Spring 53: anteater

Darling Zann,

After my shift today I went back to try Ambe again. I knocked at the maw of her lair under the temple. Still no answer. I peered in the slimy trunks, and there was some kind of sound from in there. “Ambe? Ybel. Are you in there?”

I waited.

“Come on back,” she said. She sounded upset.

I climbed through to her parlor. Half the lights were out, there were books and scrolls all over the place, some of the furniture was upside down, and everything was covered with one kind of magical apparatus or other. Ambe, tears of frustration running down her cheeks, was frantically paging through a book. That weird animal that Tharus had turned into was hanging by one arm from the tree beside her, reading over her shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Still flipping through her book, she jerked her thumb at Tharus. “What do you think?”

“You’ve been trying to turn him back into a human? And it hasn’t worked?”

“Pretty smart,” Ambe said. “Did you ever think of becoming a wizard yourself?”

“It’s been days,” I said. “Have you been working on this the whole time since then?”


“Well–here, give me that book. Give it! All right–just relax for a minute. Sit back. Do you have anything to drink around here?”

“Here,” Tharus said, passing Ambe a steaming mug from somewhere back there with his hooked claw.

“Thank you,” I said, and then, “Tharus? You–“

“One of the first things she tried. I had been trying to think using my animal mind, but Ambe here did some kind of spell that… it felt like it opened up all the doors inside. And I was me again. Not me me, but me. And I could talk! It really could be worse,” he concluded.

“That’s amazing,” I said.

“It wasn’t easy,” Ambe said.

“I believe you.”

“But look at him! And this was the first thing I’ve had to do for the Rosolla Guard! Candur’s going to send my arse back to the city.”

“I doubt it.”

“I would, if I were him. Doing magic like this is what I’m here for!”

“Is it even possible to change him back?”

She sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe not for human magic. There’s… how should I say this… the magic thinks this is what Tharus is supposed to be.”

“Well, Candur isn’t going to send you away for not doing the impossible.”

“Are you two giving up on me?” Tharus said. “I like being able to climb like this, but I’d really rather be a person again. The food’s much better, for one thing.”

“I’m not giving up,” she said. “You know I’ve really been trying.”

“Ay, I know.”

“But I’ve run out of things to try. We might need to think about how you’re going to live like this.”

“What sort of creature is he, anyway?” I asked.

“Oh!” Ambe said. “That I can tell you. Tharus is a giant anteater.”

“That’s a real animal?” I said.

“I’m pretty real,” Tharus said.

“Sure it’s real. They live way north of here.”

“And they eat ants?”

“Curst right I do. Not that there are enough around here. It’s scary how tasty I find them.”

Ambe said, “Giant anteaters need a lot of ants. Way too many. I had to come up with other things he could eat so he wouldn’t starve to death.”

“She’s really been taking care of me,” Tharus said. “But you can paint me with piss if I know what I’m going to do now. What’s the use of a talking anteater?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but don’t go away. If the Rosolla Guard can use me, they can probably use you.”



Spring 52: ritual

Most dear Zann,

The dark blue clouds of sleep mist were everywhere as I walked home from Blackfloors Square tonight. I had to step carefully and hold my breath a few times. I might have seen as many as ten people asleep in alleys and corners just in that one walk. I tried to pull one fellow out, but he was just too enfogged and I could feel it starting to affect me too. One more gift of the Great Nap. Before the laurans came, the clouds were either white or gray and foggy days were rare.

Usually the people caught in a dark blue mist wake safely in the morning, unbothered. After all, who’s going to get close enough to touch them? But “usually” isn’t “always”.

I made it to the roost, and when I opened the door, Wande and Jhusdhe were already sitting at the table. Jhus, drawing a picture, kicked her legs under her stool, and Wande grinned at me with happy anticipation. I kissed her and sat down.

“Should I guess?” I said.

“Blanun’s had a crate of snobals in early! He put aside four of them for us. We can do two tonight and two tomorrow,” Wande said.

“Sounds good.”

“Do you want some time to get ready? Do you need supper first?”

“I ate at the palace,” I said. “I knew supper would be over before I got here. But I should change out of this.” Wande had one of her favourite sagars on, and she had pinned it very formally.

