.  Determined to join the cause on Crus’Ybl?

“Or maybe that’s what he wants us to believe.  Maybe he decided to don the uniform of a Bidet retainer, be escorted properly to the Harbour, and set sail for his real native land.

“Faultful theory.  First of all, Jyl would have to reenter the palace under ChaulEr escort.  Next, even if his magic could get him inside—so that his departure with Vajjarere’s baggage looked confirming—why Under Bblonfen would the Bidets even need him?  What services for them could he perform under our monitorship?

“As it stands, there’s absolutely no granitic relationship between Five Kingdoms and Yuudm Jyl.

“Oh, sure.  We can speculate For The Stars.  He has emphatically proven to us his swimming ability.  Perhaps under the obscurity of Dalhexxer’s Shadow, he was purposely cast off by some distant storm worthy ship—manned by a crew unfearing of the night… like the Bidets.  But for what reason?  Ayopee?

“Should we have mistrusted our Trustee?”

Molug was cursing quietly.  “We should have left him on the hook!”

“And Stryyx.  What are your sentiments up till now?” asked the Qeen, who was aware of Gyel Molug’s prejudice against the Yuudm.

“Call it timing, if you will, Qeenmother.  Bad timing.  But what a coincidence.  The simulcast of Mistress Paun’s abduction… and the phenomenon of Yuudm Jyl.

“Granted.  We were all captivated at the mere inference of a Kingsman.  But we should not have released him from the confines of Qul House.  Not until after the contractual sessions.

“Though my logical sense dictates that he is not liable for any felony, I am afraid that my troubled heart shares the veins of my colleagues.  However, I pray that we are both wrong.  And if we are not, then I humbly beseech HevN’s Brew for his redeliverance to us.”

Molug hammered her fist upon the council bench.  “We should have killed him!”

The last person I expected to see.  Paun’s first thought was— another conspirator in the Ayopeean theater.  But he had just killed the Emocar-man.  So how…. Or rather why…. What was he doing at Duns?

He had not spoken right away.  He was just watching her.  Giving her a show of himself— and his freedom—before he would leave.  Instead of intermingling with the merriment outside, Jyl took the risk of sneaking into the castle., thus losing some beneficial time to plan for the morrow.  His sole purpose was to scoff at her predicament.  Then bid her farewell.  It wasn’t his style.  But their past encounters warranted the visit.

How their roles appeared switched now.  She—on the hook.  He—the keeper of the cell.  Seeing her now, though, put a damper on the malice in his heart.  Without her uniform, she was no longer Paun, ChaulEr Mistress.  Rather she was more the common woman.  A plain damsel, disabled and degraded, whose expression called out to him.  It was hard not to notice the six-fingered brand on her forehead.  Compassion was overtaking him.

He stopped staring long enough to check the stairwell.  No guards.  The Bidets were really confident of their Rak.  And whatever haphazard chimes rang out from the carillamond room would be attributed to Brezolag’s lechery.

Returning to Paun, he resolved the loosening of the bridle curb and removed it from the Sinner’s mouth.

Then he asked her, “Can you talk?”

“Yes.”  It was her first explicit word since Qeenmother’s party.

“What’s my name?”

His questioned puzzled her.  Time was of the essence.  Even with the long night ahead, to reckon the secret of unlocking the massive genj fetter might itself take till morning—assuming the Rak wasn’t a permanent seal…

And assuming he was going to try and free her.  The latter possibility was hardly evident by the look on his face.  And she understood why.  She and her villainous sisters had not exactly been bosom comrades with the Trustee from Crus’Ybl.  At any rate, she was ready to parley, if not at least for some mortal but favorable option.

“Chellis Bell!  What Under Bblonfen is my name?”

Good memory she thought, recalling his debut at Qul House.  And now it’s my turn.  “I suppose sailor boy won’t do, will it?”

“The girl likes genj!”  He picked up the scabbard belt and resheathed the monster’s dagger. “So long, hulshintrull.  When I see Kingfather, I’ll tell him you said Hello.”  And he headed towards the window.

“Goddessdammit, wait!”  All of a sudden, for a very brief moment, his name was lost to her memory.  Paun was panic-stricken.  My mind just said it!  With all her heart she cursed the angels of creation.  Cursed their offspring.  Damned the holy ones to whom her dead parents and believing siblings prayed.  This chance would never come again.  Not till HevN’s Rebirth.  Shutting her eyes, she probed for the blind spot.  Yuudm…  Remembering a hint from her brother, she hurried through the ChaulEr alphabet, until…

“Jyl!” she yelled, though it came out in a harsh whisper, needlessly precautioned against the citadel’s ears.  He was halfway out the sash, when her voice exploded.  “Jyl!  Come back here, you Yuudm bastard!”

That brought him back.

Ignobly he asked her, “You called me?  What do you want?”

“No games, sailor boy.  Not now.”  Though they’re justifiable.

Not since she was a tiro at the Round School had she humbled herself.  Even with her mind infected with despair of ever escaping, she suffered the outrage of the Bidets without letting her spirit become wholly subdued.  Pride was to the Sinner as humility was to the Anchoret.  However, she was only in the wean stages of her sentence.  The Rak was a direful path to eternity.  Duration of endurance would take its toll.

Another round of applause arose from the drunken streets, as the daughter Gwil Fyr made her plea.

“I care nothing about who you are… or why you are.  I beg no sorcery of yours—not in the face of this goddessdamn gyve which fits me.  Nor against the poison roofers who live here.  But with all my heart I implore you not to abandon me to this…”  Her eyes pointed out the disquietude which enveloped her.  “…to this!  Kill me now.  Be merciful, Jyl, and use your sword.  It shall be honorable.  I can beg you no more than this.”

He was overtaken.  But not by her request.  It was something else that mesmerized him.  Her face.  His gaze went beyond the wounds of war… her ugly scar… the terrible brands… her own cruel nature.  For the moment her viciousness was gone.  He had barely heard her words.  Yet, just watching her speak now… her expression—it was lovely… so innocent—that he desired to touch her.  And he did, his hands pillowing her head while his lips felt hers—tenderly.

The mystified enchantress willingly accepted his kiss, supposing it to be a first stage in his ritual of mercy.

However, instead of following through with her request, Jyl rounded the geng mechanism in search of clues to uncoupling the ponderous lock.  All the while the citizens of Duns continued to be entertained by the Ayopeean music box.

Perceiving his frustration after several passes, Paun drew his attention to the two figurines at the feet of the Rak’s legs.  They were carved in the likeness of Vajjarere and Riffel.  And being snugly cross-tendoned into the base, they acted as stops against the leverage.  Without difficulty the statuettes were uncorked.  Then with an exertion which normally required the efforts of two men, Jyl gradually forced the heavy mass to its reclining position.

Before the man could resume his inspection, there was a sudden, radical change in the carillamond harmony, accompanied by a knock at the doorway.  Quickly Jyl ran to the side of the Emocar-man and heaved his grotesque hulk onto the Rak with Paun.  After covering the puddle of blood with the monster’s uniform, he squeezed his armed silhouette behind the genj fulcrum.

“Just pretend he’s slutting you,” he whispered.

Paun complied easily, having again been sickened by the lifeless form sprawled upon her.

“Brez?”  It was one of the palace guards who poked his head through the door.  Seeing his familiar comrade enjoying himself to the tune of the ChaulEr’s suffering, he satisfied himself with a broad smile and returned downstream to make his report.

As Jyl realighted the corpse, Paun said, “If any more of them come here, Jyl—before you take off—don’t hesitate to kill me first.  Sooner or later there will be ___”

“Hold on.” He silenced her.  “What’s this?”

“What do you see?”

“Some openings.  Weird-shaped holes.  Could be… Aw!  Probably tuxhil forging faults from whenever…”

He caught sight of the figurines that he had set aside.  Reaching inside one of the cavities, he felt an irregular lateral surface—not jagged, but polished like pechspar.  “They’re both really smooth.  And maybe these are for something.”

Grabbing the likeness of the Bidet Princess, he tried inserting it headfirst, the reversely into both apertures—with no luck.  Didn’t think so.  Wrapping Brez’s garb around the miniature, he began twisting and pressing various movable parts of the figure.  He was quite nimble, while mumbling to himself, quietly, but self-assuredly.

In the meantime, Paun was dreaming idly of centuries past.  More than anything she missed her family.  Her brother, Roit, and his aggressive willingness to lend his constructive skills.  How he and Strek could babble over the mysteries of HevN’s Brew!  And M’Sish, her pure-blood sister.  Like their mother, she was a pious woman, who never spoke unkindly, and in whom Paun could confide her innermost secrets.

Somewhere outside her reflection, she heard Jyl say, “Feucinc.  First run.”

Still using the uniform as a glove, he quickly dropped his grip to the mortisemate of the small sculpture, which was smoking a golden vapor now.  Once again he examined both cavity wombs.  “Left side.”

After a bit of joggling, the transformed image seated perfectly, with its cross-tendon protruding.  Jyl managed to twist the key in one direction, turning it several times until it clicked securely.  “And now you, my lord.”

Back at Paun’s bedside, Aunt Uul’fr came to mind.  Even as children she had been quite a blessing in the House of Gwil Fyr.  Oftentimes the Doyen of a Roost remained steadfast in the old ways, and constantly harped on how things used to be.  But not Aunt Uul’fr.  She continued to be young at heart and was fervently accepted as Matron following the tragic death of Sa V’Ecrii.

Mother.  Perhaps it’s better that you’re not here… to lament me.

Paun opened her eyes.  There was this strange sensation.  Her arms.  And legs.  Some movement about her.  Then she noticed the genj appendages creeping away from the main slab, along the axletree, and toward their perspective linchpins.

Can it be?   Her arms slowly became exposed.  Her spirit was revitalized.  That cherished freedom!  It was sunrise at Tharm.  At the same time the cressets of revenge were summoned, their fiery clans assembled into an infernal horde, whose contracts were their bounties.  Vajjarere.  Riffel.  Bidet.  I must have them… tonight.  I must!  Oh, HevN’s Brew—goddessdamn you—whoever… whatever—grant me this favor.

As the disengagement neared its end, an excited Paun found the man from Chal’Iss hovering over her, the edge of the Coffarj’s blade pinching her throat.

“May your mother suffer Under Bblonfen… if you are a fool.”  It was all he said.   And he lowered his blade and backed off.

For an instant she glared at him like a poised viper. What did he learn from Qeenmother’s guardians?  Then she remembered her own muttering earlier, and satisfied herself with his capacity to pick up the ChaulEr jargon.

“Well, come on!”  he said.  “We’ve got a long night over us—luckily.  Let’s take advantage of it.”

But Paun didn’t budge.  Only her head bobbed about.

“Hmm.  I forgot.  You’re not used to this yet.  Here.  Let me help you off this.”

Just sitting her up was like trying to maneuver dead night.

“Too long in that damn Rak.  How are you feeling?”

“Are you kidding me?”  Her face rumpled into a look of fatigue.  “I can feel… Bevleba!  I can feel my arms… my hands… my legs… Everything!  But I can’t move them.  Maybe just a little.  But not ___”

Hushing herself momentarily, she turned her head and vomited.  It was a reaction to the poison, a gift from the witches of Wulscastle to Vajjarere— to keep her prisoner in check.

Jyl propped her on her side and went to sort out Brezolag’s gear.  Although the half-bred Emocar was a giant of a man, Jyl used the dagger and did what he could to truss the Bidet’s ornately trimmed garments to his own frame.

For the first time Jyl noticed Paun’s nakedness.  Though, she did not appear so.  Almost all of her body bore the scars of war.  And the glyphics of honor marked by fellow rounders.  And the accurst runes inflicted by the Bidets.  And for a moment he was stricken… by a different… a different beauty.  What is wrong with me?  Got to wing it out of here.

He dressed Paun into his own tunic and belted his own sheath with dagger onto her.  “You’ll be my other eyes, woman.  I realize you’re very ill.  And just as weak.  Nonetheless, keep your eyes peeled.  If you sense any trouble—any problems at all—let me know right away.”  With the scabbard belt he fastened her forearms, leaving enough of the leathery band in between to be used as both a sling and sheath holder.  “When you feel strong enough to walk, let me know that too.  I’ll tell you why.”  He pointed out the window.  “See that wall way out there?  We’ve got to pass it.  Which means getting into the main canal… unnoticed.  Which means bouncing around crowds of crazy people until we spot an opening.

“But first we’ll need a few extra measures of music.”

He went over and slashed the yebirulp cot.  Stranding several of the longer more rigid feathers together, he fashioned a cord to which he tied Brezplag’s massive sword.  The queer-looking medallion, after being suspended from the Rak’s bridle curb, was spun in motion—thus maintaining the distasteful Ayopeean melody.

But for those in the noble banquet hall, it was quite an entertaining melody.

“Such an enduring man!” commented Feoffel Itorm, pausing from the repast.  “Or should I say—Beast!  It’s too bad he’s so horrible looking.  Otherwise I’d give him a try myself.”

“Wouldn’t we all!” bantered Vajjarere, who, like everyone else, was spilling as much of the home brew as had been consumed.  “Of course, if we get ourselves sozzled enough, who knows what we might do.”

The noble landholder laughed agreeably and suggested that they continue drowning themselves in qaithwine.

Back topside, Jyl was winding up with his preparations.

“Now it’s pretty much of a straight drop out there, so try to be as still as you can on the way down.  Okay?”

“I can’t move, goddessdammit!”

“Well, just in case you get some feeling, don’t overdo it.”

He pulled the hood he formed from the excess cloth over her head.

“And let’s keep this on.”  Wandering reef!  Looks like a real live cwolwisan.  “Ready?”

“Yes… and no.”  She sounded angry, while she took a final scan of the accurst room.  “The poison has cheated me… of vengeance.”

“Wandering reef!  Vengeance?  Forget it!  Another time.  We’re getting out of here.”

Having given the dagger another vigorous spin, he slung his patient onto his back.  “In the Palm of the Bearer.”  Together they welcomed the overcast midevening to the tune of Duns Tower.

Nestled together against the side of the spiritual pharmacy, they appeared as two young lovers, who finally passed out from all the celebrating.  Actually, only the soldier was resting, while watching his lady companion opening and clenching her fists repeatedly.

She tried to avoid looking at the thick-stoned rampart directly across the dim avenue.  Many bitter reminders emanated from there.  And she felt them staring at her recognition.  She yearned to move on.

But her new friend needed a breather.  It had been a fatiguing descent—almost a four-hundred-foot roof.  She still could not believe how he did it.  She remembered how dumbfounded she was when he stepped past the window.  There was no ledge.  No indents in the wall.  Nor anything protruding for a hold.  He certainly hadn’t exaggerated about the sheerness of the tower.  What’s more, he didn’t even have a rope.  Instead, the unfearing man, with one bare foot on the sill, turned and faced the front of the citadel, then pressed his other foot against the granitic enclosure.  There his flesh compressed like a clay and became suctioned to the wall.  Hand… to foot… to hand… to foot.  Somehow he clung like a snaeglusk—something only some of the saurians could do.  And whether it was a natural faculty or a deformity, his partner didn’t care.

Fortunately, some of the overcast descended gradually into streaks of fog.  The mainstream of light shone from the canal forum, where throngs of hardy drunkards littered both sides of the sailway.  As for the bastions of the fortress itself, they were unmanned, the primary concern being the great seawall surrounding the island.  Also fortunate, since the woman was paying more attention to the alighter’s handiwork than to the possible appearance of sentries.

It was a slow and arduous descent, made longer by both periodic breaks and the lateral movements, aimed at the least occupied and more shadowy surroundings below.

It seemed a Holton century had passed.

Once on the ground, the worn out man unharnessed his invalid baggage and properly rebelted his scabbard.  Tonight, even the alleyway of a remedies’ mart was as good a place as any to flop oneself.

“Do you hear that?”  Jyl abruptly looked up at the Ayopeean den.

“What?  I don’t hear anything… but people.”

“That’s what I’m getting at.  The music’s down to a hum now.  Which means they’ll think your friend’s asleep.  Then again, they just might decide to make another check.  We’ve got to go.”

“You rested enough?”

“No,” he said while getting up.  “But I don’t intend to rest up there either.  How are your legs?”

Barely able to brace herself with her arms, she was disheartened.  “Dead night.”

“Flex from the heart, woman.”

“I’m trying, dammit!  You think I enjoy worming my ass to make ____”

“Never mind.”  He stooped down to her.  “Look.  Right now no one out here cares who Under Bblonfen we are.  But we can’t go around with you tied up to me.  I’ll have to throw you over my shoulder.  At least that way we’ll look like we belong.  Okay?”  He pulled her to her feet.  “And try to keep your hood on.”

And holding her legs, he saddled her waist over his shoulder.

When the wench-bearer arrived at the forum zone, the scene was uproarious.  That the intensity of the merriment has survived since this morning seemed incredible—such was the weather under Swenn’s pleasant disposition, together with the power of qaithwine.  The stranger guessed (and hoped) that this spectacle prevailed throughout the rest of the empire as well.  Nevertheless, he was still on Duns.  And the quietude from the tower was ever so prominent.  He plunged himself into the commotion.

It was quite a party.  Drunken jubilation.  Unceasing intoxicating goblets.  Mindless citizens latching onto any and every erotic opportunity.  Uniform and noble ranks were a matter of indifference out here.  Most of the Bidet royalty, rather than sacrifice their dignities to the forumers, undignified themselves within the castle.

With the pavement itself being tiled with so many bodies, and Jyl finding it impossible to sidestep most of the obstacles, he simply adopted the same uncaring posture as the rest of the multitude.   Whatever individuals appeared down front of him became his footholds.  Ricocheted and whirled about every which way, he maintained his bearing away from the fortress and towards the canal.  His overall soundness enabled him to handily shove aside many of the drunkards which he could not readily tolerate.

However, his hard-fought undertaking through the forum would not be left unscathed.  It wasn’t so bad when the fun-loving Bidet woman attacked him with her violent lips.  But at the same time another more eager man pulled Paun off of him and onto the street.  Disposing of his embracer, Jyl began laughing heartily, grabbed the interferer, and thrust him into another spirited melee.  Quickly he retrieved the powerless ChaulEr, and without speaking to her, resaddled her to his shoulder.  But before he could pursue the sailway’s edge, he was confronted by another admirer—a Bidet officer, flanked by several soldiers.

Jyl remembered seeing other soldiers enjoying the festivities.  Out in this great carousal, he hadn’t contemplated the on-duty personnel— the sober beatwalkers, like this patrol.            Feigning drunkenness, he acted overgladdened to see his comrades.  He cackled and showed off his catch by patting her rump.

The officer smiled and shook his head and turned to his men.  Their favorable grins turned to laughter.  Just more of the same of what they’ve seen all day.  Just as they were about to get a better look at the woman, the officer noticed something familiar about the uniform Jyl was wearing.  But then…

… the Duns Bell tolled.

The more sober military and civilian population immediately began deciphering its song.  It was a warning.  A genj warning.  But not about any assault against their seawall.  That could never happen.  Something more serious was happening… inside their fortress.

What an awful awakening it was for the celebrants, whose overzealous clamor faded to sparse gabblings.  While most of the citizens were collecting themselves, keeping their eyes and ears tuned to the citadel, Jyl inconspicuously made his way towards a spirits’ wain parked near the embankment.  Squatting down on the canal side of the hitch, he took a moment to reattach the scabbard belt to Paun, while resolving his plan.  From where they were, the canal’s gloomy passage out to the channel was about half a league.  A murmuring swept the forum, a signal that it was time to hasten again.  In the manner of their tower descent, the two went over the sidewalk’s edge and down the thirty-foot escarp.  By the time they reached the chilled water, a different order of pandemonium had broken loose, sending panic stricken Bidets scurrying to their homes—as if the Venimbi and their poisonous mist were settling upon them.

Over and over the song repeated its terrifying message.  That the Lizard Whore was at-large.

Meanwhile Phycum Swenn confined himself within the swells of his own fires.  He had soundly slapped his daughter into soberness, despite her insistence that Brezolag had no knowledge of the Rak’s operation.  For Princess Vajjarere—greater than the emperor’s wrath was the whereabouts of ChaulEr Paun.

Alongside the canal wall, the escapee and her rescuer floated quietly, the island’s perimeter seeming no closer than before.  The commotion up topside had ceased, while Duns Bell played to locked doors.

“Jyl!”  Paun was shaking him at the shoulders.

The seaman looked around only to see the rising portcullis of the Grand Pulon behind them.

“What now?” he cursed, as he kept on paddling.

An extensive barge, almost the breadth of the sailway, and whose deck was level with the forum pavement, was departing from the fortress dock.  About an arms distance of clearing on either side of the capacious vessel suggested a guiding system somewhere deeper below the waterline.  As the barge progressed seawardly, scores of archers unloaded from both sides and stationed themselves equidistantly along the forum ledges and facing the city.

Jyl saw the oncoming ship as a speedier means of exiting.  Because of its slow advance, he had no trouble connecting with the even prow, which now pushed him and his companion nearer to freedom.

“Jyl!”

“It’s all right,” he tried to assure her.  “We’re almost____”

She grabbed a handful of his hair and began shaking his head.  “There’s a gate, dammit!”  And she choked on a mouthful of water.

“What?”

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw another great door sidewarding from the end of one seawall and mating with the opposite bastion support.  Though the barge’s approach would hardly affect this structure, the resulting contact would inevitably crush the bowriders.

“Tuxhil gate!” he swore, edging his way back across the prowflat and into the gap, where he molded his hands and feet to the escarp.  While he clung there, Paun once again threw up her stomach.

Having disembarked its cargo of poison shooters, the vessel reversed itself to the palace docking area.

Jyl then unslung his carry, in order to examine her condition more closely, as well as to rinse her discharge off of themselves.

He watched the Bidets above the opposing wall with their backs to him.  Many others were infiltrating the city.  No one was paying the least attention to the dark canal.  That was good.  Their short-lived excursion had brought them to within a stone’s throw of this imposing barricade.  There was no going over the top—at least not this night.  The present hope relied on the situation beneath the surface.

During the final strokes to the gateway, Jyl noticed that Paun was able to move her arms a little.  But she was still too weak to convey herself.

“Now what?” she asked in a doubtful tone, as they had reached the dead end.

“Okay.  Here’s what we do.”  His mood remained positive, especially now that her arms were livening up.   He tore off a couple of scraps from her tunic and wrapped her hands in them.  “You… “He placed her in the corner, propping her hands against the canal wall and the gate’s inside edge.  “… are going to brace yourself here, while I inspect below.”  She tried to speak, but he cut her off.  “Keep as still as possible.  If you slip, hold your breath and relax right where you are—so I can find you easily.  Now, it shouldn’t take much effort.  You think you can hold ____”?

“I have the goddessdamn corner!” she snapped.in a loud whisper.  “Get on with your plan.”  And with her back to the mated walls, her palms pressed into the wet stone, seeming almost like his, save it was the power of her hands anchoring her in her place.

Very good, ChaulEr Paun.  Things are looking much better.

Jyl discarded all but the silver undercloth of Brezolag’s uniform. After rechecking Paun’s position, he vanished below.

The anxious cornerstone was motionless.  Her concentration was on her grasp.

That goddessdamn bell!

She could feel the vibrations in the wall from that intolerable ringing.  With every toll—she wasn’t sure if it was just her imagination—but her hands also seemed to respond with some fractional movement.  She would slip.  Grit her teeth.  And regain her grip.  But eventually—she slipped to her fingertips.  She inhaled For the Stars, then sank into the cold Bidet stream.

No sooner had she submerged, when she unexpectedly collided with Jyl’s surfacing, shocking her into repelling her air.

Between the palace alarm and the troop movements, Jyl was able to muffle her spastic cough and profanity.

He congratulated her.  “Hey.  You did good.”

“Sure.”  Her tone was sharp.

“No.  I mean it.  You did good.”  She didn’t seem to be listening.

Nevertheless, he related his finds to her.  That the sailway’s depth was about four times his height.  And that the gate’s thickness was about ten feet.  The base of the stone door wasn’t quite flush with the soft muddy bottom.  But with a little dredging, a suitable tunnel could be hollowed out.  But he had to act fast, if they were to benefit from the long night.

Resetting her grasp, he dove to the canal floor.  He felt his way like a blind caveling and began scooping away clumps of mud from under the gate.  He thought about the shallowness of the canal and the remarkable credibilites of the Bidet shipbuilders and their facile use of ivoctenwood.

A little more than his body length, and he stumbled upon a large cavity, in which he could almost stand up.  Probably caused by some old collision, the break continued all the way to the channel.

But Paun seemed hardly aroused by the news.  “All the Bidet islands are surrounded by walls— like this one.  Where do you intend to steal a boat?”

“A boat?  Wandering reef!  We wouldn’t get a spit into the View before they’d catch us.”

“Then how are we going to…”

“We’re going to swim.  That’s how.”

She barked in a whisper.  “The Nalfin?”

“If that’s the name of it—yes.”

The Nalfin is a great sea, Jyl.  Not a canal.  Or some lake.  Or some great river.  It covers all of Chal’Iss.”  She beheld him like a teacher drilling one of her students. “It’s an ocean, Jyl.”

“I know,” he calmly acknowledged.  “I’m a seaman—remember?  Well, we’ve got to get going.”

“You’re a drunken Serpentlord, sailor boy.  Crossing the Nalfin!”

He pulled her from the corner and struck her across the face.  “You hear that bell, Lizard Whore?  You want to hear it the rest of your goddessdamn life?…”  He stroked her left arm just below the shoulder.  “…my Lizzy?”

Even in the faint light from the forum, he could perceive the poison in her eyes.  In her heart.  He had certainly been witness to some of her suffering.

“Is that what you want?”  His temper receded, as time was of the essence.  “Look…”

While he tied her wrists together with the scabbard belt, he explained how they were going to practice several dives just to the bottom, until he felt she had adjusted properly.

But Paun was firm.  “No.  Let’s go now.  I’m ready.  And don’t stop till we’re on the other side.”

Jyl liked her confidence.  It was an angry confidence.  But he trusted it.  Somehow he knew she was ready.  Coupled to his ankle, she was hauled to the bottom, through the breech, and up to the channel’s surface.  While catching his breath, Jyl noticed that Paun seemed to be holding herself afloat.  An excellent sign that her strength was returning.

“You did…”

“I know—I did good.  Now what?”

He smiled and checked the Bidet dagger he kept in its sheath and on the lifeline between himself and Paun.

It was Shorted Lynk, and the Tears of Getwinn chased Bighorn—when they finally passed the island of Syds.  By then they were quite adapted to the shivery Nalfin.

With the voice of Syds Bell becoming less distinct and the open sea spread out before them, a new oppression occupied ChaulEr Paun.

“You’re not afraid?” she asked.

“Just a little wet… and hungry,” he answered quite calmly.  “You must be hungry too, huh?”

She was astounded.  “You’re a brave bastard, Yuudm Jyl.”  And she pulled his face towards her and kissed him hard on the lips.

Even under the faint starlight she could see him smile back at her.  “Just a drunken Serpentlord.”

That too she agreed.

  1. Brinemates

Lizard Whore!”

“You shall never forget me.”

“Hello, Princess.”

“Has my Lizzy been wailing?”

“You shall never forget me.”

“Welcome to your new home, Princess.”

“You shall never forget me.”

“Lizard Whore!”

The Crown of Five Kingdoms was branding her en masse.  Paun awoke to her own outcry.  To a clear green sky.  It was already morning.  And she was floating comfortably on the green Nalfin Sea.  Comfortably.  She was puzzled to find herself partially resting on a silver cushion.  Jyl had taken Brezolag’s undercloth, knotted it in such a way as to allow one small opening, blew air into that opening and knotted it, then splashed water over the dry parts of the fabric.  The cloak remained inflated for hours before needing a refill of air.  It was an old mariner’s trick, cutting down on the energy needed to tread water.  And the Bidet’s undergarment was less restricting while he was swimming.  His own breechcloth would suffice.

That goddessdamn bell!  Her ears were still ringing from it.

“It’s okay.”  Jyl was steadying her from an ungratifying taste of the sea.  More than the dawnstar’s warm smile, his wary presence was a relief from her nightmare.  “Yebirulp’s drift.”

She didn’t remember falling asleep.  Straining to look around, she asked, “Where are we?”

“Well… My guess is that____”

Suddenly her body jerked.  “Ch’Chencylwhores!  What was that?”

“It’s okay.”  He was unalarmed.  “There are some ___”

But she would hear nothing of his explanation.  A large bovaseal had rubbed against her, its wooly frame secreting an orange froth wherever it was exposed above the surface.  Seeing that there were hundreds of these sinuous creatures enveloping them, Paun became hysterical, and cursing aloud, prodded her rescuer to use his sword.

“Look.  It’s all right.”  He turned her face towards his.  “Dry up and listen to me.”

But she continued to complain profanely.

Giving her a quick dunk, he told her again, “Listen to me!”

After a brief immersion, she yielded to his direction.

“Now look,” he went on.  “I’ve seen these things.  Many times.  On Crus’Ybl.  They’re all friendly.  They’re just inspecting us because we happen to be here— in their migratory path.  Just lay still while I tug you along.  As soon as they tire of us, they’ll be on their way.”

Jyl never saw it coming.  A great weight fell upon his head and he was shoved underwater and held there.  He struggled to no avail.  Finally, strong fingers gripped his hair and raised him above the surface.  And once again he was face to face with ChaulEr Paun.

She was paddling with her feet and free arm while retaining a grip on his hair.  “Don’t ever do that!”  She was getting stronger.  “And give me one of those blades.”

She felt another slithering contact against her.  She quickly reached in and snatched the bovaseal with a headlock.  The creature was stricken with fear and did not move.  Paun looked directly at the seal, and said, “It was nice meeting you.  Now good-by!”  She let go of the seal.  And the rest of the school left for safer waters.

Though she hated her present mode of travel, she felt better in the company of the daylight and unsurging waters.  The bells from Five Kingdoms were silent out here.  Were it not for the distant Lynk, she would hardly have known where Bidet had been.  As far as her vision could stretch, there was but ocean and sky.  Green over green.  It was a View all sailors were used to.  Yet, watching the boundless void which supplied seamen’s dreams, she could respect their spirit of adventure.

“I take it you’ve never sailed this far before,” began Jyl.

What a strange man.  Still talking in that same nonchalant tone.  As if they were resting comfortably on some grand ship.  His experience as a sailor probably explained that.  Just as the ChaulEr rounders would expect to have the upper hand on land.

“None of us has.  Not since Kingfather left.”

“You mean all this time you’ve abandoned this beautiful stream?”

“Hardly a stream!”

“Well.  Whatever.  You’ve certainly missed a lot”

“We have everything we need in ChaulE.”

“Except the chance to behold the unknown.  So many fabulous exotic lands, teeming with beauty or wondrous taboos.  Or wild rides.  Like Varthog’s Abyss, an old salt’s shortcut through the blue Wancium Gulf and ____”

“I have no thirst for such adventures,” she said.  “You can keep your goddessdamn sea.  I’ll stick to groundpounding any day.”

Her complexion turned pale.  She threw up, after which Jyl rinsed her face.

“You did that a few times last night.”

“I don’t understand it!” she fumed, while spitting out.  “Why am I still sick?  And why can’t I move better than this?  It’s been a whole night.”

“Actually your movements are just fine.  The other stuff—it’s Bidet poison.  You’re hungry.  The sea.  You’ve been through a lot.

Then she chided him.  “We should have searched for a small boat.  Anything that would bear us… better than this.”  The Yuudm was laughing.  “At least if we’re going to be drifting about, we’d be more secure.  And drier.”  She smiled back at him.  “But I’ll take this over the Rak.”

“Good.  But are we just drifting about?”  He was teasing her.

“All right, sailor boy.  Great seaman.”  She struggled to face him.  “Are we on course?  Do you find the wind favorable to your sails?  What lands can you see?  Stop at the nearest one, will you?  I could use a bite to eat.”  She pillowed her head back onto the float.  “You don’t even know where Under Bblonfen we are.”

It was time for Jyl to set her straight… with some helm sense.  Aiming her attention to the sky, he asked, “That cloud have a name?”

“Yes.  Hainticas.  Are we going there?” she jeered.

Jyl then proceeded to indicate Gominex Star, the Spout, Talrit’fyamp, and the direction of Bidet.  He explained the importance of their present bearing with respect to the warm current which pushed them easterly.  He did agree, however, that the Firth was several horizons away—perhaps two long days and nights, maybe a little more.

“What about ChaulE?”  Paun sounded displeased with his demonstration, especially since he neglected to even mention her homeland.

“What about ChaulE?”

“Which way?”  She looked away from him and rested her head on the inflated cloak.   “Where do you suppose she lies?”

He overlooked her mockery and pointed towards the vermillion sun, saying he was positive of the location.

“Very good, Yuudm Jyl.  But everyone… on Chal’Iss…and the QortLites on Crus’Ybl…  know that.  But you’re genj wrong on Bidet.”

“Oh?  How’s that?”

She raised her eyebrows at him.  You really don’t know.  “First of all, Five Kingdoms is not that way,” as her eyes repeated his previous indication.  “I know.  When I was on the Rak, I had a perfect View of the Lynk and a good idea of the Bidet drift.  Sure.  You’d be right about Duns Fortress—yesterday.  Right now, unless some storm’s been rubbing about, she’s true south of here.  And she probably won’t react with any other lands for quite a spell.  So let’s face it, Jyl.  We’re either two specs of driftwood on the open sea, or you’ve got some other heading in mind.  Which is it?”

The Yuudm’s puzzled look seemed to speak for itself.

“What’s the matter?” Paun continued.  “You lost?  I hope I haven’t upset your sense of direction.”  Jyl went on studying their watery scope.  “You are lost, aren’t you?”

Finally, he replied, “From everything I know…. From everything I can see from here—we are right on course.  But I’m curious.  What’s this drift you’ve been mentioning?  And this land reaction?”

Paun was astounded.  “You don’t know what a drift is?”

“Never heard of it.”

“Well then.  What do you call your land movements?”

“What land movements?”

She shook her head.  “Bevleba!  Maybe you haven’t been on shore long enough to know.  You have lived on the soil from time to time—yes?”

“I still do.”

“And as a sailor you don’t take into consideration the position changes of various countries?  What Under Bblonfen do you do?  Sketsal hop by chance?”

“Sketsal hop?”

“Yeah.  You sail around till you hit something, right?”

“No way!” he defended.  “Precise charts and a genj sense of the wind and Hevn’s Brew.  That’s what I use.  And I still don’t understand what you mean by position changes.  Of the lands, you say?”

“Yes!  The lands!  Everybody knows that!  What an idiot!  The goddessdamn drift!  You know—like when Lef hovers over Leet, and Hainticas Cloud intersects Firth Rises, Leet might happen to be on the other side of Chal’Iss at that time.  You do know Firth Rises?  When the Firth and the Spout start to rotate within sight of each other?  Then the Rises from Chal’Iss begin the Lynk Sea’s journey to Crus’Ybl?  Any of this sound familiar?”

“I know the Lynk phases.  But I didn’t know… You mean all these island masses here are… floating around?”

“Oh, you’re really winging with genj sense, Sir Jyl!  How long have you been sailing?  No wonder you wrecked your way here.”

It was a cross between confusion and embarrassment which marked his twisted mien.  Having a thirst for this newfound knowledge, and realizing its necessity because of their plight, he sought to apprehend the nature of this phenomenon.  What happens when two or more lands encounter one another?  The temperament of the channels formed between oncoming countries?  And what about the activity at the Firth?

But before probing his annoying companion for these answers, the man informed her of the major geographical difference on Crus’Ybl.  How all the lands remained fixed there.  How maps and the firmament worked hand in hand and could always be relied upon.

Following a brief but incredible description of the character of his world, Paun mellowed her harshness.  That the topographies of both Crus’Ybl and Chal’Iss differed was unknown to her, for she had never taken an interest in the ancient decipherings regarding the Cataclysm and its effect on Lynk Star.  That—Sinner Strek would probably know.  Although she could not expound on the reasons for her own planet’s condition, Paun did relate that the land masses never collided.  That some particular force caused the solid grounds to veer away from each other whenever within a league of separation.  Ships within these zones remained unaffected.  Also, clusters of islands, like Bidet and Aspirlac, did not break up, but drifted as groups.

As for the Rises and Falls, the Lynk Sea always interacted with the Nalfin at the same location—the Firth— without any undue turbulence battering upon the great nomadic islands.  And since Crus’Ybl and Chal’Iss did not rotate independently—rather that the whole Lynk Star system rotated as one— the Spout was always in the shortest distance flow line across space towards the Nalfin Sea.

The other great constant was ChaulE—the only land which remained fixed, with the same distance and relation to the Firth.

“Anyway, my congratulations,” commented Paun.  “It seems your ignorance has managed to preserve your reputation.”

“As the great Mistress Trull has sustained hers.”

With those last pert remarks, they did not speak for many leagues.

The brilliant red spines of Gominex had peaked over a passing swarm of aeroplankton, when their verdant path became bleached to a golden hue.  His mouth sweating with hunger, the excited towman disturbed Paun’s solitude with his wonderful news.

“Food!”

“Where?”  Paun was barely audible through the cloth shading her face.  She felt the firmness of the cloth and realized Jyl must have blown more air into it while she slept.

“Right below us.  Lay back and relax.  And think about midafternoon meal and how great it’s going to be.  I’m going down.”

Before she could respond, he dove straight into the wavering bed of giant kelp.

Thay’s wilderness be fertile!

Darting among the jungle of vines which swayed peaceably to the current’s genial rhythm, Jyl was like a hummingfly who had happened upon a great floral forest.  All around him, enormous yellow leaves For the Stars whorled about their thick stipes and fed on the savory journ plankton.

Using his sword, Jyl tried severing one of the leaves from its stalk, but to no avail.  On Crus’Ybl during the more wintry seasons, such fronds, being easily removed then, convey themselves to the surface, where their margins are curved inwardly by the airy exposure.  Retaining their rigid buoyancy, they are limited to being used as shoreline pleasure craft, sometimes accommodating as many as six persons.  But although such a vessel would be strongly appreciated now, Jyl’s mind was elsewhere.  On a more valuable attribute.  Ripe tarimelons.  For every tier of golden leaves there was an offshoot of the large edible fruit, whose fragile stems gave way to the Bidet blade.

He surfaced with his catch.  He was jubilant.   The worriment melted from Paun’s face.  And she became jubilant.  During the next rewarding moments, Paun and Jyl did not speak.  They ate voraciously.  They took turns doing more dives—and as many more helpings.  Their appetites were more than gratified.

Paun heaved a comfortable sigh, “If there are such things as guardian cherubs, Yuudm Jyl, then certainly you must be one of them.  And I am grateful.  Now can you tell me how ____”

“Gercand’wyl!  Gercand’wyl!”

She looked over at him and saw he was mumbling in his sleep.  It was the first time the woman had seen him resting so.  Before long he was snoring aloud—a squawking dribblen on the high seas.  It was also the first time she had laughed since Qeenmother’s birthday.

Tarimelon!  Delicious tarimelon!  The sweet juicy pulp brought back cherished memories of home.  She could see her brother, Roit, wearing a proud smile, as he arrived from the Harbour and his bartering with the sailors of Pangr’lol.  Over his shoulder would be the fattest and healthiest gourd from their ship’s lot, with its amber rind speckled with barnacle scars and scented from the brine.  No doubt a reward for some eccentric labor requiring his woodworking skills, which he didn’t mind.  Which, in fact, he propositioned his impromptu self to perform.  And would have even done so for no payment at all.  That was Roit.  The Cater Planer.

Ah!  To be home again!

High overhead, hugging the firmament in its emerald bloom, wove the outstretched form of a carrier hawk, her sharp gaze scanning for a meal to refuel her flight to some faraway nest.  Curious as to the familiar shapes below, she descended slowly—continuing her weave, over and over, crisscrossing the two figures which floated like dead night.  At length, the huntress swooped by for a closer inspection.  A second pass, and her talons skimmed the water’s skin.  However, on her next attempt she pulled up short, then winged herself as rapid as possible away from the surface.  A Bidet dagger barely scraped her breast.  But one of her lower legs was severed.  The great bird squealed alarmingly.  And with its blood spurting in its wake, it beat its frantic wings towards Lower HevN.

Dammit!  Paun cursed at her missed opportunity, as she watched a potential meal get away and pursue the pale scarlet fires of Gominex—all to the tune of Jyl’s restfulness.  Something sparkled in the water.  She reached in and plucked the talon before it could sink.  On what was left of the leg was a silver ring, inscribed with unfamiliar runes.  Paun pulled the ring from the bloody claw and slipped it onto one of her own fingers.  Then remembering Jyl’s instruction, she blew more air into the partially inflated cloak.

Before she could resume her inspection of the ring, her curiosity was shattered by the first splash.  Her body seesawed from the ripple which agitated against her.  The tense ChaulEr peeped over her forehead and caught a glimpse of something sanguine behind her.  No!  It cannot be!     But the splattering emergences that followed confirmed her fears.

Saurians!

With her improved forearm strength, she tugged at the sheathing belt and cried out, until Jyl was ejected from his dream.

Egrit’s flue!  By the time he recovered his senses, Paun was already clutching the hilt of his sword.

“I’ll take that!”  But when he tried to snatch the sword from Paun’s grip, she simply pulled him towards her.

“How about I manage this one, sailor boy?  And you use this.”  She handed him the dagger.

There was no time to argue.  She was stronger now.  Which was a very good thing.

He took the dagger and told her to stay with the float with her back against his.  Then he perceived the waterscape more closely.  Lizards!  Tuxhil Hulshintets!

There were nine of them, balanced upright, with about three feet of torso above the surface.  They put Paun in mind of the H’Gaumz.  Except these creatures had dorsal fins.  And in the place of legs, caudal appendages.  And while Mig Lo Duk was dark blue, their scabrous hide was blood red.

Having held a cautious perimeter around the drifters, the seasaurians barked signals to one another and submerged simultaneously.

“d’Glejerian S’fongbis!” chanted the seafarer, as he girded himself for an assault.  His partner, who had never fought in these conditions, followed their underwater traversings and swore with every red streak.

The lizards were putting on quite a display, gracing their streamlined bulks under and around the buoyant intruders.

“Our luck has finally run out, hasn’t it, Jyl?”

But he did not answer.  He was intent on some reflections he had seen beneath the surface.

“Swords!”

“What?”

Two of them are armed,” he said.  “I never heard of Hulshintets carrying weapons.  Or wearing other people’s uniforms.  Look!  There’s one with a Silbin’s cloth.”

“Goddessdamn, brainless lizards!  With metal no less!”

“Brainless?  Not even.  This is their element.  They could’ve taken us any time before this… without the swords.  I don’t know.  They’re thinkers.  They’re up to something.”

“Like what?  Late afternoon lunch?”

“Who knows?  Of course you could be right.  Could be a pack of drunken… Seaserpentlords.”  His eyebrows flashed. “Just showing off.  Or feeling us out.  Before the kill.”

Their curiosity was about to be answered, as the welcome party resurfaced to their exact original positions.  Pretty dumb! thought Paun, as she reflected on round maneuvers and the stress on diversity of troop positions.

One of the weaponless members approached the landers and halted  just  outside  the  reach  of  Paun’s  saber.  Dangling  from  the creature’s jaws were the tentacles of a hapless ery.  And now, webbed hands were summoning Jyl to come forward.

“What do you think, woman?”

Paun was somewhat spirited.  “I could rap him easily.  Along with his ugly brothers.  But since we’re here… He looks like the leader.  If you have to, go for his throat.”

Jyl nodded in disbelief.  “You’re going to tell me how to fish?”

“I said if you have to.  No sense going down without taking some with us.  Or does that conflict with your principles, Sir Jyl?”

“Wait here!”

“Don’t worry.  I have nothing on my agenda today.  How’s your genj sense for fishing?”

“Not as good as the Bidets.”

I should have known.  She gripped her sword tightly and sneered to the nearest Hulshintet.  “I hope he kills you, you saurian ass bastard!  If he doesn’t, I will.”

Ironically, before the man could make a stroke of headway, the lizard backed off slightly and resounded his displeasure.

“Told you he was brainless!”

“He just wants to keep things… a little more harmless.”

“Harmless?”

“Friendly,” added Jyl.  “Here.  You hang onto this.”  And he gave Paun his dagger.

You’re the one whose brainless, sailor boy.

This time the Jyl drew himself directly in front of the saurian.  A few difficult translatable words were exchanged.  But the next action spoke for itself, as Jyl was presented with one of the tentacles. Having accepted the offering, the man partook of the saline flesh and returned to his anchorage.

“Jyl, I ____”

“Don’t ask any questions yet.  Just eat this and ____”

“I’m getting sick.”

“Look, ChaulEr Paun.  It’s not that bad.  A little salty.  And chewy.  Remember: you’re a frontliner.”

“That’s not what I mean, dammit!  I’m feeling really bad again.  From the witch’s poison, I guess.  I don’t know.”

Jyl cradled her head with his palms, while his thumbs massaged her forehead and temples.  “Paun.  Whatever you do… don’t… not just yet.  Not now.  Try to fight it.  Come on!  Try to fight it!”  She was getting warmer.  “Try holding the line, woman.  Swallow back if you have to.  Just ___”

“Dry up already” she hammered, and she took a deep breath.  “Okay.  I think I’ve stifled it—a little.”

After Paun had suffered through her share of the ery, Jyl resumed his parley with the lizard chieftain.  During their discussion the stout-hearted sailor learned that the golden orchard was the lifelong domain of the Krokomer, as these saurians called themselves.  It was troublesome enough when they had to readjust to the drifting lands.  But they frowned upon the reapers who drove the great ivoctenwood hulls, and who helped themselves without respectful consideration for the kelp dwellers.  The trespassers’ bargain was usually sealed with javelins and scatterbows.  Thus, everyone who might befall Taribanc without the protection of a ship had to earn the right to passage—or be dealt with accordingly.  In the case of Paun and Jyl, suitable payment would consist of ery sharing, and the relinquishing of both the fine saber and the fabric from Qasr’Kwen.

But the headstrong woman’s notion for their decision was hardly immediate.  “Just a moment, Jyl.  Are you perchance related to Pid’yn Ba?”

“Never heard of him.  Why?”

“Then how is it you’re able to speak with those goddessdamn things?”

“Let’s just say it’s part of my worldly occupation.  Now I’ll need this.”

“The float?”

“And your tunic.  And they want the sword.”

“The float.  So we tread water till our arms fall off.  The clothes?  Okay.”  And she began undressing herself.  “But not the metal.  You explain to your friend that there’s a lot of Nalfin between here and ChaulE, and that we’d feel more comfortable with it.  You tell him that.”

Her cloth removed, the Yuudm reached for the sword.  But Paun had tightened her grip.

“Don’t be fooled by the fool, sailor boy.”

“You make a fuss, and I’ll hand you over to them—as a bonus— Lizard Whore.”

The Sinner gritted her teeth and cursed him, while he pried her fingers from the hilt.

He then paddled back to the red leader and handed over his tribute, saying, “Sir Jyl of the Kingsmen is beholden to the honorable Krokomer and the Kingdom of Taribanc.  May your realm be forever fertile.”

To his surprise, Jyl watched the elevated acceptor toss the articles to his comrades, who bellowed their approval.

Another exchange of signals, and the sentinels of the kelpbed plunged downward and were lost in the jungle of vines.

“What did you tell them?”

He seemed deaf to her, as he skimmed the surrounding surface.

Impatiently the driftwoods waited: one anticipating deceit; the other, weighing the Hulshintets’ absence against it.

“Not that the tunic really made much of a damn difference,” commented Paun, “But all of a sudden I’m freezing.”

With the vermillion star cooling itself in the northeastern horizon, the wind arrested a herd of clouds and began chopping the ocean for miles around.

The man shared her depression with the forecast.  “Dammit!  Only one sun since this morning.  A long day would’ve been nice.”

Dusk was being smothered.  And the once opulent sea turned drab with the early evening sky.

Paun had already forgotten about the saurians.  She was having enough trouble contending with the Nalfin’s aggravation and briny forced feedings.  Thank goodness the scabbard line held!    As long as Jyl held well.  Right now he was the difference between the surface and Lokker’s Garrote.

Ascending with the swells, Paun noticed a broad area of foam being stirred a few troughs away.  She yelled Jyl’s attention to the spot, which he initially mistook to be a bizarre reflection off Tun’El.  After all, besides the aura from the eddynet beyond the Raeyev Cluster, nothing else from the Brew was prevalent enough.

Each dip by the driftwood bond saw the agitation intensify and the site in question taking on a threatening fleece.

“Over there!”  Their warnings were simultaneous, each pointing out behind the other.

Dorsal fins.

The few had hatched into several.  And those—tenfold, all zigzagging their own wily and adroit way through the turbulent maze to which they were immune.

Yanking hard on the line, Paun pulled herself face to face with her guide and his decision.  And she hollered above the scape.  “Fooled by the ____”  But a ridgecap snuck in and drowned her remark.

Jyl couldn’t argue with her.  Not only because their concentrations were necessary to deal with the Nalfin’s temper, but because he knew she was genj blue.  That he was indeed a fool was spelled out in the sparkles which piloted the menacing sails.

The twinkling of sabers in webbed hands.

Hulshintrulls!

Than as quickly as they had appeared, the finbacks submerged into the opaque depths of gloom.

Nearby, where the foaming vigorously persisted, a large convex form—like the forehead of a whale—began to rise slowly.  The rounder and the mariner were already at the mercy of the saurian sharks.  What more need they afford?  Yet, as the watery mound reached about the man’s height, its base peeled outwardly and curled back towards the summit, which then collapsed flatly against the sea.  The transformation was complete.

“On the honor of my mother,” the man began, “I shall never say hulshintrull again.”

And with renewed confidence he towed his apprentice seawoman towards the sleeping giant, basking in the ocean spray and under Tun’El’s light.

“Ahoy!  You hunk of genj beauty!  O golden seaweed!  Ahoy!

There was one more splash, as a drenched white tunic was tossed inside the kelp leaf.

It was a stiff breeze which carried the craft swiftly across the maritime plain.  Taribanc and the jousting currents were leagues in its wake.  Despite the coolness in the night air, the moonless sky and the infinite ebon main seemed far more benevolent now.  Compliments of the Krokomer.  Allowing the kelp leaf to assume the treading duties meant a repose for the crew, who were now more adaptly banded at the ankles.  Paun meanwhile had torn Brezolag’s undergarment in half—from neck to knee—thus making two partial tunics to cover… some of themselves.  Over their loins, up and around their front and backsides, and tied over one shoulder.  In any case Jyl knew he would have needed a blade against the solid weave of this cloth.  He was impressed with… and a little worried about… Paun’s current strength.

Silhouetted against the conical spiralscope of Tun’El, a herd of brigerpin was gliding comfortably towards their remote refuge on Horsdeor Plateau, more commonly known as Herbage.  As the Fortress was situated on ChaulE, so were their mesan pastures located above the Serpentdom of Ror.  However, Horsdeor was conveniently inaccessible to all except the great elkstallions themselves, who permitted only the migratory birds as tenants in their territory.

These were the wild brigerpin of old, the sole order of flying steeds who challenged the atmosphere of the open sea fearlessly, unlike their domesticated kin, who were landlocked to within a half league of any shoreline.

Legend had it that only one person had adhered to their standards of trust.  He had a special gift.  He could speak with elkstallions.  Some say he even spoke with the great birds and much of the larger wildlife of the ChaulEr forests.  His real single failure of friendship was with the Outside inhabitants of Ror.  The wales from Oy’Lect, which branded his chest and arms, attested to that, though he had never meant any harm to the Great Lizard.  Nonetheless, Pid’yn Ba was an honorary steedsman of the brigerpin clan, for, like them, he had denounced the bridal curb and the tools of the hunter.

“Follow the Herbagers,” was Paun’s advice.  “That’ll get you close to home.”

Jyl pulled up on one of the leaf’s flexible margins and caught the wind handily.  He did not chase the elkstallions.

During the last of her fanciful hours, Paun imagined herself back at the golden orchard, once more a helpless wayfarer besieged by hundreds of hulshinsworders.  This time the angry sea threw her up and above the highest ridgecap, seized her, and hurled her again and again.  And as the lavender dawn welcomed the morn, so did the tempest defy that same enriching light.

Lavender?  There was no such sun.

But again… there was…  the Lynk.

Pounded out of her sleep, Paun was rankled to find herself thrashed on the Fenmare’s Brine.  The whole nocturnal seascape was densely lavender.  The squalling reverberant air, the fisted swells, the flooded kelp leaf, her own black skin, and Jyl’s backside image.  All bleeding that wan livid color.  Even the Rises.

The Rises!

“Ch’Chencylwhores!”

Directly in their path soared the Nalfin’s thundering portal to Lower HevN—and beyond.  The Firth.  In the history recorded since the Cataclysm, few challengers overcame her furious incensity.  The ancient weaponeers from new Moon.  The Kingsmen.  The Bidets.  And proud to boast of the round trips—the Lynkmasters of QortL.  Along with their stories of discovery and plunder, of hydromazes and broken hulls, of victory and dead night, the suspenseful accounts regarding the Firth Rises and Falls were shared with enthusiasm.

“Jyl!  You goddessdamn idiot!  What are you ____”

The foliate craft seesawed abruptly and flipped the unsteady woman like some insignificant wavelet, dragging Jyl with her against the concave wall.

She hammered at his ear.  “I told you to follow the brigerpin!  That’s all you had to do!  How under ____”

But another jolt from below tossed her aside.  Her rebuke was a waste of time.  Besides, Jyl didn’t seem to care.  He appeared unhampered, kneeling now in the center of the flooded vessel, somehow holding a secure posture, like a ship’s mast.

The kelp leaf did not sink.   This offered little consolation to her.

Then Jyl’s voice somehow softened the voice of the screaming sea.  Paun thought it was the Bidet poison attacking her senses.  In a normal tone he addressed the rage surrounding them.  “The firmament of Lower HevN is serene tonight.  See how sparkles the innocence of this fountain?”

Hearing this, Paun held her hands to her head.  It didn’t matter that she was floundering about the craft.  She sighed, then cursed at him.  “Serene?  Fountain?  That’s the goddessdamn Lynk, you saurian ass!”        But he went on:

“For some—

Everything adds up to planktonish fillers

in a condemned mine

of resourcelessness; perhaps

a shadow of an eclipse

from some frontier

past HevN’s Brew.

For another—

A fascinating jewel

Composed of More

Than Everything.”

Seeing him entranced upon the mountainous jet, she pondered the idea of a ritual.  That what it was.  A ritual.  This was how captains and crews prepared before the lift.  With a prayer of some kind honoring the Rises.

But there must be a great deal of dependability between ivoctenwood ships and a scanty kelp blade.

Whatever the circumstances, ChaulEr Paun remained steadfast to one notion: she had no desire to got to Crus’Ybl, guaranteed safe passage or not.  Nevertheless, Jyl held the reins.  And there seemed to be no swaying him otherwise.

She watched him as he proceeded in his pious manner amidst the roar of the godless Firth.  His hands cupped in front of his face, he sniffed the aroma from his palms and drank some weightless substance out of his imaginary goblet.  Then crawling to another end of the wobbly craft, he stretched his hand into the salt-sprayed air and fondled some invisible image.  Paun crept along with him, her ears toiling to follow his speech.

“Hello, Blue.  I knew you weren’t napping.  You’re supposed to be guarding anJ, not scaring them.”

The peculiar seaman bent down and peeked into the livid nothingness.  “Hi, anJ.  How’s my lovely fruit today?”

Bevleba!  Paun swore to herself.  For The Stars he is worse than a drunken Serpentlord!  What under Bblonfen has happened?  “Jyl!”  Maybe he’s sleepwalking.  In this storm?  Impossible.  She grabbed his side and shook him.  “Jyl!  Wake up!”

Her arms and legs had toughened.  Though still below their normal strength, at least they were more functional.

Turning around, the man ignored the sprawled woman below him, as she struggled under the lavender gleam.  She blasphemed everything from the sailor’s inadequacy to the sirening fate dead ahead.  From his soaked crimson locks he removed one of his ribands, then held it out as if in presentation to someone.

He began by asking, “You recognize the heraldry?”  Then he looked down and felt Paun’s cheek.  “I like this one.  You may go now.”  And he laid next to her.

“Drunken Serpentlord!” she yelled.  “Don’t you see how close we are to ____”

But he could not hear her.  Instead the man pulled himself next to her, his mouth assailing her lips with a profound passion.  As yet she could not… no… did not… resist his strength effectively.

It was more apparent now that Jyl’s competence as helmsman had reached the critical stage.  So was the option of the weather-beaten raft, which had already ventured too far into the brawling jaws of the launching zone.

The yellow mite was sucked in.  And, clinging to the sheerness of the enormous fountainside, it was shuttled swiftly upstream.  Inside, due to this rapid vertical conveyance, the passengers were adhering uneasily to the lowest bent margin of the leaf.

Finding himself pressed hard upon the woman, Jyl, in dazed uncertainty, braced himself and fixed his eyes on their celestial headway.  Beyond the gushing seaway, a Holten century away, he espied the Threshhold of the glowing Spout.

“Wandering reef!”  This time he was truly awake.

“You’re a little late, you lusty lizard brain!” snarled Paun, who was enjoying neither the ride nor the sights.

“On the contrary,” he said.  “We’re too early. Come on.  We’ve got to distribute our weight a little better.”

“Oh, yeah?  Well, you go right ahead, great helmskeeper.  I’m not moving from this spot.”

There was no time to try and persuade her.  As long as he could offset the present apportionment of the leaf’s cargo, they might have a chance of not getting cast overboard and broken by the surging forces outside.  This present lift involved only the primary Rises.  The main geyser would not erupt until after several initial spurts as this one.

Staying as flat as possible, Jyl dragged himself to the center of the kelp blade.  And not a moment too soon.  The gusher decelerated and gradually subsided.  An instant later—at about eight hundred feet—another eruption rammed their craft, smacking it completely off its torrential track and into the lower atmosphere.

Gathered in by the thick Usinwat Current, the kelp leaf with its stunned crew blew steadily away from the victorious Firth.  Their altitude diminishing at a sluggish pace, they glided in the company of a billow’s flock for several leagues, before being rejected by the Usinwat’s thinning density.  At two hundred feet the airborne raft spiraled uncontrollably, dumping its occupants like leftover chum into the green blackness of the Nalfin.

Throughout all their next hours of soreness and treading misery and wounded alertness and wrangling at one another, the two voyagers, with the help of some curious gulls, were able to sight and regain their vessel, which had alighted favorably with its curling edge up.

Resting their battered limbs, they were mesmerized by the campfires of HevN’s Brew.  Wandering to and fro like their silent craft, the night suns appeared to be leashed by the tide.  Across the face of Dilmatoyne Sol streaked Halley, a small sun that had strayed from its stellar Roost.  Whose eternal quest would end in the throat of Tun’El—so it was predicted.

Jyl stood up and stretched himself.  The Firth and the Spout were just past their third quarter positions.  The Lynk Sea could easily be seen racing between both planets with its current flowing towards Crus’Ybl.  “We’ve still got plenty of time to catch the Rises and make Shorted Lynk.”

Paun sat up.  “You’re joking!”  Then she crawled over to where Jyl was rinsing his face.  “Tell me it’s a joke.”

He started to explain to her, “Look.  I’m sorry I dozed off on you back there.  I must’ve been really ____”

“Dozed off?  Goddessdammit, boy!  If that’s what you call sleeping, then I’m a vestal anchorite!”

“It won’t happen again.  From now on I’ll take regular rest periods.  Once we’ve cleared the launch, we won’t even need a driver—until we reach the Spout Falls.”

“Why are you so intent on taking me to Crus’Ybl?  Why not just drop me off at ChaulE, store up on supplies, and be on your way—in a real ship?”

Oh, it’s not you that I value so highly,” he began.  “It’s just that I don’t trust your folks back there.  Their connivent ways.  Qul House.  Witches.  And all their inquisitions.  And women who are unwomanly—to me.  As far as you’re concerned, you can leave anytime.  Right now if you’d like.  But I keep the raft.”

