This novel is the sequel to Windsong. It includes many characters from that previous work, and chronologically begins three months later. Once this story's setting changes from the isle of Windsong to the Sandy Isles many established characters are left behind for a while. Young readers who miss these friends may be assured that nearly all will reappear.
Like Windsong, this novel is also written so it is easy to read aloud to someone. That someone can be a grownup or a child.
How is the writing intentionally suitable for reading aloud? Most paragraphs of words spoken by a character begin by identifying the speaker. Phrases such as "he said...", "she remarked...", "he grumbled...", and "she exclaimed..." both let the listener know who is now talking and help let the reader know what tone of voice to use. This is needlessly bulky for text when you read to yourself and see the changes to new paragraphs. Yet I am familiar with the challenges presented to someone who enjoys reading aloud but is terrible at reading in different voices, and judge the large gain in accessibility to be worth a small loss in elegance.
Also, when there are words that a child might not know this is not a problem because the words are used a bit superfluously. This means that, as in the previous sentence, the main point of the sentence is understandable even if the big word is not understood—and furthermore the sentence helps teach the meaning of the big word through association and exposure. Reading a lot has been proven to be the best way to improve our vocabularies. Why not make this as effective as possible?
Unlike Windsong, this novel is a romance of sorts. As Windsong contrasts different, striking individuals to speak about individuals being good, just, and mature, The Sandy Isles contrasts couples to speak about what makes them healthy and supportive.
This novel is by David L. Van Slyke ©2002.
The only hammock on the island of Windsong hung between two trees in the garden of the Alconar estate. Crede Rhyn was experiencing being in a hammock for the first time. "I do believe," he pronounced, "that I am now quite possibly the happiest man alive. I can gaze up at the girl I love, rest in this commendable contraption, and not worry about anyone trying to kill me."
"Hmpf," noised Jasmine Alconar, pretending to pout. She was sitting upon the large, low branch to which was tied the foot end of the hammock.
Crede smiled with closed lips before she began her retort, for he openly enjoyed an innocent fascination in how she could produce a snort of disagreement in a manner so demure it seemed prim and proper. In the privacy of his room within the newly built Rhyn estate he had tried to mimic the noise, but could only make a deeper grunt that seemed more conductive to sparring matches than polite conversation.
Jasmine's pout lost all semblance of sincerity as he smiled, but she continued undaunted, "There must be many men in the world who are currently relaxing with their beloved and who have never needed to worry about someone trying to kill them. I would think they were even happier." She batted a foot against the end of the hammock to start it swinging gently, happy that her 'hmpf' was appreciated yet slightly disappointed at the vagueness of his compliment.
Crede pointed a finger at the sky while raising an eyebrow and letting his smile widen. "Not so," he began, but had to pause because Jasmine was covering her mouth with one hand to conceal her laughter. He knew she found the particular expression he was trying to wear strangely flattering to his face, but evidently he had either overdone it or had used it too soon after getting a valued "hmpf" from her. Crede had never flirted before he met Jasmine. She was doing her best to try to teach him how, but he frequently crossed some abstract line between handsomely debonair and churlishly incorrigible. Initially, whenever he would cross that invisible line he would ask her to explain precisely where the border was. But she could never find words to make him understand, so he had given up. Now he considered the issue something like archery or pottery: a topic for which verbal instruction could only convey a rudimentary foundation.
He stuck his tongue out at her and tried again, willing to abandon the flirting but still interested in the conversation. "Not so. Having survived Maximus Grim three months ago, today I am able to actively enjoy my security. Someone who never had to deal with such threats would much less appreciate their life's peace."
"Ah," said Jasmine, grinning. "So I should hop down from this branch and tickle you, so that afterwards you will be happier because the ticking has stopped."
Crede pursed his lips and scratched his chin, as if seriously considering her proposal. He replied in a serious tone, "Whereas I cannot refute the logic of your argument, please recall that I did begin this conversation claiming to have more than sufficient happiness. Since I do not need an increase I politely decline your offer."
Jasmine hopped down from her branch and slowly approached him with her hands behind her back and her eyes bright. Then she sighed melodramatically and leaned over him with drooping cheeks and eyes. "What if I do not have sufficient happiness?" she asked in a feeble and plaintive moan, "but felt sure that tickling you would remedy my deficiency?"
Crede carefully retained his outward appearance of relaxed lounging. "Well," he mused, "you are not only the daughter of a noble but your father is currently Windsong's king. And tonight is your eighteenth birthday party, after which you will officially be a young woman and not a mere girl. So I must advise you to find less childish sources of entertainment than physically assaulting your loved ones."
She leaned down and touched her nose to his, which he enjoyed immensely except for how it also allowed her face to block his view of her hands, which he hoped were still behind her back. "Do you mean that once I am a young woman I will not be allowed to tickle anyone?"
"Oh, no," he hastened to add, then teasingly appended, "I only meant that some princesses are nice and some princesses are spoiled."
She crossed her eyes for a moment, which made him smile. "You won't get a second 'hmpf' out of me so easily, mister. I should mention that before the Rhyn dynasty's rule this island never spoke of princesses. The crown was not kept to a family. But if I am a princess, I think I am neither a nice one nor a spoiled one, but a frivolous one." And she put her cheek against his for a second, which quite effectively put him off guard as the tickling began.
Half an hour later Chamomile entered the garden. She found them both in the hammock with their heads at either end. Crede had tried shifting closer to Jasmine so that he could hold her hand, but doing so put his hip against hers and she called him "bony" and made him back away again. So he was now contenting himself with crossing his legs and slowly making little circles with one toe upon her adjacent hip and she was contenting herself with pretending to ignore it.
Chamomile was carrying a small painted pot of her namesake flowers. Plant names were always used on Windsong for given names: for girls, plants notable for flowers or scents; for boys, trees and shrubs. Crede's family was not from the island so he had an odd name.
The young girl smiled at them and announced, "I have a message from Fennel. You're supposed to take me on a walk, so that he can decorate for the birthday party without Jasmine seeing. But first let me put these somewhere nice." Fennel was the estate's cook, and had been given charge of the party because Jasmine's brother, Walnut, was busy at the docks today, dealing with the family's mercantile matters.
"I've been learning about the disadvantages inherent in being in a hammock while tickled," Crede called to her as she walked away to where some potted plants were arranged. "Fortunately my teacher is in a lazy mood today and needed some rest after giving only a brief lesson. Yet I never got to learn about hammock tickling by watching someone else being tickled in a hammock. Perhaps you could help me with that once your hands are empty, since Jasmine appears ready to continue the education."
Jasmine tugged on his toe. "Ignore him, please. He simply wants to trick a second 'hmpf' out of me today and it is not going to happen. I carefully ration one per day to him, for I do not want him spoiled." She reached down a bit more and tapped each of her fingertips against one of his ankles. The first time she had used the five fingertip touches had been against his hand, and she had told him the five taps stood for the words "I am glad you're here." Crede had decided then and there to be difficult, and intentionally mistranslate the message each time Jasmine used it. Jasmine was equally stubborn and stuck with her original meaning for the code.
"Aren't...cold...pancakes...good...toys?" Crede mumbled, loudly enough for Jasmine to hear. "No, my dear," he replied in a normal tone, "but if you really want I'll wait here while you run up to your room and get a cold pancake to take on our walk."
Chamomile returned to them only in time to hear Crede's last statement. She looked quizzically at Jasmine. "You keep cold pancakes in your room? Why?"
"I don't," retorted Jasmine. "He is just making up lies."
"Oh," said Chamomile, "like the time he called you plump?"
"What?" demanded Crede as Jasmine pouted and narrowed her eyes. "I never called her plump." Then he noticed Jasmine was acting again, and Chamomile's face was an exaggerated picture of youthful innocence. "Chamomile! No fair using my vices against me, even if I do deserve it."
Jasmine giggled. "Why not? It does seem more fair than using other people's vices against you."
Crede took one hand from behind his head and let it fall onto his stomach with a plop. "Aren't seers supposed to always be nice? You should not be using anyone's vices, now that I think about it."
Chamomile smiled at him. "When I started my teasing, Jasmine had been thinking how nice it would be if you actually complimented her meaningfully, instead of behaving as if vague words like 'beautiful' and 'dear' sufficed. I'll try again." She backed up, then approached the hammock with a spring in her step and again asked Jasmine, "You keep cold pancakes in your room? Why?"
Jasmine laughed, but repeated her answer.
Chamomile smiled broadly, and while leveling a piercing stare at Crede again said, "Oh, like the time he called you plump?"
Jasmine pointed a finger at the air while raising an eyebrow and making a forced smile. Crede chuckled, and replied, "Hurmpf. All day long I'm enchanted by her glittering eyes and enraptured by her soft, flowing hair. How could you possibly think there is any fault in her beauty?"
Chamomile giggled and turned away to give them an illusion of privacy.
Jasmine had covered her mouth again, but composed herself and said, "Oh my. I am beginning to see why you stick with 'beautiful' and 'dear'."
"What?" asked Crede. "Were the adjectives wrong? Your eyes do glitter prettily."
"Too much at once," offered Jasmine. "You sounded like a book full of bad poetry crammed into one breath."
Crede sighed. "Well, none of these rules make sense to me. But I assume you understand her and agree, Chamomile?"
Chamomile faced him and nodded. "But even if I disagreed she is the one whose opinions matter to you for this issue."
Crede squeezed his chin. "Yes, the plump one." He added an "Aagh!" as Jasmine poked him.
The hammock swung wildly as they began to wrestle. Chamomile whistled. "Children! The walk..."
Crede muttered a winded, "No, thank you," then added, "We're getting enough exercise as it is..."
Chamomile rolled her eyes.
Crede played limp, and Jasmine poked him once more for victory's sake before climbing out of the hammock. Then Crede climbed out. He picked up Chamomile and began the walk, saying to the young girl, "You know, patience is a virtue."
"So is creativity," replied Chamomile agreeably, beginning to play with his hair. Each tuft she pulled turned a different scintillating color, which he could not see. Jasmine noticed and kept quiet. They left the estate and began walking through the pleasant forest behind it. Crede did not discover until later why Jasmine's eyes glittered especially mirthfully whenever she looked at him.
Half a mile into the forest Crede grew weary of carrying Chamomile and set her down. She scampered ahead, exploring under leaves and behind trees as the slower couple followed behind hand-in-hand.
At one point, when splotchy shadows covered them both, Crede stopped and turned to face Jasmine. He looked at her with gentle eyes and whispered, "Each day I love you more. I wish I could kiss you." His free hand swung with an unconscious awkwardness, for on Windsong holding both hands at once signified something just as serious as kissing.
Jasmine smiled. If she blushed the speckled sunlight hid it. She touched his chin with one finger. "Someone had said only a few minutes ago that patience was a virtue."
Crede grinned and they resumed walking again. After a few steps he stopped looking at her and watched where he walked as he began an unexpected monologue.
"In the hammock tree you were right about happiness. Being with you enchants me, but aside from that I feel so lacking. After I saved the kingdom your father honored me with two jobs. I was supposed to explore the vault of the evil mage's magical items, making an inventory of useful ones and disposing of the others. I was also appointed captain of the guard so my leadership skills might improve through practice.
"But I could do neither job. The magical items all lost their power within a week; apparently Grim had arranged for them to not outlast him, as some final posthumous maliciousness. And the palace needs no guarding, for your father is universally beloved. Thus the palace guard are only doing their secondary role as the kingdom's police. I tried to help with this but could not bear it.
"There is plenty of petty crime in the city, for many people are having trouble adjusting to a good ruler after my family's corrupt dynasty. Some peope find it easier to steal than rediscover the contentment a work ethic provides. Sometimes fights break out when the palace guard tries to return what the Rhyns stole in the name of taxation, for multiple families claim the same property. I could not handle it. These people are pitiful, not threatening. They are used to being greedy and wretched and I cannot bear to watch them. Slowly the kingdom is returning to goodness under your father's rule, but I have neither the patience nor tact to help the process."
Jasmine interrupted by squeezing his hand. She leaned her head against his shoulder for a moment, then said, "Who has gone from greedy and wretched to good more clearly than you? Three months ago I admired the potential I saw in you. Now you..."
Crede blew out his cheeks, startling her into silence. "I am behaving well to impress people I love. What progress has truly been made in my desires and selflessness is tiny. And it does nothing to remedy the guilt I feel for knowing my family is responsible for planting and nurturing the greed and wretchedness in everyone else. I quit the palace guard because I cannot bear to see the kingdom's taint. So for two months I have secluded myself in my estate and yours, and distracted myself with your delightful company and presence, but inside I remain hollow."
Jasmine dropped his hand and hugged him, remembering their past discussions in which she had tried to convince him that he was not responsible for the effects of years of his family's dynasty. He had agreed intellectually with what she had said, but it had not helped his soul. She asked, "What can we do?" and held him tightly.
Crede ran one hand down her back, hesitantly and gingerly. "I did not know what to do until just now in the hammock. I'm so afraid..."
Jasmine continued to hold him in silence.
Crede eventually continued, "You have seen me avoid the palace. I had told myself only that particular place was harmful, because of its associations with my family and childhood. But I was lying to myself. The entire island is keeping me stagnant. When I think about my life I have done so much more evil than good. I must do more good. But I cannot bear to do the good this island needs.
"I must travel. The hammock—a sailor's bed—made me think of boats. I'll take a voyage. Later I can return, when I have accumulated years of goodness that within myself outweigh my years of evil. Then all your arguments about putting my past behind me will be able to reach past my brain to my soul."
Crede looked at Jasmine for a silent moment, then concluded, "Yet I do not know where to go, or what to do. I am also terrified of leaving you and your father and Chamomile. Without your support, what might I become? In the hammock I said I was happy. I think I was speaking to myself, a louder lie attempting to drown out the internal voices saying otherwise."
Jasmine still held him. She had been biting her lip with closed eyes. After several heartbeats she whispered, "Let's go ask Chamomile. I'll travel with you, if you will be the brave one."
Little arms went around their legs. Chamomile's young voice cheered them surprisingly. "Group hug. I've been back for a couple minutes. We should wait until we are with Jasmine's father. I would want his permission before sending her on any quests."
No one moved. After a minute Chamomile added, "I still get amazed at how hard love can be. That's why no one worships Taint. Destruction is easy. The Architect and Builder are only loving, and it's harder than imaginable."
Crede's eyes were still closed, but he muttered, "I'm still not used to her being a seer."
Jasmine opened her eyes and glanced at his hair. "None of us are, my dear."
Returning to the Alconar estate's gardens, they found the king resting in the hammock. As he heard their approach he opened his eyes slightly. Then his eyes went wide open as he sat up and slid back in the hammock. Jasmine put a finger upon her lips, aborting his outburst. The king pulled a tuft of his bangs before his eyes, to confirm its color. Then he resumed his resting, pondering how children will be children and all would be explained eventually.
Or rather he tried to resume his resting, for his daughter and Crede looked nervous about speaking and it puzzled him. Every few days Jasmine came to him, needing a quiet and private talk about Crede. She agreed that Crede needed to establish himself as a functional individual before he could be expected to function as half of a couple, but patience was difficult in her emotional springtime and she used these talks as an anchor to reality. King Alconar assumed she had not faltered in her patience, and knew Crede considered himself unready and would never be so impolite as to discuss engagement while unworthy. So the king closed his eyes and did his best to relax while wondering what else the couple was hesitantly plotting and if it involved Crede's being unaware of whatever had happened to his hair.
Meanwhile Jasmine and Crede were exchanging sharp glances in a panicked attempt to silently decide who should speak first and how. Finally Jasmine spoke up. "Father, Crede suggested he travel. I would like to go with him. Since Chamomile was with us we tried to ask her advice, but she wished to wait until we were with you before continuing."
King Alconar pursed his lips while his daughter held her breath, then nodded twice to her immense relief. He opened his eyes and climbed out of the hammock with a suppleness that denied his seventy years. Then he silently led them into the house, through the back hallway, and upstairs to his small study, speaking only to order some tea from Fennel.
In the study, the king gracefully lowered himself into the ornate, cushioned chair behind his large desk. Jasmine and Crede also sat, on the room's smaller chairs. Chamomile climbed into Jasmine's lap. After a moment Fennel arrived with a teapot and trivet, which he arranged upon the desk before he bowed and left. King Alconar took a stoneware mug from the desk and poured himself tea, then gestured with another mug and a raised eyebrow at his company. They silently declined.
The tea was good, and King Alconar sipped it tenderly while enjoying its fragrant steam. Later he would apologize to Fennel for rushing him, especially while the party preparations were happening. Two sips later he decided that enough time had passed for the gathering to seem appropriately serious, and he smiled briefly at Crede, asking, "What type of travel?"
Crede noticed he had shrunk into his chair, and tried to sit up properly. "I am not sure, sire. I have felt hypocritical trying to help others leave behind the jealousy and covetnous for which my family is responsible, especially when my own recent 'change to goodness' is largely an act of will, not a true change of heart. It seems time to surrender my futile desires to correct evil here. So..." he paused, then continued more slowly, "I want to be someone who is truly good.
"You all have been dear examples of goodness in fortitude: of doing what is right in all the details of everyday life. But I fear I am not ready to learn that yet. It seems the goodness in correcting evil is a simpler thing than the goodness in fortitude. Perhaps for me it is even foundational to the other.
"But I feel responsible for Windsong's evil, despite Jasmine's rationalizing with me. My guilt prevents me from being useful. I cannot correct evil here. I must go somewhere else."
The silence returned as he wondered what else to say. Jasmine added, "On our walk he explained this to me. He did not ask me to go with him, but I would like to do so. Traveling will also help me mature, though in different ways."
King Alconar nodded. "I will miss you greatly, and wish you back soon, but cannot disagree with your plans and their motivations. I also suspect more: this island is too used to an evil dynasty. People are too eager to gossip about a king's family, expecting evil even where there is no cause for suspicion." He paused in thought. A broader smile spread across his face and he added, "Since you did so well at saving this kingdom I cannot deny you the chance to save another. We should all keep working in the areas in which we excel." Lifting his tea cup again he asked, "But where shall you go? Did Chamomile have some insight?"
Chamomile slowly nodded. "The Sandy Isles." Her voice was so flat that it made the room's air seemed heavier. But only for a moment, for King Alconar twitched forward in his chair and spit a mouthful of tea onto the desk and carpet.
Chamomile said, "I am sorry, my King. But your greatest mistake has cost your family much, and it is time for things to be brought to completion."
The flush of anger that had risen in King Alconar's eyes and cheeks slowly faded. After a long silence he replied, in a voice oddly gruff and sad, "Some days it is easy to listen obediently to seers. Other days it is not."
Timidly Jasmine asked, in little more than a whisper, "Father, will you explain?"
Her father rested his face in his hands and took two slow, deep breaths. Then he looked up at the others. "First I want to know why Crede's hair is changed."
"What?" asked Crede.
Chamomile ignored Crede, nodding to the king. "To reassure you at this moment, mostly. And because it was fun."
Crede got up and stomped down the hallway to the nearest mirror. The others waited. His wail of dismay made even the distressed king smile.
As Crede ran into the room his hair changed to its normal color. Unaware, he grasped his hands together and stared at Chamomile. "Change it back!" he pleaded.
"Surely," agreed Chamomile. The scintillating colors returned.
"All better," said Jasmine.
Crede collapsed back into his chair.
King Alconar narrowed his eyes at Chamomile. The young seer sighed, and Crede's hair became normal once more.
"Very well, I understand," grumbled the king. "Chamomile's foresight is trustworthy, and if things are going to be fixed I must do my share." In a resigned tone he asked Jasmine, "You never asked me about your mother. What did Walnut tell you?"
Jasmine's eyes widened at the unexpected turn of the conversation. "Only that she was named Alyssum, and that she died while we were traveling, when I was an infant and grandpa—your father—was still alive. You, mother, Walnut and I fled from Windsong when Asper Rhyn took the throne. You thought he would try to harm mother, so we ran. We returned a year later, but she did not. Sometimes I think I can remember her face, but I am never sure if I am only imagining something."
Her father set his hands upon the desk, avoiding the stream of tea. "I doubt Walnut said she died, although he might certainly have given that impression. The rest of your retelling is true. Asper eagerly desired leverage over our family, and your mother especially was in danger. We fled to the Sandy Isles, a barbaric place whose petty barons each rule a tiny island and war incessantly upon each other without ever achieving much victory or defeat. One such baron fell in love with your mother, and offered her more luxury and safety than I could. She loyally refused, despite her increasing fondness for him as he daily was of help and assistance to our family. Then, three months later, we heard that Asper had killed your mother's parents. I longed to depart for Windsong to protect my father, but she could not see returning. I did not have the strength to do what was right and demand it of her. In my mind I knew she was a strong enough woman to survive and heal, but in my heart I could not bear to see her unhappy. I sadly decided we must part. As graciously as I could manage, I put her and the baron together. Then I returned with you two children. You were then two, and Walnut seven."
Jasmine sat in silence, holding Chamomile upon her lap.
Her father dropped his chin to his chest. With one hand he picked up his mug, then dashed it against the desktop. His hand, now holding only its handle, quivered with whitening knuckles.
Crede quietly stood and left the room.
"Come back," ordered the king after finding his voice and dropping the mug's handle. "Help me with your example, that this pain belongs in the past. Today should be a happy day. We have a party to celebrate tonight."
"Only my birthday," whispered Jasmine apologetically.
Her father stood and walked to her, surprising her by kneeling before her chair. He motioned for Crede to also join the small huddle. Crede kneeled beside them as King Alconar said in a comforting tone both soft and firm, "Your coming of age is more than just any birthday. Secondly, as Chamomile said, it is time for my story to be brought to completion. I am sorry you grew up without your mother. But if she and that kingdom are in trouble I feel honored that you may be the ones to help. That is a second reason to celebrate. And thirdly, if you two are willing, we should celebrate your engagement."
"What?" asked Jasmine and Crede, almost in unison.
"In the Sandy Isles," her father explained, "if you two were merely courting then other men desirous of Jasmine would challenge Crede to a very serious duel. Even if you were a match to their practiced swordplay, my boy, Jasmine's beauty would attract more challenges than any one man could survive. However, they accept Windsong's engagements as the binding commitments which they are. If you were staying here I would not need to say that you two are not yet ready. But traveling makes it necessary for Crede's survival."
Jasmine and Crede tried to keep their faces as serious as this speech warranted, but failed utterly.
"Things have gotten better there," said Chamomile. "but to really be safe from challenges Crede would still need a child." With a delightful gleam in her eyes she added, "Preferably one at least my age."
"Ah!" exclaimed the king. "A chaperone! Chamomile, I will miss you too, but accept your offer, which I appreciate more than words can express. I need Walnut here to steward the estate, and was worried about my daughter's safety and..." Deciding Crede was blushing enough he let his sentence fade away. Turning to Jasmine he said impishly, "I never once was afraid, as many fathers are, that my daughter would get with child during her teenage years. Yet apparently it happened years ago and neither of us knew it!"
Crede groaned. Jasmine looked horrified.
King Alconar quickly continued, "Either that, or you will need to pack some makeup to help you look a few years older."
Chamomile nodded. "We will be an engaged couple with a child, implying we are a married couple with its child. The two situations are equivalent in the mindset and vocabulary of the Sandy Isles, so I...assume that the Builder will forgive this stretching of truth."
There was a short but awkward silence. Then King Alconar turned to Crede, and said, "Although Jasmine's birthday can be celebrated here, I am afraid I must ask that the engagement be celebrated at the palace. It will be have to be a big event. It would not be fair to ask the populace to stay home when someone is joining the king's family, especially the hero who recently saved the kingdom. I can have the ceremony and festivities arranged in the palace gardens if that would help you."
Crede nodded his assent and thanks. Then he looked at Jasmine and, smiling, added, "Well, as I will be dutifully admiring the beauty of your daughter's face throughout the ceremony there should be no occasion for grim thoughts of old memories to haunt me."
Jasmine tilted her head, resting one cheek against the back of a hand while looking at Crede with wide-open eyes. "I should hope not," she said in her most enchanting voice. Crede, unsure whether he should laugh or blush, found himself doing both.
King Alconar rolled his eyes. "Then that is settled." He gently turned Crede's chin so the young man faced him, then somberly said, "Since Jasmine would tell you as soon as you left my company, I might as well say that all my earlier silence and aloofness had only one intent. I wanted to frighten you into wholeheartedly believing this accurate truth: if you do allow anything to happen to my daughter I will never forgive you until heaven forces it upon me. Despite the currently festive mood, I want to mention that for one final time."
While Crede nodded agreement the king leveled such a menacing glare than the recipient wondered how his family's evil dynasty ever survived as long as it did.
Then the King of Windsong stood up, picked up Chamomile, and as they left the room said to her, "There's much to be done. Let's start by finding some rags to clean up the tea."
After the king had left the room Crede fell forward to put his head upon Jasmine's knees. He looked up at her, smiled, and in an exhausted moan said, "I am so glad that he is king, not me."
Jasmine petted his quite normal hair. "Everyone is. That's one of his virtues."
King Alconar felt much better after cleaning up his study. Now there was much more he must do before dinner, but his daughter and Crede were set on a good path. For two months, since Crede had quit the palace guard, they had been idle and had needed diligence and effort to keep themselves out of trouble. Now they would be traveling through a dangerous land with the unpredictable young seer, undoubtedly in more than enough trouble to keep them out of idleness. As individuals it would be good for them. As a parent he felt some temptation to worry, but the king remembered heaven and the seer.
He knew from experience that it would also be good for them as a couple. He had loved Alyssum greatly and in the days of their courtship he had thought he knew her well. Yet it was not until their life became full of trials and worries that he really learned who she was. Stress had tempered and strengthened their bond for a year before her parents' deaths and his parent's danger had finally caused that bond to snap. The upcoming traveling would similarly mature and enhance the bond between Jasmine and Creed. The king doubted their bond would break when tested: they both had a proven fortitude well beyond what either he or Alyssum had possessed at the time.
No, squeezing into a few months such troubles as would require years on Windsong would not harm the young couple's relationship. And it should polish of the last of spoiled childhood from them individually. Once older in wisdom and experience the young couple should prove quite capable.
He might even be able to pass on the weighty crown.
On Windsong, engagement ceremonies were officiated by the couple's oldest mutual friend. The mage Fulmer was certainly the oldest of Jasmine and Crede's mutual friends. Finding him was usually easy since he lived at the Alconar estate.
As the current king, Old Alconar had moved with his family and staff into the island's palace. Fulmer had been invited to move into the temporarily vacant Alconar estate, with encouragement to use it as a mage school.
The rightful King of Windsong was chosen by a magic device in the palace's throne room. Upon a large, half-buried jade sphere rested a sword, which pivoted like a compass to point to the person who would best rule the kingdom. Since the person who was the rightful king might change at any time, Fulmer felt a bit awkward in his role as house-sitter for the current monarch, and had changed only two upstairs rooms. One was a guest room he had decorated and refurbished as his own living room and bedroom. The other was a large storage room whose contents had been taken to the palace, which he had decided was opportune for turning into a library and workroom. The estate's main hall was used as the mage school classroom. For the daily business of living Fulmer also made use of the kitchen, bathrooms, cellar, and gardens; but he had not changed these except for hanging the hammock and doing some minor gardening. He lived alone, as the Alconar's cook, Fennel, and the young servant, Beech, had also had moved to the palace. Sometimes Fulmer was not quite as alone, for Chamomile camped where she chose: sometimes at the palace, sometimes here, sometimes at the new Rhyn estate, and judging by some mornings' new stains on her clothes sometimes in the woods or in the abandoned buildings that the city's orphans had sequestered. On most days Walnut also stopped by, for he preferred this building's sparring room to the one in the palace.
Today was unusual in that the Alconar family was again using their estate. Jasmine had requested her birthday festivities happen at her family home instead of the palace for Crede's sake. So today the mage school's classes had been canceled, and Fulmer was in his room.
Crede and Jasmine knocked upon the mage's door.
"Come in," called Fulmer.
The couple opened the door and hurried to the mage, sharing their news even before they were politely close to him.
"My, my," muttered Fulmer. "The Sandy Isles. You are braver than I am, that is for sure. But if the Builder wants this I am not going to argue."
Crede nodded as a dreamy smile drifted briefly across his face. "Will you be our officiant?" he asked.
Fulmer beamed, glad despite anticipation of the question. "Of course! What a pleasure it will be! Thank you for the honor." He chuckled, then added, "I suppose I must, after all, being a friend to you both and at least two centuries older than anyone else on the island."
Jasmine grinned. "My brother once told me a story of an engagement in which the officiant was so old he could barely sew. The ceremony took two hours, and the guests became dangerously bored, and ink got everywhere."
Crede grinned too, imagining the scene. Even if his family was not originally from Windsong he had been born and raised on the island and was familiar with its customs.
"Now scoot," admonished Fulmer, shooing them from his room. "I only have a few hours to re-memorize the ceremony and come up with appropriate presents."
"Is there anything we can do to help?" asked Jasmine as they walked to the door.
"Oh, no," said Fulmer. "You have learned a nice amount of basic magic these past three months but nothing that would help me today." In his sing-song teasing voice he joked, "Besides, I've heard of young women who rushed to get engaged after finally turning eighteen but I've never heard of any who actually merged that ceremony with their birthday party. Much too rushed a mindset for advanced magic."
Jasmine pretended to pout and Crede grinned again.
The mage nodded properly, then advised, "If you are in such a rush to hold both hands and travel you should be preparing and packing for the journey. Once Walnut returns from his business with the dock-merchants ask him about the Sandy Isles. Or go to the docks yourself and ask questions of the ship-captains. Just remember to save time for your sewing."
The young couple nodded their appreciation as they were herded out the room and the door was closed behind them.
"We could do that..." began Crede. "But I had not remembered about the sewing. I've never sewn anything before."
A mirthful cackle could faintly be heard behind the door, then Fulmer's voice excitedly piping, "Oo! Oo! Where to start!?"
Jasmine glanced at the door and then nodded to Crede. "I...think getting the sewing done first might be prudent. From the basement we should be able to hear if his workroom explodes."
The bolts of cloth, sewing materials, and a large work table were in a corner of the cellar. Crede looked doubtfully at them.
Jasmine held his hand briefly, making the five squeezes with her fingers. "I'll cut the fabric. I'll even do the buttons. You'll only have to stitch the sides of your tunics together," she reassured him.
"Don't...sew...the...neck...closed," intoned Crede as his hand was squeezed. "I'll try to remember. At least I only have to wear these once."
Jasmine patted the top of his head. "And if the seams are crooked no one will notice," she added. "Now run up to my old room and get a loose-fitting shirt from the wardrobe. I'll use it as a pattern for mine."
Crede nodded and obliged. When he returned he gave the shirt to Jasmine, who smiled approvingly. She had in the meanwhile unrolled the end of a bolt of folded plain fabric upon the table, and folded it again so the fabric was four layers thick. She cut out around and below the shirt, making a shape much like a long-sleeve, ankle-length nightshirt.
Then she prepared the bolt of fabric again, and used Crede's shirt to cut out his four pieces of fabric.
They were each responsible for sewing two robes, identical except that one would have buttons connecting front and back at the knees and lower hem. The robe with buttons was the undergarment, whose buttons made the lower half somewhat like pant legs. The other robe was the outer garment that the guests would write upon.
The sewing went slowly. Crede had never used a needle before, but managed tolerably. Jasmine had tried to talk as she sewed, as she would with her father or Fennel, but the conversation slowed Crede's progress so she stopped. She finished her robes first, and hemmed their necks, sleeves, and lower edges to fill the time.
Once, when Crede had finished one robe, they took a short break and practiced the dancing. They both kept one hand behind their back, and giggled at the awkwardness.
Custom dictated that Jasmine invite eighteen friends to her birthday party: one for each year of her age. She was not allowed to "cheat" and put family in those places. Besides Crede she was only close with three other youth. So she filled up the remaining fourteen spots with Fennel, Fulmer, Chamomile, and eleven of the orphans Chamomile had grown up with. She also was getting to know the other students at the mage school, but it did not seem as right to invite them.
Fennel had outdone himself preparing for the party. Candles tucked within braided breads lit the estate's main hall. Flowers and streamers decorated the table with the eighteen small cakes and many bowls of colored icing. The rocks in the hall's fountain had been adjusted so the waterfall splashed with a more feminine lightness, and in its pool floated small discs of wax topped with coin-like metal disks that reflected the candlelight delightfully. A circle of eighteen cushions occupied the center of the room. Other cushions and chairs for family guests were back against the walls. Upon each seat was a tray with a small and simple dinner, steaming hot—the last delicately put in place a dozen breaths before the clock sounded and the estate's doors opened for the guests. Fennel had even dropped two dozen coins in the street in front of the house for the orphans to find, for they could not attend with empty pockets.
After dinner the eighteen non-family guests played their parts well. Each one, of course, used the bowls of icing and the flower petals to decorate one cake. Then the cakes were auctioned off among the guests. The auction's money became Jasmine's birthday present. (Although it would, in other circumstances, have been insulting for eleven of the cakes to be valued at one coin apiece no one at this party said anything or took offense.)
The cakes were eaten while each guest shared what he or she would do with that much money, ending with Jasmine describing her actual plan. Jasmine's narration of her plan was an unexpectedly genuine climax for the ritual. A splash of creativity had descended upon her; her plan eclipsed all theirs, as did her talent in storytelling.
Since everyone had another event to soon attend, the usual evening's fill of games and dances was abbreviated to a single, lively circle dance. Then the birthday girl was whisked away by her father while Fulmer took Crede upstairs. Chamomile began escorting her chattering playmates to the palace, as quickly as their distracted, ambling pace would allow. Fennel was left to begin cleaning up the event for which he had been responsible, before rushing to the palace to blissfully be merely a guest at the second occasion.
The guests waiting before the palace gates talked in small clusters of anticipation and nervousness. Most engagement ceremonies were simple and sentimental, with the married guests remembering when they were the ones being joined and the youth pondering what some day they might do at their own ceremony. Tonight several seas of emotion washed against each other ponderously.
Crede was the main mystery. He was the last of the Rhyns on Windsong, which still caused involuntary unease. He was also the kingdom's recent hero, which stirred much curiosity. Much was conjectured for why he had secluded himself for two months from the populace with his setting up his new estate and his visiting the Alconar estate. In whisper and chatter numerous theories bounced through the crowd: he was ashamed of being a Rhyn; he was unsure how to act other than as a spoiled princeling; he was unable to shed his upbringing's habitual fear of assassination attempts; he was by nature shy; he was resentful of Old Alconar being king; he was quietly apprenticing himself to Old Alconar to learn statesmanship; he had become fanatically religious; he was beside himself with grief; he suffered simple if acute exhaustion.
Jasmine was only slightly less mysterious. Her brother Walnut was well known throughout the city because of his business as the family's steward and merchant. Jasmine was known by few. In the past three months she had become the subject of much puzzling. As the daughter of a noble family she ought to be receiving a traditional and thorough upbringing. But the poor girl had no mother, and the Rhyn dynasty had caused her father to abandon the proper role of nobility and instead develop some sort of business with spies and magicians. Rumors, too ridiculous to be believed but too intriguing not to share, spoke fantastic depictions of the girl. In one she was a bookworm and fledgling artist, able to critique the cultures of a dozen nations and produce in any medium works worthy of foreign admiration. In another she was a fearful spy and assassin able to turn herself invisible, climb sheer walls, or magically ignite her foes in poisonous green flame.