I had changed from my Rosolla pajazuse before I left the palace, but my everyday clothes were all kind of shabby. I hadn’t needed them to be more than that, mostly; dock work and drinking in a tavern with my friends. I had always known, though, that someday I’d need to dress for a more formal event, so I had acquired a tight-weave pajazuse and kept it clean and neat. It was black, so it was appropriate for both official and celebratory formality, and also helped me blend in with other men. I put that on, raked my hair into place, gave myself a quick rinse of cold water, and returned to the main room.

“Jhus, are you sure you don’t want to help me cut? I can show you everything you need to know,” Wande was saying.

“Mother, there is no role for me in your earthy peasant rituals. I beg you remember my dignity and not seek to include me in traditions that fit me not.” And she went back to drawing her aspen tree. Wande shook her head.

I sat down, opposite Wande, and she produced two snobals. They looked a lot like rutabagas, as always, but were dark brown all over. She had scrubbed the dirt off them with a brush. There they sat, on a wide platter, while Wande opened her knife box and set out her tools. Her breath was catching.

“You’re all right?” I said.

“Great! Are you ready?”

“I’m ready.”

“Then sing.”

I was ready. I knew I knew the song. We all know the man’s song; we’ve been singing it probably for thousands of years, and we don’t even remember when we knew what the words meant. But I had bought a little songbook just in case I needed to freshen it in my mind. I began:

“Doska lobab askol barta
Holha rolha solal thraf
Dafla barta lobab marta
Palta palta ishin scraf,”

and so on. While I sang, Wande used the blackawl to trace invisible veins within the rind of the first snobal; I knew she could feel them deep in her fingertips more than see them. She smiled at me, and I winked back, and she began cutting along the lines she had made with the waterknife. As she did, I felt, or thought I felt, potential weighing on the air.

It took a long time to disassemble the husks of the snobals, and Wande didn’t rush. Nor should she have; it takes as long as it takes. I ended up singing the song through six times before the two snobals were arranged in segments on the platter, surrounded by scraps of rind. She set her knives down, and looked questioningly at me.

I nodded, stopped singing, and used the ceremonial spork to scoop up the nearest piece of snobal flesh. As I did, she began singing the woman’s song:

“Arti sohi fala
Pila pela pula
Sohi rusi sohi
Goha epra tula
Arti balo hala,”

and the rest of it. I put the spork in my mouth. The snobal felt right; the morsel was just the right size, neither warm nor cool. It tasted of noon and mandolins, of jumping and kisses, of fear and lightning. I could hear the taste in the backs of my eyes. And something, a shape, was beginning to form in my mind. I both wanted and dreaded it. I locked eyes with Wande, and I wanted and dreaded her too.

I took another bite and the sensations increased. Wande sang. I wasn’t sure how much time was passing. Hours? Seconds? Wande’s heart was racing; I could hear it, as fast as mine. I kept eating, not too fast, and the shape in my mind resolved itself into a kind of cone. It was terrible and compelling. I reached for it, with my thoughts, but it was too far away. Wande’s eyes widened and I knew she could see it too. I reached for another segment of snobal, but all I came back with was rind.

I had finished both snobals. Wande stopped singing. The air settled.

“Did you see it?” she said. “The circle?”

“It was a cone for me.”

“Oh! Strange. But it worked! We… I think we could have done it, if we had really tried!”

“Maybe,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to really try. Not these days.”

“No. But… that was the most I ever felt from cutting snobals. I heard some music once.”

“When I was little, I fell asleep most years,” I said. She laughed. Our eyes were still locked.

“What did it taste like?”

“Oh… not like anything really.” I smacked my lips. “In a way it reminds me of banana.”

“I never had banana. Too expensive.”

“A cluster of them fell out of a crate at the docks once,” I said. “We all had some. It wasn’t as juicy as snobal, but the taste isn’t too far off.”

“So how do you like it?”

“I’m still a little scared. But I’m glad I went through with it. We went through with it.”

“Did I tell you I tried some once?” she said.

“What?! No!”

“Yes. I sneaked a piece when I was little. Didn’t see what all the fuss was about.”

“By the gods. Your parents should have kept you in a cage.”

Wande laughed. “My mother said the same thing.” She turned to Jhusdhe, who had been ignoring us as hard as she could. “Jhus. Time for bed.”



Spring 51: kybo

My dearest Zann,

One thing about working at the palace that’s taking me a long time to get used to is the lauran-style privies. The laurans don’t pipe their piss and cack away to mosstone cauldrons; they have another thing they do.