The woman swished her hand through the frigid murk and looked towards the west.  If I could just see Gyer’s Peak.  Talrit’fyamps cluster had broken the southwestern horizon, but the moonlight only revealed an endless sea.  Still too far.

You bastard!

Turning her attention to the Firth, miles back in the View, simply reopened her wounds.

“And what do we do for food between here and Crus’Ybl, Jyl?  I suppose we’ll start gnawing on the leaf next, huh?”

“How did you know?”  He was smiling, but not mocking her.  “See that?”  He pointed at a cluster of small lumps that had formed in the center of the kelp deck.  “In two days these will be larger than our fists but ripe enough to eat… and hold us all the way till we hit the Spout.”

“Oh, great!  We get to starve for a Holten century.”

“It’s not that far.  I mean—it’s far, but…   Let’s see.  How can I explain this?”  He meditated momentarily.

“Go ahead.  Amuse me.”

“Okay.  Real quick.  Once we’re on the jetstream, we’ll be winging hard.  Believe me!  We’ll be sailing faster than anything you can imagine, though it won’t feel like it.  There’ll be no significant wind.  No ridges or troughs.  Just a really smooth ride.  The air gets kind of thin.  But the seaway somehow holds enough atmosphere to sustain us.  Also, traveling through Lower HevN suppresses the craving for food.  We’ll just lay back.  And in a few short days, we’ll descend the Falls on Crus’Ybl.  I know it all sounds weird.  And impossible.  But…   Well, you’ll see.”

The starlight sparked a glitter from one of Paun’s fingers.  Grabbing her hand and straining to read the runes on the ring, Jyl asked her where she he gotten it.  She then told him about her encounter with the hawk.

He mumbled to himself. “Wulscastle.  Witch’s charms.”  In the next instant he slipped the ring off of Paun’s finger and tossed it into the sea.  “We’ve got to wing it.”  He pulled up on the leaf edge and netted the breeze.  “This time I’ll show you how we’re supposed to take the Rises.”

“Jyl.  Wait.  One more thing.”

He turned to look at her.

He never saw the fist.  She had collected all her energy for that blow, and knocked the donjon dawn into him.  Grabbing the dazed Kingsman by the hair, she pelted him twice more, and he slumped to the kelp deck.

Not chancing any rebuttal, the excited ChaulEr removed his breech cloth and used it to bind his hands behind his back to his feet, while hissing obscenities at his unconscious form.  Then she knee-walked to the opposite side of the vessel and held the flexible margin.

Yet, before she could catch a whisper of wind, she shivered and leaned over the side to discharge more of her distasteful sickness.  Once relieved, Paun took a firm hand of the curl and steered towards the western horizon.  In her triumph she wore a bantering smile.  “In the Palm of the Bearer!”

Cosanc Bell!

A resonant hum in the remote distance.  The lapping of wavelets.  An awful stench corrupting the saline air.  A cool mat nestled his right side.  His other was parched by the heat of Xam.  And something very annoying was causing a discomforting kink.  Trying to unfold his crampness, Jyl discovered that his limbs strove with one another.  It was all he could do to even roll about.

Cosanc Bell!

Egrit’s Flue!  The man burst from his drowsiness, only to be curbed by the scabbard belt.  In front of him under the midmorning sun lay the starburnt sable bareness of the mutineer. Lolled insensibly in her own vomit.  His tongue was seething with rage, as he slithered to the woman’s side and bumped her again and again.  But the most he could get out of her was a low wail and a repositioning of her limp form.

“Wake up, Mistress Paun!  You have cheated me out of ____”

Cosanc Bell!

Jyl peered over the leaf’s coiled edge.  In the nearness of a league were the russet palisades of the first land sighting since Bidet.  But whose land?  He looked at the faraway Lynk.  Then back at the land mass.  He remembered what Paun had told him earlier… about the great drifting islands.  And right away he knew he was in view of ChaulE—whose position from the Firth never changed.

A shadow appeared and rode the circumference of the raft.  Overhead the vigilance of a wounded carrierhawk hung in the virent sky like a vulture tarrying before a meal.

Cosanc bell!

While the Yuudm cursed and toiled with his bonds, Paun stirred slightly, and said, “A song of ships.”

“What’d you say?”  Jyl continued pounding against her.  “Come on, dammit!  Get your ass up and ____”  His vision was overtaken by more of the View.

Ships.

Ivoctenwood fighters.  A whole fleet of them.  The startled mariner didn’t need to see the emblems wavering above the mastheads.  Their aim was at the winged spotter.  That was enough.

Jyl flopped across the craft and sank his teeth into the arm of the sleeping ChaulEr, who managed a feeble shriek.

“Let’s go, Lizard Whore!  Your friends are here.”  But she didn’t budge.

Jyl bit her again—this time in the rump.  And this time she braced herself up.

“Take a look, helmswoman!  Recognize any of those sails?  I’m sure the next party back to Five Kingdoms will be better than the last one.  For my sake, I hope so!”

“Fool’s goddesses!”  Paun lunged and pulled herself desperately to the leaf margin.  She took hold of the curl, but slipped and fell face down on the deck.  Not dismayed by her body’s relapse and her own predicament, she swore and growled incessantly, gagged and threw up again, then continued swearing.

Jyl, however, kept backing into her, cursing at the top of his lungs, and prodded her to untie him.

But Paun endured through her trauma.  She stood up, raised her clenched fists into the air, faced the pursuing ships… and roared.  A saurian’s roar.  Then she bent down and ripped apart Jyl’s bonds.

Before he could utter a word, she gripped his hair and put a finger to his lips.  “Say nothing till we hit the shore.”  He barely opened his mouth, when she covered it with her palm.  “I said shut up, sailor boy.  The Bidets have gained some seaway.  But I’ve got it covered from here.  So sit back and enjoy the ride.”

Without hesitating, Paun stood erect and drew up the yellow curl, and with the warm gentle breeze, directed the craft towards the cliff shores ahead.

Jyl glanced back, and wondered, “I don’t know about the Bidets.  But if those were QortLite ships, they’d already be in shooting range.

Despite the kelp leaf’s mobility, the massive sails of the pursuers accelerated their advancement upon their prey.

A glimmer of hope beamed from the clear waters ahead.

Shallows.

Although he could hear the frothing of the nearest prow just behind him, the sailor knew that any of the ships now risked reefing itself.  The fleet would have to hold up.  Which meant that scatterbows would be readied.

But no volley of arrows flew.  Instead the ships did stop.  The bow of the closest vessel opened wide to eject an assault barge beladen with troops and powered by hardy shoal oarsmen.  Another purchased design from Infinity’s Door.  Thus the chase remained underway, with determination being spent on the retrievance of prisoners—as opposed to corpses.  And that the swifter flattops would overtake the golden raft was imminent.

For, in fact, when the barge sailed to within a hundred feet of its target, the assaulters did not prepare themselves as slayers.  Having seen their prospective catch both unarmed, the front riders unleashed their thrasher nets.  Two of the snaring whips uncoiled and lashed their scalding mesh onto Jyl and hauled him overboard, while other threshers just missed their marks on his fellow crewmember.  The shoalers remained fixated on their primary quarry.  They broke into the sandbar.

By now Paun had forsaken any thoughts about the helm.  And while trying to wrest the whip lines away from the casters, she jumped overboard after the ensnared Yuudm and into the shallows.

More splashes followed.  Bidet soldiers were in the water.  They really want us alive.

Then Paun felt an unusual slack on the net line, which pulled free of the barge.  And where the other men had entered the sandbar was sordid with blood.

A quick look at the landing craft revealed a hail of poison shafts raining down upon the intruders.  ChaulEr archers and their dead aim from long range.  Carefully avoiding the noxious barbs, Paun easily rended the net off of Jyl.  He began foaming at the mouth, then collapsed.  At least the accuracy of the arrow coverage was to their advantage.  She dragged him quickly to the underside of the kelp leaf.  One hand latched onto the front.  The other arm wrapped about the sailor.  And she guided their temporary shield landwardly, under the retaliating storm of Bidet arrows.  By the time their backs scraped the tide pool perimeter, the violent rain had ceased.

Cosanc Bell!

With still a hint of growl in her throat, Paun mumbled, “Ships in retreat.”

The sailor barely peeked over the top and saw she was right, as Five Kingdoms shifted towards the turfemlic Current—and eventually to the unwelcome wrath of Phycom Swenn.  Obviously they were still tiros with respect to assault barge maneuvers.  Were they QortLites, the meager raft would have been cut off by several well conducted flattops.  As it was, the Bidets blundered the chance for an easy kill.  They had sacrificed a sure thing for some higher order of boast… and came up empty-handed.

With the enemy ships at an increasingly safe distance, the kelp leaf eventually floated against a bar of volcanic rock and coral.  Paun let go of the craft, carried Jyl and laid him down on the reeflet.

She stood up and faced the cliffs in the near distance.  Then shouted her anger at the sky with its green fields and fair-weathered Harem.  “Casm!  Do you hear me?  I am home, goddessdammit!    I am home!  And only as dead night will I ever be taken again!”

Her gaze then turned to the man.  Just a very ordinary-looking man.  Only naked.  Now taking his turn coughing up the foul spittle of Duns poison.  She knelt down beside him, scooped up some water and washed his face.  “You are hardly ordinary, Yuudm Jyl.”  He struggled to say something.  Only pain whispered from his lips.  He was too weakened to move on his own.  Heaving a big sigh, she said, “Let’s go, sailor boy.  I want some real food.  And a real bed.”  Then she saddled the man’s body over her shoulder and proceeded to shore.

She didn’t seem a bit out of breath, when she reached the beach.  In a moment the two were surrounded by dozens of rounders, weapons drawn.

Abused but fearless, Paun exhibited herself defiantly in their midst.  “Any of you ladies recognize this tuxhil bitch?”

The soldiers drew nearer… and gasped at the woman before them.  Half-naked.  Scalped.  Multiple brands by torture.  But the ugly telltale scar by way of the Semdrak.  There was no denying it.  The rounders immediately lowered their weapons.

“Mistress Paun!”  Daam Broy, the group’s leader, was beyond excited.  There was no rejoining of codes or passwords.

Several of the rounders relieved Paun of the limp body she carried.  “Take very good care of my friend.  His wounds.  His needs.  Whatever he wants.”  She aimed a firm eye at the soldiers.  “As if he were my brother.”

The Daam gestured to her troops.  And they whisked the man off to Round Cosanc’s infirmary.

“Good to see you, Broy!”

“Oh, Paun, you ugly trull!”  The two friends embraced a robust embrace.  “You are home, Sinner!  You are really home.”

“Yes I am.”

Jyl and Paun strolled arm in arm amid the festivities overflowing the city streets.  He himself was surprised how natural they blended in.  No one seemed to recognize them.  Massive quantities of orshyve brew probably helped.  Now and then the two of them would pause to embrace, gaze romantically at one another, laugh aloud with the rest of the laughter.  And always finish with a kiss.  Sometimes strong.  Sometimes powerful.  But always passionate.  They kept reminding each other of their other hunger pains—for food.  The nearby vendor with her pot of dribblen dumplings sounded like the perfect break.

“That man!  That woman!  They are fools in disguise!”

Jyl looked around to see a squad of Bidet soldiers.  They had encircled him and Paun and were ready to thrust their spears.

All of a sudden the music changed.  It was not the tune of the Ayopeean Bell.  It did not cackle or vaunt of great misdeeds.  Instead it was a song of holiday.  Of smiling green skies.  Jyl opened his eyes to find his body pillowed in a soft bed.  By warm fevorock.  At the entranceway to the room he saw a female soldier… in a red leather tunic.  He felt relieved… and angry at the same time.  Then he saw her turn away from him and head outside.  The music from Cosanc Bell stopped.  Two rounders entered the infirmary, gently lifted him out of the bed and helped him to his feet.  Looking down at himself, he noticed that he too was wearing a red tunic.  His movements were a bit hampered by the bandages wrapped about his wounds caused by the thrasher nets.  And he was feeling a little pain.  Guided by the soldiers, he stepped into the quietude of Within.

Two hundred rounders with belted swords were conventionally spread about the battleground at the ready position.  At the forefront were Daam Broy and her Buukliar.   As the round leader approached Jyl, she managed a half smile at the expected malice in his speech.

“My turn?”  He sneered and yelled, so that even the roofers could hear him.  “Milchy Pass!”  Then he focused his spite directly at Broy.  “Have you an answer for that one?… Sister!”

In an unexpected move the Daam and her guardians backed up slightly away from him.  They bowed their heads and spread their arms with palms to the rear and up.  Together they resounded, “Sir Jyl.”

Then each of the guardians went up and personally greeted him.  A handful of hair was snatched and his head pulled back.  A moderate fist was pounded onto his chest.  His shoulders were slapped down and squeezed.  A headlock, and his body was really beginning to hurt again.  Whatever method of respect they inflicted, they exulted his name aloud.  “Sir Jyl!”  Mistress Paun was alive and home again… because of him.  That pulled eternity over his contempt.

Broy was the last to salute him.  “Brewflake… Sir Jyl.”

“What?”  He hadn’t quite recovered from his hard earned praise.

She lit a smile that was both buoyant and serious.  “Today, it’s how we rejoin Milchy Pass.”  Then she put her arms around him and hugged him hard against her.  He grimaced, and she snickered.  “Thank you, Sir Jyl.”  She put a hard fisted palm to his chest.  “Sir Jyl of the Kingsmen.”

Yers.  Why is Cosanc ringing of Ib’ktide?  First a song of ships.  Now this.  And no relayer.”

The guardian was just as puzzled as everyone else in the Aulhall.  The international holiday commemorating the Rebirth of Chal’Iss was nowhere close to being defined by the Brew.  Yet, it sounded as if Broy’s Flayers were indeed celebrating.

“I will find out, Qeenmother.”

Just then, a Buukliair from Round Cosanc and several other soldiers rushed into the great hall.  The Bidet envoys, who were presenting their final pleas regarding Ayopee’s aftermath, were promptly seized and hauled off to Qul House—without any explanation.

Gyel Molug was furious, and rose from her seat.  “Lady JoW’Cec!  Is it the custom of you and your spitfires to cabaret yourselves while in uniform?  Or have you taken the initiative to invoke some new ordinance governing Ib’ktide?”

Grouser.  The rounder had expected to hear nothing less.  Even some of the other Aul members had to stifle their amusement over the councilor’s seriousness.  Still, they were all quite mystified by the carillamond tune, which was spreading to all the rounds.

The guardian went straight to the Qeen and saluted.  “Qeenmother.  Forgive this interruption.  It should relieve you to know that we are not drunken Serpentlords.”

I am not relieved, thought Molug, sitting down.

“But today we have lived—I suppose you could call it—an extraordinary dream.”  Lady JoW’Cec was searching for words.  She threw up her arms.   “Sunrise at Tharm!”  Then she walked straight up to the bench, where she was cut off by Yersitty, hands on hilts.  The Buukliair held out her open palms and grinned aloud.  “Guess who’s back?”

The Qeen stood up and dropped her jaw and saw through W’Cec’s smile.

The meeting was adjourned.  All rounds were put on Subdefiance.   And Aunt Uul’fr took up temporary residence near Paun’s bedside.

  1. Excursion

Against the warnings of her ministrants, the Qeen dismissed all her guardians except Yersitty.  She was well aware of the man’s discord with ChaulE.  And the presence of too many uniforms in her own home would have only waxed his discomfort.

“Welcome to my house, child.”

“Don’t call me child,” he gnarled under his breath.

At once the guardian, clad in her off-duty attire, walked up to confront him

“It’s all right, Yers,” said the Qeen.  And the bodyguard reluctantly moved away and busied herself arranging the table.

“Please sit with me, Jyl, and have some breakfast with me.”

He complied by grabbing a seat and helping himself to the fruit casserole.  While the three of them ate, the youthful ruler commented on Jyl’s escape from Qasr’Kwen, his stowaway aboard one of Cicer’s escorts, Paun’s extrication from Duns, and the return journey home.  How incredibly fascinating these accounts were.

“Of course, in view of your gallant efforts to restore Mistress Paun ____”

“Is that what you think?  That I was gallant?  And persevering—in finding this place again?  She’s here because of her.  I was trying for Crus’Ybl.  What you really want to know…is how I got to Five Kingdoms.”

Genj blue.  During his recovery, he hadn’t spoken a word about his flight.  Or the rescue.  He hadn’t been cooperative with the Aul… with their queries.  All anyone had to go on was derived from Paun’s statements and the general consensus.

He went on.  “For all you know, I was right there with the rest of the Bidets, cheering Vajjarere as she carved up your precious child.”

“Were you?” she asked.  But he snubbed her and continued eating.  Holding down his spooning hand, she repeated the question.  “Did you help them violate my child?”

There was a hidden glare behind her innocence.  And deep inside she was wounded.

“No.”  His eyes studied the quaint dining area.  His fingers glided over the smooth table top, made of individual wooden blocks, each with their own unique pictorial knots.  Above them an orange clover vine with miniature blue flowers draped from the ceiling in a planterbox made of various pieces of seashells.  The coral-textured walls were decorated with various runed shadowboxes and novelties from foreign lands.  Outside the window next to them were several giant dendrom leaves, whose sweated nectar was satisfying a small flock of yellow-spotted hummingflies.  “Ah.  No witch or truth fire today.  Your inquisition trusts me on that one, huh?”

The Qeen reached over and tugged slightly on his hair.  “Thank you… Jyl.  Pass the becelidge, Yers.”

The warm spicy dish went another scrumptious round, before the Qeen resumed her conversation.

“The Aul—and let me remind you that they are not inquisitors—but the Aul and I are in agreement that some reward be given you.  However, to save us all embarrassment during a prescribed ceremony—because we’re well aware of your disposition—I will discuss with you now on how ____”

“Give me two days,” he broke in, “To build something suitable.  Even two short ones—it doesn’t matter.  Let me have five days’ provisions.  And I’ll be on my way.”

She felt dejected.  “That’s not what I had in mind.  I was thinking more along the line of___”

Jyl stood up and paced the small room and mindfully admired the healthy floral décor on the furniture.  “I’ll take the kelp leaf… it’s probably still on the coral bar… and three day’s provisions.”

Pushing aside her bowl, the Qeen went over and spoke to him.  “Give us a chance and see if ____”

“Dammit, woman!”  His indignant tone brought Yersitty to her feet.  “Just let me off at the beach.  And I’ll swim from there.  I’ll swim the goddessdamn Lynk, if I have to.  And if you don’t believe me, great qeen, you can watch.  Tell that to your tuxhil ministry!”

The guardian spun Jyl around.

“Yersitty, no!”

But the nettled ChaulEr knocked the man to the floor, then yanked him back to his feet.

“Bedamn the Brew, Yuudm Jyl.  Not Qeenmother.  Remember, it was Kingfather who entrusted her to tend our fires.  Her word was his.  Their rules—always as one.  And since the Embarkment, ChaulE has maintained that same prosperity… and strength… and happiness because of Qeenmother’s wisdom in guiding us.

“So far, you have condemned our hospitality based on your run-ins with the Sinners—and with good reason.  But we are not all Sinners here, Yuudm Jyl.  There are many of us whose pride lies in the pursuit of compatibility.  And no one has tried harder to accomplish this than Qeenmother…and Kingfather.

“So long as we thrive, or decline honorably, so will our hearts and swords be ever with them.

“Now reason your tongue.  You have yet to really know us.  And when you do—if you do—you will find that even the Sinners can be warmhearted.

“I am sorry, Qeenmother.”  And she walked away from them.

Perceiving the man’s sentiment as being unchanged, the Qeen took his hand, and said, “Come on.  Let’s take a walk.”

They took to the streets.  The thick grass walkways.  The omataware shop.  New Moon gallery.  The Harbour.  Weaver’s Mart.  The night bloomers conservatory.  The zirplemelon stand.  There he met the people.  The regular citizens.  The cwolwisans.  The women and men who were not soldiers.  And the first he had spoken to here.  And he struck up on their lifestyles and ambitions.  Starlight mason, teacher, xilum miner, Brewist, brigerpin rancher, physician— many of whom rotated their part-time skills to satisfy their compatriots’ needs.  Just about everyone was a farmer of sorts, even the Qeen.  And no one appeared to be very old.  Children to young adults.  The stories about the Well… there was no doubt they were true.

Naturally the well spun yarns of his recent daring made Jyl more susceptible to their clustering stares.  But his fame shared the limelight with the mere presence of his comely escort.  Qeenmother was certainly no recluse.  It seemed there wasn’t a citizen she didn’t know by name.  Even when Jyl socialized with someone at random, the daughter of Idsp’ruu would inquire as to the well-being of other Roost members.  Her guardians restricted no one from greeting her, although occasionally Lady Yersitty used her stern discretion in stemming the children’s tide.  All in all, Qeenmother was befittingly—Qeenmother.  And the ChaulEr were her family.

During the course of their tour, they happened by a huge cylindrical building, a mud-baked antique, void of doorways and windows.  From its base to its lofty dome, not a scratch of artistry embellished its drab surface, nor a vine of overgrowth.  Its name was as sinister as its function.  Its keepers thrilled by displays of obstinate endurance.  At Qul House, a lodger’s time was eternity.

“No thanks!” said Jyl.  “Once was enough.”

But the Qeen insisted on his entering with her.  From the subterranean tunnel entrance and up the rampwell, she explained about the saurians in the outermost enclosure.  They were usually renegades or derelicts from Ror, who had crossed the Fault and committed crimes against either ChaulEr or H’Gaumz.  Depending upon the seriousness of a wrongdoing, an offender could serve a reasonable term and be kicked back to Ror.  But the more malicious criminals—they were taken directly to Round Serpens, the military school.   There they would be caged and nourished… and used as sparring targets.  Some of them would be wounded—even slain— during rounds with progressive tirosworders.

As for the ChaulEr, they rarely served a second term, which included being deprived of the holy water for a specified period of time.  Unwanted aging was a fear almost worse than unknown death.

In any case, the miry air and fulminating cries brought in by the serpents’ presence added a delightfully horrifying effect to the Scurjatory.

Stepping into that familiar room brought back cold memories to the Yuudm.  The Sinners.  He could see them now…

He was seeing them now!  Paun’s Buukliairs.  They were here.  As tenants.  Their whiptorn flesh bound to spreader bars and dangling in the guise of dead night.  And to amplify their disgrace, their hair had been removed.

“To you is imparted the harness of their lifelines,” said the Qeen.

The man searched the fettered atmosphere.  “I don’t recognize the one who thrashed me.”

“That would probably be L’Sar.  Fortunate for her, she had an alibi when Paun disappeared.”

Having seen enough, Jyl turned away and descended from the malicious chamber and its undying twilight.

“Let them rot!”

From his brigerpin saddle, the rider thanked the journstars for their benevolence.  Today was a winger’s dream, as the View encompassed all of ChaulE in her vivid splendor.  Far below him now was Fomucuf Plains, which stretched from the lavender forest to the citrine mountains of Byngol-a-bur, and from the Valley to the skirts of the metropolis.  Across the Valley and enshrouded in a hemisphere of perpetual night was the austere Desert of Tharm—once the sacred grounds of the Nohk Flamens, now the covert of Dowser Iiq.  Midway between the witchgarth and the great marsh of Bblonfen was the graveyard called G’Lian.  The major fissures in the hedging seaward slopes were easy to find.  That’s where the strongholds were.  Six of them.  Suitably entitled—rounds.  And an overspread score of sketsal ponds and lakes mirrored the joyful appeasement of the flyer’s realm.

On their way to settling down along the Valley’s rim, the man saw a circular walled area bustling with soldiers.  It reminded him of Round Cosanc, except this particular place was much smaller.  The parapetted wall, only about fifty feet in height, could hardly compare to the massive cliff enclosures of a round.  In the very center of this isolated lot was a brilliant marblestone structure with several sides and a flat roof, and whose height matched that of the surrounding bulwark.  And there were no Pit apertures Within.  Instead it was wholly covered with a lawn, rich in multicolored grasses.

A patrol intercepted them, then waved and flew off as soon as they recognized the Qeen.

When the party landed, Qeenmother picked some of the green otkums, bit off one of the petals, then gave a few of the delicious flowers to Jyl, who followed the cheerful woman to the bushline precipice.

“H’Gaumz Valley.  Isn’t it beautiful, Jyl?”  Her face wore the proud reflection of grand ridges steeping down to succulent lowland waves.  Scores of yebirulps frolicked throughout the tropical meadow, their brilliant feathers changing color with their sportive moods.

Half a league into the lowland he noticed a small lake, where it appeared that several saurian forms had stopped for a drink.

“Smell the pretberries?  Oh!  I can almost taste pretberry pie.  Nilk, can you make one for tomorrow?”

Lady Tonilk answered firmly.  “Maybe.  If I can have tomorrow night off.”

“You just want out of the movements,” laughed Ard’m Ol.

“You have g’Wesh rehearsal?”

“Yes, Qeenmother.”

“And you expect me to tell Daam Pwil Nin to excuse you—for some dessert?”

Tonilk merely scanned the cloudless welkin in its spring greenery and hummed to herself, as if she were thinking: No night off.  No pie.

“We will discuss this later, child.”  And the rounder smiled and winked confidently at Ard.

“You know, Jyl,” began the Qeen.  “There is no greater peace than that which lives here.  Our grandelders had to practically tie the hilts to Mig Lo Duk’s people, so passive was their resistance to the Serpentlords.”

Her guardians held a stringent watch on the Yuudm, who during the monarch’s conversation made several glances to the ostealwall nearby.

The Qeen went on.  “How comforting for the yebirulps who stay here.  Anywhere else a fair drift is unfair.  And their colorful wings would be the death of them.”

“What’s that place?” he asked.

“What?”

“Over there.  With the wall.  What is it?”

Frowning on his previous inattention, she folded her arms and asked him, “You’d prefer to view civilized constructions over nature?  Very well.  If that’s what____”

“I was just wondering what it was.  That’s all.”

The Qeen’s bodyguards briefly eyed one another.

“Well, young man.  What you see is a renowned historical shrine—called the Vestry.”

The man noticed that wagonloads of bulging casks, each variedly designed, were being flown in and out by teams of elkstallions.  Still other kegs were being hand carried out of the Valley by rounders before being airlifted.  Watching this latter group of porters, he was able to catch glimpses of lizards lurking just off the work trail.  And others—sentries no doubt—roving a spit from the Plains border.  For neighbors, they were certainly rigorous with their security.

“What are those barrels for?”

Now would come the test.  Would his eagerness to embark be as unyielding in the light of this curiosity?  Let us bait his interest.

“Holy Water,” she replied.

At that moment it was his expression…or lack of…that conversed.  On the surface he raised no brows.  Yet there was no follow up by him.  No query.  No comment.  Less than an appreciative nod.

Later Gyel Stryyx would agree with the Qeen’s conjecture.  That his heart had been swayed then.  Perhaps it was his being a seaman that made it easy.  On Lynk Star legends were a narcotic in the veins of mariners, from whose jargon wonders were made more wondrous.  But Jyl was now a genj acquaintance of such legends.  He had seen ChaulE, Qasr’Kwen and her sphairacloth rounders.  He had seen Qeenmother—centuries of wisdom—still in her youth.  He had seen Paun, whose female identity was virtually unheard of on Crus’Ybl.  (The QortLites had been too mortified to mention that.)

With all these certainties garnishing their esteem reputations, the ChaulEr could afford to be a little ostentatious.  So why not offer him a glimpse of what were the lyrics from another mythical song?

Holy Water.

If this was not a fool’s tale, then yonder lied the material world’s greatest treasure chest.  The vault of potential everlastingness.  Make a wish, Yuudm Jyl.  Think of the people you saw today and their physical grasp on time.  Then reflect back to the cause of the Kingsmen.

“Let’s ride!” said the Qeen.

The petite ruler, a very skillful winger, purposely circled the Vestry grounds before aiming at Round Serpens by way of Mauv Wu’Pree.

The Well of Sut UnBii, thought Jyl.  Now that’s what I call a Well!

Like frozen manikins, the students were poised in diverse positions on the dance floor.  Their teacher stepped onto one of the six carillamonds and motioned herself gracefully.  Zoyet Bell!  Various sounds— some musical, some shrill and harsh, ghostly voices, bits of crackling thunder, the flapping of brigerpin wings, the crashing of waves against shoreline rocks.  Combinations of these and more.  And while she swam in the jeweled light conducting her song of combat, her tiros, wearing green tunics and armed with wooden swords, came to life and repositioned themselves according to the sounds commanding them.  Their postures spun to deadly thrusts and interlaced coordinated patterns with aggressive vigor.  They worked their complex gestures, as if they themselves were guardians casting spirits away.  All the while a second instructor quietly strolled in their mortal midst.  And occasionally she would verbalize a correction to anyone erring in today’s lesson.

“Swamb Ley.”  Phase One students especially feared the teacher’s assistants.  They were the ones carrying the Gattarene whips.

“Lady Rog.”

“What is the current bell?”

“Round Zoyet Woods, Lady Rog.”  Swamb Ley took a deep breath.  She already knew the next question.

“And for what bell was your last movement?”

“Chellis Bell, Lady Rog.  Round Chellis Beach.”  Students learned never to apologize for their mistakes.

The instructor put a hand over the tiro’s throat, squeezed hard, and whispered with a growl.  “You just killed your sister Lerfejj.”  The students also learned never to try to respond during this particular chokehold.  It would only feel worse.

“ Xyyamu!”

On that command everyone froze to the ready position.  Seeing a special guest at the doorway, the instructor ordered her class at ease and welcomed the Qeen and her company.

“Hello, Qaz.  How is G’Gyip?”

“Still a sweet fenmare, Qeenmother.  Yesternight he fed our brigerpin one of today’s meals.”

The Qeen laughed.  “Sounds like your little boy’s made a good friend.”

In the meantime, a man with long crimson locks and siennan skin approached the student group, who stood quietly huddled together.

He spoke to one girl, who was toweling her forehead.  “Interesting maneuvers.  Never saw anything like that.  But whatever it was, you do it really well.  And those odd sounds?  Was that music?…”  His curiosity was fixed upon the unoccupied gemstone plinth.  “…Coming from that?”

It was most uncustomary to see any men at the Round School.

The girl stood at attention and answered in a disciplinal tone.  “One of the songs of life, Sir Jyl.”

“Oh, please call me Jyl.”

She hesitated at his request, shifted her eyes at her teacher, then said, “Jyl.”  At this level of training, such things were difficult for students to say.

The stranger then clasped her hand, and said, “What’s your name?”

Startled by his advance, she tensed up, and replied, “Lerfejj.”

“Not Lady Lerfejj?”

“Not yet… Sir Jyl.”

He could see that there were no brands on the arms and legs of any of the students.  “Well, hello, Lerfejj.”  And with a seaman’s heart he shook her hand.

Trying to suppress her own embarrassment prompted her classmates to a bit of mirthful laughter.

Jyl went over to talk to the instructor.  “Qaz, right?”  He shook her hand.  A whole calloused palm.  As if she herself had raised a century of sails.  “How long does it take them to get this good?”

Another anomaly.  Excepting superiors, failure to use one’s proper title in the School was a serious offense.  But, for now, the man’s behavior was excusable.

As her students garnished half smiles, she answered quite readily, “They must work very hard, Sir Jyl… before they can leave here.”

“I believe it.  They seem so young.  How old are they?”

“Old enough to fight… if necessary.”

So young.  Jyl had been impressed with the exercise he had just witnessed.  He had been impressed from the moment just before he entered the School, which bore the name Round Serpens.  He could not have imagined how it must have been for new recruits, as they waited in formation at their first Doorway to Within.

Dressed in their civilian clothes.  Exchanging smiles with their friends.  Imagining how proud their Roosts would be.  They faced a huge ivoctenwood gate, embellished with the relief of a Semdrak—half human, half lizard—flexibly contorted for battle and armed with a saber and angry fangs.  And above the gate were runes carved in the language of the Serpentlords.  An escort who worked at the school would translate the ancient proverb aloud for everyone to hear.  Then…  Serpens Bell!  The door slid open.  The path beyond was lined with instructors and seasoned rounders, all clutching Gattarenes.  Prodding the group forward, they yelled obscenities at these new enlistees, some of whom were already regretting their once-spirited decision.  But for all of them, their courage would be especially challenged—a genj test For The Stars— at the end of that path.

Ahead of them… four saurians, each an arm taller than most rounders, stood side by side and blocked the way.  They were H’Gaumz, lizards from the clan of Mig Lo Duk and loyal allies of the ChaulEr.  Their task was to assist in the training of the new blood.  Most ChaulEr— most of the population of Lynk Star— had only seen saurians from afar or from behind protective walls.  The sight of these lizards.  Their size looming larger and larger.  And their smell.  The foul stench of the Bblonfen mirelands flooding the air.  It was enough to scourge the mind.  The Doorway to Within slammed shut with the sound of thunder.  That’s when the panic began.  Then the screams.  Those that rushed back to escape through the Doorway were met with red tunics armed with whips.  Bodies were punched and kicked.  Backsides were strategically lashed.  It was a minimal stroke.  But from the Gattarene, once was enough.  The only way… was in… past the H’Gaumz.  The horrid lizards spread themselves slightly, leaving enough room for only one recruit at a time to pass between any two of them.  Cackling aloud and flogging their whips, the rounders forced the terrorized mob into the saurian line.  Those who were disreputable and tough before this day—their mettle was reduced to everyone else’s fear.  Even the restrained contact with the dragons: their vicious howls, cobratain tongues, gnashing teeth, scraping claws, mud-hardened scales, thrashing tails.  It was the most dreadful of horrors any of them had undergone.

A Holten century later and a long corridor past the H’Gaumz was a large unadorned room called the Corral.  Its wooden floor was covered with moaning, battered and fatigued bodies.  Some had fainted along the way and had to be dragged in.  Some had vomited.  Some were still crying uncontrollably.  Everyone had their clothes shredded from their bodies and their backsides marked with their first Gattarene welts.  And here and there—saurian gouges.

A sinister rounder entered the room with several of her assistants.  She addressed the pathetic heap of pain and misery before her.  For the moment they seemed to feel comfort in pressing their faces onto the deck and into their own puddles of sweat and blood.  “I am called Daam L’Sar.  I am a Sinner.  And the Goddess of Round Serpens.  Up till now I’ve been merciful.  Until you have banished your cwolwisan souls, you will never leave here… alive.”

Her eyes gestured to her instructors, who brandished evil grins.  As soon as she left the room, they cracked their whips and screamed out their commands.  “Up and off your goddessdamn asses, dribblen dung!  It is a time for great deeds!”

It was like the sign above the gate said.  This was Hell.

They had one more stop to make.  And the Qeen was anxious to get underway and take advantage of the long day.  There was still one sun left.

Once alone with her students, the instructor inquired as to if there were any questions regarding their newest visitor.

“Lady Qaz D’Twyn.”

“Lerfejj?”

“Lady Qaz D’Twyn, didn’t you sense something strange about Sir Jyl?”

“Strange?  How?”

“He seemed different… from other men here.”

“Well he is from the other end of the Lynk.  He is a Trustee of the Kingsman, which makes him almost one of them… a mariner and fighter of sorts.  We don’t see many Kingsmen these days.  Not since most of them took sail way back and brought the fight to Crus’Ybl.”

“Yes, Lady Qaz D’Twyn.  That was it.  He acted like… well almost like… a rounder.”

Qaz put a foot onto one of the jeweled rings.  Tuud Bell!   In the next instant the room was energized with statues at ready positions.   Waving her hand of manipulating fingers through the prismatic light, the teacher was about to signal another movement, when she stepped back out of the carillamond.

She thought about his confident manner… and his heroic deed during Ayopee.  “Genj blue,” said Qaz.  “Remember and recognize his manner.  He is a soldier.”

One student was abruptly surprised by a coiled whip which slapped her chest, followed by the morbid rasp of an assistant.  “And you, Dribblen Ley… remember to which Round you dance.”

Every tiro was well aware that a lash from the Gattarene was the second correction for a mistake.  “I will not forget, Lady Rog!”

There was an evil whisper.  “Oh, but I hope you will.”

Zoyet Woods finally narrowed down to a sparse sector of ivoctenwood trees and an ideal spot for late afternoon meal.  Although not as bright as this morning, Gidawru was warmer without Xam’s companionship.  But the heat was a perfect excuse for some tarimelon wine.

“So, Jyl, what do you think of dribblen?” asked the Qeen.

“Mmmm!” as he nodded with his mouth full.

“We raise them on separate farms here.  They reproduce quite frequently.  They’re our major source of meat.  We use dribblen for everything.  Even pies.”

When they had finished the last of the wine, they scattered their scraps for the timberland residents and walked their steeds up the gentle slope.  Qeenmother talked about her ancestors from New Moon.  How they cleared this end of the forest to build their homes and reconstruct their ships.

Reaching the hilltop, they faced a clearing, in whose pastoral distance appeared a smaller detached region of trees.

“And there, Jyl, is where they set up house.”

Upon closer inspection the Yuudm discovered that the wooded area was actually an outline of brown trunks, grown flushly together to form a vast sylvan hedge.  This was the Fortress—Goronz Wood—about which Ard’m Ol had spoken.

“Where’s the gate?”

“There never was one.  The New Mooners deemed the natural growth as being more secure.  And since they were all accustomed to their earlier seafaring lives, they simply adapted their riggings for entering and leaving.  We’ll just fly over and ____”

But Jyl had already darted toward the timbered walls and scaled them as easily as if there were masonic steps for his footholds.

“Bevleba!”   remarked Yersitty.  “Paun wasn’t kidding!”.

“Look at that!” exclaimed Tonilk.

Ard agreed.  “Just like a shadowtail.”

“Let’s fly!” said the Qeen.

Wandering reef!  From the first bough, Jyl overlooked what remained of the old settlement.  The Fortress was a huge oval, about a mile across from where he stood, and about a half mile along the shorter axis.  A wild field encompassed most of the area, with patches of woodland on the far side.  In the center was a sketsal leaf pond, where several children could be seen swimming and capering about. And to its right, almost two hundred feet away, was the vestige of a one-story shelter—large enough for maybe four families.

Joining the royal escort below, he learned that many of the original artifacts were either stolen and circulated throughout the homes of modern ChaulE or placed in the museum.

As for the usefulness of the Fortress, it was strictly nostalgic history, and somewhere for the children to expend their unlimited energies.

“Speaking of the children…”

A group of mud-splattered clothes and dirty faces were clamoring gleefully, while infiltrating Qeenmother’s Guard.  One of them, a girl with drenched auburn curls and red eyes, ran straight up to Jyl, who snatched her off of her feet.

“Hello, Qeenmother.”  Then she looked at the man.  “Hello, Jyl.”  And she kissed him on the cheek.

“Hello, ____”

“I am Captain Myim.  And these are my friends.  We’re the Fortress Gang.”

“The Fortress Gang.  Egrit’s flue!  Sounds like real burners!”

“Don’t take us lightly, sailor boy.  Anyone who trespasses our grounds must pay tribute.  Or end up in the pond with a mud rapping.”

The man was enjoying this.  “You ever been to Taribanc?” he asked.

“Hey!  We taught the Krokomer everything about running tolls.  Way before you were knee high to a dribblen’s ass.”

“Wandering reef!”  Jyl laughed aloud.  The astonishment in his face had all the children laughing with him.  “And pray, tell me, great Captain of the Fortress Gang, what is my debt to you?”

“Today’s a freebee, because you saved Paun.  But next time we’ll expect no less than a pretberry pie.  Understand?”

“Now I know why no one else comes here.  You drive a hard bargain, Captain Myim.”

“You can call me Myim.”  She went on, “Of course, if you invite any of us, let’s say, for midevening meal, your dues will be paid up until Qeenmother’s next birthday.  Hope you’re planning to stay awhile.”

Jyl briefly looked at the Qeen.  “Well, I’m not really sure yet.”  Then he commented with genj sincerity, “You know, Myim.  Of everyone I’ve met here, I like you best of all.”

“I knew you would.  So did Dyydz.”

“Who?”

Dropping herself to the ground, the girl went over and kissed the Qeen, waved good-by to the rounders, and gleamed a smile at her new friend.  Then with a song she skipped off with her friends towards the woodland corner.

Jyl was impressed again.  “Now that is one fascinating kidling!”

“We think so,” said the Qeen.

“How do they get in here?”

“There’s a hollow in one of the trunks just past the two-way stream.  It’s all downhill from there—to either the city or their homes.  And… they mean what they say about the mud rappings.”

“That’s okay.  I’ll take the wrath of the Fortress Gang over poison shafts… and metal….”

“And Sinners.”

Hearing the Qeen, Jyl turned to see her gently rubbing the cheek of her elkstallion.  He began fingering the fresh rough hints of a beard about his face.  “Yes.  Sinners too.”

As she continued to caress her brigerpin, the Qeen stared blankly ahead at Goronz Wood.  “Tell me, Yuudm Jyl.  Why did you bring her back?”

“Paun?  I didn’t.  She brought us back, remember?”

“Oh, yes.  That’s right.  Something about you dozing off, wasn’t it?”

It was a bitter reminder.  He could be home now.

“But you did set her free, didn’t you?  And you did carry her all the way to the Firth—and then some, didn’t you?  Any special reason?

“Did you pity her, Jyl?”  Now it was his turn to look away.  “Could you foresee the future of the great Mistress Paun, broken to tears on the Rak—and did you pity her?  It would have taken all our allies on Chal’Iss and scores of assailments to have taken Duns Island.  Yet, you outdistanced them all—out of pity?

“You have probably analyzed this tour as my way of trying to soothe any injustice done to you.  Well, you would be quite right.  You see, I am a woman who feels for things.

“Ever since you first arrived I longed for the hours when we might discuss matters concerning my lover and our children— his Kingsmen… our Kingsmen— and their plight on Crus’Ybl.  With all my heart I apologize for those interferences which prevented us from doing so.  And I am asking you to remain a while longer with us, to educate us on the centuries of hope we have not been able to fully witness.”

She faced him again.  “Will you please stay?”

He was probing the conflict in his heart with great difficulty.

“The people here…” he went on slowly.  “They seem… too unlike me.”

The ChaulEr sovereign drew up her shoulders and sighed.  “I see.”  Then she motioned for one of her guardians.  “You see this soldier, Yuudm Jyl?  She is Lady Yersitty, a woman of great deeds.  While defending Round Chellis Beach, she slew over a hundred of the Intruder, as well as their Delsaqmis giant, and rescued many of her sisters who were trapped within a firewall.  But her feat will be more notable than yours, because in her was a sense of honor—something I assume not to be found in the Roost of Raa’J’Lec.  I deplore you, Yuudm Jyl, that the master of your House should pass his unforgivingness onto you.

“You may leave whenever you wish.  You can take one of our light felucca vessels and all the provisions you want.

“Please give our love to the King and our men… when you see them.”  She wiped her eyes.  “And thank you again for delivering my child.”  She was about to put her foot in the stirrup of her mount, when she heard…”

“Qeenmother.”  It was the first time since his return that he had called her so.

She stopped and awaited his approach.  For a short moment he was speechless, as if he had forgotten what he wanted to say.

“Yes… Jyl?”

This time it was his eyes that were unfocused beyond the Fortress.  His thoughts fought to be rendered into words.  It felt so awkward and difficult in this present company.  “I saw her… A woman now… No uniform… No metal… Her face scarred by the Semdrak’s hand… Her arms and legs etched with the runes of honor and war… Her face and body branded by the dishonor of Five Kingdoms… My shipmate…”  He grinned.  “Actually my dead night baggage and seamate. Then my shipmate.  But all the while it was still her… Still the Sinner… Still the woman…”  His vision was awakened by something breaking the surface of the pond.  Then he looked at the Qeen.  “I like her.  I guess I’ve always liked her.    If that’s the right word—like her?  Even at Qul House.”  He threw up his hands in dismay.  “Look.  I don’t know what else to say.  Or even if I’m saying it right.  Anyway, there’s no way I would abandon her to the Bidets.”  And he turned away and traced his fingers along the antlers of his own steed.

There was no breeze in the air.  Yet, the breath of the wind could be heard amidst the frozen faces who were listening.  The Qeen.  Her Buukliair.  They shared their puzzled expressions.

“You like her?  Paun the Sinner?”  Before she could utter another word, the youthful ruler of ChaulE covered her mouth, in order to stifle the laughter swelling inside her.  Unable to hold it back, she convulsed hysterically, having to hang onto Lady Gethom for support.

The man, on the other hand, was both stone-faced and confounded.  Wandering reef!  Why did I say anything?

And just when it appeared she was pacified, the she erupted into another cackling fit—this time with tears of delight.  “Oh, Yuudm Jyl.”  Finally calming down, she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him hard, then released him just as forcibly.  Then with both of her fists she pounded an honorable blow to his chest.  Her countenance was now far more serious.  “It was a wonderful deed!”

Pacing arm in arm with him, she said, “I expect you to be our guest, at least until my next birthday.  Okay?  Who knows?  Maybe by then you will have blessed our community with a strong daughter…  or a fine son.  Anyway, you will set up house here at the Fortress.  Oh, do not judge the rustic rind of this place.  Goronz Wood… and the Lynk.  The view here has been one of nature’s finest gifts.  By tomorrow you will have a surrogate family.  One that will meet your genj approval.”

Family?  Jyl was unable to break in a response.  He was so ready to defy the Lynk Sea on his own again.  And now he was won over.  It happened so fast.  Yet he did seem content with what was being offered him.

“Sir Jyl.”

ChaulE’s newest citizen noticed Lady Yersitty beside him.  He admired the orange cobra with green brigerpin horns branded on one of her arms.  She pressed a firm fist to his chest, while echoing the Qeen.  “It was a wonderful deed!”

Jyl managed a grateful smile.  Then his attention was once again drawn to the ripples in the pond.  It wasn’t there now.  But he could have sworn he saw… the strangest creature he had ever seen.  A small one-eyed something.  It leapt out of the water onto a sketsal leaf.  Goronz Wood.  The Fortress.  He couldn’t wait to explore their secrets.

  1. Reposts

Jyl’s decision to stay was further enlightened by the Aul’s consent to let him use the Fortress for his own domain.  He started right after Ecnery had lifted her boisterous three-day temper by cleaning up things in the old dwelling, his mind going through countless arrangements.  Centuries of weeds, bursting with pollen plankton, had overtaken the meadow and needed to be torch cut, if not to at least improve his personal passage and View.  But until the ruins were made more suitably livable, Within would have to be tolerated.

One room was his favorite.  In fact, he had already designated it as his matt.  To the left—as he walked in from outside—was an entire wall of stone, with an opening for burning wood.  Just as it had been used before the days of cultivated fevorock, so too were his intentions regarding the chimney.  Tonight, he told himself, I will commission Egrit’s Flue and dream into his fire.

Lef’s youngest star was screened by Bofesh Cloud, and the warm Crystal Moon perched upon Gyer’s Peak, when he finished scourging the matt.  Annoyed by his soiled sweat, he thought about the children he saw the other day.

The sketsal pond.

From his doorway he viewed the still fertileness that was no mirage.  It also brought to mind the skylarking of sailors in the open sea, while they awaited the lifting of the dead night wind.

Running towards the heart of this oasis, he was a seaman again, a child trampling down the overgrown weeds which marred his way.  He continued his swift pace till he reached the water’s edge.  Then he catapulted himself into the bracing coolness.  He was done working for the day.

They were just like the sketsal beds on Crus’Ybl.  Not very wide, but deep as any Lokker.  Because the lands on Chal’Iss were floaters, he imagined a direct route to the subterranean seas and perhaps a gradual transition from fresh to salt water.  After his first really profound descent, he slalomed the continuously rising and falling sketsal pods towards the early afternoon moon.

No sooner had he broken the surface, when something splattered against the side of his head.  That’s when he saw the children.  Surrounding the pond were about a dozen mud welders wearing mischievous grins.

“Of course, you realize the price goes up for residency,” demanded Myim, who had stepped forward.

“I’ll tell you what,” said Jyl.  “Why don’t we discuss a treaty over evening meal, so we ____”

“We’ll be there,” Myim broke in.  “But just so you understand that we mean business…”

As was hinted, there followed a barrage of slimy clods, after which the Fortress gang bounded lightly away.

“Hey, wait!  Shouldn’t I ask your mothers first?”

Someone hollered back, “It’s okay!”

“I don’t know if I have enough to feed all of you.”

“Don’t worry!” rang out another voice.  “You will.”

“Wandering reef!” he muttered to himself.  And he chased bottom.

It was Shorted Lynk Falls before he finally emerged from the pool.  After ringing his cloth, he rewrapped himself in the style of a sailor’s loin.  How he loved the sun filled seasons!

Then he remembered about the drift conditions on this side of the Lynk—how in just a few days it could become drastically colder, wetter, or even hotter.  There were no cartocalendars to predict land positions accurately.  It had been tried, but the mass versus mass encounters didn’t always follow the reflection laws.  And between the varying winds and the tides, preparing for nonlinear time was a losing cause.  The mariners who lived on Chal’Iss had to be really good.

While he retraced his steps along the treaded path, Jyl saw that there were four black-striped brigerpins grazing alongside the spotted steed given him by Qeenmother.

Looks like Lecnoluu has some friends.

The other stallions’ presence was explained when he reached the house.  Standing outside the doorway were two visitors, a woman and a man.  Parked nearby was a large wagon overflowing with a medley of baskets, sacks and various provisions.  Two sets of harness riggings—for the front and rear of the wagon—were set aside on the ground.  Drenched from his recent swim, Jyl wished he hadn’t missed their incredible descent into the Fortress.

Naturally it was the woman who seized his concentration first.  Her being dressed for the warm weather helped to insure that.  A bold outfit, the narrow golden fabric was split over her shoulders, draped down her front side and back, and crossed between her legs.  She was a lewd seaman’s dream, someone to be found in the harem of some wealthy eminent dar.  Large breasts, a full rump—a delicious figure!—and a beautifully wicked expression, crowned with goronz waves which dangled to her waist.  While Jyl was entrapped into staring at her, she was espying him with a tight-lipped smile.  A dream indeed!

He went up to the sandy-haired man with his boyish face and introduced himself.  Letting out a yelp, the young man squirmed under the Yuudm’s handshake.

“I’m not a rounder!” he snapped.

“Sorry.”  Although aware of the man’s frailness, Jyl didn’t consider his greeting to be that firmly applied.  “What’s your name?”

“Vlav Tr’Klum.”

He then looked at the woman, who was eye level with him.  “And you are…?”

She seemed enchanted by this newcomer with his exposed chest and happily soaked to the bone.  “I am Deeg.”  She held out both her hands, palms up.

Welcoming her, he asked, “You’re not a soldier?”

Before she could answer, another woman wearing a blue tunic burst out of the house.  “Spew on your matrons’ pyres.  This goddessdamn dump needs…”  When she saw Jyl her aspect brightened.  “… a miracle.  The hand of Sut UnBii.

“You must be Jyl, huh?”  Her hands went forth, wavering with hesitation, as if to touch him.  But she held them back and turned them palms up.  “Uh… Yebirulp’s drift!  My name is Hentilose.”

She was shorter than Deeg.  Not as physically endowed.  But pretty, with a cheerful air about her.  A satin blond mane graced her shoulders.  And her eyes were like Qeenmother’s—a sparkling green.

“Well, I’m pleased to meet all of you,” said Jyl.

Hentilose relayed her look of fascination to Deeg.  “Oh, we are pleased also… to be selected to your Roost.  Except for maybe Glum Klum.  That boy’s never happy anywhere.”

“Quit calling me that!”  Confronting the blond teaser, he ranted, “I’m tired of telling all of you.  Call me by my right name.  And talk without blasting your saurian jaws around me.”

“Oh, poor boy!” she bantered on, while squeezing his cheeks.

“And quit doing that!”

“Hold it!  Hold it!” Jyl butted in.  “Both of you dry up for a bit.  So you have been chosen to live here… in Goronz Wood… with me.  Why you three?

“Don’t you know?” Deeg asked him.

“Not really.”

“Well, if he’s not expecting us, perhaps we should leave,” remarked Vlav.

“You can leave,” said Hentilose.

“Just a moment, Klum.”  Deeg went on, “Let me briefly explain our situation to you, Jyl.  We are inthumacers.   As infants we were porched by our mothers for various reasons.  Sometimes orphans are accepted permanently into other households.  Others, like ourselves… we’re a little rustic on our manners.  Anyway, we go wherever our cwolwisan duties take us.

“Now if we get along, it is our wish…”  She glanced at her companions.  “At least it is my wish… to try and set up house here.  Whoever you kick out will have to report back for reassignment.”

Hentilose took hold of his arm.  “Look, Jyl.  I can hammer, wash, till, thermoscythe, carry heavy loads, cook, and even break elkstallions.”  Her fingertips glided across his fairling chest, and her tender eyes pleaded with him.  “I can do anything you ask of me. Or I will try and learn to.”  On a more solemn note, she added, “Otherwise, I’ll have to go back and finish my tour at that goddessdamn dribblen hutch.”

Jyl told them to look around at all that had to be done.

“Oh, we won’t mind!”  Hentilose was bursting with excitement.  “Our kind of work.  And it’ll be nice having you as a brother, won’t it, sister?”

Deeg smiled agreeably.

“What about you, Vlav?”  Jyl was anxious just to sow some sea stories with another man.  “Care to stay us?”

“Not with them!” was his harsh reply.  “And so far from the city.”

Before little sister could carry out her discord with the squeamish man, Jyl intervened again, and politely told Vlav that he could leave.

The whinnying of the grazing elkstallions sounded the arrival of several red riders, who approached by way of the urban slopes and landed near the dwelling.

Jyl was soon confronted by a familiar pain.  “Hello, L’Sar.”

Annoyed by his informality, one of the Sinner’s companions broke in, “Daam L’Sar to you, boy!”  But the Gattarene waved her back.

Jyl went on, “You’ve heard about the new rules—right L’Sar?”

She had.  It seemed the Qeen had approved his request to disavow any of the titles outside of the Aul on his immediate property… among other conditions.   But she cared less about these rules.

“Then I expect you to comply with them.  No uniforms in the Fortress.  Am I singing from the heart enough for you?”

The Sinner scowled and glanced over at the other three.  “Hello, Deeg,” she said affably, and was answered with a genial nod.

Then returning her attention to the man, she said, “My sisters are on the hook—dying.  You have the power of life and death over them.  What will it cost to have them freed?”

“You can start by getting you and your friends off my property.”

In the meantime, one of the soldiers had approached Vlav, who had cowered against the front of the house.  Putting a firm grip on the man’s shoulder, she asked him, “You like it here, Glum Klum?”

Before she knew it, Jyl had pulled her away and decked her with a quick blow.  Rounders swarmed into his reserve flurry.  Against their numbers, his bold engagement was short-lived.

“Xyyamu!”

Immediately the soldiers released him and moved away.  Their retaliation had been abruptly halted by a young woman, dressed in a blue summer cloak.  At first, judging by the woman’s shape, Jyl thought her to be the Qeen, until she removed her hood.  Revealed was a pale complexion and short crop of hair, whose color resembled the setting embers of Gominex.  Standing next to her was a thin man with a receding hairline.

L’Sar hailed the woman.  “M’Sish.”

“You will please leave while I speak with this man.”  It was a soft-spoken voice which matched her delicate composure.

“My sisters in Qul House.  They’re your friends too, M’Sish.”

“I know.”  She refrained from looking directly at the Sinner.  “You will please leave.  Lowering her head and shutting her eyes, she urged, “Sari, please!”

A final repulsive glare at the Trustee, and the disgruntled Sinner mounted her stallion and flew with her company over the woodland wall.

“I apologize for my friend’s severity, Yuudm Jyl.  I’m afraid that her reputation makes it impossible for her to act with any discretion.”

Deeg went over and joined hands with both of the new arrivers and introduced them to Jyl.  “This is M’Sish—Paun’s pure blood sister… and Roit—their brother.  I’ve known them ever since we were children.”

An ecstatic feeling came over Roit, as he shook Jyl’s hand vigorously and thanked him for rescuing his sister.

“The Roost of Gwil Fyr is very grateful,” said the meek woman.  “The Cosmon Sower has been more than generous in heeding our prayers.  May she preserve you till HevN’s Rebirth.”

It was hard for Jyl to imagine her as being related to Paun—or even as a friend of any of the Sinners—so contrasting were their characters.

“However,” she continued, “I’m afraid I must tell you that I have come here today on behalf of six lives, which have been dead night to your sails.  I realize their maliciousness.  But having grown up with them, I also know of their good will.”

Jyl was about to turn away, when the woman fell to her knees and appealed to him to hear her plea.  Reaching into her cloak, she obtained a yellow metallic seal, on which was engraved several blue otkums, each surrounded by a black circle.  It was the same emblem which embellished the ribands both she and her brother wore.

“This is the deed to my share of my mother’s house.  Speaking for all of Gwil Fyr, I beg you to accept this offering with whatever conditions you wish to further impose—in exchange for the release of my dear friends from the Scurjatory.  Please do not abandon them, as you did not abandon my sister, Paun.”

But Jyl was not sympathetic to her entreaty.  “I see.  I’m just supposed to set all the Lizard Whores loose.  Relax and sip qaithwine on your mother’s couch.  And everything will be Lavender Lynk.  Your sisters will compose themselves like timid little dribblens whenever they see me, right?  Sorry, woman.  There’s just too much dead night with the tuxhil Sinners.”

She beseeched him.  “Please!  There must be some reasonable provision that will satisfy you.”

“Reasonable…   Pacing around her genuflected posture, he said, “Very well.  How about these provisions.  I will continue to rein their lifelines, as Qeenmother has granted me.  They’ll have nothing to worry about.  So long as they stay clear of me.  So long as their friends don’t annoy me.  So long as your Cosmon Sower doesn’t close her watchful eye over me and accidently lose me in G’Lians Orchard—you know what I mean?  My well-being… their well-being.  On my good spirits, okay?

“And let’s keep it honorable.  Something scrolled with the Qeen’s seal.”

Jyl helped the woman to her feet.  “Now go tell your sisters my demands.  And listen to the laughter.”

“We accept your offer of life, Yuudm Jyl.”  Redonning her hood, she bowed her head with closed eyes, and chanted, “Zu Jjin!”

It wasn’t her quick approval that startled him.  He could expect this woman to do no less than to cry out in desperation to her crusade.  But the certainty in her tone—that implied some distinct significance to cwolwisan M’Sish.  Either because of her sister’s renown and power.  Or perhaps the family name itself was a folicon block among the Aul and sovereignty.  Even so, Jyl was eager to test the genuiness of her influence, a move which would surely relieve the pressures from other rounders—especially the Sinners’ confidants.  Besides, sooner or later—if not already— Paun would be well again.  And she would come to see him.  If he had to live here, it might as well be a friendly tour.

That same afternoon an agreement was produced, just as M’Sish had pledged, outlining his terms.  It was no surprise to him.  Time to get on with my new life.

“Too rigorous!” argued Gyel Molug.

“Quite fair,” was the Qeen’s response.  She had all intentions of releasing the Sinners anyway.  The contract merely expedited the situation.  Now would be a test of everyone’s good will.

I, for one, have never accepted the innateness of talent—which, I suppose, is actually more my disapproving the definition of talent.  Whenever I am presented with a case of aptness, credit is bestowed on behalf of personal application—either involving available information or habitual exercise or motivational pursuit—any or all of these.  But certainly not because of genetically inherited sorcery.  And people, allow me to emphasize, we are dealing with an enthusiast.”

Breaking Scrimej was a clearly expressed trait of Gyel Stryyx.  It was a method of stirring her own adrenalin.  Establish any gap in continuity, and she would painstakingly invent some worthwhile interval to feed on.  Show her a spec of the View, and be grateful for rest periods.  Both her work and her hobby, the woman’s scholarly style was being applied with those same devoted efforts to the research of a very special driftwood.

She went on, “If you want to talk about being gifted… Very well.  He was born with suctorial hands and feet.  Sort of immunizes him against an obstacle like sheerness, doesn’t it?  So much for the ups and downs at Qasr’Kwen and Duns Fortress.