Furthermore, the suddenness of the occasion was astounding. The budding romance between the two youths was common knowledge but the abrupt announcement of this ceremony was uncouth. Apparently the couple had suddenly been required to leave Windsong, in a day or two, to travel to distant lands. Were they going as diplomatic representatives of the king? Had they done something shameful and were fleeing the kingdom's view? Perhaps the recently deported Rhyns were causing trouble upon the continent and a repentant Crede had taken it upon himself to stop this new evil? Yet Old Alconar was known to be utterly honest and upright, and neither these nor other conjectures seemed fitting with his character.
Then Chamomile and her huddle of orphans arrived and joined the crowd, and their news spread rapidly. News had arrived at Windsong only today that spoke of Jasmine's mother still living but being in danger in a distant kingdom. The noble girl had vowed, as a new adult, to use her freedom and birthday money to find and rescue her mother. Crede was going also, to protect her. The rushed engagement was necessary to make it proper for the two of them to travel, but there was not time to arrange things as usual.
These half-truths, distortions of what Jasmine had carefully said at her birthday party, were augmented and modified with astounding speed by the gossiping crowd. It was the Rhyns who have captured Old Alconar's wife: they are attempting to get revenge by ransoming Windsong's queen. Crede is not accompanying Jasmine to protect her since she herself is a deadly warrior, but she does not know how to sail and he will pilot their small vessel. Old Alconar's wife (does anyone remember her name?) betrayed him and married someone else, and sending the engaged daughter to extend formal forgiveness is a deed characteristic of Old Alconar: noble in genuine virtue but harboring an implicit snub.
Chamomile grimaced and shook her small hands as the confused rumors flew through the gathering. Biting her lower lip, she slipped away from her colleagues and made her way to stand directly before the palace gates. When the gates finally opened she was the first one in, running to find which chair in the first row had the small card with her name upon it. No one noticed her flight except for Fulmer, already positioned centrally upon the raised platform. He smiled at her with a mirthful twinkle in his eye. Once she was seated he took a step forward to the spot where the ceremony would take place and looked at her while slowly letting both hands bounce palm-upward at his sides. She rolled her eyes, but could not hide her smiling. Then she let her head fall back upon the chair, and closed her eyes.
Two musicians, one man and one woman, played songs both festive and romantic as the guests entered the palace gardens and were seated. The start of Promenade of Joy brought whispered conversations to an abrupt end. Jasmine and Crede walked up stairs at opposite sides of the raised platform, and slowly approached each other until they stood in the center, before Fulmer, facing each other with their hands at their sides. Behind the three of them was a table, on which sat the various items necessary for the ceremony.
The Promenade wound to a close. The male musician delicately turned over that page of music. In the complete silence that followed Fulmer solemnly inclined his forehead towards Jasmine, who nodded "yes" twice. Then Fulmer asked Crede the same mute question, and Crede nodded twice (a bit too rapidly, Jasmine noticed, smiling internally).
Fulmer lifted Crede's near hand, and put Jasmine's in it. Then he slowly walked around to the couple's other side, lifted Crede's other hand, and put Jasmine's in that.
Jasmine dutifully resisted the temptation to press five times on both his hands.
Crede, feeling slightly dizzy, glanced quickly at the guests. All had wide eyes. Some even had slack jaws. Crede looked back at Jasmine's face. Her radiant countenance suddenly seemed like a physical presence and shelter.
Fulmer slowly walked back to his initial position. Before turning to face the couple he picked up a pair of thick, threaded needles from the table.
Then, as the couple beamed at each other and tried not to cry, he sewed together the sleeves of the outer robes: first the pair near him using one needle, then after walking around the couple again, the other pair of sleeves using the other needle. Skillfully the musicians played The Sewing Song, starting too softly for the guests to hear above their own heartbeats, growing louder but never loud enough to seem anything but background, the melody darting in and out like the officiant's needle.
When Fulmer was done he backed away a few steps and the music faded. Then, making as little noise as they could manage, the family members stood in their seats. Certain friends did also, who knew their role because of the name-cards that had been on the first two rows of chairs. By old custom only family participated, but under the Rhyn Dynasty families were smaller and traditions had adapted. This engagement, with Jasmine lacking a mother, Crede lacking both parents, and no grandparents present, was an extreme case of a general, sad trend.
Two or three at a time, the guests went up upon the raised platform, selected a vial of dye and a brush from the table behind Fulmer, and painted well-wishes upon each outer robe.
When that ceremony was done, and Jasmine and Crede from a distance appeared like festive spills below a painter's easel, the musicians again began the Promenade of Joy. Jasmine and Crede danced, always holding both each other's hands, approaching each other and backing away while circling. To the right, to the left, straight towards...twice more...reverse the direction we're circling...repeat, and repeat again...
The dance and music ended. Crede felt as if the dance had lasted an hour instead of six minutes.
Fulmer stepped forward again, back to his original place. As ceremony dictated he held up the two rings he had made from the two needles while the dance happened. He tugged gently at where the sleeves nearest him were sewn together. Among the audience all the engaged or married couples stood. Jasmine and Crede turned to face them.
Jasmine had different theories about why tradition finally allowed her to openly weep only now.
Then the audience was seated again, and Jasmine and Crede looked at each other once more, and then finally released hands. As awkward as any couple they pulled the outer robes off, above their heads. Fulmer received the joined garments, folded it, and set it upon the table behind him. The inks were dry. Jasmine and Crede would read their messages later that evening, in privacy.
Then Fulmer presented one ring to Crede, who put it upon Jasmine. He presented the other ring to Jasmine, who put it upon Crede.
Fulmer nodded, smiling his approval. He raised two fists in the air, shaking them once in a motion of success.
The entire audience echoed his gesture, in unison.
Then Jasmine and Crede repeated the gesture.
The ceremony was over. They were engaged.
The musicians looked up at them expectantly. Normally the engaged couple would have given previous instructions as to what music to play and if they would leave the raised platform at a promenade or walk or run.
Some of the guests began to fidget in their seats.
Jasmine reached forward and took hold of both of Crede's hands, gingerly, blushing. Crede twirled her under his left arm, so he was hugging her, both facing the stairs she had ascended what seemed like an eternity ago.
He whispered into her ear, "My lady, shall we run for it back to my place?" It was the first voice she had heard in more than half an hour.
She squeezed his right hand (out of sight of the guests) with the five touches.
"Lets...wait...tormenting...them...more...?" whispered Crede. He squeezed and then released her left hand, then slowly walked around her, untwisting their arms. Once they were simply holding hands, facing the audience, he gestured magnanimously with his right hand to the steps at the front of the raised platform.
Jasmine curtsied, as much as the buttoned robe would allow.
Then, still holding hands, they ran to his home. It had been constructed three months ago, but seemed new again.
Chamomile stood upon her chair, watching the guests depart or mill about. The beauty and tradition of the ceremony had somehow silenced gossip, but inspired new comments and conjectures.
A boy's youthful voice: "They did not have a closing song. I wonder what that was supposed to mean?
A tired woman's sigh: "They made a wonderful couple."
A girl's flutter: "Wasn't she beautiful?"
A man's approval: "I had never noticed how strong he looks."
An aged grump: "The delay at the end...I was afraid they were going to kiss in public! Yes, now they're allowed to and it has been done at the end of engagement ceremonies before, but it's still not respectable."
A woman's coo: "The poor man. We all know his parents were killed years ago with all that evil dynasty's bickering and assassinations. But until tonight I never bothered to think how it must hurt him."
A chattering whine: "If only the Rhyn was the woman and the Alconar the man, then we wouldn't have had to create a new noble house. Marriage would have solved that. I've heard his estate is tiny, and he lives alone, even without any servants. Although I guess he's not alone now if he doesn't want to be. Not that I would exchange loneliness for temptation, but many folks do so these days..."
Chamomile stretched, then hopped off her chair. She went up onto the platform and tugged on Fulmer's shirt. "Home?" she asked with a yawn.
Within his new home Crede lit a lamp and then sprawled upon a couch. Jasmine tucked herself beside him.
He ran his fingers through her bangs.
They smiled at each other.
He closed his eyes, and without realizing it fell asleep.
When he awoke she was still asleep, nuzzled above his left elbow. In silence he watched the movement of her side as she breathed. He realized the lamp was dimmed and looked around the room. Fulmer had left the engagement outer robes just inside the door. A small, gray sword rested upon the now-colorful fabric. Crede was normally an exceedingly light sleeper; he must have been even more tired than he suspected, or the mage had been very quiet.
He looked at his ring. Normally the officiant used two needle-nosed pliers to bend the flat needle into a loop and then twist the ends into a pattern of some sort. But the metal atop his ring was a smooth sphere. Evidently the mage had used more than pliers.
Crede looked at Jasmine again. The upcoming traveling made him nervous, but he was pleased with it. He felt the nervousness that vague dangers from unknown threats instill: a shallow background of fear with which his upbringing had given him familiarity. Having Jasmine beside him caused him to consider the alternative to their traveling. Staying in Windsong would require him to navigate awkward conversations about social obligations, a task more fearsome than questing after dragons.
After an engagement the couple's parents would agree upon new rules for the two children. Of special concern was evaluating how much the children were practiced at living independently and how much maturity they possessed, to decide how much they would be allowed to try managing a household cooperatively. Without a doubt King Alconar would rightly decree Crede needed more time living alone. And Crede questioned his self-control at times.
Would Crede have been required to walk Jasmine back to the palace each evening, or only most? Would she have been allowed to set up a room of her own in his estate, or would her status here be only that of a frequent visitor? His pulse raced now, thinking such things in private. How could he have discussed them intelligently? He remembered the way Old Alconar had stared at him in the study. The dragons were definitely more manageable. If only they would be small, not deadly, yet frequent enough to keep his mind virtuously occupied.
He kissed the fingertips of his right hand and gently touched them to Jasmine's sleeve, which was draped across his chest. The action seemed stale, superfluous. Neither love nor peace needed anything but safely resting together. It was as if the ceremonial message of removing the outer robes could be denied: they might never need to let go of each other, and this first bliss could endure forever. He closed his eyes again.
When Crede awoke in the morning he was alone. But he heard Jasmine's laugher in the kitchen. There was also a noise like chopping vegetables. He wondered what was so funny.
He noticed his ring was gone. Looking towards the main door he saw the sword was gone too.
"Good morning, my beloved," he called.
Her voice—the first voice besides his own he had heard since her birthday party—beckoned him with a laughing sing-song, "Oh, dear one, this is too much!"
"What?" he asked.
The cutting noise stopped. "Fulmer's presents," she explained. "Both our rings are magical. Come and see."
He yawned, stretched, and picked the sleep from his eyes. He stood up, disappointed to discover points of stiffness or soreness that seemed to be cruelly mocking his previous joy of holding Jasmine all night long. "What are you doing?" he asked.
The cutting noise resumed. "Making omelets for breakfast," she answered. She laughed again.
Crede walked to the kitchen. What he saw made him both gape and laugh, but the two combined in a coughing, choking noise that he instantly regretted.
"You try it," giggled Jasmine, removing his ring from her hand. The small sword fell to the cutting board five feet away.
Crede paused for a moment to appreciate her beauty. She wore one of his house robes over her plain engagement tunic. Her hair was unbrushed. Her feet were hidden by two of his slippers. He sighed through a lazy smile. "I don't think I've ever seen you so beautiful and domestic."
She smiled back and held out the ring to him, but he ignored it and instead hugged her, saying, "Sorry about my startled choking. It was not a commentary on your cooking, which never fails to delight me."
She hugged him back. "Sorry if you overslept. I wanted to see what your ring did, and cast a little sleep spell so you wouldn't wake when I removed it from your hand. I don't know if you were really so tired that you slept past sunrise or if the spell is to blame."
Crede laughed. "Well, I wondered how you got the ring without waking me." He let go of her and took the ring, asking, "So how does it work?"
Jasmine brought the sword to him. "I think you have to start by holding it in the hand with the ring. Make a few swings at the air, and then let your grip go floppy but keep swinging. The sword will hover and continue to move as if you are holding it. You can move it around the room, too, but I am not sure I can explain how to move your arm for that. If you move your arm a certain way it moves with you, like lunging, but a slightly different kind of movement it ignores. So you can lunge it away from you, withdraw your reach, lunge it further away, and so on."
Crede made a few swings to feel the sword's balance.
Jasmine took a few steps back. "I think I'll watch from here. Once I let go too soon, before the magic had taken effect. See that chip in that floor tile?"
Soon Crede was attempting to finish dicing the vegetables. Chopping vegetables with a small sword would have been strange even if the sword was held normally. Trying to do it from across the room by using unfamiliar magic was almost ludicrous. To add further awkwardness Crede had to stop every minute or so, walk to the cutting board, reposition the vegetables, and then back up and restart the magic.
He only dropped the sword once. A few minutes after that Jasmine was willing to be beside him, and after a few minutes more she leaned against his side while hugging his waist.
The leeks ended up more crushed than sliced. The tomatoes were a pulpy mess. The block of cheese was a ragged pile of odd shaped pieces. Only the onions seemed nicely diced, but their cubes had flown all over the kitchen.
Crede washed the sword and set it by the sink. He smiled at Jasmine. "Perhaps next year he'll give us the matching whisk and spatula. I'm definitely not ready for flipping pancakes. What does your ring do?"
She held it up for him to examine. The ends of the needle had been bent into the intricate petals of a rose. "Yours he definitely used magic to shape. I think he did for mine, too. There's actually a second piece of metal. Not all the petals come from the ring's band. The second piece is what is magic. I assume your ring is similar, and inside its sphere is a separate piece of magical metal. He must have enchanted the small metal pieces during the afternoon, and then while we danced he only needed to work them into our rings' shapes. But I don't know what mine is for. When I cast mage sight I could see that it was linked to the throne room stone. But I haven't been able to discover what it does."
Crede scratched his cheek. "Do the pair of rings match or work together? If yours is to the stone, and mine to a sword...?"
Jasmine nodded no. "No, they are not linked at all. Oh well. We'll ask Fulmer when we see him. Do you want to cook the omelets, or should I?"
"I'll do it," said Crede. "My poor, humbled ego needs to create something tasty after the beating it took while clumsily demolishing those poor vegetables. Besides, it is good to remind you that although I am male I do know how to cook a few things other than hunks of meat."
Jasmine smiled. "I do get worried when every time I visit you here you are either frying or grilling hunks of meat, and a scant few vegetables, to go over rice. Doesn't that get boring?"
Crede shook his head. "No. I have three different sauces I put on it. If I mix those there are six different flavors I like." He noticed the eggs she had set beside one of his bowls, cracked them into it, and began mixing with a wooden fork.
Jasmine's eyes said 'hmpf' although she did not speak. Hugging him again she said, "I am glad your choice in women is more discriminating than your choice of food."
Crede touched her cheek. With a mischievous smile he replied, "Well, it has to be. When choosing a woman I don't get to add any sauces."
Jasmine walked over to get the salt and pepper. "You're not getting a 'hmpf' out of me this early in the day," she retorted.
Crede scooped vegetables into the bowl. "No good," he corrected. "If you can't think of a witty reply you're not allowed to merely get huffy."
Jasmine got out two plates. "Well, I had a witty reply ready but decided that using it might be saucy. Hey! No throwing onions at me!"
Packing for the traveling was completed by mid-afternoon. They had decided to travel light, wanting to appear as commonplace travelers until they had spent some time at the Sandy Isles. The only complicated part of their packing was preparing a kit with appropriate makeup for making Jasmine look slightly older.
An unspoken division of labor had naturally proportioned their wariness. Jasmine found herself speculating on how to learn if her mother would receive with open delight or awkward horror the appearance of a long-lost daughter of a previous husband. Crede instead wondered about the evil from which he was supposed to help save the Sandy Isles.
They would certainly hide their true identities until they knew more about both these things.
The late afternoon was spent with Fulmer, who coached Crede further about using the new magical sword and told Jasmine about her ring.
"Your ring," the mage explained, "is linked to the Windsong's magic stone, the one in the throne room, for two reasons. First, if you concentrate in a way I'll teach you, the link will allow you to sense the direction and distance of Windsong's magic stone. Although I hope you never get lost during your travels I expect it will happen, and your ring can help whether at sea or on land. Second, the ring's link will tie you magically to Windsong in a...small way. You will remember that before my return here I had never met anyone who could meditate to build up magical energy, as mages here are able to do. I have been lazy and not yet confirmed if this is because mages elsewhere are simply ignorant of the process, or if the process genuinely does not work away from this island. In either case your ring connects you to this island enough for your meditation to remain effective no matter where you travel. As your teacher I look forward to hearing upon your return how appreciative you were of the two spells you know, and would much regret if you were unable to use them."
The rest of the afternoon Jasmine and Crede spent in practice, and study, and worried speculation.
Chamomile spent the day among the orphans with whom she had grown up, listening to some of the older orphans talk about how their life has changed since the dynasty was gone and Old Alconar became king. There were sad farewells but also an unusual hope, for the orphans were used to their friends leaving but never before was one departing with plans of return.
As the sun set and dinnertime approached Chamomile returned to the Alconar estate to meet Jasmine and Crede. She encountered King Alconar first, and he stopped her.
"Good evening," he said pleasantly.
"Good evening, wise king," replied Chamomile.
King Alconar chuckled once, then said, "In my wisdom I have a question for you. All day Crede has been avoiding looking at me. Is he merely remembering my stern parental stare or is he bothered by something else?"
Chamomile lifted her eyes and bobbed her head twice slightly from side to side, pushing her lower lip against the other. "Something else," she finally answered.
"Ah," said King Alconar. "Then I should go speak with him, for it would not be right for him to leave while carrying an unease more awkward than the healthy fear of a future father-in-law's evaluation."
Chamomile smiled. "In the city everyone speaks of you as their king. It is amusing that Crede fears you more as a future father-in-law."
"Bah," huffed the king. "Crede was the rightful king before I was. This crown seems less lustrous to those who know its weight."
Together they went to the kitchen, where Jasmine and Crede were re-checking the provisions while trying to stay out of the way of Fennel's dinner preparations.
"Good evening, m'lord," said Fennel from behind his steaming pots. He peered around the stove to the doorway, and, seeing Chamomile, smiled broadly.
"Good evening, all," replied the king. "Crede, you and I must talk upstairs. Let's go to the sparring room."
Jasmine smiled at Crede, who set down what he was holding and with one hand brushed her arm once in a gentle farewell.
The two men walked out of the kitchen in silence. As they proceeded down the corridor to the stairs they could hear the distinctive noises of Walnut's practicing in the sparring room. King Alconar shrugged as he walked. "We'll go there anyway."
On the staircase the deep, regular, wooden thumping of their steps contrasted with the sharp, sporadic, wooden cracks of Walnut's training.
Entering the sparring room, they saw that Walnut had set up four wooden cylinders to use as practice opponents. He lunged and pivoted from one to the other, rehearsing blocks and strikes with the shiyun he wore strapped to his outer forearms.
Each shiyu was a hollow metal pole, closed on the end by the elbow. These poles were thick enough to be used for striking or blocking. A dart dropped into one pole could be quickly shot forth by swinging the arm. A dagger with an appropriately thin handle could be inserted in the open end by the wrist, allowing an unusually effective knife fighting technique in which each hand retained the choice of grabbing or stabbing. Some shiyun even had their open ends threaded, to fit specially made daggers with threaded cylindrical handles.
On the continent the shiyun were the telltale weapon of the Battlemaster's Slayers, a fanatic cult of warriors for hire. Walnut had heard about the Slayers and their shiyun in the stories of the merchants and sailors that visited Windsong. Intrigued, he made his own shiyun and worked to invent a technique for the weapon. He practiced alone, and sparred with his friends, but had only once actually fought with them—if that one blow, three months ago to knock out the "High Priest", indeed counted as fighting.
Walnut noticed his father and Crede at the doorway, one step inside the room. That one step was important. Etiquette's normal formality did not enter a sparring room. In a singsong, playful voice Walnut called out, "Well ho! Which of you has come to help me practice, and which has come to watch?"
Crede glanced at the king, who was smiling in a spontaneous approval of Walnut's brashness. Apparently their meeting Walnut had not been set up beforehand. Yet the king did not mind the interruption.
Relieved, Crede stepped forward. He held out his hands, showing them empty. "Oh, Walnut!" he protested, wrinkling his brow with a warrior's melodrama, "you spend twice as much time in training as either of us. Thus it would only be fair if we both were your challengers."
The king chuckled.
Walnut struck one of the wooden practice "opponents", looking briefly at it as if watching the crack echo to the room's edge. "A worthy offer, Crede, but as I have been fighting four against one for so long I truly feel a need for the clean, precise strategy of sparring one against one."
Crede looked at the king and shrugged.
The king looked at Crede and shrugged. Then he walked over to a rack of various polearms, hung his crown upon one peg, and removed a weapon that was mostly staff with a small, three-pointed blade on one end.
Walnut nodded. He readied himself, watching how his father held his weapon. King Alconar held the blade pointed at his son's chest, standing with feet positioned to balance stability with ease of kicking.
Walnut in turn stood with his arms held slightly apart. His feet were positioned similarly to his father's but with his knees bent more. Whereas King Alconar's feet were ready to ward away an opponent who got to close, his were waiting for an opportunity to leap into an offensive maneuver. He turned so he presented his right side to the king, becoming a minimal target.
Walnut took a step closer, with little caution. King Alconar lunged with the polearm, the end of which Walnut deflected with his right hand as he stepped forward past it with his right foot. Then Walnut pivoted on his right foot, counterclockwise.
As Walnut pivoted the king swung the butt end of the polearm in a circular motion, down and then up at Walnut's left knee. But as Walnut pivoted he crouched and swung out his left arm. He blocked the polearm with its shiyu, continuing to pivot by stepping beside the king's left side with his right foot.
The king expected this continued motion and swung his left elbow, which Walnut redirected with his right shiyu. Reversing his momentum by swinging his left arm behind his and up past his ear, he turned slightly towards his father and placed the elbow end of the left shiyu up against the king's chin while preventing his father's left leg's kick with the placement of his left shin.
The king's left hand was by his ear. He looked at where his son's shiyu's tip touched his face, and whispered, "Whack!" Walnut had scored a "wounding".
Then Walnut pivoted clockwise with one step of his right foot, leaning back into his father to restrict the use of the other's arms while he swung his own right arm down, palm up, to rest its shiyu against the top of his father's left leg. Again the king whispered, "Whack!"
After two mock blows the trial was complete. King Alconar stepped backwards, nodded, then went to return his polearm to its rack and get his crown. Over his shoulder he mused, "I never cease to be astounded by how quick you and Jasmine are. Do I really preface my moves so clearly?"
Walnut said nothing, finding a sudden need to straighten his clothing.
King Alconar laughed. Then he turned to Crede and said, "Let us go to my study, and not further interrupt Walnut's practicing."
Crede nodded, and after gesturing a friendly farewell to Walnut they left the room.
Once inside the study King Alconar sat behind his desk and said apologetically, "I am sorry to have only this small room with comfortable chairs. I was hoping the sparring room would be available, with its large, open floor suitable for nervous young men to pace and fret while avoiding looking at those with whom they speak."
Crede managed a slanted smile. "My King, I thank you for our recent diversion. I should apologize for my rudeness towards you. I had been hoping in vain that my personal unease would go unnoticed."
King Alconar nodded politely. Then he scratched his chin with a bent forefinger and asked, "And how does your personal unease relate to our lack of mutual eye contact today?"
Crede's smile returned, this time with a dry chuckle. "Well, my King, you have ruined my plans. Such is your right, and I do not wish to complain. But you seem to have done so without noticing and without remorse and thus my subconscious feels an unjustified aversion—perhaps fearing that if we spoke again yet more of my world would unravel. Please forgive me. I do not mean to be rude, and I certainly regret that such feelings spoil what should be a day of farewell's hopes and fondness."
The king sighed, a small noise that suddenly fascinated Crede. It was not a sigh of weariness or boredom. It was not the resigned sigh made by aged wisdom when dealing with youthful blunders. Somehow that small exhalation carried a sense of courage. It was the universal sigh of mustered fortitude that we all make just before picking up something heavy. Crede felt like an unskilled musician who could remember songs vividly but not perform them; his heart had made that sigh countless times but he knew he could not produce it aloud any better than he could duplicate Jasmine's prim and proper "hmpf".
Crede stood up and began to pace within the small room, which had the intentionally pleasing affect of making the king smile. "My King," he began, "Please allow me to explain. I had intended to leave Windsong and do something heroic for the express purpose of becoming a better person. Specifically, I wanted to return as a better person than when I departed."
The room was too small for pacing. Crede returned to his chair, continuing, "When I learned that Jasmine was coming with me, and then that we would be engaged, my heart danced with joy. But this morning, while I started packing, I realized that you had changed my plans with that weighty glare of yesterday. No longer was I focused on one distant day when I would return a better person. Now I am focused on the present day, in which I must struggle to be worthy of your daughter's company and blameless in the gaze of that remembered glare."
There was an awkward pause. Then Crede concluded, "I am not even sure that anything has changed. How do I reach a new level of maturity and goodness? Is there more to the process than simply living each day as would please my fiancée and king? I do not want to depart on a journey whose goal is vague. How can I navigate to even a metaphorical shore if I do not know the location of my destination?"
Silence returned. The two men looked at each other. Crede's face was drawn with worry, the king's with sympathy.
Then King Alconar opened a drawer in his desk and took out an orange. With one hand he tossed it slightly in the air and caught it. Looking at Crede he said, "Give me directions that describe how to toss this to you, as if you are speaking to a blind man." He closed his eyes.
Crede shrugged, and replied, "I am also seated, about ten feet from you along the line going from your right shoulder through your left wrist."
The king tossed the orange. Crede caught it. The king opened his eyes, and Crede tossed the fruit back.
Again the king turned it in his hands as he looked at Crede again and said, "Once more give me such directions. But this time you are not allowed to refer to the position of any object you could lift or move." Again he closed his eyes.
This time Crede did not shrug. He wrinkled his brow as ideas presented themselves in his mind. He alternately squeezed the right or left side of his lips together slightly as he weighed the ideas' merit. Eventually he replied, "I am seated a third of the way from the window to the doorway, or rather slightly closer to the room's corner where those walls with window and doorway meet."
The king tossed the orange. Crede caught it. "Keep it," the king said, opening his eyes. "Stick cloves in its skin and let it dry, and it will keep your luggage smelling nice."
Crede noticed he was fidgeting with it, and set it on the floor beside his chair. He asked, "What does the orange have to do with my problem?"
King Alconar shifted in his chair, relaxing and letting his fingers splay across the desktop. "Our virtue is always like the second task, in which your instruction did not refer to the person throwing the orange," he explained. "We have sufficient experience to understand what virtue looks like: the location of that goal is well known. But even I am not old and experienced enough to be able to describe my own self accurately. I cannot truly examine myself to discern such inner workings. So my journey towards virtue is navigated not by drawing a line from start to finish but with by continually correcting the direction in which I see myself heading."
The king slightly raised two fingers of one hand, a gesture denoting he was still the one speaking but allowing Crede silence in which to process what had been said. Crede nodded, and King Alconar concluded, "So, in your particular case, your method of navigating towards your original goal is unchanged. Think of Jasmine's love and yesterday's glare not as goals but as mirrors that will help you more accurately see your direction, and perhaps even your position."
Crede smiled. "When I finally am ready to embark will I be allowed to hug you?"
The king considered this. "At the docks it is probably better to be formal and not confuse the populace. However, this room could perhaps use some gesture of fondness whose memory can temper yesterday's stern gaze."
When Crede returned, alone, to the kitchen a few minutes later Jasmine remarked, "You look much better. What did he have to say?"
Crede shrugged. "Not much. Basically that old age and experience really do produce all that wisdom that we young folk hear rumors about."
Jasmine nodded. "I could have told you that much. I forget how much you are missing, not having grown up with good parents. So you'll miss him."
Crede hugged her. "More than I anticipate now, surely."
While returning the hug Jasmine gave him the five finger presses. To that code she added aloud, "I am glad we're traveling together."
"And...what's...with...the...orange?" Crede droned in mock translation, displaying the previously unnoticed fruit. "So perceptive of you. We're supposed to stick cloves into it and then let it dry. If I understand correctly it then will serve as either luggage potpourri or a melee weapon, as the situation requires."
Jasmine blushed slightly, but offered no explanation.
The departure at the docks late that evening was an unexpectedly large event. The previous day's engagement ceremony had put Jasmine and Crede in the center of the populace's attention. Now much of the city's population had gathered to watch the couple sail away.
Many of the spectators had brought gifts. Friends normally presented engagement gifts on the day after an engagement ceremony. But this explained few gifts, since few people were truly friends with Jasmine and Crede. Giving gifts to departing travelers was another possible excuse, but this was not widely practiced. Whatever the motivation, the couple was trying to travel light, so they consulted their ship's captain about which foodstuffs could be taken aboard and then politely accepted certain gifts while placing most in a pile destined to wait at Crede's estate for their return.
The gifts were surprisingly numerous, and Crede was glad they had arrived at the docks early. He had been socializing within the crowd for twenty minutes before he realized what was actually happening. The gifts were an excuse to examine Jasmine and him. The kingdom's craftsmen and farmwives had realized that for the price of a small crafts-good or baked goodie they could talk with this mysterious and influential couple who had recently done so much for the kingdom and then retreated into a privacy of wanting no reward other than time with each other.
The revelation stunned Crede for a moment. In truth any of these people could have knocked on the door to his estate at any time during the past three months and been received with genuine welcome. Indeed, the same was true at the palace if someone wished to meet Jasmine—or King Alconar, for that matter, although his busy schedule might require an appointment to first be arranged.
Crede was not sure if the gifts were an expression of gratitude for what he had done for the kingdom, or an apology for not having tried to say hello before the hour of his departure. He supposed it did not matter. With a deep breath of sea air he mustered himself afresh, and renewed the brief conversations and the receiving of gifts, now with genuine friendliness having replaced monotonous social obligation.
A few minutes later Crede looked through the crowd for Jasmine and Chamomile. Jasmine was doing as he, moving about, trying to balance giving people the time they desired with moving enough to possibly visit with everyone before the ship's bell sounded to declare their departure imminent. Chamomile, however, had planted herself upon a box at the dock's edge, talking with few people (mostly children asking about what sailing would be like), content in how her much smaller notoriety gave her the luxury of letting her audience manage itself.
Eventually the ship's bell rang. The oddity of a hired ship's captain directing the schedule of the king's children was accepted by all with patient understanding. Farewells within the crowd were hastily concluded, and then among family there was a rushed reprise of earlier farewells. Then the three travelers boarded the ship and stood waving from its deck. Three of the sailors ran from the ship to the docks to fetch aboard the pile of food-gifts and untie the ship's moorings. Then all was ready and the voyage began.
Ships preferred to leave Windsong at early evening. The island's enchantments kept the ocean around it calm. Sailing was always safe and easy for nearly an hour and the stars were bright for navigation. One hard day's sailing would bring a merchant ship to the continent in the mid-morning, timed properly for a day of trading. Warehouse space at most ports was rented from noon one day until noon another, so arriving in the late morning minimized the risk of not having a place into which the ship could be unloaded.
This departure was a few hours later than traditional, which Jasmime approved of since it meant she had enjoyed a farewell dinner at home. The trip to the Sandy Isles should last until evening of the third day.
She noticed happily how beautiful the island of Windsong was by moonlight as it slowly faded in the distance.
When the island was no longer visible she turned to her fiancée beside her. Chamomile had left to explore the ship, so they were alone on the stern, softy lit by the moonlight.
Crede took both her hands in his. They looked at each other.
Jasmine smiled. "You all right?"
Crede squeezed her hands. "Yes. Much suspense but no homesickness yet. And you?"
Jasmine thought a moment and then answered, "Similar. And still a bit dreamy. I think being engaged muddles my brain."
Crede raised one arm and put his other hand to his heart, pulling her closer as the engagement dance does. "We could see if dancing again helps," he offered.
Jasmine smiled as he relaxed his arms again. "I didn't know people were allowed to do that dance except at their engagement ceremony."
Crede grinned. "Well, as we're still too nervous to try kissing we might as well keep doing what we've practiced."
Jasmine grinned in reply. "Well," she began, mimicking him but unsure if he noticed, "I hope it's terribly improper and scandalizes Chamomile when she comes back to find us. Otherwise she won't have much opportunity to feel useful in her role as a chaperone."
Crede chuckled slightly. "We're pathetic, you know."
Jasmime smiled again. "Well," she tried again, this time making him smile, "it makes self-control easier."
Crede nodded. "Well," he began, catching himself too late. He rolled his eyes and continued, "we have not had a sparring of words all day. Not that I mind giving old barb-wounds time to heal, but I get nervous wondering what else your carefully controlled wit is planning."
"Nothing much," replied Jasmime. "Remember what I said about being dreamy-headed?"
They looked at each other's eyes for a bit more, than began the dance.
In Windsong's throne room, King Alconar patted the room's magic stone. "Fulmer, I feel slightly bad keeping it a secret that I can feel the location of Jasmine's ring when I touch the throne room stone. But as a parent I appreciate your including that in its magic."
Fulmer said a quiet thank you, guessing the king did not really want a new conversation to begin.
The king sighed. "I should go," he mumbled, but again set his hand on the magic stone. His brow furrowed for a moment. Then he laughed.
"What?" asked Fulmer.
The king whispered, "I can feel small-scale movement too, it turns out. Forward, back, arc in half a circle, repeat facing the other way—they are doing the engagement dance!" He held his hands to his chest. "May they remain so happy."
Fulmer hesitated, then asked, "Do you think I did the right thing—giving Crede Scalecutter in disguise? We have not really confirmed our suspicions about the barons of the Sandy Isles. Especially the Dragon."
The king put a hand upon the mage's shoulder. "The blade is dormant and should not attract attention."
Fulmer nodded. "Very well. Let us both stop worrying, get some sleep, and let the young ones have their adventure."
Why would Jasmine blush when Crede mentioned a cloved fruit? On Windsong, engaged or married couples woud keep a cloved fruit pomander on a bedside table. This would make the room smell nice, and before a good night kiss either could remove a clove and bite it, somewhat like a breath mint. (This is an SCA reference.)
The baron who ruled the largest island of the Sandy Isles was named "the Dragon". He had used that name ever since he publicly declared himself a professional mage, years before moving to the Sandy Isles. He admired many things about dragons: their strength, speed, nobility in graceful movement, and even their bright gem-tone coloration.
Currently the Dragon was in his castle, heading downstairs, thinking.
The Sandy Isles had its own prophecy: two rulers would fight for supremacy; unable to harm each other they would both try to use a magical servant to kill their rival.
The Dragon snorted as he thought of that old story. It was so blatantly inaccurate he wondered why it survived at all.
He had been the first to settle on these islands, thirty years ago. The islands were very small, but were sufficient in size for a small town run by a mage. More importantly, they were close enough to the continent to remain influential but far enough away to assist with secrecy.