You go into one of their privies; it’s a small room that smells like jonquils and it’s lit by high windows. (If you’re human and it’s nighttime, bring your own light.) There’s a little bridge in front of you that can turn a bit to the left or right. You walk out to the end of it, which is in the middle of the room, depending on where you swung the bridge. Below you, about two or three feet down, is a floor of moist earth covered by short wide plants with red flowers. There’s a low stool at the end of the bridge, with a hole in the middle.

So you sit on the stool, or stand at the end of the walkway if that’s your preference, and you play your tune, and then a couple of things happens. First, the flowers puff out a yellow mist that smells like jonquils. It cleans your hands and your chuff, and then you do up your clothes. Second, down on the ground, the plants grow to absorb and break down your piss and cack and in two minutes it’s like you were never there.

It’s oddly pleasant, or at least it would be if it wasn’t designed for laurans. Seems there’s something about human effluent that’s unwholesome enough to kill these flowers, and they won’t grow back to cover the dead spot until they’ve been fed with lauran plook. Makes me feel guilty every time. Oh, gods, the time I had an upset stomach after some bad river mussels… I killed a quarter of the room and another quarter with my tears.



Spring 50: queue

Dearest Zann,

With Tharus not available they had to juggle the guard assignments for the rest of the swing. I ended up as third guard with Parn and Hollath, two young men who spent a lot of their spare time showing off their sword moves and wishing the border disputes with Amaydya would start up again. They seemed open to including me in their circle until it became clear that I was never going to stab anybody and I didn’t hate Amaydyans.

But I have to give it to them that they showed me a new part of the job very professionally. We had the morning shift near a bureau in the Comet Halls, where a trio of clerks, two human and one lauran, were dealing with a long queue of people and their problems. The problems included tax disputes, property disputes, inheritance disputes, contract disputes… We didn’t have to stand at guard on this post, but it was harder work anyway. We had to keep an eye on the queue at all times, just to make sure there weren’t any fist disputes or even knife disputes.

Also Parn and Hollath showed me how we could make things easier for the people in line. If an old woman had a big sack of papers to show the clerks, one of us carried it for her; one of us watched a man’s young son while he took his daughter to change her soaks. Sometimes we could advise them that they were in the wrong queue or even the wrong building. “The whole point is we’re trying to make the palace work better,” Parn told me. “If my ma has to come in here for a port clearance permit, she should be able to see the right person fast. That’s how I think about it.”

It was good. I got water for people. I learned a lot about what the different bureaux were in the palace, and what they did. I made the clerks’ acquaintance. (Ebe, Rodara, and Ellewen.) And one fellow slipped me a few pennies for getting him into the bureau, even though it was his turn anyway.

After my shift I visited Ambe to see how she was doing with Tharus. Her door was locked, though, and she wasn’t answering knocks.



Spring 49: pillars

Dearest Zann,

On the way to catch the longcoach this morning, I saw a black pillar of stone rising between two buildings. It hadn’t been there before. A few blocks away, I saw another one, a little taller. There were more on the way to the palace.

I wonder what that’s all about.



Spring 48: out

Dearest Zann,

The other night I was down at Kayar’s Tavern with my friends Quoon, Ostavon, and Fafafa. We tried to meet once every swing or so, but this was the first time since I had become a Rosolla Guard. Quoon is a gardener; he used to have a roost in the same building as Wande and me. Ostavon, a merchant’s clerk, is an old friend of Quoon’s. And Fafafa had been in the Wallentorp army with me. He now does private soldier work around Crideon.

We had settled on Kayar’s almost a year ago as our favourite place to drink and sing. The beer was good and they had a spellball table, which we sometimes played. And it was about halfway between Ostavon’s roost and ours. Sometimes Wande joined us, and sometimes Ostavon’s wife Geme, and sometimes Quoon’s husband Schrall.

I had just finished telling them about Tharus and his theory of current politics, and they were laughing. “Swans,” Quoon said. “I wish the pisser was right. It might mean more business for me. At most of these lauran manors, they do most of their own gardening. Just walk through the place and the flowers sit up straight and untangle themselves.” I hadn’t told them about what happened to Tharus the next day.

“Old Candur,” Fafafa said, leaning back and sipping. “He’s doing all right?”

“He’s fine. Keeps in training with his swordsmanship. Doesn’t work us too hard. Hasn’t thrown a bucket of paint on anybody yet.”

Fafafa spluttered, and sat up. “I remember that! Gods, that was funny. Hoy, has he brought any other of us Wallentorp blades in?”