“Now that he’s on more sociable terms with us—particularly with Qeenmother—Jyl has been only narrowly cooperative about his latest adventure, the daring young man’s version being very summarized.  Having downscaled the palace wall, he gained the nearest desolate shore point, swam along the Stone Bar past the perimeter’s unsuspecting night Viewers—until he reached Anchorage, where he randomly touched upon one of our allies’ vessels.  Perceiving that a group of ships was undergoing embarkation, he slithered his way to one of their hulls, hitched a ride to Five Kingdoms, dropped off just inside Duns Canal, and infiltrated some mysterious grand celebration.  While he worked out the details on how he might cast off from there, he happened to witness the public christening of the Ayopeean Tower.  That’s when he allegedly first saw Mistress Paun.  Thenceforth: the incredible flight from Bidet.”

There was a brief interruption, as a soldier entered the Aulhall, quickly saluted the Qeen, then went over to Stryyx and muttered something to her.

“Oh, wonderful!”  The silver-haired councilor rubbed her hands together and folded them.  “Bring it in and set it in front of the bench.  Please.”

Readdressing her associates, she prepared them for her little surprise.  “It is comforting to know that the Leetians are still with us and that they share our concern regarding this conundrous affair.  Thanks to my colleagues under Kuom’s jurisdiction, they have presented us with the product of a recent fishing venture—and the first evidence of Jyl’s wreckage from when he left Crus’Ybl.”

The courtroom door rolled aside to admit the bearers of a three-foot-high cylindrical object, which was placed on the circular testimonial block.

At once the Qeen and the rest of the Aul jumped out of their seats and enveloped the huge cask, and gawked in amazement.  A holy water keg!  An exact replica of the ones ferried in and out of the Vestry.  This particular one detailed—red and white on black flying mastheads and some of the names of the Roost of Raa’J’Lec.  A fragment of cord and a piece of ship’s timber remained tied to its tough shell.

“I had indiscriminate areas scraped down, in order to verify my surmise… and my hopes.”

“And let me guess,” began Gyel Hegged.  “You found only one layer of pictography, and the barrells made of goronz, right?”

Stryyx complained wittily.  “Hey, Heg!  Quit pre-solving my hard-earned work!  But you’re right.  And knowing the absorption properties of this wood, my laboratory staff concludes the surface pigment to be through and through.  And more importantly, there exists only one Goronz Wood.

“Next question: what was the content of this deep sea find, if any?  The vessel was just less than a third full—of water.  With the help of Dowser Iiq, a more critical perusal revealed the elements of our most cherished Well.  Thus, the remainder—for any single life—would have sufficed for several Lynk trips.  Just for the record, this substantiates the stagnant, but non-fouling properties of our water.

“Now it is most likely that Jyl received the water by the good graces of Kingfather—from our sailors’ own supply defined for their long term plans.  However, this keg was most certainly acquired from ChaulE… somehow.  And not by way of the Kingsmen.

“With the Aul’s permission, I would like to have this vessel refilled and sent to the Fortress—without any further, pertinent cross-questioning of our guest.  Why—I will explain later.”

The Aul reassumed their seats.  Gyel Stryyx leaned on the open window sill and brushed several leaf sacs to the grass walk below.  Lef’s Triad was aligned with the Ecnery Gusts, which, having joggled the tree kingdom cleanly of her ripened pods, added a rustling overtone to the country’s autumnal voice.

Returning to her audience, the investigator continued with her customary to-and-fro gait.   “Now… Let’s hash over talent.”  She walked past the salvaged cask and fumbled with the rope cut.  “He’s supposed to be a seaman.  And I believe he is.  I believe he possesses whatever credits are essential to the profession of seamanship.  What I do not swallow is that seamanship is his profession.

“Granted— he has prowess.  For The Stars he has prowess!  So does any sailor who defies the Lynk.  But what sets Jyl apart from the rest of the seaman’s world is his prowlability.  Here’s where the adventure becomes accented with—let’s call it—an official course of action.

“Perhaps some of you may remember… During our interrogation of Mistress Paun, she mentioned overhearing Jyl say, ‘Feucinc.  First run.’  Anyone know what that means?”  The potential educated guessers were more eager to allow Stryyx to go on with her explorative report.  “Well, anyway, feucinc is a locksmithery term used to describe a certain securing mechanism.  But I’m told that a self-respective locksmith avoids expressions like ‘first run.’  You see, that’s a cracker’s term.  And we’ve all heard of crackers.

“Pretty lucky—his cracking the Rak.  Or pretty talented.”

There was a saddened displeasure in the Qeen’s face, not so much for the Gyel’s precocious estimation of the Yuudm Trustee as it was for the infamous and disgraceful possibilities.

“Last night I was conversing with someone,” recalled Stryyx, “Who related to me about Jyl’s lively interest on just about any theme or discussion.  Another Brewist I’m told.  A great listener.  The man listens so well, he’s beginning to sound like one of us.  And he’s been here—how long?  There’s too much fresh slang that can’t be attributed to the Kingsmen.  Is he respectably trying to fit in, or is he practicing adaptation?  What better way to acclimate anywhere than to speak the lingo.

“According to Mistress Paun, during their escape through the streets of Duns, there was too much commotion taking place for her to perceive whether or not Jyl had actually spoken to any of the Bidet patrollers.  Favorably for him the qaithwine atmosphere was his alibi—an entire day of never having to exercise his speech, except with Paun…”

“… and until Taribanc.

“It seems a species of hulshintet also occupies Crus’Ybl’s Wancium Gulf, those particular lizard sharks being non-weaponeers.

“Nevertheless, to learn any language cursively—especially the saurian phonetics—requires either a reasonable tour of cohabitation… or a very special education.  Since mariners are basically just passing through, I’ll wager that our friend’s fluency was acquired by the latter means. Assuming there’s only one Pid’yn Ba!”  Then she asked herself aloud, “I wonder how many languages he knows?”

Old dribblen jaws, squawking away, thought Molug.  This time I know you’ve overdone it.  Just suggest that we bury the goddessdamn sailor and shut up.  Bevleba!

“You know, one would think that the Kingsmen would have exchanged some meaningful, geographical data with him, considering that they themselves were in a different, but predictable theater of fixed continents.  Needless to say, if his main objective was to achieve the Firth, then directionwise he’d have no problem, since the Spout was conveniently in Bidet’s View at the time.

“But catch the rises without a craft?  And I thought the kelp leaf was a bad dream.  Fool’s goddesses swimming the Lynk!

“But… taking a Vokexingiant’s pace… having recuperated from his extraordinary seizure, which I believe not to be feigned, Jyl is once again helmsman, a position short-lived because of Mistress Paun’ undoing.  Here’s where the juncture sets in.  Had not the woman overcome him, would she be on Crus’Ybl today?  In the company of Kingfather?  Or Honn Kolcher?  A morbid thought!  Or being such a proficient seafarer, would Jyl have intentionally misdirected their vessel and roundaboutly blown into ChaulE anyway?  After all, he was given the opportunity to abandon our shores.  And instead he elected to hang around just a wee bit longer.”  Regaining her chair and slouching into its frame, the anxious speaker tilted her head back, and said, “An honorable commitment—who knows.”

Then she refilled her goblet with pretberry juice and drank the entire contents in one continuous ingestion.

The sleuth got up again and stood next to the water barrel, he fingers outlining one of the winged mastheads.  She said, “There has been no mention of Dar Zefax Oan, and probably never will be.  On a more grateful note,” she added, “At least Paun is back.

From an optimistic point of view, Yuudm Jyl—if that is indeed his name—may very well be the sincere, well rounded individual he shows himself to be.”

Gyel Molug did not agree.  Saurian’s ass!

“Stepping into Dalhexxer’s Shadow, however, I could discard all the malism that I have hypothesized so far, and still be wary of him—all because of a very minor, unthinking display of his pride.  His pride with respect to his being knowledgeable.  And we can thank Mistress Paun for her own recall in reference to their flight from Five Kingdoms.

“First of all, how long has Rem Idi been our ally—prior to Ayopee?  For two of Qeenmother’s birthdays, if memory serves me right.  Kingfather never had a chance to meet the Remals, their country being off limits to outsiders back then.

“Well, the centuries passed, and Rem Idi finally opened her doors and joined our cause against the QortLites.  The Remals, we discovered, were unique in that their military rank structure was composed of titles not found in any other nation.

“Now, let’s go back to Taribanc.  When Jyl initially noticed that some of the Krokomer were armed, he saw something else.  ‘There’s one with a Silbin’s cloth,’ he said.  A Silbin’s cloth!  You won’t find the grade of Silbin anywhere on Lynk Star—except at Rem Idi.  Genj blue!  How he’s acquainted with that uniform should prove to be interesting.

“Qeenmother.  I’m sure you’re sentient of my next request.”

The monarch’s answer came out almost in a whisper.  “Yes I am, child.”  Swallowing hard, her sensibility overruled her heart.  “You will see him sunward.”

“Thank you, Qeenmother.”

Favoring the atmosphere of the old Fortress, the sailor-turned-would-be-farmer declined the deed of Gwil Fyr, accepting instead the craftsmanship of Roit and the homely chores of his sister M’Sish.  With their dedicated exertions, together with those of Jyl’s household and the Fortress Gang, ancient ChaulE was awakened from her Holten century of dormancy.  Gadofer shrubs, pretberry vines, river gourd, zirplemelon, and even orshyve maize—they all thrived once again and flaunted their perennial stabilities.  And what had been ruins became the humble estate of the Roost of Raa J’Lec.

Often, when the nights were cool, everyone would congregate in the matt and muse into the fluttering arcs of Egrit’s Flue.  There Myim would begin a favorite lullaby, then meander outside, where she shared the sweetness of her song with Dyydz the Ruskalik.  Roit, being a born Brewist, would be as aggressive with his speech as he was with his material constructions.  His cosmological babblings, though fascinating to Jyl, were most enduring to the ears of Hentilose and Deeg—especially while they were trying to play a game called Fools’ Bell.  Accustomed to her brother’s ways, however, M’Sish would sit back peacefully, contemplate earthly prayers, and wander her time by fashioning fabrics into new clothes.  Her first lesson to Jyl was that neither women nor men exposed their breasts publicly (although his newest sisters didn’t mind.)  Vlav Tr’Klum—he had changed his mind and elected to stay.  Somehow he didn’t fit into this household either.  But he looked up to Jyl as his Guardian Cherub.  And for now he could at least feel comfortable talking with M’Sish, whose visitation would end soon.

It was a warm early evening.  Tun’El passed behind early Spout Falls and Hihn’s Pearlcluster burned blue over Fomucuf Plains.  To commemorate the restoration of the Goronz grounds, all hands each contributed a ribbon from their hair.  These colors were all buried together behind the lodge in a fertile mound, which they named Desrubans Heap.  After the ceremony a great feast was thrown and lasted until fool’s dawn of the morrow, when the serein fog arrived.

While most of the Fortress lounged in their weariness, a small firedish burned in the patron’s room.  He preferred the enchantment of the writhing flame over the ostealstone’s uniform glow.  Presently the man busied himself over a stack of thin hyaline sheets.  Heating the end of an etchplume, he jotted several runic notes, pondered over some others, and shattered a crystalline plate, while quietly cursing to himself.

“May I come in?”

Jyl saw it was Deeg, poking her head through the rekester hide.

“Sure.”

“I figured everyone was in the donjon dawn,” she began good-humoredly, and looked over his shoulder.  “What are you doing?”

Composing himself seriously, he replied, “Well, my lady.  In this journal I have recorded the Silence of the Stars.”

“Really,” she smiled.  “Can I see?”

Thumbing inadvertently through the transparent pages of runes, she was inquisitive as to why his entries were composed of several languages.  He explained to her that during the course of his adventures he had had the good fortune to learn various facts and skills.  And by continuing to utilize this knowledge, he would be less prone to lose it.

“Hmmm.  This is interesting.”  She had stopped at a particular sheet inscribed in ChaulEr.  “May I?”  she asked, referring to the clarion kit, which was open on the table.

“Oh, please.  That’ll be one less page for me to do.”

While she smeared both sides of the plate with some rufous oil, she commented on how his runes were incised so professionally—like a teacher’s.  The pigment having been absorbed, she cloth-dried the entire crystalline sheet, then held it just above the firedish.  Gradually the unmarked surface areas hardened to an opaque redness, and the etchings became vividly black and easier to read.

“That’s what I thought,” said Deeg, as she perceived the contents of the page.

Replacing the treated sheet to the stack, she apprehended Jyl with earnest eyes and asked him, “Am I really a lewd seaman’s dream?”

By now he had known her well enough.  He followed his heart, as he measured the captivating loveliness which faced him.  His silent expression said it all.

Her mysterious vision caressed him.  Her hands coddled up and around his neck, where they clasped.

His gaze pointed to the small wooded area on the far side.  “What’s over there?”

“Perfect choice!  There’s a nice dreamy spot, where you can hear the rippling from Winyet’s Brook.  And since everyone— even the Fortress Gang— is in dead slumber…”  The fragrance of her breath whispered to him.  “Let’s dream—you and I.”

Unseen by them, a beautiful blonde was observing from the window of her patron’s room.  She was enraptured that a prince lived here, and that now she too—like Deeg—was his sister.  She would have to tell Kwid Nunk.

It was late afternoon, when the journ dilation of Dilmatoyne relieved the drizzling fog, and a seed leaf unfurled from the womb of Desruban’s Heap.  By Shorted Lynk the first of the yellow flowers would appear.  And they were sure to grace Qeenmother’s table.

We shall see!” rapped the Qeen.  She and Molug were just entering Aulhall, where business today would be on a more personal level.  Already inside were the Sinners and three other soldiers.

Having practically overlooked Daam L’Sar’s greeting, Qeenmother went right up to Paun.  This had been her first official meeting since deliverance.

“Hello, Lizzy!”

Paun was boiling inside and tried to disregard the monarch’s sharp reproof.

The Qeen resumed her reprimand by slapping her.  “Stupid girl!” she hissed.  “Stupid little girl!  Well, Mistress Whore!  Did you manage to uphold your reputation during my last birthday?  I hear Sorsun Riffel was really good this time.”  She was reinstilling the poison.  “I’ll bet you can’t wait until the next treaty, can you?”  Paun remained silent, as she received the final succeeding blows.  “Stupid little girl!”

The angry ruler looked at L’Sar and her wrinkled brow.  “I suppose you’re going to tell me that she’s well again.”

“Yes, Qeenmother.  She’s as fit as before.”

“Same old Paun, eh?”  Piercing her gaze at the daughter of Gwil Fyr, she added, “Fools’ goddesses if we’re to rely on that.!”

Reviewing the line of Sinners, the Qeen stopped in front of Nether, then posed her query to L’Sar.  “What’s this?”

“Qeenmother?”

She was glaring directly at the Winger.  “What are all these pathetic-looking women with their ugly heads doing here?”

More poison in the veins.  It had been a memorable trial.  The Aul versus Ladies Himmwast, Irn’Vshae, Strek, Emgroy, Wober Fel and Nether.  The charge to each was dereliction to duty.  Gyel Molug, acting as defendants’ counsel, did not even discourse upon her clients’ achievements.  She simply curtsied before the rest of the Aul and threw herself at the mercy of the court.  On which note the judgements cast were unanimous.  The Qeen’s uncharitable decision, however, was enacted without hesitation.  Their sentence: to be demaned and scourged, and to serve Qul House till HevN’s Rebirth.

“Too severe!”  charged Molug, and her colleagues agreed.  Also under consideration was the potential loss of experience and strength in leadership.  Yet, they all firmly believed that in due time Qeenmother would reconsider their appeals on a change of heart.  Which she would have.

“I asked you why are they here, woman?”

The Daam was expecting this.  Her instructions were to replace Mistress Paun’s guardians with front liners, who had a genj sense of discipline and responsibility.

“Qeenmother.  I have complied with my orders.”

“I see.  ChaulE is to entrust brawling riffraff and wanton trulls with the security of ____”

“It won’t happen again, Qeenmother.”

But her majesty, paying no heed to L’Sar’s interjection, moved down to the Silverstream.  She began by saying, “She who cannot be touched.”  Consequently, she struck V’Shae, and then affronted her with, “She who cannot be found during working hours!  And where were you, winyet?  Shielding your girlfriend?”

That her insides had become knotted with malice and revulsion belied the eruption that would have followed had not the reviler been the Qeen.  But Irn V’Shae, the openly unashamed winyet, being in no position to assert any grievances, glared away contemptuously from the royal chider.

The Qeen turned her attention to one of the soldiers.  “And you are Jo W’Cec—from Broy’s Flayers?”

“Yes, Qeenmother.”

“Tell me, child.  When you tried out for this job, were you considering business or pleasure?”

Annoyed by her sarcasm, L’Sar butted in.  “That’s an unfair question, Qeenmother.  These women need only to be recognized by their expertise and motivation.  In applying for these positions, they have shown me ____”

“Exercises, L’Sar!  That’s all they have shown you.  Nothing but exercises.  Right now I am unstirred by sparrings and whatever rehearsals thereof.”

“They can hardly be called sparrings, Qeen____”

“Second nature.  That’s what inspires me.  I advise you to focus on your concern there.”

Reverting her attention to Paun, the Qeen elaborated further.  “Now take this woman, for example.  They say that yesterday she cleanly executed both the Luup Rul and the s’Rye movements—which, I might add, are the most impressive of the g’Wesh series.  Then I am told that in a fit of rage she entered the lizard’s cell at Qul House, crossed the moat, and  ____”

“She snapped the ivoctenwood seal,” blurted the Daam.  “Then she swam around the moat—underwater!”

“Swam?  That far?  Did you hear that, Molug?  Oh, my.  Such a high price to pay for swimming lessons.”

Paun sustained her deaf-mute pose.

The Qeen went on.  “Anyway, she wound up breaking the serpent’s neck.  And from these feats it has been concluded that she is ready to take charge of our defenses once again?  I wish I could share your enthusiasm.”

“Qeenmother…”  The Gattarene was thoroughly irritated with the monarch’s mode of quibbling.  “Gyel Molug will vouch for me.  We tested Mistress Paun and reviewed every possible ____”

“Still referring to blueprints, Sari.”

“Will you let me fin____”

“I’m not interested in her memory, child.  I remember too.  I remember a tiro once, whose instincts—more than her memory or her muscle—made her exceptionally commendable.  She had that saurian sense, which couldn’t be procured from any Round School curriculum.

“Well, she kept her corporal strength.  And she conned all the movements.  But her special talent she traded in—for a butt of orshyve and a Holten century of a promiscuous queue.”

“That’s a lie!” barked Paun.

“Aha!”  The Qeen sounded amused.  “Dead night awakens!”

The irate Sinner stepped forward, and said, “Don’t exaggerate my free time!  And don’t confuse it with my record as a rounder!  When’s the last time any intruder crossed Scrimej?  Or had any of his raving stallions attain the Heart?  When has there ever been a drill that didn’t rate at least a genj performance?  And we’ve spotted rounds anywhere from dead night to Casm’s Harem.  Never on my time, Qeenmother!”

“Perhaps your time is up, ChaulEr Paun.  It was the intruder who snatched you, remember?  Now that he’s proven himself capable of such, what will catch his fancy tomorrow?  Round Zoyet Woods?”

“Not till HevN’s Rebirth!” replied Paun, with deep confidence.  “A round?  Bevleba!  Not even I’Egwys can be reckon lightly.  Our rounds are ____”

“They are goddessdamn dribblen dung!” growled the Qeen.  “Do you hear me?  Dribblen dung!  Sometime during the latter course of your tour of duty, our soldierly design went through some rearrangements.  New fads were introduced.  Now there is wine in the Pits.  Men in the barracks.”  She went over to Himmwast, yanked the stone clouding net from her uniform, and threw it on the floor.  “And incompetent little girls, who care more about their precious charms and fool’s egos than they do about their responsibilities.

“You better start weeding out the weeds, great mistress!  Before I see the sphairacloth debased by a lot of gala riffraff, I’ll have you and your friends redesignated as cwolwisans and sent to the dribblen hutch indefinitely.

“As for you newcomers, there will be no second chances.  So forget all about flaunting your highly regarded positions and keep a sharp eye on the View—with emphasis on your mistress.  Kick her in the ass if you have to.  But let her know you’re there.  You don’t help her now… don’t expect her to lower the hook for you later.  Because, more than likely, she’ll be hanging right alongside you.”

Although she considered this meeting a genj priority, the Qeen was looking forward to visiting Jyl, whose pre-ChaulEr accounts had made her feel closer to the Kingsmen.

“What time is it, Anbyp?”

From the window facing Byngol-a-bur, the guardian could see that the Spout was active and that the open end of the celestial sea was descending towards Chal’Iss.

“Almost Shorted Lynk, Qeenmother.”

“All right.  Let’s see.  I’ll give you… through the next Firth Falls, child.  Better yet, make it before Open Lynk.  That should be more than enough time to clean up your act.  Starting tomorrow, all rounds will maintain Subdefiance.”

Round the clock?  Paun wasn’t sure if Qeenmother understood all of what her order had implied.  The rounds and the coastal perimeters would be operating at full womanpower.  All vacations, as well as any free time outside the uniform, would cease.

“For how long?” asked the Sinner.

“Until you’ve proven to me that our rounds are one breath again.  Until you show me that you weren’t worth losing to Five Kingdoms.  Or until your successor can meet my demands.”

Successor?  Paun deliberated quickly.  Fools’ goddesses!

“Get a move on it, Sinners!  Our next meeting will be another judgement day.  Mark your calendar, ChaulEr Paun.  Open Lynk.  Judgement day.”  Then, motioning for her Guard, she took leave of her audience with an apathetic  “Lavender Lynk!”

Molug picked up the Gypsy’s amulet and pocketed it for safekeeping.  Personal adornments, once a discreet option for rounders, would now be checked under the new dress code.

“I’ve never seen her like this,” scowled the minister.  “I expected her to be a lot more lenient with you.”

“So did I,” sighed the Mistress.  “What’s all that Lavender Lynk about?”

“Oh that.  She’s been talking a lot to Jyl.  She’s picking up his lingo.”

“So… who’s been breaking the rules?”

L’Sar and Molug eyed one another.  The Daam reluctantly answered— “Diodez.”

Paun was staggered.  Diodez was a premier Daam, whose rounds were always the swells of the fire.

Molug summed it up more seriously.  “We’ve seen her sunward.  And it’s very bad!”

Daamquarters on any round was never locked.  With one furious blow the secured circular-framed door was broken down.  Diodez and her Guard were jolted out of their seats by the abrupt entrance of several familiar faces… wearing unfamiliar bandanas in the convenient style of their Gypsy sister.  This would be the Sinners’ new look, until their hair grew back.

Standing nervously, the Daam was very resigned in offering an informal handshake during her welcoming of the mistress.  When she did, the Sinner seized her hands tenaciously and shed a cold horrendous stare, quaking Bblonfen to arousement.

V’Shae examined a jar on the table, which verified what Paun had already learned from the Daam’s first breath.  Orshyve.

Coming out of the sleeping area was another of the round’s Buukliairs.  She was wearing a look of disgust, while she fumbled with her loose tunic.  Behind her were Emgroy and Strek, who had in their custody a nude and frightened man.

“Looks like a party,” said Wober Fel.

But the mood was hardly a celebrating one.

“To the Heart, Diodez!”  Paun’s order sounded more like a directive to G’Lian’s Orchard.  “g’Wesh series.  S’Rye.  Intermittent diagonal flow.  Calraddi.  Counterweave.  Luup Rul substitution.  Let’s see them!”

Not much had changed outside.  There were a few roofers keeping watch on the Nalfin View.  Within looked more like a vacation resort than a battlefield.  Nothing but dissolute rounders.  Half of them out of uniform.  Some of them picnickers.  Others cheering on a half-limbs match.  Even some tollers of Fool’s Bells.  The stealthy arrival of the Sinners had never been noticed.  It appeared obvious that the most conscientious of the troops were the tiros, who were most likely engrossed in sweating sessions at the connecting school.

Hesitating a step away from the carillamond circle, the Daam, with a sentiment of hopelessness, looked over the distorted scene beneath today’s cerulean moonshine.

Paun taunted her.  “You do remember, don’t you!”

Of her own performance Diodez was not worried.  But those under her charge…  Taking a deep breath, she entered the Heart and conducted her form through the awakened rays.

Reelam Bell!  A song of drill.

Since the alarm did not signify ships, most of the rounders dilly dallied from their enjoyment Within or from their beds.  At length, several soldiers recognized the Sinners Above, and began passing the word.  Soon the leisurely paces were transformed into hustling throngs.  But it was too late.  The rounders, who were cursing to themselves, knew it.  Just as their Daam had known the moment Paun burst into her headquarters.

“Take your time,” said the ChaulEr mistress, who was sitting near the roof’s edge, her arms wrapped around her knees.  She remained relatively calm, while the mireland fault was widening its jaws of requital.

Finally, the bustling having settled everyone to their positions, Daam Diodez initiated her dance—a song of g’Wesh.  As was expected, her performance was flawless, except it was slower than normal, the reason being demonstrated Within.  Rather than circulating more naturally with the rhythms, the dancers were being too careful.  They anticipated their maneuvers with unsubtlety.

Seven rows of combs behind Scrimej there occurred a one-on-one collision, which could have been freakish, though it would still warrant a reprimand.  But when three groups of sworders muddled the interchange during the s’Rye run, Paun stood up and stabbed her own foot into the Heart.

All activity ceased.

Grabbing Diodez by her uniform, the enraged mistress jerked her out of the carillamond patio.  “Tell me it’s a joke!” she growled.  “Tell me you knew that I was coming today, and you planned this little gag for me.  It was just a gag, right?  Tell me that Qeenmother has as big a fool’s tongue as I have a trull’s hole.  Tell me that the most prestigious of rounds anywhere in the Brew isn’t the stool pile I’ve just seen.  Tell me, Diodez!”

By now, Bblonfen had consumed the Daam’s spirit.  There would be no pretext.  No explanation.  Her quiet visage of defeat admitted her guilt.

“Spew on your matrons’ pyres,” grumbled Paun.  “I was brand-slutted by a goddessdamn kingdom of traitors, so that you could slut over Round Reelam?  And maybe live to lie about it?  Draw your blade Ch’Chencylwhore!”

But no xilumsword was brandished.

“What’s the matter?  You lose your metal too?  Then die like a goddessdamn worm, serpentseed!”

While the rest of Reelam watched with shame and compassion, the Sinners unleashed their fury upon the Daam, whose vulnerable body was pounded unmercifully.  Then Paun stripped away her victim’s uniform, lashed the woman’s hands, and raised her up one of the arborhooks stationed along the rim.  The gnashing of Gattarene cursed the air, until V’Shae and Strek combined to restrain the cyclone thrasher.

By midafternoon the Buukliairs of Reelam were turned over to the keepers of Qul House for their negligent roles.  And for his part in violating the regulation governing cwolwisans on military premises, the hapless man was forced to spend several everlasting days in the Scurjatory.

Assigned as temporary governess, until Daam trials could produce a new heir, was Lady Nether.  Her immediate function was to prepare the round’s entire populace for relocation, followed by rigid weeks of redevelopment.

Fortunately, there existed a befitting site for this major transfer.  And that’s where Paun was heading now.  Don’t let me down, Flase.

From where they had left their stallions—about a mile into the woods—the mistress and her guard took off towards the buttes of Byngol-a-bur.  Round I’Egwys was almost at the direct opposite side of ChaulE.  But a straightforward heading was impossible due to the position and the nature of the Valley.  Like the Nalfin and Ror, the tame brigerpin also avoided the atmosphere of the H’Gaumz.  The scent of the Lower Saurians.  It was very strong here.

Yet, since another sneak attack was in order, the perfect roundabout way was on the Vestry side of the Valley—across central Fomucuf Plains.

The journmoon Gidawru had flaired its bluish hue by the time the riders reached the yellow mountains.  Hugging the inland cliffs, they flew within a league of Zumenhyxx Fault, before turning dead ahead to Bblonfen.

Not even the cheerful faces of two suns could compensate for the foul quagmire which scurvied the View.  Stretching from five leagues on the Tuud side of I’Egwys, and on the other flank to a fourth of the faultline, the ghastly forbiddance of Bblonfen narrowed down to the Valley Breach under Urfacis Lloc.  It was the sole natural sore spot in this picturesque land.  Hard to imagine that a thriving forest once grew here.  Any attempts for revival were tackled on a voluntary basis.  But together the stench and the muck were an excessive burden for the volunteer farmers.  Had the Serpentlord Bblon not been slain at the Lloc, his sanguine hide would still be harnessed to a plow.

Confident of her element of surprise, Paun steered her crew under the cover of the warm Runtepioc clouds, which had only recently migrated from Pangr’lol, and whose herd extended all the way to the sparkling sea.  Through the fitful nimbus breaks she could already see the reddish brown clump that comprised Round I’Egwys, her school, and the pedestaled elkstallion pen.  In a short while the red riders would gain the ideal diving angle and wing it from the heart to the stable perches.

However, before Paun could signal their descent, other voices rang out from the heated mist.  And a host of brigerpineers enveloped them.

The leader of this well-organized patrol of shooters drew nearer the golden scarf of blue otkums, and said, “Juth Moon.”

Emgroy snickered, and replied, “Flasy’s Mudders!”

A sore finger was pointed at the Rowdy, and the talons of an unseen whip stung her backside.

“Why you goddessdamn ____”

“Juth Moon,” repeated the dragoon.

This time Paun answered: “It’s Nathan!”

“Porj-Porj.”

“Goronz sporf,” rejoined the Sinner.

“Very well, Mistress Paun.  You and your Guard will please accept our escort to Round I’Egwys.

With a noble salute, the young Buukliair concluded her performance.   “Mistress Paun… the Round is secured.”  Then she rose to the posture of readiness and awaited her dismissal.

Paun threw a glance at the Daam, who was making no attempt to cover up her impudent smirk.  “Okay, Flase.  I know all the burners.  And I’ve never seen her before.  Who Under Bblonfen is she?”

“You saw her once.  At Chellis Beach.  A quick shuffle to the front line.  She’s only had one kill.  But for trials, that’s all we require.  And if you saw her tryouts, you’d know why she’s here.  I’m very impressed with her.

So was Paun.  With this girl.  With this entire round.  Considering that the most appealing aspects of this goddessforsaken place were the Nalfin View and flying as far away from here as possible.

Even the QortLites avoided I’Egwys.  Of course, their reasons were more substantial.  There were no shallows to effectively accommodate their assault barges.  And the persistent Hirth Current was too overpowering.  Even the finest ships were dragged and wrecked against the initial broken-cliff coastline of Ror, which was only a spit in the View upshore.

When the Sinners and company had issued from the stables, two occupied arborhooks were dominating the scene, which resembled more of an open roof variation of the adjoining school.  Clustered throughout the perforated grounds were individual teams of dancers, either coordinating with or offensing against other squads.  A couple of dead night areas of mobile post targets were fluctuated ahead of Scrimej for the scatterbowers Above.  At first, there seemed to be a hint of some sportive activity, as a circle of rounders watched two of their comrades engage in a four-comb sparring duel.  The fighting having stopped momentarily, another soldier emerged from the spectators and discussed something with both dancers, who then resumed their bout.  So much for fun and games.  If a teacher was monitoring, there would be little exuberance among the tentative pairs of opponents.

Paun had specifically told the sentries not to announce their presence to Daam Flase, who was below lecturing the tiros.

Striding into Daamquarters, she cried out, “Okay!  One guardian—to the Heart!”

An unfamiliar woman, who was scribing some notes at the room’s solitary table, diligently rose and greeted her, then proceeded outside.

“Just a moment!”

“Yes, Mistress Paun?”

“Where’s the Guardian Watch?  And who Under Bblonfen are you?”

Keeping her proud composure, the soldier replied, “I am Buukliair Uc J’Nee, Mistress Paun.”

Wober Fel came over, hands on hips, and studied the short slender woman, and remarked, “You’re kidding!  I’ll bet you have to use a Daam rigging to mount up, huh?”  And the intimidating Sinner patted her on the head.

With forbearance, J’Nee ignored the self-assertive indignity of the tall muscular Huntress, and she inquired of the chieftain, “Was here a particular song you wanted to hear, Mistress Paun?”

“Bevleba!”  Fool’s goddesses if she doesn’t trip over the carillamond.  “As a matter of fact, yes there was.  How about something very g’Wesh.  No drill.  Ships in the view.  Botts fold.  Flanker thirds.  Calraddi.  Center—forward: diagonal shuffle.  Luup Rul.  Staggered phalanx.  Weave.  Countershuffle.  Counterweave.  S’Rye.  Below on Gattarene—without interchange.  Roofers on Yekwib rotation.  All stop with tail end three combs back of Scrimej.”  Paun bent down and stared the innocent-looking rounder in the eye.  “Got that?”

“Very well, Mistress Paun.”  And the soldier about-faced and marched herself to the Heart.

Meanwhile, a relayer was hastened off to Qasr’Kwen to inform the Qeen and the Aul of the true purport of the round’s forthcoming alarm.

No sooner did I’Egwys Bell clang her rare message of Intruder sails, when the round’s governess and the rest of the Guard attained the roof, only to find the Sinners mesmerized on the conduction of Uc J’Nee.  A mere newcomer to the dancing world, the youthful guardian graced herself with the fluidness of a seasoned Daam, while the xilumbearers Within complimented her with that same precision.

Xam Sun was a bright purple ring and an only child in the green, when the exercise came to a synchronized halt.  The statuesque dancing machine was like a visitant rain fog.  Streams of perspired blood fed the hard absorbent stone.  Yes.  The guardian had spoken genj blue.  This round was certainly secured, as would be any fort stationing Flase’s Fangbrier.

Having been dismissed, Lady Uc J’Nee, with her Daam’s permission, pronounced a period of round liberty, then joined her sisters and the mistress pack inside the base center.

Behind closed doors conversations became less formal.  Flase felt for the Sinners’ deprivation.  Some of them were really old familiars—all the way back to Neked’s Lair, when Lady Molug was their full time instructor.

The Daam’s welcome was a resurgence of better times.  “Hello, you ugly serpentseed bitch!”

Swallowing hard, Paun hugged her longtime friend.  More hands were mingled, chests pounded, and obscene quips traded, before any urgent matters were ushered in.

Paun complained about how she hadn’t been home yet.

“You mean you haven’t seen your family?” asked Flase.

“Just Aunt Uul’fr.  She’s the only one they let in at the hospital.  No Roost till I’ve checked every goddessdamn round.  So you’re talking somewhere around Spout Rises.”

Kup’Inda noticed the new faces.  “Who are the leeches?”

Paun shrugged amidst her supplemental bodyguards, then knitted her brow at L’Sar, and replied, “Spies, I think—disguised as trained flankers”.  On that note the smiling Gattarene slapped her coiled whip against her sister’s chest.

“How are your children, Flase?”

“Oh, they’re fine, and quite respectful… when they recognize me.”  With her forearm she wiped the sweat from her forehead.  “You know what I mean?  Hey!   Where’s Winger?”

“That’s why we’re here.”  Paun briefly suffered her vision to the morbid baneful landscape receding the fervorock and constricting towards the Valley.  “I think you trulls could use a better View.”

Ecstatic repercussions shook Daamquarters, as the ChaulEr mistress recounted the outrageous episode at Reelam.

Having dispatched Uc J’Nee for prearrangements, the fort’s leader propositioned her friends: “Hey!  How about the day after we set up house, we throw a big bash?  At Paun’s place, of course!”

“Sorry, Flase,” was Paun’s depressing response.  “Everyone’s on Subdefiance.  I mean strict Subdefiance!  No covering up.  All present and accounted for.  No exceptions—save dead night.”

“Because of Dez?” asked Lady Salf.

“So far?  Yeah.  That’s only part of it.”  The ghost of Ayopee tore at her soul.  But somehow she lacked the nerve to implicate herself.  “Let’s just say I really like my job, okay!”

“Bevleba!” swore the Daam, as she adjusted Paun’s kerchief.  “Bet you can’t wait to get your hair back.”  She frowned at the other Sinners.  “Bet you all can’t wait.  And just who do you think could ever replace you, great queen of the Cloth?”

Paun turned her eye towards the doorway.   “Maybe that little bitch who just walked out of here.”

“Uc?  Aw!  She just a kidling.”

Irn V’Shae grabbed her sister’s arm.  “Got to wing it, Paun.”

“You’re right.  By the way, Flase.  We saw a couple of fish outside.  What’s they’re problem?”  It wasn’t unusual to see one or two punished soldiers openly displayed.

Guardian Kup’Inda was grinning, and retorted, “Minor acts of treason.”

“Which reminds me,” said Paun.  “When you get to Reelam, you’ll find dishonor clinging to the tree.  Just let her hang there till HevN’s Rebirth.”

Before exiting the base center, Paun complimented her old schoolmate on the aerial outpost, which had earlier smothered her own sly efforts.  “Oh, yeah!  And another thing.  That was a goddessdamn genj perfect exercise if I ever saw one.”

“Well.  Breach a vestal!  Did you expect anything less from the exalted Fangbrier?”

With aspirations of finding the other rounds as disciplined as this fort, Paun and company crossed the hind deck of Above and entered the upper passageway of the bi-level corridor.  It was about a half mile walk to the end of the upraised alley, such being the tolerable limit of the brigerpins’ approach to the fearsome brine.

“Lady Wober Fel!”

The company held up and waited for Uc J’Nee’s brisk pace to catch up with them.

“Lady Wober Fel, may I have a quick word with you?”

“Sure, peeper.  What do you want?”

“May I speak freely?”

Wobe, having consented to her request, the Sinners formed an enclosure around the young Buukliair.

“Great Huntress!” she began, while being mindful of the sinister scarfed shadow around her.  “I’ve grown out of being self-conscious of my size.  I expect the rest of the world to keep their jibes to themselves.  I am not a dribblen schoolgirl anymore.  I’ve been to the front line.  In fact, the man I slew to get Iron Rites was just about your size.  Guess where I stabbed him?  That’s where I’ll sheath my fist in you the next time you rib me like you did today.

“Well.  Enough of David and Goliath.  Now that our respective ranks occasion mutual duties, I’m sure that everything will work out.  Thank you for granting me this speech.”

Wober Fel stammered, “Dav__?  Who and who?”

Guardian Strek displayed a proud smile.  “Future legendary heroes of Milchy Pass.”

J’Nee was about to excuse herself, when the Sinner wall contracted.

“Excuse me,” she argued.  “I thought I was allowed to speak my mind.  Even if I chose to reproach.”

“Genj blue!” said Emgroy.

Himmwast, whose hand fumbled for a missing periapt, rested an open palm over Uc J’Nee’s throat, and said, “And now be the tail of thy time”

Gripping the woman’s hair, Paun concluded, “And just so you understand that we are not partial to anyone, including saurian ass midgets…”

“Timberfore!”

A swarm of pale crimson sleetflakes blew in from Phad and was teething the skin of Reelam.  This icy gale, together with the miry nocturnal overcast, left barely a trace of Crus’Ybl’s silhouette.

“So what!”  declared Lady Salf.  “Sure beats Bblonfen!”

Dame Flase was only half listening to her sisters.  Her thoughts were on the lone figure outside being devoured by the irrational storm.  Other faces came to mind.  Other Daams, including herself.  And they all took turns on the arborhook.  However, the others never really served their sentences.  That was the fool’s component of her thoughts.  There was yet a realistic side, whereby those same eminent faces had manipulated their shields quite cleverly—some of it was goddessdamn luck!— while Fate was distracted.

Poor Diodez.  Sure.  She was blind on her watch.  Enough to elect her as scapegoat?  A strong maybe.  But was G’Lian’s Orchard her worth?  Not this way! she told herself.

“Kup!”

“What’s up, Flase?”

“I want Dez cut down and given as high a priority as the physicians will permit.”

“Infirmary, huh?  What about Paun?  She’s going to be ___”

“She’ll understand.”

“Well, if she’s still singing ____”

“She is,” confirmed the Daam.  “I’ve been watching her… doing exactly as we all would do.  Just holding on… either until dead night… or ____.”

The sharp pattering voice of the storm peeked into Daamquarters, as Kup’Inda bolted out the doorway.

Salf came over and leaned on her friend’s shoulder, and suggested, “We can put her in the bed next to J’Nee.  That way she’ll have company… and won’t feel singled out.”  Flase tapped her sister’s arm in agreement and sniggered.  “So what are you going to tell Paun?”

Forcing an overbold but stately sincerity, the new governess of Reelam proclaimed her self-assurance: “Daam’s option.  My round.  My reprieve.”

“It is your round.”

“Besides… Dez’ll come back.  You’ll see.  Can’t throw away a good rapper.”

As the Sinners held up their torches, the Rowdy remarked, “Ah!  Nothing like real fire!”

Genj blue!  They were all very much in agreement.

Those Bidets abandoned at Qeenmother’s birthday squirmed on their hooks and begged for a swift execution.  But the avengers were in no hurry.  They were feeling creative tonight.  Casually their brands brushed on and off their fleshly canvasses, making sure not to miss the real tender areas.  The shrills of torment drowned out even the saurian yowls—for three consecutive nights.  Afterwards, Paun and her sisters were able to sleep much more comfortably.

  1. Boon

Ah!  Thank you, kind sir,” said Roit, as Jyl refilled his cup for the third time.  “May the carnal cushions of a thousand harems nestle thy countenance till HevN’s Rebirth.”  The home-brewed yorbin had enhanced the debates of the Brewists, especially Roit, who was known to chatter  For The Stars.  Taking another generous sip, the son of Gwil Fyr went on.  “Luckily, the olden upheaval engendered a score of major prominences, several of which escaped intact from the anchorage pile— thus giving birth to the more neighboring minor suns and moons, whose orbital intercrossings caused the original ice cap to become more bearable.”

“Exactly!” concorded Ard’m Ol, swirling her drink.  “Otherwise the peoples of Chal’Iss would all be rovers today, transmigrating at the first inkling of a floe.  Either that or perish.  I doubt very seriously that, even with a gradual drift into those former frigid zones, we could become accustomed to the bottom line temperatures.”

“Then again, who knows?” began Newn.  “When you think about some of the conditions that ____”

There was a knock at the open doorway, an uncommon method of announcement in this land of carillamond design.  But this was the ancient Fortress.  A woman with a sable complexion stood just inside the matt entry.  A long sleeve reseden gown fitted loosely over her soldierly form.

“Paun.”

Rising from his cross-legged position, Jyl greeted his one-time shipmate with a clasp of hands.  He coaxed her further into the room and was about to introduce her to his company, when she looked straight at everyone and greeted them all by name.

“How about a drink?  We’ll just make some room here and ____”

“No.  Not yet.”  She appeared uneasy.  “I need to speak with you alone.”

Jyl had been caught off guard, this being Paun’s first visit here.  Excusing himself from his other guests, he accompanied her into the breezy outdoors, where several more women—all nicely attired, but armed conspicuously—spread their coverage about them,

Together they ambled their way Within, around the sketsal pond, then across the trim meadow to the graffitied boulders lining Winyet’s Brook.  Although he had heard the yarn once before concerning the origin of the two-way stream, he didn’t mind listening to it again—especially from a friendlier ChaulEr Paun.  From what he had gathered, her soft-hearted moods were rare.  He also liked her… this way.

“So rather than yield to the demands of the divine wardens and renounce their supposedly unnatural passion, both female lovers were bound and cast into separate wells.  Afterwards a streamlet sprang forth from each well and flowed into the other—creating this side-by-side effect of currents running in different directions.  It is said that in this manner their spirits kept in touch.  And that to this day their love remains as open as before.”

Jyl let out a mediocre, “Wow.”

“Shut up, sailor boy!”

Her narration had been a burdensome struggle, almost as if she were trying to revive lines she had memorized.  Which she had.  Sinner Strek had just tutored her on the subject.

Feeling more relaxed now, Paun sat back, let out a relieving sigh, and slapped her knees.  “Saurian’s ass!  I’m afraid I’m not much with tales of old—or whatever.  It’s just that I was told how you enjoy these kind of dumb stories.  And well ____”

“Hey, look.”  He took one of her hands and rubbed it dotingly between his palms.  “Don’t cater to me.  It’s not you.  Whatever you want to talk about… go ahead.  That’s fine with me.  Okay?”

While he held her hand, the woman’s face became slightly flush.  Unusual for her.  She knew well enough that her guardians would be amused.  She felt their petty grins.

She stood up from the huge rock pile.  “Well, there’s something I want to discuss with you.”

With the lot of lifacronut trees breaking the draft whorls,  Gominex shined a summer day on the company’s woodland route.  It was no longer trammeled by ningblale mesh or creeping cobweb vines or quaglet beds.  Considering the magnitude of the Fortress, the visitors were quite impressed with its upkeep.  And they were correct to surmise that countless hands—owing to Jyl’s friendliness—were responsible for the rejuvenated landscape.

“Tell me, Jyl.”  Seeming intent on the natural surroundings, Paun asked, “Do you have any children?”

“Who me?  Wandering reef!  I’m never stable enough.  You know—island-hopping everywhere.  No time for growing a Roost.”

“I didn’t ask if you were a family man.  Are you a father?”

The man was taken aback, not that he had minded her personal delving.  As far as he was concerned, children and households went hand in hand.

“To my knowledge—no.”

“Did you know I had three children?”

Jyl halted in his tracks.  And this time he faced her.  “You have three kidlings?”

“Grown men now.  Does that surprise you?”

“Thay’s wilderness be fertile!”

“Why do you say that?”

“I just…”  Jyl shook his head, searching for the right words.  “I just couldn’t imagine you…”

“As a mother?  Why not”

Jyl wanted out of this one.  But not at the expense of ruining a pleasant afternoon.  However, Paun, who appeared not to be riled, promised not to flail him too unmercifully.

Apprehensively, he replied, “Because you don’t fit the part—from my view.  I mean… What can I say?  You’re… a rounder.  And a real bitch sometimes.”  At the same time he wished he had said something else.

Her eyes blazed like lavavipers.  From forging monoliths to cold metal.  To dismembering a miserable beggar’s frame.  Then her hardened lips crimpled under a spell of amusement.  And softened.  And in the end she salvaged a forgiving smile.

“Yes I am.  Thank you.”

She put an arm around him and they slowly headed back towards the pond, where Myim could be seen sitting along the water’s edge and no doubt singing her most popular tune.  Along the way Paun talked about her restricted motherhood.  She had brought forth three children.  All by way of treaties.  All by famous noblemen.  All sons—who lived in their father’s houses, according to the stipulations of the contracts.

Sidetracking a bit, she explained the situation on ChaulE, where population was strictly controlled.  As war and foolish duels and accidents and the Venimbi took their deadly toll, population auditors maintained updated surveys relevant to individual household sizes (the smallest being given first precedence) and to the chronology of conceptions (whereby everyone of reasonable age was guaranteed a fair turn.)  There were always plenty of potential mothers.  However, if, upon being notified of a childbearing opportunity, a woman passed over her turn, the next available time might not arrive for ages.  Treaty arrangements, those which removed offspring to another country, were disregarded.  And no woman was ever compelled to have a child.

The manner of conception was universal throughout Lynk Star.  Fertility had to be induced.  The blood of mature earthworms, the lifestock of the soil, was fermented to a more tolerable broth called vyydoan, then consumed by the prospective parents.  After a short digestive period, any sexual activity almost always guaranteed a pregnancy.  Barring any official concord, the newborn child was settled in the mother’s house.

“I’m eligible now.  I found out this morning.  Till the end of Firth Rises.  And since there is no child of mine in the Roost of Gwil Fyr—and For The Stars I have longed for one—I thought …”  When their eyes met, she knew that he had already foreseen her difficult request.  “Maybe you could…appease me.”  Her jaws clenched, and she swore, “Bevleba!  What Under Bblonfen?”  Then halting their pace, she turned to him, and plainly said, “Jyl.  I would be honored to have your daughter… or son.”

He started them walking again, and asked, “Why me?”

She grinned, then chuckled while shaking her head.  “Because you have the goddessdamn strains that I admire—what I’ve been looking for.  You remind me a lot of… uh…  You want to know something?  You’d be a prince… or a lord—anywhere else.  I mean, the way you are.  The way you carry yourself, I guess.  I don’t know.  Just something about you.”

“So whom do I remind you of?”

“I was going to say the Kingsmen.  But you already are.  Well, you’re at least a Trustee.  That’s close enough.  But that’s how you are.  The way a lot of men here used to be.”

“You remember what the Kingsmen were like?”

“Of course, dammit!  I’m not a kidling, Jyl.  There’s still a few rapping about.”

“Wait a minute!  Where?” he blurted in, while stopping again.  “Where are there Kingsmen in ChaulE?”

Hands on hips, Paun told him to calm down.  “Nothing to get fired up about.  They’re here.  Most of the time out of uniform.  Look more like cwolwisans now.  Not enough for a full fighting ship’s crew.  But enough to pilot one.  Anyway, who do you think was left to help defend when Kingfather left?  And who do you think taught us women to become rounders in the first place?  We still got a few male teachers—the really good ones.  And some of the others attend practice sessions at the schools, just to keep up with things.  Otherwise, the Order of the Kingsmen is pretty quiet here.  And on emergency status only.  When Kingfather returns, we’ll make time to cross-train the rounders as mariners too.”

Before now, the surprised Yuudm had visualized a once integrated system.  Or even a separation of women and men.  Of land forces and a navy.  But never a military of fighting men, that eventually incorporated women, and then was gradually weened to the present structure.

“Anyway,” Paun went on, “Since you decided to stick around, I’m asking you… instead of one of them.”

When they got to the sketsal pool, the boss of the Fortress Gang was quite anxious in greeting them.

“Well?” she began.  “Have you two worked it out?”

“Worked what out?” asked Jyl.

“Are you going to spawn or not?”

Once again the little girl battered his senses.

“Whew!  I don’t know about you, Captain Myim.  Sometimes I ____”

“Fyoqos Bell!”  The shadow of a scowling Sinner blanketed the girl.  “It’s none of your goddessdamn business, dribblen ass!”

Wide-eyed and confused, Jyl sensed that Paun was overreacting.  “Aw.  Come on.  She’s just ____”

“Fyokos Bell!”  Bending down and locking her cobra glare to Myim’s attention, she hissed arrogantly, “Get lost!”

Appearing unphased, the child felt the smoothness of Paun’s cloth, and said, “Sure would be a shame to spoil this beautiful dress… with a good mud thrashing.”

“Fyokos Bell!”  a firm hand was placed under the girl’s chin.  “Sure would be a shame for some impudent wench to have to learn to breathe water with her slimy ruskalik friend down at the deep end.”

Myim laughed, as if Paun had just finished telling a joke.  “Okay, you guys.  I’ll leave you alone now.  But hurry up and compromise.  By Shorted Lynk it’ll be too late.  Anyway, I have a feeling it won’t be until second Firth Rises.  After the next battle.  Lavender Lynk!”  And she pranced in the direction of the Goronz Hollow.

Jyl was flabbergasted.  “You know.  I couldn’t tell if you two were fooling around or what.”

“She was.  I wasn’t.”

“Hey.  She’s just a kidling.”

“Oh, yeah? And I’m a holy vestal!  It so happens that that little bitch, crimson curls, is as old as these goddessdamn hills.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that she’s been around ever since Goronz Wood was the party hub this side of the Fault.”

“Who?  Myim?  That’s impossible.  That’s no woman’s voice… or mind.”

Paun shot a glance at her sisters, and added, “Come here, Brewist.  Sing to this lost soul, will you?”

Guardian Strek approached the confused seafarer and shook his hand.  Her skin was like the night—like Paun’s.  Only she was huskier, and with blue eyes.  Of their infamous group, she was said to be the most mellow-tempered…and the most responsive.

“On behalf of my darling sisters—” who were smirking at her description— “And myself, thanks for getting us off the hook.”

Tugging lightly on the man’s hair, Paun interrupted briefly, and added, “A very wise decision.”  Then she stepped aside to allow the Brewist to continue.

“So what do you know about the water, Jyl?”

“You mean the Vestry water?”

Strek smiled a fool’s smile.  “Yes.  The Vestry water.”

Shrugging his shoulders, he replied, “You drink a little everyday… you live forever.  Unless you fall off a cliff or get stabbed or get hurt really bad.  But I didn’t know it had the power to make you younger.”

“It doesn’t.  You see, The Well of Sut UnBii has the potency to restrain the physical aging process, depending on the frequency of ingestion— and it doesn’t require much, unless you’re a lizard.  If one feels like maturing… growing older, she needs only to slack off on her intake.  And this process applies to all ages—whether you’re five years old or five New Moon centuries old.  That’s where Myim enters the picture.

“You see, one of the general rules in our society is that a child must continue to age normally, unless, having realized the extraordinary effects of the water, that child wishes not to change.  There are quite a number of ChaulEr who have done this, most of whom tired of the juvenile life and then resumed maturing to their desired growth.

“Of course, as I mentioned before, there’s no going backwards.

“A great many of us are veterans of the Fortress gang.  But Myim has never outgrew being a child—the fun and games, although she is required to help with farming and other chores.  She has no ambitions regarding fancy garb, lovers, solutions to the mysteries of HevN’s Brew, apprenticeship, power struggles, or xilumswords.  Some contend that she shines an irresponsible light.  Others—that her youth is an easy way out.  Some are just plain jealous.  And there are a lot of us who wish we had done the same.”

“And what’s your notion, Strek, of someone wanting to live forever as a kidling?”

“Well, Jyl.  If we all felt that way, the intruder would have had our Well a long time ago.  Fortunately, Myim’s kind are rare.  Otherwise, we’d have to modify another rule: that no law-abiding citizen can be compelled to age.”

“Just out of curiosity,” the man wondered, “Has anyone ever abstained the distance?”

“Not voluntarily.”

“But you just said that ____”

“If you go to Qul House,” she explained, “You will find some very wrinkled examples—the Beggars we call them—a man and a woman, both murderers, forever nameless and being sustained in their decrepitude.  Periodic tours are conducted to that facility for the benefit of the schoolers.  Consequently, our felony rate is very low.”

Eager to change the subject, Strek began, “Roit tells me you’re into the weird stuff.  A Brewist.  Is that true?”

“Well, if examining the ____”

“That’s enough!”  Paun stepped in between the two and shoved her sister aside.  “You can jibber-jabber like fools some other time.”

Paun went back to the matter at hand.  “So, sailor boy…”  Biting her lip, she asked him, “You don’t really mind if I call you that, do you?  I mean, it’s no big deal.”

Unable to make up his mind, he said, “I’ll try it for a while.”

“Good.  Now… about my proposal—about the child?”

“Right now.”

“And?”

“I’m sorry.  But it wouldn’t work out.”

“Saurian’s ass!  Why not?”

“Because…  All right.  The child is born—let’s say, a girl.  She wears my colors as well as yours.  She grows up.  She lives some days at the Fortress… some at your house.  She calls me father.  Other than that, she can live by the rest of your ChaulEr rules.  And your response will be…”

“No.”—as was expected.  “A very genj No. You don’t understand, Jyl.  If my child is to develop properly…”

Your child.  See.  I told you it wouldn’t work.”

“Well, goddessdammit!  That’s no compromise.  She must not be brought up… so queerly… so different from the rest of her breed.  Your idea…  No.”

“Okay.  Let’s hear your proposal.”

The woman folded her arms and sighed heavily.  “Jyl.  I just want your seed.  That’s all.”

And my child.”

She meditated on those last words.  She couldn’t believe that he was so dead serious about this fatherly routine.

“Look, Yuudm Jyl.  You’re not going to be around here that long, since your heart’s pretty set on returning to Crus’Ybl.  Just grant me this favor, okay?”

“I don’t know, Paun.  Having my own flesh and blood here… might give me a change of heart.”

So would Holy Water,  thought the Silverstream.

“I’d wind up staying and getting involved with everything and who knows what.  Better to forget this whole affair and get yourself a more conforming Kingsman.  But thanks for the honor.”

From near the edge of the pond he plucked a woadal, a nine-ray clover and offered it to her. “A truce, okay?”

Paun took but a fleeting notice of his peaceful gesture.  “As long as you hold the reins, we haven’t much choice, do we?”

Seeing her sternness, Jyl put a friendly arm around her, and said, “Supposing I told you that I fed your sisters’ lifeline pact to Egrit’s flue—  the first night I was here.”

“You did?  You torched it?”

“As a matter of fact, I’m surprised that Qeenmother didn’t say anything to you about it.  I thought that’s why you came today.”

He watched her bleak contortion transform to a shady grin and his View impaired by a Buukliair rampart.  Personifying her clouding net, the Gypsy’s palm pressed against his heart.  Behind him the Huntress’ grip was perched upon his shoulders.  And the surrounding faces released some old familiar threats.

“Harvest Moon?”

“Dribby want a breaker?”

“Bevleba!”

“Timberfore!”

“Tis the tide relish’d by rappers.”

“Missing were quips by Nether and L’Sar.  They were occupied at Round I’Egwys and helping with the change in command.

The chief Sinner rounded out the belligerence with a very rare signal, “Rain check!”

“Ooh!  Your lucky day!”  Wober Fel was massaging his shoulders, before letting him go.

Emgroy came over and embraced him, and added, “You’re all right, sailor boy!”  Then she hugged him like a glenbear and overwhelmed him with a savage kiss.

Paun took the blue clover from him. “Very well!  A truce—providing you invite us all for late afternoon meal.  And you allow me to drill you further about your…”

“Your engaging in preparations to seed the ChaulEr in question,” finished Strek.

“Yes.  Thanks… Brewist bitch.”

Everyone stayed for the splendid repast of ripplich hen stuffed with spiced oruzan grain.

Reluctantly, but on her Aunt Uul’fr’s advice, Paun inquired Jyl about his seizure at the Firth.  She wanted to dispel any fears regarding inherited traits.  The man satisfied her uncertainty.  He called it swell fever, a malady common to longstanding seamen.  However, after much discussion, he remained steadfast in declining her child-bearing request.

Later that evening, a holy water cask, exhibiting the heraldry of Raa J’Lec, arrived at the Yuudm’s home.  The patron explained to his household that the keg—originally unmarked—and a small quantity of water were bestowed upon him by Kingfather, because of his services as a Trustee.

As Kir’s second descent shrouded the mouth of Tun’El, and Milchy Pass lighted the way to Firth Rises—a prying eye watched Jyl perform his nightly irrigation of the crops out back. Afterwards, while the rest of Goronz Wood slept, she stole into her patron’s bedroom, hung a bandeau of Jyl’s colors outside the rikester hide, and slipped her nude form beside him.  Tomorrow she would inform Kwid Nunk of the day’s events.

Meanwhile, his thoughts labored in vain.  Strange.  I can see almost everything… except the Fetistry.

  1. Rounds

Your goal should be to know the general View of every round to second nature,” said Lameth, who only today began breaking in the new plotter for the Taktor.  “Not just Above, Within and Below.  Where on the Carillamond: Reelam?  Which Comb: Zoyet Woods?  Which Fevorock: Cosanc?  Every rock pile of every breach.”  She began pointing at various scaled models of the rounds.  “Over there is an old spine fern.  Doesn’t look like much, but we use it all the time.  In front of I’Egwys is a large chunk of hull still stuck in the breaker zone.  It was just too much trouble to move.  And there’s been a billows nest outside the Chellis barracks for a couple of centuries now—mainly because everyone keeps feeding the dumb birds.  Actually it isn’t dumbness at all.  We love those birds.

“But, anyway, learn all this stuff.  Scour the granite.  Once you got the forts down, all the inside jobs and changes in the View will be a lot easier to handle.

“Sometimes one of the Sinners comes in here and wants a run down on Pit activity at any place.  You check your markers—and you’d better use them!— but you check last relayers and ____”

“Lameth!”  The two soldiers turned to see the Gypsy hurry into the room and glance down at the Daamquarters’ mark on the Cosanc’s model.

“ ‘Twas what hour Broy’s arrival?”

“From Chellis Beach?  Just before Shorted Lynk, Sinner Himmwast.  She’s running Calraddi on the tiros now.”