But within a month of his own arrival two rival mages had settled on adjacent islands. One was the Eldrich, the only baron who managed to control two islands. The other was the Battlemaster, who had used his island as a training ground for his warrior cult. The mages had fought, trying to claim supremacy, but a solid stalemate was soon established which none of them had been able to circumvent. The stalemate had lasted for thirty years.
Thus the prophecy had the wrong number of rulers. The Dragon snorted again. Really, three should not be too difficult a number to get right.
Slightly more impressive for prophecy was the fact that the three mages actually were trying to create magical servant-creatures, of sorts. The Dragon was perfecting a life-size clay dragon, which he magically animated and used as a fighting machine. The Battlemaster was trying to make the optimal human warrior by training his volunteer fanatics and enchanting them with as much increased agility and strength as human bone and tissue could stand. And the Eldrich...did things with skunks.
Anyway, the mages had been doing this for years. No one knew when the prophecy had been written. The Dragon suspected that it was composed after he and the others had begun working on their creatures, which would mean it became no more than the obvious guess that eventually one of the mages would lose the stalemate and be killed.
Then two mages would be left, making magical creatures.
Most folk could even guess more specifically than that. Everyone knew that the Battlemaster would be defeated first. Such a prediction had seemed obvious for years—at least to everyone except the Battlemaster and his cult, who stubbornly refused to retreat from the islands despite not having won a Contest in who knows how long. But then, a lesson about when to wisely retreat had never been part of the curriculum taught by the Battlemaster.
Twenty years ago some cartographer had named the three mages' joint territory "The Sandy Isles". Soon people in other lands were calling it a kingdom. It lacked a centralized government, but at the time so did two of the old, feudal kingdoms on the continent. Succession wars were nothing new.
In truth, the Sandy Isles were marginally like a kingdom. They were by then one stop along an established trade route. Like many small kingdoms they purchased metal tools and produced something in exchange (in particular, a pungent cooking spice named yanh that grew nowhere else). The three mages called themselves barons because they needed some word to describe that they ruled over small populations.
But anyone who had visited the Sandy Isles would hesitate to call it a kingdom. It was a set of three fortified encampments, and the difference was obvious. Each of the mages protected his island with defenses both magical and physical. There was no traffic between the islands. Each island even seemed to have its own private air current coming from and returning to the surrounding sea.
Each island had a very small population. The mages lived richly and each employed a score of domestic servants. A dozen craftsmen were then necessary to create the domestic goods the servants required. A score of farmers were then required to feed everyone. And a dozen more farmers were needed to grow the yanh that kept the Sandy Isles from complete isolation.
The mages protected their people, except perhaps in the case of the Battlemaster's warriors who in the Dragon's perspective seemed to be treated by their master as very expendable.
The Dragon sneered as he thought about the Battlemaster. Besides the inescapable inferiority of live humans compared to rock-hard animated clay there was that old intuition saying the Battlemaster had to be the weaker mage simply because his name was dopey. Really, Battlemaster sounded like an egotistical arms instructor at a pretentious castle, or a child's name for a trained fighting fish. Mages traditionally assumed nicknames when they declared themselves professionals ready for publicly doing magic and accepting challengers and such. But most new mages were clever enough to pick something that sounded fierce instead of juvenile.
The Dragon exhaled sharply. Enough idling, there was work to do. Their next monthly Contest was in six days.
The Contests happened on a neutral island. They gave foreign merchants somewhere neutral to land, entertained everyone's servants, and most importantly gave all three mages a chance to see the slow evolution of their rivals' creatures: creatures who one day might be their nemesis and assassin.
Again the Dragon wondered how true that assumption was. Was there some currently unrecognized way that he could strike down the Battlemaster or the Eldrich? Were the mages overlooking something obvious because of their blind allegiance to the prophecy?
The mages could not attack each other directly, because of the usual spells that all mages used to protect themselves from intentional attacks. If he had tried to attack another mage, or vice versa, the attacker would suddenly stop and desire to do something else.
Similarly, the rival mages could not set traps into which the others might blunder. Physical traps were impossible because each mage guarded his island so well. How could a rival get to a position where a trap could be set? Magical traps were doubly impossible, both because of that former reason and because the mages could sense magical constructions with their mage sight. Since magical traps were extra visible they could never be surprising.
Thus the Contests were invented. A small, barren island was used for the stadium. The mages each brought their own table, chair, and meal. Their current servant-creatures fought to the death, except that the Eldrich's skunk counted as victor if it paralyzed both opponents. Then everyone went home. If the Dragon lost his creature he would magically reconstruct a replacement. If the Eldrich lost he would begin work upon a new skunk. If the Battlemaster lost—and his warriors did die every Contest now—he would start training and enchanting a new volunteer.
The Dragon was puzzled by his rivals' use of living things. He had chosen to work with clay and make golem-like creatures for a good reason. He mentally controlled a clay creature that was otherwise inanimate. Each clay dragon had no will. This was intentional, so that when the day came to send it against one of the other mages its lack of will would render it immune to the magical defenses against willed, intentional attacks.
The Battlemaster's warriors (dubbed Slayers, another dopey name) were human warriors who had served in his cult upon the continent, working as mercenaries or guards or whatnot. Really, that organization was more of an employee union than a mage cult. Anyway, a small but steady number of warriors came to the Sandy Isles seeking greater glory or more personal attention from the Battlemaster. Among these were those who volunteered to fight in the Contests. It was really quite pathetic. Even if the Battlemaster's champion was ten times as physically capable, how could the champion attack a rival mage? The same protection against intentional, willed attacks would prevent harm.
The Eldrich's skunks were no more fearsome. The Eldrich had a fighting man's persistence and zeal but his skunks could not threaten a rival mage with their current abilities.
Sometimes the Contests seemed stupid. But there were still the highlight of each month.
What was especially irksome was how the Battlemaster seemed to consider the Contests as the reason for settling the Sandy Isles. Why wouldn't those other two mages simply leave? Only the Battlemaster was happy with their stalemate. Yet this meant, of course, that the Battlemaster would be the first mage to be assassinated; his complacency meant that he alone had two mages trying to kill him.
And the Eldrich...The Dragon shook his head. Admittedly the skunk-things had potential. But they were hardly vicious. Yet the Eldrich was noticeably intelligent. That foe must have a plan of some sort. But what could it be? For years the Dragon had wondered if the skunks were merely a diversion while the Eldrich created a different golem-like creature. But eventually the Dragon managed to send one of his men to the Eldrich's island as a spy, and thus learned that the skunks were indeed all there was to the Eldrich's magical research. The spy—one of his carpenters, who had returned to the continent and then applied for a job as one of the Eldrich's carpenters—had then fled from the Sandy Isles with the Dragon's permission.
The Dragon recollected his thoughts. He had work to do on improving his current creation. Last month the Eldrich had finally found a way to make his skunk resistant to fire. The Dragon knew he must invent some new fierce attack (really, he should have invented one during the past five months of toasty skunks) or the Eldrich would realize that the fiery breath had been a discovery due to luck, not to the Dragon's prowess at magical research.
The Dragon opened the only door in his castle that lead to the lowest level where his workroom was. A wistful sound escaped his lips as his slow, thumping steps took him down the stairs. He would have to be patient for six more days. Then the other mages would be with him during the Contest. They would talk of news and drink fine wine. The background desire to enjoy the other's demise prevented real friendship, but their relationships were still closer to friendships than any other which the Dragon had. Which was tragic, since he was...No, he stopped that thought. He glared at his gloved hands, then focused his thoughts once more on the Eldrich and the Battlemaster.
Someday he would be victorious and the Battlemaster and the Eldrich would be dead. He wanted to rush that day as much as his craftiness could. But a fear of loneliness asked, "Why rush victory?"
The Dragon stopped where the stairs turned their corner and doubled back upon themselves lower down on the wall. Slow victories were indeed valid victories. Could he gain some advantage if he was willing to make his creature slower? Would adding weightier armoring help? He could make it smaller if need be...
A sudden revelation broadsided him. The fiery breath was not dependent upon the golem's size. The Slayers still were defenseless against it. A tiny dragon-golem, even a minuscule one, could still incinerate a Slayer without difficulty. And if there were...
The Dragon pounded the wall with a fist. How long had he suspected that he was overlooking something? And now when the revelation came it seemed so obvious! He doubted the trick would work against both his rivals, but it should suffice to get the Battlemaster. Really, why hadn't he thought of this years ago?
Nevermind the next Contest. After two, maybe three days of work the Battlemaster would be dead: he and his warriors burned to ash, and his island turned into a charred ruins populated only by dozens of thimble-sized, mindlessly aggressive, fire-breathing little golems.
But how could he deliver the creatures to the Battlemaster's island? Ah! He could capture a seagull, tie sleeping golems to it, and then mentally force it to fly above the Battlemaster's island. Then simply awaken the golems and they would incinerate the bird and the strings that bound them. Adjusting for wind would be tricky. But if he failed his creations would fall into the sea and dissolve—the Battlemaster would not know anything happened and the Dragon could try again. But, really, hitting an island should not require more than one or two attempts.
He spent the remainder of the morning pleasantly busy. Habit kept his mind focused on his work, so he was not tempted a second time to think about how he and his wife were no longer friends—indeed had not been friendly for the past ten of their fifteen years together.
Jasmine was bored by the first day at sea. The ship's captain, Opal, had said she should feel free to make herself comfortable. But there did not seem to be any way to really do so.
She had spent the early morning talking with Crede, still in their hammock. Crede hadn't realized that all the sailors visiting Windsong slept in hammocks, and was initially disturbed that the ship had no other beds for them. But exhaustion overpowered strangeness and they had slept soundly. Upon waking, neither one of them had reason or inclination to leave each other's side. But the hammock slowly became increasingly uncomfortable.
Jasmine felt it worst. She had continued to rest her head upon Crede's shoulder. Then the muscles in her back and neck began to protest, first with unease and then with definite rebellion. Switching to Crede's other side had started the hammock swinging awkwardly, which at the time had seemed very entertaining. But switching only appeased her stiffening muscles briefly.
So they had gotten up and left their cabin. They wandered about the main deck to stretch their legs and let the morning's cool breeze brush the last of weariness from their faces. Chamomile joined them then, holding Jasmine's other hand as they walked. The girl had woken earlier, and entertained herself by watching the sunrise and the birds and the sea. Jasmine vaguely remembered the days of her own youth when she still had a child's ability to be completely entertained for hours with merely watching nature's routines. What changed with age, that adults still enjoyed sunrises and sunsets but could no longer be satisfied for hours with watching the movement of wind or water?
They visited the galley. Opal fed them breakfast, and had tried to be an entertaining host. He laughed as he explained why he was the breakfast cook. Two of his men could man the wheel with skill equal to his. But none of the crew could match him at navigating by stars, charting a course, or cooking breakfast. So those three chores kept him busy through evening and early morning, and then he took his daily sleep until mid-afternoon. Opal exchanged pleasantries with his three guests until they had finished their meal, although he was clearly tired. Jasmine realized the captain was staying awake longer than habitual in order to meet their late breakfast schedule, so she offered to wash their dishes for him. He looked genuinely grateful, excused himself, and left to his cabin.
After he left, Crede got up from the table and looked around suspiciously. Once satisfied they were alone he returned to the table and whispered to Jasmine, "Have you noticed the hand signals Opal and his first mate use?"
"Somewhat," replied Jasmine, "I assumed they were signals for ship things, like what to do with ropes and sails."
"There is that," said Crede, "but it is a quite robust language. Certainly its vocabulary is sufficient for the captain and his crew to plot tying us up and ransoming us."
"What?" asked Jasmine. "You're joking."
"I'm afraid not," answered Crede. "They have been talking about it all night. A very sloppy operation in my opinion."
Jasmine pursed her lips. "How do you know their hand signal language?"
Crede chuckled. "There are certain things one learns when raised in a hotbed of dynastic intrigue. I know four such languages somewhat. Different factions of relatives used different ones, and children were taught the basics of them all as part of each faction's efforts to lure loyalty. A family child who expected to live long learned more than the basics of each."
Jasmine smiled at Crede and sighed. "Maybe tonight when we're resting and talking sweet nothings we can talk more thoroughly about the skills and other assets we each bring to this relationship. Someday we might be in a dangerous situation. Then knowing more about each other might be important for survival."
Crede squeezed one thumb in his other hand. He hesitantly offered, "What about now? With the plan to tie us up and ransom us? There are only three of us and at least a dozen of them. I do have a magic sword but I don't see how the ability to be clumsy at a distance will save us. And it would make sense for their attack to come soon, after the captain is rested but before we arrive at the continent, which I bet is where we are heading."
Jasmine looked startled. Chamomile began to cry.
Jasmine responded more quickly than Crede to Chamomile's tears. "What, dear?" she asked.
Chamomile sniffled, then mournfully wailed, "You two get to fall asleep hugging and talking and I'm all left out. Last night I was terribly lonely on the other side of the room and I could hear your whispering but not understand what you said. I want to hear all about what you learned growing up, when you talk tonight."
Jasmine picked up the girl and held her. "Of course you can be with us. You're supposed to be our child, and our chaperone. As much as I enjoy falling asleep on Crede's shoulders I admit I don't need both of them and so you can hug his other side."
"Um," interjected Crede, "as much as I'd love to comfort Chamomile, and as much as it's flattering to have my shoulders divided up like a piece of meat, I'm worried that these sailors have other plans for us than a relaxing story time before bed. No offense, dear seer, but I know from personal experience that capturing you isn't difficult. Neither will I flatter myself that I am a better swordsman than I am."
Jasmine pouted. "All you spoiled young men! I still don't understand why my father didn't overthrow the dynasty years ago." She clasped her hands, then continued, "I've used my mage sight now and then since we boarded. The sailors don't have any magical surprises for us. If we interrupt the captain's nap he shouldn't either. Ready?"
Crede looked at her doubtfully. "We don't even need a plan? Just follow you?"
"A little help from you wouldn't hurt," snapped Jasmine, "but if you want to just follow for the show, then so be it." Still carrying Chamomile she stomped from the galley.
Crede hurried after her.
The sailors were busy sailing, except for one who stood guard in front of the door to the captain's cabin. "Opal's asleep," the sailor said as they approached and Jasmine set Chamomile down. "No one is allowed in."
Jasmine grumbled a "hmpf" and then attacked.
Crede gasped. In the back of his mind echoed her father's comment from yesterday about how quick his children were. Walnut had been impressively fast. Jasmine...She had done something with her right hand, left elbow, and then three more strikes that had been too fast to follow at all. And Crede had been watching her carefully. Each of her blows had made a soft, fleshy noise, but even the noises had seemed run together.
The sailor had made no noise. Jasmine was gently lowering him to the deck.
"He'll be out for a while," she whispered to Crede. "We should get him inside where his friends won't see him. Hello?" She touched one hand to his cheek, gently. Her fingers were so soft.
Her touch brought Crede out of his shock. He had asked himself if he would ever again dare trying to get her to say "hmpf" and then his brain had stopped, fixated on the implications of that question.
Crede moved his mouth but no sound came out. He nodded his agreement.
Jasmine smiled benevolently at him. She whispered, "None of his bones are broken. And don't jar him sharply or his system might revive." She did not wait for a reply. The door was unlocked. Jasmine silently opened it and entered.
Crede had barely started moving when he again heard a quick, slurred staccato of the same fleshy thumps. He dragged the guard in the room as quietly as he could. Jasmine came to help. Opal was unconscious on his bed.
Crede noticed the guard he was dragging had bruises on his neck and upper chest. Matching marks were on Opal's body. Somehow that made it less horrific: evidence that Jasmine had some technique, that she was proficient in something medical or physical instead of being an invisible, unknowable power.
In a corner of the captain's cabin were three small coils of thin rope that were much too weak for a nautical purpose but strong enough to bind hands and feet. They used one coil of rope to tie the two unconscious men together.
Crede took a deep breath once they had finished. "So you know how to thump on people to knock them unconscious?"
"It's a difficult ktacha, but one worth learning," answered Jasmine.
"A what?" asked Crede.
"A ktacha: a warrior's trick. You know that the magic that mages use is totally different from the magic of creatures such as dragons and unicorns, right?"
"Um, yes," replied Crede, unsure where this conversation was going.
"Just as different from either of those two things is a third thing that some cultures call magic which involves living things in motion. Most people do not say 'spells' for its effects, but 'warrior tricks'. The formal name is ktacha. Watch, I'll demonstrate the easiest one." She stood straighter with her feet slightly further apart than her shoulder width. "Push me backwards until I have to step back," she instructed.
Crede pushed her upper chest slowly. Predictably, she soon had to step back.
"Now do it with one quick push," she said, returning to the original stance.
Crede did so, with the same result.
Jasmine again repositioned herself. "Ready for the ktacha? Do the quick push again."
Crede did, but this time he felt like he had shoved a wall. Jasmine was unmoved.
"That one is all about focus and balance. I could teach you. It takes two or three hours of practice. The sleep ktacha is much more complicated. It's effect is actually deeper than sleep but not by much. It makes Fulmer's rodent-slumber spell look childish. So for practical purposes the only spell I know is mage sight."
Crede processed that for a moment. Then he asked, "Now what? I don't know how to sail. Do you?"
"No," answered Jasmine, "except to have a hunch that a ship this large needs a crew of more than three even if we did know how to sail. As distasteful as it is to me, I think we must treat these two as our hostages and hope that the remaining crew can be forced to take us to the Sandy Isles. Knocking out more sailors would be simple enough, but it might do more harm than good."
Crede looked at her sheepishly. "So you don't hesitate to beat people up and knock them unconscious, but have trouble even threatening to kill someone." He sighed and added, "Very interesting. If you had grown up in my family you would have been an annoying threat to everyone but true ally to no one—an unhealthy combination." He sighed again, more deeply.
Jasmine walked over to him and put both of her arms around his neck. She smiled, causing his smile to return, than whispered, "I'm glad you joined our family. None of us try to kill each other, so you should find it very relaxing."
Crede laughed, and held her close.
Chamomile spoiled the moment of intimacy by pronouncing, "You two make such a nice couple!"
Jasmine and Crede looked at her.
Chamomile shrugged, as if their attention upon her was a request for an explanation. "Few people have love and justice exist together so comfortably inside them. You two not only each do that, but as a couple you do that too."
Jasmine grinned. "You're being all adult and analytical again. I thought you meant we looked cute."
Chamomile grinned back. "Well," she began, imitating Crede's habit, or perhaps even Jasmine's imitation of it, "maybe that is also true. But I'm still the cutest. After all, there should be some advantage to being a little kid."
A little later the three of them were standing just outside the door to Opal's cabin. They had summoned the available crew. The captain's capture had not been announced but was obvious.
"This is tricky," said Jasmine, once the sailors had assembled. "The captain and his guard are tied up. If the captain was as evil towards you as he planned to be towards us then we can all celebrate and then head to the Sandy Isles. If you are as rotten as he, and care for him, consider him our hostage. Either way we will sail where we have paid you to take us."
The first mate stepped forward. "There is a third option," he declared, punctuating his pause by spitting. "Perhaps we are more rotten then he, and still consider ransoming some members of a royal family profitable. I also notice that all three of you are on our side of his cabin door, and even if you do get inside I don't care what happens to Opal."
Chamomile spoke up, surprising the sailors. Her voice belittled him with a matron's tone that built scolding and disappointment upon each other. "Garnet, do not try to bluff. You are the only other here who is Taint's. This is not merely a bluff like your bluffs when you gamble. The stakes are higher and you are not cheating with your weighted dice."
The other sailors, who were also the people Garnet gambled with, drew in startled gasps.
Jasmine leveled a stare at Chamomile. She whispered, "Now you've put him in quite a pickle. How is he going to surrender and retain any shred of honor?"
Chamomile whispered back, "How he reacts to justice is not our problem."
Jasmine frowned. "It may be momentarily."
Crede put a hand upon his sword. "Listen to the seer," he said, "we do not want to hurt you."
But Garnet had already begun to charge Chamomile.
Crede drew his sword, wondering if Garnet chose Chamomile because she had revealed his evil or because she seemed most vulnerable and perhaps usable as a hostage. But Jasmine was already moving, and Crede decided to watch her instead of somehow trying to help.
Jasmine stepped forward in front of Chamomile. She meet Garnet's charge with a second step, simultaneously grabbing one of the man's wrists as she kicked one of his legs out from under him. An instant later Garnet was on the floor, pinned.
Crede smiled to himself. She was not as inhumanly fast as he had thought. She simply was doing two or three things at once as she fought, so she seemed two or three times faster. His heart felt less heavy. Skill he could certainly respect. It was the previous sense of unnatural ability that had seemed uncanny.
Jasmine rolled Garnet over onto his back, keeping him pinned.
Crede pointed his sword towards the back of Garnet's neck. The man lay almost at his feet. Crede slowly extended his arm, giving the sword a direction. Then he released the handle, and let the sword's magic cause it to slowly drift the remainder of the distance. Crede was still was moving his hand slightly forward, but none of the sailors were watching his hand anymore.
When the sword's tip rested against Garnet's neck with gentle pressure, Jasmine released her hold and stood up. The others sailors watched, still as statues.
Crede looked at the assembled sailors and gave them a smile that was beamingly political in its insincerity. In an unhurried banter he offered, "If anyone else wishes to be captured, please attack us now." Jasmine grimaced. Crede pretended not to notice, continuing, "Otherwise I propose that this meeting be adjourned and our voyage to the Sandy Isles commence. Does anyone second the motion?"
Chamomile raised her hand, enthusiasm shining from her eyes. "I do!"
Crede nodded agreeably at her. He glanced at each of the sailors, then said, "All in favor of the motion, raise a hand..."
The sailors all raised their hands, quickly.
Jasmine sighed and let her face fall. Then she looked up at the terrified men, grimacing again. "You're sure?"
The sailors chorused their certainty with a cacophony of nods and calls of "Aye!" or "Yes!"
Jasmine turned and stomped off into the captain's cabin, feigning disappointment.
Chamomile walked over to the magic sword and picked it from the air. Gesturing with it, she barked an order to Garnet. "Stand, and go to one of the rowboats. The men will see you safely off. Be grateful you are only losing your property after how you have taken advantage of them." Then she walked back to Crede and handed him the sword.
"Um," began one of the sailors, "Opal and his guard...They should also go. The three worked together."
Crede nodded. "And we can get to the Sandy Isles without those three?"
"Yes," the sailor replied. "Probably a few hours less efficiently. But there is plenty of crew."
"Very well," agreed Crede. "Send the three away together, with a day's food and three day's water. They should be able to make it to their destination in a day and a half, right?"
The sailor nodded agreement.
"Then," continued Crede, "to the Sandy Isles. Once my family and I know what that port is like we can discuss if the boat is yours or if we will ask the favor of return passage in a few days."
The assembled sailors smiled.
At sunrise two days later the first collection of pea-sized clay dragons did successfully land on the Battlemaster's island. The Dragon had taken the extra step of masking their magical nature from mage sight as much as was possible, with the result that it was an entire half an hour before the Battlemaster discovered what was attacking his populace. Also attacked were his crops, farm animals, and everything else that moved. The situation was almost comic: miniature animated statues, scurrying about with tiny leaps that scattered them throughout the island, motivated by a paranoid tendency to feel threatened by anything that did not seem to be terrain. But the stark truth of their deadly, destructive breath—a cone of flame as large as a real dragon's—meant nothing was actually funny.
The Battlemaster's warriors were dying minute by minute. The tiny dragons were too small to be easily hit by a shiyu dart, even with a Slayers' skill. Something larger thrown at them could crush them but such missiles moved slower and were incinerated before striking. Attacking with a melee weapon was impossible because the miniature dragons' breath reached notably farther than a man could reach, even with a long spear or rake.
The Battlemaster was not even sure the creatures could be hurt by being struck. He assumed they were not permanently enchanted items that would therefore be indestructible. In terms of magical energy making a spell permanent was quite an expensive undertaking. Most likely the creatures' magic was actively sustained by the Dragon's stores of magical energy. But he wasn't certain.
The Battlemaster was failing to save his island or himself with his magic. He had tried disenchanting the creatures, but their magic had been so cleverly woven and layered that the Battlemaster was sure he would not be able to unravel that process in time. He tried shooting fireballs at the creatures but their clay was undamaged by heat. He tried using magic to accelerate blocks of masonry quickly onto the creatures—either pulverizing or merely pinning them. That method worked but was much too slow: he had only covered four when his mage sight let him see two dozen more fall from the sky, this time directly into his castle.
The Battlemaster cast a quick spell five times, solidifying the air in the windows and doorway of his room atop the castle's central tower. Protecting himself from the miniature dragons was easy. But hiding was only a temporary solution, which did nothing to aid his people.
An enormous crackling explosion interrupted the Battlemaster's thoughts. Emanating from everywhere—while being distinctly focused—a thunderous yet fizzy pop and a blinding burst of light enveloped his island. The Battlemaster could see that his five walls of air were gone from the windows and doorway even before the spots began to fade from his normal vision. Also visibly gone were another handful of spells sustained by his magical water wheels. The water wheels, which provided the magical energy that powered his day-to-day spells and research, were of course magical items and thus indestructible. But they had been mounted upon axles of normal wood, which he guessed had just been burnt to ash by the miniature dragons.
The water wheels had been halfway up the only hill on his island, far away from both deliveries of the fire-breathing creatures. It was a significant climb, and steeply rocky where the spring began and the water wheels had been. Random hopping would not have led a miniature dragon there so quickly. Besides their obvious instinct of attacking anything moving, the tiny golems must have been given a second, rodent-like impulse to climb to higher ground.
The Battlemaster looked through the room's doorway, to the stairs.
Later that evening the Dragon arrived at the Battlemaster's island. He called his golems to him. As they arrived he methodically undid their magic, discharging it into a ring enchanted to be a storage device for magical energy. Really, it had been so easy.
A thorough search with mage sight revealed that there was very little magic left on this island. At the bottom of a stream the Dragon found three small yet exceedingly powerful water-wheels that changed kinetic rotation into magical energy. In the Battlemaster's workroom he found a dozen assorted items. Resting upon the pile of ash that had recently been the rival warrior-mage he found two necklace pendants which were magical energy storage devices. Both were nearly empty: only containing enough magical energy to fuel a detection spell, or extend the duration of an existing spell for a few minutes. Neither had been used recently.
On a whim the Dragon left one miniature dragon active to guard the island.
The Dragon then thought about survivors. He decided they were quite possible, but not important. His rival was dead and during his tour of this island the Dragon had not seen anyone. So perhaps none of the Battlemaster's people had been intelligent enough to hide from the miniature dragons. Simply staying inside behind a closed door would have kept anyone alive! But then, again, a lesson about when to wisely retreat had never been part of the Battlemaster's philosophy.
In any case, sustaining the magic on the final miniature dragon was not a significant investment and seemed worthwhile.
When the Dragon returned to his island he used his scrying globe to request a conversation with the Eldrich.
"Yes?" responded the Eldrich, an image of his face appearing in the Dragon's scrying globe. The Eldrich had seemed increasingly nervous during the past year. Perhaps the defeat of the Battlemaster would suffice to cause him to leave the Sandy Isles.
"You saw?" asked the Dragon coolly.
"I was watching what I could," replied the Eldrich calmly. "Your toys were remarkably insightful and wonderfully effective. I noted that you must have known in advance that the Battlemaster's tower had a grand but doorless entry arch, which caused me to evaluate certain things upon my islands." The compliments were stated in a monotone, a tiresome old mannerism which meant that the Eldrich was trying to hide any emotion showing in his voice.
The Dragon was politely careful not to grimace since his rival could see his face. But the monotone was irritating. Playfully, the Dragon asked, "Want some toys for yourself?"
The Eldrich paused, his throat bobbing as if perhaps he was suppressing a grunt. When he spoke his voice again had normally varying pitch. "I spent the day in analysis and fortification; your offer of a donation of magical items is acceptable. They will be interesting to deconstruct, and their magical energy is of course useful."
The Dragon smiled. He delayed for a purposefully uncomfortable silence, then stated, "I was speaking of different toys than those that attacked the Battlemaster. I have many projects going these days. I'll bring an entertaining toy to our Contest in four days: a hovering needle which points to the nearest mage who made a prophecy come true. Me, of course."
The Eldrich frowned. "Did you contact me only to gloat and share impolite humor?"
The Dragon put a finger to his forehead and wrinkled his brow in melodramatic thought. Then he nodded, and pointed at the image of the Eldrich while answering, "Yes, now that I think about it." He said the words in his rival's monotone's pitch and kept his mouth serious. But happiness showed in his eyes.
The Eldrich ended the communication magic.
There were two survivors on the Battlemaster's island: a married couple named Adze and Glaive. Adze was a forty-year-old man who had come to the island fifteen years ago, weary of a mercenary's living, full of single-minded zeal, and hoping for some new enthusiasm of vocation. His hope was realized, albeit in an unexpected manner, after his right leg was lamed during his first practice combat on the island. Such injuries were very rare, and socially awkward. Adze retired from the Slayers and apprenticed himself to the island's blacksmith. Two years later he married Glaive, one of the women who served as maids within the Battlemaster's castle. Children had not come. Life limped along.
They had both been at their house when the miniature dragons attacked. Adze had wanted to leave to join the warriors trying to fight the creatures.
"You're staying here!" his wife had cried, not tearfully but near hysteria. "You spend all your free time with those men practicing fighting! When I'm tired, you're with them. When I'm lonely, you're with them! Now I'm scared and in danger and you are going to stay with me and protect me! What else have you been practicing for? You can't run anyway, to properly be of help outside. Stay inside with me!"
Adze had begun to protest, but Glaive had shrieked so startlingly that he—for once—submitted. He had shut the window's shutters, stuffed blankets under the door, and then sat beside her on the bed of their home's single, Spartan room. He held her, and they heard the shouting and screaming, and they both wept.
Now they remained confined in their house. Adze had opened one window a crack, and periodically used one of his shiyu to shoot stones outside. Usually nothing happened. But now and then one of the stones would be incinerated in a blast of fire. Fortunately the stones were moving quickly enough that the fire happened far from their home.
Glaive insisted they stay in their room, out of sight, until at least three days went by without any stones being incinerated. Then, perhaps, the little dragons would be gone. The town's buildings were mostly adobe and apparently fire was not spreading. There was food for at least two weeks, and their roof's drainage gutters kept their cistern of water full of rainwater. They would not move the window's shutter again, and would be careful to avoid the corner of the room that it revealed to the outside world
With not much else to do the couple talked. They shared ideas about where to go and what to do once they escaped from the island. Adze told his wife stories of his travels as a young mercenary: diverse kingdoms whose royalty he had guarded or whose wars he had helped fight. He was surprised by how thirstily she listened. She shared the folk tales she had been raised with, which were new to him. He found them oddly interesting: seldom heroic, intriguing in characters and morality instead of in plot.
He taught her the Game of Five Fighters and they played it again and again, until its subtle ironies accumulated and laughter replaced competition. She taught him the puzzle of the Game of Two Hoards, and together they discovered its optimal strategy.
Perhaps they were getting more rest than usual. Each, to the other, seemed unusually alert and vibrant.
At least for that first day. At breakfast the next morning Glaive again found Adze's manner bossy and uncaring. He noticed her irritation, but misunderstood it and an argument ensued. The couple spent the morning doing distinct chores: he polishing armor and sharpening tools, she continuing her knitting. Lunch also went badly. They did not even try to eat dinner together.
Before bed Glaive offered to recite more folk tales. Adze agreed, and slowly both their anger dimmed to bitterness.
The next morning their island again received uninvited visitors.
In my mind the Game of Five Fighters is a version of my board game Wizards of the Vicious Circle, and the Game of Two Hoards is Nim.
Crede and Jasmine stood upon the ship's deck, leaning out over the railing. Two of the ship's sailors stood with them, watching the approaching island. Chamomile had seemed unimpressed with approaching a populated Sandy Isle and remained in the kitchen where here little hands were surprisingly helpful.
Jasmine finished her meditation, having used it to create enough magical energy to cast mage sight. She whispered the words to the spell and then again turned her eyes to the island. "There is something magical on the beach," said Jasmine. "Something very small. Its type of magic is oddly blurred and unclear."
Crede leaned farther but could not see what she referred to. "Is it offensive or defensive?" he asked.
Jasmine shrugged. "Mage sight doesn't give such information."
Crede relaxed his posture and suggested, "Well, perhaps deduction will. It is either something misplaced, or it is put there to greet us or defend against us."
Jasmine gasped, "It moved! And it's not linked to anything that might be controlling it."
Crede's flexed his lower lip as he thought. "Irrelevant," he said, "at least for my three categories. Let's send my sword near it and see what happens. Can't hurt to try."
Jasmine nodded agreement.
Crede drew his sword, made a few warm-up swings, and then released it towards the slowly approaching beach.
"A little to the right," guided Jasmine.
Everyone noticed when the sword got close enough to the tiny magic thing. Clearly "close enough" was defined in relation to the large cone of fire that suddenly appeared, attacking the sword.
"Defensive," murmured Crede, startled but ignoring the fire. The sword, as a permanently enchanted magic item, was of course undamaged. Without looking at the others he asked, "Should I see if the sword can damage it? There is always a chance."
"Sure," agreed Jasmine.
The small magic item made no effort to avoid the sword, instead spouting additional bursts of fire which did nothing but give away its location. Crede managed to chop it with the sword on his third attempt.
Jasmine cheered. "The magic is gone. It must have been not permanent but sustained."
"Can you see any others?" asked Crede as he began guiding the sword back to them.
Jasmine nodded no, then remembered that Crede was still only looking at the sword. "No, nor anything else magical. That was a clever trick, making a guard object extra effective by choosing a thing so small it would be overlooked except with mage sight."
Crede thought for a moment, then asked, "You said it was sustained, but now its magic is gone—not being used. Mages notice when sustained spells stop, don't they? So someone knows we are here?"
"Probably," answered Jasmine. "Although an item that generated magical energy could have been sustaining it without a mage participating once such a system was set up. But since this was a guard item it is more likely an item storing magical energy would be actively used by a mage. Much more sensible."
There was a short pause. Then Jasmine exhaled sharply and shuddered. She turned to Crede and explained, "Mage sight gone. My magical energy was depleted."
"Hello!" called Chamomile as she jogged up to meet them. "Brunch is ready. Anything interesting?"
Crede continued bringing back the sword. Jasmine turned to Chamomile and replied, "A mage knows we're here."
Chamomile wrinkled her brow, then asked, "Should I set another place at the table?"
Jasmine let her face show concern. "We don't think it is a very sociable mage. We just got rid of a deadly magical trap on the beach."
Chamomile shrugged. "So now what?"
Crede brainstormed aloud, "Well, either the mage is going to look for us or not. If so, we cannot run and would probably be safer on an island than on our boat. If not, we should explore the island and find normal people to talk to. So either way we should go ashore."
"Before brunch?" asked Chamomile.
Jasmine nodded. "As soon as we can."
Chamomile smiled at her. "Yes, mom."
Only one of the sailors had agreed to leave the boat, and that one only to take them ashore in the ship's other rowboat.
The three of them walked alone among the buildings of what had recently been the Battlemaster's walled town. The adobe buildings were built sharing walls, sometimes almost leaning against each other. The result was a strikingly maze-like network of streets. The only stone building was a tower in the center of the town, not far but currently behind an unknown number of buildings.
"Hello?" called Chamomile.