“No, just me. Why, do you want to wear the blue and red?”

“No,” he told me seriously. “No, I don’t think that would suit me.”

“Wouldn’t suit me,” Quoon said. “I feel like already spend enough time doing what laurans tell me to do. One way or the other. Nothing against them, of course.”

“Of course,” Fafafa said.

“Understood,” Ostavan said. “Well! I can’t stay too long tonight, my scholars, because Geme hunted out a couple of early snobals today.”

“Ahh, lucky man,” Quoon said. “Schrall and I have a fellow in the market we like to buy from, but he keeps saying, ‘next swing, next swing’.”

“I always wondered,” Fafafa said, “how you two made that work with the snobals.”

Quoon said, “There’s no trick to it. There’s a wife-and-wife couple in the next street that we get together with. They’re good with their knives. And also sometimes we just go to my sister’s family up north. They always have plenty.”

“That sounds nice,” I said, just to say something.

“You and Wande weren’t together last year, right?” Quoon asked. “What did–“

“No, we met right at the start of the winter. Just before you moved out.”

“That’s right, I remember that. Oh, good night, Ostavan.”

Ostavan was standing and pulling on his mantle. “Good night, all three.”

“Remember,” Fafafa said, “don’t eat the rind!” We laughed.

“Listen,” Ostavan answered, “when it comes to snobals, it’s a wonder I don’t have cuts on my tongue from Geme’s knife.”

I grinned, to fit in, and Quoon said, “You know, they’re really not bad if you swallow them whole. Just brush them with the blade…”

Ostavan waved and departed. Fafafa said, “What’s the most you ever ate? I finished four once, and I thought I could see right to the other side.”

“Three and a half, but I always had to share with a lot of other fellows. I saw my nephew eat six small ones once, though. Ybel?”

I had timed a drink of my beer for the end of this question, but they were waiting for my answer. So I swallowed and said, “Ah, I don’t know. Who counts?”

“Oh, big man, doesn’t-even-matter-to-me. Come on. We all count. What is it, three? Two? We won’t think any less of you.”

“Not at all,” Quoon agreed. “We don’t care if you’re a failure as a man. We like you.” Fafafa laughed.

“All right,” I said. “I just didn’t want to embarrass you. Twenty-one.”

Quoon hooted. “Did you store them in someone else’s stomach? You lying piss spigot.”

I drank again, and stood up. “Hoy, if you weren’t ready to believe my answer, I don’t know why you asked the question. Listen, I’m going to to up and sing.” Appropriately, the song written on the penny card I drew was, “That Was a Close One.”



Spring 47: Tharus

My dearest Zann,

I’ve been on guard with a fellow named Tharus this swing. I first thought him an ordinary sort of person: middle-aged, a little stout, losing some of his hair in the front. Welcomed me to the Rosollas cordially enough, and conversed with me in quite a normal way about what a pain in the chuff it is to have to walk all the way down to the coach station for a proper drink of water in a fountainroom.

That day, we were watching on the Low Spire, which was a tiny tiny grey stone tower that stuck up about three stories above the Comet Halls. It was just an observation tower for us, to make sure that nobody unauthorized was coming to the palace cross-country. There was too much stuff in the way, including the hill, for us to watch either the road or the river from here, but it did have a good view to either side. We had signal flags in case we actually did see something, which, according to Tharus, we never would.

Anyway, we had about an hour to go until our nuncheon when I heard Tharus muttering something. He was looking out one of the windows. “Rotten fuckers,” he said.

I looked down. The only thing happening was some gardener, human of course, raking out the swan pond in one of the pleasaunces. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Those swanfuckers,” he said. “You know this is all their fault.”

I couldn’t really think of anything to say, but my expression must have been enough for him to continue.

“The laurans taking over? King Diopell deposed? All that?” he said.


“Who do you think arranged it all?”

He seemed to want me to answer his question in a way that had to do with swans, but I didn’t see my way clear to doing anything like that. “Um…”

“Now see here. Before all this, when King Diopell was on the throne, what laws did he pass just two swings before the Great Nap started?”

“I don’t know. I’m new to the city.”

Tharus sighed. “Young people. You know, it’s politics that controls everything. You should learn more about it.”

“I was very involved in politics back home! Just, not royal politics. More local.”