The Gypsy reached for her vacant charm clasp and swore.  “Scorpion’s ass!  Tis about time!”  And she stormed out of the map room.

“I see what you mean, Lady Lameth.”

“Hey.  Look, Crayo.  You’re out of school.  I am called Lam.  And welcome to war.”  With that they shook hands.

Tuud Bell!

The map room’s ears perked to the familiar hum.

Lameth nudged Crayo with her elbow, and said, “Okay.  Start reading to me.”

Following the resonance, the young tiro began translating: “Round Tuud.  A song of ships.   Lots of ships.”

“And…?” prodded the veteran plotter.

“Gong of Xorn.  QortLites.  This one sings… of the Order of Kru.”

“Genj Blue.  You did just fine.  Well, you’re on your own for awhile.”

“Where are you going?”

Grabbing her hilt, she abounded vivaciously, then became as settled as a statue, “It is a time of deeds.”  She made a dash towards the brigerpin stables.  “See you in the morning.  And study those maps!”

She was already past the seaview limit, when Crayo bid her “Good luck… Lam.”

Tuud Bell!

Like her counterparts at the other rounds, the carillamond at Tuud was unique in both shape and tone.  Designed after the popular sac-petaled flower, the ebonstone sculpture—measuring a mean spherical diameter of about twenty feet—was foundationed at the stern of the Roof, making it the highest point of the round.  A cul-de-sac carillamond path connected the base of the wall to the Heart and to the main gemstone course, inlaid along the centerline of Above.

Gong of Xorn!

Unless the Intruder was tolling a sleight of tune, there was going to be no mad-headed assault upon the palisadal bastions.  The Kru were one of the few QortLite factions that challenged their opposition according to the ancient round rules.  Today’s order of business would pit two dissimilar military groups—the Men of Kolentra’s Veil versus the Barrio.

Just inside the cloudless Nalfin View about forty huge ships, masted with the revered symbol of QortL—Orphans at Infinity’s Door: Abandoned—held distant anchorage, while several vessels drew nearer the shoal line.  Corridoring those magnificent products of Precem Turr were some of ChaulE’s allies—the Leetian, Phadench and Unvesyn fleets.  Their country’s drifts were the nearest to being alerted by their Lynk Falls’ patrols.

Even as Xorn announced the launching of the barges, the ChaulEr dancers maintained their ready stances.  Arms at their sides and drawn xilum pairs pointing across Scrimej, the bisector of Within.  Bolstering the front line—on authority of Daam’s choice—were the usual burners, some of them temporarily allocated from the guardianships.  Among the rounders their hair ribbons and body brands were as acknowledged as their country’s notable landmarks.  Fessau O’ge, Salf, Dara’Fy, Xaff, V’Bokk, Tonilk, Uyum, Jo W’Cec, Xad I’Scon, Anverro.  The swells of the fire.  And they defended their degrees… to the hilt.

The scene was similar Below.  The entire combed Pit was charged with tiros who had failed to qualify for today’s round… and their teachers, who would provide them coverage.  One of the overseers, Lady Qaz D’Twyn, called her troops’ attentions for a final briefing.  “Okay, ladies!  Listen up!  These are the g’Wesh movements—the ones we’ve been running For The Stars, remember?  So pivot and flow with the song.  Don’t waste Tuud’s time…or mine.  School’s over.  If a man drops in, I want to see a hundred whores snapping metal.  Let him hit the ground first—that’s only honorable.  But then cut him down fast.  Real fast!  And help your sister, understand?  Help your sister!”

On the Roof three hundred scatterbows were armed with poison, just in case the QortLites decided to betray the code and pull off a full scale attack—which appeared unlikely with the bulk of their fleet marking the horizon.  There was also the possibility of someone slipping through with a shooter or a thrower—not only a foolish man’s scheme, but also a disastrous blow for his comrades Within.

The voice of Tuud resounded, this time by the appearance of a lovely woman with golden braids and wearing a sphairacloth sash.  She carried no weapon.  She brought only her words.  Here throughout this great theater, soon to be embroiled with death’s disciples, her gentle speech was enchantingly diffused.  She spoke with her heart… and with her pride.

With the late morning star wetting her brow, the first matron of ChaulE shared a precious moment with her children.

“We have heard of the wonders of HevN’s Brew.  The March of the Vokexingiants.  Noshynd’yawng’s fire.  The Son of Manoah.  Varthog’s Crossing.  The exorcism of Shamans’ Guild.  The Knights of Utscrab.  Bblonfiia.”  With each introduction the images of these ancient heroes could be felt by every red tunic in Round Tuud.  “We have hearkened to all of those glorious sages.  Well, Intruder, all of you—and any from those others… or their spirits—welcome to our campfire.”

Her outstretched arms introduced Within’s unsanctified atmosphere.  “You see, we too are a wonder.  Behold the Order of the Cloth.  Behold that which separates poison, armor, shields, scatterbows, and breeders of Bedlamites—from genj honor.  Does not our garb perspire with the wind.   Is not our metal wielded in the manner of true sworders?  Take heed of the xilumbearers and their genderal marks.  And dance with us and manifest the deftness of which you boast.”

Then addressing her own force more directly, she bespoke, “Let us consecrate this ground with a power felt beyond the flesh… and a grace of many individual ambitions… the strength of desire… the desire to achieve.  We must remember our discipline, while we remain eager… for us, my children, and for your children’s sake.  And when HevN has reborn herself For The Stars… and Time’s chorus sings of today—let all hearts be moved proudly, for these shall always be meaningful words.”

With her head held high, her voice exploded throughout Round Tuud.  “ChaulE!”

A host of cold gleaming metal was upthrusted towards the emerald arch under Lef.  In the dead night quietude, only the murmurings of anxious spirits could be heard.

And expressing her soul’s convictions, the daughter of Idsp’ruu consummated her prayer, and vented with unwavering firmness, “She was a time of Deeds!”

Amid the sphairacloth privacies were warm veins and hard swallows and inspirations and knotted tendons and hidden tears and proud faces—all of which fused to an intense calm, harnessed with the demented wraiths of demons and serpentseed.

“We accept your challenge, Honn Kolcher.  And, mind me, that today you deal with no womanish endearment.  Fool’s goddesses if you see but a woman.”  Gathering in her fine lustrous sash, she remarked with a joint sense of bitterness and dignity, “I am a goddessdamn lady!”

Then Qeen withdrew from the Heart.  She looked towards the horizon and saw that the wake of the Lynk Sea was crashing into the Nalfin.  And she cast at Paun a remindful eye—a muted message, which read, Open Lynk: Judgement Day. Then she took her place within her Guardian ring inside Daamquarters.

A tray containing the Graal of Qung, a bluestone runic chalice filled with holy water, was presented—first to Mistress Paun, then to her Daam.  After sharing the ceremonial cup, the two parted.  The Barrio chieftain for the Heart, which was flanked by her Buukliairs.  The Sinner towards her own retinues, who were a stride of the jeweled circle.

As soon as the governess broke the carillamond light, the dancers snapped their hilts to their sides, shuffled and whorled simultaneously through a series of short interval movements, and parked themselves at one of the alternate ready positions.

Gong of Xorn!

The leading barges dragged against the breaker zone to a halt.  The flattop trailers latched on and coupled themselves to form a suitable promenade.  And so, the disembarkment began, as a column of five hundred sworders, dressed in silver loiners and turbans, strode onto the jetty sand, through the ancient breach of russet cliffs—whose seaward face sizzled from the Nalfin spray—and into the vacant half of Within.  Straightaway to Scrimej they marched.  Proud Men of Kolentra’s Veil.  Posting themselves implicitly row by row.  Until all their positions were filled.  And stationed just inside the fevorock gap were the bearers of Xorn, the medusan-shaped bell, and its carillamond platform.  The helmer of this Heart was a deaf prince named Yan Sull, who was born on the eve of Milchy Pass’ completed rotation to the Orhuvel phase.

While the QortLite conductor continued to trip the light in his own fluttering prism, his soldiers bowed together toward their adversaries.  With their keen saber edges, they snipped the fasteners to their sacred headscarfs, each of which unravelled—from head to toe—to form an enveloping curtain of glistening streamers.  Into the Post were stabbed the colors of Kru.  Xorn’s overture was complete.

Savoring this fiery stage, the ChaulEr Daam welcomed her courageous challengers.  “Men of Kru!  A legion of lords and princes and dars and various other royal dullards has marked Kitrin Tuud.  Some of you may remember me.  I am called Diodez.  And this is my Barrio.  Spew on your matrons’ pyres!”

She had mocked them—honorable Men of Kru—not out of delight for ridicule, for there was hardly a bone of gaiety inside her.  Stripped from the ranks of respectability, she refueled her ambitious ways and outclassed the opposition on every rung to Daamhood.  There was a score to be settled.  With a ghost crippled on an arborhook.  And with a crippler, whose enterprise was similar. Whose own haunt was a hundredfold.

Across the sky of Within she flung her ribboned dagger, arcing it true to the unhealed flesh of Death’s Pylon, where it sank alongside the Intruder’s mark.  The cloud Hainticas split itself and rained upon Horsdeor Plateau, and the trijournsuns of Lef shone yellow over the nocturnal roof of Tharm.

Daam and Prince: their elegancies bathed in gemshine.  Tuud and Xorn: from knells clearly defined to uniform hums.  A song of g’Wesh.  A song of Shonfalon.  As their symphonies clashed, so too did the sphairacloth and Veil interlace their kaleidoscopic fabric, their orderly networks periodically botched by the unthwarted headings of Xilum and Rokkonz.  Emanating from the soul of Round Tuud, the wailings of the unholy choir could be heard, chanting of another visitation—from the time of New Moon.

Breftaum… Calraddi… flankers oblique…shuffle left… weave…s’Rye… countershuffle… center whirl… rotation… counterweave… flanker thirds…

Metal—swung on, parried, and dipped—mated with flesh.

Penetrate and inflict stressed the Kru.

Position, however, was the ChaulEr rule.  Tarry not with the foe, but adhere to the song.  You’ll get your share.  Your covetous claim.  The helmer of your Heart will see to it.  And while the Intruder is impetuous with both eyes on one cloth, your sister’s knife will remind him that a team besieges his guard.  ‘Tis the way of proud dancers.

Thus far, the roofer was only a spectator, scanning the rokkonz mesh for the slightest hint of indignity.

Below, however, was a different scene.  For the Intruder toppled from Within, there was no returning from the Netherworld of the Pits, just as there was no escape from Under Bblonfen.  To have succumbed before the end of the fall would have been merciful.  For these were tiros who fended the drop zones.  Swarms of anxious hilts whose enclosing formations were reminiscent of the iron maidens of old.  Below was the proving grounds, the truth flame for those whose dealings with death deserved them a shot at Within.  With team participation, kill credits were always uncertain.  But the Pit overseers had an eye for burners—potential front liners.  They knew who would be ready to dance the next round.

Occasionally a live descender would touch down to an upright position and surprise his foe—perhaps even score a kill or two before being overcome.  If he was exceptionally good, the nearest teacher would step in and remedy the situation as quickly as possible.  In any case, the QortLite’s wreaking was a costly and bitter lesson.

Yet the Pitters were never alone in their grief.  Sometimes those who passed through the combs were clad in sphairacloth and already bound for G’Lian’s Orchard.

At the center of the cliffside half of Within, a concentration of xilumwielders was forcing the Veil outwards and widening a lifeless tract in their wake… save for one intimidating form—the Daam of Round Tuud.

Maintaining his direction of Xorn, Yan Sull jumped his vision from the clearing to Above, where he saw Rigree Ac, Buukliair and now Second Daam swashing in the prismatic brilliance of the Heart.

The guardian Barrio ring collapsed, and the Men of Kru rushed the lone warrior, who, as yet, brandished no sword.  But the soldier they encountered was indeed armed—with the maddened spirit and temper of a Serpentlord.  She was a whirlwind, thwarting their frantic thrusts.  Her talons flashed in and out of their tasseled raiment.  Her swift granite heels rammed them senseless.  And her vicious jaws ripped whatever flesh she could seize.  The cornered monstress feeding on the pack!

Determined to overrun their quarry, the QortLites pounded the body-ladened paths between the combs.  But their advance stalled, when a pair of xilumblades was partially unsheathed.  By now the Intruder’s outer shell was disintegrating.  To save face, they needed to dispatch the Daam and hope for a viable withdrawal.  However, there was no time to regroup.  The woman was returning the favor.  It was her turn to stalk the glory mongers.  And so spun the xilum web.  The infernal merciless dance of Diodez.

It seemed unrequired for her to resume her butchery.  But this was the price for daring today’s Barrio… and their cruel governess.  Trails of metal For The Stars maimed the Kru’s waning guard.  Limbless torsos shivered in her wake.  The god Kolentra had forsaken his disciples.

The intense sacrifice having fizzled, the Daam rambled through her sphairacloth shields and exited Within.  Regaining the carillamond plinth, she strummed her song for no quarter.

Botts fold… substitution… gattarene crack… diagonal weave… counterwhirl… Luup Rul… staggered phalanx… flanker thirds… counter rotation… center—forward…

Xorn’s power had declined to a hum.  Likewise, the QortLite saber had become a tool of desperation.

Diodez shut her eyes and embraced herself in ecstasy.  Lef’s warmth suckled her amatory sweat.

“Tuud!” she whispered aloud.

The rounder symmetry was diffused more fully throughout the dismembered Veil.

“Tuud!” she hissed.

Rokkonz was simply being parried away.  And now the red maelstroms were somersetting during their tireless weave.

“Tuud!” cried out the Daam in her sensual writhing.  “Tuud!… Tuud!…”  Her arms opened quickly and angled towards the virescent sky.  “Tuud!”

In one brisk movement the ChaulEr machine slew all but six of the remaining enemy.  Five more were burned in the follow up.  Only Yan Sull was left—with a single embrued sword.

Having abandoned his own heart to be consumed with his comrades, the QortLite nobleman was holding his ground commendably, much to the frustration of the nearest assailers.  Finally, Lady Xaff was shuffled forward.  Her complex maneuvers penetrated his defense.  And a well-aimed slash disarmed him.  She thrusted forward and ____

Tuud Bell!  Every red tunic stopped at their ready positions.

Daam Diodez was particularly startled to see that Mistress Paun had stepped into the heart—taking the light in order to overrule Xaff’s intentions.

Paun looked straight ahead at the surrounded lone Intruder, and declared, “The king is thirsty.”

Afterwards, on the battle-worn grounds of Within, the wounded Sull was offered a drink from the Chalice of Qung, which he accepted with uncertainty.  As the tonic fluid circulated his parched cavity, he felt two peaceable voices materialize within himself.  For the first time he heard the voices of Dyydz the Ruskalik.

That the ChaulEr had poisoned him was his initial reaction.  His senses were moldered but at the same time very acute.  The callouses of his palms.  The creases in a red uniform—that redness!  The funneled mouth of a nearby comb.  The ebonstone bouquet—all so graphically defined as had never before perceived.  He could see the showy complexion of the wind and her clashing currents.  He tasted the warm luminosity of the ostealstone inlays.  The rumbling of the trijournstars was like the voice of sloshing crests in the open sea.  It made him shiver.  And along with the aromae of sunshine and cliffs and ocean and sky and sphairaclad lifeforms—was the smell of death, which so terrified him that he wept.

“Your swords!” said Xaff, who handed the jittery and fearful prince his Rokkoze pair.  “You have been favored with long life.  Now begone, and use your time beneficially.”

A staggered aisle was open to the breach.  Yet, even as he half-stumbled his way across Within, the man imagined that an unseen xilum—or a bevy of metal—would pierce his frame.  But he and the bearers of the Gong departed unscathed and boarded their barge pier, which was reeled in by their vessel at near anchorage.

While the QortLite fleet caught the moist Grudesm winds for the Firth Rises, the Kru carcasses which littered the dancefloor were tossed Below for secondary slaughter—the more general term being cleanup (just to make sure.)  On ChaulE, there were no prisoners of war.

Of the rounder casualties the more seriously wounded were immediately dispensed to the infirmary.  The dead, an unfortunate eight, were prepared for G’Lian’s Orchard.  Naturally second nature rehearsals and home field accounted for the low fatality rate.  Most often, though, the efficiency of the battle was attributed to the ruling Daam.

As soon as the last of the intruder’s masts sank into the horizon, Diodez left the Heart, with the balance of her troops Within still posted at their ready positions.  She curtsied before the ChaulEr crown.   “Qeenmother, the round is secure.”

The poised ruler transmitted a bland stare at the Barrio boss, then turned to Paun.   “That’s better!”  She was then escorted to the stallion corral.  At dusk she would meet with all the families, whose loved ones perished this fierce day, and mourn at the Cromlech.  Tuud’s hospital was on tomorrow’s agenda.

“Gree!”

“Mistress Paun?”

“You are now in charge of Tuud…”  She faced her disgruntled Daam, and added, “…Until Dez gets back from vacation.”

Her lips pressed tightly together, the bronze warrior managed an undertone of gladness.

Paun pounded the Daam’s chest and cheered. “Now that’s the Diodez I remember!”

“Genj blue!” said L’Sar.

The other Sinners followed suit and finished their boisterous congrats by securing the Daam and branding the emblem of Kolentra’s Veil on her forearm.

By the time Ristmund fed Five Points, and Talrit’fyamp’s patron moon smoldered whitely above the Rainlands, ChaulEr Diodez had risen to the order of Snakemetal, when she slew the Cobratain renegade, OyLect.

Jyl was unaccustomed to any dead night atmosphere in his house, especially this early in the evening.  Vlav might be expected to shut himself away in his own room.  But the girls…  Even Hent’s senseless titterings and chatter were not to be heard.  Oh, well.  A cool rinse and a nap were in order anyway.

From the matt he crossed the circular atrium which connected all the cabins, doffed his lather-steeped cloth onto the dormarble deck, and foundered in the refreshing tub.  It had already been filled—probably by Deeg, who was always a thoughtful step ahead of him.  Laying back and admiring Roit’s masterful work on the walls and ceiling, he wondered what delectable morsel had been cooked recently… and whose perfume that was.  Funny.  He didn’t smell anything until just now.

After a pleasant soak, he toweled himself on the way to his room.   He could never get used to the fevorock slab.  Sliding aside the rikester curtain, he was surprised to find a woman at his desk, absorbed in one of his etchings and stirring something in a small serving bowl.  A sheer citrine gown and golden sandals embellished her sable rind, while the early morning sky highlighted her brunestone eyes.  Her lips were stained with lavender dew.  And the cilian sprouts of a new mane had finally softened and curled.  Lasclily was her scent, a beguiling fragrance serving to crucify a man’s composure.

Egrit’s Flue!  What Under…  He grabbed the nearest cloth and wrapped himself.  Then he remembered: This was the last day… of her time.  “Wandering reef!”

“Wandering reef?  Is that any way for a Kingsman to greet a ravishing noblewoman?”  Paun’s attention was still on the broth she was mixing.

“I suppose not,” he said, finger-combing his dank locks.  “Then again, it’s not every day that I walk in here and find ravishing noblewomen cooking…”  He peered into the bowl.  “…Worm soup—right?”

“Uh-huh.”  She half-smiled at him. “You know, I was just about to give up on you.  Where Under Bblonfen have you been?”

He ignored her question.   “Where are all your big sisters?”

“Just a spit in the View, sailorboy.”  She her arms around him.  “Don’t worry.  They’re pretty spread out.”  She went back and sniffed her steamy concoction, then ladled a scoopful into a goblet and posed her special invitation.  “Here.  Have some vyydoan.”

The look in his face suggested something like—I don’t know about you, woman.

She placed the warm cup in his hands and held them there.  Her earlier tension had subsided.  Her hand slid across his loiner.  “Okay?”

“Hey!”  He sounded upset, as he tried to squirm away from her advancement.

“Goddessdammit!  What’s the matter?”

But his good spirits had lingered.  “Please.  Not while I’ve got fire in my hands.”  And he made note of the goblet.

Paun brushed behind him and embraced his nervous posture.  Then she squeezed his breasts and tongued his ear, until his wry face crimpled to his shoulders, and whispered, “Sorry.”

It was a joyous midsolar afternoon—when Casm’s harem strafed the Stone Bar coast, and a rime cloudbow bridged the breath of the Valley.  The Roost of Gwil Fyr was very proud of their newest daughter—with her sparkling red eyes and blistered complexion and crimson down and healthy appetite.  And every Shorted Lynk, when the great Lynk Sea filled the gap between Cruc’Ybl and Chal’Iss, Pa V’Cryl went to live in Goronz Wood with a man she learned to call Father.

It was a generous applause.  And well deserved.  The Musmerklo knight had just given one of the finest displays of solo swordsmanship.  Five falchions had swept his range, almost as if they were a single flock of metal on the wing.  Having taken his respectful bows, the juggler-gymnast was about to leave the Round, when a xilumcris pierced the Kitrin Post, causing a rustling of concerned voices from the Qasr’Kwen audience.

No one ever coerced a duel because of a demonstration.  An old feud, maybe.  Or some jealous obsession.  But what especially ruffled the Aul was that the dagger was a ChaulEr marker—and a breach of an unwritten law, whereby rounders do not call out Qeenmother’s guests.

A slender young woman, carrying something wrapped in a green cloth, entered the ghastly ellipse.  She was a tiroapprentice, recently graduated from the Round School and out of uniform.  In fact, it was her old green tunic which concealed her xilumswords.

L’Sar worked her way quickly to the front of the zealous crowd.  “Bakwarf!  Get out of there!”

The Gattarene.  Dammit!  But the girl resiled her courage and remained firm, and reminded the school principal, “Fortress Charter states that anyone may challenge.”  Then she assumed the ready position.

Now Paun began to seethe.  That goddessdamn peeper!  She has no business dancing here.

What’s more, military students were persistently harped upon regarding obeyance to lawful superiors.  And Daam L’Sar was much more than the senior instructor.  She was a Sinner.  The Gattarene.  And at the school she lived up to her alternate title as the Goddess of Misery.

The soldier from Musmer was puzzled.  “I don’t understand.  Have I offended someone I don’t even know?  Please retrieve your mark, Lady Bakwarf.”  He was empathic… because of her youth.  “I have no desire to face you.”

“Then you can retreat from the Round yourself.  And be the first from your country to do so.”  A sordid trick: reminding one of historical points, which could be entertained seriously.

An inthumacer, Bakwarf was a prodigy of Round Serpens.  She was well-fitted to the standards of soldiery.  Her first-rate talents had accelerated her to the head of all her classes.  However, her character was tarnished by a brooding hostile attitude, which left her with similar friends.  And it was no coincidence that like her many of them too were orphans.

The knight scanned the audience and noticed L’Sar shaking her head and dropping her fisted hands in disgust.  “Very well.”  If you insist on surrendering your holy water so soon.”

Showing no emotion as he marked the Post, he unwrapped his set of broad curved blades and began manipulating them, until an ill-defined gurge of metal radiated from his image.  As the Round was lowered, the duelers jabbed and parried their visions and wits, their diverse but flowing strides stalking the other’s vulnerable tendons.  But there seemed to be no opening in the Musmerklo’s tentacled guard.  Whereas Bakwarf’s style left her the more unshielded.  The man knew she would have to rely on swirl whirlabouts.  And feigning a reverse crossover, he darted towards her with an array of strokes.  Yet, unthinkably, she dove directly into his stormy advance.  Daam L’Sar bit her nail and held her breath.  Like osteal beams the young woman’s xilum pair dipped and threaded through his machinery.  The pentasworder cried out and stiffened.  His disengaged metal resounded against the cold sanguined stone.  Bakwarf withdrew her blade from his chest.  And his corpse crumpled at her feet.

A hand shading her face, the Gattarene appeared relieved at the outcome of this uncalled-for match.  Nevertheless, besides the retrieved poniards and any personal satisfaction, there was another reward for her star pupil.  Qul House—to where she was quietly escorted.

No sooner had the victim’s body been cleared from the ascended Round, when all eyes were turned to the commotion on the foyer block.  A man was being assisted down the projected stairway.  His cloth was most informal, and his condition looked the part of a drunkard.  Despite the Qeen’s personal bid, he had declined to appear at her birthday party, simply because the less important members of his household had not also been invited.  Therefore, he dispatched cwolwisan M’Sish with his earthly gifts and special regards, and inaugurated his own celebrating madness with his friends at the Fortress.  Little did he realize that Qeenmother was not to be denied his presence.  She had waited this long to show off her Ayopeean hero.  And no matter what his demeanor, drunken Serpentlord or not, the allied nobility of Chal’Iss was going to meet him.

“I cannot believe that my invitation was that inconsiderate that it caused you to be… so discourteous—on my birthday!  Fool’s goddesses, child, if Qasr’Kwen can accommodate all of ChaulE!”  He was at least standing on his own now, though his crocked consciousness was hoping for a whisking back to Goronz Wood.  “Anyway, thank you for the beautiful yellow flowers.”

Ard’m Ol stepped in and handed a dish of lwaen sporf to the Qeen, who offered it to Jyl.  “Drink up, child.  While you recover your dignity, we shall make the rounds together and welcome these others, who have contributed to our cause.”

Needless to say, Jyl was hardly in the mood for Regentari Uskog Ranip from Phad or Wytleress Erion F’Thek from Pangr’Lol or Prince Kuom from Leet or Sagameeen Collu from Unvesy or any of the renowned patricians from whatever glorified countries.  And as the Sinners watched him, they sneered at every introduction, which put a damper on the eagerness of those same royal ambassadors to make the Yuudm’s acquaintance.

A century of bows and handshakes and strained politenesses were exchanged before the tedious tour was concluded.

“I’m sorry, Qeenmother, if I embarrassed you, but these type of parties just don’t agree with me.”

“Well, if you had come as I had asked you, I’m sure you’d find the food and drink here to be quite gratifying, and the people a little more ____”

“The people here?” he snapped.  “That’s what wrong with this… this thing you call a party.”

“Oh?  And what, may I ask, do you find so unpleasant about my guests… and my longtime confederates?   Does their noble bearing intimidate you… Trustee-mariner-turned ploughman?”

“It has nothing to do with their tuxhil ranks.”  He felt a cautionary nudge from Yersitty.

“Oh, doesn’t it?  What’s the matter, Jyl?  Fool’s Brewist can’t mingle outside his peership?  Afraid you won’t be able to ____”

“Dead night is dead night!” he blurted.

She wasn’t sure if it was the orshyve talking.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, dear lady, that a stitch of jeweled heraldry won’t clot the wounds any faster.   Nor fragrance the dung any more sweetly.  Nor make slutting a trull any more satisfying.  It means that all men… and women… gods and goddesses, are my peers.  It means that when there’s a party at my house, there won’t be any gladiators pressing my company for a needless chance at dying.  There are no rounds at Goronz Wood.  By the way, whose guts were spilled on the Heart?  Looks pretty fresh.  One of your longtime confederates?  I know.  Don’t tell me.  You love a good fight.  Well… like I said: Dead night is dead night.  Now if you’ll excuse me.  I have some friends at the Fortress who are really having a good time—my kind of fun.  Do you mind?  I don’t think your honored guests will miss me.”

“Suppose not,” she said, putting an arm around him and motioning to Dowser Iiq to make the staircase to appear.  “Though I certainly will miss you.  Your presence always adds an intriguing spice to the air, Jyl.  Sure you won’t reconsider a quick change of attire… maybe a special engagement with a really beautiful ____”

“Lavender Lynk, Qeenmother… longtime confederates.”

Of course.  “Lavender Lynk, child.”  Her salutation was disheartening.  And although displeased, the woman of the hour thanked him again for his generous gifts and told him to kiss his daughter for her.

Disregarding the tattling stares of the festivial assembly, the relieved man proceeded straight for the precipitous stile.  Back in his mind he was laughing, as he could foresee himself tripping over the intoxicated form of Hentilose—somewhere in the matt—then having his hearing exhausted by Roit’s philosophical gibberish.  Thay’s wilderness be fertile that Vlav didn’t mind watching Cryl for the day.

But the Yuudm never made it to the first step.  He was cut off by an Unvesyn bodyguard, a tall red-bearded fellow, whose well-tailored uniform gave strong evidence of his muscular frame.  The path to Goronz Wood was becoming as faint as a stellerless night.

“So you’re the famous Yuudm Jyl, huh?’

“No.  Just Jyl.”  And he tried to walk around the huge barrier, who only continued to withhold his passage.

“You don’t look like any Kingsman to me.  Or any helmskeeper who could’ve taken the Firth all by his lonesome.”

“You’re right.  I’m just a farmer, living off the land and nature’s blessings or grievances.  Excuse ____”

With one hand he held Jyl back, and said, “You know, there’s a lot of scuttlebutt going around about how you really managed to get in and out of Bidet so easily.  I happen to think your version’s a lie.  That it was an inside job.”  The Unvesyn leaned nose to nose with Paun’s rescuer.  “That you were the inside man.”

The merrymaking had finally relented to where only the two men’s voices could be heard.

Deep inside, Jyl’s patience was unravelling to a fine fiber.  “Well, you’re partly right.  I did lie.  We all did.  You see, Paun and I are old friends—going way back.  Actually we staged the whole ordeal with Sorsun Riffel—just to get a quick tour of Five Kingdoms.  A little vacation time—you know what I mean?  When our fun was over, they dropped us off—right at the front door.  Then we made a bet—on how the allies would respond to the next treaty.  How the slack left by Bidet and Rem Idi’s treachery would be taken up.  Naturally your country’s demands were the easiest to predict.  Since the Intruder would never attempt an assault by way of Hoonwaw’s Labyrinth, we guessed that your fleet would want to defend the StoneBar.  We were genj blue on that, weren’t we?”

The Unvesyns did not appreciate the laughter that followed.  It arose spontaneously from the reps of the other nations, who were astounded by Jyl’s seemingly infeigned behavior during his mockery.

“Now Lavender Lynk to you, soldier, and I’ll be on my way.”

But Sagamguard Roob K’Mid was as resolute as he was solid, and he impeded the jester’s movement.  “Not so fast, wagboy!  Time for another joke.  This one’s ____”

“Who claims this tuxhil brute?” Jyl ranted at the silent but excited crowd.

Roob went on, “As I was saying, there was this Yuudm whore, who had this puny crimson-maned son—begetters For The Stars…”

Siress Stryyx reached into her pocket and pulled out a favorite piece of lace.  From it dangled one of Jyl’s ribands—from his day as driftwood.  As she fingered the heraldry of Raa J’Lec, the voices of Dyydz became hers.  To herself she whispered.  Frayed to a disabled breath, the thread of patience now kneels before the wavering thumb of intuition.

Jyl recognized the coat-of-arms on a nearby woman’s elegant cloth.  It matched the one on his taunter’s uniform.  He had just met Sagameen Collu.  To him, she was just another gemstone rump, strutting her tailfeathers with the rest of the noble gamers.

He went up to her, and said, “I’m going to presume that golden seal flopping on your chest is a sign of power.  Or are you just another royal figurehead?  Here for your bedwarming duties?

“I insist on a little more respectful speech,” broke in Viceprince Eccoei, “While you address my honorable cousin.”

“And I demand that one of you put your tuxhil glenbear on a leash, so that I can remove my disrespectful self to the sort of respectability I enjoy.”  Jyl surmised that the Aul were sizing him up.  Probably why no ChaulEr delegate had yet intervened.

“I’m sorry,” said Collu, “But that’s not how it’s done here.”  The pink spellblossums which trimmed her winding morenian crown added innocence to her virtuous aspect.  But her shapeliness and inflection contradicted that innocence.  “Perhaps a modest demonstration of your manly capacity.  My guardian, K’Mid, is a rather fair half-limbs boxer.”  Fair.  That sounded somewhat downplayed.  “They say that all seamen are gifted with a brawling spirit… for times such as these.  Or do you basestick, while the rest of the crew ravishes the shore?”

“Is that what you want?”  His incensed light searched the palatial gathering.  Qeenmother’s Guardian Ring.  Paun and her deviously astir sisters.  The evil grins of the allies.  Their cruel hearts applauding for aggression.  And Gyel Molug, her malevolent expression damning his lifeline.  “A demonstration?”  He looked at the Sagameen.  “Very well.  You’ll get your demonstration!”

Roob K’Mid had barely smiled his approval, when the enraged Yuudm spryly unsheathed Eccoei’s pearl-pommeled rapier.  He then seized Collu by the hand, quickly squirmed through the surprised audience, and yanked her to the Heart of the Round.  Then clutching her mane, he forced the screaking woman to her knees and held the sword’s whetted edge to her throat.

Panic swept the great hall.  A score of roofers took aim at the ruddy arena, while Unvesyn retinues and Qeensguards steadied themselves along its circumference.  In order to better segregate the spectators from the field, Dowser Iiq manipulated her hands with a spell, and Round Qasr’Kwen was sunk below the main floor.  Throughout all the commotion, Viceprince Eccoei loudly appealed to the Aul for their intercession.  It wasn’t until Molug reached the Prym with her raised hands and the ostealstone enclosure dimmed around the Heart’s pulsation, that silence was restored.

The irritable ChaulEr minister tried her best to restrain herself.  “Congratulations, Yuudm Jyl.  In just one dishonorable move you have managed to blight the good reputation of Qeenmother’s court.  If you were so worried about leaving the palace unscathed, you might have at least requested a personal escort.  We would have gladly accommodated you.  We are sorry that our entertainment is not to your liking.”  This was not Molug speaking.  Only mediation.  Reputations as well as contracts were at stake here.  And yet the Qeen, at the request of Gyel Stryyx, had ordered the scatterbowers not to fire upon the wraithful abductor.  “Release Sagameen Collu and we shall regard this incident as a senseless sham and hurry you away from here.  You gain nothing by harming that noblewoman… save dead night.”

Then Jyl shut his eyes and his lips began to move.  But nothing could be heard.  Everyone thought he was praying.  Perhaps enhancing his courage for whatever might follow.  Everyone except Paun.  It was the same mad trance she had witnessed at the Firth.  As if his body had been overtaken by some foreign spirit.

He mumbled a few lines.  Then stopped.  Then opened his eyes.  “Funny you should mention that.  For that is part of the game we’re all going to play.  Dead night.  It’s what you all wanted, isn’t it?”

“Mind your conduct, young man!  If we have to, we will ____”

“You will all better comprehend me this day, when I explain to you why dead night… is dead night.”

Yersitty whispered to her concern-stricken ruler. “We could slip a couple of gattarenes in there and ____”  But Siress Stryyx touched her shoulder, shook a negative nod, and discarded any immediate interference.

Jyl spread his gaze throughout the audience, while keeping a firm hold onto the beautiful but terrified Collu.   “You see, honor and disgrace are but artifacts prepared for tomorrow’s graves.  They serve no import for their resident owner, except maybe to haunt one’s soul for not having acted differently.”

This was not Jyl speaking.  Not the Jyl everyone knew.

His hostage trembled and tearfully begged to be spared whatever harm he intended.

Suddenly four Unvesyn soldiers scrambled into the ring.  Tightening his grip on the woman’s hair, Jyl pressed the blade lightly against her neck, until he had just broken the skin.  Not willing to gamble on any madman’s designs, Eccoei called off his men, who stationed themselves equidistantly along the inner wall.

At the same time Paun sent Strek to fetch her pure blood sister, who was at home with Aunt Uul’fr.  M’Sish never stayed past the gift presentations, her character being too resigned for this sort of festivity.  But circumstances being what they were, she would fly back to Qasr’Kwen in hopes of soothing her good friend out of his misdeed.

Meanwhile a motionless sworder stared blankly into his troubled intellect.  And while he did so, his consciousness piloted the Unvesyn saber, easing it warily under the Sagameen’s garb.  Starting near her throat and working down, he slowly sheared her white lanate cloth with its golden glitter.  And he was quite mindful not to cut her.

But his gaze.  By now everyone had noticed it.  Paun remembered how he called it swell fever.  Now would be an opportune time to rush in and overwhelm him.  But, no.  She wanted everyone to hear him today, including herself.  But what about Collu?  How perilous was her dilemma?  Moreover, what was Jyl’s fate, if he ____

The sword glided the length of her fabric.  And the exquisite cloth fell from her shoulders to the floor.  Outraged for The Stars, Gyel Molug shouted her disproval at the obscene violator.  But he was unaware of her foaming tongue.  He heard only a sapient voice from faraway Utscrab, reminding him of his destiny

And the voice spoke through him in a language unknown on Chal’Iss.

But Sinner Himmwast the Gypsy.  She listened.  She pressed her regained amulet of blinking jewels to her ear.  And in a plain voice audible to the whole court, she recited some of what she translated.  “… For the whole of one’s corporal breath is but a mere toad’s tongue in the spell of life itself…”

“Drunken Serpentlord!” swore Molug.

Jyl turned Collu’s face towards him.   “This is the rule of dead night, m’lady.  Now you and I and everyone her: let us play.  But let us not test ourselves haphazardly.  Keep in mind—the stakes are beyond a Vokexingiant’s wealth.”

In the next moment the point of a sword dangled above her heart, and she cried incessantly, while a murmuring cloud rumbled about the malignant playground.  Sweat overlaying their hilts, the Sagamguards advanced a few tolerant steps.  Gyel Molug forced herself to be speechless.  At length, Collu repressed her hysteria to a whine.  It was Jyl’s move.

“Now let us see how well we have studied our lessons.  Today’s game is a riddle.  Affrontress of the Blue.  Satisfy this riddle.  And take thy place among the living.”  She shut her eyes and perked her ears.  “What is my mother’s name?” he asked.

She thought to herself.  And about what she had heard in the shadows.  Can it be that easy?  From the faces in her view, she could make out the voiceless lippings which spoke the name she already knew.

In her fervor, she yelled out, “Gercand’wyl!  Your mother’s name is Gercand’wyl!”

Jyl was impressed.  Rather he was more surprised.  Surprised at her response.  Surprised at all the cheering expressions.  Those tell-tale expressions.  That they all would have answered… her answer.

“A good guess, Sagameen Collu.  A very good guess.  But not genj blue.”

An instant later the rapier plunged into her bosom.

Bblonfen erupted!

The Unvesyn guardians closed quickly on the spellbound murderer.

Paun flinched, but her drive was stalled before she started, as she was promptly wrapped up by her sisters.

“Can’t do it, Paun!” declared Nether.

“Goddessdammit!  We owe him!”

Genj blue.  The truth choked them all.  However, prestige was on the line.  And the homeland couldn’t risk any more contractual demissions.

With both hands on the hilt, Jyl spun once.  His streaking sword dove and capped, and came to rest at overhead readiness.

The clamor hushed.  Five statues stood posed at the Heart.  Then one by one the more precarious uniforms collapsed on the desecrated pavement, the last fallen pillar being Roob K’Mid.

The viewers were stunned and agape, particularly the rounders.  Even Daam L’Sar was impressed by his whirlpool stroke.  No one here had ever witnessed Jyl’s wielding ability.  If it was indeed his ability and not the influence of his seizure.

For a breathless moment he maintained his frozen wake.  Then as the unsanctified ellipse ascended, he went over to the slain woman and pared her flowery mane, which he enfolded inside her defiled cloth.  He paid no attention to the sphairaclad figures surrounding him.  Without any fuss, they confiscated his weapon and escorted him with the Sagameen’s possessions out of the Round.

Stooping in front of the Unvesyn diplomat, he called for Himmwast, who appeared at his unusual request along with her curious sisters.  He was behaving normally again.  Dropping the death-soiled bundle at Eccoei’s feet, Jyl asked the Sinner, “Can you read the bones, Gypsy?  If so, explain to our honored guest here the moral of our game.”  No.  Perhaps he only looked normal.

What Himmwast saw was a sickening reflection of the past.  When her own sister’s hair and clothes were presented in that same shameful manner.

In order to justly compensate for Eccoei’s anguish caused by the loss of his dear cousin, the death penalty might have been imposed upon Yuudm Jyl.  Not that the Qeen would have ever permitted him to be executed.  However, through M’Sish’s mediation with an unforgiving Viceprince, and with consideration given to his swell fever affliction, Jyl was sentenced unscourged to forty-six variable days and nights in one of Qul House’s solitary cells.

Much to Qeenmother’s expectations, none of the allied agreements were imperiled by the bizarre incident.  Rather the leaguers were more than willing to oblige the Aul on whatever stipulations they exacted.  No one was going to miss Her Majesty’s next birthday!

Halfway through Spout Falls, the interflocking of the Raeyev Cluster with Getwinn produced a brilliant stellar sail, and foreboding mockery broke the macabre climate of the Scurjatory.

“Stoneheel!  Blood-warming time!”

Bakwarf wailed, as the Winger sailed to within a leg of her suspended form and stabbed her abdomen with a hefty kick.  An ostealwand afterwards, the impressive schoolgirl was accosted by the rest of Misery’s disciples.

Emgroy sneered, “Dribblen want a breaker?  Didn’t want you to think we forgot all about you, great tiroapprentice.”

With one hand Irn V’shae put a tenacious grip on the prisoner’s throat.  “First rule?”

Barely able to speak, the young prisoner responded, “Daam L’Sar is boss.” She shrieked once more, as the Silverstream’s knee blasted her crotch.

“Funny you should remember it now,” said Wober Fel.

“Think you’ll remember it tomorrow?” inquired the Brewist.

Grimacing, Bakwarf gave an affirmative nod.

“Let’s make sure!” said Paun.

Morning would not arrive till HevN’s Rebirth.

The miniature helm was cranked vigorously several times, stirring the transparent blue oil inside the tall oblong cistern.  Soon the images of mother and daughter appeared—looking out at themselves.  Paun and Pa V’Cryl loved to caper in front of the reflection tank.  Eventually the liquid mirror lost its stability and faded to its original clear state.

The Blue thought Paun.  I forgot to mention that to the Aul.  Oh, well…

Just then the Bell from Carillamond Peak screamed a warning.  The mistress held the child close to her heart and kissed her…

… and prayed… which she almost never did.

  1. Roost Wax

He stirred to the cell’s booming yawn.  Noon meal already?  He didn’t feel as though he had napped that long.  And his stomach didn’t express the usual cravings.  In fact, he was feeling sick since last night.

He rubbed his eyes and sat up.  “I think I’ll pass on lunch, Isnededil.  For awhile anyway.”

She liked being called her full name.

Unlike any other prisoner’s stay, Jyl’s sentence was more of a formality.  No hardcore regimen.  He and his jailors were on a first name basis.  He was allowed the special privilege of remaining unfettered in his lonesome compartment.  And he had plenty of visitors.

The familiar warden, who was also attached to Round Reelam, had arrived without a food tray, however, and was standing just inside the open wall.  She also appeared not to be feeling well.

She reached down and pulled him to his feet.  “Let’s go, big boy!  Time’s up!”

“Forty-six days?   Already?  Wandering reef!  That was ____”

“The goddessdamn Venimbi just left.”

“The Venimbi?”  A vision of a fleet of poisonous clouds downdrafting at night through the villages of Yuud came to mind.  “You have Venimbi on Crus’Ybl?”

“Oh, yeah.  They can ride the Lynk.  But yesterday…  We’ve had a rough time of them, Jyl.  Really rough.  By tomorrow they’ll be Pangr’Lol’s problem.”

“No wonder my belly’s all twisted.  Why wasn’t I prepared?”

“Prepared?”

He threw up his arms, and said, “You know—sapped down?”

Not wishing to endure another one of Jyl’s explanations, especially now, the woman simply told him, “Come on.  You’ve been granted an early release.”

“No kidding?  Sympathy for the Bedlamite, huh?  Or did some trull finally put a smile on Molug’s face?”

But today the rounder seemed unaffected by the man’s humor and proceeded in her more soldierly fashion to lead him out of the keep.

Observing her strict mood, he asked, “Anything wrong, woman?  This isn’t another one of those games, is it?”

Without looking at him, she said, “Your family is waiting for you outside.”

“My family?”

“Just beyond the entryway.”

This was the closest he had gotten to any bland response since his incarceration.  Rather than resentment, there was a feeling of esteem among the rounders over his performance at Qeenmother’s birthday party.  Presently he figured that public compassion had won his early freedom.  And he was right—about the compassion.

When he stepped into the afternoon overcast, his nostrils savored the outside’s cool freshness.  The nauseating quag stench was behind him.  And so were the saurians and their vocal assaults.

Vlav and Hentilose, both weeping uncontrollably, ran up and buried their heads in his embrace.  A few paces away stood Deeg, a somber look in her eyes, as if tears had been spent beforehand.

So much fuss?  Over me?  Something else was amiss.  And now his own troubled cast pleaded with Deeg for some explanation.

“The children have the least resistance.”  There was a pain in her voice, as if she were conserving her breath.  “Especially the very little ones.”

Not believing his ears, Jyl turned towards Lady Isnededil.  But she was gone.  He walked away from his friends and paced the lavender lawn like a drunken Serpentlord trying to crack an invisible maze.

The children.  The Venimbi.

His strangled voice yearned to cry out.

Pa V’Cryl!

By and by, Qeenmother and the Aul—all of ChaulE—would be blamed for the Venimbi’s hand.  The Yuudm would cite them all as lagging barbarians for not having stepped in during his encounter with the Sagamguard.  He cursed their ignorance in not being able to cope with the disease-ridden clouds.  How could they not know?  About the sketsal sap?  Smear it on your body.  And the angels of dead night will pass.

It was not until he entered G’Lian’s Orchard that the full impact of his daughter’s death was levied upon him.  And he broke down and spilled his grief, his genuflected figure scratching into the mortal compost.  Vlav Tr’Klum had to wax the Cromlech in his stead.  And throughout the shivery downpour of that mournful night he stayed in the company of his patron and friend.

In Pa V’Cryl’s honor, wyrblossums For The Stars began spreading their beautiful golden glitter everywhere.  Some patches were even propagated above the rounds, thus downplaying the ferocity of the coastal forts.

It will take time, thought M’Sish, who became a most frequent visitor of Goronz Wood.  Centuries of time, more than flowers, to heal his revengeful heart.

Contrary to most predictions, Jyl did not fly from ChaulE.  But rather he worked off his anger on the Fortress farm.  Gyel Stryyx knew that he would stay.

Midway between the two mouths of Winyet’s Brook they stood shoulder to shoulder, fondling the memories of the innocence who was taken from them.  A feathered smock was tossed into the center of the stream, where it was a quick tilt, the current circulating towards the Goronz Hollow being the victor.

A satin robe, designed with lavender egrits, Jyl folded and gave to Paun.  “If ever I should fall or be lost to Time’s lack of compassion, you shall offer this to the pyre of Egrit’s Flue.  And you shall witness its cremation till the embers of dead night.”

And while their grief was melding under the orb of the journmoon Gidawru, hope was being probed under the dome of eternal darkness.  In the Minaret of Ashk three spiritless bodies lay inside the Kaldron of Iiq.  A sketsal pod, a bovaseal, and an infant child.

Like the unsound spray dispelled by the faceoff between wind-driven swells and steadfast cliffs, the blue-horned elkstallions waggled in their frenzy.  Throughout history their weakness had remained unchanged.  Fear of the sea—even the View of the sea— was one of those afflictions not even the most powerful witches could rectify.  Yet, in their desperation the QortLite captains ordered their two-man steeds lashed or seared from their ivoctenwood decks, in hopes that some might attain the strategic roof of Round Reelam.  To view the brigerpin assailment was like watching a blind flock steered by drunken Serpentlords.  Few ever reached the shore.  Those that did were usually too ineffective to cope with the fusillade of poison concentrated on their rabid flights.

And poison was most certainly the order of the day.  The rounders too discarded their dancing roles for scatterbows.  The Bench was sealed, leaving Within an open but suicidal objective for the shrouders, save to keep the inner roofers and tiros Below occupied.

But around the corner was the real battle—at the cove’s lower palisades.  Because of the extensive strand in that sector, the inlet’s fevorock slopes received little of the brine moisture.  Thus the less generated heat from the walls afforded the QortLites one less obstacle during their scaling maneuvers… which described another infamous element of today’s toxic weather—the presence of sorcery.

With the enormous size of Precem Turr’s armada, furiously engaged at Anchorage with the ChaulEr allies.  With the countless waves of assault barges, whose multiple interconnections seemed to blanket the Nalfin View like a great island wharf.  With the sporadic launchings of scaling shrouds cobwebbing the coastal fort and local perimeter.  And with the joust between the virulent swarms, which plagued this tract under the sweltering Juth Moon.  Matters were complicated enough without Xiirbuud’s witchery.

Born Aprimond, a coral smelter’s daughter before becoming a disciple of Shaman’s Guild, she was enlisted by QortL for her talismanic knowledge and tools, but even more specifically as a breeder of Bedlamites.  Her corrupt hand could be plainly recognized this day.  It was her fiery venom which seasoned the Intruder’s arrows.   Her opaque mist, together with the clever swirls of the spectrum, which helped to camouflage the QortLite advance—in such a way as to allow her comrades to see through the vaprous shade, whereas the rounders could not.  And her unsightly melange of Bedlamites—Vokexingiants, Emocars, Hulshinsaurs, misshapen men, and crossmelds of all these—whose twisted minds commanded the Fenmare’s wrath.  Yet, because their unbalance made them a danger to both sides, they were segregated from the shady fog, their more exposed hulks urged onward in the face of the defenders’ aim.

Still there was a countervail to this infamous sorcery.  Her name was Dowser Iiq.  Centuries ago she had been a Votress excommunicated from the Fetistry of Nohk, whose later disbandment was leavened by Sut UnBii during the Spiritual Debate.  With the power of the Tharm Flamens gone, religious pursuit became optional.  Brewism waxed itself into everyday conversation.  And witchcraft was merely restricted to civil law.  Thus unfolded the cold uncanny psyche of the Dowser, who eventually tendered her loyal services to the present crown of ChaulE.

Although she knew not the secret of Xiirbuud’s two-way cloud, she was able to better define the presence of enemy troops within her own formulated rain, born from the Fire of Fidelity.  Having passed through the nebulous screen, the deceptive showers that did not evaporate stained many of the assaulters’ forms with a golden glow, shedding an image of starcrawlers on Reelam’s black sands.  To dilute her counterpart’s confusing array of light, she focalized her own radiance over the seaward side of the battleground.  From this the QortLite field took an obscure underwater appearance.  But at least the vagueness of the Intruder’s actual whereabouts was lessened.

So far, however, all the Lynk Star magicians were limited to the Corvus Standard.  And because they were not immune to the metal of weaponeers, they were safeguarded outside the scatterbow’s range.

All of a sudden a panicky neigh was heard just above Daam Oaera’s guardian ring, where a Runtepioc Cloud had strayed from the main herd.  A half-crazed brigerpin, overlooked during the raging conflict, expelled itself from the warm mist and was winging hard towards the more inland side of Within, but not before her own riders released a final set of venomous shafts.

Someone yelled, “V’Bokk!”—as a slumping red figure rolled off the Roof’s forward ledge and plunged a hundred feet into the cove’s deep drop zone.  Their mouths agape, the Heart controllers watched as the conscious rounder surfaced then sank again.

In the Palm of the Bearer.

An instant later another figure was seen abandoning the rim and diving along the lengthy trail of the fallen Buukliair.

Providing that he kept clear of the ChaulEr maneuvers, Jyl was sometimes given permission to enter a round as an observer.  But today he found himself caught up in an engagement unfamiliar and certainly most unsuited to pure blood mariners.

His initial recovery of the injured Lady V’Bokk was handily done.  That she had survived both the biting wound in her breast and the fall could only be reasoned amongst HevN’s Brew.  Getting out of this present jam, however, would require no less than a good pair of wings.

Anywhere else the most attractive escape route would have been the nearby cliffside, from which they had just descended.  But it stepped right into the Nalfin.  And the heat made it too unbearable for climbing.  Swimming around the fevorock shoulder to the stronghold’s gap would only put them in a prime target area, swamped with landing craft—as it was the central breaker zone leading to the cove’s beachhead.

Yet Jyl couldn’t wallow his time much longer.  V’Bokk needed a physician’s hand.  And just a spit in the View a shoal oarsman was pointing in his direction.  Tuxhil round!  Why didn’t I stay home today?

Once again he was a driftwood towline.  As soon as his feet could touch bottom, Jyl slung the woman over his shoulder and dug his heels into the wet sand.  Sensing the small pursuit which was slowed by the ChaulEr cover, he trudged with all his energy to the huge coral terrafan growing outside of the intertwined sorcery and scaling network.  Several bodies already littered the cragged mass, including the thoroughly perforated hulk of a two-headed Emocar.

No sooner had Jyl set the guardian down, when a QortLite sworder, waving excitedly to some of his comrades, scrambled up the chilling growth.  His eyes were on the xilum pair, still sheathed about the sphairacloth uniform.  A handsome souvenir indeed!

Jyl himself had overlooked V’Bokk’s metal.  Instead he grabbed a saber from the nearest corpse, stroked past the soldier’s guard, and hewed the man’s face in two.

Soon, what had been but a skirmishing band turned into a feeding frenzy.  A throng of rokkonz wielders evacuated the shroud columns and congregated against the coralstone tree, as if that were a prime objective.  And at the heart of the terrafan a Buukliair’s protector felt the voice of his lettered youth: Be thy concern the light at hand.  And the distant sun—when it reaches thee.

In the midst of the devil’s yowl, he plainly spoke what he could not himself hear: “d’Glejerian S’fongbis!”

It was the end of Open Lynk.  Juth embraced Xam’s cerulean dawn.  Winged mastheads were helmed against the screaming tidal swells of Infinity’s Door.

There was no stemming the Intruder’s newest onslaught.  Not with an affordable squad of seasoned archers.  Not by the presence of a blind Emocar, which had blundered its derangement into this unexpected feast.  For now, nothing more could be done for Jyl and Lady V’Bokk.

Reelam Bell!

Reluctantly Paun turned away from the hopeless scene and hastened with her sisters to the roof of the inlets desiccated palisades.  When they arrived, the first of the Bedlamites to gain Above had just been slain by Wober Fel and Nether.  Three more of them—all Delsaqmis giants—had already broken through part of the forward defense.

Several of the rounders ignored the Huntress’ orders to temporarily slacken their positions and maintain their barrage.   They tried foolishly to deal head on with the titans from Crus’Ybl.  But their abilities strove short of their brave intentions.  And they were crushed by the monsters’ powerful nodular limbs and viperine fangs.

The Sinners took aim and hurled.  A dozen virulent pikes found their marks.  The giants toppled and writhed convulsively.  One of them spilled over the stone verge and tore through a large segment of the main web ladder.

Scrimej was restored to the edge.  The mistress and five of her guardians scurried back towards Reelam’s Heart.

At Within it was still a shooting mismatch, with Oaera’s Talons using their vantage point to its full cross-fire capacity.

Today the ancient armor would have been more suitable for these sagittal combatants.  But the dense metal had proved to be burdensome and too rigid.  It also meant that more burdensome weapons would have to be handled.  Light-weighted flaqmesh was tried, but it couldn’t stop the rapid honed shafts from a good scatterbow.

Anyhow, in the case of the QortLites, before being pounders, they were mariners.  They knew that armor and the sea were incompatible.  They would risk the clearing in the wake of Talons before Lokker’s Garrote.

“He’s got the rhythm,” said Oaera.

Quickly the Sinners switched to the adjacent beach.  The coral tree was barely defined now.  A platoon of corpses sloped down and away from the desperate but energetic swordsman and his weak companion.  Astonishingly enough, V’Bokk remained conscious.  Somehow she had managed to pull herself up with the ever-rising heap, until a couple of dead nighters slumped across her lower backside and pinned her.

Jyl, on the other hand, could scarcely take notice of her.  Fresh attackers lunged in place of his disposals.  His once-untiring aggression was gradually being worn down by these vast numbers and their own successful strokes.  Just how successful was their penetration was difficult to estimate.  So much of the enemy’s blood was mingled with his own wounds.  And his stamina: how much of it, if any, was seizure-induced?

Gong of Chemzan!

Reluctantly the terrafan’s hungry assailants stayed their advance and backed off.  Shrouders dropped from their riggings and bolted for the shoal barges.  The retreat, which had finally begun, would be even more murderous than the initial assault.  Thousands of dead nighters hampered the race to the floating bridgeworks.  And without the firepower to offset the ChaulEr downpour, the QortLites sacrificed heavily.  As in past battles a large number of coupling units became disengaged because of overgrounding.  Thus many of the retreaters had to swim to other landers or be stranded to no quarter.  Anchorage seemed a Holten century away.

Falling to his knees, Jyl began moving the dead weight off of Lady V’Bokk.  A shadow loomed over him.  He looked up to see a blood-spattered hulshinbrey, it’s single sightless eye casting down at him.  Suddenly a long shaft, threaded with a rope to Above, pierced the lizardcar’s chest.  The monster shrieked and turned to face the source of the pressured line.

With her amuleted hand hooked over the taut cord, the Gypsy glided down swiftly upon the spastic deformed prey and thrust her xilumsword into the Bedlamite’s brain.

Xiirbuud’s interference was weakening.

Reelam Bell!

The doorway to Within slid open and rounders surged from the Bench.  Down the deserted shroud lines clambered the inlet roofers.  While some expedited the Intruder’s rout from the ebon shore, others cleaned up on the immediate casualties.

As soon as all shoalcraft were loaded, the huge QortLite fleet rammed the gaunt allied blockade and withdrew from Anchorage.  This time less than twenty vessels were lost from their battered perimeter—thanks to the absence of Bidet and Rem Idi.

But more important to ChaulE, despite her own heavy losses, there was no enemy foothold on this coveted ground.  And the Round was the key to any substantial outpost.

“A strange drift thou chose to seek seashells, sailorboy.”

Appearing oblivious to her humor, Jyl stepped away while Himmwast finished recovering the Daam’s Guardian.

Moments later a physician arrived.  A piece of red squash was hollowed out and heated.  Then the opening in the fruit was pressed against the Buukliair’s wound, in order to draw out the poison.  Much to V’Bokk’s discomfort, it was necessary to repeat this procedure several times.  But she would survive—and without the loss of her breast.

Meanwhile the coraltree defender began to feel the effects of the numerous cuts which overlaid his body.

“My favorite patient,” commented K’Triff at his hospital bedside.  “Muse with the Brew, Sir Jyl.”

Vlav came in with some fresh clothes and asked the doctor if he could stay and help tend to his brother.  His friend’s bleary bones would not awaken until long days had passed.  During his deep slumber Glum Klum heard him mention his mother’s name several times.  Then he remembered the fate of Sagameen Collu.  Maybe it was… someone else’s name.

By the time Xam touched Byngol-a-bur, the last of the grounded barges had already been hauled ashore and dismantled.  Honn Kolcher had traversed the early evening Rises.  And the allies were happily homeward bound.

On the way back to Reelam’s corral, Nether remarked, “He’s not just a sailor, you know.”

V’Shae agreed.  “Swell of a swordsman.”

“That’s what I mean.  He’s doing a pretty good job of changing Roosts on us.  I mean, how many sailors rap their metal ____”

“Shut up, Winger!”  Paun had tired of all the closed door whisperings.  “What Under Bblonfen do you know anyway?”

“I know a knight from a swasher’s ass, that’s what.  Have you forgotten Qeenmother’s birthday?”

“You know goddessdamn dribblen stool!”

“I know you.”

Paun held up and loured at her sister.  Nether continued to resent Jyl.  Like Molug she saw him as some sort of underhand meddler.

Jealous bitch!  “What about me, stone brain?”

“I’m singing from the heart, Lizzy.  You’re still a sap for sailor boys.”

The Gattarene stepped in between the fisted pairs.  “Didn’t you two trulls get enough rapping today?”  The Daam then turned her attention to Nether.   “Look, Winger.  He’s good.  Goddessdamn good!  And I too have my suspicions.  But he got you off the hook.  All of you.  Remember that!  And he just pulled V’Bokk out of the deep end today.  At his own expense!  So let’s save all this for another day.”

As they were preparing to mount, Nether raised the unsubtle question.  “You all know he’s sunward, right?”

Dropping her reins, Paun bit her lip and tromped over to the Winger’s perch.  “Who said so?”

Nether merely flashed her eyebrows and was halfway into the saddle, before Paun pulled her back down.