Crede wrinkled his forehead nervously. "Where did everyone go?" Crede he whispered to himself, yet aloud.
Chamomile also spoke her thoughts. "I wonder which baron owns this island?" Their ship's sailors had shared what they knew of the kingdom's three barons, including that all three were mages. But that information was slim, and did not include which mage ruled which island.
Jasmine peered into the windows of a few of the buildings. She reported, "The inside of craft shops and homes look as if they were suddenly abandoned."
They walked around a corner, and within the first doorway on the right of the new street saw a charred door. Half was burned away, leaving a tall, singed wooden flap hanging on the hinges and the melted remains of a metal doorknob upon the ground.
Crede stopped. "We saw a door like that earlier."
Chamomile looked at it. "Was there a fire?"
Jasmine nervously took a step closer. "Nothing else seems to be burned, inside the room or outside."
Crede pointed at the door as he continued, "The little magical guard item we destroyed shot a cone of fire. What if one of those went crazy and attacked the town? It could do damage like that. Look at the slight curve of the burned edge of the door's wood." He walked to the wall beside the doorway and touched it. "There is also a faint darkening on the wall, completing a vaguely circular shape." He stopped talking, looked around, then continued, "And see that wall down the street? It has a circular burned mark, but a bit smaller. The guard item's fire cone must have happened closer to that wall, so the fire was smaller and hotter when it hit."
Jasmine looked unconvinced. "But why would a guard creature go crazy? And if it did how could it do so much damage? The mage who was sustaining it could at any time simply stop the spell. There would be no need to evacuate the town."
Crede took a step into the home with the burned door. "Uhg," he grunted, his tone short with sudden disgust. Mystery solved."
Jasmine and Chamomile hurried to stand beside him. They looked into the home's main room, but saw nothing to explain Crede's statement or his tone.
"What?" asked Jasmine after a moment.
Crede breathed out through his nose, making a sound both a sigh and a snort. "The clues are all here. Want a hint?"
Jasmine slowly scanned the room's contents again. Nothing inside had been damaged. It was clearly a dwelling place for one man, who had left his breakfast in a hurry. What had he done after he left? The weapon rack on the wall was empty. He had taken a weapon with him.
She also made a deflated sound. "Oh."
"What?" asked Chamomile.
Jasmine pointed to the weapon rack. "That's an odd weapon rack. It hold two poles horizontally, but is too small for spears. It would never work for swords. It must have held shiyun. So this is the Battlemaster's island. But he would not be the mage to investigate fire-spewing magic. That would be the Dragon, trying to imitate his favorite animal. So the magical item we destroyed was not a guard, but part of an invading force. The town was not evacuated, but incinerated. Quite recently, judging by the food and lack of dust on the table."
Crede said, "The sailors said that the Dragon was the only married baron. If that is true, is your mother the Dragon's wife? Or are the current three barons all different people from the one she married? Either way, how is she now in more danger? We have solved one small mystery, but now face others."
Chamomile replied, "There are always more and larger mysteries."
Jasmine nodded silent agreement.
Their conversation paused, except for Jasmine reaching to hold one of Crede's hands.
Eventually Crede took a deep breath and announced, "We should continue exploring. Jasmine, will you do the meditate-and-mage-sight thing again? I feel vulnerable not knowing if there are more fire-breathing traps around."
"Someone moved in that house!" interrupted Chamomile, who was looking down the street. She ran towards the mostly-shuttered window she had pointed at.
"Wait!" called Crede, but the girl either did not hear or she ignored him.
"Let's just follow her," said Jasmine. "By the time I generate enough magic to cast the spell she'll be there."
Approaching the house they heard voices arguing.
"Yes, I did enjoy the Game of Five Fighters but only because I was playing with a gentleman," scolded a bitter, female voice.
"Gentleman?" queried an equally bitter male voice, "considering how well polished all your pots and pans are, it appears I have some selfless deeds."
"My pots?" countered the female voice with equal sarcasm. "Perhaps I should be cooking to feed only myself, then? It's about time you start caring for the things in our home!"
Crede looked at Jasmine. "Perhaps this is not a good time to knock," he offered.
The voices in the house stopped. Then the man's voice asked, "Did you hear something?"
"No," retorted the woman's voice. "I just decided to stop talking because...Oh, forget it. You're not even worth insulting intelligently."
A woman appeared at the window. Seeing the three visitors she gasped, "Oh! People!" Her words matched her to the argument's female voice.
"Hello!" chimed Chamomile. "We're tourists." She pointed to Crede and continued in the same breath, "No more fire-breathers. He destroyed the last one."
Crede smiled but Jasmine could tell he was as surprised as she was at Chamomile's revelation. The seer sometimes simply knew certain necessary things. Apparently that ability had just happened.
The woman at the window turned her head to look into the house. In a happily excited voice she called, "Here that? We're safe!" After a pause she faced the visitors again and awkwardly mumbled, "One moment, please." Then she closed the shutters and went into the house.
After a moment the door opened and she came outside, as did a man who stood beside her. "I'm Glaive, and this is my husband Adze," she offered, looking happy again. "Have you found any other survivors? I kept him inside when the attack happened. But most of the men didn't have wives to be so sensible. The fire-breathers attacked only what they saw move, so inside we've been safe."
Crede made a polite bow of greeting, and Jasmine and Chamomile curtsied. Crede glanced at Jasmine, who accepted the role of speaking for their family. "I'm Jasmine, and this is Crede, and Chamomile." More slowly she added, "We haven't seen anyone else on the island. I'm sorry. But we have only begun exploring the town."
Adze stooped a bit at the news, and his face fell. His wife stomped one foot and exclaimed, "Curse the Dragon!" and then apparently was over the sad news.
The two couples looked at each other in awkward silence. After a minute Chamomile spoke. "Um, since we're tourists can you give us a tour?"
Adze glumly nodded. He went into the house and returned wearing his shiyun, which made his wife scowl. He muttered, "Follow me."
Their cooperative exploration of the town showed there were no other survivors of the attack. The tour was a macabre one, for once the nature of the attack was known evidence of the massacre was plentiful. The cones of fire had been hot enough to melt most rings and metal jewelry, but some remained here and there beneath a charred spot on a wall. Metal shiyun were a more common memorial-marker, on the ground in pairs. Although all the shiyun looked identical to the visitors and Glaive, apparently Adze could tell them apart. When they approached a new set he would kneel, inspect them, and with bowed head give a brief account of the life and virtues of the warrior who had died in a futile attempt at saving his mage and island.
When they searched the Battlemaster's tower Adze became especially terse and grim.
Once the "tour" was complete they mutely walked back to Adze and Glaive's house. Jasmine broke the silence by hesitantly asking, "Is the Dragon always so cruel?"
Adze shook his head in denial. "Each time I've seen him, at the Contests, he has been a gentleman. Stiffly and formally so, to a point of being irritating. Understand, good lady, that what you have seen is not the result of malice or cruelty. There was a war between our islands. He won. Had we been able to invade his island we would have been just as merciless. That's just how wars are."
Chamomile frowned. "Need they be?" she asked softly. But no one answered.
Standing awkwardly in front of their house Crede offered, "Would you two like to leave the island? We have a ship, which will depart soon."
Both Adze and Glaive nodded their thankful acceptance, and turned to enter their house. But before they left Adze made one last trip through the empty town.
Not much later they were all on the ship, eating a brunch that had become cold.
The Eldrich controlled two islands. One held his town, the smallest of the Baronial towns. The other was a green and lush paradise of forest and garden where his skunks lived.
His town, like that of the Battlemaster, was made of adobe and surrounded by a thick wall. Unlike the Battlemaster's town, which was a short walk inland from the nearest shore, the Eldrich's town extended to an edge of its island: a cliff the height of two dozen men, with deep water below. A series of ramps extended down the cliff to the dock, allowing ships to unload onto wagons.
Crede, Jasmine, and Chamomile watched the dock as their ship approached later in that same day. Waiting for them was a solitary, tall figure.
The ship glided to a soft stop against the dock. A sailor jumped onto the dock and proceeded to tie up the ship. Then Crede, Jasmine, and Chamomile disembarked and approached the tall man who was waiting. He smiled cheerfully in greeting.
Jasmine curtsied. She had changed into a long skirt and clean blouse and spent some time on her hair. She was unsure if making a good impression was important, but felt obliged to try. "Excuse us," she began, "we are travelers looking for lodging for the night. Earlier today we stopped at a different island which proved deserted. Now we try this island. How may we be welcome?"
The tall man changed his smile: it did not exactly broaden, but flickered in a way that reassuringly reinforced the message of his good intentions. "Be welcome as my guests. My rules are few. I am the Eldrich, ruler of this island." He dipped his head, like a small non-deferential bow.
Jasmine inclined her head toward her companions. "Crede and Chamomile." She continued, "I am Jasmine. May I ask your rules?"
The Eldrich gestured at the walled town above them. "Assuming you are polite and peaceful there is only one. If you can create the spell mage sight I must request you not do so. Unfortunately, trade to this island is quite limited, and thus I lack many common things of beauty and luxury. In my halls the golden candle sconces are actually clay gilded with illusion, and the marble floors are similarly dishonest. Be assured that none of the illusions are harmful, and all you eat will be genuine. But I enjoy what luxury I can maintain, and ask you do likewise instead of embarrassing us all. Agreed?"
All agreed, but Crede then politely protested, "In turn, how can we know your hospitality is genuine? Please pardon my rudeness, but the last island we visited was clearly a ruined battlefield and some people believe society's rules change in times of war."
The Eldrich grunted. He pursed his lips and touched one thumb to his chin, then relaxed and declared, "A baronial census-survey is announced: all present who have killed someone please raise a hand."
Chamomile's hand shot up. "Ooh, me!" she piped. Crede also raised his hand, more timidly.
The Eldrich's eyebrows raised. "You start them rather young where you're from," he commented. "I had actually guessed the lady would be the one with the raised hand; she moves with a trained warrior's stiffly supple grace. But in any case you see my hand is not raised, and yours are, and you are the ones carrying weapons. Have you learned what you wished to know?"
Jasmine's face was flushed. "And more," she murmured in whispered agreement.
The Eldrich nodded. "Very well, let us proceed. Will your crew be joining us or should I have a dinner sent down to the ship?"
Crede glanced behind him at the ship, where one of the sailors was holding up two fingers. "The second," he affirmed, wondering if the sailor was now wishing to avoid the island, the Eldrich, or he and Chamomile. "There are a dozen men."
The Eldrich turned toward his town and held out both arms as if about to try embracing it. Then he began walking. Upward they went. The cliff and sea were beautiful and they climbed in silent appreciation.
Atop the ramps was a gate with two guards who were dressed in uniform but not armor and held spears. They saluted to the Eldrich as the procession passed through.
The Eldrich's keep was only a short distance inside the town's wall. Most of the merchant traffic that came to his island—instead of the neutral island on which the Contests were held—was for him personally.
His keep was also of stone, as the Battlemaster's tower had been. But with that the similarities ended. The Battlemaster's tower had been circular and gray, of a thickly solid look, lacking lower windows and topped with a wide roof crenellated with merlins. It would have seemed sensible if relocated to be a kingdom's guard tower at the edge of a wilderness or along a contested border: a fact now odd in retrospect since the island had been threatened by magic instead of armed conflict. In contrast, the Eldrich's keep was rectangular and beautiful. Its stones were of various pebble hues, its ceiling was elegantly set wooden beams with carved ends, and its walls were so lavishly interrupted by stained glass windows that even from outside some of their lit beauty could be seen. There was indeed something fortress-like about it, and approaching it the guests never doubted that it was fortification and not temple. But the architectural source of such certainty would have been difficult to determine.
The Eldrich did not enter the keep. He stopped before its grandly carved arched wooden doors, centering himself upon a thin, red rug with golden trim that extended circularly from the door a dozen paces out into the cobblestone street. Two more guards, dressed and armed as the others, stood beside the doors and saluted. The Eldrich smiled at them and requested, "A picnic repast for all of us, please, and begin preparations for dinner for sixteen." Both guards nodded briskly and formally, then went into the keep.
The Eldrich waited, so his guests did also. After a moment one of the guards returned, carrying six thick, dense pillows. The Eldrich handed one to each of his three guests, tossed two more to the carpet on either side of himself, then took the last for his own use. He sat, slightly behind the two pillows already on he ground, and his guests also sat, forming a small circle. The guard nodded approvingly and returned into the keep.
A moment later the second guard emerged, carrying a tray with five large mugs of some hot drink that slightly resembled both tea and cider but was clearly made with neither. The guard knelt within the circle, extending the tray first to the guests and then to the Eldrich. Then the guard took the final mug for himself and sat upon a vacant pillow, setting the tray behind it.
"Time for introductions," announced the Eldrich. "I am the Eldrich, mage and baron of this isle and the next. I have lived here thirty years, with a peculiar mission. Notably, I pursue my own studies while preventing the Dragon from having the privacy he needs to secretly despoil the entire continent."
He focused his gaze on the guard beside him, who spoke next. "My name is Chec. I grew up in Arboria as a youngest son, with aspirations to become a merchant. On my first sea voyage the ship stopped at this port and I decided to change careers. Now I serve the Eldrich as a cook, as does Urxal, the other fellow. The Eldrich likes formality so we wear uniforms and when idle stand as guards. But we don't mind that bit since guards can chat when the master is away, and it provides a break from being in the kitchen."
The introductions continued around the circle.
"My name is Crede Rhyn. My family is traveling because fortune has favored us and the daughter is finally old enough. We had heard these islands were safe, welcomed visitors, and were quite different than the continent."
"I am Jasmine. Your insight about my warrior training was correct, sir. Before I was married I was employed as a secret bodyguard."
"My name is Chamomile. Thank you for the drink. The sailors on our boat said you did magic with skunks. Why skunks?"
The Eldrich laughed. "Why skunks? Chec, let us recite the questions. Is all fear the same?"
"No," the guard replied.
"Describe fright," prompted the Eldrich. Crede looked at Jasmine and twisted his mouth in question at the strange catechism.
Chec replied, "Fright is the fear of physical harm. When a lone traveler in the woods sees a wolf he feels fright."
"Describe horror," continued the Eldrich.
"Horror is the fear of harm to sanity. When someone witnesses a murder he feels horror."
"What is the main difference between fright and horror?"
"Fright is noble. Someone who is attacked by a wolf and survives feels grateful and successful, and rightly so. Horror is shameful. Someone who is attacked by a skunk and survives feels shame and failure."
"Why do skunks inspire horror?"
"They are disturbing because they are evidence that the world is not sensible. Something small and cute and not threatening physical harm should not be dangerous. Animals should fight with tooth and claw, not spraying smell from their behinds."
"What is the second difference between fright and horror?"
"Horror decreases with exposure. Soldiers become used to killing and to seeing dead bodies. Farmers become used to seeing skunks. Fear, on the other hand, does not decrease. Someone who hunts wolves professionally is less afraid when seeing a wolf only because of his skill and equipment. Pain's threat only weakens for people insane with despair."
"Well done," declared the Eldrich. Chec smiled.
Looking then at his guests, the Eldrich continued, "I do magic with skunks. I make them cuter, so it is all the more abhorrent when they do harm. I make them aggressive, so the person attacked feels added shock and horror as the skunk unexpectedly charges and bites them a few times before it flees. I make them springy: able to leap long distances to avoid being caught. I make them dangerous, so if one is ever cornered and truly afraid its attacker would be yet again given extra horror as the cute animal spits wads of acid that burn clothes and flesh. The last, I admit, was not in my original plan. The Dragon and I, and until recently the Battlemaster, held gladiatorial Contests with our champions. The Dragon uses a large animated stone creature resembling a dragon, and I had to do something to allow my skunks to harm those. As for the Battlemaster's Slayers, the skunks simply felt annoyed by those warriors. I made the skunk's normal spray even more eye-irritant, and the temporarily blinded warrior would then be safely charged and bitten. Except that once blinded the Slayer tended to be quick prey for the stone dragon. Now that my skunks are finally fire resistant the next Contest should be quite interesting. And lengthy. My skunk will have to be agile enough to avoid its stone foe until its small blobs of acid do enough accumulated damage to finally grant it victory. But victory is only important because of hubris. Success will not be when one of my skunks can raze a castle. Success will be when, on the continent, a girl who sees one of my skunks for the first time (but has heard about them) will be torn between wanting to adopt it as a pet and wanting to run away screaming. Having the skunks be physically dangerous is actually a drawback."
As the Eldrich talked Crede and Jasmine had unconsciously assumed the slightly dazed look of someone who is hearing an interesting lecture but whose mind is occupied with thoughts about the speaker. After his narration ended they were brought back to attention by Chamomile's voice, as the girl asked, "Why?"
The Eldrich frowned. "Why what?"
Chamomile shrugged. "Why any of it? What is the point of making such a horror?"
The Eldrich inhaled deeply, filling his chest. "Haven't you ever wanted to be a hero?" The question was clearly rhetorical, for without waiting for an answer he continued, "I did all my childhood. But there was no way to be heroic. I read about legendary warriors who slew dragons or rescued villages from trolls. But dragons are few and far between, and trolls are so rare that I am still uncertain if they exist at all. It became quite clear to me that what the world needed was a new monster. But what would the ideal monster be like? Not physically dangerous, for if my creations killed people I would feel terrible. But frightening nonetheless. That was the beginning of my thinking about fear and about how terror is different from horror." He paused to take another deep breath, then concluded in a voice quite soft but still nearly shouting with pride, "Some day my skunks will be perfected, I suppose after removing the acid spit. Then I will release thousands of them onto the continent."
Jasmine's eyes were large. "That's terrible!" she protested.
The Eldrich grinned. "Not at all, dear lady. It is horrible, but not terrible; horror, not terror. My skunks will kill no one. And hundreds of people will have a real chance to be heroic, with real gain and no risks aside from acute embarrassment and small bite-wounds. Just think of how much this will reduce human suffering!"
"Huh?" asked Jasmine.
"It will!," continued the Eldrich. "People naturally want to feel exceptional. There are only two ways to do this. A person can either rise above the level others are at, or push others down to a lower level. Unfortunately there are far more opportunities to push others down. This is why society forms classes of varying wealth. This is why rulers try to conquer each other."
Jasmine thought briefly, then offered, "So you are saying that if a feudal lord was able to win the praises of his people by saving them from horrible skunks that he would no longer feel the desire to make war?"
The Eldrich smiled. "Precisely." After the briefest pause he added, "Certain people may be exceptions, especially until the initial generation with its old habits is gone. Your hypothetical feudal lord may believe without thinking that making war is necessary and never stop to doubt that."
Crede's face had reddened slightly when the Eldrich had spoken of the desire to feel heroic. But he now interrupted, having composed himself. "Your theory is nonsense!" he blustered, more harshly than he intended. "People are greedy because of Taint, not because of some internal emotional reservoir of pride that begs for filling. There is no filling. The feudal lord will not think, 'Ah, having dealt with the skunks I can now rest a hero.' Instead he will decide, 'Ah, the skunks are gone and my human foes should be even easier!' People gaining pride get an increased appetite for more. What I mean is, wanting to be a hero is noble because deciding to do good is better than deciding to do evil. But you cannot pretend pride is a virtue when it is really a vice and behaves as insatiably as any vice."
The Eldrich chuckled, replying, "Ah, the voice of youth. I assure you that once my plan is complete I will indeed rest contentedly knowing I have done the world a service. My skunks will live and breed and establish themselves after I am gone. People do enjoy resting as heroes, young man. If you have not encountered them then you have been socializing only with people as young as yourself."
Jasmine grunted a deep sigh, then said, "Perhaps I am also misled by my youth, but I would assume you are fooling yourself, sir, and a few months after your plan is complete you will grow restless and decide to begin a bigger and supposedly better plan."
The Eldrich's face was less jovial but his voice remained cheerful. "You both share the same philosophical error," he explained. "Just as terror and horror are quite different even if people use the word fear for both, so pride and...vantage-place, shall we call it, are distinct. I admit that people who desire ultimate superiority have insatiable pride. But most people are not that greedy. They do not desire to be more exceptional than everyone else. They simply want to be more exceptional than average. They do not feel the despot's drive to be able to do anything. They have only a mundane need to feel capable because once in the past they have really done something significant. Am I making the distinction clear enough?"
The Eldrich glanced at his guests, then took a couple more sips of his drink as they thought.
Chec spoke next. "I side with the Eldrich. I'm a cook. I enjoy it. It's servant-work of sorts, but I do interesting things and can use a bit of creativity each day. The food I make gives people pleasure. My work supports my family. I am happy because I have my niche. I suppose I'm saying niche for what the Eldrich called a vantage-place. I know there are many folks who don't like their work or where they live, and I can think to myself, 'Hey, I'm doing better than that.' So I'm happy. I don't need more."
The Eldrich smacked one palm into the other. "Exactly. Thank you, Chec. My skunks will provide a new niche. Not for everyone, I admit. There will still be bad kings and evil feudal lords. But maybe there will be fewer of those. Failing that, there may be fewer older brothers who torment younger siblings, or fewer husbands who yell at their wives. There will be some good. I know in my heart that the potential niche is real."
Crede looked unconvinced. He hesitantly protested, "The plan still seems wrong somehow. Aren't there enough real opportunities for heroism already? Not all heroes kill monsters."
The Eldrich shrugged. "Probably. But people are lazy. Imagine a farmer who thinks, 'Well, I may not be better than my neighbor but at least I have a wife to boss around.' That wife suffers, and that man is not going to go in search of adventure, or go right political wrongs. He needs my skunks, who will come to him. Then he can think, 'Well, I still do not like being a farmer but at least I once saved the town from the skunks. I am something after all.'"
Jasmine frowned. "But it still seems unreasonable to believe he'll then think, 'So I don't need to boss around my wife as much.'"
Chamomile spoke up. "And what if the skunks are too much for him? Then he will be upset and ashamed, which will make even more trouble for his wife. In any case, contentment comes from awareness of current purpose, not a remembrance of past accomplishment. Niches only matter in the present."
Crede noticed the change in the Eldrich's face during these last two comments, and he hurriedly added, "Let's change the topic. This one is going nowhere, perhaps because we're too young to understand. You had mentioned that the Dragon had some evil scheme. Will you please explain?"
Jasmine nodded, eagerness again visible in her cheeks.
The Eldrich looked at them in silence for several heartbeats. Then he relaxed slightly, and in a quieter voice said, "Please excuse me. I realize you meant no malice and were trying to have an innocent philosophical discussion. But I feel very much personally attacked. The error is mine, due to immaturity and hubris, yet I cannot really apologize for having emotions as well as logic. Please allow me a brief respite, for I am no longer in the mood for conversation. After I return I will tell you what propriety allows about my neighbor."
With that he rose and strode heavily away. Chec waved farewell as his lord vanished around a corner. The guard seemed to not be offended that his gesture went unnoticed.
"Poor him," muttered Chec afterwards. "But Urxal should be bringing the meal soon and he will then join us. Can I answer any other questions about our island?"
As it would have been rude to speak about the Eldrich in his absence they conversed about the island's population and economy and climate...for about six minutes, until the power of the drink took affect and the visitors simultaneously fell asleep. The Eldrich returned from where he had waited around the corner.
"They are all still asleep?"
"Very much so. The rings are ready. Shall I put one on each?"
"Also, the man's sword is not what it seems."
"Oh my. Tourists, they said. Hah."
"And the girl. Mage sight shows she is not...normal."
"There is no glamour about her. She is only a girl."
"If you are right, does it affect our plans?"
"I cannot say. There is no evidence to make me assume so."
"Then our plans remain."
"What are you grinning about?"
"The sword, the girl: is nothing as it seems?"
Crede awoke first. He was back on the ship, which he could feel was sailing. A sailor watched him. The sailor's face had lines of concern which smoothed back from the eyes after Crede awoke.
The sailor nodded awkwardly. "Good afternoon, sir. You are back on the ship. The Eldrich brought you here and left a letter."
Crede sat up, causing his hammock to swing. "Why do evil mages always knock me unconscious?"
"Excuse me, sir?"
Crede chuckled wryly. "Never mind. At least this time there isn't a massive headache. I'll take the letter. Where are we sailing to?"
The sailor walked across the room to retrieve the letter, saying as he went, "The Dragon's island, at the Eldrich's request. It seemed wise to obey."
Crede saw Jasmine and Chamomile in other hammocks. They were in the crew quarters. He hastened to encourage the sailor, "Yes, the right choice. We were going to sail there next anyway. I wonder what happened."
The sailor shrugged, but his eyes were on the letter as he handed it to Crede. The envelope was sealed with a stamp of wax.
Crede opened it and read silently.
Good afternoon, from the Eldrich to tourists who are more than they seem.
Your introductions were dishonest, especially concerning the sword and the girl. Feeling threatened, I decided to send you from my island peacefully before you did some harm.
I have also given you each a present. Notice your new ring on your left hand. These rings—please pardon the pun—are quite sinister. I apologize, and will explain.
You wished to know about the Dragon's plot. Briefly, it is as follows. He has a crown with which he can control dragons. All dragons, everywhere. Did you ever wonder why dragons hoard treasure? He has commanded them to do so. Some day he will change the command and they will each bring him their vast wealth. With the combined treasure's wealth, and even more so with its magical items, he plans on taking over the continent. He was ready thirty years ago, so I moved to the Sandy Isles to force him to delay.
Now about the sinister rings: I need gold. There is an association of beings who use the name Those Who Know. The Dragon will explain. They are demanding gold from both of us. Gold gives them power. Although the Dragon has a means to get gold I do not—except to force him to share his gold. After all, he can use dragons to summon more than anyone could ever use. Please tell the Dragon that he must have this ship return to my island loaded with gold. Otherwise I will activate the rings, which will cause massive destruction. I am sorry. I have no choice.
Once I have the gold I can appease Those Who Know. The rings will glow to show their usefulness is over. Only then will you be able to remove them.
It is unfortunate that I must manipulate you in this way. But I am being manipulated, and need the gold. And you three, claiming to be tourists but with your secrets, must have already had something sinister at hand.
In summary, your sailors should sail to the Dragon's isle. Then show him this letter, and remain on his island until I receive the cargo of gold. Or else...
The sailor had begun to fidget as Crede read. As soon as Crede has done he asked, "What does it say, sir?"
Crede passed him the letter. The sailor shyly returned it.
"Sorry," said Crede, who then read it aloud.
After finishing, Crede pulled at the ring. It would only move as much as the skin on his finger moved, as if glued in place.
The Dragon's island, like the Battlemaster's and most of the local uninhabited ones, was encircled by the deep, flat beaches that had given the Sandy Isles their name. It was again necessary to use the rowboat to come ashore.
The Dragon's town, unlike the others, was not walled. Its architecture was also completely different, for the Dragon's island was forest except for its beach and its one oddly spiky inland mountain. The buildings were of wood instead of adobe, and the town was a sprinkled scattering of buildings where one edge of the forest had been cleared and replanted with grass and flowers. Instead of a mere tower the Dragon had a small castle, which was slightly inland from the town and thus on higher ground.
The town sounded different also. The Battlemaster's town had of course been silent. The Eldrich's town had held scarcely more noise: except for the Eldrich and the four guards, the visitors had seen only a half dozen people walking the streets. Those pedestrians had not engaged in conversation, and no building had been noisily active. In contrast, the Dragon's town sounded like any town on the continent. There were many people, usuually talking or determinedly going somewhere. The air was also full of the creaking and plodding of carts and horses, the various coos and calls of farm animals, and the voices of residential cats and dogs. Although many buildings were silent, from others came the noises of smithing or carpentry or commerce or children.
Several townsfolk saw the rowboat approaching and walked to meet it; some children ran ahead of the adults. Chamomile waved to those on shore, and Jasmine and Crede decided to follow her lead. Once again Adze and Glaive had decided to remain on the ship; Glaive's conviction that all mages were villains had only been reinforced. One sailor was rowing them, again willing to drop them off but then planning on returning to the ship.
As they climbed out of the rowboat they noticed that the town's children—and with a second glance they confirmed it was also true of the approaching adults—each wore a necklace with a small ceramic pot as a pendant. One young boy stepped forward and said matter-of-factly, "Hi. You have to squish one of these." From his necklace's pot he drew forth some wiggly grubs. He handed one to each visitor.
"Huh?" asked Crede, staring distastefully at the tiny, wrinkly pest he held.
"Gardening?" asked Jasmine in an awkward attempt to be friendly. She had colored her hair and used makeup to darken her skin tone slightly and appear older; it still seemed wise to avoid identification as Alyssum's daughter.
The boy shook his head. "Nope. It's so we know you're real. Squish it!"
Crede narrowed his eyes in a mixture of doubt and confusion, but then squished the grub. Jasmine and Chamomile also did.
The children cheered.
The approaching adults finally arrived. "They check out, Tommy?" asked one man.
The boy nodded proudly. "Yep."
"Then welcome to the island," the man commenced. "Visitors are normally taken to the castle. Let's go. Questions will be answered there." The way he looked at Crede and Jasmine brought back to Crede's mind certain comments which King Alconar had made.
As they all began walking Chamomile asked a girl next to her, "Pst. What's your name?"
The girl shook her head disapprovingly, and whispered back, "Didn't you hear? The Dragon's the most important, so he gets to visit with you first. After that we'll have a turn to chat."
Chamomile frowned. "Oh. That's a silly rule."
Several of the children nodded in sympathetic agreement. After a few more paces in silence the children began to run back to the tasks and games which they had left. The adult escort continued with resolute coherence.
Entering the town, Crede smiled. To Jasmine he explained, "This place even smells right, like the villages in my family's land. It looks right and sounds right too. The towns of the other two islands had seemed fake, as if they were merely some decorated patio outside the mage's dwelling place. This is finally real: a town with a nearby mage, not just a mage tower with surrounding buildings."
Jasmine nodded. Nothing else was said until they arrived at the castle.
As they walked up the road toward the castle—up ground steadily yet unevenly rising and still too flat to be called a foothill—the townsfolk with them again took grubs from their necklace pots. The visitors were also given another. The castle had a dry moat, which they crossed, and two portcullises. The inner portcullis was down, but in front of it waited a pair of guards, who also took grubs from necklace pots. There was an odd moment when everyone squished their grub: the routine was treated awkwardly yet ritualistically, as behavior often repeated but still too new and unpleasant to have become tradition. Then the people from the town waved to the guards, said goodbyes, and went back down to town. The man who had looked overly intently at Crede and Jasmine did so a second time as he departed.
As the inner portcullis was raised one of the guards took charge. "I'm Claude, Captain of the Guard" he said, bobbing his head in an obvious if novel gesture of welcome. He looked at them expectantly.
Crede tried to mimic the head bob salutation, then introduced his family. "I am Crede, and this is Jasmine, and this is Chamomile." They had discussed using false named but had decided it was not necessary because so little information left Windsong and when it did Fulmer's magic which protected the island made people soon forget anything not directly mercantile.
Claude said, "A good day to you. Please come with me." The three visitors followed him into the castle courtyard.
Immediately inside the courtyard was a weapon rack against the castle's outer wall. "Please put your weapons here while you are in the castle," instructed Claude. "They will be returned to you."
Crede looked at Jasmine. Jasmine frowned but also shrugged to show assent. Crede drew his small, gray sword from its scabbard and hung it from appropriate pegs upon the rack. Jasmine had knelt onto her right knee, and reached up into her skirt to untie a blue ribbon from the top of her left calf. On the ribbon were three slim throwing knives, threaded through holes in their handles. She retied the ribbon into a loop, and hung it upon the weapon rack.
Then she reached into each of her blouse's billowy sleeves, and from each took out another throwing knife. But she was watching Crede as she disarmed. "What?" she complained as she set the two new knives upon the rack, "Do you mean to tell me you don't have anything hidden upon you? All you were carrying was that sword?"
"Well..." began Crede, not sure what to say.
Jasmine looked at Claude apologetically. "Excuse us," she said to the guard, softly. Then, again somewhat bitterly, she continued scolding Crede. "How are you supposed to be a good protector of the family if you are so easily disarmed? Not that it matters here: this castle seems honorable, and in any case if a powerful mage wanted to harm us our weapons would not be much defense. But are you telling me that in every country tavern where swords are collected at the door you would be inside unarmed? And every time you swordfight if your opponent knocks your sword out of your hand then you're completely defenseless?"
As she continued her tirade Chamomile looked at Claude with large eyes, and commented with a shrug, "They still argue like newlyweds..."
Jasmine's scolding finished quickly, to Crede's great relief. Only later did Crede realize that her show might have also been for the benefit of the guards and other people watching them. In any case, it was true that afterward no other men looked at her and Crede as their one escort had done.
Claude had apparently been waiting for a quiet moment, for he called out, "Marilla!" as soon as Jasmine's voice had faded.
A young woman came out from a small, nearby building that leaned against the castle's outer wall. Seeing Chamomile, she ran forward. She stopped a polite distance before the visitors and curtsied. "Good to meet you," she said in welcome. "It's my job to watch visiting children while the grownups talk."
Jasmine looked startled at this piece of news as well, but Chamomile quickly bounded over to her new hostess and held up both arms. Marilla picked up the young girl and set her on a hip. Chamomile waved to Jasmine and Crede, saying, "I'll be good. Don't worry." Then, looking at Marilla, she asked, "Does that building have toys? Are there other kids there now?"
Marilla waited for the "parents" to wave goodbye before she turned and walked away. They could hear her answering Chamomile's questions kindly. "We have some wooden puzzles, and small dolls with a doll house, and clay blocks of delightful colors and shapes. Sometimes, like during courtroom ceremony, there are dozens of children. But today you'll probably be the only one I see. Before you arrived I was sewing more doll clothing. Do you want to watch me finish?"
Claude chuckled. "Marilla is a sweetheart," he explained. "Unfortunately, the Dragon has been in a foul mood for several days so your audience with him will probably be less cheerful than what your daughter enjoys. Come along, no reason to delay. He'll be polite, but please give him the benefit of the doubt if he's a bit gruff. I myself fear thinking about what problems must be on his mind, of such a nature to drive even him to sulky ire."
"You admire him?" asked Crede as they crossed the courtyard and entered the castle's inner wall. Above that inner wall stood the keep, which oddly enough was not stone but a wooden building five stories tall. It was painted white with dark half-timber beams and window shutters of a bright cherry red. It's roof shingles were also painted the same red. Four flagpoles rose from the inner wall around the keep, and their banners of bright colors added a balancing display of hue to mediate the otherwise notorious red of the shutters and roof.
Claude snorted quickly and deeply to underscore his sentiment. "Admire him? Terribly so, I do. I've lived under other barons and none ran a town so neatly. He steps in when a situation requires, and then is decisive and efficient. His solutions to issues are not always well received initially, but after some months it becomes apparent to everyone that he knew what was best after all. He sees far, that man. And he doesn't meddle where he's not needed, and if he's too busy to be truly friendly he manages to be hospitable enough when he does host a festival or feast. And he's fair, even when it's hard for him." With the last sentence Claude's eyes lost their shine, and he drew his cheeks together in concern.
Crede did not feel generous, however, and pressed the guard with the unwanted question. "What's hard for him, if I may ask?"