“All right. See here, the oldest family in Crideon is the Vangtarms.” I had heard the name somewhere. “The Vangtarms are very rich and powerful, and one of the things that they do is raise and tend swans for use in gardens and pleasaunces and so on. And not long before the Great Nap started, King Diopell did two things: he introduced a new tax on ornamentation of great houses and private gardens, and he changed certain livestock tax categories so that waterfowl and standing birds would be taxed at six percent of their value instead of four and a half percent.” He leaned back against the wall. “And there you are.”

“I am?”

“Don’t you get it?”


“King Diopell’s new taxes hit the Vangtarms’ swan industry in two places. First, they’d be taxed as ornamentation; second, they’d be taxed extra hard as livestock. The Vangtarms had no choice but to retaliate by making a deal with the laurans to come in and take over. And it’s no coincidence that laurans love swans.” He jerked his thumb to indicate the swan pond below. “That’s a Vangtarm man down there with the rake, bet on it. The big swan concerns are making pisskegs of money now that the laurans are in charge.”

“If the Vangtarms were going to depose King Diopell, why wouldn’t they just put themselves in charge?”

“Oh, they’re too smart for that. Wouldn’t look good. This way, their hands are clean. But if you look below the surface, you can tell what’s going on. What broadsheets do you read?”

This conversation had gone far enough. “Just the ones about cunnilingus.”

Tharus went back to looking out the window.

That was the first day. The second day, we were on an afternoon-evening shift, on guard in some kind of conservatory with a lot of pale blue plants. We were standing at the main door, and behind us was a wall full of doors mostly leading to people’s roosts upstairs. Our job here was, as usual in this part of the palace, to keep humans out. Tharus had nodded at me in a friendly enough way when we first met there, but didn’t seem inclined to talk.

The afternoon passed uneventfully enough. Flocks of laurans drifted in and out, their eyes sparkling as they argued politics and chattered about sculpture. They didn’t take any notice of us. Until, late in the afternoon, as the red mists of itching began to gather outside, one of the doors behind us opened. Well, that had been happening all day, but this time it didn’t close again, and we didn’t hear anybody step in or out. We turned. A tall, gaunt lauran stood shaking in the doorway. I had seen him before, at a distance; he was very recognizable because of the bubbling, fuming green scar that cut across half his face.

But there was something wrong with him today. Shaking, as I said, and looking somewhere very far away. Yellow and purple magic flickered around his right hand, and reflected in his scar. “You won’t take me alive!” he shouted. “By the Sauce, I’ll kill you first! I will!” He staggered toward us.

I was not ready for this at all. Beside me, Tharus drew his sword, not very expertly.

The lauran may or may not have known we were there, but he saw the sword, and clenched his fist, thrusting it at Tharus.

The light crackled and flashed all around us, dark, bright, dark, bright; silver symbols blazed in Tharus’s silhouette. When it faded, Tharus wasn’t there anymore; there was some kind of large animal in a Rosolla cape.

The lauran turned to me, his hand still glowing. I backed up and pulled my own cape off, sword still sheathed.

“The battle is not yet won!” he said, brandishing his magic. Some of his spit got on me. I flinched from his hand, trying to coax him to strike.

He did strike, unleashing his magic again. But this time I covered his fist with my cape, trying to tangle him up before his spell could take effect.

It didn’t really work; the same midnight-noon flashes spat from his fist again, sharp and harsh in my ears, the light striking from his gleaming scar into my eyes. I fell back, leaving my cape.

But when I could see again, my cape was gone, and the lauran stood bewildered, his right hand somehow encased in a harpsichord that hadn’t been there before. He tugged at it, and the harpsichord clunked lightly on its legs.

I had a chance to try something while he was confused. All I had to do was figure out what it should be.

For lack of any better idea, I stepped in front of the harpsichord. I couldn’t play it right, but when I was little I did get to play with the temple four-and-fourgan, and, like all the other kids in the village, figured how to plink out “Kiss the Pig” on it. So I put my hands on eight of the middle harpsichord keys and, very slowly and soothingly, in the Conservatory of Contemplation of the Sky, in the middle of Hand Extended to the Dawn, the laurans’ great temple to beauty in the world, gave this lauran my serenest rendition of “Kiss the Pig”.

It did settle him down a bit. It’s not a long song, so I was on my third time through it when some other courtiers came to lead the poor lauran away and get him some attention. I think I was on the verse about “get the mud between your teeth” when I felt I could safely stop.