Again L’Sar butted in, “Molug?”

“Maybe.”  Nether swerved a cautious eye at the supplemental bodyguards.  So far the relationship between the Sinners and these other guardians was strictly on a duty basis.

“Let’s talk at the house,” suggested Strek, “After we drop our friends off.”

Heading back to her brigerpin, Paun was cut off by Lady Snov.  “It’s true.”

“How do you know?”

“Just something in the View.”  And she turned away.

Paun strode beside her, and demanded, “Tell me about the View.”

“Let’s just forget about it… Mistress Paun!”

“What Under Bblonfen do you mean, Forget it?”

Lady Fent stepped in, and said, “You and your harlot sisters don’t give a saurian’s ass about us.  So let’s stick to business as usual.  According to our instructions.  Okay?  Let’s go, Snov.”

“Dribby want a breaker?”  The Rowdy leaped from her saddle.

“Timberfore!”

“Xyyamu!” ordered L’Sar.  She then put her arms around the necks of her brave former pupils.  “What do you think, Paun?”

The mistress pondered a moment.  “Harlots, huh?  I think we should all go to my house, slip into some slink, and bash it out with orshyve and handsome whores.”

“Genj blue” agreed the Brewist.

“Firstly, about this sun,” wondered Himmwast.  Holding the clouding net atop Snov’s head, she stunned the woman’s perception with her cold spellbinding peer, and inquired, “Dons this mascara whose face?”

In her hypnotic state she answered, “The design…of the Umbra… solely be that… of Qeenmother… and Gyel Stryyx.”

The pearl-loomed talisman crossed her face and suspended the trance.  “As before, benighted are we.”  Then the Gypsy, who was not surprised by Snov’s response, shrugged her shoulders.  “Above’s our game”

The group’s newest intimates were still baffled by the Sinner’s unusual verse.

Strek, amused by their puzzlement, expounded, “We’ll just have to roof it out.”

Now that I understand thought Lady Fent.

On a midsolar afternoon under the Gates of Mauv WuPree, a special ceremony was held to pay tribute to Sir Jyl.  “…for his daring rescue of Lady V’Bokk within G’Lian’s breath…”  It was the second such honor for the man from Crus’Ybl.  And like the first time, he interrupted the laureled rites before they had hardly begun.

On this particular occasion Myim accompanied him.  She held his hand while he spoke.  His mood was a somber one.

“Forgive me if I seem ungrateful,” he began, “For I am not.  Today… I am not well.  Since I was last driftwood… my heart has been torn every which way… towards love… and hope… and despair… towards vengeance.”

Molug added her own missing pieces.  You forgot fame and deception.

He went on, “Yestermorning I saw the faces of mere children.  I thought of my own child, who, like them, now seasons the land.  I watched them sacrifice themselves, that everything might be as it is today.  And when someone has forsaken loved ones… and laughter… and songs of mirth… and all that HevN’s Brew holds… for a hope… for a reasonable cause—what greater dignity can there be?

“Let the waxing of the Cromlech and the bold pursuit of our dream—which was theirs… let this be the climax to homage.

“Anyway, thanks again… for all this.  But maybe you could grant me one favor.  Take pity on the old one’s you’ve sentenced to decay till HevN’s Rebirth?  I know of their grave crimes.  But I think that time has crucified them enough.  To see them reminds me of many of my own people, who too have suffered For The Stars.  Who despaired of ever dying.  Let them be put to the sword.”

He saw Myim yawning, and grinned.  “Come on, captain, before the ship sinks.”

She waved to the sphairacloth assemblage.  “Lavender Lynk, everyone.”

Stepping down from the triangular slab called Lyode’s Vision, Jyl cradled her to the Zoyet fringe. While still in his arms she spoke softly with tears in her eyes.  “I’m so sorry, Jyl.  Sometimes Nature commands very difficult things of me.  For reasons that a more mature me might understand.  Like the secret of the sketsal sap.  I’m sorry, Jyl.  I’m sorry.”  He was mystified by what she said.

Myim was asleep by the time they reached his brigerpin Lecnoluu, who was sampling some ripe ivoctenwood bark.  And they flew home.

It was three ChaulEr crowns ago, soon after the birth of the Well, when a Tharm Flamen was killed and the pair of Winged Fruit in his custody was stolen.  Goronz Wood shielded the King’s Mansion then.  And the Fire of Fidelity had not yet been discovered.

During their search for the murderer-thief, the Kingsmen found the runed perch from the Minaret of Klyn in the woman’s house.  She was at the Harbour when they arrested her—and without the small sacred flyers.  Later she admitted to the crime, saying she was promised wealth and admission to a very noble order.  She also claimed that, through her own carelessness, the anJ had escaped her.

Had the anJ indeed gotten away, they would have eventually flown directly to the Well—which they did not.  And they were never seen again.

Soon afterwards the QortLites invaded Chal’Iss.  How they were able to easily pinpoint ChaulE’s location would become more apparent.

There was, however, a minor flaw regarding this thievery.  The sacred flyers taken were both hens, a precaution assumed by the Flamens.  Therefore, no offspring from these could ever arise.  The anJ in the Intruder’s possession would have to be even more strongly safeguarded, until the diminishing power from the Well could no longer sustain them.

Meanwhile, asserting to the end that no other plotters were involved, the woman was found guilty of murder and betrayal.  Her name was removed from all records.  She was thrown into Qul House, a faceless mound outside the Fortress.  There she was fettered alongside another convicted killer.  Together they were aged to the porch of dead night, then supported in their haggary, so that all who saw them might be swayed from committing similar offenses.

Tonight, as Gidawru smoldered and molted her gray silex crust and sweltered with newly-hatched bubbles of orange light, the Beggars were at last laid to rest.

Swell fever?  No sailor around here’s ever heard of it.  And I’d stake a century’s tilling that no one on Crus’Ybl has either.

“Fit… or feign: which is it?  Could be he’s ashamed of his seizures, which are, to a great degree, hereditary.  And that’s understandable.  Or it’s a fool’s excuse to get away with some personal gains.”

“Like killing Sagameen Collu?” surmised Gyel Neked.

“Yes,” said Stryyx.  “Although I’ve practically deduced his distraught moments as being genuine.  Nobody in their right mind is going to go through the trouble of masquerading irrationally in the face of the Rises… or in solitude.  For the moment I’m saying practically deduced.  There lies the slight contingency that he holds unplanned rehearsals with himself.”

C’Mize wondered.  “What about his fits in solitude?”

“That comes by way of the Umbra.  Jyl will be working outdoors, when suddenly he’ll experience one of his spells.  Then he’ll go through the motions of carrying on a conversation—in various languages, no less—with either a gadofer shrub or melon or a clump of wyrblossums… or any combination of these and whatever happens to be around him.  Four… five days might pass, before he slips off again.  It’s pretty second nature with his friends now.”

Gyel Molug stood up, and barked, “Why are we dwelling on this… this goddessdamn Bedlamite personality rot?  Let’s get on with it, Stryyx!  Say what you have to and ____”

“Bedlamite pers____  Breach a vestal!”  Flushed with delight, the council’s detective rushed towards the quarrelsome minister.  “Molug!  Do you realize __!”

“Well, I’m glad you think that’s good.  If the Aul will excuse me, I have a perimeter to inspect.”  On the way out she swore to herself.  Old dribblen jaws!

Beaming from ear to ear, like a brigerpin colt chancing upon her first cloud, Stryyx scooped up some of the cool fish tank water and rinsed her face, then wiped it dry with the sleeve of her robe.  The war councilor’s providential outburst had sparked another theory, which she couldn’t wait to discuss with M’Sish.

“Care to share your enthusiasm, child?”

“Oh, not yet, Qeenmother.  Not yet.  It’s too ____  Well…  Try to imagine someone whose been exposed, let’s say, to Xiirbuud’s Kaldron, and ____  Oh, I’m sorry, everyone.  I’m feeling a little Bedlamite myself.  I’d rather get my song together first.”

“I think I understand,” said the Qeen, who already foresaw the minister’s track.

“Now where was I,” puttered Stryyx, “Before I was so genj enlightened?  Oh, yes: a sailor who raps like a rounder.”  She began her normal irregular pace about the hall.  “According to L’Sar and V’Shae, it’s obvious he’s been systematically trained.  At least as a sworder.  And probably on an individual basis.  Even your best pirates don’t show the collectiveness to oppose with odds comparable to his stands at Reelam and here at our Round.  And the possibility that his combative expertise can transpire only during his moments of access is not at all feasible.”  The investigator paused briefly to mindfully file away her last statement with her rough Bedlamite hypothesis.

“We all have to admit—he did risk his life at Reelam.  Damn QortLites are so unpredictable.  I mean, why didn’t they just shoot him?  All of a sudden they’re so glory-minded, that they’d deviate from their prime objective?  But… not the first time it’s happened.  Oh, we could fabricate a strong sacrifice play by Honn Kolcher.  Except there’s no way he could’ve planned Lady V’Bokk’s misfortune.

“Moving on to that first memorable display during Qeenmother’s birthday…  Was everyone as twitchy inside as I was when he bundled up Collu’s mane?  Shades of Five Kingdoms!  And Affrontress of the Blue.  What did he mean by that?  Something to do with truth, I presume.  And yet he killed the Sagameen, though she correctly communicated his mother’s name.  Of course, take Roob K’Mid’s nuisance and the Brew knows how much orshyve—and you have one very drunken Serpentlord.”

Stopping by the window, she admired the clear gelatinous rain that would enhance the coastal plants of the Cosanc-to-Harbour sector.  And if the wind were to hold, the woods and Fomucuf would also be blessed.  Sure beats the Venimbi.

“It was a shame about the child—everyone who perished for that matter.  But…  It was just a bad drift.  Too bad he wasn’t informed of the Venimbi’s arrival.”  Stryyx wondered with the rest of her company.  Surely Captain Myim must have known.  “Now we’ll have to wait till the next epidemic.  If the antitoxin’s as simple as sketsal sap—and we’ve got plenty of sketsal ponds—then we’re that much closer…”  Her thoughts completed the teetering dream.  … to even longer life.

She moseyed her way back to her chair and began dipping one of her cordons in and out of her aquarium, teasing the seamice.

“About the QortLites’ reaction to the night—he was right.  We saved one of the wounded Intruders from cleanup and watched him pall with agony—right after dusk—to dead night.  Amazing phenomenon!

“He’s won our hearts, you know.  His initial modesty towards aggression.  His emotion following his daughter’s death.  His respectful rejection of our awards to him.  All reinforcing his dignity.

“Interesting—his concern for the Beggars.”

  1. Complotters

Ah!  Daam Bakwarf!  I was just on my way to fetch you.”

“What for?”

“For your review,” said the relayer, finishing her salute.  “You were scheduled for Shorted Lynk, remember?  It’s already Firth Rises.”

“So?”  Her spiteful violet eyes rolled indifferently around in her head.  “The granannelids taken to the air?  Didn’t realize I pulled eternity.”

Something about this group distracted the courier from the woman’s infamous snobbery.  Odd that a score of rounders accompanied the Daam and her guardians to the meeting.  And why were they all carrying scatterbows?  Probably just coming off roofing maneuvers.  Anyway, there wasn’t much more the messenger could do except say that everyone in the Aulhall was waiting impatiently.

“Everyone?”

“Yes, Daam Bakwarf.  Qeenmother and her cabinet and the Sinners—they’re all just milling around the bench right now.  The rest of the clans are all ranked aside.  If you’ll excuse me, I have other ____”

But the Chellis Beach governess simply waved her away.

She seemed unconcerned that she was late for her Daam’s Review, which was held after all the clans had done a tour of duty at every fort.  She was a big girl now—not a tirosworder.  Not some Pit dribblen, soiling her metal during cleanup.  A seasoned warrior—that’s what she was, at least by her own conviction.  After all, she did win the coveted Medallion of Shaymetal, a cyclic award bestowed upon the country’s best sworders.  (The bloodless competition for which only Mistress Paun was not eligible to participate in.)  Her overbearing personality, notwithstanding, she had matured into a brilliant Daam, who could ply any round to second nature.  Her defensive bouts spoke for themselves.

Yet, no matter her great her respectability, Bakwarf was tiring of her soldierly role according to the Qeen’s game plan.  There was a lot of Lynk Star beyond the View—enough to indulge her most ambitious dreams.  And she was fretful of the obstacle on the other side of the Aulhall portal.

Speaking to her Buukliairs, she said, “Sinners and Qeen’s Guard first.  The rest of you take the clans.  Fast and true.  All set?”

Her sisters nodded and they loaded their bows.  One soldier gripped the door handle and awaited her leader’s command.

“Now!”

The conspirators charged into the council room.  While the guardian Ring took aim on the Bench, their comrades searched anxiously for the other Daam’s and their bodyguards.  Trembling hands fidgeted with unfired weapons.  Brows sweated.  For a solitary moment the scatterbowers were able to hear their own skittish pulses.

The chamber was empty.

When the door rolled shut behind them, they realized…  A fool’s reception!

In the next instant a throng of shooters appeared overhead in the parabolic balcony, which was normally secured except during public trials.  Without warning, they fired upon the would-be assassins.  The main floor echoed with the cries of the damned.  Nevon Giv, Bakwarf’s wounded lieutenant, immediately threw down her bow and waggled her arms, and yelled, “Xyyamu!”  Her dismayed sisters—those that were left—complied and followed suit.  In the blink of an eye the poorly planned conspiracy was quashed.

After the surviving prisoners were bound, the Qeen, the Aul and their Guard stepped out of the mural-concealed passage and approached Bakwarf.  She lay grimacing from the stabs of three random arrows.

“Why, child?”

“Why?”  She squirmed and yelped to the physician’s touch.  “I’ll tell you why, you fusty old whore!  Because it’s time for a change.  Because I’m sick of this timid order.  And I’m sick of watching the goddessdamn View and waiting for your precious lover to deliver… while the rest of this Star divvies up the spoils.”

For the Qeen it was depressing to hear those ill-bred words from one of her own people.

“If you wanted out, why didn’t you just say so.  You and your friends could’ve sailed with any of the allies and ventured For The Stars.  You didn’t ___.”

“Except ChaulE was an essential part of the adventure.”  Paun stepped onto one of the arrow wounds, then yanked the woman by the hair and off the floor, until she was face to face with her.  “Wasn’t it?”  The mistress paid no heed to her cries of pain.  “Spew on your matrons’ pyres.  What’d you think, peeper?  That you could just bury us?  And the rounds would rush palms up to your bidding?  You and your stinking ambition!  You would’ve faired no less than a civil war.  Come next Gong of Chemzan, you’d be curtsying to Honn Kolcher.  I must’ve been a Drunken Serpentlord when I tapped you Daam.

“But it won’t happen again, will it, mighty Bakwarf?  Not so long as you serve Qul House.”

“Till HevN’s Rebirth,” added Yersitty.

“Genj blue!” agreed Molug.  “Till HevN’s Rebirth.”

With one hand Sinner L’Sar grabbed the woman by the throat and snatched her away from Paun.  As her grip slowly tightened, her anger drowned out the victim’s desperate gasp for air.  “You were my best student.  My best student!”  Then she tossed her to the floor and drew out her xilumdagger.  She growled and in one swift motion she sheared the majority of Bakwarf’s hair from her head.  “You …”  L’Sar’s thoughts bellowed where her voice could not.  Dared not.  Not yet.  “…And now glad I didn’t.”  With that said, the Gattarene stormed out of the Aulhall.

With hateful eyes the leader of the futile coup espied one of the Qeen’s Buukliairs.  “Traitor!  Serpentseed traitor!”

Lady Tonilk stepped forward and shook her head.  “No, Bak.  You betrayed us.”

Sentenced without a trial, the despiteful one was cast into the Beggars’ former residence—with all the usual honors befitting the Mistress of Qul House.

“You’ve done well, Tonilk,” said Gyel Hegged.

After a joyless nod, the guardian excused herself and took a long walk towards the Stone Bar perimeter.

“Quite a gloom, after having saved all our lives,” remarked Neked.

Lady Ard’m Ol unwittingly broke silence.  “She was Bakwarf’s best friend.”

The howls and stench of caged saurians smothered the newest prisoner.  She knew she would never see the journstars… ever again.

There were no moons that night.  Deep in the dark Goronz Wood the eyes of the Fortress Gang peered from the thickets.  They heard crying in the distance.  Crying from guilt.  From deep within.  From a Sinner holding a clump of hair.   Hair just like her own.  She pressed it against her face and filled it with tears.

“I’m so sorry.  My poor daughter.  I am so sorry.”

  1. Succubus

From her window at the abbey, she meditated on the distant greenery that was Chal’Iss.  It hung in the late afternoon sky, a different face with every indiscriminate look.  But occasionally one particular russet dot would drift into Crus’Ybl’s eyes—for a moment, or perhaps a century.  Presently it was at the center of the face, when he was nearest her.  And she needed him…

… now.

She paced anxiously in her silvery fell-laced robe—his favorite—and thinking to herself.  A beheld lure never ensnares.

“Venimbi’s breath!  What’s taking so ____”

Gercand’wyl.

She froze and shut her eyes and let her mind hearken undisturbed, lest she herself conjure some fool’s message.

Gercand’wyl.

“It’s him!  It’s him!  Finally, the leaves are taking effect.”  She could feel it.  She took a deep breath and composed herself.  Her thoughts concentrated across the celestial leagues to that pinpoint on the Nalfin Sea—where he was in deep sleep.

Talk to me.  My mind is your sceptre.  Talk to me… O dearest brother of mine.

  1. Dower

Y’Moir came out of her mother’s room a new woman—for the time being.  Having to don an exquisite pteroncloth and even a neckring wasn’t exactly her song.  But for her sister, who never asked anything from anyone, she supposed that she could suffer this once.  Besides, it wasn’t every day that a lover’s dower was thrown.  That custom had faded long ago with the suspension of idealistic wedlock.

Klas Tel was intrigued with many of the old rites.  She had always said that when her time of romance arrived—if ever it would— she was going to have a dower, just like they used to in Goronz Wood.

Of course, no one gave her aspiration much thought.  She was the same Klas Tel.  Still timid and soft-spoken.  A fairling.  Not rugged like her mother.  But with a plain face.  She owned a virginal smile like the grandmother she never knew.

After a Holten century—still a girl.

When she wasn’t working at the brigerpin ranch, she was turning up the soil in the family’s yard, either for landscaping or crops.  The latter pursuit she acquired from her father, along with his Brewist ways.  Only recently did she become a vegetarian, citing the innocent nature of animals as her reason.

How she and her maternal twin sister got along so well amazed everyone.  Y’Moir was a hot-tempered tiroapprentice—destination: rowdy—who dreamed of being a Buukliair at Chellis Beach someday.  The first winyet from the Roost of Gwil Fyr, she and her lover, Swamb Ley, were the most liberal of their breed, in that their off-duty affection was publicly apparent.

Aside from their standing match of Fool’s Bells, cwolwisan Klas Tel and soon-to-be Lady Y’Moir delighted mostly in diverse nonsense and racing their elkstallions.  Oftentimes they missed their younger irresponsible days, especially their stays at the Fortress.  Their father was hardly a disciplinaire.  Except when they played cruel pranks on Glum Klum Uncle Vlav.  While their mother… Well, someone had to keep them in line.

The matt door opened and in walked Jyl.  He wore a long black dolman with a golden print of bumblebirds feeding otkums.  His hair was more closely cropped now.

Paun went over and kissed him and complimented him on his handsome appearance.

Behind him was Vlav, his arms ladened with a zirplemelon, stuffed with a fruit casserole.

Jyl guessed that everyone was here.  Uul’fr.  And even M’Sish, who was rarely seen these days.  Swamb Ley.  Myim and some of the Fortress Gang.  Irn and her longtime lover, Q’Fash. Nether and Chazi and their son, Blaan.  Sari and her brother, Trorg.  And the rest of the Sinners.  And everyone was preened for Ib’ktide.

A beautiful girl, her ivory and ebon curls dressed with ribands of circled blue otkums and red and white winged mastheads, caught Jyl’s attention.

“What’s this?” he gawked, spinning the young woman around.

“Aw, dry up father!”

“Y’Moir?  Wandering reef!  Must be sunrise at Tharm!”

She clenched her teeth and grumbled.  “If I hear that one more time___”.

With Aunt Uul’fr keeping a sharp eye on the orshyve urn, the guests had to satisfy themselves with pretberry juice.  “No spirits till after the consention.”  That was one of Klas Tel’s requests.

She also asked her Aunt Himmwast to try to refrain from implementing her clouding net and trance exercises.

But her most serious entreaty demanded her mother’s promise—a pledge on behalf of all today’s witnesses—that no matter what sentiments anyone might have about her suitor, peace would preside throughout the visitation.

Needless to say, the company’s anticipation took an upsurge, for no one as yet knew the identity of the mysterious lover—not even Y’Moir.

A melodious peal in the air signaled that a hand had tripped the carillamond box outside.

“Already?” wondered Paun.

“Who else?” thought Jo W’Cec, knowing well that a family acquaintance would simply have entered, unless there was a bandeau of Roost colors affixed to the door.

“He’s early,” said Chazi, seeing that it was still Firth Falls.

The Silverstream rolled open the matt panel.  She was about to say, “Would you believe she’s early?”—but prudently changed her mind and admitted the woman.

“Thank you Lady Irn V’Shae.”  She was a known rounder.

She was carrying a basket tray of fruit bread, garnished with winter ivy and red twanelion petals.              Approaching Uul’fr, she offered the platter, and said, “I am Q’Lom.  The Roost of Jaamdih is honored to be received in the House of Gwil Fyr.”

Upon hearing Jaamdih, the Sinners immediately took notice of the woman’s ribands.

Meanwhile the matron thanked her for the scrumptious-looking dessert, which Roit set on one of the matt tables next to the vase of wyrblossums.

“And how are you related to Fessau O’ge?”

“Mistress Paun… Yebirulp’s drift!  Fessau O’ge is my mother.”

“Your mother?” blurted Wober Fel.

“Bevleba!” seconded Paun.  She looked at the other Sinners and jerked a negative nod.

Uul’fr cast an unpleasant eye at Paun, and said, “You must forgive my niece… and her friends’ ill manners, Q’Lom.  They often forget that ____”

“Oh, it’s all right, Matron Uul’fr.  I understand.  You see, my mother is very much more the soldier.  Her family involvement is almost nil.”

“Nevertheless,” she scowled.

Q’Lom related that she was a roofer presently stationed at Round Tuud with the Avalanche—the clan under the newly appointed Daam Xaff.

Then she told everyone that, due to very special circumstances which would be explained later, she alone from her household would represent the suitor in question—who, in this case, happened to be her brother.  She also expounded on the dower rites—about how the woman’s family reviews the worth of the man’s presentation as befitting her companionship.  For such a glad occasion the daughter of Jaamdih seemed overly tense and apprehensive.  Then again, everyone was a bit restive.

There was another ring, and Nether rushed to the door.  A gorgeous man stepped into the matt.  He was swarthy as a summer’s night.  He had a flower-vined onyx mane which curved to his waist.  His hairy chest was exposed by an open half-robe, sky green with black collar and cuffs, and whose backside exhibited a silver five-horned steed.  And beneath this was wrapped a lustrous yellow waistcloth, suggestive of a seaman’s loin.

Midway into the room Himmwast cut him off.  And although he shunned her hypnotic stare, he was hemmed in before he could greet the doyen of the house.

It seemed since Hev’N’s last Rebirth that his recognizable self was among rounders.  Before now he shrewdly avoided them, and with good reason.  Long ago he had been accused of overdoing his civil protests.  An antagonist to the hunt, he once snuck onto the dribblen farm, released all the domestic fowl, then burned the coops to the ground.  Subsequent attempts to arrest him resulted in the deaths of two soldiers and the wounding of several others.

He was a gifted individual, a condition which enabled him to retain his at-large status.  Having at onetime been a tiro of the Kingsmen, he became a xilumbearer.  Like Guardian Nether he had the astounding ability to leap thrice a person’s height.  Yet, his most favorable advantage was his versatility in animal speech.

Having befriended the wild breed of elkstallions, the Herbagers, he was able to outdistance any pursuit.  Thus, his sanctuary poised over the Nalfin and even the saurian territories.  But his prime perch was Horsdeor Plateau, whose ice walls hindered even the most sure-footed lizards.

We have him!  Emgroy gritted her teeth.  Finally, we have him!

Q’Lom squirmed into the Sinners’ ranks and hurried her needless introduction.  “Everyone.  This is my brother—Pid’yn Ba.  Please keep in mind the oath regarding this event.  Please.”

So this is why Klas Tel made me promise.

The Rowdy could read Paun’s disgruntlement.  Saurian’s ass!  Maybe we don’t have him.

After a brief intermission of glowers and muffled expletives, Pid’yn Ba broke the uncomfortable silence with a polite, “Yebirulp’s drift, gentleladies… gentlesirs.  Long time: no see.”  He was also well versed in the ancient legends of Milchy Pass.

Then he extended his hands to Paun.

Seeing her hesitation, Uul’fr reached in and accepted his greeting.  “Welcome to our house, Pid’yn Ba.  This is certainly …”  She had to force a smile.  “…a major surprise.”

The stairwell door leading to the yard and lower level chambers slid open.  All eyes turned that way, as Hentilose and Deeg, radiant in their finery, flanked the appearance of their feminine efforts.

A sheer ochreous cloth draped from her shoulders to a low neckline, then clung to her petite figure down to her pelvis.  Her slender but shapely legs remained exposed, except for the transparent loiner flaps which fell to her silvery-lace toes.  Flower vines and ribbons trimmed her long sorrel hair.  Her left ear glistened with a carnelian ring from her father.  The Gominex noon tinted her lips and highlighted her lovely bluestone eyes.  And her tender brown skin embered with the fragrance of arborlilies’ tears.

This was not the Klas Tel everyone knew.  Here stood a temptress.  A noble lady.

A woman now.

Enamored For The Stars, Pid’yn Ba went up to the enchanting beauty, who coyly lauded his own deviate mien with just a hint of a smile.

Then curtsying before her, he said, “My lady, I love you with all my heart.”

He rose and took hold of her outstretched hands, and said, “Hello, Tel.”

“Hello, Ba,” she rejoined in a loud whisper.

He wanted to kiss her, as he was accustomed to doing.  But a remindful finger traced his lips.  And he discreetly pecked the top of her hands.

Most of the company was still in shock.  Strek, on the other hand, covered her face and laughed quietly.

Arm in arm with her lover, the woman of the hour introduced all the unfamiliar faces to him.  Occasionally she would look over at her mother.  Each time she sensed the ire knotted inside of her.

At length, Tel asked Ba, “Did you bring something for my Aunt Uul’fr?”

“Hmmm?”  He rubbed his chin and pondered momentarily.

Reaching into his robe, she produced a small dagger—which had once been the tip of a Serpentlord’s arrow—and directed it near his throat.  “Dreaming of dead night?”

He thought quickly.  “I believe Aperm knows.”  And she gave him a tight-lipped grin and returned the blade.

While he and Roit unloaded the baskets from his brigerpin, Klas went over and put and arm around her dispirited siress.  “I know what you’re feeling, mother, and how difficult it is for you right now… to want to just loosen your metal.”

Genj blue!

“I can guess what else you’re thinking.  That it’s all for amnesty.  Well, it’s not.  All I’m asking for… is this time today.  Afterwards, I’ll risk till Hev’N’s Rebirth to see him.  But I will never betray him, just as you can trust me never to support any cause against you.  Please trust me, mother.”

Paun could not dispel her gloom.  “You will have this day, Klas Tel, just as you had me promise.”

“For the fair matron of Gwil Fyr,” said Pid’yn, setting one of the woven palm receptacles in front of her.

Uul’fr blushed excitedly, then opened the basket and removed a hooded cloak with soft purple fur both inside and out.

“Oh!  For The Stars it’s beautiful!  Perfect for the cold drifts.”

After a few spins in front of the reflection tank, she thanked the giver with a fervent hug.

“Where’d you get this?” inquired Jyl about the empty basket.

“That’s the sailorboy for you!” laughed L’Sar.  “More interested in the tuxhil basket.  Oops!  Sorry!”  She caught Uul’fr’s frown and remembered too late (for the ilyonth time) about her repulsion of profanity.

Klas giggled and told her father that he must wait his turn.  M’Sish whispered in his ear to save his questions for the appropriate time.

The next gift was presented to Paun— “To soothe a rounder’s View.”

Unwrapping a thin black veil, the mistress lifted out a large earthenware pot, supported by a miniature rigging frame.  A family of bright red cullyblossums yawned periodically within their sand rock habitat, releasing a white mist which transformed to a dust, then vaporized.

In a low key, Paun, “Breach a vestal!  Very interesting.  What stars will it take?”

Ba answered, “Any light, or none at all.  Just keep it away from the billows gulls.”

“No problem.  This stays inside.  Wobe, hang this over the table, will you?”

Her attention was then drawn to the fine material, which had overlaid the strange plant.  At times the fabric seemed limpid in spots, before a random motion altered those same areas to opaqueness, while clearing others.

“I was going to decorate the hanger with strips from that, but Q’Lom suggested that I leave it whole.”

There was enough material to make a suitable cloth.  While slightly waving the ebony sheerness, Paun commented, “May your sister remain a beautiful as she is wise.”

“Mistress Paun is very kind.”

Then the Sinner said, “I am pleased with your gift, Pid’yn Ba.”

“I am glad, m’lady.”

Soon Jyl was holding a small vessel.  Before unlocking its treasure, he marveled over the nichli palm interlacings.

“Aren’t you going to open it?” asked Y’Moir.

Finally, he did open it and examined the contents—an ostealwand and a runed clarion sheet.

“That’s it?”

“Y’Moir!”  M’Sish’s gentle frown sufficed, and the young rounder constrained herself with a discontented sigh.

“Is it alright to read this… out loud?”

“That’s up to you Jyl.  Your gift.”

Paun’s sharp nudge in his side meant—Read it!

“Okay.  It’s etched in ChaulEr… Yuudm.”  He looked around at everyone.  “…and QortLite.”  He went on, “It says –

‘be a day the breath of this light;

be the way—nearest the robe;

be the dusk the rousing of the Fenmare.

Zu Jjin.̕᾽ˮ

M’Sish put her hands to her face and gasped.

“Strange lyrics.”

Trust them to be true, Jyl—came the voice in his head, the holy woman’s voice.  Her eyes fixed upon his, the Yuudm felt a sincerity, which emphasized—Their worth For The Stars.

Nevertheless, the wand required a looksee.  But when Tel’s father removed the coverscreen, no light sprung from the prehistoric bone insert—as if it were untreated.  M’Sish’s intuition, however, was verified, for she sensed the invisible glow.   So did the Gypsy, who trifled with her clouding pearls.

“The lamp of a moonless sky,” she explained.  “It is a rare energy, which you must economize.”  She touched his shoulder and assured him, “An honorable gift.”

Taking her word for it, the Goronz Woodlander resheathed the unique candle and thanked the brother of the elkstallions.

Roit was knocked spellbound by the unlikely contents of his basket, which was actually more of a wrapping than a container.  His eyes drooled over the large chunk of wood he held, with its granitic solidity, and its brilliant array of reds, yellows and greens, and its omnidirectional fibers.

Pid’yn began, “There’s a whole wagonload of timbers of this stuff right ____”

“Where?” cried the ecstatic cater-planer, hugging his prize.  Sneering at all the joggling heads, he added, “Hey!  This is the closest I’ve come to holy water in a long time.  In fact, keep your damn water.  Where’d you say the rest of this was?”

“Outside your workshop.”

“Outside my ___”

Roit hastened for the stairwell.  He paused, and said, “My niece is yours.”  He was out and in again.  “… or any of those other girls you prefer.  Take them all!”  and he disappeared.

Klas Tel laughed.  “I’m afraid Uncle Roit will not be seen the rest of the day… maybe not even till next Firth Falls.”

There was only one basket left.

Lately rather a sedate renegade, Pid’yn Ba then spoke to Paun’s sister and declared that she herself must unsling a small sack from Aperma’s neck.

M’Sish proceeded to his fearsome elkstallion and returned with a corded tattered pouch.  She offered it to Ba, but he firmly declined it

“Before you look at your gift, let everyone be warned that no one but Votress M’Sish must handle the contents of that sack.”

Votress?  The company was puzzled.  It was a witch’s title.

Getting an affirmative nod from the dowerman, the resigned tender-hearted woman reached in and procured a small piece of common rock.

“Zu Jjin!” said Ba.

M’Sish looked up at him and remained advertent.

He continued with the accompanying message: “In your charge is confided a pulsar.”

Himmwast moved in for a better view.  Her mind was a blasphemous unrest.  How she yearned desperately to invest her clouding net around the modest object.

“You will rendezvous with Dyydz, who will be expecting you.  Then you will return to the Fetistry and resume your training under Dowser Iiq.”

“What!” exclaimed Uul’fr.  “She’s not a ____”  But her niece’s grave visage was certainly no denial of any sorcerous involvement.  “M’Sish.  Is that where you’ve been… praying all this time?  Why?  Why are you ____”

“May the Usinwat Current uphold thy wings evermore, Pid’yn Ba.”

“Thank you, m’lady.  But if I have subjected you to any embarrassment, I offer ____”

“You have done more than I could have ever anticipated.  You have stirred my pride—agreeably!”  She cupped the stone in her palms, then folded her hands next to her heart, and remarked, “What a wonderful surprise!”  Meanwhile, deep inside of her, she withheld a newborn secret, as she felt the tingling breath of the pulsar, warning her of some proximate danger.

Uul’fr shot a disappointing glance at Paun, whose own feigned expression could only sympathize with her.  And feigned it was, for she was already well aware of her sister’s association with the dowser.

“They say that even the rowdy has a sensual side,” commented Pid’yn, as he handed Y’Moir her present.

It was a sizable bottle, curiously-designed—like an otkum bulb, yet well crafted.  An ebonstone statuette of two women—one carrying an urn, the other a carillamond chip—crowned its crystalline structure.

“How does the top come off?”

Klas guided her sister’s hand, putting one finger into the urn and the thumb onto the jewel.  After a gentle chime, a small amount of fluid squirted onto her fingertip.

For Y’Moir, there was no second guessing the bouquet.  “It’s shaff!”

“It’s your favorite,” pointed out Swamb Ley.  Quietly she thought— It’s our favorite.

Y’Moir looked at her sister, who winked a smile.  Normally she and her Uncle Roit had to bargain vigorously with the Unvesyn merchants for just a vial of the costly perfume.  Now she has enough to last till HevN’s Rebirth.

Q’Lom asked her, “Do you find this gift satisfactory?”

“Yes,” she replied.  “Of course!”  Then with a rounder’s heartiness she shook the generous man’s hand and gave a glowing “Thanks!”

While the visitants babbled over the various gifts, M’Sish interrupted with a polite “Xyyamu.”  The din having subsided, she explained, “In the same order, the acceptors may now pose any questions relative to this ritual—if you wish.”

Uul’fr didn’t wait to be announced.  “All right, Klas—our shy little gardener.”  There was a wave of laughter from the audience.  “So today your mother finally comes out of you, huh?  Quite a surprise, Klas Tel.  Quite a surprise.  So.  How did you chance to meet… Pid’yn Ba?”

The young lady proudly held her lover’s arm and seemed to direct her answer at him.  “Well… Botator nicked a wing at Bur.  It was my fault.  I was trying to cut the lower arch, and ____”

“The lower arch?” mused L’Sar.

“Yes.  And the wrong side too.”

“Bevleba!” someone whispered.

“Of course we didn’t make it.  Poor Bota.  He screamed on the pullout.  He whined for a long time on the scaurflat.  And I was crying with him.  I was so upset.

“Then this free-lance savage comes along and perches right down next to us.  I swear—I thought he was an Intruder!  Before I knew it, he was talking in a real strange voice to Bota—who stops crying.  I couldn’t believe it!  My stallion was letting this weird man inspect his wound.  He never lets anyone but family touch him.

“Then Ba tells me he’s got some kind of special medicine where he lives.  I said, ‘Hey!  I work at the ranch.  I know how to care for steeds.’  He says, ‘Vet’s poison!’  I told him he was a drunken Serpentlord.

“Before I knew it, he threw me onto his steed and took off—with Botator following us.  One of the patrols near Carillamond Peak spotted us.  Oh, I was relieved to see them!  I almost died when he crossed the Fault… and kept going… Bota too!  Next thing I know: there was the patrol, hovering at Zumenhyyx, and we’re flying over ____

“You can see the lizards everywhere.  Oh!  It was so frightening!  I was still shivering on the plateau.  I didn’t care what he ____”

“Horsdeor?” Paun cut in.

“Genj blue!”

Turning to Pid’yn, the Sinner hardened her tone.  “You took my child to Ror?”

But Tel intervened.  “Several times.”

Paun momentarily studied her daughter’s telltale expression, then asked her matron, “Are you finished, Aunt Uul’fr?”
“I… can’t think of anything else… just yet.”

Klas Tel was somehow expecting her mother’s unwonted query.

“That first day… at the Plateau—did he… seduce you?”

A noiseless heave crossed the matt, together with some censored objections, trained on a probable breach of Silence.

“As a matter of fact,” said Tel, “It was I who seduced him.”  Again – that hint of a smile, which her mother mirrored this time.

Since his question was not pertinent to the dower, Jyl said that he would talk with M’Sish afterwards.

“Well,” began Q’Lom, “If there are no more inquiries, we can proceed with the ceremonial prayer.  Deacon M’Sish will preside as ___”

“I have something to ask,” said Y’Moir.

“I knew it!” rapped Ley, who spoke for all the guests.

“Well, dammit, Swamb!  It’s important.”

“Of course, of course!  We’re all sure it is.”

Q’Lom put a friendly hand on the tiro’s shoulder.  “It’s all right, Y’Moir.  We will hear from you now.”

Fiddling with her neckring, the youthful rowdy faced her sister.  “I want everything to be right for you, Klas.  It doesn’t matter who your lover is—even if he’s one of the H’Gaumz—I don’t care.  Well… not really one of the H’Gaumz.  But just as long as you’re happy—that’s fine with me.”  She turned and addressed the others, “So long as this Roost is not dishonored.”

Her eyes held the dowerman’s, and she went on.  “I am very proud of my home, Pid’yn Ba.  Not only for the family who shares it with me, but also for its history, which has wrought of great deeds, even before my mother’s time—when my grandsire was patron here.  And as you may already know these things of my House, so should I desire to know of you.  Not your Roost, for the Roost of Jaamdih—outside of your infamous past— has more than proven itself.  I need to know something else from you.”

Once again it was sunrise at Tharm.  No one could ever remember Y’Moir being so serious.  After all, she was just a schooler.  Perhaps she was afraid of losing her sister.  No.  Klas would never suspend their relationship.

“They say that Pid’yn Ba would not accept the ways that govern us today.  And that he fled the laws of the land to fend for himself.  They say that Pid’yn Ba spends more time in the company of beasts—speaking their tongues and migrating their paths—more than he is with his people.  And so, they say that Pid’yn Ba is selfish with respect to ChaulE and thinks only of himself in this life.

“But today he appears not in the guise of the beast, who escaped both the wrath of the Semdraks and our landlocked patrols.  Today he curtsies in the House of Gwil Fyr and offers generous gifts to her household.  Gifts that – I don’t know about anyone else—but I have never seen such gifts in this land.  And my question is: how is it that Pid’yn Ba, who is neither cwolwisan or rounder—how is he able to come by such generous gifts as these?  And more importantly, why has he not provided something of exceptional worth for my sister, who is responsible for this truce today—out of her love for him?”

If Klas Tel was hurt, it was not by Y’Moir’s cross-examination.  She had figured on her sister’s natural dramatics—though something of a lesser degree.  But the stillness in the room.  The restrained concern on her lover’s face.  Those were what ached her.

Q’Lom came up to her brother, and stated, “It is a fair question.”

Through the matt window, Ba could barely discern the luster of the Lynk.  The maritime bridge was stretched to its fullest with a mild current—still plenty of time before the herd would arrive.

Surprisingly he asked M’Sish if it was all right to have his response witnessed by the Flame.  Agreeing to his request, she pulled a marble canister from her robe, opened it, and revealed a granule from the Fire of Fidelity.

Then Ba clasped Tel’s hands and wooed her with loving eyes.  She was not so nervous now.

He prayed to Dyydz the Ruskalik to help him with his story.  “Kod—he’s a yebirulp brother.  He warned me to bundle up for a really cold drift.  So I did.  He led Aperm and me as far as the View of Urroze.  There some verkites hailed us.  Oh, they were expecting us.  And they already knew our names.  We traced them across the pyrecone reefs, past the slushmounds, and perched right on the edge of the Beryl Glacier.

“Third time I ever saw glenbears.  That day there was a bunch of them.  They had me scoured.  Then told me to go with them—without my wings.  We went through so much shifting ice.  So many tunnels—was like Hoonwaw’s—I’d never find my way in or out again.  Finally, we reached this titan blue rock.  At first I thought it was genj.  But this stuff was unforged.  An opening appeared.  We entered.  And here we were, in some hot rock compartment—no furniture, no décor, no plants—nothing but this warm blue cave.

“I heard someone say, ‘Hello, Pid’yn Ba.’  I looked around and saw this… person… in a green robe.  I said to myself, Not another Dowser Iiq!  (No offense, M’Sish.)  She slid back her hood and showed me her white hair.  It was curly— like Y’Moir’s.   And her face was very dark—like Strek’s.  But she was really young.  Younger than… she was like Tel.  Then she flashed her palms, and said, ‘Call me Corvus.’  And we plopped on her stony floor with her purple furry friends beside us.

“I thought, This can’t be the High Nun—the Anchorite of Urroze.

“She laughed when I told her how I expected to find some old hermit fanatic I’d have to pry from vespers.  Then right away she explained to me how religion is no longer strictly pertinent to divine or superhuman relationships.  That everyone is a unique religion.  And …  She could babble For The Stars this way.  You Brewists would love her.

“Anyway, Kod had briefed her really well about me… and about my request.  How I was a drunken Serpentlord for this fairling.  How I wanted this dower to be really special.

“While we sowed the wind, the room started going to sunset, till I could barely see her.  When it fired back to normal again, I noticed we were in a different chamber.  And the glenbears were gone.  It was like the first place, surrounded by rock.  But it was filled with all sorts of … weird things… devices—I’m not sure.

“She called it her hoarding chest.  There were items that looked like treasure strewn about.  Lights like miniature suns that could fit in the palm of your hand—they floated all over the place.  Some of them had voices… and music… all sorts of strange sounds coming out of them.  I can’t even begin to describe the other stuff she had.

“Then she asked me, ‘See anything you like?’

I showed her what really caught my eye.

“ ‘It shall be yours,’ ” she said.

“ ‘Just like that?’

“She laughed.  ‘Fool’s goddesses if I’m that generous!  You have the steeds… the gift of tongues… You’re going to have to prove to that girl that you really love her.’

“ ‘And to do that, I must …’

“She told me to go to Nevztower.  You know, the one that levitates above Ralret’s Maelstrom.  ‘Fetch the Kaldron Arc.  It’s in the axle.’  She said that no one but Bedlamite serpents lived there now.  That most of the last keepers were consumed during the Guild exorcism.  ‘If anyone’s got siege on their mind, the whirlpool’s got all the ship’s covered.  Most magicians don’t care to bother with the Arc anyway, since its makeup is too unique to its creators.  Just not worth the trouble.  In any case the tower proves to be no cause for worry in its present idleness.’

I asked her, “ ‘Then why do you want the flame?’

“ ‘Just to have it.  Never know when you’ll need a little devilish fire.  Oh, yeah… and, uh… I’m the standard, remember?’

“ ‘Couldn’t I just loan you a brigerpin, and you could ____’

“Then it was, ‘Whoa, boy!  Hey!  I’m not that enthusiastic.  Know what I mean?  Nothing personal.  But I’m not into riding elkstallions or anything else.  All the adventure I want is right here at Beryl Glacier.  I’ve had my fill of jousting.  Besides, I don’t love Klas Tel.  You do.  Correct?  And I don’t give a damn about passion games either.  But dowers sure take the Bblonfen out of family feuds.  Now, are you still interested in my toys?’

“I said, ‘Genj blue, lady!  You know it!’  Then I looked around again and told her she had an interesting studio.

“The next thing I know, we’re back at that first barren room again, and she tells me, ‘This is my studio.  Often in the quest of reasons, some of us prefer to tinker inside the less distractive mediums.  And I am quite comfortable here.’

“She flopped on her hood, and one of the glenbears entered.  She said, ‘Go with Eoath.  He will take you to one of his elders.’

“Then she sat down and crouched into the floor.  The night huddled her.  And I was tromping through the ice passages again.

“I didn’t realize it at first, but this was just the beginning of a series of visits that I’d have to make.  After I fish-sweated awhile with Mrance the Elder, he casually shed his entire hide in front of me.  He said that the coat would be prepared in due time.  And that a Beryl Moon and some tunneling by me in the glacier would be fair compensation.

“After a day’s rest, the Elder had Aperm and me trace the verkites to Gownliid.  That’s Nocrusai land.  The Ghost Warriors?  Oh, and they’re primitive rappers.  But no one gets into their Dawn Caverns unless they say so.  They said so for me.

“I saw the strangest plants.  Your kind of home, Jyl.  You’d love this place.  Vines, shrubs, trees, flowers, fruits—growing everywhere, even on the walls and ceilings.  A few of them had temporary rootholds, so they were able to reposition themselves.

“On the ground were these blinking spots, which were actually coming from the pods of the Nocrusai’s unborn children, buried there and feeding off the humus.  Quite a place!

“Anyway, I showed them the plant I wanted.  They said it would cost me a Beryl Moon as well as some work to ready an uncultivated cave.

“In a couple of days I was pointed at Strigwood, named after the owlains who lived there.  And I mean owlains!  Anyone ever see a rainbow forest?  Most beautiful trees on Lynk Star!  Like the others, the Strig knew why I was there.  They took me to the middle of a scorched graveyard of stumps, where they had a bonfire going.  Then they had me put on this robe made of their molted feathers and told me to smother out the flames.  Whew!  Spew on your matrons’ pyres!  I was working on my third timber, when they stopped me and put out the fire themselves.  I thought I was going to be an early evening meal.

“After some simmered treebark—pretty tasty stuff—I culled some choice logs, but they told me that I still owed them a Beryl Mon.  Then they said I needed an omata shell and told me to fly to Unvesy and to call upon the taskmaster of the Shaff mines and offer my services.

“I spent several days there picking into the metal subterrain, seeking out omata for just a few drops of their fluid.

“Finally I winged from Unvesy with a borrowed shell and with the promise to return the creature to its former habitat, and also to pay the balance of one Beryl Moon to the trusting minelord.

“When I returned to Strigwood, there was quite an assemblage waiting for me—Herbagers, glenbears, Nocrusai, and of course, the owlains.  With the Ghost Warriors and glenbears riding the larger stallions, we all flew towards Ralret, where we easily took the tower and rapped the vipers to dead night.

“Then I walked the omata around the central pillar and asked her to smell for the buried Arc.  She found a good spot and began chewing a tunnel through the shaft and towards the energy source.  No sooner did she come back to tell me she had discovered the fire, when this arm of flame pops out of the damn hole, soars out of the tower, and dives straight into the whirlpool.

“All of a sudden this place is trembling with fever.  So we all mounted up and sped out of there, then watched the old Shaman Kaldronette take a maelstrom dip and drown.

“When I related to Corvus what happened, she said she never expected me to return with the Arc anyway, and that I had indeed succeeded with my task.

“So, happy with that, I brought the omata back to Unvesy’s breeding grounds… thanking her, of course…  payed everyone off accordingly, and ____”

“How?” blurted Y’Moir.

Pid’yn was warned to expect unexpected challenges from Tel’s sister.  “How what?”

For Y’Moir, this was the most Bedlamite tale she had ever heard.  “How could you possibly compensate for their favors?  With the Beryl Moons?  I mean, almost everyone’s heard the myth about them.  How during the Cataclysm the Unholy Choir wept over the entire Brew.  How eleven of their tears fell onto Chal’Iss, with all of them dropping into the Urroze Lake.  How countless Rebirths later, eleven jewels were born from the Beryl Ice.  Come on, Pid’yn Ba!  The stones were legendary.  Surely you’re not insinuating that these were the gems you spoke of.”

Ba retorted in that witling manner to which Tel was already accustomed.  “Come on, Y’Moir!  Surely you’re not insinuating that the Fire of Fidelity is inaccurate.”  Then drawing his listeners’ attentions to the sacred flame, he reiterated, “Everyone who requested a Beryl Moon in fair exchange for their honorable goods, received as such from my own hand.”

Evaluating his heart, the fire burned a slow-wavering cold blue.  In the face of the genj truth, even M’Sish was somewhat staggered.  The only other comprehensible possibility was that the Beryl Moons relevant to Pid’yn Ba were not relevant to the popular fable.  However…

Taking advantage of the quietude, the unruffled dowerman went on, “The wand and the pulsar were personally selected by the High Nun, with her assurance that a greater potential endowed the fate pertinent to each of these objects.”  How’d I ever memorize that?

Ba stroked the petal softness of his lover’s cheek, and said, “Then Corvus spirited me back to her hoarding chest and once again showed me the bouquet of stars, which have kindled the fancies of both beggars and gods.  And I reached into that hold abloom… and for you… I chose this.”

From inside his robe he withdrew a battered old seashell, its valves shut by a flower vine, and handed it to Klas Tel.

Klas looked at her sister, and remarked, “Pid’yn Ba is certainly a man of great deeds, huh?”

Sounding unimpressed, Y’Moir replied, “Yeah.  Sure.  It’s a real nice… seashell.”

“I am satisfied,” said Tel, but then her sister nudged her.  “Something wrong?”

“Open the goddessdamn shell, Klas.”

Uul’fr’s countenance cursed the young tiro.

“Oh?  You think there’s something inside?  Well, why don’t we take a peek.  Okay…? Ready?… I’m going to open it.”

Y’Moir soughed a sour face and stood impatiently.  This was Tel’s style to the hilt.

“I’m removing the flower wrapping.  Pretty flowers, aren’t they?” she smiled.  “And now… what do you think’s inside?”  Y’Moir didn’t answer.  “Let me guess.  I’ll say it’s… a Beryl Moon.  What do you think?”

A little sarcastic, Y’Moir responded, “I would expect nothing less!”

Klas laughed, “Okay.  Here goes!”

As she slowly separated the valves, a verdant light flickered onto Tel’s face.

“Let’s see.  It looks like… Oh, Ba!  I love you!”

In the next instant she held up a shimmering necklace—a golden thread ornamented with six green pearls, each one alive with a Brew of sparkling lights.

“Wandering reef!”

“Bevleba!”

“Zu Jjin!”

Beryl Moons—For The Stars!”

Klas rushed into Pid’yn’s arms and squeezed him.  Twinkling suns moistened her eyes.

Ba said, “See.  By next Rebirth, there’ll be more of these germinating in my robe.”

While Deeg affixed the necklace for the honored daughter of Gwil Fyr, the company took turns examining the precious band.  Meanwhile, Y’Moir thanked the dowerman with a glenbear hug and told him he was a most honorable suitor.

Soon the princess and her prince faced each other again, hands joined, and the Fire of Fidelity listened to their vow which they declared together:

“Hear, our Future’s ear

Of today

A more fertile echo—

And this amorous passionate peace renew—

Again by your offspring

Reecho—

And again—

Pray, lovers keep us till Tomorrow’s end.”

Finally, they kissed, as passionate lovers do.  And during their embrace the Fortress Gang surrounded them with a song, which Myim always sang by the sketsal pond:

“…My hand… her hand embrace

Face to face.

Then whisp’ring thoughts of now,

Sung somehow.

And closely wrap ourselves—

Holding well.

to taste and feel the sun

While we run…”

A peculiar wind blew above the roof of Gwil Fyr.

“Time to wing it,” said Ba.

“I’m ready, love.”

“Hey, everyone!” yelled V’Shae, who had stepped outside to check the commotion.  “Take a look at this.”

Like the impending Harem, a legion of brigerpin circled overhead.

“For The Stars!”

“Look at them all!”

“Every stallion on the Plateau must be here today.”

“Wonder what’s going on?”

Strek had already guessed that this was Pid’yn’s cover out of here.  It was too dangerous for anyone else to fly among the Herbage steeds, their violent tempers being what they were.  A history of pursuers could attest to that.  There were no appreciable close-ups of a wild elkstallion (except for Aperma’s present station) much less a successful capture.

The betrotheds briefly exchanged gratitudes and farewells with their guests.

Paun was imagining the possibility of a reformed renegade and contemplated on what Irn had just whispered to her.  Remember, sister, he has the really good steeds.  She bestowed her sincere blessings on the two—which was worth another exhilarating hug from her grown up daughter.

Roit, still in his formal attire and spattered from head to toe with a spectrum of planedust, arrived at the scene just as Aperma and his riders disappeared into the brigerpin cloud.  By Spot Rises they would be long past the Stone Bar’s View.

“Time to break open the orshyve,” said Paun.

“Genj blue!” seconded Emgroy.

Jyl began kidding M’Sish about her clandestine practicing of witchcraft.  Not amused, she reproved him, arguing that Dowser Iiq dealt in powers of truth.  The rest of the afternoon she would also be busy dissuading the Gypsy from a closer look at her pulsar stone.

“Can you believe it?” remarked Nether.  “Pid’yn Ba!”

“I know,” laughed Wober Fel.  “We haven’t been able to touch him… for how long?  And now Klas has got him ribbon-wrapped.”

“Aunt Sari, what do you think of all his far-fetched stories?  Sounded pretty unreal to me.”

“You know, I’m surprised, Y’Moir.  You didn’t tell the old boy about you’re not believing in the Fire.  How come?”

“How come?  Well, damn!  I wasn’t going to get into any rappings—not with the majority of you blue believers—especially with Aunt M’Sish around.”

“Oh?  And you don’t think the Flame can verify conditions relating to you?”

“Hey!  If it can’t verify my father in any way, then it’s not completely reliable, is it?”

Q’Lom, who had overheard their discussion, broke in, and said, “One thing you can be sure of, Y’Moir.  Try following your sister—right now!  A day’s tilling says you don’t get a spit from the Labyrinth.”

Couldn’t argue with that, for only the brethren steeds of Pid’yn Ba defied the Nalfin without fear.

Chellis Bell!  A song of land.

Soon afterward, a sentry relayer unsaddled herself and hurried into the house without knocking.  “Mistress Paun, Daam Pwil Nin sends her regrets for having disturbed you at this time.  But she felt the identity of the drifter might be of interest to you.”

The Sinner put an arm around the relayer, and said, “Tell me it’s Ov, and you can have the rest of the day off—including tomorrow.  Otherwise… you’re disturbing our party.”

“Mistress Paun.  It is the Isle of Ov.”

She wasn’t joking.  She wouldn’t dare!

“Lady… “

“Lady Dote Nad, Mistress Paun.”

“Dote, I order you to join in this celebration with us.  Y’Moir, get her a cloth.”

The dower was all but forgotten.

In a little while the company raised their goblets, as Paun proposed her revenge-minded toast.  “Land, ho!  The Isle of Ov, ho!”

  1. Blue Gull

There was a knock at the door.  Klas Tel wondered who it could be.  It had been so peaceful at home today.  Even Uncle Roit’s shop, which adjoined her room, was occupied with dead night.  Almost everyone had flocked to the Tuud ridge to watch the battle, raging about a league off shore.  Scouts from the ChaulEr allies had been watching Ov’s drift since Ayopee.  Now their fleets were laying siege to the small island fortress. The defenders and populace waited too long and could not escape in time to outrun the current encirclement of ships.  Ov was too distant from the main forces of Six Kingdoms.  No one would come to their aid.

Klas hurried to the door, and hoped.  Maybe it’s ____

It wasn’t.

“Aunt Sari!”

She was alone.  “Hi, Klas.  Can we talk a bit?”

“Of course.  Come on in.  The fight must be mellowing out, huh?”

“Not really.  But I needed to see you.”

“Oh?”  Tel grabbed a fresh goblet and filled it with pretberry juice.  Thirst quenching was certainly the order of this dry dead wind morning.  “What about?”

Taking a healthy swallow of the bracing nectar, the Gattarene switched her gaze from Klas to the elkstallion grazing in the distance.  “I remember when you first got Botator.  You and Y’Moir got steeds at the same time.  But at the dower you mentioned that he followed you and Pid’yn Ba… all the way to Horsdeor.  I didn’t say anything then.  But… I am curious.  He does not fear the sea?”

Klas Tel looked at her brigerpin, and said, “Not anymore.”

“So Pid’yn Ba did this?  Broke his fear and made him like the others?  The other wild ones?”

“Yes.  But…”  Klas could sense the extreme interest in the Sinner’s voice.  “What is it, Aunt Sari?  You didn’t leave the View of Ov and the fires of war to come here and talk about Bota.”

L’Sar went over and put an arm around her adopted niece.  “Oh yes I did.  You see… It concerns someone… very dear to me.”

Even before washing into Reelam’s View, the enemy stronghold was already under siege by the Leetians and the Bweciards.  The allied commanders were taking full advantage of nature’s course, which presently set Ov several hundred leagues from the motherland.  Four short days earlier they had forced Captain Lif Ubju and his support fleet to retreat back to Six Kingdoms.  Now with ChaulE as their neighborhood supply line, they were in a prime position to wear down the island’s more moderate defense.

Like the Bidet mainland, Ov was warded by a soaring fortress, which also housed a fleet of its own.  However, unlike the others, the perimeter wall was never completed.  One of the canalways being unobstructed—a credit to Bidet’s foolish unreadiness—the porticullis was left vulnerable to the initial ramming vessels.

Could Six Kingdoms convince their few allies to dispatch their own fleets to try and rescue her treaty-purchased isle?  The Aul guessed she would not.  In fact, Bidet’s earlier attempt to blockade the less powerful leaguers didn’t quite work out to what had been expected either.  That unpredictable drift again.  Emperor Swenn couldn’t afford to spread his dominion too thinly—not with the likes of Lord Kuom rapping the Nalfin.

It was simply a matter of time then, before Ov would either surrender… or be interred.

Meanwhile, inside the highest point of her castle, on the highest hill of this small island, the most beautiful woman on Lynk Star knelt before a mirror.  For the upteenth time she tried her hardest to humble herself.  And still her speech on begging forgiveness never seemed humble enough.  Her offering the wealth of the world was not enough.  Were she to betray all the secrets of Six Kingdoms—it would not be enough.  She thought about unbeautifying and disguising herself as someone more plain.  She might then mingle with the common folk and never be found.  The unadorned, smelly, vulgar… common folk.  No.  She would not give up the reflection before her.  She must practice her surrender, until ____

All of a sudden!  In the mirror!  Outside!  She turned and looked behind her… and saw…  nothing.  It looked so real.  But that would be impossible.  Here at Ov.  A brigerpin flying past her window.

Qasr’Kwen certainly had the look of one of Qeenmother’s birthdays.  Actually everyone was celebrating yesternight’s fall of Ov, whose charred fort would eventually be dismantled and replaced with a new crusm orchard.  Lord Kuon, who engineered the successful attack, enjoyed taking his pretentious bows.  No one seemed to mind, though, particularly those who had been previously enslaved by the Bidets.  To them, Kuom would become one of the great liberators of all time.  There was one noteworthy prisoner—  Ats-gisab, a well-known seaman, who had futilely attempted suicide.  The Sinners looked forward to dealing with him personally, but at a later date.

“Hel-loooo, Kuomy!”

The Leetian had scarcely begun to return the Rowdy’s greeting, when the robust woman lifted him of the Prym deck and smothered him with another one of her devastating kisses.  Fortunately, he managed to sneak in a breath or two—probably a lifesaver—because the Huntress immediately followed suit.

“Ladies, please!” cautioned a smiling Molug.  “We must preserve our beloved conquerors for tomorrow’s rounds.  Hello, Lord Kuom.”

He accepted her handshake, saying, “Thank you for rescuing me, Gyel Molug.  I had already despaired to dead night.”