Claude sighed softly. He walked them into the inner keep, and then paused at the foot of a stairway. "Don't let him know I told you. It is not a secret, but it is an embarrassment. I suppose I should tell it anyway, so you two will know to let the mister do the talking." He stopped walking and explained, "The Dragon's difficulty is women. He avoids them. No one I've talked to has ever seen him do anything rude, or wrong. But he clearly is uncomfortable with them in conversation, and avoids it. Not entirely, of course. Marilla, for example, is a good worker and he will speak with her as required to supervise her job and he will be gentlemanly enough while doing so. But if he wants to make small talk, or wants to ask about what the town is up to, then he'll ask me or one of the castle's other men. People pity him, and try to make it easy for him. He doesn't really have any close friends, it seems. Perhaps being a mage makes him different enough in thought or nature that it has to be that way. So I don't envy him. But I sure do admire him for every other way he is."
Crede and Jasmine nodded and whispered quiet thanks, sorrow and puzzlement visible in their eyes.
Jasmine hesitated, then asked, "And his current difficulty...is it related?"
Claude shook his head. "Nope. He's being threatened by Those Ones. That's what the grubs are for. Those Ones can't kill. Enough delay, though. We should get going in case he saw us enter the keep and is waiting."
Chamomile, meanwhile, had oooh-ed and ahh-ed appreciatively at the toys inside Marilla's one-room building and decided to play with the colorful clay blocks on the floor. Marilla kept half an eye on the girl while resuming her sewing project.
A large, black crow landed on the nursery's open windowsill and cocked its head, watching them both as it rested its wings.
Chamomile looked sternly at it and told it, "Stay there!" She climbed to her feet and stomped gruffly over to the window. "You're very rude," she told the bird quietly but sternly. "You should not be spying like that. Now stay with me, and be nice." She held out her arm and the crow, trembling, stepped onto it.
Marilla had watched the scene from her chair, far enough away she could not hear Chamomile's words clearly. She sweetly commented to Chamomile, "My goodness! Do all birds like you?"
Chamomile shook her head in denial. "This one doesn't." Returning to her blocks, she whispered to the quivering bird, "A few more minutes, then we'll do something else. At least I have blocks to bide the time. You have no idea how much of being a seer is simply waiting until you are told it's the right time."
Claude led Crede and Jasmine up the stairs for three flights. At each of the keep's stories the spiral stairwell had a landing within its own room, functionally a hallway with two or three doors but sized little bigger than an alcove. At the fourth floor's landing he knocked at a door and announced, "Visitors to the island, here to see you, sir: a Crede and Jasmine, present, and their daughter Chamomile who is with Marilla."
The Dragon's voice was deep and rich. "Thank you, Claude. I have been busy writing; pardon me while I put my quill and papers away."
A moment later the door opened, on its own, and a small mouth appeared upon it which said, "He wouldn't want the guests to see his sloppy handwriting," before vanishing.
Crede raised his eyebrows at it and Claude whispered, "Those Ones can't do magic either, and the Dragon doesn't like squishing grubs. Not that any of us do, except perhaps a couple of the village boys." They all entered the room. Then the guard captain saluted to the Dragon and retired down the stairs, gently closing the door before he left.
The Dragon was standing before a desk beside the room's larger window, from which the inside of the outer wall's gates was visible, along with the weapons rack and the nursery. Jasmine and Crede has spent the morning talking with the sailors and Adze and Glaive, trying to decide what plan of action to pursue. The walk to the castle had taken half an hour, and now the first colors of sunset were visible out the window. By arriving at nightfall the visitors were hoping to be offered lodging for the evening, which would allow them to see more of the Dragon's household.
The Dragon looked older than Jasmine expected, with deep-set, worried eyes. But his age was undermined by his solid build and his proper posture, which radiated authority without stiffness. He was dressed in crimson tunic and leggings, under a deeper crimson robe. Sturdy, black leather belt and gloves gave his outfit the air of a huntsman or noble.
"My greetings," he said in welcome. After the briefest pause he added, "I know not who you are but am surprised by your rings. Clearly Fulmer's spellcrafting, but not pieces of which I have heard. Is he out of professional retirement and working as a mage again? Or did he merely officiate for friends? In either case, please give him my regards when you seem him next. He is a good man and a credit to the profession."
Crede and Jasmine were speechless for a moment as they took in this bit of deduction. The Crede replied, "We thank you for your welcome, and your hospitality. Your second guess is correct: Fulmer is retired, but he married us and made our rings."
The Dragon did not smile but his eyes twinkled with success. "I am pleased to learn he is doing well. I sometimes think of visiting his island...argh, its name evades me at the moment. But I have been too busy for travel anywhere." The Dragon touched a finger to his chin and then asked, "And your other rings? It is odd for a family to wear matching pieces of mind-control magic. May I ask what they do?"
"Huh?" Crede gasped before he could stop himself. "Please excuse us," he said, beginning a fresh start, "We meant to simply visit the Sandy Isles to sightsee. But yesterday at the Eldrich's island we were drugged and given things against our will." Crede took the Eldrich's letter from a pocket and offered it to the Dragon.
Jasmine noticed that during conversation the Dragon kept his eyes focused on Crede, as if her appearance caused discomfort or worse.
The Dragon read the letter, then snorted in disdain. "Really, this is not like him. And he is lying: the rings are not linked back to him, and contain only mind-control magic. Probably they come off normally but the spell causes you to imagine resistance when you try to remove them. Perhaps the rings do more, but I would expect that is all. The Eldrich is not one to use extra magic where a smaller amount suffices."
Crede reddened slightly. "Please forgive us if we have been played as fools. We are ignorant of much: his accusations against you, the people demanding gold, the necklaces of grubs..."
The Dragon faced the window and stood in silence for several minutes. Then he turned again, smiled at them both (looking at Jasmine only very briefly), and gestured for them to follow him to sit at a small, round table in the corner.
Once they were seated he leaned back in his chair and put his hands together behind his neck. "Let's start," he proposed, "by having you tell me about the sword and the girl."
Crede looked at him blankly. Jasmine hesitated uncomfortably, then offered, "She is adopted, not ours by birth. We have not been married long enough to have a child even her age..."
The Dragon stared at them. The twinkle had vanished from his eyes, which now searched them (especially Crede) with an uncanny, near-tangible intensity. He prompted, "And the sword?"
Crede wrinkled his face, somehow suggesting a shrug with the raising of one eyebrow and the other cheek, then replied, "It goes with my ring. It was a present from Fulmer for our engagement. I can make it move in the air after I let go of it."
The Dragon deepened his searching stare. "And who sent you to the Sandy Isles?"
Crede's eyes flickered upward before he answered, "In truth, it was the girl's idea. She is a seer."
The Dragon held them in his gaze a bit longer. Then he let his hands fall to his lap with a startlingly loud thump and began to laugh. His laugh was contagious, every bit as deep and resonant as his voice. But his guests did not feel its draw, and remained silently watching him.
The Dragon stood up and began pacing. Still chucking, he explained, "You really don't know, do you? I mean, really, you're more pawns than anyone I've met in years and you have no idea! Oh, this is tremendous. I've been so burdened with my troubles and then you arrive, a happy couple who attracts trouble like a lodestone without any idea why things are happening around you as they do...Oh, my! Really! I feel better already. Nice trick, by the way, sir, how you shrugged with your face: giving a blank 'I don't know' look without seeming disrespectful."
Crede muttered, "Growing up I learned many behaviors to avoid seeming guilty and also avoid seeming disrespectful. Often either one would bring severe consequences."
The Dragon laughed again. "Ah, a survivor. Quite respectable. And useful, I should add." He stopped his pacing and returned to where he had sat at the table. "Now it is my turn to answer questions. If you two are going to survive you'll need more answers than I know, but these will provide a start. And they will help you here, providing you really are as innocent as you claim: not secretly trying to kill me as appearances suggest." At the last comment Jasmine looked slightly startled, which caused the Dragon to laugh again before he began his lecture.
"To begin with, the Eldrich's letter contained only half-truths. Do not worry about if you really offended him with your introductions slighting over the true parentage of your sword or child. I assume your introductions to the Eldrich were harmless, despite his claim.
"Similarly, my ability to command dragons will some day bring me vast riches but I have no plans for conquest. Who would want to rule the continent? When possible I avoid the details of ruling my island! What I do long to own is the abundance of magical items from the dragons' hoards. Many of these items are ancient and enigmatic, and I will enjoy analyzing and studying and learning from them. That is why I have commanded dragons to hoard magic items. The gold that the dragons are also commanded to hoard I have no interest in, except that it inspires would-be heroes and heroines with magical items to challenge my dragons and overall such affairs provides me with a net gain.
"I moved here to have some solitude and escape the continent's mage alliances, which get one wrapped up in a stupid hierarchy and dangerous personal challenges and petty, bickering feuds. Once I can devote the majority of my day to study instead of defense I can finally begin to analyze what my dragons have collected for me. It took me thirty years to defeat the Battlemaster, who unlike me enjoyed every minute and whose life was given new meaning by our rivalry. I hope to not have to wait another thirty years to have peace."
The Dragon hesitated before continuing, "Specifically, I'm hoping the Eldrich will simply move away in the near future. I would rather not waste more decades because of stubborn neighbors. He did not move to the Sandy Isles to stop me, as he claims. He simply copied me and claimed nice real estate. He owns the other forested island, which he uses as a nature preserve for his skunk breeding.
"The rings, as I mentioned before, cannot cause 'massive destruction'. The rings are only to frighten you and send you here. I assume that the Eldrich saw your warrior training and magical weapon and feared you were traveling to fight or steal; if so, of course it would be sensible to send you to my island in hope you would do your dirty work here. As his worst case you truly are mere tourists and he offends you but suffers nothing."
The Dragon paused and with one hand massaged his forehead. After making brief eye contact with everyone to confirm that they had no immediate questions he began again.
"Now, there is a group officially named Those Who Know. That group is also sometimes called similar things such as 'Those Ones' or 'The Knowers'. They have created legends and fancies about themselves to frighten common people and thus gain power. Most of what you think you know about them from stories and rhymes is false."
"Wait," interrupted Jasmine softly. "I don't know anything about such a group."
The Dragon paused for a deep breath, and then replied, "The fairies."
"What?" asked Crede. "There's no such thing as fairies."
The Dragon chuckled, mostly to himself, and continued, "There certainly are. Just as there are dragons and trolls and unicorns and other magical creatures, even if nine-tenths of the creatures mentioned in stories and rhymes are only imaginary. But the real fairies, as I said, are not what their propaganda claims they are.
"There are not several different species, as the legends claim. Nor can they use mage-magic: only humans can do that. Nor do they live agelessly. Nor do they fly about on gossamer wings. Nor do they gain power or information if we say the word 'fairies'. Nor do they bless homes that leave food outside on blue dishes.
"However they can create illusions, especially to change their own shape. I have even heard one reputable source claim they can truly shape-change and not merely use illusion for that.
"They do collect gold. It somehow fuels their largest illusions. It is unheard of, however, for the fairies to be so public as to threaten a mage, let alone two. Doing anything that blatant to someone with power would jeopardize their hard-earned secrecy and mystique. A single mage would be wise to fear angry fairies, but if mages collectively felt threatened by fairies then things would be very bad—especially for the fairies.
"Yet the unheard of is happening. They are demanding gold from me, although I have never bothered them, and probably from the Eldrich also, as he says. Two days ago they made their demand, and they also snuck onto my island, disguised themselves as my townsfolk, and were causing much confusion and bitterness. That is why townsfolk who meet now crush grubs. Fairies cannot kill, or at least they refuse to. For some reason killing destroys their ability to shape-change. And apparently their true shape is their deepest and most successfully kept secret. Only fairies know what it is: thus their nickname of Those Who Know.
"I cannot explain why the fairies are acting as they are. Perhaps in their ambition for power they see an exceptional chance to gain more. Or perhaps something somewhere is an unparalleled threat to them. In any case, if they are take such unusual and great risks to get gold then we must not let them have it.
"And with that I have answered your pervious questions. I expect you now have others."
Crede and Jasmine looked at each other, nodded, and then Jasmine relaxed back into her chair. Crede spoke his questions first. "Sir, you said my sword has a parentage. Would you explain? And what can we do about the fairies?"
The Dragon smiled broadly. "Your sword is a quite famous one, to which Fulmer has given some mage-magic disguise, a link to your ring, and a new power of flying as the ring's wearer controls. I am certain he gave it to you after you told him you were coming to the Sandy Isles, which implies you two are newly newlyweds. More than that I will not say. Except that the Eldrich was able to see beyond its disguise, and its history would support his assumption that you were secretly at the Sandy Isles to slay a mage: probably me. That clue helps explain the rings he put on you.
"And as to my plan for dealing with the fairies...I have none yet. They are a notorious bother, even if not in the ways that the legends relate. But since they will not kill they cannot really force me to comply with their extortion. I was patient for thirty years to deal with the Battlemaster, and perceive them as a similar new presence on the islands which time will show me how to deal with. The main difference seems to be that my poor townsfolk have to live suspicious lives in the meanwhile, which I deeply regret. I am tempted to send everyone away and live as a hermit, for the sakes of my people. With my magic I can survive despite the loneliness. But I hope to find some way to use my mage-magic to counteract or at least expose their fairy powers. Currently I am exploring if my clay golems, as brainless servants, are immune to their illusions. If so I could use my golems as guards throughout the town. But first I need to capture a fairy and my initial efforts have failed."
There was a loud thumping out on the stairway, along with which they could hear Marilla's voice shouting, "Master! Master!" Her call was eager, not afraid.
The Dragon, standing, waved a hand. The door opened again. Marilla ran in, with Chamomile, who had a large, black crow perched upon her small arm.
When the Dragon saw young seer his mouth dropped open. Before he could speak Chamomile ran up to him and help up the crow. She smiled cheerfully and said, "Thank you for letting me visit your island. I have a housewarming present. It's a bit late, and it isn't a plant. But it isn't a crow, either. It's a present from the Builder. I'm his seer. I've told the captive to be still and nice for you."
Suddenly in tears, the Dragon dropped to his knees cried out "Have mercy and save me!"
Chamomile gently touched one of his cheeks with her free hand. "The Architect's plan already contains mercy," she softly reassured. "And I have brought these two to save you."
"What?" asked Jasmine as her wits returned. She and Crede had also pushed back their chairs and stood.
Chamomile curtsied to them as best she could with only one hand free. "It came to spy so I claimed it. Marilla had a very nice room with nifty toys. This room isn't nearly so nice, even if it has a better window. Will you hold the crow?"
Crede stepped to her and took it. Chamomile smiled, then threw both arms around the Dragon's neck. "I'm just a seer," she said to him softly. "That's all. Do not be frightened."
Her final remark caused a shallow smile on his face. Still on his knees he politely disengaged from the girl's hug to better see her face, then said, "Oh seer, I know too much history to believe you, although in its plain sense you speak truth. My life is far from the Architect's plan for it. You will no doubt do your best to remedy that, which will be more painful than a dozen rival mages or a score of fairy armies." He managed half a laugh, then concluded, "For a supposedly peaceful family, you three truly are terrifying. But I still welcome you, with kindness. I have been hugged by...a seer, and what else matters today?"
Chamomile smiled at him, her cheeks round with youthful joy. "Today much matters. The pain can wait. You have lied to these guests, and to your wife, and to yourself, but tomorrow we'll worry about that. For today you have two clues and two choices. First is this captive fairy. Do you wish war or peace for you and your barony? Will you be able to study the creature without giving in to the temptation to kill it?"
The Dragon looked at the crow. He sighed and confessed, "No, I would not be that strong. I am too full of bitterness because of the evil they have done upon my island. I will avoid that taint and choose peace." He looked at the crow. "A moment before you arrived I spoke of how I hoped my golems would guard my island. I withdraw that warlike hope and choose peace. Let us return it home with a message."
Chamomile tilted her head slightly, studying the Dragon's face. "Very well," she finally said. She walked to the bird, and motioned for Crede to transfer it back to her arm. Then she abruptly went to Jasmine and Crede and from the left hand of each removed the Eldrich's rings. She also removed hers, and put all three upon one of the bird's legs. "Fly back to your master," she said to it, "and tell him to send a diplomat and try peace. The Dragon has chosen. And I say it is possible, if adults act like grown-ups for once." The crow leapt from her arm and flew out the window.
Meanwhile, Jasmine and Crede had both clutched their stomachs and fallen to the ground. Chamomile hurried over to them and petted their foreheads. "Be well," she said soothingly.
"Uhg," moaned Crede, gasping. Jasmine's breathing was heavy, but slowly returning to normal.
The Dragon and Marilla were staring at them. "What happened?" asked Marilla.
The Dragon stood up and muttered, "This is very bad. I assume you felt intense stomach pain and a ferocious desire to eat or drink a certain one thing which you consumed upon the Eldrich's island?"
Crede nodded. Jasmine was still unable to respond.
The Dragon turned to face the nearest wall and hit it with the bottom of both fists. "Then he has already lost."
Crede was tending Jasmine, but listening. "What?" he asked.
The Dragon began pacing. "What you ate or drank on the Eldrich's island was fairy food. In their nonviolent warfare it is an important weapon. If the fairies want to take someone prisoner they can not do so with force, so they use their food. It causes whoever eats it to become incapable of digesting any other food, and yearn intensely for more fairy food. Initially it pacifies and befuddles the victim, but after a day or more the hunger becomes cripplingly intense. The Eldrich's rings were apparently blocking its effect...interesting to know mage-magic can counteract that fairy power."
Jasmine was almost breathing normally, and had sat up.
Crede asked, "What was that all war and peace language about?"
The Dragon explained. "Remember that no one but the fairies know their natural form? That secret is for some reason tremendously important to them. If I add that a dead fairy reverts to that natural shape, have I said enough?"
Chamomile had approached Jasmine and hugged her, while she and Crede thought.
After a moment Jasmine ventured, "They would not allow you to know that information. Neither would killing you after you learned the secret be difficult for them, since you already know their true form. So anyone who kills a fairy starts a war with them."
"Almost complete," confirmed the Dragon.
Crede added, "Also, no one has ever killed a fairy and survived."
The Dragon clapped his hands twice, brusquely. "Well done. Your demonstration of deduction rivals mine with Fulmer's rings. And I feel impelled to add that my lies, which your seer mentioned, are falsehoods of omission: I have withheld certain personal information that links together pieces to this puzzle. But tomorrow is another day. I will work up my courage to admit and explain my weaknesses, and ask you to not waste the night speculating."
After a moment of silence Jasmine looked at Chamomile and said, "Thank you for healing us. Did you scare off the fairies, then?"
Chamomile shrugged. "I wanted to encourage them to try dialogue instead of subterfuge. I do not know what they will do next. But fairies are not dangerous unless cornered, and hopefully they will feel less cornered after hearing the Dragon's decision to seek peace. In any case, I won't be the person to save the Sandy Isles."
The Dragon directed the penetrating version of his stare at Crede, who shrugged and deflected the query with his own question. "So why would the Eldrich serve us fairy food? What does that mean?"
The Dragon said, "I am not sure. Perhaps things are very complicated, and he is keeping his ability to resist their power secret from them although they are on his own island. But how could they force him to give you their enchanted food? And were the rings really to help you escape fairy control? Alternately, perhaps things are very simple and he has allied himself with them. But what could they offer him in exchange for his helping them get my gold? And he's a mage! He can simply create gold with the proper spell! I would be astounded if a mage of his age and ability does not know how. Did he lie about that in his letter because the fairies would be reading it? Or does he actually not know how to create gold?"
Jasmine mused, "All we know for sure is that fairy food, and thus almost certainly fairies, are on the Eldrich's island and in his tower's kitchen. And the Eldrich made rings that both kept that secret and kept that harmless. Three permanent magical items is quite an effort of craftsmanship: he most likely had the rings made before we arrived, instead of making them after we were given the fairy drink."
"Definitely," agreed the Dragon.
"So," continued Jasmine, "the Eldrich either uses a similar magical item himself to escape the fairy power—perhaps secretly—and had made others for certain staff or servants, or he was expecting fairy food to be served to innocent guests and was prepared."
Crede returned to his chair. "Why would the fairies feed us their food? Who are we to bother capturing? And did the fairies add the sleep effect, or was that something else the Eldrich did to allow him to provide us with a means of escape? Did we eat with the real Eldrich or a fairy impostor?"
"And," inserted Jasmine, "why did the fairies let him send us away on our boat if they had only hours ago done something to keep prisoners with them?" She paused, then added, "Oh, Crede, you have gotten us speculating again instead of extracting which facts we know."
Crede tried to mimic her "Hmpf," and then added, "I am not sure the facts matter as much as your analysis assumes. His letter was nothing but half-truths. Shouldn't we assume that all of the circumstantial information is also purposefully misleading? I have little hope that we will figure out this mystery without returning to that island."
The Dragon hesitated, then offered, "The Eldrich and I regularly use scrying globes to talk. I could activate those and ask him questions. But if he is being watched by fairies and secretly opposing them then the conversation might ruin his plans."
Chamomile yawned, raising her arms and squeezing her little fists. "I told you all that there were two clues tonight and you have found them both. Let's try figuring out something more pressing, like what I'm having for dinner or where I'm eating, or if there will be other kids to play with at Marilla's building tomorrow."
Most of the Dragon's castle's rooms were actually underground. When Jasmine had asked about this he had explained, "My magic prohibits other mages from using mage sight or even telescopes to see my island. There is no danger of anyone tunneling into my stronghold. But there is nothing I can do about a mage deciding to drop a boulder on my island, although that is expensive enough in magical energy that it seldom happens. So I do not have predictable habits of visiting buildings above ground, and the roof of my keep has special, magical fortification. The rooms I think of as 'home' are all underground for safety's sake."
They ate with their host. At dinner two servants waited upon them, and then after dinner these led them to their guest room. They saw no one else that night.
In the middle of the night Chamomile approached the Dragon as he sat in bed, a pile of pillows behind him, not even trying to sleep. He had been alone. Besides his pajamas he was also still wearing his gloves.
There was no need for him to provide a grub; he could see she was truly herself.
"Need to talk?" she asked.
The mage looked at her with a wry smile. "As a seer, my young friend. I would expect you knew the answer to that before deciding to walk my halls after bedtime."
Chamomile shrugged. "I wanted to make sure it was all right with you."
The Dragon bobbed his head in welcome. "It is good. I have read in the histories of how people have now and then been blessed with a visitation from the Builder in the night. I always thought that referred to a dream, not a chatty young girl."
"History includes many types of things," replied the seer, smiling at his wry humor. "Are you still 'working up your courage' as you said?"
The Dragon sighed. "No, I have done that as much as I can and now I merely fret and lose sleep which I probably desperately need."
Chamomile climbed onto the foot of the bed and sat cross-legged upon it. Sympathetically she offered, "It is not your fault that power corrupts."
The Dragon chuckled. "No, and I have been uniquely corrupted. But I am afraid to know that my wife fears and hates me. I expect it is already true, but at least currently I do not know it is true."
Chamomile pouted. "She is your wife. If you did not fear and hate yourself then she would not either."
The Dragon grunted sharply. "I dislike short, pithy, and painfully accurate statements about my flaws."
Chamomile shrugged. "So?"
The Dragon raised an eyebrow in question.
Chamomile answered, "You have let your life leave the Architect's plan for it. Which do you think has less pain, getting back to place or continuing waywardly?"
The Dragon grunted again, but this time it was nearly a chuckle. "That you appear so young does help, my good seer. I am beginning to understand why seers have a history of being forced out of town. Your bluntness..."
"Helps," suggested Chamomile as he paused to search for a word.
The Dragon tried to mimic her previous pout. "Yes. And I want help. Even badly enough to allow you to torment me with this conversation. I just wish things were easier."
Chamomile said, "There is heaven. Things will be easier there. First there is this life. Everything has a place, even pain."
The Dragon studied her with his intent stare. "Why? Why pain at all?"
Chamomile sighed. She was quiet for a moment, then asked, "May I tell you a bedtime story to answer your question?"
The Dragon smiled. "That would be fine."
Chamomile cautioned, "Just as a warning, don't take literally any story about what happens before the invention of time. Here we go...
"Once upon in-the-very-beginning-of-everything there was only heaven. All the people lived according the Architect's plan and never had any inclination to leave it. The Builder increased the world in size and beauty and people prospered.
"Then Taint approached the Architect and said, 'You are a hypocrite.'
"The Architect asked, 'Why?'
"Taint said accusingly, 'You claim to be generous. But you do not give these people the freedom to strive for what they want.'
"The Architect replied, 'They have everything they want.'
"Taint sniffed rudely and said, 'They could be allowed to want more.'
"The Architect replied, 'Giving people misery is not generosity.'
"Taint protested, 'Perhaps it is. Perhaps a little misery will overall make more pleasure.'
"The Architect corrected, 'There is a difference between immediate pleasures and overall joy.'
"Taint laughed in derision. 'I have never seen that.'
"The Architect nodded. 'Of course not—there is no misery yet. But I will do as you say and prove you wrong, because that is what must done to exalt truth.'
"And so the Builder was asked to make a new place, where other, new people were to live before heaven. In this place time peeked out only in instants, and people would be free to want whatever they could imagine, and to strive for what they wanted. Many people wanted pain for others. Some were confused enough to even want pain for themselves.
"When these other, new people finally arrived at heaven they had a new appreciation for the Architect's plan for their wants. Also, the Builder was given a new role as judge, because now part of heaven was making justice for what happened in earlier life. But the Builder found he had little judging to do after all. Many people strove so far into taint that they became unsuitable for heaven. They were invited, but refused to go to the place where the people they had robbed and killed had gone. They were invited, but could not stand to be with the people they had betrayed and abused. They were invited, but had lost the ability to take joy from living by the Architect's plan. They were invited, but chose oblivion instead."
"And the Architect told Taint, 'Do you see? The people who have lived both before and within heaven all agree that heaven is better.'
"But Taint could not understand, and replied, 'You have proved nothing. I assert that heaven is inferior because so many people do not want it.'
"The Architect reminded Taint, 'But joy was the criteria for being better. The most joy comes with living as truth claims is proper. Things are not better because people want them.'
"Taint ignored the Architect and bragged, 'See how many of your new people I have prevented from reaching heaven?'
"And the Architect said, 'I knew you would be able to mislead people. You have not stolen anything from me. I willingly let those people choose their fate, even if doing so grieves me.'
"Taint chuckled. 'You are acting defensive. The people in oblivion are mine. I stole them from you.'
"The Architect groaned. In a tone torn between kindness and patience he said, 'If you want oblivion, you can have it. I am generous, after all.'"
When Chamomile finished her story she looked at the Dragon, weariness apparent in her youthfully large eyes. "Was that a good story? Did it answer your question?"
The Dragon's eyes had become similarly dim. "It was a horrific and wonderful story. It must be a good bedtime story because when I try to think about it I get tired. I do not think anything you might say would really answer my question, at least not within my heart. But I thank you for trying."
Chamomile half-smiled, raising her cheeks with her mouth closed.
The Dragon yawned. "Enough for tonight. I'll sleep once you leave. Tomorrow will be hard, but will eventually be over. Will heaven really make everything all right?"
The seer giggled. "It already has."
The Dragon chuckled. "Does anything annoy you?"
Chamomile shrugged. "Lots of things. Fulmer is a big dumb. He taught Jasmine mage sight. I think that was purposefully to make things difficult for me. But even if that annoys me it also is sort of endearing."
The Dragon nodded. "He likes to play games with those divine."
Chamomile smiled. "Well, 'those divine' first decided to play games with him. Fairness does require a sense of humor, for 'those divine' as well."
The Dragon smiled back. "Why do you become chummy with powerful mages, but not those young people who love you so much?"
Chamomile thought for a moment, then said, "It is not your power or your ability as a mage that set you and Fulmer apart. It is your age. You have read all the stories of the seers and remember living when a few other seers were alive: you know what seers do and go through and accomplish. So you begin our relationship with the proper balance of trust and faith and fear. My younger friends do not have that, and must gain it by experience as I am with them. I am chummy with them, but there are things they cannot yet understand. Even the Eldrich will be too young to understand."
The Dragon sighed a tired, pleasant sigh. "Good night then, good seer. It feels odd to call you that."
Chamomile climbed down from the bed. "Thank you for keeping my secret."
The Dragon asked, "You hugged me before. Do I get a bedtime hug too?"
Chamomile shook her head. "No," she said. "I would like to, but thinking about it would keep you awake more. Tomorrow, after the hard and painful growing, then I will hug you twice. One will be a congratulations and the other this hug arriving late."
The Dragon nodded. After a moment he ventured, "Today you healed Crede and Jasmine so quickly, by merely telling them to be well." Softly he added, "For my hands..."
Chamomile shook her head no. "Older problems take more time to straighten out. They have to be that way, or their mending would be fragile and ephemeral and superficial. Trust me."
The Dragon nodded. "I do. Or, I don't—but as much as I know how, I do."
Chamomile smiled before leaving. "That is enough," she said.
Early in the morning the Eldrich attempted to contact the Dragon with the scrying globes. After a number of minutes the Dragon finally was ready to respond, seated before his globe.
"Yes?" he asked, activating the globe's communication magic.
"Good morning," said the Eldrich in his forced monotone. "You have unwisely ignored threats."
The Dragon kept his face blank. "Threats? The rings you put upon my current guests were not threatening, if you mean those. Or are you talking about the vaguely implied mischief of gold-hungry fairies? I have asked Those Who Know to try peaceful diplomacy."
The Eldrich looked doubtful. "How could that work?"
The Dragon laughed, "I have no idea, since Those Ones have not been polite enough to tell me their true goals. But if a seer finds that path hopeful then so do I. Must I waste your morning with conjecture?"
The Eldrich frowned. "Diplomacy has never been your strength. You prefer force."
The Dragon smiled. "I am quite typically human in that way, I admit. Nevertheless, perhaps Those Ones will convince me their need for gold is worthwhile and I will simply give them the gold peaceably. After all, it is true that I have more than I could use. Or perhaps they are feeling threatened or greedy and I will sympathize and ally with them to achieve their security or expansion. After all, the thrill of victory over the Battlemaster has not yet dimmed and my blood is hot for another glorious adventure. But these are mere conjectures; since I have successfully kept Those Ones from my island and kitchen I know not what they are up to..."
The Eldrich protested, "Your optimism is misplaced."
The Dragon laughed again. "Not so, dear troubled neighbor. I place my hope in a seer, and recovering the Architect's plan for myself. The diplomacy and peace are a facet of that, which I would desire anyway but without the seer's presence be less optimistic about. However, she wants my life straightened out more than I do, and has the authority to accomplish her goals. Today I get to offend and frighten everyone dear to me, then ask for their help, and see what happens. I would invite you to watch but your gloating would be intolerable. I should not delay, so I ask now for a farewell."
The Eldrich frowned again. "I have my doubts about even how much a seer can clean up your life."
The Dragon grinned. "So do I. But my optimism remains"
The Eldrich tried a new topic. "You found Scalecutter?"
The Dragon put his blank face on again. "I did. It was given to the man by Fulmer. Perhaps we are both pawns in Fulmer's plans. But that would be as uncharacteristic of him as...fairies demanding gold from a mage! Farewell." He deactivated the globe.
After lunch the townsfolk were gathered in the castle's great hall, conversation buzzing to fill the large, high-ceilinged room. They were used to being gathered here for feasts, which happened every month or so. Never had they been assembled for an "announcement" with only a few hours' notice.
This was also the first town gathering at which guards at the hall's entrance had each entrant squish a grub. Performing the ritual even once already within the castle stirred up unease in many of the townsfolk.
Jasmine, Crede, and Chamomile sat in the front row of benches at the far right side. Across the room, at the left side of the front benches, sat Alyssum. They could only manage unsatisfactory glances of her. At breakfast and lunch they had eaten in their room, with food brought by a castle servant. Now they finally were surrounded by townspeople, but Claude and Marilla sat to their left. Jasmine longed to ask more people about Alyssum or about the Dragon's unease with her and other women. But she waited patiently.
The Dragon entered the hall and ascended the steps onto the raised platform at the head of the room. His clothing was indistinguishable from yesterday's but he now wore a gold crown.
The multitude of conversations hushed, then quickly finished.
Chamomile whispered to Jasmine, "He looks nervous."
The Dragon began his speech. His oratory skill was stunning: he projected throughout the entire room, his rich voice maintaining all the character it contained in quiet speech.
"Thank you for assembling. I try to disrupt your lives as little as possible, but today I needed to ask for some of your time. The town council rules the town well, and I try not to interfere unless my assistance is requested. Currently all is well with the town governance. This gathering is not about town affairs.
"Instead I wish to make public a personal issue. Just as I try not to bother you with the details of how I magically defend our island, I also do not share all of my personal problems. Most are private, for I am human and struggle as we all do. But one of my flaws does affect you, and it has been hidden more than long enough.
"When I am done sharing this secret I will need your sympathy, forgiveness, and patience. I ask for them now, in advance. My wife will also need your support. Please be newly kind to her, especially in ways I cannot.
"First I need to talk about this crown. You may have heard rumors that with this magical crown I can control dragons. The rumors are true. It was crafted centuries ago by the legendary mage Valan, who knew more about magical creatures than any mage alive today."
"Dragons hoard magical items because I have asked them to do that. Dragons hoard gold because gold attracts adventurers carrying magical items. Some day the dragons will bring me their hoards, and I will retire and spend my elder days studying the magical items the dragons have brought me.
"All that is truth. But truth can be an awkward substance in a world with magic. Although what I have said is true, it is also a falsehood.
"There are really no such things as dragons. Dragons are not real creatures. They are merely the dreams of an enormous magical being who sleeps far beneath the continent. My crown does not control real fire-breathing reptiles. It alters the dreams of a sleeping monster.
"Is there a difference between such truth and falsehood? Does it matter if a dragon is a normal creature or a magical dream? Only to me. To the grazing beasts a dragon feeds upon it does not matter. To the adventurer fighting the dragon it does not matter.
"For years I did not know about the sleeping monster who dreams dragons. I thought my crown was controlling real dragons. But with time something began to change. I eventually discovered the sleeping monster. I discovered that my crown did not give me control over the minds of reptiles, but allowed me to interfere in a magical dream. That discovery took several years, but I was very determined to find the answer."
The Dragon stopped, and looked at his wife.
"Alyssum, I never told you why I fled from our marriage. I cannot imagine your bitterness and anger. I have created new rooms in my home specifically to avoid seeing you. I have not spoken to you in months, and that is typical."
The Dragon hesitated again.
Still looking at his wife, he said, "My shame is great. I have been a coward. Allow me to finally explain what I fear so strongly."
He stepped forward a step to the edge of the raised platform.
He took a deep breath and removed his thick, black gloves.
His hands were the scaly, red talons of a dragon.
"The crown began to change me," he quickly explained. "It was ten years ago. If I use the crown again it changes me more. I have not used it in nine years.
"My mind is also affected. I have become more violent, temperamental, and greedy.
"The crown links me to the magical dream of dragons, which is too powerful for me. I am becoming a dragon. It took me four years to discover why. In the six years since then I have made no progress towards a cure."
He paused, put his gloves back on, and then threw the crown to his feet.
"It does nothing to say I wish I had never acquired the crown. It does nothing to say I wish I could love my wife as she deserves. It does nothing to admit I rudely avoid looking at other women because they remind me of how I have betrayed Alyssum. If I apologize it is mere words. The damage is done, and I cannot repair what I have broken."