Another couple of Rosollas came to relieve us while I took Tharus to Ambe’s lair. She seemed confident of success in restoring his human form from whatever this weird snouty clawy thing was.

Of course, the worst part would be going back to Crell for a replacement cape.



Spring 46: grief

My poor Zann,

When I write these letters to you I never think about what you know and what you don’t know. Like I’ll mention “the Great Nap” without even bothering to think about whether you would know what that is or not. Because it’s uncomfortable for me. But that’s exactly what I have to write about. And I’m uncomfortable about so much.

It hurts. Every day I write to you it hurts. And it’s uncomfortable because it doesn’t hurt enough. I’m so sorry. I love you and I’m so sorry.

And that’s because of the Great Nap. Partly.

Five years ago the laurans decided to make Crideon their new home. Before that, they were infrequent visitors. There are stories of them coming here in small groups, or all alone, for very short times. We never thought they liked this country. They didn’t act like they did.

But they took it anyway. One spring morning, all the people of Crideon didn’t wake up. The wizards and merchants in the great city, the marketwives of the towns, the drunks of the villages, the farmers’ children of the fields, the eccentrics of the woods… we opened our eyes but continued to drowse. We did all the things we normally do, but we didn’t think about it, and we mostly didn’t remember it.

And we stayed that way for two and a half years. If it rained, we put our hats on but didn’t remember it. If someone’s wagon broke down outside our roost we helped them fix it and didn’t think about it and didn’t remember it. That was the Great Nap.

If a family of laurans came to magically raise a castle on our land, we let them do it and didn’t think about it and found a new place to live and maybe we didn’t remember why we did that. If the Valnelatar family entered the city and threw down Crideon Castle and made King Diopell and his family disappear and grew their own palace outside the city, we let them do that and didn’t think about it and don’t remember much about how it all happened.

And then we woke up. When I woke up, I was a soldier in an army trying to starve our enemies out of Sugarside Castle. I knew I had joined that army myself. I remembered most of the things I had done to become that soldier. I even remembered why. I had had a great many adventures during the Great Nap, and from talking to people, I believe I remember an unusual amount about my life in those years. But it still isn’t very much. A few minutes here, a few minutes there.

We woke up to a new Crideon, a lauran Crideon. The laurans had never been our enemies before this; there were as many stories about them helping people as harming them. But I think we would have fought if they had tried to conquer the country with their armies. We probably would have lost, because of their great magic. But after the Nap… there was nothing to fight. For a couple of years, we dreamed that they were our lords, and when we woke up, they were. And we had all had years to get used to the idea, while the laurans settled in.

It would be easier if they were cruel. We could rally ourselves around their cruelty. But what they are is much more dangerous than that.

They’re better than we are.



Spring 45: catching up

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.



Spring 44: snobals

My beloved Zann,

Of course, over supper, I told Wande and Jhus all about the palace, and the things I saw and what my responsibilities were. Jhus just chewed her food and ignored me, but Wande was interested. I even told her about Candur’s plans for me, and she shook her head.

“Does he think you’re a genius?” she asked. It was something I had asked myself more than once.

“I don’t know. It seems like he does, a little.”

“Well, you do have surprising ideas at times, I’ll say that. Maybe that’s how he sees you. Anyway. I’m glad you’re all right. Do you… are you worried? About the danger?”

“Some. I was more worried when I was sleeping in the mud under Sugarside.”

We ate in silence for another couple of minutes.

Wande looked up at me and then down at her food three different times.


She put down her spork. “I don’t know how to say this. I know you… It’s springtime.”

It was springtime. “Yes?”

“So it’s almost snobal season.”

Oh, coldpiss. I hadn’t thought of that. It had been so long since… “Oh, right. That’s true.”

She continued. “And I would like us to get some snobals this year. I don’t know if that’s asking too much of you…”

“No, no. Of course we should do that. Wande, I’ve seen that knife in the leather case in your trunk. Is that from your mother?”

“My sister.”

“Oh, that’s nice. So I know it’s important to you. I’ll be fine. I’m sure I can do it. I want to do it. It’s not… I want to do it.”

Wande relaxed in her seat, eyes moist. “Thank you, Ybel. It’s just that… well, you know why it’s important.” She leaned across the table and kissed me. Jhus glowered at me.

I did understand. And I really did want to do the snobal ritual for Wande. I could at least be enough of a man for that. But I wasn’t looking forward to it.