Paun noticed a frail but attractive woman with a blue tan standing idly behind Kuom.

“Who’s pulling up your ass, great Lord?”

“Paun!” snarled Molug.  Then more politely, the councilor asked, “Who’s your friend, Kuom?”

“Oh, her?  This lovely lady, my dear friends, is Teno Lor.  She was a prisoner at Ov.   Teno, these are the Sinners—Irn, Himm, Nether, Groy, Paun, Strek, Sari, Wobe… I don’t recognize these others… and this is Gyel Molug.”

The presence of this dreadful troupe made the woman uneasy.  And she was a little frightened by the Gypsy’s single eye.  But she recalled that they were Bidet’s enemies as well as the Intruder’s.

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance.  On the boat ride over, Lor Kuom bragged highly of … all of you—especially you, ChaulEr Paun.”

The Mistress ran her fingers through the Leetian’s hair, and remarked, “Honorable Kuom!”

“So what was Ov like?” asked the Winger.

Teno Lor frowned, and replied, “Forgive me, but I would rather not talk about it.  I wish nothing but the Fenmare’s plague upon Bidet.”  Grief and hate burned from her aspect.

Paun leaned on her shoulder and sympathized with her.  “Me too!”

“Come on, sisters,” said V’Shae.  “We’d better mingle with Citau Bwec, or Qeenmother will declare Subdefiance.”

“Good idea,” concurred Molug.  “Nice to see you again, Kuom.”

Bowing to his company, he uttered, “Ladies.”

Teno Lor also bid them a good day.  “Lavender Lynk.”

The Sinners stopped dead in their tracks and stared hard at Kuom’s companion.

Reverting to the woman, L’Sar asked, “What did you just say?”

“I meant no offense,” replied Lor, who was shivering now.  “It is only our way of ____”

“What did you say, goddessdammit!”

Petrified, the woman looked to the Leetian captain for help, but all he told her was, “It’s okay, Teno.  Just repeat what you said.”

Finally, she answered, “I only said Lavender Lynk.”

At the top of her lungs, Wober Fel yelled, “Xyyamu!” and the palatial gathering hushed itself.

Then Himmwast crowned the woman with her periapt of pearls.  Stealing her vision, she inquired, “Wherefore dost thou come?”

Unable to resist the Gypsy’s power, Teno Lor responded in a slow monotone, “I… am … from… Yuud… … on Crus’Ybl.”

The Qeen motioned for the Sinner to remove her net and approached this newfound interest.  Giving her a moment to recuperate from the trance, the monarch raised the question again.  “Where are you from, child?”

“Qeen____”  The stillness within this great sphere made her nervous.  “I… I’m from Yuud… You’ve probably never heard of the place.  It’s ____”

“… on Crus’Ybl,” continued Strek, “Where the forest meets Qewo Qewo River, downstone from the Nephowoods.”

“Why… yes… Yes!  Wandering reef!”  She suddenly appeared elated.  “How did you ____.  You’ve been there?”

“There’s someone else here who has,” said the Brewist.

“And you’re going to meet him… right now!” ordered the Qeen.  And a relayer winged it to Goronz Wood.

Teno Lor had never heard of Jyl… or the House of Raa J’Lec for that matter.  But she informed everyone that, then again, Yuud was a very large country—much larger than ChaulE.  Still she was eager to meet his man, who, she was just learning, had become a popular figure on Chal’Iss.

“Ah!  There he is,” said Tonilk, her eyes pointing towards the foyerblock.  “And he looks sober.”

As Jyl descended the steep flight, the Yuudm woman watched him intently.  She almost seemed to recognize him.  He was most of the way down, when she held her heart.

“Oh, no!”  By the time he stepped into the Round, she panicked and scrambled behind Qeenmother’s Guard, shouting, “Stop him!  He’s a fool’s confidant!  An Intruder!  Stop him!  Please!”

On the word Intruder Gyel Stryyx calmly stepped forward, and enjoined, “Constrictor!”

Three gattarenes cracked and wrapped themselves around Jyl’s waist.  The whips were forced only into a binding mode, so as not to even tear his cloth.  Several Guardians ringed him with drawn swords.  All of the allied visitors, except Lor, were discreetly moved against the osteal murals.

Once the rumpus subsided, Jyl looked at Molug, and asked, “Now what tuxhil game are we playing?”

Paun grabbed Teno by her red ringlets, and demanded, “That’s what I’d like to know, skeleton whore!”

Having waved the chief Sinner aside, the Qeen instructed Teno Lor to be wary of the accusations.  That Jyl had through the years amply proven himself an honorable patron of the ChaulEr cause.

There was a retroaction at the holy fountain.  An incandescence about the caryatid.  And Dowser Iiq materialized.  A handful of flame burst overhead the sinking Round.  Qasr’Kwen’s walls dimmed.  And the woman from Yuud found herself alone in the pulsating redness of the Heart.

She shut her eyes and covered her ears, hoping to awaken from some awful dream.

Witches!

Despite the tight bindings which stiffened him in his stance, Jyl remained calm as he looked up and watched the interpretations of the Conceptual net.  Bevleba! He swore to himself.

In the meantime, his hostile compatriot related that she was Teno Lor from Yuud.  According to her testimony, she and scores of others within the QortLite bloc had been purchased by Five Kingdoms for various tasks—she as a courtesan for the Bidet regulars.

“Purchased from QortL?” someone asked.

The Aul had never suspected the Phycom Swenn was in collaboration with Honn Kolcher.

While still living on Crus’Ybl, she was granted visitation rights to see a friend, who was assigned to a harem on a nobleman’s estate, somewhere in Utscrab.

“That nobleman was your trustworthy friend, whom you know as Jyl.”

From the Cloud of thoughts, the groundscaping of this patrician’s property was a nature lover’s dream.  Giant coiper trees, each one ornamented with various hanging gardens.  Charlvines, cavern violets, dusrone cloud pointers.  An ayern trunk, bearing a potterware of golden frost.  Impolstar melon bushes.   And a great zook and toambeg stalk farm.

The interior of this beautiful mansion was embellished by an artisan’s hand, with every room furnished and muraled quite uniquely from the rest.  In the matt was an antique firespele.  Paun winced when she saw the inscription on the outer hearth—Egrit’s Flue.  It matched the Yuudm runes above the fireplace at the Goronz Fortress.

“His guests always addressed him as Lagrelaird.  That was the esteem title given to those tuxhil doorybeasts, who prided themselves as contractors.”

“Contractors?” queried an unseen voice.

Searching the shadows, Lor went on, “Yes.  Contractors.  They would do… anything!—for an urn of hivotch brew, or a half-tract of mireland fief, or a string of musselgems, or a few distinguished genuflections from the baronage…

“Or a woman.

“There was always a woman, somewhere in the fine etchings of their loathsome covenants.”

Teno Lor was crying now.  The appalled audience maintained their compassionate silence.  Appalled?  For The Stars!  Throughout her speech the hovering cloud depicted vivid scenes from her recollection, many of which showed a well-dressed man, who strongly resembled Jyl.  And the Fire of Fidelity confirmed her words.

“Always a woman,” she went on tearfully.  “Isn’t that right… Jyl?  Noble Lagrelaird of Utscrab.  Honorable Mate of Precem Turr.  Servant of Infinity’s Door.  Ingzba, Disciple of Wulscastle.  Compeer of Hya.  Viceguardian of the anJ.  I suppose you’re also a fool’s Kingsman!”

A callous wind swept the royal hall, but it ceased with the expanding radiance of the Dowser, who was ardent in issuing her own question.

“What do you know of the anJ?”

The Yuudm dried her eyes and sniggered.  “The Winged Fruit?  Yebirulps without faces?”  She shook her head and laughed.  “Honn Kolcher considers them the Orphans’ Guiding Light to Eternity.  What a Bedlamite!  They are kept inside a Rokkonz web.  Hya watches them, just in case the devil flyers become too bold.”

Teno looked up at the Conceptual screen, where a great cat could be seen slumbering lazily on the edge of an artless hutch.

“Yup.  That’s Hya.  You can see why they call him The Blue.”

Paun winced again.  She wished now she hadn’t come here today.  Or better yet, that Ov had never drifted into the View.

Unable to cope any more with this eerie atmosphere, Lor begged to be left alone.

“What more do you tuxhil witches want with me?”  Aiming a stern finger at Jyl, she declared, “It is he whose rune marks your land for servitude… or death.  It is he who is the unfeeling ruser, thief, spy, assassin.  It is he who has worn the robes of both QortL and Five Kingdoms.”  For just an instant, the image of King Xemochy—in the company of the Lagrelaird—flashed across the levitating projection.  “As a witch, he has even poisoned the wells of small children.”

Witch.  Wells.  Poison.

With that, the illumination inside the palace returned to normal.  Dowser Iiq was gone.  And the Round had returned to the main floor level.

“Something you want to tell me?”

Paun regarded her enquirer somewhat warily, if not with an aura of unwantedness.  “You have the nose of a carrierhawk, Gyel Stryyx.  Either that, or you’re another goddessdamn witch.”

The exceptional and infamous sleuth ignored the Sinner’s cold manner.  Besides, she’d been called a witch before.  Probably as often as she was called old dribblen jaws.  What was substantial now was that a woman out of the Holten century yawn—a woman from Yuud—had just been successfully verified by the Cloud and Flame, and that she had mentioned Ingzba of Wulscastle among other notorious titles.

So.  I was on the right track, the Gyel complimented herself.  I can dispense with my Bedlamite supposition now.  Sailor, farmer, linguistician, sworder, Brewist—contractor!  If he’s also a witch…

We’ll have to be extra careful.

Standing in front of the Aul bench, Jyl was still in disbelief and complaining about the guardian reins.

“Is that all you have to say for yourself?” snapped Molug.  “Forget it, boy!  It’s time you got used to being fettered.  We’re even going to add another title to your renowned list.  How’s Beggar sound?”

The man tried to throw his arms up and soughed.  “Wandering reef!  You mean to tell me that just because some wretched woman, who claims to be from Yuud, babbles her brains about how ____”

“Are you denying that she’s from Yuud, Jyl?” inquired C’Mize.

“Of course not.  I mean… she seemed to know the place pretty well.  Hey!  She’s had a fairly rough time of it, you know?  She been patron-tossed between the QortLites and the Bidets.  I’m really sorry for all the hulshinsweat she’s gone through.  But she’s got me confused with someone else.”

And the Fire and the Net have got you confused too, right?” said Hegged.

To no one’s surprise, Jyl reverted to his long-lived contention.  “Full suns, half moons, billows’ eyes, toads’ tongues, diced bones, birthday views, pureblood, sour blood.  You generate truth from these—you’re about as reliable as the Shamans.

“Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get back to my farm.  Roit’s helping me set up a new irrigation system.  And I’d like to finish it before second dusk… if it’s all right, of course, with your reputable star consultants.”

“On the contrary, boy,” said Molug.  “You’ll never get a spit from the Scurjatory—not from this day forth.  You can join ____”

“You may go home, Jyl,” said the Qeen, getting up from her seat and walking over to her embittered friend.  “We are truly sorry for having fazed you in front of everyone today.  But it was necessary to allow that girl the fullest unrestraint while releasing her convictions to us.  And you’re quite right: she has suffered considerably.  I must also confess to you that we constructed this brief follow up, in order to examine your own reactions.  By tomorrow the public will be comfortably aware of your unquestionable trust.”

Then, pecking his cheek, she added, “I am sorry that his happened.  Will you join me for evening meal tonight?”

Feeling more relieved, he replied, “Only if Yers makes that fancy stew of hers… and Ton’s got to bake a pretberry pie.”

She smiled, “It shall be given the highest priority.”

After his departure from the council room, Gyel Molug slammed her fist to the bench.  How she craved to declare the Qeen mad!

With her back to the Aul, the low-spirited ruler declared, “We will not kill him, simply because our energies of truth have warranted so.  He will have to show us.”

Gyel Stryyx sat alone in the balcony teasing the ends of her coarse silvery mane through her teeth, and ruminated.  He will.

“Speaking of Beggars…  Molug?”

“Yes, Nek.?”

“Before we adjourn, do you know anything about this letter I received earlier—just before the party?  It motions for a review of the mental capacity of a former Bakwarf, now serving a life sentence at Qul House.  There’s a hint that if sufficient unsoundness exists, that perhaps the Aul might consider her release under some special custody to be agreed upon later.  Also mentioned are arrangements for rehabilitation ____”

“Saurian’s ass!” cried Molug.  “I know that didn’t come through Mistress Paun’s channels.”

“Hmmm…  Close enough.”  Gyel Neked passed the note over to his irascible colleague.

“Breach a vestal!  This is too many drunken Serpentlords for one day.”

It was from Daam L’Sar.

  1. Barter

Look, sisters!  She’s broken!  Her mind’s been rapped by isolation and ravishings For The Stars.  I tell you she’s a harmless… older woman now.  She’s broken to her soul.  Go see for yourselves.  I’m sure that if she’s put ____”

“I’m not wasting my time, Sari.”

The rest of Paun’s sisters felt the same way.  They were outraged when the news finally reached them.  “Not Sari!  She wouldn’t offer to help anyone who’d mark her for the Orchard.  So why all the fuss over a cracked Beggar?  The Gattarene couldn’t still be playing her pride-and-joy-pupil role.”

But she was and not just for old time’s sake.  She had never stopped hoping for that unthinkable parole.  She secretly remained Bakwarf’s only sympathetic visitor, while the keepers and their fiendish associates exploited their prisoner for all her worth.  During the course of the drifting seasons, the Beggar’s decaying spirit became more and more evident.  Today she was an animate form of dead night, whose remarkable presence of less extreme adulthood could only be attributed to L’Sar.  A vial of water always accompanied those visits.

Emgroy thumped her sister in the chest.  “Aren’t you forgetting something, you dumb trull?  That bitch didn’t walk into Aulhall metal in hand.  She was going to scatterbow us like bovaseals on the terrafan.  And you pity that?  You’re dumber than a dumb trull, Sari!”

Paun went nose to nose with her friend, and said, “What’s the matter with you, Gattarene?  Some cwolwisan take your whip away from you?”

A tussle was developing.  L’Sar could feel it.  It was time to make her proposal.

“Let’s have a treaty.”

“A treaty?”

“Bevleba!”

“You’re a drunken Serpentlord, Sari!”

The clouding net stroked the Gattarene’s forehead with the words, “For extrication, perchance, longs the tightly drawn.”

But the fretful Daam shoved the Gypsy aside and aimed a foreboding finger at Paun.

“Goddessdammit!  I’m appealing to you as a pure blood friend.  You turn your back on me now…”  Her mind fumbled for a dagger of sorts, but it was an empty sheath.

Paun leaned against her troubled sister.  “Look, you big …  Take a few days off.  Give the Venimbi a chance to blow over.  Okay?  See you at Spout Falls.”

Seven paces later Paun winced from a sudden welt, which gnashed her backside.  Her sisters sprang into their Guardian Ring, only to behold L’Sar, her uncoiled viper in hand.

As she rewound her whip, the Gattarene remarked, “You just got burned again, sisters.  Good thing the Qeen’s not around, or you’d all be wearing kerchiefs come tomorrow.”  Then she added, “I’ll see you all at the donjon—at Open Lynk—or else…  Or else!”

The Sinners watched her ride off in the direction of the Fortress.

Lady Fent snickered.

“Hey, serpentseed!” cursed Paun.  “Come here and let me break your face in, so we can all laugh.”

Fent couldn’t suppress her humor.  But she was glad that Qeenmother wasn’t there.

Open Lynk—Paun and her Buukliairs were right on time.  Waiting in the cell corridor with L’Sar was today’s keeper, Lady Whab R’Yot.  There was a ruckus going on in the outer non-partitioned enclosure, where three saurians—one H’Gaumz and two Rorsh—were now being detained.  The recent additions also aggravated the already potent stench, which regularly seasoned Qul House.  It was now inducing some bitter memories for at least six of the visitors.

“I’m telling you, Gattarene, this is a waste of time.”

Paun’s mind was made up.  She was simply going through the motions because of her sister’s insistence.  But here the final stand would be.  Whatever terms Sari had to offer would have to pull eternity.

A treaty?  Fool’s goddesses if the Beggar should ever feel the journstars again!

L’Sar nodded, and the keeper inserted her ostealwand into the nearest floorlet, lowering the dungeon’s wall.  Inside, nestled against one of the far corners, was a nude figure, awake, but oblivious to the soldiers observing her.

“Why isn’t she bound, R’Yot?”

“Mistress Paun.  As you can see, she is practically dead night.  She doesn’t even stand up.”

“Dead night, huh?”

Paun went in, lifted the sagging woman to her feet, and pressed her eye-level against the warm fevorock.  As was stipulated in her sentence, the prisoner was cleanly bald.  A rounder’s brawn was now a lean mass of pale tender flesh.  Like those before her, she had to be drugged in order to overcome her unwillingness to live and before being successfully force fed.  He eyes never once moved to notice her company, not even when Paun spoke to her.

L’Sar broke in, “Jyl has agreed to let her work his farm, as soon as she recuperates ____”

Finally, the Mistress released her grip, and the wretch slumped to an abnormal sitting position.

Paun squatted down in front of her.  “You really are broken, aren’t you?  You miserable trull!”  Then she went back to L’Sar, and said, “Still no deal.”

“Just a moment!”

“Forget it, Sari!  She vegetates till HevN’s Rebirth.  Now get some rest—a lot rest—and we’ll catch you for movements at Cosanc.  Let’s go, sisters.”

“You haven’t even heard my treaty out.”

But the group continued towards the tunnelway.

Clutching her whip handle, the Daam yelled out, “Come back here, Lizzy, or I’ll burn my name on your saurian ass!”

The troupe stopped and about-faced.  And Paun stormed towards the harasser.  She held up momentarily, when she saw a sentinel escorting two men in her direction.

Whab R’Yot stepped in quickly and waved at the unexpected company, and ordered, “Not right now, Dedil.  Come back a little later.”

Before Paun could release her stressed anger, L’Sar tossed her the candle.  “My end of the treaty’s next door—behind you.  Go ahead.  Take a peek.”

Paun glared at the Gattarene.  She wanted to dash her sister’s brains out with the glowing stick.

While the Mistress contemplated her next move, the Silverstream came over and relieved her of the wand, then keyed it to the adjacent compartment.  The wall partially depressed, and V’Shae froze.  It was sunrise at Tharm.  And she was riding with her lover on a brigerpin over the Nalfin.  When she turned and looked at Paun, she was smiling the way Klas Tel smiled at the sight of the Beryl Moon necklace.

Irn handed the wand back to Paun and went over and embraced L’Sar.  With that, the rest of the Sinners gathered around the cell, which they opened to its fullest.

As they all stood in the wallway—bewildered For The Stars—a scream erupted.  The lizards followed suit with their own enraging cries.  The phantoms of Qul House raised their baneful goblets and cackled with gratification.

Paun, her expression shocked to a blankness rivaling the Beggar’s, went over and faced L’Sar again.

“How…?”

The Daam cleared her throat arrogantly, then ran her fingers through her winter red mane.  “Oh… Let’s just say that I beat the Great Liberator to Ov’s Tower.  And how I did it is my business.  Fair enough?”

“R’Yot.”

“Mistress Paun?”

While still staring at L’Sar, she said, “Release all the misdemeanors—ChaulEr and saurian.  See that Bakwarf gets Physician K’Triff’s personal attention. Then assign her to Goronz Wood—with a Subdefiance squad.  If she ever attempts to leave the Fortress grounds, she is to be killed immediately.”

“Yes, Mistress Paun.”

“And, R’Yot…  See that the newest prisoner is given all the accommodations as the last Beggar…”  She eyed her scowling sister.  “… Including holy water.”

She embraced the relieved Gattarene and shook her hard.  “My friend, I love you—you beautiful serpentseed bitch, you!”  And she kissed her dotingly on the lips.

The two joined their infamous gang.

“Do I hear one masseuse?”

“Harvest Moon.”

“Now whose fairest on this Star?”

“Timberfore!”

“Dribby want a breaker?”

“Stoneheel: crook high!”

“Serv’d zealously yesterday’s unbelish’d rind— resting upon today’s knees— as awaits an empty cup our runic tokens.”

Till Spout Falls they howled and bedeviled their prize.  And when the wall to that cherished cell rumbled shut again, the eminent tenant wept and pondered despairingly over the truth of Paun’s final words.

“You shall never forget me… Vajjarere!”

A full length mirror was set up in front of the Bidet princess.  Once Paun’s rune was engraved in that once-flawless skin, it would be Nether’s turn to carve her name.  Then Strek’s.   Gypsy would be last.  She always had to be so difficult.  Each day would produce a surprise torment.  Till HevN’s Rebirth.

  1. Fool’s Brigerpin

The defenders watched as the last of the Leetian sails disappeared from the early morning view.  A carrier seal’s message had just imparted the presence of numerous Bidet warships maneuvering off the coast of Leet.  The same had been informed to Citau Bwec, whose hull rappers chased the Acregor Current last night.  Without their swells the allied support fleet was substantially weakened.

Normally after a day of murderous offensives the QortLites would have taken the Rises and coasted Threshhold bound.  But Six Kingdoms had become a more accommodating base.  And in an attempt to test the ChaulEr preparation and effectiveness, three successive days of assailments were launched—all of them against Round Zoyet Woods.

Anticipating a fourth assault, the garrison at the beleaguered fort was changed again, the fresh metal coming from Round I’Egwys.  For Xaff’s Avalanche the move was especially dear, for it meant an early release from the View of Bblonfen—considered by most rounders, a fate worse than the rappings of war.

The axletree of Gominex and Lef’s second star intersected the stronghold fending the ivoctenwood forest, and Halley streaked behind the open Lynk towards Bighorn—when Infinity’s Door broke the horizon… again.

Zoyet Bell!

Gyel Molug and the Sinners gloated.  Another foolish trial of endurances.  The sphairacloth versus blind sacrifices and relentless stupidity.  Was Honn Kolcher really so thick-witted?

There hadn’t been enough time to clear away and dismantle the barges still stuck in the breaker zone—some from the very first day—with as many as five flattops coupled together.  The fresh waves of attackers merely attached themselves to these, before footing it hard to the round’s massive breach, the most extensive of all the coastal forts.

The battle resumed, with the same ferocity of recent days.  No Bedlamites.  No sorcerers.  Only a sizable onrush of determined shrouders, unleashing their poison shafts on their way to HevN’s Perch—the xilum-forged roof of Zoyet Woods.  Death’s malevolent tune knelled on until just before the awakening of the nocturnal suns.

At daybreak the Rokkonz bearers returned, firm in their intention to take the impenetrable round.  But this day they were denied even time, as nightfall was unsheathed by the roguery of Dalhexxer’s Shadow and Casm’s Harem.

The rounders applauded the QortLite retreat.  Amidst the pungent rainfall and rioting thunder, Paun congratulated Xaff on her fine direction.  The Daam pointed out scores of landing craft left behind and well lodged into the shoals. “You know, if we don’t pick up their garbage soon, Kolcher will be able to walk down here from Crus’Ybl.”

“Uh… Dammit!”  Paun spit into the grateful drench and thought of her warm bed, a goblet of orshyve, and someone to share them with.  “I’m not putting the women into the rain.  Not this rain!  Just clean up the dead night.  And let’s hope for a good quiet morning.  Then the wrecking teams can do whatever they want with those tuxhil things.  I just want them out of the View.”

She was quite certain that Roit would volunteer his services.  More junk for his dumb shop!

Wober Fel came over and whispered to her sister that Y’Moir had been witnessed getting her first face-off kill as a sworder.  Her opportunity had come when several scalers had reached Above.

Paun was happy for her daughter.  Another goal attained!  At the same time, she grieved for her… just a little.  Soon that speck of grief redrew itself into amusement.  There was some time off for the achievement.  But first was an initiation at Iron Rites, which all achievers were expected to attend, or else be blacklisted from Within.  Tonight was that all important next step.

Iron Rites.  She was in no hurry.  No one ever was.  Right now she just wanted the few days off.  But that was a Holten century away.

“Come on!”  Swamb had just finished saddling up her brigerpin… for two riders.  “Look at it… like when we all got punished at Round Serpens.  Only it’s just one night.  Not even a whole night.  Before you know it, it’ll be over and done with.  Then tomorrow we can____”

“It’s easy for you to say!  You went through it last Rebirth.”  Y’Moir’s anger was all nerves.  True.  Her last memory of real pain was branded at Round Serpens.  “Tomorrow will be a waste!  Some furlough.  Resting my wounds.”  Genj blue.  That was the real reason for the days off, too brief as it was.

It really did seem so long ago since Lady Swamb Ley was rotated Within—and killed her first Intruder.  As a rounder her skills far exceeded Y’Moir’s.  Already she was under consideration as a Buukliair in Broy’s Flayers.  And if Irn V’Shae’s notion was accurate, she would soon be the newest member of the elite Qeen’s Guard.

Swamb embraced her lover and stroked her unkempt hair.  “I know.  I know.  And I felt exactly as you do today.  And I dreaded every moment of it.”  She held Y’Moir away from her and looked her in the eye.  “But I know I’ll never have to do it again.  And unless I’m drunken Serpentlord enough to muff it—I’ll never go back to those goddessdamn Pits… and have to cleanup, rekilling dead night.  Or be called a pitster or virgin skin again.  And you’re not going back either.  You’re going to keep dancing because you want to.  And because now I’ve got___  Well, I’ll be getting the power to plan our free time together.  So you sacrifice yourself once more.  Under Bblonfen with it!  Come on!  Broy let me have the day off to see you through this.  Let’s wing it!”

Y’Moir was in skittish reverie.

“Come on!”.

“I’m coming, dammit!”

Erected in the one vacated lizard’s cell at Zoyet’s Sweat Hole, the tent had been modeled after the quarters of the New Moon sultans.  Seeing the elegant hexagonal canvas with its steepled roof and multicolored sheen only made Y’Moir more tense.  She kept telling herself, It’ll be over soon.  But first it had to begin.

She was one of two new markers from the Avalanche.  She wondered if Lady Otelg, the other rounder, had already taken her turn.  Or was she presently inside… being tortured?

A flap opened, and three soldiers emerged.  They were in uniform with only their faces shielded with red leather masks.  Without saying a word, one of them removed her swords.  The other two gripped her arms and conveyed her like a hapless dribblen being led to the block.  It was like being in school again.  Together they crossed the temporary moat ramp and entered the ceremonial chamber.  Her vision was immediately drawn to the five other attendants inside.  No roost ribbons.  No way to recognize them.  Maybe just one of them.  But only because of some telltale runes on her arms and legs.  So much the better.  She tried diverting her attention to the showy boundaries of the tent itself.  But it wasn’t working.  All she sensed was more blood red leather.   Probably unseen grins.   And more and more—the firebrick brazier in the center of the tent.  It was hard to ignore the short choppy flames dancing through the grating to a stillborn melody.

The soldiers released their hold on her.  They joined the rest of their comrades and stationed themselves just behind the elevated fire pit.  One of them, the familiar one, walked behind Y’Moir and finally broke the cruel silence.

“Virgin skin.  Tiro pitster.”  Y’Moir had guessed right.  It was the voice of Buukliair Seto… from the Avalanche… just as the others probably were too.  “You are here because you have made your first solo kill.  Our rules are very simple.  There will be no fetters.  You will stand at the ready position.  You may speak.  As loud as you want.  Say whatever you want.  We advise you to move as little as possible.  You will not resist. You will not fight back.  Any defiance on your part: the Rites will be terminated.  You’ll be reassigned to the Pits—till HevN’s Rebirth.”  Seto grabbed a clump of Y’Moir’s hair and yanked her head back.  “Do you understand these rules… virgin skin… tiropitster… daughter of Lizard Whore?”

Lizard Whore.  No one ever dared to say that in her presence… much less her mother’s.  A couple of extra gattarene lashes on her backside—from her school days—that was her price for defending family honor.  These being fellow rounders, they knew what could set her off.  But she remained steadfast.

“Genj blue!  I understand.”

“We’ll see.”  Seto let loose and pushed her head forward.  “Step closer to the flames, tiropitster.”

As Y’Moir approached the firepit, what had appeared as a grating became gradually transformed into a row of branding irons.  She knew their purpose.  It was why she was here.

The eight meters of pain stirred their irons into the brazier.  As they did so, they took turns conversing with tonight’s sacrifice.

“You have seen the Fire of Fidelity, virgin skin?…  Witch’s fire?…  Fool’s fire!…  You see this?…  This is real fire…  Feared even by witches…  We call it dancers’ baptism…”

One of the soldiers pulled an iron from the brazier and went up to Y’Moir.  “No virgin skins can ever dance Within.”  She pressed the brand into Y’Moir’s lower right arm.  The rounder screamed aloud as her flesh sizzled.  It seemed an eternity before the brand was removed.  She kept her teary eyes shut tight, while laboring to catch her breath.  Had she looked, she would have seen an ancient rune translating into the Blood of Infinity’s Door.

One by one the others made their petty speeches and burnt their respective marks of honor on her upper and lower arms and legs.  A talon from a carrierhawk.  A broken blade xilumsword.  A wingless elkstallion.  An alternate name for her— two brands—both a rune and a glyphic signifying the Snow Leopard of Milchy Pass.  The dripping fangs of a Semdrak.   And after each infliction, Lady Y’Moir, unable to muffle her pain, cried out louder.  Each one of her assailants she cursed For The Stars, vowing to take revenge on their very souls.  Her suffering could be heard as far as the Roof of Round Zoyet Woods.

At length Buukliair Seto stood at her side with the final brand.  She spat onto the last area of virgin skin on Y’Moir’s right upper arm.  “We can never forget when we stood where you stand now.  So how you will remember us… and when you stand where we stand today—is how you will become.”  The insignia of the Avalanche.  A group of boulders shaped into an inverted triangle.  It was also the largest of the brands.  When it seized her flesh, Y’Moir screamed a silent scream.  Her tears ran like rivers across her face.  Her legs buckled but she stood her ground.  Then she ranted aloud.  She damned Seto more than the others.  More than the QortLites.  More than the most hated forms of life Under Bblonfen.

It was over.

Actually…

Another soldier from behind clenched Y’Moir’s hair into a brigerpin’s knot.  “Almost over.”  It was a cruel raspy whisper.  “Stay still… and finally become a rounder.”

Suddenly, an unseen hand tapped a small brand the size of a thumb into the right side of Y’Moir’s neck.  Unseen lips kissed the spot.  She gasped.  Then whined.

Buckets of water were tossed over her wounds.  The ceremony concluded with all the rounders slapping hard against the newly burnt runes and glyphics.  At the same time, they pressed their fists into her chest and yelled in celebration.  “Lady Y’Moir!  Leopard!  Lady Y’Moir!  Leopard!”

She was at Swamb Ley’s house being comforted by her lover.  Being comforted by the hoofs of rain charging across the wooden tile roof.  Swamb had in advance gotten a special salve from Votress M’Sish, in order to ease the pain from Iron Rites.  As Y’Moir looked at herself in the mirror to better view her permanent scars, she took a special interest in the brand on her neck.  It was… an otkum bulb.

Swamb Ley smiled and kissed her there.  “Now, Leopard…  Now you’re a rounder.”  It was a cruel raspy whisper.

The dense shower had little effect on the stream, whose polar currents endured to flow as strongly as before.  One’s source: the other’s drain—that was the way of Winyet’s Brook.  The man never tired of musing over its unique behavior.  Even now, sopped to the bone, he watched as the Harem’s blood and sweat compromised on the brief superficial path, then divided their votes accordingly.  But neither of the tunnels ever flooded.  They were bottomless.  They entrusted their neck-and-neck verdicts to the hands of uncertainty.  Tonight that same unsureness was armed with an urn of orshyve.

He had earlier declined Deeg’s company.  To be alone for awhile.  To socialize with the vicious rain.  That was just fine with his brother, Vlav, who himself drew the line on weather for bovaseals.

At one point Jyl got up from the rocks, passed through the Goronz Hollow, and staggered down the slithery hillside towards the city.  Several times the forest thwarted his drunken tread, and he wound up tasting the humus-capped path.  He thought of Paun, his daughters, his household, his friends, and this fabulous island he now considered home.  And with these thoughts he would pull himself to his feet and resume his frantic sprint, remembering too late how he could have taken Lecnoluu or even gone straight to Paun’s house.

“In the Palm of the Bearer… In the Palm of the Bearer…”  He panted more rhythmically than his stride.  He had to tell the Qeen.  He had to tell someone, before ____

Then a ghost appeared, supplicating him to remove from its consciousness the mask of dead night, and with it, the Pulse of Time.  His sails gathered in new winds, blowing him towards the Threshhold.  Newer winds steered him Firthbound.  His rudder seized and left his ship caught in its own whirlpool.  At last, the great sea frayed to Open Lynk, exposing his hull to the senseless firmament.  He foundered into the jetty abyss, barely heeling the revenant’s voice, until he was roused back at Goronz Wood.

Ambling across the meadow, Jyl noticed that Myim was outside sitting by the pond.

What is she doing in this ____  “Egrit’s Flue!”

He froze… then rubbed his eyes.  Behind Myim, there was a … he thought there was … a lizard.  Lightning cracked and for an instant illumined Within.  It was a large golden saurian.  A Serpentlord… It has to be!  … climbing over the Plains’ wall and out of the Fortress.

He dashed madly towards the woman-child, who, as yet, appeared unaware of him or the saurian’s departure, and who remained as such even when he reached her.  Before he could relate the news of his fantastic vision, Jyl was overwhelmed by another strange sight.

After all this time, he had never taken Myim’s word too seriously.  No matter what anyone said, she was just a kidling.  With a kidling’s imagination.  And how often did she disprove this to him?  Time and time again she had reminded him of her validity… of her sensibility.  And yet, he only saw her as another little girl, who loved to carry on as children do.  From this day forth, Jyl would be more heedful of her stories.

He stood at the rim of the bespattered pool practically hypnotized by the floating sketsal leaf…

… and the ruskalik seated there.

It was a creature as foreign as the warmth of Dilmatoyne Star.  Small as a Yuudm gnawer. With a dense fur coating, whose green color was imperceptible in this turbulent evening light. Prominent hind flippers.  Split caudal fin.  No external ears.  And above its oval head—a single eye attached to a lean membrane.  This was Dyydz, Myim’s old friend, who (she described many times) was actually two beings in one.  Two fortunate lovers who shared the same body.  Who could discern the nature of all lifeforms.  But who volunteered none of their powerful insight, which they regarded as too crucial an interference with destiny.

They believed—or rather Dyydz believed—that HevN’s Brew was tainted enough with supernatural influences and extravagant wisdoms.  Whatever anyone defined as being either good or bad, falsity or truth, was all part of Nature’s sincerity.  The future was better off hidden under a trap door, until free will tripped its sensile hinge.  The goddesses and sorcerers and birthday viewers and longwinded tongues—let them confine themselves to private sandboxes, and let the wonderers explain their own mysteries.  Much more gratifying!

The ruskalik was almost human too.  Even as a partnership it was a relief to communicate some matters of concernment with someone outside the mutual shell—someone whose convictions were very similar.

Someone like Myim.

Before Jyl could ask anything of the girl, the tumultuous atmosphere was interrupted by an incessant confusion of chimes.

Zoyet Bell!  Song unknown.

The Yuudm turned towards Zoyet Woods.  The song had no formal message.  It sounded more like a drunken Serpentlord muddling in the Heart.  A slimy clod hit the man in the head.  He regained his balance and rushed at the girl, who continued her angry assault.

Grabbing her wrists, he yelled, “Dammit, Myim!  What Under Bblonfen’s wrong?”

Her tearful expression somehow told him what was wrong.  That he already knew what was wrong.  She screamed and broke loose, then slapped his face and ran towards the hollow.

Seeing that the ruskalik had by this time submerged, the man fell to his knees and wept.  While Hentilose and Deeg watched from the doorway, Vlav Tr’Klum flew from the matt carrying an extra brinebreaker.  He threw it over his patron, who was now a statue being scourged by the Harem.

“I warned you to keep away from that urn, brother.  Oh, well.  How about if I just stay out here awhile, okay?  Want to talk about it?”

A tenderhearted hand tapped Vlav’s shoulder.  And Bakwarf  helped him carry their sad friend to the house and set him down in front of Egrit’s Flue.

Jyl said nothing more that night.  He only wondered if this was what the ghost would have wanted.

What’s going on?”

“Don’t know yet, Lady Nether.  There’ve been no relayers.”

“Bevleba!  Get some riders out there.”

“Yes, Lady Nether.”

The days were far and few between, since the cartosalle last bustled so late at eventide.  With Round Zoyet Woods clanging away, Subdefiance remained in effect, while both the ChaulEr populace and the H’Gaumz calmly forfeited their sleep.  This same composure could not be said of Gyel Molug.

“Dammit, Paun!  I don’t give a saurian’s ass how good a governess she is.  This is overdone.”

“Look ____”

“Save your sentiment, woman.  Before dawn I want Xaff on an arborhook, and the ____”

“I can’t do that!”  Paun pretended to survey one of the coastal fort models.

“And you’ll pack the whole bunch of them back to I’Egwys.”  Then she stressed, “And yes, you will do that!  There’s a time for celebration, Paun.  That’s what homes are for… and furloughs.  Not rounds!”

Facing the incensed minister, Paun tried to explain.  “Look.  I know Xaff.  It’s not like her to ____”

A squad of soldiers, bearing a wounded comrade, burst into the Tactor and made their way to their army chieftain.  Emgroy ordered silence and a dragoon commenced with her report.

“Mistress Paun, we intercepted this woman on the Woods’ side of Cosanc perimeter.  She’s been shot twice.  We patched her up.  But she’s been raving priorities For The Stars.”

“Shot?  Ch’Chencylwhores!  By whom?”

A physician from the patrol stepped forward.  “I pulled these out of her.”  She held out two arrowheads, which Molug promptly snatched away.  “That’s why I felt it best to bring her here.  Something very scary… very wrong… maybe our worst fears…  is going on in the Woods.  Our other patrols are checking it out.  And this girl won’t talk to anyone but you, Mistress Paun.”

“What’s her name?”

“We’re still ____”

Another rounder came running into the room and handed the squad leader one of the victim’s ribands.  “Her name’s Ounit, from the House of Vetess Pob.  She’s definitely with the Avalanche.”

Paun cradled the injured woman’s face with her hands.  “You have something to tell me, Lady Ounit?”

The rounder winced in anguish, but managed to say, “Sinner’s drums.”

Anxiously Paun rejoined, “Sister’s tongue?”

“Daam Xaff…”  Breaking off, she muttered, “I must get back to my sisters.  They ____”

“You will get back to them,” assured Paun.  “But first you must tell me about Daam Xaff.”

The woman flinched and hissed again.

“Come on, soldier!  Sing from the heart!  What about Daam Xaff?”

Fighting her discomfort, Ounit finally relayed her weighty message.  “Daam Xaff… said to tell you… that the shoalers… the shoalers… they were like… the gift… of Epios… and that…she loved you all… very much.”  Shaking her head, she said, “That was… all she told me.  Can I… go back now?”

Perplexed by her report, Paun asked, “Ounit, what’s happening at Zoyet Woods?  Why is Daam Xaff ringing Zoyet this way?”

Strek, being well educated in the legends of Milchy Pass, groaned at the horrid images in her head, and replied, ““It’s the Intruder… who trips the carillamond.”

Lady Ounit winced in pain.  “Genj blue.”

The cartosalle rumbled with disbelief.  Messengers from Reelam and Cosanc began arriving in droves, all of them with similar reports.  Their inquisitive patrols were being met with scatterbow fire.  Neither that Round’s Sweat Hole nor the Infirmary could be neared safely.  And now the brigerpin corral and its corridor span were in flames.

For an instant, Paun’s motherhood possessed her.  Y’Moir.

“Epios, “mumbled the Brewist, and she gritted her teeth.  “Spew on your matrons’ pyres.  The Dardan Steed.  Bevleba!”

“And what’s that?” demanded Paun.

Strek clenched her fist and swore.  “It’s bad, sister.  For The Stars!  The flattops.  You know, the ones they’re always losing during their retreats?  Well this time they were all broken away on purpose.  In fact…”  The appalling possibilities began swamping the Sinner.  “…I wouldn’t be surprised if all those reeling-in failures in the past were faked.  They could’ve been practicing.  Sacrificing shoalcraft and shrouders.  Conditioning our expectations to second nature. All for this.  Goddessdammit!  Can’t you see it?  Those weren’t just keels stuck in the bars.  Not this time.  They were hidden compartments.  Rows and rows of watertight chambers.  Strung together.  Filled with men.  And while their compatriots and leaguers kept us busy, and while the weather kept us on our asses playing Fool’s bell.  All for how many days?  The entire assault plus three after the last retreat?  They burrowed their way under the palisades and into our Pits.  Unguarded no less!  I mean, we never keep a watch Below.  What Under Bblonfen for?  And somehow they guessed that… or knew it already.  QortLite bastards!”

“Maybe so,” said L’Sar.  “But I doubt very much that the Orphans did the tunneling.  This one wreaks of Five Kingdoms.”

“Genj blue!”  Gyel Molug placed a Bidet arrow into Paun’s hand.  “And for good measure…”  She disclosed the other barbed tip.  “… A double-cross from an old ally.”

The Sinners were stone cold with revulsion, as they ogled at the familiar implement, whose lurid face bore the runes of Rem Idi.

The Tactor went wholly mute at the advent of the Qeen.  Paun well comprehended the import of her expression, a timid cast camouflaging an old mock prediction about the Intruder: What will catch his fancy tomorrow?  Round Zoyet Woods?

Too disconcerted for any welcoming words or even a formal salute, Paun addressed the relayers directly.  “All Daams to Qasr’Kwen.”

While the messengers hurried off to their steeds, the army mistress turned to Wober Fel.  “Go see Mig Lo Duk.  Tell him we need the tunnel.”

“Right.”

Cosanc Bell!  A song of ships.

“And, Huntress!”  She thought of Y’Moir again… then Pa V’Cryl.  Could it be heard of Klas Tel this way?  There was a desperate timbre flavoring her next request. “Tell him to arm his Roost.”

Zoyet Woods.

No one had quite recovered from the news.  Yet, here they were, Daams and Buukliairs, going over instructions on how to regain the mighty belfry of Zoyet.  Oh, there were plenty of reliefs—and alternatives—for any in-progress rappings.  Enough to keep the sphairacloth in control.  But who would have expected the Avalanche—or any of their elite garrisons… to lose?  To fall.

Now they would become the shrouders, whose advantages over the Intruder’s usual procedures were the perimeter heights and the tunnel from the Valley.  Accessibility to the cliffs would at least put them level with Above’s junction.  The drawback, however, was the lack of cover in the face of a well-fortified fort, teeming with shooters.  At this point, the tunnel’s element of secrecy hardly mattered.  It was an emergency artery, used primarily by the ancient H’Gaumz to reach the major seaward breaches.  And it connected each stronghold Bench at a fool’s wall.  But because it was too narrow to allow a heavy outpouring of troops, it would be necessary to concentrate an attack along the entire rim—from the adjacent palisades as well as against the rear wall.  Whatever it would take to draw the defenders’ attentions long enough to admit a sizable rounder force.

Of course, the ChaulEr command was second guessing the manner of the Intruder’s deployment.  If they were wrong, the tunnelers, spearheaded by Sinners Emgroy and Wober Fel, would be either held at bay or slaughtered trying to charge through the Bench.  Whatever the case, a legion of ChaulE’s finest would be marked for G’Lians Orchard.  And with the gradual lifting of the storm and the dawning of the Juth Moon, the threat of a main force, debarking unhampered, loomed even greater.

“We must take the helm Above,” stressed Paun, “Before the first wave ever touches shore. Which means we’re burning till dead night.  We’ve got to pull them all to the fringe… if we’re going to wing it out of that tunnel.  If your sister falls, leave her.  There’s just no time.  Nothing but fists and metal on the Intruder.  And don’t stop until Zoyet tolls of Readiness.  At that time, we’ll admit as many fresh troops from the other rounds as possible.  Then it’s that goddessdamn fleet!”

She made it sound so very routine.  But her Daams knew otherwise.  Overcome the Remal and Bidet roofers?  Outrace the shoalers, preparing to cast off at Anchorage any time now?  Secure Zoyet Woods?  Hardly routine.  There had to be a flicker of dawn at Tharm.

If such a hope did exist, then it rested with the personnel chosen for this grand assault.  Half the dancers and roofers and all the tiros were to remain stationed at their respective rounds, each governed by two Buukliairs.  The rest were slated for the offensive.  Burners would lead the almost suicidal charge.  But the Sinners wanted only the best sworders inside, once that goal was attained.

A voice from Qasr’Kwen’s shadows cried out, “Brigerpin’s fears.”

As the Qeen searched the unsettled atmosphere, several gattarenes cracked and wrapped themselves about a fool’s rounder.  The guardian roofers trained their scatterbows.

Having approached the constrained infiltrator, the composed monarch formally retorted, “Not Herbagers.”  There was a hint of tears about the man’s shadowy eyes.  “Yes, child?  You have something to tell me?”

Mournful with concern, Pid’yn Ba replied, “There’s a better way.”

For the men who defended the parapet of Above, the worst was behind them now.  The ebonstone of Zoyet pealed only to their own uncaring gaits.  And it was only appropriate that their banners unfurled under the lunar moon.  Though they flexed themselves for some dire counterstroke, they were quite certain of Mistress Paun’s choices.  She would have to flood the russet fevorock arms just outside the foreshell of Round Zoyet woods.  She would have to clamber over the smoldering vestige in order to shroud the forestal wall—with sacrifices For The Stars.  Their desperate unshielded advance would feel the wrath of a different tempest—the Fenmare’s sleet from two thousand concealed archers, most of whom focalized their aim on the barren shorelines leading to Cosanc and Reelam.  Stall the ChaulEr for a few ships’ worth of transports, and the outpost will become a fortress, and the first foothold on the Qeendom of the Holy Well.

The Brew smiled upon Rem Idi and Five Kingdoms.  Far up both ends of the coast, the throngs of red uniforms were still out of firing range.  The shock must have paralyzed them significantly.  Maybe even retarded their ability to conjure up some elementary course of action, however calamitous.  Surely the Aul realized that time took precedence over a dead night legion of red leather tunics.  And that Zoyet Woods was a more potential matt for QortL.  Nevertheless, seeing the first wave of shoalers underway, the defenders armed their determination to retain the Heart with even greater confidence.

Zoyet Bell!  A Bidet code: a song of riders.

“You mean shrouders,” jested a comrade, readying his bow.  He knew the attackers would have to dismount far from the Nalfin View before hiking in to their assault positions.  “Let’s see how they dance now!”

Palms sweating, the enemy watched the brigerpineers—four thousand courageous souls, a pair to a steed.  They waited for them to set down near what was left of the stables.  From there they would have to continue on foot, under cover of the huge ivoctenwood trees, which had been only slightly scorched—thanks to the Harem’s frolicking.  Once they’d reach the clearing… that’s when the dying would begin.

“Looks like they’re really pushing their steeds.”

“Yeah?  We’ll give them a few flaps more.  We’ll be burning drunken bovaseals on the terrafan.”

Indeed, the elkstallions were being pressed beyond their limitations.  The Nalfin’s briny fragrance was as maddening as a hint of a lizard’s presence.  But still they winged forward, blind to whatever fear should have bound them.

In a gesture of unimpressive boldness, a host of the Remals and Bidets abandoned their cover and stood atop the parapet, encouraging the attackers with jeers of “Drunken Serpentlords!” and “Bedlamite reiners!”

But whenever the shadow of that great herd crossed the ruins of the Infirmary and Sweat Hole, the jeering stopped.

“They’re… they’re still coming!  How is ____”

For a moment the defenders froze.  Even those who were poised for a palisadal assault had to turn and gawk at the sorcery defying their design.

Before they could gather their wits, a downpour of fiery shafts screamed into their ranks.  All hands Within and Below sped to the roof to assist their startled leaguers, who were already paying the price for their premature flaunting.  There was a new roof to be dealt with.  It had the form of slavering horned vultures, crisscrossing their poisonous webs, confidently downward searching for all that was prey.

Finally, the betrayers of the Well shared but one assignment, as all sights panicked skywardly.

A gyahorn blast!  And two Sinners wrested the camouflaged door to an empty Bench.  With searing metal in their eyes and toxin in their hearts, the xilumbearers dashed towards the spiral flight.  From the shaded far corners of Below, insecure eyes watched that fatal red stampede, until the last sworder passed the fractured hinge.  Then praying to HevN’s Brew, the two nobles withdrew—one through the freshly dug tunnel to the sea; the other into the rounders’ auxiliary passage to the unknown.

The rear defense never saw the Rowdy’s forces, not until her xilumstorm was already cleaving in their midst.  Reinforcements from the forward edge were being stymied by the hovering scatterbowers.  What remained of the heights’ protectors was losing its effectiveness.  Another horn blast, and the rounder units, which had thus far only crept along the fevorock ridge, were in full sprint.  At the same time Guardian Strek and two thirds of the winged cavalry sailed into the green and spread their coverage from the breaker zone to Anchorage.

The first wave of assailants from the Intruder fleet was rasping the sand now, its crews scurrying through the breach and laying towards the unobstructed Doorway to the Bench.  At once a squad of brigerpins dove to Within to cut them off.  Still airborne above the combed surface, several stallions and riders were felled by a hail of shafts.  One reiner, a bandeaued soldier, shifted quickly to dodge the volley and dropped safely.  Under cover of a second squad, the Gattarene and sundry others joined Gypsy.  Together they hacked their way toward the broad portal, their counterbarrages occupying the attackers, until they themselves had reached the Bench and sealed it.

On the Roof the advantage of the scatterbow was lessening.  Seeing that most of the foeman had at long last reverted to their sabers, the hovering dragoons spiraled down intermittently and discharged a cohort from each steed onto the turbid battleground.

Juyag and xilum clashed with unyielding vehemence.  The flavor of blood.  Grimaces and wails.  Forgotten pain.  Those who stumbled became part of the cadaver-tiled deck and victims to the unbiased tramplings over them.  Others were driven over the lofty inner and outer rims and were crushed by their falls.  The onyx bell trembled with every haphazard interference along the carillamond path.  Accost and subdue.  The next opponent.  Then the next.  Till the proper song, or till the chieftain’s rule, or till Death stakes an unseen claim.  It was the fury of one side’s possible gain versus that of another’s extinction.

Lurching within that fury like a guiding light was the Crown of Duns.  His eyes caught hold of some magnificent devil, who, having vaulted from well beyond his sword’s reach, was now dropping towards him.  Xemochy swung hard to thwart her stroke, but with one blow the feral Winger smote through his metal and his jeweled crown and his skull.

Meanwhile, with this new aerial attack hampering their open advance, the shoalers about the medial flattops were caught between retreating to their ships and hastening to the beach.  The latter choice seemed no better than a pullout to unavoidable disaster.  After an eternity of frantic barge-hopping, a familiar but undecipherable voice snuffed out their final hopes.

Zoyet Bell!  A song of readiness.

Juth Moon had given way to Dilmatoyne’s red expansion phase.  Tharm was stilled shelled in night.  But Above now conformed to a different conductor, a secure hand who sported the colors of Gwil Fyr.

No more troops would brave the runway to Zoyet Woods.  Nor would the fleet bother to reel in its death-scarred shoalcraft.  Somewhere on the blood-soaked round were three sovereigns—traitors, confederates of Infinity’s Door—whose gazes might well be fixed till HevN’s Rebirth.  The rest of the detachments beyond the larboard lifelines were forlornly lost, as was this crucial battle.

Lost.

How could have what had just been captured and stoutly manned been lost?  Centuries of time and strategy defeated by time and time’s unexpected provider—a brother of Horsdeor.  Whether or not the sphairacloth would have triumphed without the fearless elkstallions was irrelevant now.  The Remals and Bidets had to consider the homelands.  Their mission failed.  Their best warriors condemned to the cleanup Below.  Morale was sure to be jeopardized, and with it, the strength of their own perimeter bastions.

Zoyet Bell!

The flyers did not pursue the retiring sails.  Instead they aligned themselves wingtip to wingtip.  And fluttering slowly over the coupled flattops, they continued their lethal rain upon the litter of wounded beneath them.  After completing their sweep, they joined the rest of the cavalry in encircling Above.

By now fresh rounders were combing the adjoining structures, as well as the forest itself, just in case any of the enemy might have slipped away from the stronghold.  The Intruder’s tunnel was also being checked.

When the Qeen arrived, her emotional preparation was for naught, as she was driven to tears by the terrible overlaying View.  Irn V’shae, who had stayed with her took her place with the Mistress’ Guardian Ring around the Heart.

It was a scene to which the ChaulEr were not accustomed.  The dead.  They were everywhere.  Nary a foothold of ground was unblemished.  So far, only the jeweled path had been cleared, in order to better utilize the Bell.  But what was most aggrieving was the number of compatriots that intermingled with the slain.  Most of them were the result of the initial massacre.  Seasoned dancers, tiros, teachers, and even hospital patients—many of them killed while they slept.  Those who had managed to put up a fight and were finally overcome, they underwent the Intruder’s version of cleanup.  To add dishonor to their deed, as if mutilation weren’t enough, the Remals and Bidets had taken time to ravish the more helpless of the wounded… and even those already dead.

In front of the Heart and bounded by a heap of shoalers lay the headless corpse of Daam Xaff, her left hand still clutching her sword.  A score of arrows and as many juyag slashes riddled her nude form.  Her Buukliairs, similarly maimed, were awkwardly crucified on the various arborhooks stationed Above.  It was upon one of these posts that Xaff’s scalped head was sited.

Strangely enough, however, this battle was not yet over.  Two thousand shooters flexed their sights along Scrimej, where a platoon of Remal swordsmen awaited their fate.  The overhead volleys had ceased.  Their hopes for retreat were blown with the Shesmew Current.  They brandished their cold metal for the inevitable.  And boldly postured like columns at the mouth of an ogre’s lair were the monstrous kings of Rem Idi—the Hesoc Twins.

Paun had tugged the bridal curb on these few.  She had taken the round.  She had not yet taken her vengeance.  The Herbagers would not fly to Six Kingdoms or Rem Idi, not as aggressors.  That was the deal with Pid’yn Ba.  But her seething spirit was unsatisfied.  Too many dead sisters.  And mothers.

And daughters.

The Qeen brushed herself away from Yersitty’s consolation.  This time with Gyel Stryyx at her side, she surveyed the carnage again, while muttering to herself.  “My children.  My poor children.  What sort of justice must prevail here?”

She tried to denounce those enemy survivors still braced Within.  But she could not find words hateful enough to compensate for her anguish.

Finally, she called out, “Mistress Paun!”

“Qeenmother?”

“Justice, child.  I consign it to you.”

“Yes, Qeenmother.”

“Yersitty!”  The guardian took the Heart.

Her next bidding could hardly be considered a formal order.  No less was expected.

“Sinners!”

Throughout the silence of Zoyet Woods could be felt the applause of feverish hearts, as eight cardinal warriors crossed the arborside face of Within.  Like pilot scorpions, the Buukliair varied their intertwining shells about their sister, who walked straightaway to within the metal arc of Rem Idi’s goliaths.  The juyag wielders spread out their lengthy string and formed a parabola behind their leaders and flanked their guardian web.

The daughter of Gwil Fyr then proclaimed the anticipated verdict.

“Hesocs!… Traitors!… Intruders!… Murderers!…  Dishonored kings!  We are a merciful breed.  We will allow you to disembowel yourselves before cutting your own throats.”

The Remal seamen spaced themselves a little more, stiffening the grips on their hilts.  In a bold but surprising move, the powerful twins went back to the Kitrin Post and plunged their sabers to the plates.  Then returning, they scowled their defiance.  Death was death.  Dying was not always dying.  The ChaulEr would have to wrest the metal from their followers.  But first they would have to respond to this intimidation, either with scatterbows or swords or ____.

“Great Sinners!”  It was Gud Hesoc, whose bellowing voice pervaded the full expanse of Round Zoyet Woods.  “Mighty heroes!  Who among you will battle me… to the gates of dead night?”

Likewise, his brother boasted aloud, “And who dares to challenge King Floth?”

Back and forth the Remal kings took their turns in defiance.  “Take me!  Take me, if you can!”

Tired of their brag, the chief of the sphairacloth broke her silence.  “Sisters!”

Her tone sufficed.  Himmwast brushed her clouding net over Paun’s sable mane.  Paun held out her scabbard of swords and a smiling Emgroy took them from her.  Then her guardians withdrew their coverage but kept their xilumknives peeled on the juyag curve.

In one fluid motion the chieftain Sinner graced the bloody tunic from her body to the desecrated ground.  Under this midmorning cerise, her blackness remained without luster, like a swampdemon frozen in the Bblonfen shadows.  Blacker than the grot of Bedlamites’ dreams.  Of course, there were the countless runes and scars.  The rites of honor and war and abusion.  Especially the thick telltale scar wrought by the Semdrak’s hand.  A Bidet’s illegible rune went almost unnoticed next to that serpentish welt.  The seaward roofers could see it clearly.  For most of the Remals, it increased their fear of their confronter.

Qeenmother realized her worth.  Hers was the Fenmare’s Light.  ‘Twas why she was Mistress.

The composed Sinner spoke once more.  “I am called Paun.”

The kings’ bodyguards backed up slowly until they reached the seawall.

But Gud and Floth Hesoc were unmoved by the folklore of Lynk Star’s memory.  Despite their grotesque muscle-bound hides and bald knobbish polls, they too were to be reckoned with.  Though not true giants, their crowns were beyond the standing reach of even the Huntress.  Their powerful arms had snapped the masts of QortLite vessels.  No, their broadness did not match their height, as was so often jested, but neither were their movements clumsy or laggard.  They were versatile both as mariners and fighters.  And the presence of eminence did not intimidate them in the least.  In their own minds, she was the challenger… and the drunken Serpentlord fool.

No sooner had the kings taken their first maneuvering treads, when a terrifying roar reverberated throughout the round.  It was the voice of a saurian, yet the woman’s voice, mustering the phantasms of death within herself.  For the older generations who watched and listened, it brought to mind some others.  Hoonwaw, Snujje, Mig Lo Duk, Bblonfia— HevN’s Brew of Serpents!  Finely tuned savages they were.  Ignorant of fear.  And the standards by which was measured one’s unarmed struggle with another.  It was said that even the voracious lemurs bypassed the souls of their deceased ones, so perversely cruel were their natures.  Fortunately, their dominance was held in check by the weaponeers and by others like themselves…

…like Paun, who was one of the few whole human members of their Order.  And now it was she who advanced.

Whatever the sensational yarns, the Hesocs each scoffed a grin over the unearthly cry.  Hankering to crush her quickly, they stove directly at her, with Floth hurdling a comb to minimize his brother’s separation from him.  But Paun didn’t wait to receive their charge.  Shrieking madly, she leaped and caught hold of Floth in midair.  Her hands and feet clamped onto his thick rind like a griffin’s talons.  And she wried him off to the side and away from Gud, just narrowly missing a funneled drop.  While Floth wavered and rolled frantically to shake her loose, Gud dove into their midst, hoping to trap her with his massive bulk.  He was almost upon her, when she sprang from his discouraged brother and sank her jaws squarely into his face.  He tried to pry her away.  But instead he fell with her and rambled for three combs, his hysterical screams muffled by the gnashing frenzy of the hulshinleech.  By now, Floth had regained his feet and was barreling towards the one-sided tussle.  His timing was perfect, as he kicked the woman from her vantage and sent her tumbling with a wail over an inlet margin.

Blood spilled from Gud’s eye sockets.  He was shocked beyond hope.  Much of his huge face was gone.  The gory manglement that was left gave testimony to a prime credential of the saurian order—they were the flesh eaters.

Her limbs having braced the conical wall, the mistress slithered out of her den and resumed the hunt.  Floth stepped away from his brother’s contorting form.  Cautiously he watched the dark creature, who hissed while stealthing towards him on all fours.  The gore dripping from her jaws repulsed him.  He knew what he must do.  More than his muscle, he had to match her cruelty.