He paused again, tears beginning to appear in his eyes, then concluded, "I cannot ask for you to treat me as human, when I am halfway something else."
With a gesture and half-audible recitation he vanished.
"Wow," muttered Claude.
Marilla was pale and speechless.
Alyssum was already hidden within a flock of concerned townsfolk.
Crede looked at Jasmine, who was sniffling back a tear. He hesitated to lay a hand upon one of hers as she smiled at him. Then he asked, "Now what? Do you believe him?"
"Not believe him?" contested Claude. "Didn't you see his hands?"
"It could have been illusion or a reversible disguise," said Crede. "Two mages are fighting over the Sandy Isles now. Of course he wants to appear to be the virtuous one."
"No," corrected Marilla quietly. "He told correctly of years. It has been ten years since he began wearing those gloves. I am unwilling to believe he would do such a thing for a decade merely to win undeserved sympathy now."
"This is tricky," said Claude. "I had wondered why he was resisting The Knowers' demand for gold. But he can't tell his dragons to bring him gold for Those Ones if using the crown might destroy him."
"He doesn't need to," suggested Jasmine. "He admitted to us yesterday that most powerful mages, himself included, can use mage-magic to simply create gold. But it does mean that he cannot use the dragons to defend the island from Those Ones, or attack them. What if their acquiring more gold makes war necessary?"
"I wonder what Alyssum is thinking," said Marilla. "What a horrible thing to have happen. He cannot hold her hand or touch her face. It must be terrible."
Jasmine quickly asked, "Why did Alyssum stay on the island these past ten years, instead of leaving? Do they have children?"
"No," said Marilla. "But where would she go? She has had the town's sympathy, surely, but it would be unthinkable for her to leave the Dragon and find another romance on the island. And where else would she go?"
Jasmine held her tongue for a moment, as if she had to think about a reply. Then: "I have heard that she was born elsewhere. She could have returned to her family and homeland, I suppose?"
Claude shook his head. "I suggested that to her, one time years ago. She got this sad look on her face and told me, 'My parents are dead. It is a dangerous place.' I asked where it was but she ignored the question."
Crede spoke softly to Jasmine, barely more than a whisper, just loud enough to be polite within the group, "Yesterday the Dragon could not remember the name of her homeland either."
His implied deduction made Jasmine feel chills. She squeezed Crede's hand. Did her mother not remember where she was from? Did Fulmer's magic that protected Windsong cause even people born there to forget about it after they left? If so, was their current quest bounded by either days or months before they also forgot Windsong?
As Jasmine, Crede, and Chamomile made their way towards the exit of the great hall, escorted by Claude and Marilla, a woman's voice called out, "Marilla, stop. Bring them here."
They retraced their steps up the aisle between the two columns of benches and, once again at the front of the room, were approached by Alyssum.
Jasmine's disguise was still in place; the previous day and night had barely disturbed the makeup that darkened her skin tone and made her look older. Upon rising that morning she had smoothed out the flaws. Yet even with different coloration of skin and hair, and an age difference of about two decades, the two women looked so alike that Crede wondered how Alyssum could not notice.
Alyssum's face was more drawn, her mouth more stern, and her posture showed the slight slouch of those who spend more time sitting than standing. Her hair was elaborately braided and the braids were then arranged with hairpins, whereas Jasmine's hair fell loosely, managed only by a hair clip. Alyssum wore a richly embroidered dress of thick linen that bespoke her status as eloquently as the circlets worn by other baronesses. Jasmine wore a peasant's skirt, blouse, and laced bodice. Looking from one woman to the other a second time, Crede decided that he would be surprised if Claude and Marilla noticed the two women's' similarity. But Alyssum surely knew her own face well enough to notice its echo in Jasmine.
Alyssum, however, seemed interested only in Chamomile. She sat to be more at the girl's level, then introduced herself. "I am Alyssum, baroness of this island. I have heard you are a seer." At this Crede glanced at Marilla, who reddened under his glance. Alyssum continued, "Would you please explain a dream I had last night?"
Chamomile curtsied as elegantly as she could. "I am able, and will happily do you this service. Which dream? The one about being a seagull, or the one about having no hands and the muddy chicken?"
Alyssum colored slightly. "The second, please."
Chamomile breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good. Because the first one was just a pleasant dream and didn't mean anything in particular and that would have made an awfully short conversation."
The child took a step to one side and began to pantomime as she spoke. "The dream started with you panicking because you had no hands. They were gone. Someone must have stolen them. You stared at your wrists and felt anger and terror, offended that someone would do such a thing to you. Then a muddy chicken fell against your elbow, thumped to the ground, and ran away. Where your elbow was dirtied it began to feel painfully burned. I appeared, and told you that no one wants to hurt you..."
Chamomile stepped back to her original place, and pantomimed the wild arm motions of the next figure in the dream as she continued, "But someone else is trying to hold an angry, muddy chicken and sometimes it slips from his grasp and you get dirty because you are nearby..."
The young seer stepped back to her 'Alyssum and me' place and continued, "Then I took out a rag and began to wipe your arm. The wiping clean brightened your clothing, healed your elbow, and when I wiped past your wrists your hands reappeared. As I cleaned you, the rag was pushing mud from your arms, which fell and pooled on the floor in the shape of a chicken. Then the mud on the floor turned to blood. The mud represented taint, and the chicken represented fear. Not having hands represented being unable to touch things. The pain represented other pain. And the blood represented wounds."
No one spoke for a while, at first because they were not sure if Chamomile was finished speaking, and then because they were not sure what to say. Finally, Chamomile broke the silence by asking Alyssum, "Do you want someone to come with you?"
Alyssum tried to scowl, but it turned into a mournful sigh. "No. After all these years it turns out he is simply an idiotically confused and frightened man who acts like a jerk because he was too lazy to do otherwise. I can manage alone. But thank you, seer, for explaining my dream. If seers pray, please pray for us."
Chamomile gave Alyssum one of those tightlipped smiles, so easy for children, which radiate hope and optimism. "If having hopes and disappointments counts as prayer, then even the Architect prays."
Alyssum managed a weak smile. "You did not answer the implied question."
Chamomile smiled back. "I'm a seer, m'lady. You have just received the longest straight answer to someone's question that I have ever provided. You are special indeed. It is not usually within my calling to answer questions with straight answers."
Alyssum stood up from the bench. With more passion she said, "Your innocence also encourages me. But I am still so angry I want to break his nose."
Crede hesitantly added, "Why not? He's a mage and can fix it."
Jasmine shot Crede a scornful look and grumbled, "Some hero you are." But Alyssum had already fallen back to sitting, and she was laughing as no one there could ever remember having seen.
The Dragon was in his room, sitting in an only somewhat comfortable chair. His gloves had been tossed on the bed. He hated them. Currently he was debating whether to destroy them. Shredding them with his accursed claws would be a fitting end to this chapter in his life. The gloves were a thick leather, so the effort would be time consuming; his fingernails (talons?) would bite deep into the leather in a satisfying way. But he also realized the gloves would still make people more comfortable in his presence. Was keeping them being dishonest and hiding from his nature? Would shredding them be giving into to his dragonish side? Both alternatives frightened him. Why must everything about dragons frighten him?
There was a knock at the door behind him. He did not respond, but the door opened anyway. He heard Alyssum cross the room to stand behind his chair.
Of course he still recognized her footsteps. And dreamed about her face.
A fairy would not have been able to mimic her footsteps. He waved a hand in a more jerky movement than he intended; an illusion of a flower appeared beside his chair for the time of two breaths, then vanished.
She whispered, "You don't need to say anything. You don't even need to open your eyes." Then she circled around his chair to stand before him. His eyes had been closed. He kept them closed, and heard her sniffle.
She touched his shoulders, timidly but firmly brushing the curve down his neck and across his shoulder. He did not want to open his eyes; it seemed that if he did she might flee. It was the first time either had touched the other in years. How many? Eight? Nine? He had accumulated so much experience at forcing away the memories of their growing distant that now he could not clearly remember. His hands had been noticeably unhuman nine and a half years ago. It must have been that long ago.
"You still love me?" she asked.
"So much it hurts. I love you even more than I did the day of our wedding."
"You did not quite say that during your speech."
"I thought about including it at the beginning. It would have seemed trite."
"I knew the answer. But I asked anyway because I needed to hear your voice say it."
"I knew you knew. I love you dearly. But...our marriage has two people.
She stopped one hand's brushing, and with the other pressed her palm to his forehead. He relaxed his head and let her hold its weight.
Then she drew back, only briefly, and sat in his lap. She took his head in both hands and drew it to her breast, where one hand held it close as the other toyed with his hair.
She whispered, "You have a curse. Just because I have a reason to pity you does not mean I love you any less. I do love you. Maybe seeing that again will help you regain loving yourself."
Perhaps he did not hear.
The hand that was in his hair went away for a moment. It returned, touching his cheek, depositing there one of her tears.
She moved her other hand, her left hand, down his head. Its pinky finger stretched down the back of his neck and under his necklace's chain. The necklace contained most of his protective spells, including the standard one preventing anyone from intentionally harming him. But now her pinky finger was within it also.
With her right hand she made a fist and punched his nose as hard as she could.
He screamed and opened his eyes, looking at her incredulously. With great effort he kept his hands beside his legs. He did not want to hurt her accidentally.
"Ouch," she said, rubbing her hand.
"You broke my nose!" he exclaimed, still stuck within that thought.
She smiled and stroked his hair again. "That was for being a jerk for ten years." She took a deep breath and added, "Now I feel better."
"You broke my nose!" he repeated, vaguely aware that his contribution to the conversation was not helping.
She laughed. "And it's bleeding all over my nice dress. But it doesn't matter, does it? Not really. The dress is just a dress, and you can heal your nose. Oh, my. I get my hands back and look what I do with them." She laughed again.
He looked up at her face, her eyes and cheeks still wet with tears but now also glistening with laughter.
She laughed again. "Oh, my. I was so worried about what to do or say after your speech. I did not want to do the wrong thing. Then I...realized I was as bad as you, in exactly the same way. You have been afraid of doing the wrong thing for all this time. But I love you, and you love me, and it's real love that is willing to deal with problems. So the wrong thing isn't such a big deal after all." She laughed again, and this time he was finally alert enough to hear the relief in the laugh, and how it desperately was digging at buried pain to expel it.
He realized her eyes reminded him of the seer's, yesterday, when she had been so carefree about remodeling his entire life. And he laughed with his wife, the same laugh, meanwhile with choking gasps saying for a third time, "You...broke my nose!"—but this time it was an appreciative reminiscence that added to the conversation.
After they stopped laughing, and she stood up, he stood also and went to put on his gloves. She looked at with silent inquiry, to which he responded by tearing the bed's thick blanket with a gentle brush of one finger. "I don't want to hurt you any more," he added. "Even if we have new, unspoken vows to deal with problems, let's avoid accidents."
He then asked to inspect her hand. She held it up, and found she had hurt it more than either of them had realized. He magically healed it first. Then he healed his nose.
She touched the repaired nose with one finger. "You don't want a crooked nose as a memorial of all this?"
"No," he replied. "I will remember." He went to the washbasin and dipped a cloth in warm water. Then he wrung it out and brought it to his wife. "Will you clean my face? It feels miserably covered with blood and tears."
She did so, and he in turn dabbed clean her cheeks. He tossed the cloth back into the basin.
She hugged him tightly. "I knew you were a wonderful man. The hiding, being afraid of losing anything, but not noticing it is more painful to be alone: that was the dragon in you. You're a terrible dragon. Just be the wonderful man."
He put his arms around her too. He held her only with his arms, not his hands. "I have forgotten how. We will both need patience. Will...will you go for a walk with me this evening along the beach? We used to do that. Holding you like this makes my stomach twist up and my heart ache. Maybe a walk along the beach will be a safe way to start."
She released him, and his arms drifted away from her. She took a step back, and smiled, and took hold of one of his large, gloved fingers. A tear appeared in one eye. "It would be a pleasure," she agreed. "Right now I feel odd, that you are having troubles that I am not. But I'm sure that once I'm alone I'll have my own internal conflicts and hysteria. But, yes, a walk this evening at sunset would be perfect." Another tear appeared. "Already?" she whispered. Then she let go of his hand, stepped forward, clutched him tightly for one long sniffle, and then fled from the room.
A minute later Chamomile entered his room. "Hello!" she called to him cheerfully. "I stopped Alyssum in the hallway and asked if she would agree to your scheduling a town feast this evening in the great hall, at half an hour before sunset. The sight of her running, crying, to her room while wearing bloodied clothes will start all sorts of dreadful rumors which should be dispelled quickly. She didn't like my interrupting her and agreed quickly."
The Dragon managed a wan smile. Even after Alyssum washed his face his countenance still looked rumpled. "You are helpful in unexpected ways, little seer. I thank you." After a brief pause he added, "Alyssum spoke of a realization that has since brought us together with new hope. Were you involved?"
Chamomile blushed. "I was in one of her dreams last night. After your speech she found me and asked what it meant. It was a dream to give her courage. Then Alyssum mentioned she was mad enough to hit you, and Crede encouraged her to do so. That was not at all related to the dream or my counsel."
The Dragon laughed. "So he was the one to save the kingdom after all, by encouraging my wife to spousal violence. An interesting hero, that one."
Chamomile looked more serious. "Your kingdom is neither safe nor saved yet."
"True," sighed the Dragon. "I wish I knew what to do."
Chamomile approached him and took hold of one of his hands with both of her tiny ones. "Soon you will. And on your walk this evening you will meet the two survivors of the Battlemaster's town. They will be helpful too."
The Dragon looked askance at her. "I've taken some occasion to briefly spy on the ship that dropped you off as it sits anchored not far off my coast. I know the pair. Did you appear to them in a dream also, telling them to come ashore at sunset?"
Chamomile blushed again.
"You work a busy night," the Dragon mused with a smile.
"Oh yes," agreed Chamomile with an enthusiasm that both belittled and invigorated her sarcasm, "all that appearing in people's dreams really tires me out."
The Dragon thought for a moment and then frowned at her. "I don't think you can lie," he said, "but that last sentence of yours asserted no meaningful information besides a sarcastic attitude."
"So?" asked the seer.
"Fair enough," agreed the Dragon.
Chamomile left the Dragon's room and went back up to ground level. She crossed the castle courtyard and found Marilla in the child care building with a dozen other children whose parents were still in the great hall—the conversations there continuing even an hour after the Dragon's announcement had ended.
She went up to Marilla, squished the grub the woman handed her, and suggested, "Let's all make a garden beside the building. The Dragon likes gardens and he's probably sad now. A garden would cheer him up."
Everyone else thought this would be a wonderful idea, either because they wanted to cheer up the Dragon, or impress him, or simply play in the dirt. Marilla rang her bell which summoned a guard, whom she sent to acquire rakes and spades for the children to use and one larger shovel for herself.
After half an hour the enthusiasm for the project had faded. They had dug up a small square plot of the courtyard behind the child care building, at the base of the wall opposite the courtyard entrance. They had removed the bigger rocks and scattered some vegetable seeds that the helpful guard had fetched from the kitchen. Now only half of the children remained; the others had been collected by parents who were finally leaving the castle and returning to the town.
On the doorstep everyone used a towel to wipe their hands and arms and knees before returning inside to other entertainments. Chamomile lingered and was the last to clean up.
"I'll be in soon," she told Marilla. "Don't wait for me. I want to do a bit more finishing up of the garden."
Marilla's reply had the half-present quality of an adult who is actually spending most of her attention watching a half dozen other children through a doorway. "Why? It looks very nice. We did a good job. I was happy the toddlers kept at it as long as they did."
Chamomile answered, "Because later today we'll be kidnapped and I want you to know everything will be all right."
Marilla was barely listening to Chamomile and the scattered words from Chamomile's reply which Marilla did fully hear made no sense at that moment, although later she would be able to recall the entire sentence. Confused but occupied with other concerns, Marilla said, "That's nice, dear," to Chamomile and then went inside.
Chamomile entered the room a few minutes later, hugged Marilla, and then left to find Alyssum.
Alyssum was in her own room. She had dried her tears but was still downcast when Chamomile entered.
She smiled at the girl, although it was obviously a forced gesture of politeness. "Please let me be," she asked. "I think I am done crying, but I still have no words."
Chamomile nodded sympathetically, her face also drooping. Then she brightened momentarily and said, "I have lots of words. Do you want one? How about indubitably? It is fun to say even when you are sad." Then she left, closing the door softly behind her.
The kitchen staff was also at a loss for words. A moment ago a dozen fairies had appeared as if from nowhere, now shaped as humans with sinister eyes and sly, cruel grins. One fairy seemed to be the spokesman for the group.
"Listen quick," he snarled. "This castle has been thoroughly scouted and explored. I know this kitchen has one very large storage room, and a much smaller one that is kept magically chilled. The large one can do two things now. Option one: I can kill you all, which will cause me to revert to my true shape, and then I hide in the storage room until the Dragon surrenders. Option two: you go in there now and we let you out when the Dragon surrenders. All in favor of option two get moving!"
Only one of the kitchen staff hesitated in fleeing to the specified pantry. The sole resistor was an immense, burly chef who was already holding a large cleaver. He growled and stomped towards the fairy spokesman.
That fairy changed into an enormous bear, which towered over the chef even more than the chef normally towered over other people. The bear gnashed its terrible teeth and drew back one powerful arm, ready to swipe with its huge claw.
A second fairy commented, "He's not dropping the cleaver. I'll go find something to tourniquet the stump of his arm."
The chef dropped the cleaver and surrendered, fleeing into the pantry. The bear turned back into a person.
As the pantry door was locked shut the lead fairy addressed his fellows, "You also heard the guards downstairs. The entire town will eat our food at half an hour before sunset. We'll have them all in our power, and not have to kill anyone. But by the Homeland's green have we got a lot of work to do!"
The fairies had each selected a member of the kitchen staff as those captives had headed into the pantry. Their appearances changed again, and it once more appeared as if the kitchen was functioning normally.
Marilla had said farewell to the last of her charges and then walked across the courtyard to get a snack. She was surprised to find the kitchen in a frenzy, and learned that the entire town was gathering again for dinner.
"Don't you have any cookies?" she asked. "You always have some cookies for us to snack on after lunch."
"Sorry, miss," said a harried cook. "We always have more than a few hours' notice before feeding the entire town. But always seems to be a bit different today."
Marilla looked sharply at the cook. "Miss? You always remembered my name before, dear."
The cook blushed. "Sorry, Baked Roast. My apologies, Lamb Sauté. You can see which names are in my head at this moment." He quickly added, "Have some pastry," pointing to a tray on a nearby table. "As good as a cookie, and one won't be missed tonight."
"Thank you," said Marilla. She took a pastry and hurried from the kitchen back toward her building.
"Arg," muttered the cook. "Now we don't know who is going to eat that. I hope she does quickly. Wouldn't do to have people acting strangely too early, or to have her comment on us being suspicious."
Another kitchen fairy commented, "I'll deal with her," and quickly followed after Marilla, changing into a cat as he set down a pot.
Marilla peeked in the doorway of the child care building, but no one was there. Good. Sometimes parents with children stopped by when she was on one of her quick breaks, and that was always awkward.
She was curious about the garden. What finishing touches had Chamomile made? The girl had not delayed long enough to make a border of rocks or anything so fancy.
Circling the building she gasped and dropped the pastry. The garden had grown. It was huge and lush, as blooming and fruitful as an entire summer's care could produce. The tomato plants were waist-high tangles of vines. The squash spread out from the square plot's corners to claim additional land. The carrot greens were huge. The lettuce was tall and leafy, looking almost ready to go to seed.
She noticed a rabbit pawing about, nibbling here and there. "Aw, you're cute," she said, stepping softly towards it. "Do you already have a burrow? Lots of cats are kept in this castle and town to catch mice. I'd make a safe home before snacking, myself."
The rabbit looked at her and snarled, "Who can see us here?" as it changed into a man, who grabbed her and forced her to the ground while covering her mouth. Then with his free hand he took the pastry from where it had fallen and crammed it into her mouth.
A dreamy look came over her eyes. The man released her. They both stood up. He gently took her hand, and softly commented, "Wow. That was quick. Quite something, those pastries." Looking into Marilla's eyes he suggested, "There's more food in the kitchen."
Marilla nodded, her eyes wandering wistfully. "Thank you," she said.
The man bowed formally, then released her hand. "A pleasure to help you, miss. I am sorry your clothes got dirty. I did not think to grab my own pastry before pursuing you. Please accept my sincere regrets."
Marilla smiled at him. She had such a headache. But it was a pleasant, satisfying sort of fog—similar to how sleep is so attractive and weighty just as one wakes from a poor night's slumber. "Thank you," she mumbled again, unsure what he had said except for its pleasant tone. And something about food in the kitchen.
A second man appeared beside them. "News," he announced, looking only at the first fairy. "A distraction is requested. Occupying this child care building while holding this woman hostage will suffice. Shall we?"
The first fairy smiled. "It sounds more interesting than cooking." Turning to Marilla he pointed at the building beside them and commented, "There is better food in this building." He turned into a cat again.
Marilla watched the cat scamper around the corner. Such a nice, young man. Very gentlemanly and graceful. Oh, the child care building. More food, yes. Better food.
The second fairy, now apparently a man dressed in the uniform of the castle guard, walked beside her as they went into the building.
Chamomile headed back to the courtyard from Alyssum's room. While climbing the stairway that connected the ground level and the bedrooms she was almost trampled by a guard she did not know who ran down the stairs past her.
She found Crede and Jasmine by the entrance to the courtyard by the weapon rack, talking in an excited and upset manner with Claude and two other guards. They quieted as she approached. The guard gave her a grub, which she squished.
Crede summarized the situation. "My sword is gone. The Dragon had hinted it was more powerful than it appeared. So did the Eldrich's letter. We're afraid a fairy stole it. If it truly is designed to kill a mage then perhaps the Dragon is in increased danger. A messenger has been sent to inform him, and ask him to come here."
The Dragon arrived shortly, walking so briskly it was almost a run. The messenger was not with him. To identify himself he cast a quick spell that made Chamomile's hair stick out, statically charged.
"Really, they are clever," he mused, mostly to himself, speaking as quickly as he had been walking. They have not tried impersonating anyone since we started using the grubs. But I was wrong to assume they were idle. I had not realized theft was a threat. Well, this mystery will be quick to solve. Excuse me, Crede, but there is a straight line of magic I can see which connects your ring and the sword and I must triangulate..."
The Dragon muttered a phrase half rooted in sound, then gestured with both hands parallel. Crede flew across the courtyard and paused, hovering in the air. The Dragon lifted his hands, still keeping them parallel, and Crede quickly rose high into the air. The Dragon muttered, "The child care building," then with a third sweep of his hands gently deposited Crede back on the ground.
The Dragon stormed across the courtyard to the child care center. The guards, Jasmine, and Chamomile hurried after him. Crede ran also, in approach from where he had landed.
The Dragon paused at the building's door, nodded to the guards, and quickly entered. The guards hurried in after him.
Jasmine waited outside for Crede, who was running to her from the far side of the building. Chamomile also waited, and held one of Jasmine's hands. The three of them heard the voices of those speaking inside.
"So," said the Dragon. "I requested diplomacy and you raid my castle and take a young woman hostage."
A different voice, higher and more liquid, replied, "Not so. This is diplomacy. I just wanted a little protection. You do fancy yourself an honorable man, and I do not think you will cast spells or have your guards rush us at the cost of this pretty woman's life. But if she was not my captive, wouldn't you try to capture me? So now let us have our diplomacy, and with the captured sword and woman I know you will not try any magic trickery."
Claude's voice spoke scornfully to Marilla's captor: "There are four of us and only two of you. He's a mage; I'd bet his magic could save Marilla. We might not be so helpless."
The fairy's voice answered, "The Dragon knows that killing even one of us would doom this island to a grievous war which no one desires. We would win with our vast numbers of warriors who all have magical powers. But there would be many losses. Let us simply talk."
The Dragon said slowly, "Very well. Talk."
The fairy began, "The real issue is that you must leave the Sandy Isles. We hoped to get enough gold from the Eldrich to make a glamour—an illusion powered by fairy 'magic'—that would scare you away. But that fool has very little gold and is not otherwise helpful. So now we try diplomacy. Please leave. There are other places your plans can carry on unhindered. We can even suggest some."
The Dragon chuckled. "Leave? Even if it is true that I can relocate without much difficulty—my townsfolk would be bothered more than I—there is my pride to deal with. Pride alone caused me to fight to stay here for thirty years. Now you want me to pack my bags simply because you ask?"
"Yes," said the fairy.
"Ha!" laughed the Dragon. "Why should I? I am the Dragon! I am not about to run from a mob of annoying complainers. I will not flee..." he paused, changing his bitter tone to something mellower, "although perhaps I could be enticed. How much are these islands worth to you?"
From outside the one-room building, Crede and Jasmine thought they could hear the fairy smile.
"What type of price would interest you?" asked the fairy.
The Dragon scratched his chin. "Really, I am not sure. I can create gold with my magic. I have vast amounts of power. I have no interest in politics or conquest. All I could possibly want is some peace and quiet to pursue my magical studies. So how about...you leave the Sandy Isles?"
The fairy scowled, "You mock us!"
"Yes," said the Dragon, his tone mimicking the fairy's earlier 'yes'.
Claude interrupted, falling onto one knee as he spoke. "Please pardon me," he said, looking at the Dragon. "Who am I to interrupt? But there is something, my lord, which your people now know you want, and we would gladly relocate if that small trouble would acquire it for you..."
The Dragon glared at Claude but said nothing.
"Ah, yes," said the fairy, its high and liquid voice becoming oily. "Our spying has found all your secrets, Dragon, so do not think we lack information you even announced publicly. For your hands—for your humanity restored—would you leave these islands?"
The Dragon said nothing.
A small voice added, "You don't know how to give him that." Chamomile stepped forward though the forest of guards' legs to face the fairies.
The second fairy, staring at the small girl whose long hair was still extended straight out every which way, muttered, "Dragon, who or what is it?"
Chamomile lifted her chin proudly and replied, "I'm a little girl. And you can't promise what you cannot deliver."
The first fairy scowled. "We have not made any promises yet. Indeed, I know not what my superiors are capable of, and must ask them about this development. But it seems this session of diplomacy is over: the Dragon is clearly considering if a proposed payment is sufficient, and we need to confirm it is something we can pay. Perhaps I should leave now, with this sword and captive."
Chamomile added, "You should take me instead of her."
The fairy grinned. "Why would I do that?"
Chamomile replied, "Gthnooyi albartin, muthrahvil art Owrni," which, once translated, means, "[Because] otherwise you-will-never-know [why] I-can-speak [the language of] elite-or-high-caste fairy."
"Grab her," said the first fairy to the second. But the second fairy was already doing so.
"Now let Marilla go," said Chamomile.
The first fairy released Marilla, who stared at him dreamily.
Chamomile smiled at Marilla. "Be well from the fairy food," she said soothingly. As the young woman's eyes cleared the seer added, "I'd pet your forehead, but someone is holding my arms."
Marilla made a noise that held something of both a scream and moan, and then fainted.
Chamomile looked at the Dragon and Claude. "She's had a hard day. Be good to her, please. Everything will be all right."
The Dragon frowned at Chamomile. "I can kill them, and rescue you and the sword." Chamomile smiled at him. "Please don't start a war. I have had my chance to talk here. Now my words are needed elsewhere."
The Dragon's frown deepened. "You can be such a bother! Can't you ever just fix things instead of dealing with the root cause of the problem?" He managed a weak smile, for her sake, glancing at the cured Marilla, then said to the fairy holding her, "Leave with your captive. But if you hurt her I'll find you and kill you."
Chamomile replied, "Don't worry. These are evil fairies, not evil humans."
Outside the room Crede's face went white. Jasmine tried to hold his hand, but he withdrew it.
The Dragon added, "I expect her back within three days with news about if you can actually cure my problem."
The first fairy, who still held the magic sword and who had walked to stand beside the fairy holding Chamomile, replied, "I approve of that plan but cannot make such a promise."
Crede and Jasmine stepped back from the door and watched the fairies leave the building.
Once in the courtyard they looked at each other and whispered something about "...too heavy to carry alone." Two beetles beside them changed into two other fairies. The fairy with the sword handed it to one of these others. Then the first fairy reached for the hand of the second. With firmly clasped hands they together changed shape into a giant eagle, which picked up Chamomile and carried her off. The other two fairies changed into eagles—still giant but slightly smaller—and they leapt from the ground to fly with the first eagle, one carrying the captured sword.
Jasmine's jaw dropped as she watched them fly away. She tried to say something to Crede but it only came out a mumble: "Did you..."
"What?" Crede asked.
Jasmine tried again. "Did you ever see anything so beautiful? Their wings, their motion..."
The Dragon had come out of the building in time to hear her question. He sighed, watching the giant birds in the distance. "Yes," he said answered, his deep voice rich with nostalgia. "And larger and more gracefully beautiful still. That was how it began."
Jasmine and Crede simultaneously grasped the meaning of his words. But Crede commented unmercifully, "If I piece together parts of the conversation in there, I deduce she is only a captive because of your pride."
The Dragon's face hardened, but he did not take his eyes from the sight of the giant eagles—now tiny in the sky. Finally he commented, "Why would the fairies want these islands? It is sometimes dangerous to give in to bullies. There is more than my pride involved." He paused, then continued, "This morning she freed much from the grip of my pride. I did not imagine she would pay that price herself, if indeed that is what is happening. But I do not believe the world is so simple a place as that."
When the giant eagles could no longer be seen he looked at both Crede and Jasmine. "Can either of you move silently?" he asked, pointing from one of them to the other.
Jasmine raised her hand.
"Good," said the Dragon. He twisted a ring upon his right hand and shrunk to the size of a doll. She picked him up. He reached forward and touched her forehead, and his voice sounded in her head: "Silently take me to each of the kitchen's doors. There was fairy food upon my island, and with a feast for the entire population planned I can guess where it came from. Especially knowing Marilla's habits. I will seal them in the kitchen. Assume spies as small as ants and fleas are everywhere, so do not say a word. I'll make us invisible. Ready? Go..."
Crede saw them vanish. From inside the building Crede could hear Claude giving orders to the other guards about resuming their duties, watching for spies, and fetching some water and blankets so he could make Marilla comfortable until she woke up.
Then Crede looked towards the sky again, thinking of Chamomile. "You took my viciousness," he whispered, "and now this mage-baron's pride. Is the world 'so simple a place as that'? What vice will you take from the Eldrich?" Silently he concluded, "It's unfair to say I am going to save this island and then to leave me without you. Let the Dragon save it, and his wife. It would do his tortured soul great good."
There was no reply but a memory: it was precisely because Crede had saved Windsong from himself that now he was unable to live there in peace.
The heavy door to the dungeon cell closed behind Chamomile. The guard outside it looked at her through its small, barred window. Then his face vanished.
She was not alone. In the corner, curled upon a careful arrangement of thin blankets, was the mage known as the Eldrich. He had been asleep until the clang of the closing door had woken him.
Chamomile sat down with the ungainly ease of a girl so young. "Hello," she said.
The Eldrich raised his eyebrows and quirked his mouth. "You're back," he said. "I thought you would be. You're the last thing left that the fairies don't understand. I told them you were not what you seem, but they did not believe me. What happened to your hair?"
Chamomile giggled. "The Dragon had make it all sticky-outy and then I was carried for half an hour by a very fast giant bird. That's why it's all cone-shaped." She paused, then said, "Thank you for the magic rings that helped my friends. What did the fairies want the rings to do?"
The Eldrich laughed, slightly maniacally. "To keep you unconscious and eventually explode, as the letter implied and said. It was my last chance to disobey." He looked sad.
Chamomile frowned in sympathy. "When did they steal your island from you, and have their leader take your place?"
The Eldrich chuckled, which was even more disturbing than his laugh. "From the beginning they stole my island, although I did not realize their requests amounted to that until recently. For twenty-five more years they seemed friendly. They lived on my skunk island, and glamoured it all pretty. Apparently it was easier for them to look like skunks to the other mages' spying than to look like nothing at all. And they did not mind the real skunks. Mine are so friendly, of course. In the beginning everything was happy, until the Contests started. My poor skunks! So many died! But I could do nothing to stop it!" He broke down and cried for a while. Chamomile waited patiently, his sorrow still mirrored on her face.
Later he continued, "Five years ago I was allowed to send my people away. The Knowers let me do that. I was their only captive. They needed my magic to continue to fool the other mages. Still, all went fairly well until the Battlemaster's island was wiped out. Only then was I impersonated. Now Those Ones fear—rightfully so, I suppose—that the Dragon will annihilate their island next, and this one of mine. But they don't care about this one. I think they can only live on that one island of theirs. Or only have offspring there, or something."
Chamomile crawled over to sit beside him. She held one of his hands in both of hers.
The Eldrich said, "I like it here in this room, except I wish I had a real mattress. It is relaxing here. At the end, they only needed me to do the communication globe. But still there were threats and fear to keep me obedient. Now they simply don't care about me. They took away my storage devices, so I have no more magical energy to work with. I am not a threat. I know too much, so I stay here. I would go crazy, but compared to the past strain this cell seems somewhat idyllic. Maybe I am crazy already? I don't even know what you are."
"I'm a seer," said Chamomile. "Just like the Dragon said when you used the communication globe for the final time. I am here to save you, and teach the fairies, and punish their ruler."
"What is a seer?" asked the Eldrich.
Chamomile thought for a moment before answering. "You just need to know I have the Builder's authority, to build the world according to the Architect's plan. Despite appearances, Taint does not have free reign to try what he desires. This is usually not visible because the plan for one person's life can go wayward an awfully large amount before it would eternally damage the plan for another person's life. People can even kill people. But sometimes Taint manages to do the very most he can, and then people use their free will to bend things a little further...Then a seer is needed to fix things. This life is not fair. Not at all. But heaven makes things fair. But if this life is not life...heaven cannot fix that. A seer is needed. Sometimes more than a seer."
The Eldrich frowned. "You say too many words. I do not understand."
Chamomile patted his hand. "Hm. I sometimes don't either. But the Architect does. He has his plan. We just do our share."
After a moment the Eldrich asked, "What now?"
Chamomile thought a bit and then said, "I need to speak with the ruler of the fairies. I thought I would be taken to him when I arrived. But they locked me in here instead. Maybe they would take me to him if we redecorated? Tell me about the bedroom and study for which you yearn..."
Redecorating took a long time. They both laughed often, as a furnishing appeared, was criticized, disappeared, was replaced by something else, and eventually was accepted. Then the room's new contents had to be rearranged a dozen times before the Eldrich declared everything perfect.
The guard returned at sunset. He set their plates of dinner down on the floor beside the cell's door and fiddled with his ring of keys. Before unlocking the door he peeked through its small window. He hollered, then fled back up from the dungeon.
The Eldrich laughed. "I think we've been seen. That means our dinner is still outside. Oh well. We have the snacks hidden in the wardrobe, like when I was at academy. I never would have thought of having an extra bed especially made for jumping upon. Today was fun."
A group of guards came to take Chamomile away. They grabbed her hand roughly and pulled her after them.
Chamomile looked up at one as they hurried her down the hallway. "I'm going to talk with your leader?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied in a high yet gruff voice.
