My beloved Zann,
I worked with Del and Chath for the rest of the swing. Chath is a friendly kid and we got along well. Del didn’t talk to me any more than she had to, though, and sometimes had trouble hiding her disdain for me.
Master Daust came by to drill us on how to stand when we were on guard at stations where we’d be seen. It didn’t matter out on the Tongue because nobody ever went there; not laurans, not the public. But there were places where we had to be standing up straight, with our feet like this and our thumbs like that. It was good that there were three of us for these, because one of us always got to rest while the other two were at alert, and we could switch out. I asked him how many guards he had for his drill team, and he said, “Five so far. A couple of them, it’s good that they can fucking stand and march because I wouldn’t trust them to do anything else.” I wondered if he was going to take Del or Chath, but Chath is too fidgety and Del doesn’t care whether she looks right while she’s guarding.
I saw a lot more of the palace. The Fiery Spikes turned out to be a casual eating room in the Comet Halls where different kinds of savory food cooked on a rack of spikes over a wood fire. We were guarding a door that led from there, I was told, to some Valnelatar roosts. We had to stand at guard, of course, or at least two of us did, but it was just well-dressed laurans eating and chatting while cooks scurried around basting things. It was uneventful.
Death’s Embrace I still don’t quite get. We were in an underground cavern, all black rock, and pillars and pools and waterfalls and things. It all looked natural, not shaped, but I don’t think it existed before the palace was here. There was one sort of whirlpool-shaped hole in the floor we had to guard. I didn’t want to lean too far over it to see, but it looked like it went down quite a long way. Every now and then laurans would come in to contemplate one part of the cave or another, alone or in a small group, and then they’d leave. They never said anything. Chath and I were normally talkative when we could be, while on guard, but in this cavern we felt like we shouldn’t really talk out loud if we could help it.
The day before we were to guard the Devil’s Loincloth, I had a sort of fascinated dread. What could this possibly be? Well, I still don’t know. We were guarding a door in a hallway. The door had a symbol on it, I know that much, but I couldn’t tell you what it meant. And it seemed like nobody went through the door all day, in or out, but thinking about it on the longcoach ride home it felt like I was remembering something I had done during the Great Nap. Maybe people had used the door, and lauran magic was fogging my memory of it.
I learned some of the layout of the curst place. The offices where the magistrates worked, or where the public would come for royal permits and things, were in the towers at the top of the hill, or in the Comet Halls curving down the river-facing side of the hill. The rest of that hillside was residences and other formal rooms for state business, and down by the shore were all the gardens and amusements. I still didn’t know everything; there was a cluster of lighted domes beyond the Comet Halls that I hadn’t seen, and a lot of miscellaneous singletons here and there. But I didn’t think I could get lost for very long, at least.
And I did catch up with Ambe in her new roost underneath the tangle of vines and wreaths that enveloped the temple of Anagleshu. Chath and Del were with me. Del hadn’t wanted to come, but given Ambe’s new role with the Rosollas I figured as many of us should know how to find her as possible, so I insisted. The entrance to her roost was a gap between two of the big licheny treetrunks that formed the foundations of the place; we had to clamber over roots into her parlor. Purple-burning candles lit the place.
“Ybel!” she said. “Day. How do you like my lair? Very old-fashioned, but that’s good in some ways.”
“I do like it. Is it comfortable to live in? It isn’t too damp?”
“It’s damp out here. I’ve got spells that keep my kitchen and sleeping room fresher. See my camel?” She picked up a nearby skull, of some large animal, and clacked its jaws together a few times. “See, he likes you.”
I introduced Chath and Del, and we talked about what we had been up to, and that was fine. Soon her patience ran out and she said, “So what about all that magic all over you?”
That was one of the reasons I had come to see her, after all, so I wasn’t surprised. “Some of it I can’t tell you about,” I said. “It happened during the Nap, and I don’t remember anything about it.” This was partly true. “My leg, though, that was a wound that I took at the siege of Sugarside, and I had to get it magically healed. It’s Barene magic; that may be why you don’t recognize it.”
“The Barenes,” Ambe murmured. “Can I see?”
I pulled up my left pajazuse leg and showed her the scar on my calf. She lit up a couple of crystals and peered through them at the scar. “Interesting,” she said after a time. “I still don’t know what the piss they were doing, but I will recognize it if I see it again. I wonder if I have anything about the Barenes in my books…” She turned to look at a makeshift shelf between trunks at the back of the parlor, where a couple of dozen books rested. “Maybe later. Now! What about that thing around your neck?”
“I hope you know something about it,” I said, pulling the coin out from under my collar. “I wasn’t even sure it was magical. I found it a few days ago.”
She tried to examine it, but the lace held it too close to my neck. “Can you take this off? I can’t see anything.” I didn’t want to, and she saw me hesitate. “I’m not going to steal it, for Sru’s sake. I don’t want the curst thing.”
I untied the lace and handed it over. It really did feel like I should have kept it tied, but nothing actually hindered me from undoing it.
Ambe used the same lighted crystals to look at the coin, turning it over and over. “Mmm,” she said. Chath was spellbound, watching a wizard at work, while Del seemed just to be enjoying the company of someone who knew what they were doing. Finally she sat up and handed the coin and lace back to me.
I retied it around my neck, feeling I had come close to some kind of vague danger that had now passed.
“The coin itself is curst old,” Ambe said. “Just from the feel of the metal. Thousands of years, maybe. I can’t make out much detail of the engraving, and I don’t know anything about old coins anyway. But these marks–see?–are almost as old as the coin itself. And they’re carved in the Dlothran alphabet. That one I know, you can’t study magic without picking up some Dlothran. In Orem it would say ‘Cabardis’, which I think might be a name, but it’s not a Dlothran name.”
“But it’s magical?”
“It is. A little. The magic isn’t very strong, but there are a couple of persistent virtues clinging to this coin. Very unfamiliar kind of magic. Old, obviously. Or, at least, I think it’s old. There are two parts to it. I think one part is just preserving the thing, keeping it from being destroyed, keeping it from getting lost. The other part is… I don’t know. It doesn’t want me to look at it. It’s not dangerous, but it’s up to some kind of trickiness.”
I thought about that. “Maybe some kind of a good-luck charm?”
“Oh, no. That would be easy to spot. No, there’s nothing protective about this thing at all.” She shrugged. “I can’t tell. Whatever it is, it’s a very small effect, and not a malicious one. It may not even work at all! I guess you can keep wearing it, if you want, as long as the metal isn’t turning your skin green. But if you were hoping for some kind of magical talisman, sorry.”
I decided to keep wearing it.