Just let me get a grip on her.  Then…

The goddess, Ildra, must have overheard him.  The lizardess stood up and dropped his brother’s eyes at his feet.  She brandished her open hands at him menacingly, mirroring his own stance.  Did she dare to oppose his more sizeable grip?  Dare match his sinew?  Slowly their rigid palms approached each other until they jousted and coupled.  Paun’s grips were able to surround but a couple of thick fingers on each of Floth’s hands.  The Remal tightened his hold and let out a confident blare.  He had her!  And to her knees in anguish!  His comrades cheered him on, encouraging him to wrench her arms from her sockets.  Her jaws, he told himself.  Must guard against them.  Then heaving for all the spirit he could gather, he strained to extend his arms to a full cross.  Little by little Paun ascended from the hardstone earth.  Her limbs were failing.  She threw her head back and grimaced, while Floth gritted his teeth and sneered.  He had her!

Yet, all of sudden the ChaulEr’s painful expression slackened to a sinister glare.  She smiled.  Then cackled— softly at first.  Until she howled with laughter.  With a vibrant growl she retracted her arms and flexed her grip towards Hesoc and forced him to his knees.  She lunged her feet at his stomach and climbed rapidly up his front side.  Her legs thrusting forward one at a time, she heeled his rikesteral snout and smashed his right eye, then somersaulted out of his yielding grasp.  On the way down she seized the marks of his manhood and tore them from his hideous frame.  An excruciating shrill erupted Within, where the Remal collapsed and was writhing convulsively.  Remorseless, the Sinner dipped into his frantic turbulence and stabbed her mandibles into his throat, thus putting his suffering to rest.

She returned her attention to his brother Gud.  He was still alive, tossing erratically in his blind rage.  Bracing her feet against his shoulders, she clamped her arms down below his jaw.  And with a great howl and one long mighty exertion she ripped his head from his body and held it aloft.

Then Paun turned and face the Remal platoon.  They viewed the carnage dangling from her mouth.  Their king’s blood raining upon her.  They began backing off in leery paces.  Guardian Yersitty flapped and swirled fluently in the prismatic glow.  The rest of the Sinners stalked across Scrimej.  In a short while the swells of the xilum fire had soundly hacked and rammed the remnants of this recent but short-lived invasion.

Before she could be formally appraised of the round’s secure condition, the Qeen was cadaver-leaping her way towards the blood-soaked victor.  Her bodyguards, who were hoofing angrily beside her, had tried to discourage her from doing so until cleanup had terminated, but to no avail.  She had to be with her child.

The Winger held her up at Scrimej, and said, “Qeenmother, I think you should wait till she’s gone to ash.  Right now she’s ____”

“Get out of my way, Neth.  Ton, bring that water and cloth with you.”

But the Buukliair looked at the delirious warrior with her simmering growl and agreed with Nether.  “We’d better wait, Qeenmother.”

“Dammit!  Give me that!”  And she snatched the water jug from Lady Tonilk.

Nether threw up her arms in disgust and waved at the other guardians, saying, “Let her go.  But stay with her.”

Paun snarled the instant the sponge touched her forehead.  The Qeen, however, seemed unphased.  This situation was not new to her, though it had been quite some time—when the Mistress was just a fresh face among the xilumbearers.

“What’s my name, child?”  she began, as she washed the blood and filth off her face.  “You’ve done well today—very well.”  She sniffled now and then.  “We’re all very proud of you.”  The Qeen seemed unconcerned for the blood meshed into her own clothes.  “Who am I, child?”

After going on like this for a short while, the gallant ruler finally heard her say in a low voice, “Qeenmother.”

Cheerfully she hugged her champion and kissed her, while affirming, “Yes, child, it’s me!”

As Paun was escorted towards the Bench, Yersitty tripped the carillamond again, and this time she held out her open palms, and saluted, “Mistress Paun.”

Simultaneously, like a climax to a prayer, the entire round repeated her gesture.

But Sinner Emgroy blasted the praise to a greater level.  “Paun!  Paun!”  She shouted it over and over in an even rhythm.  Until every xilumbearer became infected with it.  The earth and sky shook from the thunder of voices.  “Paun!  Paun!”  An ocean of sphairacloth closed in and surrounded their ChaulEr heroine.

The Sinners rushed over and took turns embracing their sister.  They finished cleaning her up, then clad her in a woven-ivory cloth.

The Doorway from Within opened, and an apparition appeared to the ChaulEr mistress.  But when she ran her fingers through the young girl’s white and ebon locks and felt the strength of her embrace, and when she saw Lady Swamb Ley standing behind her, she realized that Y’Moir had underwent the torment of Iron Rites, and because of the furlough had survived the massacre.

The Qeen had another personal call to make before preparing for G’Lian’s Orchard.  Without his help, today’s victory might not have been possible.  She found him in the death-plagued barracks holding his sister, Q’Lom.  And she and Pid’yn Ba wept together.

During cleanup, Flase and her crew exited from the Intruder’s tunnel with the body of a well-known soldier, and a once baffling link in the investigation of Ayopee—Brigadier Dar Zebfax Goothil Oan.  Rather than succumb honorably to the ChaulEr fury, the crack swordsman had taken his own life.

Meanwhile Above, Votress M’sish was receiving another forewarning message from her pulsar.  She sensed that somehow it was related to the puzzlement of Stryyx, who was observing alongside of her.  The Gyel was giving orders not to move or remove anything (except for what was required in confirming the enemy’s demise) until she herself had scoured every breath of the fort.  It was probably nothing.  But it was something.  From where she stood she could make out a yellowish strand about the head of Xaff.  And looking down at the Daam’s corpse, she wondered nervously at what the woman had clutched to her death.  There was her sword—in one hand.  And in the other—a fistful of wyrblossums.

That same day an inspection of the grounded shoalcraft revealed a barbed broadhead system, which was implemented from the interior in order to insure permanent reefing.

It was late afternoon when the H’Gaumz patrol was intercepted at Mauv WuPree.  There the saurians handed over to their ChaulEr counterparts a Bidet, who had blundered into the Valley.  Normally the Lower Saurians handled their own Intruders.  But with the Wood’s atrocity being what it was, with the treacherous elements involved, and because of the strong relevance of their prisoner…

At his trial Lord Sorsun Riffel was found guilty… of everything… For The Stars!  He was sentenced to die at Qul House.  On the evening of Qeenmother’s next birthday, Sinner Paun dragged the begging nobleman from his cell to a private room in the Scurjatory.  The details of his execution were never recorded.

  1. Wynd

Only the infrequent flutterings of the anJ broke the dead night discourse of the dunes.  Nothing Outside ever penetrated the endless nocturne of Tharm.  No light.  No sound.  Not even the weather.  Whatever one might bring Inside was the exception.  But then, no one ever came to Tharm, or even cared to, besides very brave and curious Brewists… or witches.  A few patches of dried up wyrblossums not far inside the perimeter gave evidence to Jyl’s earlier and unexpected explorations.  From the Fetistry of Nohk, a league in every direction revealed a starless universe, the unseen stillness of swells and troughs of black sand, blanketed by a dome of sultry dry air.  Every completed Lynk cycle, at Open Lynk, the surface was stirred by the shifting barren plate, while the abbey’s position remained unmoved.

Votress M’Sish was finally used to this environment, although, like her educator, she never ceased to marvel at its mystery.

Her Aunt Uul’fr looked at her in a different light now.  And that bothered her.  She hated the term witch.  A prober—yes!  But what could the Outsiders understand about modern-day Tharm?  Ancient history had cursed its future.  If the night were removed, perhaps.  But then where could one probe sufficiently, without having to answer every carillamond knock?  No, Tharm was predestined for me, and others like me.

She reached into her robe and let her fingers manipulate the stone.  This time it felt… like a stone!  Again she became excited, but kept it inside herself, in case anyone was watching.

Watching.

How inconceivable!  But she knew she was right.  Well, back to work, she told herself.

It was a long walk to the top of Klyn, one of fourteen dissimilar minarets which distinguished the Fetistry from everyone else’s architecture, including the other abbeys.  One could always tell a witchdom—anywhere.  It was a menacing unbalance, as well as the solitude it provoked.  It was a sacred embassy, an often successful exclusion from the rules of home soil.  Nohk’s persisted as such a place, only because Dowser Iiq was trustworthy.

Upon one’s first entering the bleak hemisphere of Tharm, an acraviolet aura could be seen silhouetting the Fetistry in the distance.  It dimmed with every gradual approach and disappeared as soon as the structure’s lot was attained.  Otherwise, only an obscure version of the aura stained the inner walls of the turrets.

Instead of a central body, the grove of towers was interlaced with a network of spiral walkways, all of whose exposed courses were roundaboutly designed.  With the once respectable number of ostealwand novices, the Flamens had found long strolls less distracting than flyers.  If time was of the essence, or if one simply didn’t feel like treading till HevN’s Rebirth, say from the Minaret of Stuul to Klyn—as M’Sish was about to do—there were the alternate routes.

The price to utilize any of the Wynds of Acquaintance was one’s light.  Oh, yes, and one’s impatience.  But an outlet of retreat did exist for the panic-stricken.

However, in the case of the caryatid travelers, genj know-how was the rule, for a minute lapse could mean consumption by the abyss.

Much less the way of the caryatid, M’Sish wasn’t ready to relinquish her candle just yet.  And that bothered her too.  A part of her vesperal confession was always the same.

the dark emptiness is dumb

and converses only to th’ imagination—

how absurd to be chain’d by a common unordinary lifeform!

That’s all right, she thought.  The time was when I would have never stuck my foot into Tharm, unless my sister was there.  Well, I’m pretty well inside now.  And someday I’ll roam the dunes like a blind woman in heat.

Just before the entrance to the first bridge, she paused in front of one of the stile’s Wynds.  What appeared to be a large white oval pane of glass in the wall was in fact a door of searing light, whose presence of heat could only be descried by a touch.  Off to its side was a keyhole for wands.  Holding her glower near the socket and its promise of saving her hours by going this way, she bit her lip, then sighed, and meandered onto the long winding walkway towards the Tower of Ashk.  Outside, she guessed, it was almost Spout Rises.

She was just passing the second overhead loop, when another seizure mazed her consciousness.  Byngol-a-bur shone like a golden mirror under Lef’s mother sun. Her two children were about to rouse themselves.  And the warm breeze was perfect for gliding.  M’Sish laughed as Roit tried to copy Paun’s maneuver over and under the big arch.  Each time his wild enthusiasm almost unsteeded him, especially on the delicate cutbacks.  Then it was her turn to show off to her brother.

“Here’s how it’s done, cater-planer!”

While she steered her brigerpin over the familiar course, the dreamer in the dark wilderness began walking towards the edge of the bridge.  With no handrail to stop her, she stepped into the open air—and remained aloft.

That day they made a hundred passes around the arch, before their mother summoned them for midevening meal.

Suddenly the beautiful green sky vanished.  An ostealwand was the final hope for HevN’s Brew.  But something was wrong!  Her first step.  She felt nothing.  Her mouth opened wide to emit a silent scream.  That’s when she fell.  It was hardly a plummet… just about her height.  She hit and straddled the pavement and dropped her light, which rolled away from her.  Running on her knees, she lunged desperately, but her fingertips tapped the wand and pushed it over the walkway’s edge.  Watching it fade into the void below, she swore like she had never sworn—like her sister swore.  But her anger was so, that she forgot about the darkness around her.  Summon Dowser Iiq?  No!  She prayed… to Dyydz… and Sut UnBii.  For forgiveness for her swearing.  And for their guidance.  Maybe she wasn’t sure which way was which.  But she was going to make it to some minaret, if she had to crawl and feel her way there.

And she did exactly that.

At Spout Rises she crossed the threshold of Ashk.  Her cowl was worn through at the knees.  Her bones ached For The Stars.  Two more bridges to traverse.  Fool’s goddesses if I won’t!

She looked at the next lambent door less forebodingly.

“I have no wand, but maybe I have a key.  Do I, Corvus?”  Rubbing her thumb over the pulsar, she prayed, “Please be a key!”

Could she assume that the Dowser was overseeing.  Or that she had overseen while she levitated above dead night?  Was Iiq a Guardian Cherub as well as a teacher?

Apprehensive, she eased the stone against the hushed fiery pane.  The pearly light was extinguished, leaving her facing a black hole in the lavender-hued rock.  Before the entrance could relock itself, she ambled straight ahead into whatever awaited her.

An embroidered variation of Tun’El dipped in and out of their fresh water home.  An experienced angler?  Not in the least.  Just Stryyx, trying to get their attention.  The seamice hadn’t fled her sporting hand in centuries.

“Come on, you little gillers!  Don’t you have some fabulous news to tell me?  Haven’t I shared all my Silence with you?  I mean, even my love life.  And that’s deplorable!  I know: you noblings have got so much lore locked inside of you, I probably seem humdrum, right?  Well, come on and show me!  Or I’ll quit feeding you.”

Acting disappointed, she reeled in her riband and wrapped it around her finger, saying, “Ah!  You can’t help it.  You’re all beautiful, but… you’re just inland seamice, right?  Genj blue!  If Pid’yn Ba can’t pry an intelligible word out of you, why should I expect to?”

The inspector was gibbering before an empty Aulhall.  She had asked her Guard to wait outside, while she dabbled alone.  Dabbling was more essential to dabs than dabblers was her claim.

Her inspection of the round had produced nothing.  Just the effects of war.  “Saurian’s ass, nothing!  A veteran Daam was lying there with dead night all around her and holding a bouquet of flowers?  Don’t tell me that’s nothing!”

She continued to direct her speech at the fish.  “Okay.  I’m going to give you all one more chance.”

She put her hand in the tank and swirled the water.  “Here’s your tranquility, upset one fine day by the Harem and the Shadow.”  Tossing in one of Jyl’s colors, an original band taken at his arrival as driftwood, she went on, “Oh, my!  Some poor soul’s lost his ship and needs help.  What’ll you do?”

One of the fish came to the surface and sniffed the driftwood.  There it took a nibble, swam excitedly throughout the bench habitat, and returned with the rest of the seamice clan, who all but poked their incisors at the bait.

“I see!  My galloon’s not good enough to play with!  Anyway, the man needs help—not devouring.  What hospitality!”

Sitting back, she grabbed a few strands of her hair and ran them between her lips.  She couldn’t believe their occupation with Jyl’s cordon—just like it was feeding time.

Stryyx dabbled on them feeding… feeding…

Food.

“Ch’Chencylwhores!

Ard’m Ol and Swamb Ley burst into the chamber just in time to see the minister practically bathe herself in retrieving her souvenir.

“Gyel Stryyx?”

“It’s all right.”  She blushed and took a closer look at the tattered band.  At the word “Bevleba!” the two drew nearer to indulge their own curiosities.

“All right,” she began.  “Since you two are here, let’s see what we remember from our horticulture.”  She handed the ribbon to Swamb. “Notice anything peculiar?”

The rounder gave a disinterested glance.   “Well, I can just about make out Jyl’s heraldry.”

“And?” prodded Stryyx.

“And…”

“Let me see,” said Ard, taking it from her newest sister.  She handled the cloth meticulously and brought it close to her vision.  “Looks like…”

“Looks like what?”

“Like…”  Not wanting to sound ridiculous, the guardian held back momentarily, then returned the riband to the councilor with the response, “Like roots.”

“Roots?” wondered Ley.

“Genj Blue!” concurred Stryyx.  “Like roots.  Swamb, fetch me a pot of some of that rich earth out back.”  The Buukliair was halfway to the door, when the Auler stressed, “And both of you—keep this in Silence.”

Her sister having strode off to the Qeen’s garden, Ard’m Ol cupped her hand and scooped up some of the aquarium’s water.  Stryyx satisfied her curiosity by adding the riband.

“Breach a vestal!  I can actually feel it germinating.”

The first time she looked back, she saw neither the glow from across the hall nor the radiant doorway.  Only soundless murk—which enveloped her.  She dared not to turn her feet.  One foot in front of the other.  That’s how it was recommended.  Concentrate only on your destination.  Dyydz.  Sut UnBii.  A meager star.

Although nothing could be seen anyway, M’Sish felt better closing her eyes.  More insufficient alternatives to courage.

After several paces the floor began losing its solidity.  More and more it was like trudging through the dunes.  Stopping, she backed up, only to discover that the surface kept getting sandier and deeper.  Quickly she moved forward again.  But with every stride her feet continued to sink.

A cool breeze stroked her breast.  She touched herself there.  Her cowl.  All her clothes.  They were gone.  And her pulsar.  It was in the cowl.

Another step, and water seeped between her toes, and she let out a brief yelp.  The sandy path turned to mud.  The mud to slime.  The air stank of Bblonfen.

Aloud she chanted, “Dyydz!  Sut UnBii!  A meager star!  Please!”

Opening her eyes, she saw herself knee deep in a quagmire, whose immediate visage was exposed by a soft green light.  Hundreds of deformed newts slithered throughout the ooze, many of them feeding on one another.  Gradually they were transformed into similarly carnivorous seamice, which reproduced over and over, until their multitude had replaced the very medium they inhabited.  Shutting her eyes changed nothing.  Her eyelids had simply become transparent.

She plodded her trembling nakedness through the mounds of muckish scales, which, so far, had not as yet tried to claim her as sustenance.

Why didn’t I snake my dignified ass across the walkways.   Still she remained firm.

Soon, directly in front of her, she beheld the source—or the terminus—of this infestation.  It was a whirlpool of seamice, spouting about a crimson mane, which was garnished with cordons of winged mastheads.  Slowly the crown ascended, baring first the face of Yuudm Jyl, and finally the body of a woman, who pleaded, “I beg forgiveness for ____”

“You’re a fool!”  yelled M’Sish.  Her bitterness helped her to forget the aversion around her.  “How can you expect me to forgive a fool’s loyalist and friend, who has both beguiled me and wrought death on my homeland, and who begs me in the guise of a sister?”

The woman with Jyl’s face merely repeated he message.  “I beg forgiveness for ____”

But M’Sish wasn’t listening.  “When you have confessed in the presence of the Fire of Fidelity, and her flames burns cleanly blue, only then shall I forgive you.  Until that improbable moment, either fly from here or be doomed to suffer Under Bblonfen.”

The Votress turned away.  But the image in the whirlpool stayed in front of her.

Again the illusion spoke.  “I beg forgiveness for having declared my guilt on behalf of my children.”

“I don’t understand, fool’s lifeform.  Unmask yourself!”

Suddenly the encircling seamice leaped and clambered over their quarry.  M’Sish watched them dig their fangs into the woman’s flesh.  But there was no blood, no open wounds.  Instead the fish were feeding off her youth.  And when they had finished, all that remained was an old hag, whose straggly mane was void of any ribands.  M’Sish recognized her as one of the now-deceased Beggars.

“Bevleba!”  The Votress was stunned.  And confused.  She had just witnessed a transition that had subsequently converted her own feelings from fear to hate to intense sorrow and back to hate.  Only now her hate was directed at ChaulE.  But why, she wasn’t sure.  Now who’s the fool? said a voice in her head.

With outstretched arms the old woman hobbled towards her visitor, and echoed her despondent appeal.  “Please let me die!  Please let me die!”

M’Sish ran, but two invisible walls sprang up and mated and cornered her.  The hag embraced her and nudged her nose to nose, supplicating her, “Please let me die!”

Unable to cope any more with this terror, the Votress chanted desperately, “Zu Jjin!”

In the next instant, she found herself weeping in the arms of Dowser Iiq.  Above them hovered a miniature sun, whose Gominex semblance illumined the room more to M’Sish’s liking.

“Be at ease, novice.  You shall never remember this fear you have lived today—such be the rule of the Wynds of Acquaintance.”

“You mean the Fenmare’s Grot, don’t you?” she snapped tearfully.

“Fenmare’s Grot, eh?  Suppose we distinguish the two.  The first be but a mirage to save pace.  The latter is Hell.  There be your monsters with substance.  Now can you relate to me your passage through the Wynd?”

She could not.  It was like waking up from a sound sleep and having that fine artery between consciousness and the dream severed.  Her robe seemed no more worn than after her crossing from Stuul.  So why was she crying… and afraid?  Oh, the frustration of it all!

“Here.  Take your wand…”

How embarrassing!

“And leave Tharm at once.”

I have failed… at something.

“Your work is finished here—for now.”

“For now?”  She was jubilated.

“Yes.  The tests you’ve been conducting?  No need to repeat them.  The results are quite conclusive.  Get with Gyel Stryyx and be certain to isolate yourselves warily.  And don’t be thwarted by today’s venture.  Considering your untimely seizures, I expected you to forswear much sooner.  So, not a bad start.  Now wing it to the Valley side.  A brigerpin awaits you there.”

“Dowser Iiq.  Wouldn’t our plans be expedited—if you went?”

“Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  You see, the spell of the pulsar has been entrusted to you.  It’s power, however great or negligible, is totally nil in anyone else’s hands.  Those unusual suspicions that have affected you, that have gotten us this far with our probing, were without a doubt detected by that stone.  Should it fail to benefact us further, it has sufficed.

“Now keep in mind: beyond the night of Tharm you’ll be exposed to the eyes of Wulscastle.  Even from QortL, don’t underestimate their capabilities.  They’re probers too.  And damn good ones.  So remember to check your isolation.

“Now begone with you… Witch!”

Outside.

Snuffing her candle, she took a moment to savor the late evening campfires.  Crus’Ybl was setting a spit off the Plateau, pouring the Firth nearest to Citau Bwec, with Beryl Glacier the cue.  She had missed them all since Zoyet Woods.

The brigerpin Brume was waiting.  Gypsy’s idea of a joke.  Strek probably encouraged her.  She had missed them too.

She was admiring the stallion’s well-tended rack, when a wave of various events flowed through her.  There were people… everywhere… Round Tuud… all the rounds… the Vestry wall… the Harbour… the Valley… saurians… people’s homes… Oh, there was Irn and … the Breach of H’Gaumz… all of ChaulE it seemed.  As the wave subsided, she was able to hold onto the desired View, just like during her experiments at the abbey.  Incredible how much more was Outside!

To validate her finds, she stepped back into Tharm’s shadow, and the visions were gone.  Pausing there, she soon felt the ripple from Klyn’s Turret and the room where she last worked.  She could see scores of anJ, bustling between the lancet arches and sloshing themselves merrily in Yyb’s Trough.  The Kaldrons of all the minarets were known to her this way.

Witch.

It sounded like a compliment coming from Dowser Iiq.  Oh, there was no sense hiding behind her hobby or challenge or probing.  She was a witch now.  No thunder-spewing pyromantic. But a witch nonetheless.

Reentering the realm of stars, she hugged the fierce brigerpin and kissed his cheek.  “Let’s show them how to fly, Big Brume!”

Once again her head was filled with the episodes of the present.  It was an objectionable power, when used like this—like Intrusion.

As they sailed over the Gates and past the tree line, her mind gasped at what Stryyx was doing.

“No time for fun, Brume.  Take me to the palace!”

He sat against a runed jut of Mauv WuPree and observed the flyer, soaring directly overhead towards the forest.  Then he watched it arc back and change course, beating hard for the metropolis.  Another quiet evening.  His attention diverted to the far flicker of lights along the Valley rim.  It was the one place he had not been permitted.  And the only way in was by brigerpin.  The Vestry sentinels even discouraged sightseers and traffic outside the walls from lingering too long.

“You’re talking about our water!” Y’Moir had once tried to explain to him.

During her course in the military, she had been assigned to diversified details, such as perimeter guard, Harbour watch, Labyrinth escort, Fault patrol, and cask delivery at the Vestry.  She had mentioned that the lizards supervised the movements through the Valley.  That the Vestry grounds were used as a stockpile for the barrels of Holy Water.  But that security measures prevented her from discussing anything more regarding the Well.  It was always the same rundown from everyone.

His steed, Lecnoluu, couldn’t get near enough for him to examine the activity inside.  If only these ancient Gates were built closer.  Their crests would have been perfect.

Nevertheless, from all that had been relayed to him, tonight was the night.

He crossed the narrow strip that separated Fomucuf Plains from the open desert, and ducked into the shrub and bouldered fringes of H’Gaumz.  He knew the way by heart now.  Even his timing to the ramparts was down pat.  About a stone’s throw from the wall, he settled down behind a great rock and snacked on some otkum petals and pretberries.

Whenever you’re ready, I’Egwys.

Wyrblossums.  Can anyone tell me the source of that name?”

Tonilk replied, “Seems to me, Gyel Stryyx, ChaulE has always been abundant with flowers.”

“Yes.  But what about these?  When did you first hear anyone use the term wyrblossum?”

“That’s what Jyl called them,” answered Yersitty, “The day he brought them to Qeenmother’s house.  They’re pretty hardy plants.  In fact, the originals still decorate her meal table.”

“All right,” broke in Strek.  “So Jyl calls them wyrblossums.  So what!  What do our botanists call them?”

“The same.  Since after Ayopee, it’s become second nature.  Only they say that probably Herbagers or birds or even the Usinwat Current could have dropped them in.  Except we’re no longer discussing seeds, are we?  Cordon-camouflaged cuttings are more like it.  They’ve no reaction to the Nalfin Sea.  But, oh, do they love fresh water!”

A door rolled aside and Paun’s pure blood sister hurried into the room.

Stryyx was overjoyed.  “M’Sish!  You’re just in ____”

“Don’t go flapping your overworn dribblen beak at me, you irresponsible minister!”

On that note, even Molug dropped her jaw.  This couldn’t be M’Sish.  Not her.

Himmwast nudged her and laughed quietly, which was a rare emotion for her.  “Be what thy issue?  Dowser lock thee in the Wynd?”

“Save your twaddle for your drunken Serpentlord cronies, Cyclops!”  Then while bending an eye at Stryyx, she addressed everyone.  “Is this how the Aul conducts the business of our future.  In a goddessdamn nursery?”

“Bevleba!”  Paun covered her mouth to muffle her laugh.  “Sister, I think you’re over____”

“No!  No!  She right!” conceded Stryyx.  The others threw puzzled glances at her.  “The environment of this court has been debased by our liberal ignorance.  On behalf of those liable, I take full responsibility.  I apologize with all my heart, Votress M’Sish.”

“Well, I haven’t time for drawn out penitence.  And certainly no time to squander, while this despicable situation is being remedied.  If it’s not too much a strain on your lavender thumbs, perhaps we can locate a more suitable chamber to scrutinize our urgencies.  Someplace a little less weedy?”

Gyel Neked began, “What’s wrong with ____”

“Of course, of course,” asserted Stryyx.  “We can use my office.”

Retaining her look of dissatisfaction, the witch turned to her sister, and demanded, “Summon Daam Pwil Nin, Guardian Irn V’Shae, and Lady Snov.  It is imperative they be at this meeting.”

“Lady Snov?” wondered Emgroy.  “She’s just a relayer.”  But the Votress made no comment.

“Look,” said Paun.  “Silverstream’s off today.  Why can’t we just ____”

“Come on!  Let’s go!” urged the Brewist.  “I’ll explain it to you on the way.”

“You’ll explain nothing, Guardian Strek!  Just keep those tuxhil lips of your sealed and execute my request.

“Your office, Gyel Stryyx?”

The investigator had caught her drift.  So had Strek.  Following her unneeded apology, M’Sish instructed the councilor that if she happened to undergo a seizure—it would be similar to Jyl’s—to let it pass undisturbed.  In the meantime, as a matter of courtesy, V’Shae would be questioned with only the Votress and Stryyx in her presence.

“Sorry to bother you, Irn, on your day off, but a critical situation exists with regard to security.  What I’m about to ask you will be a breach of Silence For The Stars.  However, I need to verify the results of my trials at Tharm.  It’s ridiculous!  I’ve been cursed with not remembering what happened there. And cursed… or should I say gifted with some insight.  Something related to our minister’s findings. Anyway, you can trust Gyel Stryyx and I never to mention our conversation here tonight.  This we swear.  Ready?”

A personal disclosure on me?  The worst being suspected, a hostile tone spliced the Silverstream’s reply.  “I suppose.”

M’Sish produced her canister and exposed the Flame nestled inside.  Then with some difficulty she commenced, by saying, “Tonight a certain activity occurred in your house.”

“Spew on your matrons’ pyres!  Breach of Silence?  It’s an outrage.”

“Irn, please.  It’s very important.”  M’Sish went straight to the point.  “Were you fettered?”

The Silverstream glared at the Votress… and then the Gyel.  “And now the Dowser has enlightened you to spy… on our bedrooms… for security measures!”

“Irn, you mustn’t____”

“You goddessdamn witch!  All my life I’ve called you sister ____”

Stryyx quickly turned her about and slapped her across the face.  “Keep your voice down, Lady Irn V’Shae.  Now… we’re not interested in any details.  But it’s genj important.  So… were you fettered?”

Genj important.  V’Shae was reddened even more with her anger.  And she was ready to storm out the room.  But first she would play it out.  “Yes.  I was fettered.  Did you enjoy watching us?”

Before she could relate anything further, M’Sish apologized to her friend.  “Not me.  Not any of us.  Only our trustful friend, Jyl.  And he’s eavesdropped not only on you, but everyone else—whenever he’s felt like it—everyday that he’s been here.”

“What are you talking about?”

The Gyel looked at M’Sish who amplified a bit.  “You have a pot of wyrblossums in your house?  Your bedroom, yes?”

“So?”

“That’s how you’ve been watched.”

“With flowers?  I don’t believe it!”

“You believe the Fire?”

The Sinner’s vision spat at the small flickering glare.  It was burning blue. “All right.”  She looked up and swallowed hard.  “Now what?  Is that enough?”

“It’s enough,” said Stryyx.  “I must ask you to remain here while we question the others.”

A nervous Lady Snov was admitted.  She was asked to relate an act not in accordance with regular duties at Harbour watch.  To be more precise—a game she played with a fellow sentry.

“I didn’t play any games tonight.”

“Well, now,” began Stryyx.  “This pretty red glow seems to think otherwise.  Tell you what.  Communicate the truth to us, and I’ll see that you get back to your Harbour post without having to tour Qul House and the dribblen hutch.”

The soldier regarded the Sinner in the room, then lowered her head, and sighed, “I was playing Fool’s Bells with Lady Meric—just a few quick rounds.”

This time the Fire agreed.

“You may sit down, Lady Snov.  And you can relax.  It’s okay.”

Later, Pwil Nin, governess of Round Tuud, described certain modifications in the Calraddi exercises, which her troops had been practicing during the midpoint of Spout Falls.  Her response matched the information M’Sish had previously given to Stryyx.

The rest of the company gathered in the detective’s quarters, where they were acquainted with the witch’s definitive findings.  How ingestion of the leaves of wyrblossum plants gave those with special energies the power of reception.  That reception being both the view and the sounds of those flowers’ location.  The more ingested, the greater the reception range—even as far as Crus’Ybl.  With the benefit of sorcery, the transmissions from any individual flower could be isolated from the rest.  And as an added convenience, an ingestor could not be genuinely examined in view of the Fire of Fidelity and the Conceptual Net.  It was an intriguing power with one major shortcoming—the unpredictable fits.

M’Sish went on, “Imagine.  Every activity within sight of those accurst petals.  Monitored. So much of it.  Maybe all of it.  Relayed to Wulscastle, the abbey at QortL.”

Molug pondered aloud, “Even the round movements!”  Then she went over to Paun.  “Satisfied?  Now we can kill him.”

“You’re all forgetting something,” declared Paun.  “He brought me back, remember?”

“Maybe the Bidets let him take you back,” argued the war minister, “To win our confidence.”

“Genj red on that one,” said Stryyx.  “They couldn’t have planned the whole Nalfin run.  Certainly not Taribanc.  I’d say Lokker’s Garrote had an even chance of claiming those two.  But…”  She thought of his ribands.  “He’s our man.

“So!  Let’s contemplate the Intruder’s present situation.  I would surmise that during these past few centuries the longstanding QortLite nobility has weathered by way of the goodness of their Bidet and Remal friends.  A little water now for a plot of the Well tomorrow.  Now their Chal’Iss allies are cut off for life.  Meaning that all the old nobles—including Honn Kolcher—will expire from Time itself.  Which means they’ll be coming, my friends, real soon, with everything they’ve got.”

“We can hold them!”  boasted Wober Fel.

“Maybe we can.  But remember, these are desperate men now.  Men who’ve tasted eternity and are not about to just relinquish it.  They will sacrifice wave after wave.  Even if it means only one ship’s crew surviving— so long as they win.

“Which puts us at a desperate hour.  Fool’s goddesses if we won’t be ready.  But this time we’ll all have to be ready, even the cwolwisans.”

“First… we must kill Jyl.”

“Thay’s wilderness be fertile!” chanted Molug.

“Can’t we just banish him?” asked Paun.  “This is all… perhaps just a blind hand into the Brew.”

Like everyone, Gyel Stryyx was well aware of the Sinner’s fondness towards the infiltrator.  “What else did Teno Lor call him?  Ingzba.  That’s his disciple name.  His witch name.  Can’t you see?  He’s a witch.  He could swim back.  Or blow in somehow.  Perhaps enchant his lovely daughter, Klas Tel… who might enchant her lover, Pid’yn Ba… who might unknowingly betray the Herbagers.  The next thing you know, we’ll be looking up at Infinity’s Door and their brigerpin roof.  Too risky.”

“He’s amused himself with our Silence!” snapped V’Shae.

“He’s devoured a whole round,” added Gyel Neked.

“And if he’s shared qaithwine with Xemochy,” cursed Molug, “Then he’s probably toasted with Riffel too.”

Stryyx broke in, “And let’s not underestimate his intentions.  Is he Bedlamite enough to steal our Well?”

M’Sish stood up abruptly, and exclaimed, “Cosmon Sower!”  There was a blank stare in her eyes.  “He’s there!”

“Who’s where?” inquired Stryyx.

“Jyl.  He’s near the Vestry wall.  Just sitting there.  Waiting.”

“He doesn’t sense you?”

“He couldn’t if he tried.  There are no flowers here.  His own lavender thumb is working against him now.”

“Arrest him!” ordered the war councilor.

“No, not yet!” pleaded Stryyx.  “Makes sense now.  All his long walks.  At the right times.  Practice makes perfect, eh, Jyl?”

“Care to share it with us?”

“Of course, Brewist.  Oh, didn’t you know?  I’ve seen him sunward.”

“Everyone knows that.  But who’s the Umbra?”

The Gyel rubbed her palms together, and cackled, “No idea, huh?”

Paun took a guess.  “It’s Hentilose, isn’t it?  Her and that goddessdamn diary, Kwid Nunk!”

Looking gratified, Stryyx ran her fingers through her silky gray hair, and said, “Considering the circumstances with the wyrblossums, I’d like to congratulate the Umbra on having avoided any crucial suspicions.”

“Why not arrest Jyl now?” asked L’Sar.

More seriously, Stryyx answered, “The fool has toyed with our hearts since HevN’s Rebirth.  ‘Tis our turn to light his way.  Let his curiosity be satisfied.  Then let him be killed.

“Swamb Ley.”

“Gyel Stryyx?”

“Please utilize extreme caution in your speech, and rouse Qeenmother.”

  1. Vestry

A throng of yebirulps erupted from the H’Gaumz jungle, as I’Egwys Bell trembled like the chimes of a blustery day.  In a short while two hundred brigerpin, a division from the herd which had fleeted from the Plateau, arrived at the Vestry, then raced its occupants back to Round I’Egwys.  There they would rendezvous with the standby cavalries from the other forts, conducting maneuvers in simulation of an Intruder takeover.

After the fall of Zoyet Woods, Pid’yn Ba was granted amnesty, while Qeenmother procured the services of the Herbagers for any future homeland assaults.  The drills themselves were staged sporadically, with only the Aul advised of the scheduled alarms.

… or rather the Aul and whoever—or whatever—might have eavesdropped on their sessions.

As always, the synthetic starlight within the Vestry estate faded completely.  As always, all was quiet.

For the first time Jyl attached himself to the steep doorless wall.  Several rungs later he was peeking over the parapet.  Just as he had hoped.  No guards.  A crawl across the embankment and a looksee Within.  The same.  Dead night grounds and thousands of barrels lining the inner bulwark.  He clambered to the grassy surface and began a random check of the casks, all of which were filled with water.  By chance, he happened across one identical to the barrel at Chazi’s place.  Y’Moir was right.  This was the storehouse.

The Vestry.  The Well of Sut UnBii.

His cautious pace turned to an impatient scurry.  He had waited centuries to touch it.  To feel its marble texture.  And at long last…

…he did.

He walked around the edifice and its seven smooth unmarked faces.  He remembered how from the air it appeared to be seven even sides.  A fabulous construction.  But now was no time to dwell on such matters.  Before long he had made his way to the roof.

It was a flat surface, pocked with several stone discs and littered with as many large urns. Except that these containers were not runed like the others below.  He discovered that the discs were manageable enough to slide.  And that they were actually lids for cylindrical shafts, which seemed large enough to accommodate the casks.  A foul odor emanated from these holes—the stench of Eyicar.  Unsheathing his candle, he peered into one of the barrels and saw that it was smutted with blood and what appeared to be remnants of crops and foodstuffs.

Garbage.

He heard of no waste dumps on ChaulE.  All the refuse was put to use in compost piles, to further enrich the soil.  So why all the security?

Then he thought about the Well.  Perhaps this underground spring had to be enriched too.  That was it!

But where were the sheaves for lowering and raising the water barrels?

He tore off a piece of his cloth and masked his nose and mouth.  Then he entered the opening and resealed it.

“In the Palm of the Bearer!”

He was intrigued by his descent, especially when he guessed that he had already surpassed the Vestry’s height.  The air was becoming cooler now and mustier.  He wondered if the face wrap was really helping at all, the foulness being what it was.  At one point he caught a glimpse of a blur of light, but then it disappeared.  A long night, he prayed, thinking about the rounders’ drill.  Let it be a long night.

About three hundred feet down, the shaft ended, but not at any spring.

“Wandering reef!”

An extended wand unveiled an immense cavern, on whose hundred foot ceiling the man was presently perched.  Directly under him was a large cavity, which looked like a granite basin.  And he could hear water running, somewhere in the distance, like a strong river current.  His blood churned like rapids through his veins.

The face mask being useless, he braced himself inside the small tunnel and tied the candle to the cloth and hung it around his neck.  Grasping the natural overhead, he moved towards the nearest stalactite, which had fused with its floor mate.  To be sure of its solidity, he kicked the formation a few times, then mounted it and scrambled to the bottom.

Back at the basin he meditated in disappointment.  That’s all it was—just a basin—a civilized man-made vessel, partially filled with water and dregs he had previously found topside.  But where did it all go from here?  He looked for signs of a passage on which the contents could be easily conveyed.  Perhaps to some other fertilizing ground, but he saw none.  He only knew that he was at one end of a great cave, or of a cavern tributary, and that he would have to press forward.

There was that light again—in the far reaches, bending around some obscure corner, then vanishing.  That’s where he was headed.

Although there was no plant life, Jyl was impressed with this grand geological garden.  Stones of all shapes and sizes were growing everywhere—stalactites, stalagmites, demoiselles, arches, boulders.  Some solitary, some clustered, and all smeared with various colors.  Every so often dark brittle mounds would begin dissolving to a shrilling gel, then harden as he shifted away from them.  After several such experiences he realized that this strange process was actually caused by the close interaction of his wand and that these were tedoclod formations.  As for the mysterious light, subterranean clouds were the cause.  These glowing mists wafted peaceably, spraying moisture on the cold ceiling, yet never breaking up their arrangement.  Instead they contracted themselves to fit whatever space they might encounter, while continuing on their endless tract.

The spelunker had covered two leagues, when he reached a fork in the enormous passage.  Choosing the right side, he soon found himself in a dead end grotto, dominated by a single column of rock.  His wand, however, disclosed that this seemingly human cast formation was indeed a statue.  A woman, wearing a burnoose, her hands clasped innocently in front of her.  That face—that pious look.  It couldn’t be!

“Egrit’s Flue!”

M’Sish!

At the base of the sculpture were runes that read,

Thee I forgive – with all my heart.

Sa V’Ecrii.

Jyl understood not the meaning of the inscription nor why such a creation should be placed here in this underground hideaway.  He hoped he would find the answer somewhere along the main cavern—and soon!

He left the grotto and its unearthly mystery and resumed his search of the stone forest.  After five leagues he encountered two gigantic mites, their positions reminiscent of the Gates of Mauv WuPree.  A more permanent luminosity seemed to hover here, despite the absence of any radiant clouds.  It seemed to be generated from the pillars themselves.  On the sides where the two formations faced each other were engraved fragmentary runes, which, when read together, translated unintelligibly.  Some other language? he wondered.  The lettering style definitely looks ChaulEr.  Could be a code of some ____

On the ground… a little past the pillars.  He went over and picked it up.  A green fabric… with blood stains.  It was—Breach a vestal!—a Silbin’s cloth.  What was a Remal’s uniform doing ____

His mind roved over the climax of the last battle… and of every battle prior to that.  There was one item of present interest on which he never sought information.

Cleanup.

How exactly were the Intruder’s casualties disposed of?

His thoughts returned to the basin and the unmarked casks atop the Vestry.  The blood.  The garbage.  He remembered seeing files of soldiers carrying barrels up from the Valley to the walled septagon.  Couldn’t they have been coming by way of the round tunnels and not the H’Gaumz homes—to make more convenient burial deposits?  Could the Vestry be the disrespectful counterpart of G’Lian’s Orchard?

The Yuudm swore to himself.  The water he was hearing was probably a subterrene flow just beyond the jagged enclosure.  This was not the holy grounds of the Well.  But if it were a rotting pit, where were the bodies?  Who moved them?

Who?

Again his mind staggered, this time over his present location.  His journey tonight had run practically parallel to the Valley… the Valley of H’Gaumz… of the Lower Saurians… of flesh eaters.

Too much reflection.  Out of the errant abyss, he pictured barrels of water being lugged from the Valley’s lake.  Then he thought of his fruitless explorations of Tharm.  He had learned enough. And he was overanalyzing what he didn’t have time to unravel.  No use scouring the rest of this goddessdamn hole!  More than likely it led straight to the H’Gaumz lairs.  Besides, his candle would need a harvested light treatment before long.

Still he was curious about that statue.  It didn’t make sense.  And those etched pillars.  Before leaving he would give it one more try.  But when he attempted to pronounce what was spelled, his interpretation sounded more like a grieving howl.

At once, a small fireball appeared overhead and exploded, producing a cloud which rivaled the Conceptual Net.  The light that was emitted revealed a vast room, more spacious than Qasr’Kwen.  Jyl looked on incredulously, as two voices, the voices of Dyydz the Ruskalik, joined in simultaneous narration of the projected scene.

“A gyaghorn roused him from the ancient matt of the Serpentlords, where he had finally recuperated from his awful stupor.  Stepping outside under Lef’s full blaze, he was taken unawares by the red tide that awaited him.  They seemed to stretch out from the Valley’s rim to the lavender forest to Goronz Wood—Kingsmen and Rounders, all braced for his aggression.  With xilumsword in hand he treaded fearlessly to the center of the open plot they had left for him.

“He knew that his time had come.  That he had run out of reprieves because of his once esteemed past.  And that there was no escaping to his kingdom in Ror.

“While his nostrils gathered in the freshness which blew in from the Plains, he scanned the View one final moment.  It was early Spout Rises.  Crus’Ybl shone pale blue like a setting sun in the emerald sky.  Byngol-a-bur was the doyen of mother lodes.  A wild band from Horsdeor was shaving their wings over the crest of Tharm.  And H’Gaumz still flourished as the only true paradise anywhere.

“Thrashing his tail from side to side, he now girded his green squamous hide for the onslaught.

“A young dark-skinned girl left the sphairaclad ranks and entered the barren plot in front of Urfacis Lloc.  She carried no scatterbow.  No sword.  No weapon of any kind.  Her face bore the bruises of a long night’s tears.  But she was over that now.  She did not greet him with open palms, as was customary.  In defiance, she called him by his real name, a privilege reserved only to his family or close friends or monarchy or members of his order.

“ ‘Ods Uf!  Since HevN’s Rebirth you have been worshipped for your greatness.  And you have basked in your glory by helping yourself to rewards not granted freely to you.  You have even defiled our sisters and your crimes have gone unnoticed.

“ ‘But this time… this time you have invaded the Roost of Gwil Fyr.  But the woman you ravished—even on her deathbed—she forgave you and begged for you long life.  And compelled me to do the same.  Because, above being most proud and noble and fair, she was a holy woman.  Well, her wishes and prayers for you—I will not violate.  But her honor—the honor of my mother, Sa V’Ecrii—I defend.’

“She removed her uniform and threw it away from herself.  ‘Ods Uf!  I am called Paun.’

“The Semdrak flung his sword back towards the ingress of the old Round.  The shattering of inner firmasphere was his angered outcry.  But something else disturbed the air.  He became hushed.  And listened.  And heard a similar howl.  The voice of the girl, her soul enraged to the challenge.  Like mindless starving beasts, they clenched their hostilities into the devil’s nightmare.”

The narrative of the event, centuries long gone, faded.  And the figure of the Qeen materialized in the cloud.  She was wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her robe.

“Poor child,” she began.  “Seems you took a wrong turn.  By the way, do you like our Vestry, Yuudm Jyl?  Or do you prefer Ingzba… or Compeer of Hya?  Makes no difference.  You’ve seen the last of the Brew.  Anyway, welcome to Under Bblonfen.  There are a few betting on you to last till morning.  If you do, you can say that you faired much better than your friends over there.”

Where she pointed, a cavelet came to light.  In it were the remains of Intruder soldiers.

She went on, “How thoughtless of us not to mention—that this is where our cleanup ends.  Wandering reef!”  She held up a bouquet of wyrblossums, and sniffled.  “Oh, yes.  Honn Kolcher sends you his regards on a job well done.”  Then she dropped them at her feet.

“If you get thirsty, you know where the basin is.  We’ll be sure to dump a little extra water for you too, just in case you’re still around.  Sorry, but we’ll have to seal the lids till we know you’re gone.

“Lavender Lynk, child.”  Her countenance disappeared with the cloud into nothingness.

Exposed For The Stars.  He wasn’t sure how.  Too late to matter.  The Qeen had verified his conjecture.  We’ll be sure to drop a little … for you too…

You too.

He presumed who the others were.  Having never successfully penetrated the H’Gaumz perimeter, except by way of the wyrblossums which the lizards themselves brought in and transplanted.  He also presumed that the security of the tunnels that connected here would be even more impossible to crack.  By now Mig Lo Duk must have been informed of his hapless situation.  Jyl couldn’t hang out on the ceiling forever—not here.  Perhaps his only chance was slung at his side.

Something moved in the cavelet.  One of the bodies!  Several bodies!  But cleanup was the rekilling of dead night—a valid check.  No.  The mound of rotted flesh was not stirring.  Only the pile of uniforms.  Something beneath them was stirring.  It stood up and gawked at the lifeform that had braved its lair of confinement.  An inhuman shrill shook the great cavern, sending several stalactites crashing to the floor.

“d’Glejerian S’fongbis!”

Jyl raised his dying wand at the approaching saurian.  He saw the cruel scar that had once been the marks of its manhood.  Reaching for his other sheath, the man withdrew a lightless candle and aimed it at the menacing fiend.  With self-assurance he chanted, “Zu Jjin!”  But the gift from Pid’yn Ba remained lightless.  His forehead beaded with lather in the subterrene chill.  And he stood helplessly—despairingly—in the shadow of the Great Lizard.

Another vicious bellow, and a single consciousness subsisted Under Bblonfen.

  1. Plague of Bines

I don’t believe it!” said Hentilose, her eyes flushed with tears.

“I’m sorry.  But it’s true, child.”

“How do you know he wasn’t just exploring?” suggested Deeg.  “I, mean, he was an adventurer, always hiking around in the hills and the woods and wherever.  He even told us how he tried sneaking into H’Gaumz, just to see how the saurians went about their days.  And how he thought about prowling the damn Fetistry and maybe even viewing the Dowser unawares.  As far as I’m concerned, the Vestry was just another one of his hikes.  And the flower spies—a witch’s fluky concoction.”

“I might have speculated as you, child,” vented the Qeen, “Had not he been waiting for the I’Egwys alarm.  I’m afraid that the evidence is well weighed against him.  And please try to understand that Votress M’Sish only discovered the secret of wyrblossums.  He and his allies formulated their power.”

Leaving the matt and the Sinners momentarily, the Qeen and Gyel Hegged rounded the hallway and entered Jyl’s room, where Lady Gethom was winding up with her gathering of the Yuudm’s personal belongings, especially his handwritten notes.  Four large earthenware pots, each containing an eye-level stalk of the contemptible yellow flowers, were unsystematically arranged on the open floor space.  These were the transplants from Desrubans Heap out back and the only wyrblossums inside the Goronz tree perimeter.

The Qeen glared directly at one of the corollae, and remarked, “It’ll be nice to speak unwarily again.  Hegged, scour the entire land and see that every one of these is dug up by its roots and cast into bonfire.  Then collect the ashes, refire them again, and bury them deep.”

The minister was about to agree, when vines from all the plants lashed out and wrapped themselves tightly about the women’s necks, pulling each of them against a main stalk, where the other branches seized them.  Two plants promptly reached in and folded their branches around Gethom’s hilts, withdrew her metal, and plunged them into the Buukliair and the Gyel, killing them instantly.

The backdoor opened, and Bakwarf walked in, her arms laden with vegetables from the garden.  Jolted by the horrendous scene, she quickly fetched Jyl’s sword from the wall next to his bed.  Like the seasoned dancer she once was, she stove off the blows from the possessed xilum-wielders and severed them from their pots.  She raced to the aid of the ChaulEr sovereign, who was striving ineffectively against the one plant’s stranglehold.  The cold xilum hissed.  The Qeen collapsed to the floor, choking.  Another cloven plant reclined to dead night.

Hearing Bakwarf’s cries, the Sinners rushed in and lent their assistance.  Nether and V’Shae checked the bodies of their slain sisters.  While they did so, an unseen branch lifted a loose sword off the deck and took aim.  A voice rang out and another blade split the plant in two.

Appearing unruffled by his act was Glum Klum, alias Sir Vlav Tr’Klum of the Kingsmen, alias the Umbra—colleague of Gyel Stryyx, who saw Jyl sunward.

However, the worst was not yet over.  Wherever the wyrblossums were rooted, they took hold of all those whom they could reach—be they ChaulEr or H’Gaumz—and tried their utmost to murder them.  Hundreds were claimed during the terrible Plague of Bines.  It was said that even from misery’s depth’s, Ingzba of Wulscastle had gone down fighting to the end.

By Open Link the last of the primrose spies were cremated, their ashes scattered over the marshes of Bblonfen, never to be seen again.

As Jyl had long ago requested, Paun took the small silk robe she had kept, the one that had warmed her first daughter, and threw it into Egrit’s Flue.  What remained was a mesh of thin metallic embroidery, which, when laid out, revealed a message.

Strek translated the charred runes, saying, “It’s about… the g’Wesh movements… and a woman—named Cam Purb.”

I no longer have the spirit of appreciation for this,” was her comment, as she contemplated the cordon just presented her.  “But… I am grateful.”

Her posture on Lyode’s Vision was rather informal.  Half-kneeling, sitting back on her heels, she looked tepid and weary.  No one seemed to mind though, except Molug, who was obviously showing restraint.

“You know,” Bakwarf continued, “Before many of you were born… there were charges brought against me… accusing me of illicit ambitions for the crown…  Well I want you all to know… that those accusations… were not all revealed.”

For now, there was only a murmur from the listeners’ minds.

“You see… the truth is… I wanted to be Conqueress of Lynk Star.”  Her blank stare awakened, and she smiled quite innocently.  “No one had ever done that.”  She became somber again.  She reflected on her old objectives.  Her foiled coup.  Her eternity in Qul House.  “All my friends… I stole their trust…  And for that their Roosts suffered… while I had no Roost… only myself… so I thought…  I was always blaming the wrong person—my mother…  Are any of you my mother?…  Just wondering…

“May I keep this?”  She held out the riband.  “Of course!  You just gave it to me.”  And she bowed her head shamefully.

A familiar face was approaching her.  She got up from the slab and went over and greeted the woman.  “Qeenmother!  Lavender Lynk!”  She had been around Jyl too long.

But the ruler did not bid her farewell.  Instead they returned arm in arm to the redstone triangle.  There the Qeen placed her hands on the genuflectors head.  “Thou art ChaulEr Bakwarf.  Welcome home, child.”

But the honored one rose in tears and fled the ceremony and disappeared into the ivoctenwood shadows.  After traipsing for hours over autumn’s floor of leaf sacs, she came upon a certain rounder, who had somehow guessed her course.

Warmheartedly, the soldier asked, “May I be your mother?… Again?… Dear daughter?”

Feeling reborn, Bakwarf embraced the Sinner.  Together they gadded about Zoyet Woods and around the Fortress, until they reached L’Sar’s house.

In the drifting seasons to come, the daughter’s joy would be waxed by the invite of a special guest—Lady Tonilk.

And while they mused on the wonderment of their futures, a vast fleet of ships was ascending the Spout.  They would hold anchorage at the Threshhold matt until Spout Rises.  Some kiloleagues behind them, the seat of the once-global empire was being dismantled and condemned to the pyre by their former servitude.  The insurgency, however, was hardly their worst fear.  Honn Kolcher and his nobles were too used to a life of luxury.  The real genj prospects lay ahead across the Lynk Sea.  A perennial empire forsaken?  Under Bblonfen with successors!  What good was it, when time was running out for themselves?

  1. Arcana

Somewhere on the distant nautical flanks, beyond the View of the Cosanc defenders, a battle was being waged.  Perhaps only a skirmish with allied nibblers, if one were to consider the great armada laid shorewardly.  From a half mile off the beach, it bent towards the horizon’s limits, disporting more ships than the largest number of flattops ever to beset the breaker zone.  Orphans at Infinity’s Door: Abandoned—For The Stars!

The bells of Chellis Beach, Tuud, and I’Egwys remained as silent as their Nalfin lookout was stark.  Most of the forces from these strongholds, including the tiros, were dispatched along the border between the Harbour and Round Zoyet Woods.  For the first time in centuries, men were mustered in their ranks, the local Kingsmen having been mobilized from their reserve status.  And everyone brandished a bow and quiver.

“Bevleba!”  Paun swore in disbelief, as she leaned on the Auler’s shoulder.  “You were right, Molug.”

The Intruder’s current formation paralleled one of the councilor’s strongest contingencies.  By concentrating part of their attack against the Harbour, the QortLites eliminated a major area of crossfire.  They were counting on no barrages of arrows or spears from the neighborhood of Ror.  Also, the Harbour was where the palisades ended.  From there a cliffless range stretched along the entire Zumenhyxx Fault to the first seaward point below Round I’Egwys.  Thus, any break in this defensive zone would mean infiltration of the metropolis.

The problem, however, was of longstanding—the Stone Bar.  Though only a spit off shore, it was a nightmare for both mastheaders and landing barges alike.  Its ebb peaks extended from the more moderate Cosanc shoals to the Harbour inlet, with the latter permitting but two small craft safely side by side.

“Not worth their efforts,” scoffed the Mistress.

“They want the city,” repeated Molug.  “What better place for a foothold of disarray, especially around a bunch of cwolwisans.  Of course, the mountains and the plains have no strategic significance, other than fitting all those men somewhere.”

“Yeah?  Well the bay’s too goddessdamn narrow.  And I’ve got Huntress over there torqueing for range.  We’ll have them all overboard way ahead of the pier.”

“We’d better!” stressed the minister.  “I’ve got this queer feeling…”

“About the Harbour”

“No.  The cliffs”

“If that’s their aim, the heat’ll give them a change of heart.  Besides, they know as well as us: shrouds and scaffolds merely feed the fire.  They’ve tried it before, remember?”

“Still….”  Why affront the Stone Bar, Honn Kolcher?  You see a breach that we don’t?

The fading moons of Talrit’fyamp were fool’s puffs among the Runtepioc Clan, while Shorted Lynk obscured Xam’s bluish frame, dispersing a mosaic halo above Urroze and the Rainlands.

Gong of Xorn!

It was an inconceivable song.  From several of the lead ships, barges were being launched with troops at their ready positions.  These shoalcraft were different from previous ones, in that they rose higher above the waterline, making this manifestation of force even more extravagant.

“I really didn’t bargain on this,” said the Gattarene.  “Kolentra’s Veil?”

Nether blew a hefty spit over the side.  “Fool’s goddesses if we’re falling for this!”

“Wrong, sister.”  Paun was firm with her decision.  “We’re falling for this one all the way.”

“Drunken Serpentlord!  What for?”

“Because I’m not cutting down the Kru—not this way.”  Not yet.

The passing Grudesm winds had well dampened the round and its inmates by the time the palanquin of Xorn was settled and the Kitrin Post marked.  Yet, looking across Scrimej, the assembled QortLites faced an empty Within.  Still they poised undauntedly.

The chief Sinner asked Molug, “Well, what do you think?”

With the barge pier devoid to Anchorage, the ChaulEr would have reasonable time to gird for any sudden massive strike.  Anyhow, the Gypsy-led brigerpineers were biding restlessly nearby, eagerly primed for the expected assault, and hopefully, for a chance to sweep even the Intruder’s sails.

“Seems honorable enough…   So far.”

Paun stepped onto the jeweled circle and waved an arm.  The Doorway to Within floated across its watertrack, admitting the dancers to their respective positions.

Visions glowering, a bearded prince and new leader gestured in the light of Xorn.  All turbans unravelled.  A streamered frontliner violated Scrimej.  The Rokkonz wielder…

… was a woman.

Cosanc Bell!

Advanced was Lady Anverro, who looked forward to the first kill.  But her overconfident strokes were precisely impeded, with the QortLite’s metal ramming her midsection.

The Guardians of the Heart were stunned.  Carillamond tripped, an avenging xilum was cast, but a block-countershot devoured the throat of Lady Eamad Oll.

L’Sar cursed into the View, “Goddessdammit!  Quit diving in!  And pivot!  Use your ground!”

While her comrades watched from their emplacements, the Solitary Kru continued to penetrate the shifting movements of her opponents, staving off their murderous deliveries, dispatching still another one of their highly regarded burners.

The fluid sworder had advance two combs, when the shuffling stopped.  Confronting her with throttled hilts and raging eyes was the Rowdy.

The QortLite sneered.  “Hello, Emgroy!  Jyl was right.  You do look like a Yorbin keg.”

“He was right about you too, dribby.  You’re about as fairling as dregs on a saurian’s ass… Cam Furb!”

The woman of Kru lost just a luster of composure.  Her name.  How ____

But the Sinner hadn’t finished.  “We know… about everything, dribby.  But you still surprised us.  You’re pretty good… for a soon-to-be rotting bovaseal.”

Paun seethed under her breath.  “Xyyamu on the fish-sweating, Groy!  Just take her out!”

The Rowdy went on, “By the way, we’re doing a special number today.  See if you can dance to this one.”

In a flash the Sinner was whirling against the equally unorthodox style of Cam Furb.  At times it seemed that the two were one, their stroke defections from unsynchronized slashings appearing so complex and rehearsed.  It was nimble grace versus the brawler.

But Guardian Emgroy was more than just another brawler, a breed that was difficult to fit to Within’s program.  She was the Patron Rowdy—a real insider.  She loved to play the inside, like toe to toe fisticuffs.  For the insider there was no vision, only a realization.  For any rowdy, mass quantities of metal was a prerequisite.  And yet, rowdies tired no faster than strollers.  Their comparative energy was just something that was there.

The Kru was suddenly feeling the effects of that energy, as she found herself more and more preoccupied with trying to block the ChaulEr’s flurry.  She needed some ground to regroup herself.  But Emgroy stayed with her, entrancing her with trails of metal.  Misjudging a maneuver, Cam Furb was benumbed by a swift cross which carved her forehead.  And she slumped through a comb to Below.

Gong of Xorn!  A song of g’Wesh.

Cosanc Bell! A song of t’Zine.