"Alone?" asked Chamomile.
The guard looked slightly surprised. "Yes," he repeated.
Chamomile said nothing. A few minutes later, she was unceremoniously pushed into the throne room. The throne room's door closed behind her with a thud every bit as final as that of the prison cell's door.
The Eldrich—the fairy one—sat upon his throne and watched her get to her feet and brush off her skirt.
Standing, she looked at him calmly.
He studied her rather more intently.
She shrugged and sat down.
"Come here," he said firmly. "Stand before me so I may look at you better. You are a very confusing thing. My mage said you were unusual to mage sight. It was you, not the Dragon, who subdued that spy. The bricks within this castle's stonework that detect magic do not glow when you pass, yet without a magical energy storage item much magic has obviously been worked within your prison cell. Perhaps you are enchanted to store magical energy. That would be a clever reason to involve a child in politics and intrigue. Too bad that fool mage wasted it creating furniture instead of escaping. I had not realized his sanity had slipped so far. Who taught you a phrase of art Owrni?"
Chamomile had walked up to him while he spoke. In answer to his last question she replied, "The Architect."
The Eldrich's gaze became even harsher. In a dry voice he said, "Ah, the Architect and the Builder...I am amazed when humans must invent stories about being intelligently designed and created beings. But I have never heard of these creators actually doing anything specific, let alone providing language instruction to children."
Chamomile put her hands on her hips and said defensively, "Valan, the great builder, spoke often with the Builder. Be careful, Fairy King, of how you speak. By your own words you will be judged."
The Fairy King laughed, but lightly and grimly. "Do not say Valan's name again, child. To speak it as you did, and then to threaten me in your next breath! Seeing death will be too good for you. But it will serve to cure your impudence." He drew a dagger and began to rise.
Chamomile smiled broadly. "Well spoken! Let us go before you say something terrible." She ran to the doorway by which she entered. She tried the door's handle, but the door had been locked.
The Eldrich laughed again, more richly this time. "You are as crazy as my mage. Very well. You cannot escape. And I alone of all the fairies can kill." He crossed the room after her, stepping with sedate, calm purpose.
Chamomile ran to a closet door. As the fairy Eldrich approached she said, "Your lies are empty breath, Toy One. All can kill, but only you have done so." She opened the door.
Through the doorway the expected closet was not visible. Instead there was a large, green pasture, bounded in various directions by forests or lake or mountains or sea. Perhaps it was not actually a pasture used for grazing, although it seemed too well groomed to be called a grassland. Many families were picnicking upon its soft carpet. Other families were busy with a plethora of entertainments: sports of kinds both recognizable and unfamiliar, kite flying, flower gathering, petting or riding various animals, or sitting in circles telling stories or singing songs. The colors of the vegetation were atypically vibrant and cheerful. The sunlight was unusually clear and bright and nourishing. One of the horses being ridden was a unicorn. A small dragon was flying among the kites, evidently sharing some game with the kite-fliers. Chamomile took a few steps into that other world, then tapped the shoulder of a large man who had been sitting with his back to the door. He stood and took her hand, and they turned to face the doorway and the Eldrich.
The man was very tall and broad, dressed only in heavy trousers, a broad belt, and sandals. There was a small hole that went all the way through his chest, from front to back, just below his heart. He saw the Eldrich and waved with his free hand. Stepping through the closet doorway and into the room he called with a cheerful voice that mocked the sarcasm of his words, "Well, Toy One, you have not changed, except with your choice of weapon. How are the others doing? Did you teach them violence too?"
The Fairy Eldrich croaked one word, "Valan..." before falling to the ground in a wailing heap. The dagger clanged against the floor and bounced.
Valan strode over to the quivering fairy, stooped down, and then stood again, picking up the fairy under both armpits. He held the thin, limp figure up before him, raising it up above his own level so its feet dangled. "I am teasing you," he said, kindly now. "I have watched you a good deal. I know you have changed greatly. I know how the others are doing. I know you have done no violence since that first time when you killed me. And I know the torment you have lived with. I forgive you—I even choose to keep the wound, for in an odd way it keeps a bit of you with me in heaven. Ha! It's not the most flattering memorabilia from you, I admit, but it's the only one I could keep after I died."
Valan walked over to the throne and set the Fairy King upon it. "I must go, my son," he said, hesitantly. "I desire to stay and speak more and hear your words once this shock passes from you, but each moment in this first, tainted world is more painful than you can imagine." He let go of the fairy's armpits, kissed a pale cheek, and then walked quickly back to the closet doorway. There he turned, called out, "I am proud of you, my son," and left, closing the closet door behind him.
Chamomile crossed the room and again stood before the fairy Eldrich. She looked up at him, wiping a tear from an eye, and began to talk in a voice little more than a whisper. "I know more than art Owrni," she said. "I know Valan created you and the others, upon the neighboring isle. I know you do not age there, but elsewhere grow old and die. I know you cannot reproduce. I know you wonder if Valan's Toys can go to heaven." She paused, and pointed a small finger at him before continuing, "I know you once disliked being a servant and entertainer and in a fit of rage slew Valan, who trusted you completely. I know of your horror, and that when you rose to lead the fairies you told them stories about not being capable of killing. I know of your fear today, summoning me and wondering if you would have to kill again, terribly alone."
She curtsied to the Fairy King, who still dangled limply in his throne. He was conscious, and heard her, but made no motion or sound to acknowledge this.
Chamomile turned and walked to the throne room's main doors. Then she also turned to offer parting words. "I also know how you can save your people and redeem yourself," she said, lovingly despite the distance.
Then she faced the door, and reached for its handle. It opened when she pulled. She left the throne room.
In the dungeon the other Eldrich discovered that one of the drawers in his cell's new desk was full of pretty rocks. He loved pretty rocks! Once, when he was a child, he had owned quite a collection. There had been a large red one with stripes of green, just like this one. And there had been a triangular piece of sandstone glittering with flakes of mica—just like that one. Wait a minute...
At sunset the Dragon and Alyssum met at the beach closest to the castle. They began to walk, not holding hands but looking at each other as if they were.
"That was very well done this evening," Alyssum said, the happy tone seeming odd in her throat. She touched her new necklace pendant. "You must still be exhausted."
"Yes," the Dragon laughed. "But we are safer."
He had succeeded in capturing the fairies in the castle kitchen. First he had secured the exits. Then he had entered the kitchen himself and paralyzed them by magic. Then he used one fairy as the subject of some magical tests. After a long and difficult hour he finally discovered how mage-magic could distinguish fairies from normal people—revealing as a half-expected bonus the presence of a dozen more fairies in the kitchen, disguised as small insects. He paralyzed those as well, then released the human captives from the walk-in pantry. They burned any food that might possibly have fairy power. Then the Dragon ordered everyone to remain hidden in the kitchen until dinner, and secretly went to his workroom.
There he manufactured new necklace pendants for his entire populace. No longer would they need to wear small clay pots and squish disgusting grubs. These new pendants were pretty, as jewelry should be, and would cause any fairies nearby to glow with a red aura.
The community dinner had no food, but no one complained. The Dragon gave that day's second speech, describing the day's events and explaining the new necklace pendants. He even managed to tell, briefly, about his reunion with his wife and the nose breaking. That tale had been short and humorous enough to help him regain esteem among those who had been most affected that morning by the sight of his hands.
When the new necklace pendants were distributed there was a second amusement. As people left the castle and returned to their homes and workplaces a large exodus of small, glowing animals fled before them and exited the island, some changing into birds along the way, others changing into fish at the shore.
The Dragon smiled at the memory, and kept the smile as he looked at his wife. Then he laughed. "My favorite scene," he related, "was the children who chased the animals all the way to the edge of the island," he said. "I remember as a child chasing pigeons in the garden. My father would scatter crumbs, and the pigeons would gather. If I was not watched carefully by my parents I would chase the birds. I never caught any, but that did not matter."
Alyssum noticed another couple, farther along the beach. She mentioned them to her husband.
"Ah, yes," he replied. "No magic on them. I doubt they are townsfolk who have removed their magical pendants, so they are probably the two survivors of the Battlemaster's island whom the seer said would be arriving this evening. I had forgotten about that with the day's other cares. I do hope the seer is all right."
Alyssum nodded her agreement.
The Dragon chuckled. "This should be amusing." He glanced at Alyssum's hand to confirm she was wearing her wedding ring, which like his necklace protected its wearer from anyone who knowingly meant to cause harm.
Adze and Glaive had waved farewell to the sailor who had shuttled them to the island. Then they looked around, unsure what to do next.
Glaive said, quietly, "You're still sure we're doing the right thing?"
Adze noticed when he replied that he was also almost whispering. "Yes. We both had the same dream, right? That's not normal. And it had the seer in it, telling us to come ashore at sunset."
Glaive nervously pulled on the fingers of one hand. "So what do we do now? Wander into town? Visit the castle? Say, 'Excuse me, evil mage who killed all my friends, but we're here for a visit.'"
Adze protested, still speaking at little more than a whisper, "I still would not call him evil."
Glaive huffed, retorting, "We've been over this before. I don't care if he was always civil when you saw him. He destroyed our island and killed our friends. He is evil now, even if he wasn't before. End of discussion."
Adze looked at the heavy, bulgy sack he had brought ashore. "What would you decide to do now?" he asked.
Glaive glared at him. "I was asking you," she replied, slightly bitterly.
Adze sighed. "I was trying to be not bossy," he said. "I don't know either. I can't say if the town would be safer. But it might be."
Glaive suggested, "We could hide that sack in the trees first."
Adze shrugged. "If you want to. It's not like they matter to anyone but me."
Glaive looked sharply at the sack. "They matter to me too. I loathe what they stand for. But you don't, and that's that."
Adze shrugged again. "If we hide the sack we can walk along the beach a bit. It is quite pretty. Although the sand slows me down even more."
Glaive agreed to that plan, but they had not walked far when they saw another couple approaching. "Look!" she said, pointing.
Adze nodded. "Another couple. Well, it is quite pretty here at sunset. I suppose we might as well keep walking and eventually say hello. A pair of the Dragon's villagers should not be frighten us."
"What if it's the Dragon?" asked Glaive. "He's married too, right? Maybe it is him and his wife, and we can surprise him and I'll wring his neck."
Adze chuckled. "Nonsense. You couldn't, even if you surprised him. He'll have magical protections of all sorts. And I'm sure he has better things to do than walk on the beach."
"Like what would be better?" asked Glaive.
Adze frowned. "I don't know. But he's a mage. They're...they do different things."
Glaive frowned in return. "I'd rather assume that it was being weapon-crazy and battle-hungry and full of male pride that made the Battlemaster different. Lots of fables have mages who are elegant or romantic or humble or sophisticated socially. Especially back in the days before the Empire shattered."
Adze did not reply.
Adze was not sure what to say in greeting to the other couple, who would be within conversational distance quite soon. And he was quite sure Glaive would expect him to do the initial talking. As it turned out the other man began the dialogue.
"Look, dear," he said. "Strangers." He had a deep, rich voice.
Glaive was surprised. "How do you know so quickly?" she asked.
The man nodded amiably to her. "Your clothes," he replied. "Especially your necklaces. You don't have our kind of necklaces. Everyone from this island has a magical necklace that the Dragon made which causes nearby Those Ones to glow red. It keeps us safe from their tricks."
Adze was visibly nervous at the mention of the mage's name. "Do you know the Dragon well?" he asked, forgetting more proper introductions.
The other man seemed not to notice the breach of etiquette. "I used to be a mage's gardener," he said, "as was my father before me. It was a very interesting job, caring for the beauty of that estate. I worked for a man who was so busy being powerful he had to employ me to do what many would consider a hobby. I was an excellent gardener, by the way."
Glaive's face betrayed her interest. "Why did you stop?" she asked.
The other man laughed, a shallow but rich chuckling. "The first odd thing was when he asked me if I wanted to stop aging. 'Stop aging?' I asked. 'Why would you do such a thing for me?'
"My master answered, 'You are an outstanding gardener. Finding a replacement once you grow old too old to work might take months. But the enchantment to stop your aging would only take me two weeks to prepare and craft.'
"So that was the first odd thing," he concluded.
Adze looked at his wife before asking again, "But why did you stop?"
The man resumed his story, as if their questioning was only tangential to his tale. "The second odd thing was that he let me learn a half dozen spells. Little things that would help my gardening: creating water, healing weariness, and so forth. The spells were trivial compared to the background required to cast even one. That took nearly a year. Then there was the final odd thing: after he was killed in a duel, years later, his study doorway spoke to me. My master had left his will, and some specific directions, as an enchantment that would speak a recorded message with an audible voice. I had been his only apprentice, although not much of one. So I inherited his estate and books and magical belongings." The tale-teller stopped abruptly, waiting for his listeners to digest his words.
The revelation appeared first on Adze's face, but Glaive was the first to act. She twitched, then her face went blank, then she twitched again, and then her face went blank again...This repetition continued as the Dragon hastily explained, "Do not worry, sir, she is not harmed. My wife and I are protected with a quite standard spell from acts of intentional violence. Your lady is merely beginning to attack me, forgetting what she is doing, and then again deciding to attack me."
Alyssum had put one hand over her mouth to hide her smile. There was really nothing funny about the situation overall, but the other woman's behavior was almost enough to make her laugh aloud against her will.
The Dragon bowed in welcome to his island's guests. "I should make proper introductions. I am the Dragon, and this is my wife, Alyssum. You are both welcome here and need not fear harm. The young seer told me where and when you would be arriving. In truth I had forgotten, or I would have brought with me a pair of the necklaces I mentioned earlier, for you and your lady to wear."
Adze managed to mumble, "Adze, and Glaive." He was trying to not look at Glaive, feeling somehow that it would embarrass her, even though by logical thinking he concluded that she was currently almost completely unaware of her surroundings. But Adze was also having trouble meeting the Dragon's gaze, and was thus awkwardly looking about.
Alyssum playfully punched the Dragon in the arm. "Enough of this, dear," she said mirthfully. "You are entertaining yourself—and me—but frightening our guests terribly even if you are too dull to notice." She walked up to Adze and hooked her elbow in his, and began walking back towards the castle as if Adze was leading. She had noticed his limp earlier and walked slowly to compensate for it. As she walked, she began describing the island, town, and castle, intermixed with brief stories about things once done by certain amusing townsfolk. After every second or third sentence she would smile sweetly at Adze and then continue talking before her captive could get a word in edgewise.
The Dragon now had his turn to cover his mouth to squelch a giggle. Alyssum was so endearing—how could he ever have neglected her all those years? He followed the others at a discreet distance. A few times Alyssum bestowed even sweeter smiles in his direction, and he did his best to return them.
Behind him, Glaive continued alternating between pauses and momentary gestures of intended violence, unaware of anything but her rage. The Dragon was there, and he was part of the absurd conflict that had been the source of all her life's misery for seventeen years.
As the Dragon slowly walked towards the castle, the radius of his magical protection went with him. Thus Glaive followed them, taking a lurching step toward the Dragon every third or fourth motion.
When the Dragon and his wife and guests arrived at his castle's entrance they were surprised to find a crowd of people assembled there. Still more surprising, once they had drawn near enough to see it, was that one person was glowing red—a person who appeared tall and stately, wearing a crown shaped like a spiral of leafy vine.
Claude was again present, standing in front of the other guards. He announced, formally, "A guest claiming to be Fairy King is here to see you, my lord."
The Dragon nodded politely to the fairy. With his eyes he also tried to welcome the others who were assembled: guards, townsfolk, and the other visitors: Crede and Jasmine.
The Fairy King nodded in return. Then he reached into his cloak and took out a small sword, holding the scabbard with one hand in a non-threatening way. He tossed it upon the ground between them. It was Crede's sword, the augmented Scalecutter.
The Dragon raised his eyebrows.
The Fairy King explained, "I return this to you, as gesture of more honest willingness to try diplomacy. I have heard of your diplomatic desires and conditions. I admit that I am not sure how to cure your curse, but I am willing to together think, plan, and try."
The Dragon gestured to Crede, who stepped forward and claimed the sword. Meanwhile, to the Fairy King he asked, "May I ask what brings about this change of heart?"
The fairy seemed to shrink slightly. "That young seer...She told me things, and showed me things." He paused, then continued, "All fairies use glamour, their type of illusion 'magic'. But glamour over appearances is less...harmful...then inner falsehood. I had covered up unfounded fears and insecurities which today were revealed as in desert sunlight, and once exposed to that burning dryness I am not sure what parts of me can survive. Perhaps if I am helpful, for once, that will serve as a new beginning. If not, I am unsure if I can bear living. Where is the seer? She said she knows what to do. We should ask her."
Crede inclined his head to the Dragon, who nodded a permission to speak. Facing the Fairy King, Crede related, "She has not returned this afternoon, or later while the Dragon was out walking. We thought she was still on your island. But I know from experience that if she told you something was possible and did not say more, then she merely intended to give you hope. We should think together instead of waiting for her arrival."
Jasmine stepped forward. "Perhaps we can guess where she is. Who else needs Chamomile and her healing?"
The Fairy King wailed with anguish: "Healing! Healing? If what she brings is healing..." He paused, then groaned, "No, I suppose you are right. But when she removes taint she is not kind enough to fill the hole with something soothing. As a doctor her technique is rather clumsy."
The Dragon began to laugh, surprising everyone but Alyssum. "Yes," he said, between laughs, "she shows us how we are monsters, does just enough to enable us to fix ourselves, and then leaves. Clumsy indeed, yet I suppose that it is all we can ask for on this side of heaven." Then, more conspiratorially, he added, "Cheer up, sir! Everything you have said I could also say. Your taint and misery are not so special. For the sake of goodness stop looking at yourself! That surely must be your first step towards being helpful."
Glancing around, the Dragon added, "But we should go inside and sit around a table in the great hall. I should do something about this gentleman's wife..." he first nodded at Adze and then gestured at Glaive's repetitive lurching, "and am acting as a very poor host keeping us standing about on our feet."
On the way inside Alyssum introduced Adze and Glaive to the others, and Adze tried to smile to everyone despite feeling uncomfortably drawn into serious affairs. He realized something important was about to be delayed by his wife's current fit and felt a need to apologize, but could not think of what to say.
Claude also was acting awkwardly introspective. He walked with eyebrows and lips tightened and a troubled light in his eyes. As they entered the courtyard Marilla greeted him but he ignored her.
Once within the great hall the Dragon approached Glaive and considered her with a thumb upon his chin. "Let's see," he muttered, loud enough for others to hear, "I should start by extending one arm slightly..." and he gently did so, "and then immobilize her from the shoulders down." With a muttered spell he did that too.
Then he stepped one step closer, so her extended hand was on his chest. "Now I'll let her touch me and cancel the 'confusion to enemies' effect," he explained. Alyssum noticed he discreetly put two of Glaive's fingers within his necklace, while doing something irrelevant but distracting with his other hand.
Awareness returned to Glaive's face. It quickly changed to anger. "I can't move!" she screamed. "You beast! Let me at you!"
The Dragon nodded a tiny but polite welcome. "I am afraid I cannot. What if you broke my nose? Earlier today my wife broke my nose, so a broken nose currently holds an odd sort of sentimental fondness in our relationship. Perhaps I can release you if you promise to injure me in some other way."
Glaive's face showed her incredulity. "She broke your nose? Today? You let her?"
The Dragon drew his cheeks together and nodded with grave seriousness. "Well, I had been rude, and deserved it. And it made her feel better. And I could heal it afterwards. In truth her vengeance took me completely by surprise. So I did not 'let her'. But what she did was...fitting. She had my trust, and in retrospect—because we laughed about things afterwards—she did not abuse that trust. She is my wife, after all, and an exceedingly wise lady."
Glaive's anger had slightly faded from her flushed face, but only slightly. She looked at the Dragon, unsure what to say.
The Dragon offered, "Perhaps you can explain why you want to hurt me? If today is truly some sort of holiday wherein respectable middle-aged women vent their anger on my body, I at least ask to know the cause for their wrath so I may properly repent while being punished."
That stirred Glaive's anger anew. "You mages!" she shouted. "My husband has spent all our years together devoted to your silly games instead of to me! You do as you please because of your silly pride and ignore the common folk living on your islands! You..."
But Claude had stood while she spoke, and with a bellowing voice interrupted her. "Hold your tongue, woman! Perhaps the Battlemaster loved the islands' rivalry but we and our mage did not. In the places I've lived I've had many lords rule over me, but never one as capable as the Dragon."
Alyssum meanwhile had directed a stern gaze at Adze. "Sir," she began, "you were a gentleman as I escorted you to my castle. Is it true you are normally less of a gentleman to your wife?"
A different shade of red was rising in Glaive's face now. "Wait," she pleaded, "I did not want to criticize Adze before you all..."
Alyssum smiled at Glaive sweetly, but her words were less sympathetic. "Ah, I see. You want to believe that your difficulties were the fault of some aloof mage, and don't want to consider the ways you and Adze wear each other down. Hm. I don't suppose I should let you physically assault my husband merely because it allows you to procrastinate in fixing the true causes of your bitterness."
The Dragon walked away from Glaive, canceling the paralysis as he returned to the table the others were seated around. He looked at Adze, who was now also blushing.
Jasmine also looked at Adze, and said, "You're being awfully quiet. Let me guess: you normally do very little, and she retaliates by continually raising her expectations?"
Crede added, "Or perhaps you are unsure how to care for your wife, and she is unsure how to teach you?"
Adze had shrunk inside his frame, his eyes darting again as he tried to avoid the faces of his many accusers.
"By all the gold in Xaxal's cave!" exclaimed the Fairy King, his high, reedy voice surprisingly loud. "You are all as heartless and crafty as that detestable seer! I feel much less guilty having acted as your enemy now that I see how you treat your friends!"
Crede chuckled. "Well, Chamomile did say humans were more merciless than fairies."
Alyssum stood up and walked over to Glaive, who had remained listlessly rooted. "The fairy is right," she said, taking the other woman's hand in hers. "Come, I'll show you around the castle and we'll let the monarchs deal with their curses and destinies and so forth."
"Please wait," called the Fairy King. "First I must confess to her. Lady, the anger you expressed to the Dragon should be focused at me. My people lived on these islands before the Dragon arrived with his people. I wanted to make him leave, but knew I could not convince him myself. So I decided to lure two other mages here, whom I assumed would drive him away. I picked mages for whom I would be able to later lure them back to the continent. But my plan failed, and the three mages became entrenched in a stalemate, and even my old ways to draw back the other two proved ineffective. The futility that has shrouded these islands for thirty years is my fault. If you still must be angry then be angry at me."
Glaive was about to reply, but Alyssum tugged on her hand and led her out of the hall.
"My goodness," said Adze, speaking to himself but neglecting to keep his words within his head. "That baroness is something. She's going to keep talking to my wife, I bet."
"Yes," said Jasmine. "And later my husband and I are going to have a similar long chat with you."
"Oh..." began Adze.
Crede interrupted, "Or maybe two rather long chats. Or three—not counting the extra time in which you rehearse how to behave like a gentleman at home and we critique you. I can tell you're going to need quite a bit of work." He added silently to himself, "And I hopefully will also better understand what Jasmine finds gentlemanly."
Jasmine took over before Adze could respond, "And in return you're going to teach us some sparring technique. I expect you are now the most elitely trained warrior alive, regardless of that leg. I only know a dozen ktachas, and want to know more."
"Deal?" asked Crede.
Adze's bewilderment slowly faded, and he tried to manage a smile. "Deal," he said.
There was a moment of silence as everyone individually considered if the odd conversation was truly complete.
"Well!" said Crede, a bit too loudly. Jasmine giggled.
"Well what?" asked the Dragon.
"Nothing," said Crede. "My wife pokes fun at me because I say 'Well' too often. It seemed an opportune time to again prove her right."
The Dragon nodded sagely.
"Actually," said Crede. "As long as the rulers of both islands are here—and for some reason hanging on my every word—yes, there is something. I'm not really sure why I'm saying this, but I suppose I need to vent a bit. Maybe I'm afraid, too. Chamomile, the seer, told me to come to the Sandy Isles because I could be heroic and help save them. So far this has involved," he glanced at the Dragon, "advising your wife to break your nose," and he glanced at the Fairy King, "and having you capture, curse, and commission me. I don't feel very heroic so far, even if I have somehow been of help.
"Also, everyone knows more about everything than I do—even my own sword." He looked at Adze and continued, "I'm much too young and new to romance to really be giving advice to anyone. Actually, your situation makes me somewhat fearful, because I don't understand how your behavior towards Glaive made her bitter, whereas the Dragon's years of neglecting Alyssum have not seemed to embitter the baroness at all. At times I'm quite a trial for Jasmine, and when I'm frustrating I'd much prefer to somehow be acting in a way that does not hurt her soul.
"I had thought my travels would be dangerous, and I would have a chance to do grand, good deeds. But..."
Crede paused, and Jasmine could see a light go on behind his eyes.
"Um," said Crede. "I guess I'm learning about how to be good with the small, day to day stuff. And I'm learning how that's what is foundational. I have not been banishing maliciousness, I've been banishing pettiness." More slowly he added, "And I'm seeing that pettiness can be just as cruel." With sudden vigor he concluded, "Oh, confound it! Why is that seer always giving me what I need instead of what I want!"
Jasmine leaned over and petted his cheek. "Because you're cute and need help."
The Dragon chuckled. "I would instead say that her goal is to make our lives richer, not more happy. Yet my age allows me to add that there is more than one kind of happiness, and the better kinds come from richer lives. As for your question, Crede, I have no ready answer as to how Alyssum has borne my ill treatment so well. You will have to ask her. I was not jesting when I spoke of her as an exceedingly wise lady. And now...my turn to guide the discussion. Or rather, my curse's turn. What shall we do about it?"
The Fairy King replied, "Let us jointly put our knowledge and our assets upon this table, as they say. Your crown was made by Valan. No other mage has understood magical beasts as he did. And no mage has ever been more of a benefactor to my kind. When he was alive I spent much time with him. Perhaps if I understand your situation by more than second-hand information I will have an idea."
Crede said, "I can bring this quite physically to the table," setting his sword in front of them. "I have been told it is strong against dragons. But I am not sure how this will help, since we are fighting a super-dragon's influence instead of a normal dragon's claws."
The Dragon nodded. He looked at a servant and said, "Dram, please get my crown from the chest in my upstairs workroom. I loathe to look at it, but we should have it here too."
Dram stood, saluted, and left the hall.
Jasmine whispered to Crede, "I'll be with Alyssum," and then also stood up and left the hall. Outside, in the courtyard, she stopped Dram and said, "Wait. There's something wrong and Alyssum knows it but could not say anything in that room. Come with me."
The servant nodded no, knowing his baron's orders had priority. But Jasmine grabbed his wrist and pulled him after her. Dram decided not to resist. If she was right, he should follow her. If not, he was no longer accountable for not having fetched the crown. The Dragon would not want him to fight this young woman. That would be a poor way to treat a guest, even a rude or misguided one.
Alyssum was inside the inner keep, talking with Glaive. Jasmine noticed there was nothing about the two women to reveal that Alyssum had indeed been waiting for someone except for a private smile from Alyssum when she saw Jasmine appear.
Alyssum politely gestured for a pause in conversation, and said, "Excuse me, Glaive, for a moment." Turning to Jasmine, she asked, "May I help you? Why are you dragging one of my household's servants?"
Jasmine smiled back, much relieved. "M'lady, I am looking for you. Dram was asked to fetch the dragon crown, so I brought him also."
Alyssum nodded, and said, "Go on..."
Jasmine took a deep breath and continued, "You are very astute, m'lady. And you know your presence is needed at the discussion in the great hall—your husband's fate is being decided. Yet you leave to discuss a matter of importance but no urgency with someone else. Why?"
Alyssum smiled again, this time letting the others see it. "I am glad you are also astute. We need to do something. In that hall the guard, Claude, is an impostor. I am not sure what the fairies did to avoid the glowing red aura. I have a guess. But I know for sure that he is a fake, after watching Marilla try to make conversation with him as we walked from the gatehouse to the great hall."
Jasmine tried to will her heart to stop racing. "Do you also guess that he is a mage? That the fairies brought more than two from the continent to oppose your husband?"
Alyssum shrugged. "Possibly. But if that is true, how is he changing his appearance without revealing it to the Dragon's mage sight? Alternately, what if there is more than one kind of fairy, whose different illusionary powers are not all detected by our new necklace pendants?"
Jasmine countered, "What if the Dragon can see a mage-magic disguise, but is biding his time? Such action would seem to fit him. Oh, what do we do?"
Alyssum looked at Dram and ordered the servant to bring the magic crown to her. Then she ordered Glaive to go into the child care building to comfort Marilla and inform her of their suspicion about an explanation for Claude's earlier rude behavior. "Remind her that the fairies do not harm those they capture to impersonate," Alyssum concluded.
Jasmine realized she was alone with her mother for the first time in sixteen or seventeen years. Her very perceptive mother...Jasmine's heart began to race again. Should she admit who she was while they were alone together? Everything was so complicated!
But Jasmine was spared having to make such a difficult decision. After all, she was not the purely rational being she liked to imagine she was.
"Good heaven!" cried Alyssum, seeing Jasmine burst into tears. The baroness stepped forward to offer comfort, and Jasmine was suddenly clinging to her as well as weeping. Alyssum swallowed, then offered, "There is no need to cry. We will think of something. Perhaps some of the magical items I own, or from my husband's rooms, will be of use to us. You and I will manage. You're very brave—you and your husband traveling to these islands, being adventurous and helpful. And your child must be safe. The fairies don't harm their prisoners. Your daughter will come back."
Jasmine could not see how Alyssum's eyes had opened wide. But she could hear the denial in Alyssum's voice as she repeated in a whisper, "Traveling to these islands with your husband...your daughter will come back..."
Then Alyssum wailed, "Curse my homeland's magic that fogs my mind!" and they both were weeping.
Drum returned a moment later with the crown. Startled by the unexpected scene, he strode forward saying, "There, there, ladies, things will be all right..." and was most bewildered when their apparent distress was immediately replaced by rolling laughter.
That odd reunion between Alyssum and Jasmine did not last long. The urgent matter of the impostor in the great hall spoiled the situation's sentimentality.
Quick plans were hurriedly agreed upon. Drum took the magic crown to the child care building, and returned with Marilla. Alyssum ran to her room and returned with three magical items: a wand that shot lightening bolts, a wand that put people to sleep, and a pair of earrings which the Dragon had made for her years ago when they were often hosting costume balls in the great hall.
Drum took the latter wand and positioned himself outside the doorway to the great hall. If their other plans went awry and the impostor was dangerous, his role was to put everyone to sleep and then wake up the Dragon.
Alyssum put on the earrings, and touching them changed her appearance into that of Claude. She and Marilla, who was still sniffing back sobs, also positioned themselves outside the doorway.
Jasmine had the lightening bolt wand. She hid it in a sleeve, and entered the great hall. She walked around the table as if returning to her seat, but when she was behind the impostor she took out the wand and pressed it against his back.
"Surrender," she said coldly. "You're not Claude. Are you mage or fairy? If fairy, know that I've seen the result of these lightening wands; your true shape won't be revealed if I kill you, and I doubt the color of the ash will be enough of a revealed secret to start a war."
After the 'Surrender' had been spoken two figures entered the hall, apparently Marilla and Claude.
Everyone at the table was aghast, and looking at one Claude or the other. Except for the Dragon, who was looking at the Fairy King and noting that he was also completely surprised.
The impostor laughed, a sinister, cackling chuckle. "I am surprised you found me so quickly," he said. "I am neither mage nor fairy. Ask Toy One what creature Valan was studying when he created the fairies!" Then he vanished.
Everyone stood up, panic evident in the faces of the castle staff.
The Fairy King cried out, "Protect the girl!" while pointing to Jasmine.
The Dragon began casting a spell.
The enemy shapechanger reappeared in front of his chair but facing Jasmine and grabbing at her wrists. Before she could react he had bent her arm and hand, pointing the lightning wand back at her.
The Dragon finished his spell. The lightening wand vanished.
The shapechanger snarled, punched Jasmine in the jaw, and vanished again.
The Fairy King cried out, "He's still here! He's just small!"
Crede grabbed his sword from the table and drew it from its scabbard.
The Dragon shouted, "To the courtyard! Around these tables it has an advantage!"
Their table exploded into shards of wood as the shapechanger took the form of a gigantic snake with a dragon-like head, whose body's scales' tips curled upwards to form stiff, sharp spikes.
The Dragon threw something at the monster and it floated into the air, where its thrashing did tremendous damage to a section of the hall's roof but the falling debris did not injure anyone badly.
Alyssum grabbed onto Drum's wrist as she ran past him. He had been staring at the sleep wand as if entranced, wondering if it would affect the monster or only put all of the others to sleep and at its mercy. She remembered she was still in disguise, and deactivated the earrings.
The shapechanger had turned into a large hawk and was flying at them, its wingbeats awkward as they compensated for the mage-magic levitation that still tried to push it upward.
"Run!" cried the Dragon.
The hawk flew low, skimming above the ground. It changed back into the worm-like dragon-thing, and thrashing about knocked many of them over. It bit at Jasmine but she dove out of the way and rolled out of its reach as it floated into the air again. She shot a bolt of lightening from her wand at it, which scorched its hide but had no other visible effect.
"This way!" called Glaive from the doorway of the child care building. She was holding the dragon crown. Beside her was the small figure of Chamomile.
Crede caught a glimpse of Chamomile's face, and regretted doing so: remembering that image would haunt him for weeks when he closed his eyes. She was staring at the shapechanger with the furious glare of a parent whose toddler needs to stop misbehaving now and is in more trouble than it has ever been in before; but her youthful features held an inhuman authority and severity so intense that even the momentary glimpse Crede caught at the edge of his vision was enough to cause him to cry out and fall to the ground.
The shapechanger also looked Chamomile's way, then vanished.
Later, Crede could not clearly remember the next few minutes. Somehow everyone had gathered in front of the child care building. The Dragon was pacing, going from person to person and healing wounds while muttering to himself. Jasmine was looking at him anxiously, her face bruising where she had been punched. Alyssum was comforting Marilla, who was crying. The Fairy King was standing beside those who were resting, exhausted, against the building's wall; he did not seem worn out as the humans were.
Then the Dragon began shouting. "Enough secrets!" he yelled, at all of them but at no one in particular. "I shared mine bravely. Now it is everyone else's turn! What was that thing? What did it mean when it said Valan created the fairies? Why is the seer here? Why does Glaive have my crown? Why did Drum disobey me? What happened with Jasmine and my wife, and why are their faces weepy and Alyssum's dress's shoulder wet? There are too many secrets, and secrets give Taint power, and they just about killed us all a moment ago!"
Chamomile answered first, crisply. "You know the prophecy, Dragon. Taint wants these isles, and that was his magical servant. I returned because it was time to declare you as the Builder's magical servant. The fate of the fairies is at stake."
The Fairy King spoke next, quietly but clearly. "That creature was the doppleganger. It is a unique magical creature, like the one true dragon who sleeps and dreams, to which your crown links. Unlike the true dragon it has become a servant of Taint, centuries ago. Valan had captured it at one time. He studied it and analyzed its shape-changing ability."