ChaulE’s mixture of sounds riffled with the silver medusans.

For the audience Above, their discrediting thoughts were the same: Even the g’Wesh movements!  That the Veil had indeed learned their own familiar turns—s’Rye, Bottsfold, Calraddi—all the complex weaves, was an understatement.  Only the uniforms kept them from being confused with the other side.  Jyl’s change of heart… his delayed communication was of consequence now.  Without it, the short notice t’Zine movements might not have been implemented this soon.

A breeze began blowing inland, bringing with it a peculiar odor of smoke and perfume.  Several of the roofers above the breach searched the black sands below for some sign of fire, but there was none.  Must be coming from the fleet, they thought.

Then one of them pointed to something in the air, level with Above, and about a half mile off shore.

A flier?

A relayer snatched the Brewist from the Guardian Ring and showed her the bleary levitation.  The object remained still, with no indication of wings holding it aloft.

“What Under Bblonfen…”

The puzzling aroma grew stronger.

Strek was about to fetch a second opinion, when her attention was drawn to the trains of flattops, from which the Veil had recently alighted.  They certainly were a new design.

“Ch’Chencylwhores!”

She leaped onto the carillamond path and spun herself in a manner overruling Paun’s conduction.  Her sisters Within immediately parried their metal like shields, then jumped into the nearest combs.  The rounders Below would break their falls.

The Kru were bewildered at the abrupt retreat, as was Mistress Paun.  Having fluttered his own signal for withdrawal, the Kru Prince abandoned his platform and heeled his followers across the shoalcraft to the fleet.

The barges, however, were not reeled in.  In fact, more barges were being unloaded now from as many vessels as could flood the attack zone.

“What happened, Strek?”

“No time for honorable dealings, sister.  I had to take the light.  Remember when Gyel Neked mentioned ____   Damn!  We were still tiros then.  Anyway he lectured us on how dumb the QortLites were for not roofing their shoalers?  Well, they finally wised up.”

“You mean ____”

“Genj blue!  I’ll bet they’re filled to the slopes.  And they still won’t burn too well on the breaker zone.”

“Yeah?  Well, they’ve got to get to us first.  They won’t dare the cliffs here.  They’d’ve had a better chance at Reelam.”

“I know.  I know.  I can’t understand why they persist in shrouding in our crossfire.”

“Because, unless they want to march through Ror, they have no other choice,” answered Molug.  Then she taunted, “Maybe they feel if they congest with enough dead night, they’ll be able to hike their way Above.”

“Be serious, Molug.”

“Well, that’s what they’ll have to do!” underscored Paun.  “Anybody figure out what that tuxhil smell is?”

“Witches.”

The company turned to see Dowser Iiq and M’Sish behind them.

“There are three of them,” said the sorceress, looking out at the spot hovering in the distance.  “Wulscastle has been exorcised.  I perceived it during the Plague of Bines.  Those three escaped.  But this joint force of theirs—it’s unknown to me.”

Gong of Chemzan!

In a short while, from a third of the perimeter towards Zoyet Woods to as far as the Harbour, the Nalfin disappeared under a foundation of flattops.  Only the expanse of the Stone Bar glittered under the dawning of Gominex.  A spit in the View, a line of shoalcraft, parallel to the shore, uncovered their lids and twanged their scatterbows towards the palisadal roof.  At the same time the lead barges opened up.  But the soldiers inside did not pour out against the breach.  They shrouded directly at the cliffs.  And for the first time the seaward stone was favorable to their touch.  Their scaling webs did not catch fire to be singed away.

Her strong peripheral sense focused on the assailing power.  The Dowser calmly uttered, “Spicy Kaldron.”

Levitated out of firing range were the generators of that power.  Thev, who resigned from the Fetistry of Nohk ages ago to establish his own abbey.  R’Shkiel, who fled the cleansing of Nevztower, taking her refuge with a contractor at Utscrab.  And Shaman Xiirbuud.  Wearing yellow robes, they hovered back to back, holding lightless wands and smoldering jewels, while small spheres floated in their midst, pulsating diversely colored flares.  And all the while they chanted the formula of their conjuration.

Paun tripped the Heart angrily, and declared, “You’re not metal-proof, witch trulls!  Gypsy!  Shave their goddessdamn crowns!”

Hearing the commanding knell, Himmwast guided the cavalry from the skirts of the woods towards Cosanc’s rear bastions.  But the elkstallions never made it past the ebonstone gong.  They neighed frantically in the manner of their distant relatives, fearful of the sickness affecting the salten air.

As they circled back and regrouped over the forest, the Gypsy yelled to Pid’yn Ba, “What be there amiss?”

“Witch’s brew!” he cursed.  “Something out there’s suffocating them.”

“Genj spice!” commended Iiq.  “They will have no need of Bedlamites.”

The ChaulEr had counted on the Herbagers, who were galled by this newfound disability.  And with the droves of shrouders scurrying onto the ridgetop, more and more scatterbows were getting laid aside for xilumswords.  The epidemic was the same everywhere along the russet leagues.  The QortLites were in undeniable contention for the Roof.

Meanwhile, at the Harbour inlet, what was expected to be an archery mismatch heavily favoring Wober Fel’s troops, turned into a temporary counterrout.  After the two shoal lines rammed the dock, a large herd of doorybeasts stampeded maddingly from both trains.  To level even one of them took several arrows or a well-aimed pike.  Those that did pierce the ChaulEr defense took their deadly toll, either with volleys of poison spines or by trampling the luckless ones.  At length, what was left of the untamed herd treaded through the lawny boulevards and out to Fomucuf Plains.

By now a sizable throng of the Intruder had emerged from the bay’s flattops and was clashing more vibrantly than ever into the rounders’ dissipated columns.  A woman and a man, who were rounding New Moon Gallery, gawked at the unfamiliar sight not far ahead of them.  Small bands of QortLites were stalking the metropolis.  An additional portion of the Subdefiance balance would have to be summoned, in order to contain their infiltration.

Do you hear that?”

“Hear what, Qeenmother?”

She perked her ears to the remote din.  “It sounds like… they’re very close.  Doesn’t it?”

“Qeenmother.”  Yersitty began refilling their goblets with pretberry juice.  “Believe me.  When the Huntress raps, everyone at every round can hear her.”  The Buukliair walked around the Aul bench and listened closely.  The concealed glance she shot at the Silverstream emphasized, They are close!

Irn V’Shae stood up, and said, “Swamb, pack a few of Qeenmother’s things.”  Then she waved her on.  “Wing it!”  And the guardian vanished.

“Oh? And where am I going?”

“We are going to visit some neighbors… for just a spell.”

“Child, there’s metal rapping about.  Whom are we seeing?”

“Just a friend.  Yers, pack about three days’ provisions—for four.  Nothing that needs cooking.”

“Xyyamu!” stammered the Qeen.

Yersitty held up.  But the Sinner ordered her to wing it also.  Then she rushed out of the chamber.

While V’Shae went over to check the passage behind the muraled wall, the ruler soughed furiously.  “Tell me, Sinner.  Who Under Bblonfen’s in charge here?”

Irn smiled.  “You are, of course, dear lady—which is why I’m relocating you, just temporarily, till things blow over.  Now, here—put this robe on.  It’ll be a little cool till we’re out of the Labyrinth.”

“The Lab____  H’Gaumz?  Fool’s goddesses if I’m retreating!”

“We are not retreating.”

“I’m not hiding, dammit!  You children are my responsibility.  I was a rapper before your time.  I’m fighting now.”

“Genj blue.  That’s why I’m putting you under Mig Lo Duk’s ward—where it’ll be safer for you to plan whatever you plan on planning.”

“How is the Valley any safer than Qasr’Kwen?”

“Last line of defense, Qeenmother.”  Finally, Irn sat the woman down next to her.  “Look, Qeenmother.  You’ve worked very hard in giving us ideas for the t’Zine movements, and all the flip-flopping of troops, and how to use the Herbagers.  At the same time your educating us, feeding us—being careful not to overfatten us (except for maybe Emgroy)—and your trying your damndest to enlighten our allies—and eventually it’ll be the whole of Lynk Star—with us as the prime examples of proficiency and happiness.

“So for now you’ve done what you could, which doesn’t mean your work is finished.  It just means ____”

Yersitty and Swamb Ley entered the courtroom together with their respective baggage.  The rest of the Aulers and the council bodyguards were spread out somewhere along the coast in the thick of war.  It was the same with all the Buukliairs.  The gross might of QortL was drubbing the matt of ChaulE.  Personal wardships had given way to a more sustained front line—maybe even desperation.

The Silverstream got up with the Qeen.  “What it means, dear lady, is that you put a certain Mistress in charge of certain things.  And she put me in charge of certain things—like arranging for your security.  So Xyyamu on your Xyyamu, and let’s wing it!  Or we’ll take turns carrying you.”

The monarch looked herself over.  “Take turns?  Am I that fat?”

Soon the muraled door sealed behind them, leaving the seamice finning merrily, ignorant of strife’s foul tongue outside.

They’re going to overrun us, Paun.  I hope you realize that.  Unless we call in other garrisons.  Might as well unsteed Gypsy’s clan too, since they’re useless to us otherwise.”

The minister couldn’t have been nearer to the truth.  The palisades needed bolstering.  Casualties were thinning the stingy xilumline.  QortLites were slipping through and scampering down the perimeter ramps and had to be pursued by the clearing’s roving patrols.  Most of the roofers from Cosanc and Zoyet Woods were already deployed along the seaward fringe, with L’Sar, Nether, and Strek propping the slack.

“Goddessdamn Herbagers!”  The Sinner went up to the Dowser, and scowled, “Well, witch!  Got any reserve spells up your ass?  A little something to distract your colleagues out there.”             Knowing that it was futile to reproach her sister, M’Sish simply mirrored her teacher’s composure.

I’Egwys Bell!  A song of Venimbi.

“Spew on your matrons’ pyres!”  Paun and Molug swore together.

A swarm of thick purple clouds could be seen churning above the mireland corner of Ror and blowing in from the Usinwat Current.  They smelled the land mass beneath them.  They smelled the lifeforms suitable enough to relieve themselves of their toxicant build up.  Their last visit here carried off all the infants, more than half of the other children, and a score of elders, while leaving the rest of the population sick to their stomachs.

Today the nomadic preyers were in for a special feast, as even Infinity’s Door was trammeled in a grave dilemma.  The Intruder could sound a temporary retreat until the Venimbi pushed off from ChaulE.  Or they could continue battering the fevorock precipice with fresh shrouders, thus hindering the sphairacloth from remarshalling her own troops.

The waves of Rokkonzbearers smoldered onwardly.

Iiq casually observed the two daughters of Gwil Fyr.  One, the energized soldier with the foul tongue.  The other, a passive innocent cwolwisan, who probably would have run from the Fetistry of old.  Her thoughts on the latter’s hidden spirit made her chuckle inside.  It brought back memories of her own novitiate, when curiosity and paltry recognition were sufficient enough for her.

And today, here she was—at her achieved goal.  Rectorate of Nohk.  A luminary of Lynk Star.  But just another witch among her sisters and brothers of the Kaldron.

If Corvus were here, she’d have smitten those three above the Stone Bar with a love song.  She was a witch’s witch.  The kind all sorcerers yearned to become.  But who most often reached an apex whereby they could not lower themselves to seek higher counsel… for even a spec of extra wisdom.

The Dowser envisioned the slaughter of New Moon’s descendants and QortL’s desecration of eternity.

Eternity.

She was thinking selfishly again.  Her present vespers still belonged to a novice before the miracle of Sut UnBii.  Her obsession.  Her fear.  Of death.  She whispered to the void the last lines of her daily prayer.  “Then we’ll either see… or sense nothing.”  She didn’t want to believe the nothing.  That was her only fear.

“What’s that?”  Paun was in midstream of a decision… to call in Oaera’s Talons from Round Tuud.  “Sing from the heart, witch!”

Turning to survey the purple fog on its famished descent, she overcame her melancholy, and responded, “Now I have a spell.”

Tuxhil woman!  I’m not babbling about toads’ tongues and shrewd gnawers’ teeth.  It’s real medicine!  K’Triff, trust me.  Even the QortLites use it.  On the sea they don’t need it.  They’re safe there.  Something about the ocean forces.  But ____”

“I want to believe you, Teno Lor.  The problem is that Jyl told us the same thing.  And until the Plague of Bines, we might have confided to his advice.  Right now, to try and get everyone to ____”

“Stop, stop, stop!  There’s no time.  The newborns will all die anyway, right?  So let’s spread the word, and round them up, and bring them to some centralized area for sapping.  Where’s all your sketsal growth?”

The physician pondered a bit too long, and the Yuudm stung her with a surprising slap.

“Trace the runes of my lips, doctor!”  Then slowly she ranted with exceptional clarity.  “The… children… are… going… to… die… anyway!  Your probing’s your gain.  At least point the way to me, so that I might take Gyel Neked’s granddaughter.   So that we might survive the dreadful disease.  So that later I might reproach you before the Aul and all the mothers of ChaulE on how their modern day physicians refused to believe ____.  The Fire!  Where’s that tuxhil witchfire?  Is that what you’ll listen to?  Fetch it then, so I can tell it ____”

“Teno Lor… I believe you.”

The Yuudm almost cried, then enfolded K’Triff, and sighed, “Thay’s wilderness be fertile!”

While the poisonous clouds were swooping down upon the commotion-filled Round I’Egwys, the children were being orderly assembled at Goronz Wood.  Sketsal pods were collected from all the lakes and ponds.  Their leathery shells were slit open.  And their green gelatinous sap was spread over everyone’s entire body skin.  Seeing Teno Lor besmeared from head to toe, many of the elders did likewise.  Then they returned home to offer their neighborhoods the same.

A medic was dispatched to H’Gaumz to inform the saurians of this potential Venimbi shield.  Hearing of this news, Qeenmother sent the medic back with orders to try and have at least the rounders at Reelam, Tuud, and Chellis Beach inoculated, before the clouds would settle there.

At the moment, Pid’yn Ba steered the cavalry towards Horsdeor Plateau, away from the troubled winds.

“Ba, even wingless— might we be their need.”

“Look, Gypsy.  Once the venom starts rapping Scrimej, your metal will be worthless.  Even Paun knows that.  Why do you think she hasn’t rung for us yet?  And the Intruder’s basking on the same terrafan.  Your sisters have got to hold till this stool blows over.”

The three cast puzzled stares, as she prepared herself for an untested ritual.  From a leaf sac pouch burnt with glyphics, she procured a gray paste, which she applied to her radiant cowl and exposed flesh.

“What is that stuff?” asked Molug.

Daubing her forehead, Iiq retorted, “Oil of bovaseal, sketsal sap… and child’s blood.”

Paun wondered, “What child?”

But the witch avoided her question.  She handed M’Sish another pouch containing only the sap, and said, “Here, Votress.  Strip yourself and butter your entirety, less your vision and breath.  Then do the same for your sisters.

“Saurian’s ass!  No way!” snapped Paun.  Molug shared her decision.

“Suit yourselves.”

But M’Sish complied with eagerness.

Their makeups completed, the sorceress instructed Paun to signal a pull back behind the palisades, as soon as the fervelite appeared.

“What fervelite?”

“You’ll know it when you see it.  Be certain to shield yourselves as well.  Votress, stay with your sister in the Heart.  Use your pulsar and Fire and pray with me.”

The Dowser then walked away mumbling to herself.  When she reached Above’s prow, on whose sides crashed the cymbals of G’Lian, she withdrew a handful of Holy Flame and a dead night candle wrapped in an iris coral-beaded cloth.  She perceived the truth in her veins, and self-possessedly, she stepped past the height’s rim into the open breath of inner firmasphere.  Destination: fervelite.

Paun marveled at the Dowser’s airy path.  “If she can do that, why doesn’t she just take a scatterbow with her?”

“’Tis not the way of a proud Flamen,” defended M’Sish.  And she took out her stone and canister and knelt just inside the gemstone slab.

Behind them, the virulent mist had scoured most of the countryside with little success.  And now it was whisping its way through the lavender forest and the vicinity of the Fortress.

Ahead of them, the QortLites were starting to drive onto the round’s forward Roof.  More shooters overlooking Within unsheathed their swords and plunged into the rupture to stymie their advance.

Gong of Chemzan!

Cosanc’s firepower having greatly diminished, the QortLites gushed through her breach and lashed their webbing networks against the interior ramparts.  Hundreds more began jumping into the combs, sacrificing themselves in hopes of flooding the Pits.  Wave after wave fell amidst the tiro teams, who were unused to the continuous downpour of animate warriors.  Initially, the schoolers held the advantage.  But as Below congested, their movements became cramped and less effectual.  The Intruder improved his own claim on kills.  Eventually the combined masses were bloating past the junction ramp.  A frantic blood-soaked ostealwand stabbed the floorlet.  The Doorway to Within slid aside.

Spirited cries rose from the combed grounds, as the Orphans deluged the Bench.  They hammered past the compressed tirosworders, splitting their own Rokkonz forces among the spiral case to Above, the corridors of the Sweat Hole, and the exits to the clearing.

The few squads of roofers that were left divided their sagittal fire between the persistent shrouders and the ingress stampede.

Paun shouted, “Stay with the roofers, Molug!  I’ll take the rampwell!  M’Sish, call me when it’s time!”

The lead attackers froze at the sight of the Sinner and her xilum pair, braced at the top of the flight.  But they were knocked down and tromped by the onrush behind them.  Blurs of unyielding metal clove through their ranks.  Horrifying screams and speechless gapes melded to the fitful shearings of heads and limbs.  The ramp’s offensive was also frustrated by the rising mutilated heaps, which impaired their progress and had to be cleared aside.

Outside Cosanc’s stern, the QortLites dashed jubilantly against the heavily outnumbered patrols.  But just as sudden, their exultation abated to a halt.  They backed off skittishly from the approaching fog and mulled on the possibilities of sickness or death.  Being an elder was no guarantee, nor was any enclosure impenetrable, not against the Venimbi.  Too late to reach the sea in time, the majority raced head on into the deadly clouds.

Along the coast the xilum verge was growing weary and buckling under the Intruder’s relentless pressure.

M’Sish felt somewhat relieved to hear her sister’s swords still ringing behind her.  Gyel Molug and her troupe were fairing less.  They had fallen back closer to the Heart because of the breakdowns at the adjacent cliffs.  With them blocking her view, the Votress had to finally stand up to see the furtherance of her teacher.

She was there, levitating in the midst of the dark magic from Wulscastle.  Although they seemed to be blind to her presence, the amber cowls maneuvered with their periapts and surrounded the Dowser.  Her bantam sphere of Flame sprang from her hand and began gyrating about her lucent form in various orbits.

“Zu Jjin!” chanted M’Sish.  She uplifted her pulsar and palmed torch and strained her heart and psyche into those words.  “Zu Jjin!”

She heard her sister swearing uncontrollably.  The clanging of her metal was becoming less frequent.  Then she noticed the purplish vapors gliding past her, enveloping the entire round and rasping the fateful perimeter heights.  The afflictive gaspings of the multitudes drowned out G’Lian’s cymbals.

But M’Sish was not gasping.  The Seraphims of misery were repelled from her viscose disguise.

Gong of Chemzan!

Now was the Intruder’s chance.  The Venimbi would saturate the coastal activity, before embarking on another random course.  This time a host of soldiers hastened across the barge tops as well as the inside passages, but waited at the base of the shrouded rocks for the next momentous chime.

The Dowser’s orbiting Fire contacted her sleeves, setting her robe ablaze.

“Bevleba!” cried the Votress.  “The fervelite!  Paun, it’s the fervelite!”  But the Sinner gave no response.

M’Sish ran blindly towards the rampwell, cursing as she tripped over something.  It was Paun, bent over, clutching her swords tightly, and trying to roll herself towards the Heart.  M’Sish tried helping her, while shouting, “Paun, we must hurry!  The fervelite’s in motion!  Dammit!  You’re too lame!  At least tell me what to do!”

An unseen hand swept the carillamond’s eye.

Cosanc Bell!

The frontliners of the Cloth dragged themselves, rolled and stumbled down the palisadal rear inclines.  Many of them miscalculated the flight’s exitances and plummeted to the distant floor.

Then suddenly the virulent swarm jetted for the sky.  But instead of connecting with the first available winds, they compressed themselves into a massive ball high above the blazing Dowser and her rivals.

A nude figure covered in sketsal sap controlled the Heart.  A pinpoint of crystal green twinkled from her left ear.  Flanking her were two sworders, besmeared similarly.  A third soldier lifted Paun to her feet, then covered the passage from the Bench.

The conflagration from the Stone Bar expanded to a small sweltering sun.  The Venimbi swirled and funneled down into a vicious cyclone and pierced the convulsive fireball.

M’Sish ran in front of the Heart’s new conductor and squeezed the pulsar between her palms, incanting, “Zu Jjin!”

Inner firmasphere exploded like the bellowings of an ilyon angry gods.  The whole View—from sea level to Lower HevN—went molten red… to glistening gold… to stark white.  Dragon’s breath seared the wailing air.  The very bones of Chal’Iss trembled on the verge of fracturing.

Then, no sooner had the nova begun, when it languished.  ChaulE’s pulse throbbed to a whisper.  A temperate warmth showered from Gominex.  The sky beamed from ear to ear in emerald.

Votress M’Sish pulled herself to her feet and walked out to the precipice.  She searched the space where the fervelite had been—where Dowser Iiq had been—and saw only an empty sky.

A remote voice flickered in the back of her mind: “All that was ever mine… I entrust to thee… witchmate.”

Dropping to her knees, she sobbed in the manner not becoming a sorceress.  Her teacher she would never see again.

Qeenmother regained her stance in the jeweled podium and scrutinized the fervelite’s outrage.  Devastated was the assault’s central breaker zone.  Bodies and splintered flattops were strewn about like fissured leaf sacs on an autumn lagoon.  At anchorage, hundreds of sails were alight.  There were at least a dozen new breaches in the proximate heights, some of which were spilling the Nalfin’s excess into the clearing, while others had avalanched fore and aft upon the restricted combatants.  The landcombers that survived were on their feet but still writhing from the Venimbi effects.

Gong of Chemzan!

The armada rammed through their own burning wreckage and aimed full sail for the shore.  They did not stop until their ivoctenwood hulls scraped the shallows or reefed the Stone Bar.  More shoalcraft were expelled into the corpse-littered seaway.  Legions upon legions of QortLites were ever hoofing it across the Bar itself.

Swaying in Cosanc’s light, the daughter of Idsp’ruu signaled her exhausted forces to the rear.  As they retreated, their sisters from Reelam, Tuud and Chellis Beach sprinted by them and up the planks, then fixed their bows seawardly.  Over their heads beat the wings of wild elkstallions, who either intercrossed the Stone Bar or tracked the length of the shrouder tier.  And moving in from the forestal outskirts and lying in wait behind the perimeter’s rifts were scores of dark blue forms flourishing xilumknives.

Disregarding the fatal rain which imbued their ranks, the Orphans pressed forward, as if the sea itself were aflame.  The fresh breaches being the most convenient routes, they pelted beneath Above’s crossfire and past the cliffs, where they confronted…

Lizards.

Sworders.

They had been lost to the Intruder’s memory.  Lost with the incarceration of Ods Uf, the Great Semdrak and former Lord of Ror.  And although these were not of his tribe, they were lizards nonetheless.  The Orphans hadn’t counted on this face off until after the liquidation of the Cloth.  To dither now, however, before a saurian crew meant foredoom.  Their aggression against any adversary was second nature.  Against a manlike opposition—even more instinctive.  For this reason the ChaulEr and their saurian allies could never share the same metal range of defense.  An unthinking brush against a lizard’s hide, a disagreeable scent, or the human form itself had caused many a misadventure.

But the Qeen needed their relief now.  Fortunately, the blasted seawall clefts established for them an ideal line of Scrimej, void of red leather tunics and teeming with bloodthirsty loiners.

Even after centuries of dormancy, the sons of Mig Lo Duk showed no evidence of decline in their combative abilities.  Their severe xilum strokes, which were not refined by any school, seemed to go unchecked when they clashed with the Rokkonz welts.  As usual, their claws and mandibles and tails were an advantage over the more cultured methods of seamen and knights.  And if a saurian bled, his rage became tenfold.

Still the QortLite horde numbered the legions of HevN’s Brew.  They depended on their driving masses to overrun the scanty but mettlesome defense.  But with the descent of Gominex forecasting a short day, and if they did not secure an outpost soon, ChaulE would be reprieved with a whole night’s preparation.

The Herbagers… raids under Tun’El’s light.  Honn Kolcher shivered inside.

The Qeen was also watching the pale damask sun.

Bows and hilts from the hearts, children!  Hold them now!  By morning we’ll be ready to rap ____

Then suddenly her hopes were dashed.

Zoyet Bell!  A song of ships.

Straining her vision between Zoyet Woods and Reelam, she descried the dawntide of a large shadow breaking the horizon.  The QortLites had salted away a journstar.  And three rounds on that side were completely vacant.  For The Stars she damned Infinity’s Door.

Although the flyers were needed here to slow down the onrushing waves, they were knelled to sail against the reserve masts and to keep them occupied, until the empty forts could be manned again.  More support was requested from H’Gaumz.  Those ChaulEr, who had weathered the Venimbi’s opportune visit, were rallied despite their illnesses.

“We will die trying, Qeenmother.”  Paun braced herself on Swamb Ley’s shoulder and grimaced with every step towards the corral.

Molug sweated, “They will go to Reelam, Qeenmother.”

“I would agree, child.  There’s more latitude there.  But they’ll expect us to reason likewise.  We will delay our deployment until the shoalers emerge.”

But the newly arrived fleet did not angle towards Round Reelam.  Nor did it turn to Chellis Beach or Tuud.  It proceeded straightaway to anchorage, where the main armada had already braked itself into turmoil.

All at once an ancient melody suffused the wounded View.  And for a moment the Qeen and her fellowship of grandelders bethought a fool’s reed.

Nuvellum Bell!  It rang from the lead ship.

“Lohmdesper!”  The Qeen jumped up and down and tripped the Heart with an aria from Ib’ktide, shouting gleefully, “Lohmdesper!  Lohmdesper!”  She hugged a very puzzled Yersitty, who felt slightly disconcerted by this awful thrashing of sketsal sap and tears.

In the stable’s corridor Paun stopped and turned to see a thrilled Silverstream winging towards her.

“What’s going on?”

Irn’s reply was one of dignified candor.  “A song of Kingsmen.”

V’Shae was much older than her longtime friend.  Old enough to remember the coronation of Kingfather Lohmdesper.

“Genj blue?”

Taking Paun’s other arm, Irn helped usher her back to the heart.  “Genj blue… Lizard whore!”  And the passage echoed with merry obscenities.

The Qeen drew in a wholesome breath before resuming her conduction.  The dragoons were recalled to reopen their sweep of the panic-stricken Intruder fleet.  QortL’s higher nobles had finally despaired.  There was no brine of retreat open to them.  Their ships were enmeshed by the allies and by the Kingsmen and their loyalists from Crus’Ybl.  Considering their fell reign, they regarded surrender and death to be the same, and their late subjects as vindictive executioners.

The Harbour having been shut off and upheld, many of the QortLites in that sector challenged the menacing mouth of the nearby cave, from which they were instructed to refrain.  Hoonwaw’s Labyrinth did extend to the center of the metropolis.  One course even led directly to the Aulhall at Qasr’Kwen.  Still other paths of the multitunneled leagues of maze went nowhere… or ended up in the Valley.  Wherever they channeled, their dark recesses wreaked of lizards’ scent.

The invaders should have listened to their Bidet and Remal advisers, who were never able to memorize a specific avenue to the city.  On Qeenmother’s birthdays the Labyrinth escorts always took their guests by a route different from their last visit.  With no ostealstone implants anywhere and with what few H’Laynlith wands they had available, the QortLites in their jitteriness often stabbed one another.  Adding to this mayhem were the ghostly saurians themselves—Hoonwaw and his voracious breed—who lashed out from the cruel tangle and uprooted the delirious wanderers.

Firth Rises commenced its lengthy trek towards the Spout, and the crest of Gominex embered on the brink of sleep—when the Intruder ceased his stubborn advance.  The ChaulEr and their leaguers watched attentively as Infinity’s Door fell to its knees and howled.  Its hopes for time sunk with the wreckage.  As soon as the horizon swallowed their last journstar, so too did the serpent lace uniforms collapse where they stood.  By the time Tun’El reflected off the Stone Bar, their hearts and minds were numb with night.

  1. Debarkation

Lef the Youngest brought in the glorious morn.  Yesternight, G’Lian’s Orchard caroled of sorrow.  Today the View shimmered in triumph.  Gone were QortL’s magnificent sails.  Gone was the covetous Intruder.  Dried blood and injured cliffs were all that remained of an intense prolonged struggle.

A buoyed pier was laid out between Anchorage and Cosanc’s black sands.  In the stern half of Within, rounders garbed in fresh uniforms were assembled at the sheathed ready positions.  The roofers were comparably poised, their unarmed bows resting at their sides.  Daam Broy stood in the Heart, flanked by her Buukliairs.  Situated just away from them near the fringe of Above were the Aul, the Sinners, and the Qeen’s Guard.  The doting monarch fidgeted among all of them.   Inspecting uniforms.  Combing flyaway manes.  Wiping smudges and the like.  Amending postures.

“Now, everyone: straight and proud!”

In a child’s tone Nether muttered out the side of her mouth, “Yes, Qeenmother.”

The Qeen glared at the muffled laughter.  The Sinners labored to compose themselves.

Meanwhile, a red formation marched across the extended gangplank.  They entered the stronghold’s breach and took their respective sites, fronting their sisters.  The last several men gathered near the Kitrin Post.

The Qeen bit her lip.  Then recognizing one of them, she masked a cheerful sigh and blessed whatever providence or oblivious designer of fate was responsible.

A thin young man with tawny skin and long white hair strayed his thoughts over the astounding View.  “Pry, am I still reeling from Varthog’s… or what?”

His friend fiddled with his gilt beard.  “Looks like our women to me, Kingfather.  Sull was right.  They’re still the genj burners we knew.  Oh, what a beautiful sight they are.”

Cosanc spoke, and all of Within shifted, producing a more suitable path to the Doorway.

“Swell of a shuffle!”  commented Lind on the rounders’ movement.

One of the troupe rubbed his palms together, and smirked.  “Tonight it’s cwolwisan food… and rounders’ beds!”

The King snarled, “Dry up, Marz!”

He and his Guard then proceeded over the open path.  But when they reached the Line of Scrimej, Diodez, hands on hilts, cut them off.

The King began, “Milchy Pass?!

She answered, “Brewflake.”

“Tun’El’s gain.”

“Halley’s loss.”

He manipulated his hands, and said, “Five Points.”

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Who are you?”

She replied, “I am ChaulEr.”

“And I am your Kingfather.”

The Daam welcomed him with upward open palms and moved aside.

While the Qeen watched from the top of the spiral case, her stomach keeled to and fro like driftwood on a restless sea.  She felt almost breathless.  She refused to breath.  Why wasn’t tomorrow today?

She had no breath to hold when he stepped Above… and came straight to her.  He was still young, as were his guardians.  Pirating the Remal and Bidet supplies to QortL had kept them as such.  And he still possessed that unsure look, that awkward expression that was him before the Embarkment.

She held out her palms to him.  And he accepted them and kissed them once gently.

He beheld the serenity of this morning’s View in her eyes, and said, “Whereon abides thy naevus?”

Even his voice, as unchanged as the timbre of the Nuvellum Bell.  If she didn’t speak soon, she would slump before him.

“Where only my lover can know.”

“Aklu Shpiz.”

“Lohmdesper.”

Their embrace was one of starshine and rain, of supernal mountains and their footholds.  Wober Fel quietly managed a tear.  So did Gyel Neked.  Yet the lovers’ lips were restrained… for tonight’s Silence.

“Sorry we took so long,” chuckled N’Tomarz.

There was a summary exchange of greetings between the Kingsmen and the Aul and Sinners.  The sailors were more curious than startled in seeing that Paun was indeed a woman.  Another familiar face in their group, a surprise to the women who recognized him, had already prepared them—Yan Sull, a former Prince of Xorn, who defected by way of the Yuudm Boglequay.  But the conversations For The Stars and the festivities would be remitted, until after a more important order of business was completed.

Relieving Broy from the Heart, the King wavered, and the dancers spread their ranks against the inner wall.  More sphairaclad soldiers strode across the floating bridge and filled into Within.  Between their small columns were six unsightly Emocar, who bore a litter made of tiled gems and supporting a huge misshapen white rock.  They were dull-witted bearers, hapless conversions by Xiirbuud.  The great stone they carried glowed like an osteal block, except its light was natural and would never require recharging by the harmony of Nalfin and earth.

H’Laynlith.

The netter of visions, however, was the young woman who sat atop the stone.  Her skin was pale green.  Her hair golden with streaks of ebony.  And it draped across her lap and down over her feet.  A yebirulp-feathered haik adorned her dapperling frame.  And her fingers and toes sparkled with fine jewels.  The yellow rouge of her lips matched her uncanny eyes.

The ChaulEr rulers having made their descent, the Emocar porters lowered their royal pallet at Scrimej.  The woman stepped down, wondering on her hopeless plight.  There were no rokkonz legions here.  No soaring bastions of Precem Turr.  No magical followers to whisk her away.

She knelt before the Qeen and King and solemnly addressed the Order of the Cloth.  “Honn Kolcher, ArchLight of Orphans at Infinity’s Door: Abandoned, begs grace of thee, mighty Guardians of the Well.”

It was a little girl’s voice.  Qeen Aklu Shpiz posed a look of uncertainly at her lover.

But the King pointed his gaze affirmatively at their captive, and verified, “Honn Kolcher.”

“Huh?”  It was a wrathful smirk to a bitter joke.  “Honn Kolcher?  Here I was expecting some barbarian titan.  Someone with the personal capacity to rap out viciously and spawn terror into people’s hearts.  And what begs before me is but a child?

“Child?  Hardly a child!  You’ve been spoiling our View since last Rebirth.  And yes, you are a vicious and cruel and terrifying monster.  Let me guess.  Somehow your people mistook you for some goddessly prophet.  And all the while you’ve been a fool’s guiding light to Bedlamite missionaries.  Your soul was plagued with greed… for power.  You coveted all Lynk Star for yourself.  You couldn’t share eternity without having your precious serfdom.

“Grace?  Look, around you, woman, and ask my children what grace should be bestowed upon the murderess of their compatriots.  I will tell you their hearts’ verdict.  Consign her as Beggar to Qul House.”

“No!”  The QortLite empress folded her hands and bowed her head.  “Please, no!”

“Let her age to the matt of dead night.”

Convulsing with tears, the girl continued to plead.

“Then feed her the water she so craved to possess.  And let her live.  And let her watch the legions of youth For The Stars, as they file past her and wince at her decrepitude—forevermore.  That is what they are saying.”

The supplicant ranted and choked as she wept.  Her entreaty was confused and incomprehensible.  She shuddered as if winter had swaddled her.

Stooping beside her, the Qeen stroked the Intruder’s hair.  “And yet, why do I find it so difficult to carry out this sentence?  Is it because I see a child and not a Bedlamite?  I think so.”

Rising, the Qeen went over to Lohmdesper, and said, “I would like…  Can we try to restore her?”

The King looked at his pitiful enemy and suggested that the matter be discussed another time.

Cosanc Bell!

The ChaulEr sovereigns were hustled against the far rampart and shielded by their bodyguards.  All metal was drawn, and the shooters aimed nervously at the open Doorway.

Emerging from the Bench were nine H’Gaumz brandishing swords.  They had come by way of the tunnel.  With Fenmare visages they surrounded the Intruder’s litter, then hacked the luckless Emocars to death.  Each corpse was saddled over a lizard’s shoulder and conveyed back through the passage to the Valley.

Honn Kolcher began screaming hysterically, as the leader of the blue pack seized her by the hair.  His numerous ill-favored scars—most of them from the Serpentlord wars—added to his horrid aspect.

“Mig Lo Duk!  Wait!”  Like the Qeen, Kingfather bullied his way to the front line against his Guard’s advisement.

The saurian chief handed over the girl and his sword to one of his brethren and approached his old ally.  He met a wall of Sinners.  But he understood their wary intentions.  Looking past them, he greeted the King.  “Lohmdesper.  Kingfather of the ChaulEr.  Yebirulp’s drift.  And welcome back.”

“Yebirulp’s drift, Mig Lo Duk.  And thank you.”

Before the man could put forth his proposal, the renowned lizard told him, “It seems that once again the sails of New Moon have collected fair winds of deliverance.”  Glancing at the shrilling Intruder, he added, “And this time—delivery.”  He held up one of his claws and stayed the King’s interruption.  “Tonight some of my sons will not be feasting with us.  And she is to blame.  There will be no talk of curing her.  The children of H’Gaumz have already ruled.  To purge a murderer is to purge more murdering.  It is safer than the hope that time might change her for the better.”

The Qeen broke in, “But what if she can be changed?”

“She will not, Aklu Shpiz, Qeenmother of the ChaulEr.  She will be devoured.”

She lowered her head and covered her eyes in disgust.  “It’s so uncivilized, Mig Lo Duk.  So uncivilized.”

He growled, “You have your Beggars.  We have food.  ‘Tis the way of Serpents.”  And saluting with his claws, he and his companions departed.

No sooner had the tunnel door muffled the repercussion of screams, when the alarm from Carillamond Peak sounded.  Ambiguous faces reflected off one another.  More lizards?

Six brigerpin appeared overhead, touched down onto the combed surface, picked up Paun and some of her Guard, and winged it towards the buttes corner of Bblonfen.  The Kingsmen thought they had seen manned flyers during yesterday’s battle—impossibly close to the sea.  Now they were sure, but still baffled as to how this was so.

The Sinners and company were almost at the ChaulEr border, when they saw the matter in question.  A malachite saurian, a Semdrak knee deep in mud, was crossing the fault to Ror, while a squad of shooters observed his progress.  Paun had guessed that one of the Zumenhyxx patrols had caught the lizard prowling the desolate mireland and had chased him back.  After landing and talking to the dragoon leader, she found her conjecture to be true, although no one had actually seen the half-bred saurian come over the boundary.

Himmwast and Strek marked the Semdrak with singular interest.

Finally, the Brewist yelled out, “Ods Uf!”

The lizardman was halfway up the shale slopes to the serpentdom, when he turned around.  For an ireful moment he and Paun exchanged daggered visions.  But he was a spit from sanctuary. Anxiously he picked up the pace.

“How Under…  Fool’s goddesses!”

Paun quickly jumped on the back of a Herbager and order her to head off the goddessdamn fiend.  But the elkstallion refused to budge, on the grounds that this incident was a personal affair and not an act of aggression against ChaulE.

Cursing the steed, the Mistress snatched a scatterbow from one of the rounders and beaded on the foul memory.  Her eyes flashed upward to see several familiar silhouettes rising from the top of the hill ahead.   And she slackened the tension of her load and lowered her bow.

Ods Uf’s advance was also stayed.  Above him along the edge of the pared knap loomed more saurians—Lagartvipes, Semdraks, Cobratains, Krokolanders—a legion of them, all armed with various sabers.

From their midst emerged another saurian—weaponless and different from the rest.  Her sinewy golden frame stood a head taller than the largest of her company, for she was a Serpentlord, one of a few that had miraculously survived a venerable genocide.  And not just another Serpentlord.  Presently her name was the criterion for warriorship on Lynk Star and a reason for more considerable appreciation of weaponeers—especially shooters.  So renown was she that even the marvelous campfires of the Brew seemed unpretentious in her light.

Bblonfiia.  Bigim of Ror.

She was only an infant when her warlike forefathers were slaughtered at Urfacis Lloc.  And though she later understood the ethics of the New Mooners and the H’Gaumz, indignation for having to acclimate to Ror as an inthumacer had never healed.

But now some measure of requital was mounting the porch of her domain, perhaps to accost her.  Behold!  The slayer of my Roost!

Dribbling fangs bared, her voice booming with revulsion, she treaded hungrily towards the former Lord of the Semdraks.

Ods Uf, bent on reclaiming his respectability, bellowed back his defiance and dug his feet into the leafy rock to engage her.

During what appeared to be a coincident move, a burly tail coiled about his left wrist.   Becrushing talons bit into his right forearm.  Another vice of claws seized his throat.  And powerful eager jaws thrust into his chest and gnashed his heart.  The demon, who had ridden out the darkest centuries Under Bblonfen, had relished less than a day of Xam’s smaltan eye.

The victor then tramped her way to the foot of the short cliffs.  As she did, a score of rounders flexed their bows towards her.

“Allay thyselves!” cautioned the Gypsy.

To which Paun added, “Everyone just lower your shooters and don’t panic.  Maintain readiness.  And if she crosses, give her plenty of room.  Remember, she’s covered under the rules.”

Paun was right.  Ever since the Serpentlord’s ascension to Draktrone, an unwritten agreement was acknowledged between her and Qeenmother, which granted Bblonfiia alone honorable access to the territory of ChaulE.  Her cohorts were denied for security reasons, just as the ChaulEr were denied entrance to Ror.  Over the course of the centuries various saurian clans, whose trustworthy natures were unpredictable, intermingled with the once loyal Semdraks.  And yet, although they were unwilling to participate in a defense program stipulated by the Aul, Holy Water was still periodically delivered to them.  After all, the Well belonged to them too.  The Qeen and King expressed their desire for an undemanding cold war over the reality of a neighboring conflict.  Unsociable peace was nonetheless peace.  With QortL out of the View and with Lohmdesper back on home turf, given time the Rorsh might still be converted to the allegiance of old.

The Serpent Qeen did traverse the sodden Faultline.  But before going on with her usual stroll, she paused to regard one of the sphairaclad members, who had not shied from her approach.  It took a special effort to imagine that a saurian lurked inside that womanform.

In a tone that was neither genial nor unfriendly, but rather more of a dry dignity, the lizard greeted the ChaulEr.  “Paun.”

The woman responded likewise.  “Bblonfiia.”

The aroma of pretberries blew in from the shrubby margin of H’Gaumz.  That’s where the Serpentlord headed.

Refacing Zumenhyxx, the soldiers apprehended bare slopes and a grated trail of blood, from which a corpse had been dragged.

The Sinners eyed one another with cold bewilderment.  How did the Semdrak slip the gyve of the Vestry?  At first morning’s light, Bblonfen would be scoured for the answer.

That evening the bells of Ib’ktide resounded.  The Qeen and King agreed to bar their doors and to contract several centuries into several days.  The orshyve floodgates were opened and Bedlamites frolicked For The Stars—in the streets, in the sketsal ponds, in the trees, inside the dribblen hutches, under Mauv WuPree, around the royal H’Laynlith (slated for New Moon Gallery), on the docks and over the side, and even a little bit into Tharm (but not at the Fetistry itself.)  Tales were sown a hundredfold and complete strangers were waxed into overnight lovers.

And just before dusk in the Valley of H’Gaumz, Honn Kolcher was consumed…

… alive.

‘Twas Yebirulp’s Drift.

  1. Shrift

She hadn’t changed much.  She was just… older.  Her mother had wanted her special—like her other children were.  And she was.  And every time R’Nai tidepool blossums changed into blue and violet sand lilies—which was very rare—it was Paun’s birthday.

She posed innocently on a huge white rikester mattress, perfectly sited at the Prym of Qasr’Kwen.  Fire blue sheer, a single redstone earring and a uniform necklace to rhyme with her lips, lavender eyes, and plenty of Shaff perfume. A real stud rapper!  Klas Tel and Y’Moir had seen to that.

All the Imperialdom were here tonight.  Her daughters had seen to that also.  Damn those dribblen fenmares!  She managed a stifled smile.

A tiny meteor burst overhead, whisking up the Conceptual Net and dimming the harvested incandescence.  And the lusterless round descended before the woman of the hour.  Temporarily affixed at the far end was a bouche-scaled stairway, whose bottom step unravelled a carpeted path to the Heart of the ellipse.  Knotched swamp reeds pirouetted in the air.  A lighthearted melody by Telba and her musician friends filled the great hall.

A song of home and friends.

Aunt Uul’fr and Roit arrived first and came to her directly.  They brought with them a Strigwood crate composed of several ingeniously designed compartments.  Naturally it was her brother’s creation.  And it was filled with items that were her.  Another blue cloth, this one with a sable Rainland print.  A jug of orshyve.  Food!  She could smell stuffed gadofer leaves and spice otkum petals.  Her hands were as accurate as her nose, as she opened the proper panels to her appetite.  The last present she knew was from her sister.  It was a toe-reflex exerciser.  Holding it up, she turned and winked at M’Sish, who occupied the rostrum of the Flame.  The Dowser was quite certain that the complexity of her gift would be mastered before the night was over.

Having licked the flavoring of a downed gadofer off her fingertips, Paun kissed her brother and aunt, who then sat beside her.

The Sinners followed, all arrayed in their splashy raiments, with not-so-camouflaged daggers belted about themselves.  They brought only empty goblets.  Sneering their lewdness (which Uul’fr tried to ignore) they clambered onto the honored couch and broke open the prime spirits.

From the aerial Aul booth entwined a galloon-trimmed wreath, which landed in Paun’s lap.  On it were the ChaulEr ribbons of various men, who had during the centuries experienced very intimate sessions with her.  But what her sisters were hysterically pointing out was the one color belonging to a really ugly whore.  One of Paun’s drunken stupor nights.

Paun looked up and shook a playful fist at them.

A song of pass and review.

One by one they descended the staircase, crossed the length of the major axis, and bestowed their treasures.  Sultans, lords, princes, champion weaponeers—men of great deeds.  Ah!  A familiar face!  Kuom, Archimperate of the Leetian Empire, which ages ago acquired Bidet, and quite handily.  From as far as Eyicar and Utscrab they came, offering their eternal allegiances and the keys to their kingdoms, with the hope of procuring a son from the bloodline of Gwil Fyr.

With every noble curtsy and with every addition to the glittering heap of fortunes, the Sinners interjected with wonder and cackled obnoxiously, while their sister strove to maintain her stately composure.

After the last of the distinguished suitors had bowed and made his departure, Paun rose to thank her honored guests.  All of a sudden the music ceased.   A harmony of voices tuned from the foyerblock.

A procession of candlebearers marched down the long unrecessed flight of the palace.  The first five wore snowgreen cowls with capes, which were cleverly arranged to form a canopy between them.  The rest of the parade were dressed in formal cloths and were supporting large baskets between their individual groups.

Gypsy’s amulet began to vibrate.

The robed members entered the Round and evenly spread their awning over the Heart.  Their hoods were removed to reveal the blithe faces of Y’Moir, Klas Tel, Deeg, Vlav Tr’Klum, and Hentilose.  Meanwhile some of their friends danced around them.  And emptying their sacks, they showered the gala atmosphere with all varieties of lightning moths.

Then the Heart’s ornaments spun themselves away like the points of a star.  The center of the Round throbbed like a drubbed anvil.  Paun sprang to her feet, as did the rest of the palace, and cast her venomous sight at the unruffled boldness the robers had unveiled.

Jyl.

Scatterbows from Above were bent and trained upon Yargolett’s parasite, who was plainly attired in a seaman’s loiner.  His windswept locks hung barbarously to his shoulders.  He looked as though he had only recently waded from Anchorage.  That’s because he did.

He remained still. And the caroling continued without interruption.

Three large baskets were opened simultaneously.  From them the bearers unfolded magnificent matt-size rugs.  One with crimson and golden grains.  Another like the blazing Gominex at noontide.  And the last being the fleece of Casm blowing through a Yuudm wintry landscape.

A small basket was unlatched.  Two red flyers jetted out, their relatively undersized wings defying their plump bodies.  They darted through the simmering Cloud, made a run past the Aul, then flew towards the beckoning Dowser and alighted on her hands.

A proud smile crossed the witch’s mien.  The anJ!  The Winged Fruit!

Qasr’Kwen rumbled in amazement as a larger chest released a silver panther, who was the former Guardian of the anJ.  Hya the Blue stretched his robust frame with a wide open yawn, retractilating his barbed claws and exposing his sinister fangs, then nestled quietly in front of the mound of gifts.

An ivory staff, shaped like a mature wyrblossum, was stood next to the reclining Blue, where it seemed to be balanced by some invisible support.  Sinner Himmwast took a genj blue wild guess.  The Priormace of Wulscastle.

Finally, a thatched infant’s cradle was presented to Paun.  In it were contained the feather-braided frock of Pa V’Cryl and a lightless ostealwand, the last of the Utscrabians’ mysterious cargo.

The singing stopped.

Then Qasr’Kwen opened her ears.  So did the Fire of Fidelity and the Conceptual Net.

His mind at ease, the defendant eclipsed the silence with his avowal.

“His youth had been one of fear, though he knew not of what he was afraid.  Life itself, perhaps.  He showed weakness, while his efforts became shrouded in cobwebs… while others wrested the helm he never touched—he never dared!

“Then a star cracked the donjon dawn.  He was stabbing a tallowbar into the Menhir in memory of his lost siress.  And he imagined someone waxing it for him… or never doing it, because who was he but a void in the abyss, whose ultimate mission would be dead night.  He was no longer part of the Time of Men.  He was simply a part of Time.  He wasn’t afraid anymore.  He would never be afraid again.

“He really was Yuudm Jyl… and Ingzba… and all those accurst titles mentioned by that woman.”  The Fountain burned pure blue.  “But before that, he was just Jyl, of the Roost of Raa J’Lec, located on the wooded side of the Fortress, where he was born.  The name ChaulE was not contrived yet.  Nor was the sphairacloth.

“Before the weaponeers transferred and expanded their roosts outside of Goronz Wood, many of them, craving for another view of the Wancium Gulf or Phirj’lowner Forest, set sail and returned to New Moon.  He himself was a mere bud when he was brought to Crus’Ybl on his father’s ship.  His only memory of the Fortress would be of a large water cask, designed with red mastheads and white bumblebird’s wings.  And he only drank that water whenever he wished to recollect the odd motions of Winyet’s Brook, or the elders reveling in the pond, or the weird doorway in the tree known as Goronz Hollow.  Funny how the water tasted the same—refreshing.  Even after years it never went stale.

“Anyhow, having denounced his timid childhood at Yuud, along with his beliefs in Cosmon Sowers and devils, he became aggressive in his own education.  The mappings of the Brew.  The languages of both men and beast, including the Hulshintets.  The experiences of free-lance seamen. The tools of builders and farmers…

“The tools of the soldier.

“Utscrab.  That’s where he learned his trade.  From the Contractors.  The Foresters, the Yuudm, the QortLites, the Eyicarif—their armies couldn’t devote the individual attention that he wanted.  But the Contractors could—for a price—which meant operating within their agency.

“With their tutoring and with his own innate ability to bond steep surfaces (something he had accidently discovered as a boy) he made out quite handsomely.  He felt powerful.  He life was a delectable song of favors, noble harlots, qaithwine, a mansion, and esteem.

“Yet, to himself his power seemed limited in that he must afford these gifts.  Their tab was always a risk.  But so was any moment in time, he thought.  Yes.  These were gifts… for now.

“He had a friend who was a priest at Wulscastle, where he first partook of the herbs and soon became intrigued with the magic attained from certain plants.  The major drawback was the untimely side effects of the wyrblossums, whose power could last weeks, depending on the intake.  But there was a significant advantage.  During the digestive period, he was immune to some of the tools of sorcerers.  And by not garbing himself strangely, he was never suspected of being a witch’s disciple.  And so, he engaged in a new pastime, which eventually led to his own witchhood.

“Over the centuries he watched the great ships from Precem Turr ascend the Spout in quest of a legend.  Later, while infiltrating the Yuudm Boglequay, he was introduced to some inhabitants of that legend.  And seeing their diversely designed kegs and learning of their contents, he began to realize why he still retained the starch of his early manhood.

“He aided the xilumbearers in their pirating of the Remal and Bidet vessels laden with Holy Water.

“And when he was not a Trustee of the Kingsmen, he was negotiating a pact with QortL and her Chal’Iss leaguers.  That’s when he met Sorsun Riffel, another Contractor.”

Paun knifed an over-the-shoulder glance at her sisters, who casually slid into the Round.

But Jyl went on.  “A good friend of his, named Paun, the famous chieftain of the ChaulEr forces, was his contract.”  The Fountain retained its unwavering sapphire hue.  “He said it would be easy.

“And when the boy who had become a man was alone, he compared the weights of the oppositions, ignoring what was sinful or virtuous, imagining only the prospect of personal recognition and reward.  The land of legends tipped the scale.

“And so, he embarked on a glorious voyage—a sailor on a small Yuudm craft, wearing a red uniform—and ribands—ribands made from the tinted cuttings of wyrplants.

“What a plan!

“All the while, however, he was being soothed by an image that was supposed to have been a man’s.  For The Stars, why?  Because of a nice face?  For a Sinner.  He deliberates over his original plans and resumes to carry them out.  Then there’s that image again, backed up now by a ring of Goronz trees, and later by new friends and even offspring.

“Still he must decide his destiny.  He sees the nobles of great nations waiting to applaud him.  Soaring towers bear his name.  The scribes are recording his deeds.  He is a god.

“Then one day, in the midst of his doubts, he is exposed, and left to die as he deserves.  But Fate intervenes.  A dead night candle freezes the once Great Semdrak to a day’s slumber.  A weakened ostealwand melts a tedo formation which has blocked a small cavern.  A child’s robe rests on the edge of an underground two-way stream.

“He escapes, eventually to Crus’Ybl, where he must first mend himself of the wyrblossums’ addiction.  Afterwards, he ponders on how he might mend his troubled soul.  How he might express his remorse to those who trusted him.

“Here he is now, ready to serve as Beggar for Life, or to taste the swell of your forge or that of the H’Gaumz.  And with all my heart I deplore for the unforgiveable crimes of the fool.”

Amen.

The Fire of Fidelity verified his sincerity.  His daughters went up and kissed his cheeks and stood beside him.

The Qeen and King eyed one another, then nodded at Gyel Molug, who rose to her feet, and declared, “ChaulE!”

The Sinners surrounding the heart unsheathed their knives.  Y’Moir and Klas Tel fell to their knees.

Another rounder—a woman—walked into the oval confessional, now garnished with wealth and humility, affection and repugnance, life and the hilts of a death warrant, and truth.  She was the current holder of the Medallion of Shaymetal.  With a blank gaze which sleeked her hatred, she faced the man who had bravely struck his colors.

He saw through her façade, and said, “Hello, Otelg… daughter of Daam Xaff, who died honorably defending the Heart of the Woods, but who was dishonored in death by the degenerates I supported… and sister of Xear, who was slain by the Plague of Bines, also the seeds of my hand.”  Jyl lowered his head in shame, and muttered, “He was only a boy.”

A tear crossed the woman’s cheek, and she concurred, “Yes he was.”

The Sinners came over and removed Jyl’s daughters off to the side.  Klas Tel was crying arduously now.  Hentilose buried herself into Vlav’s shoulder.

A strobe reflection hissed from an avenging scabbard. The man let out a sharp groan, as blood spattered from his chest and then his stomach.  He slumped to his hands and knees.  He wanted to get up, for no other reason but to do it.  But his harrowing wounds determined otherwise.

Reviving her mother’s headless corpse, Otelg grasped her hilt with both hands and raised her xilumsword.

“Xyyamu!”

All heads turned towards Paun, whose hands were puttering with indecision, chasing some improbable beseechment, then sighing if off.  She was also thinking of her rescue from Five Kingdoms.  Then she whispered, “Shpolkens.”

There was a voice from the Aul pew.  “Lady Otelg, you are not obligated to abide by that order.”

Otelg entertained the wishes of Gwil Fyr.  It was Paun’s birthday.  And with some reluctance she put away her sword and stormed out of the Round.

Kingfather then presided and proclaimed that Jyl’s lifeline would be relegated to the H’Gaumz.

It was a lenient sentence—by saurian standards.  By order of Mig Lo Duk, Jyl was sentenced to a life of hard labor in Bblonfen.  Chained to a plow for his eternal task, he was to undertake the restoration of the expansive quagmire to its original lavender extravagance.

During the Goch’tl Eclipse, hectolenniums foregone, Milchy Pass was cursed with Original Sin for becoming too intelligent.

The ancient swamp of Bblon had blossomed into an omnidrift wonderbelt of well-planned orchards, meadows, farming plots, ivoctenwoodlands, floral communities, and fresh water streams.  Consequently, much of Xaffxeareden, as it was honorably called by the ChaulEr, became a wildlife refuge under the guardianship of the Roost of Hya the Blue.

A third Intruder had arisen since the fall of Infinity’s Door.  Commanding the helm of the Second Embarkment, Mistress Paun led her fleet across the Lynk to Crus’Ybl’s Wancium Gulf, defying Varthog’s Bowels and laying siege to the pyrecone fortress of the Yuzlum.  On the eve of the main assailment, after Slave Jyl’s cracking of the Pearlite Vault—she, Pyroes Lind, and Votress Himmwast slew the Scorian Lavamasters inside Ristmund Slag.

One late evening Halley disappeared into the throat of Tun’El.  Two nights later Dilmatoyne Star contracted to a grain of genj white, then fanned out into a great cloud and faded away.  The day which tied those events saw Bakwarf take her place among the Aul as Minister of Civil Applications, a position that supplemented her tutoring at the Round School and the Sweat Holes.

Meanwhile Gyel Stryyx was laughing, as she reflected over the last pages of a case long closed.  In that report she had proposed that perhaps Jyl had finally mastered self-conviction, and that the precipitates of both the Cloud and Flame were ingenious forgeries.

Without disturbing the quietude of the forest, suctorial hands and feet scaled the colossal trunk to the highest point of Zoyet Woods.  There a pair of red eyes was cast towards the distant bonfire inside the Fortress.  She could see Jyl, who had obtained a prisoner’s furlough to help celebrate the birthday of Nether and Chazi’s son, Blaan.

Words appeared, to be hearkened only by the dead night wind and her forestal towers.  “We are closer, my brother… to each other, and to the intention of our promise.  A risk For The Stars, but our truth has benefacted us.  You are trustworthy again… and will continue to be—as far as they are concerned.  Your tour of justice must lie in dormancy now, while I snare the harmony they so cherish.

“Justice!  We shall give them justice!  I shall regain my sceptre.  The ostealstone will be cursed to dead night.  The sands of Tharm will behold the jewels of HevN’s Brew, while the rest of the land is plunged into starless gloom.  The Herbagers will walk with benumbed wings.  We shall wrack the minds of the Rorsh and send them frothing across Zumenhyyx to ravage the fruit of the Cloth.  I shall scour every earthly grain until our Priormace smells the Holy Water.  Then we shall seize the Well, Lynk Star’s most precious hope, and become its masters.

“They shall suffer the Plague of the Fenmare’s Breath, on behalf of a woman—a poor woman whose lover had threatened the lifelines of her children, unless she accepted the blame for his dreadful crime.  An innocent youth, to whom the Fortress Chamber could not see it in their blind insensitive hearts to grant mercy.  A fairling who became the First Beggar of Qul House.

“Our mother.

“For The Stars they shall suffer!

“And you…  Even before my hours of vengeance, I your sister, Gercand’wyl, shall continue to accompany thee—though in my intangible dreams—with all my heart.”

The pulse of the talion of two fools was revived.  Teno Lor, Prior of Wulscastle, had spoken.

From time to time tarrying wanderers would rub their eyes—after an illusionary glimpse of a golden Serpentlord climbing the Goronz treewall.  Inside the Fortress Gang still armed themselves with miry missiles and still demanded tribute of intruders.  But the residents of this fabulous land were all welcome to Ancient ChaulE.  They’d come sometimes just to fill their water caskets… sometimes just for a sip— from the sketsal pond.  If they were lucky, they’d see a little girl with long unkempt hair by the pond, her lovely voice caroling gay currents to Dyydz the Ruskalik.

“The water’s good and warm;

Peaceful storm.

Our love?  We love to love.

And we love.”

Everyone called her Captain Myim.

Her real name was Sut UnBii.

She loved to sing by the Well.

The End

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