There was an awkward pause, then the Fairy King continued, "It spoke truly. Valan created the fairies. We were his servants and his entertainment. I had not realized the doppleganger had escaped, but then I was never aware of where it had been confined."
No one spoke for a while. The Fairy King grunted, and looking at Chamomile muttered angrily, "I thought the hard and painful time was over this afternoon! This is not fair!"
Chamomile replied matter-of-factly, "Everything is fair. You should tell them the rest."
The Fairy King threw up his hands in a gesture of resignation. "Very well! The Eldrich's second island, the wooded one, is our home. It was Valan's island, long ago. We do not age there. If we leave it we age, but if we return promptly we 'recover' from the exposure to...elsewhere. I simply want my people to live in security, in the only place we can."
"And the fate of fairies..." prompted Chamomile.
The Fairy King hit the wall with his fists before continuing. "And no fairy has ever died. My deceit and craftiness and lying has turned me into a shell of a personality, but at least I have kept my people safe. I send some fairies to inhabited places now and then, to spread rumors and misinformation and fear, so that we might live unmolested. That worked for centuries, until thirty years ago. So no fairy has ever died. And as created beings—created by Valan, not the Builder—we do not know if we would go to heaven if we did die."
Alyssum blurted, "Good heaven! Is that child saying that what we do will determine if an entire nation of fairies can go to heaven or if they just...disappear after they die?"
Crede muttered, "No, no, no! This is ridiculous. It's all wrong. The island was in trouble before we arrived. It wasn't supposed to get into worse trouble afterwards!"
Jasmine wiped his forehead. "We're here to help save it. Chamomile never told us from what, nor when the threat would appear."
Crede ignored her words and kept complaining, "And why does Taint get to step in and cause trouble? Are the Sandy Isles like Windsong, with some wager among the immortals happening behind the scenes?"
Chamomile went over to Crede and held one of his hands between hers. "Be calm, Crede. You are traumatized more than the others, but please try to focus. There is no wager this time. But the fate of the fairies is at stake, and so Taint has unusual freedom. He has sent the doppleganger here. It is all he is allowed to do. You are not asked to fight Taint himself."
Jasmine, seeing Crede in Chamomile's care, stood and walked to stand beside Alyssum. "One last secret," she said to the Dragon. "Look at us closely, now that you have no excuse to avoid looking at your wife's face."
Everyone (except Crede and Chamomile) looked, and then cried out various exclamations of surprise or praise. The Dragon was the last to find his voice, and merely croaked, "Really!"
"Indubitably!" answered Alyssum, smiling and making a mental note to thank Chamomile.
A few hours later people were once again seated in the great hall. "Well," said the Dragon, with a sarcastic glance at Crede as he used the word, "there is bit more starlight entering the hall. Perhaps our plans will also have more light.
"We have found Claude," he continued, pointing at the guard, who was sitting at the table now openly holding Marilla's hand, "who thankfully was not killed or captured but was simply in town. All my people are now assembled in the courtyard, this hall, and the adjacent kitchen, to be near Chamomile in case the doppleganger decides to go on a violent rampage. The fairies have been summoned and are also on their way here.
"So, I think we might finally be ready to have our planning meeting! We have a new enemy, and a new goal. But I somehow suspect my curse and crown will tie into the situation. Once a prophecy begins to see fulfillment, things tend to fall into place surprisingly succinctly."
"What prophecy?" asked Jasmine. "I forgot to ask about it when Chamomile mentioned it earlier."
The Dragon recited: "Two rulers will fight for supremacy of the Sand Isles; unable to harm each other they would both try to use a magical servant to kill their rival." He paused, the added, "I cannot remember where it comes from. I had thought it referred inaccurately to the Contests between the Eldrich, the Battlemaster, and myself. But now we know better."
The Fairy King laughed. "In the prophecy you went from being a ruler to being a servant," he said. "And I disappeared from the setup entirely. I had assumed the rulers were metaphorical for fairy and humanity, and the servants were you and the Eldrich. Somehow I prefer being out of that picture. It feels safer."
"But you're not out of the picture," protested Jasmine. "The contested issue is how to make fairies go to heaven. How is that done, Chamomile?"
Chamomile shook her head. "It's not like that," she said. "Animals have soul but not spirit: they have an immortal nature but no connection to the divine. The fairies have spirit but not soul. You need to think about getting soul to fairies, not getting fairies to heaven."
The Fairy King laughed again, this time a conspiratorial chuckle. "So all we need is a thing that can create souls," he mused. "But earlier today you showed me one. And the baron is correct, everything is falling into place."
"What?" asked the Dragon, uncomprehending.
The Fairy King explained, "There are dragons in heaven. They thus have soul, despite being mere dreams of the one true dragon. Thus the true dragon can make soul, or share its supply, with its dreams. Since I believe that Valan made the crown to control the true dragon, not merely to curse whoever wears it, then our plan becomes clear. We must learn to control the crown instead of being controlled by it, and then we can force the true dragon to give soul to my people."
After a pause he added, softly, "Who knows? Perhaps this was what Valan himself intended to do before he died. Indeed, my memory is quite limited but I believe that the crown was one of the items Valan had us test."
The Dragon asked, "He had you test it? I thought fairies could not use magic items. Is that another of the lies you have spread?"
"Partly," answered the Fairy King. "In general it is true. However, Valan was our creator and he specifically designed his later works so that we too could use them. It is a minor point, significant here but difficult to include in a rumor intended to make my people seem unthreatening to the society of mages."
The Dragon was about to acknowledge the answer but he abruptly stopped, his face drawn oddly tense. Then he recovered, and explained, "The magic-producing water wheels I took from the Battlemaster's island were just stopped. I assume the doppleganger is disrupting my income of magical energy, and will proceed to disassemble the others. Hopefully that development will not matter: my many magical energy storage devices are full, and with me." He paused in thought, then continued, "Anyway, how do we control the crown? Probably not by having me use it again."
The Fairy King asked, "What was its aggressiveness like? If you tell us more about its threat we might have enough information to devise a counter or remedy."
The Dragon answered, "Hm. I am unsure how to explain what happened, in part because it was so long ago. I remember feeling despair because the force attacking me was so big."
The Fairy King asked, "What kind of big? Volume of size? Or a less directly physical type of power?"
The Dragon considered, then replied, "The latter. Image that a tree fell on a friend, pinning the friend to the ground. And you when try lifting the tree you know it is much too heavy for you, and you cannot free your friend. That despair: the humiliating frustration of knowing the effort is way beyond what you can do...But it is not strictly physical. The same frustration and despair might be felt by a hostess who has twenty different guests tell her what they would like to drink, and she knows she will not be able to keep their requests organized in her mind."
There was a break of silence, after which the Fairy King said, "Let me and my people try the crown. The young seer was carried to the Eldrich's island by two fairies who had joined to become one larger, stronger bird. I assume you saw them depart. If fairies wanted to move that hypothetical tree they could, joined to become a larger thing. Our minds link with increased strength also. Perhaps if enough of us use the crown together we will be bigger than the true dragon in mind and body."
People murmured, but no one had a better suggestion. Claude had a question, though.
"I don't understand your talk about 'soul'," he said. "You make it sound like some fluid substance, like water or honey. Don't I have 'a soul' and not just some soulish quantity?"
Chamomile answered, "When you say to yourself, 'my life', do you mean that you have some 'life' quantity or a specific 'a life' which is discretely yours?"
Claude hesitated. "Um, I just have life, I guess. I can say 'I have a life'. But I can't say there is any border or whatever between mine and someone else's. So perhaps saying 'I have a life' is sloppy speaking. But I do have 'a body'. Isn't soul like body?"
"Soul is like life, not body," corrected Chamomile. "Spirit, too, but in a slightly different way. It can be correctly said that something is 'good for your soul' but the word 'your' is parallel to when we say 'your home'. Homes can be just for one person, but houses do more when they nurture a close-knit family and are cared for by all members of the family."
Claude had wrinkled his forehead in his effort to understand.
Chamomile continued, "If Crede and Jasmine could somehow see their soul and spirit they would see some slight sharing today, instead of the distinctness of the time before they met. If soul and spirit were only personal, how would be explainable that couples can feel more content or more bitter than individuals? Or how would parents and young children have such influence on each other?"
Claude did not reply, except to squeeze Marilla's hand. Jasmine noticed and gave Crede's hand the five soft presses.
"Soul...is...nurtured...by...snuggling," whispered Crede to her. "True, but this is hardly the time to discuss such things."
Jasmine teasingly poked him on the leg.
"Ah," whispered Crede back. "Another secret code. Poking my leg means 'hmpf'. Thank you, dearest. It has been days since I've gotten a 'hmpf' from you."
Jasmine had to hold her breath to stop herself from actually saying 'hmpf'. Crede noticed and sighed dreamily with playful contentment.
The Dragon leaned over towards Crede and whispered, "Stop now, or I'll be healing a second broken nose today. I share this advice even though there would be a certain amount of poetic justice in such a circumstance..."
A commotion of fascination sounded from the courtyard: scores of voices making sounds of appreciation and wonder.
"My people have arrived," said the Fairy King. "We appreciate your hospitality and protection, noble baron, but if your income of magical energy is being sabotaged we should start soon. Unless you prefer to wait for the morning?"
The Dragon answered, "Daylight will not matter. But we should wait until morning. I might need to do magic, but I currently am exhausted from the longest day I can remember. I will be more alert and coordinated in the morning. We have our plan. I pronounce this meeting adjourned."
Chamomile yawned, went to the Dragon as he left the table, and hugged him twice.
The Dragon was not the only tired person. Not long after the meeting was adjourned Crede and Jasmine were among the many people who had made camp in the great hall. They were lying on blankets, facing each other. Chamomile was between them and had already fallen asleep. Jasmine was still making small circles on Chamomile's back with one hand and propping her head upon her other arm.
Crede yawned, but the many thoughts racing through his head seemed certain to prevent sleep. "I envy how she still sleeps like a child," he said to Jasmine, quietly so as to not disturb the others around them. "I'm yawning but doubt I can sleep, no matter how much you rubbed on my back."
Jasmine smiled at him. She whispered, "Even while she's asleep it's only her power that is keeping the doppleganger from killing us all. It's weird to think about."
Crede decided that leaning with his head upon one arm was making his shoulder stiff and sat up. "It's not her power, it's her authority. What really makes her weird is that she has more authority and less power than any of us."
Jasmine pursed her lips. "I remember a phrase vaguely: 'Surely you understand the difference between authority and power'."
Crede shrugged. "She taught the difference to me, but you were not there. I assume it was her speaking, either to you or your father or Fulmer. Anyway, I have a new conjecture for you to critique."
"What?" asked Jasmine. She crawled to be behind Crede and then, kneeling, began to rub on his shoulders and neck.
"I was thinking about Glaive and Alyssum," said Crede, interrupting his sentences with small appreciative noises when Jasmine's treatment was especially effective. "Remember I asked why one became bitter and the other did not when their husbands neglected them? Your playfulness at that planning meeting gave me an idea. Or rather, it made me realize that we had not been playful like that since arriving at the Sandy Isles, which made me wonder why not. I think it was because we've been living fearfully since then. Being fearful made us not playful, and also somehow ruined the happiness I normally get when I think about us being playful."
"So?" asked Jasmine. "I am willing to say that being worried makes us less relaxed. I am not sure I want to say we were living fearfully or unable to be silly."
"Well," explained Crede, "I noticed that Glaive acts very insecure. Her life is somewhat fearful. Alyssum, on the other hand, does not act insecure at all. I wonder if Alyssum, because she is not fearful, is able to fondly maintain her memories of how things used to be with the Dragon."
"Perhaps," offered Jasmine. "But I would think even more significant is that Alyssum and the Dragon once had happy times together. I am not sure Adze and Glaive ever did. And I am not sure Alyssum is as above fear as you claim."
Crede paused to try to will his shoulders to relax, then said, "I think she is, at least enough. From all I have seen she does not worry. She acts when she needs to and otherwise watches without fear. Why? Because of her husband's power. No, that's not right. Because even when he was not demonstrating emotional love to her he was still demonstrating protective, self-sacrificing love. Whereas Adze didn't seem to offer either kind of love to his wife. Glaive felt both uncared for and unprotected."
"We can ask her," said Jasmine, for Alyssum was passing by. "Alyssum!" called Jasmine in a louder whisper. Alyssum came over and sat beside them.
Jasmine told her about Crede's conjectures.
"Hm," said Alyssum, half-yawning. "I had fear. I especially had the fear that things would never get better. I like the second conjecture better, about feeling protected. I might say instead that I knew he still loved me even when he was not caring for my emotional needs because he still faithfully—and at times even sentimentally—took care of my physical needs. He would make me things, or put flowers in my room. It was only a small comfort, but it did serve as Crede said to allow me to fondly remember the old days. It let me know that we were both suffering through something together, even if not in the same ways."
After a few little more conversation Alyssum rose and left them, saying good night.
Crede turned to face Jasmine and took both her hands in his. Then he changed his mind and while holding one of her hands in his he used his other hand to give hers the five quick fingertip presses. Before Jasmine could humorously translate them he whispered, "I...love...you...very...much."
Jasmine smiled, coloring slightly. "You know what?" she whispered to him. "All those previous times I thought I had the right translation and you didn't. But I didn't have the right translation either." She returned the five finger presses. Crede did not reply except to return her smile.
After a few minutes he decided that looking into each other's eyes was getting awkward despite its clear merits. "Thank you for the back rub," he said. "Do you want one? Not a long one: yours did a surprisingly good job of getting me ready to fall asleep." He yawned again, as if to emphasize this last point.
"That's a silly question," answered Jasmine, turning to put her back towards him.
Alyssum passed by Adze and Glaive. They were already asleep. Tomorrow she would tell Adze about Crede's insight. Adze should know, to do things better in the future.
Then Alyssum returned to the Dragon, in "their" corner of the hall. He was having trouble keeping his eyes open. He mumbled something about waiting for her, but was asleep before she could reply.
In the morning the Dragon woke up screaming. When his mind had escaped from his nightmare, he muttered, "Drat that girl! The seer!"
"What?" asked Chamomile, who was drinking juice at a nearby table.
The Dragon seemed startled to find she had obviously been awake for some time. "The nightmare," he said angrily. "You were in it. You took me on a tour of sorts, to see all the harm done by my attack on the Battlemaster's island. The people who died ready to reject heaven. The families on the continent who lost a loved one, and sometimes their only income. And on and on! Don't you ever act with mercy?"
Chamomile set down her cup of juice and looked at him with large, sad eyes. She asked him, "After that dream can you act in any other way?"
The Dragon snorted in disgust at her question. Then he snorted again, realizing his answer. "Yes," he said, his rancor suddenly faded. "Probably not for a few days, but I will. You answered my question all too well."
After breakfast everyone assembled in the castle courtyard. The Fairy King stood atop a table and explained to the humans what he and his fairies were about to attempt.
"We are going to together form one enormous animal and in that form try to overpower the cursed crown that has bonded itself to your baron," he said. "Your baron recommends something as big as possible. That means we have three choices: a whale, a behemoth, or something not really an animal.
"The whale is not a good choice because a whale metabolism suffers on dry land. We know the crown will fight us. We do not want to be struggling for health anyway.
"Fairies can shape themselves into forms which are not real animals. But this is extremely difficult to do, and then difficult to retain.
"So we will make a behemoth: an animal from the continent's southern regions which looks like a gigantic rhinoceros but with longer legs and a much longer neck. Its established, real metabolism will help hold us together while we fight the cursed crown. Your baron knows we might accidentally knock down a wall of this courtyard, and has told us which is the most expendable. Please stay back, as a behemoth's feet can flatten a house. But we will try to remain as stationary as we can for your safety.
"The task of organizing so many fairies physically and mentally into one animal requires a tremendous amount of mental focus and energy. As we combine we will be adding brainpower and will be able to deal with this task. But we need to join a few at a time and slowly. The two fairies some of you saw quickly turn into one giant bird could only do that quickly because they had practiced it so much. We have only made a behemoth once before, back when Valan was alive. If one fairy were to join suddenly or leave suddenly, that fairy would probably die from the shock.
"It is easiest to join if we begin by each touching as many other fairies as possible. Thus we will begin by congregating in the center of the courtyard and each turning into a long, thin snake. After a few minutes of intertwining we will be ready to start merging. We apologize to those who dislike snakes. But this is for our safety. It is how we have practiced merging large groups of fairies.
"After we have finished forming the behemoth your baron will give the crown to someone and fly that person up to sit upon our head. A behemoth's ears are small for its head, and not much larger than a person. So the person with the crown can set it over the tip of one of our ears. Once we are wearing the crown we will try to fight its curse.
"Your baron resisted the crown well but eventually it began merging with his mind and body. We will be a much bigger mind, and we have experience with the magic of merging. We hope to force the crown to retreat from your baron's body. We also hope to force it to provide us with soul as it provides dragons with soul.
"This mental struggle will probably be very exhausting. Your baron will cast a spell allowing us to speak. When we get too tired to continue we will ask the person on our head to remove the crown and allow us to rest for a while.
"Perhaps your baron will be healed today!
There were no questions. Many people had backed a few steps away when the Fairy King had warned of the danger of being stepped on. Others backed away when the pile of hundreds of snakes was mentioned. Now everyone gratefully was led to the edge of the courtyard by the Dragon and Alyssum.
"Really," laughed the Dragon as he helped his people organize themselves. "The King of the Fairies offers to explain shape changing to you and you have no questions? Maybe mages are somehow different after all, as the rumors joke! I have scores of questions; but do not fear, Fairy King, for I realize now is not the time for my questions."
After pausing to focus he continued, "One last preparation. Since the three islands are no longer at war I do not need to protect my tower from having large rocks dropped upon it." He gestured with his hands and one arm, and muttered some eerie sounds. The keep in the center of the courtyard vanished, simultaneously appearing in the far corner of the courtyard. "It was always there in the corner," said the Dragon. "There was a spell which sent all light going from the keep to the false position. Another spell similarly translated the incoming light so the keep's windows functioned sensibly. A third spell teleported anyone who entered or left the keep by its doorway or windows. Those were huge spells, and in their own way works of art; I am sad to have canceled them. But it is necessary to let the behemoth know where it may stand and to give it as much room as possible."
The crowd hushed to silence as the fairies gathered in the now-empty center of the courtyard. As each fairy turned into a snake there were politely hushed groans and moans from some of the spectators. Then, from the center of the mass of snakes, a different animal began to grow.
At first it looked like a small, misshapen gray dog. It grew quickly. Soon it was the size of a horse. Everyone watching could see its shape now: like a cross between a rhinoceros and a giraffe. In a few minutes it was larger than a house. After a few more minutes it was as tall as the keep.
Still it grew, the mass of snakes now an apparently insignificant garland around one elephantine foot.
Finally the last snake had vanished, melded into the behemoth. Each of the creature's legs was nearly the size of the keep. Its head was nearly house-sized. A tail thick as a tree trunk hung from its rump, tufted with hairy bristles as long as a man's height.
The behemoth turned its head to look at the crowd.
It smiled and wiggled its funny, pointy ears.
The Dragon cast the spell that would allow the behemoth to speak.
"Ready," said the behemoth with an inhuman, immense voice, like thunder swallowing.
Crede volunteered to be the person who the Dragon would send atop the behemoth's head. "After all," joked Crede, "he has flown me around the courtyard before. But that was without warning me first. It is only fair that now I get a chance to fly when I might enjoy it instead of feeling startled and nauseous."
The first hour of the experiment has uneventful. The audience grew bored. It still was only safe in the courtyard, but people left off watching the giant beast to do other tasks, talk with friends, or both. Crede sat atop the behemoth's head and watched the islands and ocean stretched out before him. He did not want to leave the center of the top of the behemoth's head, and thus could not see anything in the courtyard below him.
"Tired," thundered the behemoth. Crede removed the crown. The Dragon, somehow watching or otherwise aware of when he had taken it, brought him down to the ground.
"Well done," congratulated the Dragon. "Both you and the fairies did well. Compared to when I wear the crown, just having nothing bad happen is progress. Let me go speak with it mind to mind, so we won't all be deafened by its voice."
After a few minutes the Dragon returned to where Crede had landed. Alyssum, Jasmine, and others had gathered there, awaiting his information.
"That went better than I had imagined," said the Dragon. "The fairies say they have found a way to get themselves soul, and expect it will cure me also." His face grew serious as he continued, "However, there are two risks. The first I expected because of how the crown affected me. The fairies will have to merge with the true dragon's mind to a significant extent, instead of merely investigating it from outside as they have done so far. The behemoth will become slightly dragon-like in body and mind, as I have. The fairies are sure they can keep careful control, however, unlike me. The behemoth will not become dangerous, and the fairies can expel the true dragon's influence when they are finished. So that whole issue will be traumatic for them but otherwise should not concern us."
"The second risk might affect us directly. The fairies say much of what exhausted them was suppressing a calling. Apparently, so much activity by the true dragon is attractive to the dream dragons. The fairies explained that it would be much easier for them if the dream dragons were allowed to respond to this and come here; controlling them by keeping them docile would be much easier than controlling them by keeping them away. Obviously, as they were able to do the latter they should be able to do the former. But I still wanted to ask others what they thought about having a multitude of potentially dangerous dragons here while something not human wore the crown which controls them."
"I do not mind," replied Alyssum quickly. "If the fairies wanted to indirectly harm us they could have done so at any time. There is no reason not to trust their help. And apparently there is also no reason not to trust their power. If they say it is safe and will help them—and if they are sure they can send the dream dragons away before their next rest break—why not let them?"
"Very well," said the Dragon. "I will tell them they continue with our blessing. They desired an hour of rest and the we will resume."
"Ready," boomed the behemoth's crashing voice.
The second experiment began as uneventfully as the first.
Ten minutes later the dragons began to congregate.
As the sky filled with their circling, spiraling, swooping flights everyone below watched, frozen as spectators once again. No one watching from the ground could doubt why these creatures had fascinated the Dragon. They almost radiated grace and power and strength: who would not become entranced by the opportunity to study or control even one of them?
Crede, however, discovered that from his high perch—very much amidst the flying dragons—that the creatures produced as much terror as awe. There was the healthy fear that awe includes, appropriate for dealing with something larger than yourself. But much beyond that was the sight of teeth and claws and bursts of flame, and how the dragons' eyes followed him as they flew past. The behemoth did not seem to interest them: to them it was topography, not a fellow beast. But Crede could tell he did interest them, as a snack. If the crown was taken off the tip of the behemoth's enormous ear he would be eaten: it was as odd and simple as that.
He felt a strange temptation to remove the crown. It was a repulsive but enticing urge, similar to how someone's thoughts wander when peeking over the edge of a cliff. He tried to ignore it.
Then he was distracted from the temptation because one of the dragons began to kill the others. And it spoke, calling haughtily in a voice he recognized.
"A present!" it jeered, as the first killed dragon fell from the sky towards the Dragon, far below. "Your little seer can protect you from much, but not the irony of an enemy causing dragons to fall upon your people!" As a second dragon fell it mocked, "As the saying goes, we reap what we sow!"
Jasmine and Alyssum simultaneously gasped, "The doppleganger!" Claude added unnecessarily, "It's up there in the shape of a dragon!"
The townsfolk ran in panic, trying to get into a building or against a wall. Where would be safe from the falling dragons? One crashed through the roof of the child care building, ruining any hopes of finding shelter there.
The Dragon ran to the behemoth and laid his hands upon it, initiating the mental communication again. "It can't help," he yelled to the others. "Either the dragons are kept docile or they will go into an aggressive frenzy which might be even more dangerous for us. And we're not sure they could hurt the doppleganger anyway. Remember that even the lightning wand did not bother it! The fairies actually assume the substance of an animal they become, but the doppleganger seems to only be shaped differently while keeping its true substance—which is perhaps as indestructible as stone! Avoid being hurt: it's all we can do. I'll try to do something with magic, but without any income of magical energy the more I try the less I will be able to heal people later."
He stopped talking and listened to the behemoth more. Then he added, "This is also helping the fairies! When dream dragons die the link between crown and soul is more visible. The fairies are making quicker progress, although we are in danger." He stopped talking and waved both hands, creating a wall of solid air to deflect the mess as a dragon landed a few paces away from him.
From atop the behemoth Crede could also see a falling dragon sink the boat on which he, Jasmine, and Chamomile had traveled. He hid behind the behemoth's ear, wondering if he was only alive because the doppleganger had not noticed him.
"Going closer..." thundered the behemoth's voice, strained with exertion. Its enormous body was not moving. Crede hesitated to guess what or how it was approaching.
The doppleganger laughed as it killed dragons unopposed. The roof of the castle's great hall was its current target. It felt that bothersome magic pushing again, but its dragon wings could compensate. Where was the mage down there? Ah, there! Dodge this then, or use up more precious magic!
A small lead ball bounced off one of the doppleganger's eyes. What was that from? It took a while to find the source, and the small pellets continued with amazing accuracy to bounce of what would be vulnerable places on a real creature. A man down below was hurling the tiny missiles from some contraption fastened to his arms. Well, could the man dodge the doppleganger's big missiles as well as the doppleganger could ignore the little ones? Apparently not, but the mage used more magic to deflect the falling threat.
"One more step," boomed the behemoth, even though it was standing still.
Crede noticed a lump forming on the behemoth's head. It slowly stretched until it became a humanoid fairy and slowly detached from the others. Squatting, it crawled to hide beside Crede next to the ear.
The fairy put one hand on Crede's shoulder and ordered, "You have a sword. Cut off the ear!"
"What!" said Crede, uncomprehending.
"Cut off the ear! The Fairy King is the ear. He is following the link between dragons and soul but can't take the last step. Release him!"
"He said that would kill him!" protested Crede.
"He says now it will also give us all soul! It is the only way!" said the fairy.
"The dragons!" protested Crede.
"Your people are dying!" said the fairy. "Save us all!"
Tears came to his eyes as Crede drew his sword.
The doppleganger reached with his great, dragon's teeth for the neck of yet another dragon. But this one turned and bit him first! Not that it could puncture, but it tried. Why the change? Wait, the other dragons were all attacking him! He was uninjured, but with so many grabbing his body and wings he could not fly. They were all falling!
Crede watched the bundle of dragons fall to the ground below him. The doppleganger was somewhere in the middle, captive among them.
"They can't hurt it!" someone yelled. "It's fighting back as strong as ever!"
The Dragon did not hear. He was kneeling besides the behemoth's ear, which had fallen to the ground. It was changing shape in an unsettlingly unnatural manner, unlike how live fairies change. The Dragon finished his spell, hiding it from view. He could feel inside his gloves that the skin on his hands had become tender.
As Alyssum approached behind him he took off his gloves for the second time in nine and a half years. His arms and hands were cured, except for one scale the size of his thumbnail on the back of his right hand.
Alyssum saw the glazed look in his eyes as he stared at his hand. She shook him gently. "It's breaking free! The doppleganger is killing them!"
The Dragon woke from his thoughts and looked around. The doppleganger, still a dragon. The crown on the ground not far away...but it would not control the doppleganger. Crede's sword...
"It's scaly, he can kill it," he told Alyssum calmly before rising quickly into the air. She watched him ascend. His words meant nothing to her, but she was no longer afraid.
The Dragon landed beside Crede. "Drop your sword onto the doppleganger who is scaly! Steer it with your ring. I'll guide our fall. Ready?"
Crede had not finished nodding before the Dragon had grasped him from behind, under his shoulders, and they were flying off the behemoth's head. Below them was the swarm of live and dead dragons around the doppleganger. Crede took a few swings to activate his ring and then dropped his sword, point downward, with his hand extended after it.
They plummeted after it. Crede could not tell if he was being flown quickly or if the Dragon had simply canceled the flight spell for now. He could not worry about that: he must focus on steering his sword. It was not easy to tell which dragon was the one being attacked. How did the dream dragons detect the impostor? No, adjust the aim. Keep it true. Keep focused.
His focus broke as his fall came to an abrupt halt. His head flung forward, straining his neck. They were not far from the ground. He collapsed into a heap when they landed.
"Did it...?" he asked.
No one answered. He was alone. Where had the Dragon gone? He heard screaming, and then the Dragon's voice in a shout: "Go away! I mean, go away and get all your treasure and bring it back and then go away forever!"
An hour later the healing was done. The Dragon would not have been able to do half the healing, except that Jasmine remembered her ring's power. She meditated and generated the magical energy which the Dragon's healing required.
Crede's neck was among the last injuries to be healed. Even after being healed he continued to sit on the ground with a deflated expression.
Jasmine felt dizzy and weak after channeling so much magical energy. There was no magic to spare to clean up the blood of the injured people, or the mess of dead dragon everywhere.
The falling dragons had been deadly. The healing magic would not help many of the townsfolk.
Not until after the healing was done did the Dragon notice that he now had three scales on the back of his right hand. Putting on the crown again, just for the five seconds to save everyone from the dragons, had done that. Alyssum saw him stare at the three scales. She went to him and kissed him, and kissed the backs of both his hands. "You saved us all," she said. "I don't mind the reminder. One scale remains from your mistakes. But two remain from saving us all."
All of the fairies but one had left the island to return home to their own. Undoing the behemoth's form had taken half an hour. The fairies had left quickly, as a large flock of birds. The one who remained explained apologetically that seeing so much death was very new and upsetting.
The Dragon walked over to the fairy. The fairy said softly, "With merged minds we selected a new king." They spoke of other things which the Dragon did not tell his people. Yes, he had seen what shape the Fairy King was becoming after dying. No, he would not tell anyone.
A little while later the fairy approached Crede. Crede recognized it as the one who had spoken with him atop the behemoth's head.
The fairy knelt beside the drooping hero. "Thank you again for saving us," he said sincerely. "For as long as I can remember I have been taught I cannot kill. I would not have had the inner strength to kill a friend, even one only a half step away from heaven."
Crede did not look up. "I'm glad I'm good at something," he said, his voice bitter.
"Why are you sad?" asked the fairy.
Crede dried a tear. "The last time I saved a kingdom I also did it by killing a friend. Well, not precisely. But I might have been doing that. I was willing to, for the sake of the kingdom." He sighed, then continued, "I traveled to the Sandy Isles to escape from things in my past. That was one of them. But instead of escaping from it I repeated it."
"Then I thank you again," said the fairy. "You have not only saved us, but are bearing the weight of the our previous king's crime. To help lighten that weight I will share a truth that the fairies only learned today, from our past king's confessions before he died. Keep our secret: Valan was planning to use the crown to give us soul, but before it happened Valan was killed—by the old Fairy King, in a moment of anger. Fairies can kill without penalty; our old king had taught us a lie because of his guilty conscience. Now he is in heaven and free from that guilt. If he had not killed Valan then there would have been no need for you to kill today. That is why I say that you inherited his crime's weight."
Crede looked up at the fairy. He could not manage to speak thanks, but his eyes said them.
Jasmine approached Crede not long afterwards, walking briskly with a skip in her step. "Happy news!" she exclaimed, not noticing Crede's sadness.
"What?" asked Crede, trying to be cheerful for her sake.
"It's a bit of a story," warned Jasmine. "I used my ring to generate magical energy for the Dragon to heal everyone who could be healed. Then, curious, I tried meditating without the ring. It does not work.
"Then I had an idea. I offered to make a deal with the Dragon and Alyssum: if the Dragon agreed to give away his magical items that generate magical energy, instead of repairing and reinstalling them, then I would teach Alyssum to meditate and give her the ring. Then they would not be able to drift apart and would both be participating in the Dragon's retirement project. They agreed to at least try it.
"Here's the exiting part. When Alyssum put on the ring, the connection with Windsong's throne room stone dispelled the fog over her memories of the island! She remembered it, and Jacaranda, and her family and friends! I thought I was merely helping them stay together, but I was giving her back her past too. Why didn't we think of using the ring that way sooner? So she is keeping it and I'll ask Fulmer to make me a replacement."
Crede smiled weakly.
An unnaturally cute skunk bounded past, nimbly leaping over them both.
Around them the Dragon's people, especially the children, made happy, appreciative noises. They cooed and called to try to attract the skunks' attention.
"Hello!" called the Eldrich, entering through the castle's main gate as more of his skunks bounded in beside him or over the walls. "The fairies let me go, so I came here. First I just wandered around my island, but that was so lonely since all my people have left long ago. Then a fairy arrived as a bird and gave me my power back so voom! I came here. What a mess this is! Where's the girl who gave me back my rocks?"
Crede and Jasmine looked at each other. Then Crede stood up and they both went to the Dragon. "Aren't the skunks dangerous?" they asked.
The Dragon looked puzzled. "If they feel threatened they will spray, but he replaced their smell with a paralysis mist which wears off after a minute or two. He is designing them to be cute guard animals for people's homes. Why, what were you told?"
Jasmine mumbled something about aggressively biting and spiting acid.
"What!" exclaimed Alyssum, "the Eldrich would never do anything like that. He's more peaceful than the fairies! His skunks are annoyingly friendly. They were only able to win Contests because the three mages agreed that temporarily paralyzing all enemies would count as a win. The Eldrich is a fighter in persistence but not in viciousness"
Jasmine scratched her cheek while thinking. "That's so odd," she muttered. "Why would the Fairy King, pretending to be the Eldrich, invent a story about creating aggressive yet peaceful pet creatures? He had even worked out that weird litany and rehearsed it with another fairy."
She was not looking at Crede, whose face suddenly went purposefully blank.
After lunch Crede and Jasmine were resting on the beach. Chamomile was asleep beside them. This time it was Crede who had rubbed on her back as she fell asleep.
"She really is an amazingly effective chaperone," said Jasmine with a laugh almost a giggle. "Besides sleeping between us, she's so young. I love her dearly and enjoy her company. But she is so independent, unlike most children her age. I am definitely not ready for children."
Crede smiled. "Me neither. I'm still learning to be a good person. I tremble when considering the responsibility of teaching anyone else how to be good."
Jasmine looked at him with a new curiosity alight in her eyes. "Our traveling was to teach you about being good," she said, curiosity flashing visibly in her eyes. "What have you learned?"
Crede thought before answering. "I don't like when I suffer. But it helps me. It helps me internally. And it makes me lovable when I misbehave. That's part of why the Dragon and Chamomile are still loved even when they are merciless—because they have proven that they are themselves willing to suffer for others. Adze was missing that."
He thought more, than said, "Right now it seems like I will always love you as much and as emotionally as I do now. But I know from the examples of other couples that such a conviction is untrue. When my emotional love wanes I should redouble acting out the selfless love. Then the emotional love will return most strongly. That seemed natural for the Dragon, perhaps without him planning it."
Crede paused again, then said, "Twice now I've saved a kingdom by being willing to kill someone who didn't deserve it. That was necessary, but not goodness. I'm no longer sure any grand deeds can be inherently good. There aren't many princesses captured by ogres. Mostly there are just tainted people doing tainted things. If killing the worst people was what the Builder wanted then Chamomile would have killed me as well as my brother. If the solution was to kill anyone at all tainted, would anyone remain? I hope I am never Windsong's king. What would I do about, say, a ship of pirates? Sink their ship and drown them even though I was probably once a worse person than any of them?"
Jasmine touched his hand, and said, "Last time we met pirates you did not hurt them but sent them away in a rowboat. You took their ship so they could not do more harm."
"Oh, that group is probably up to more harm already," said Crede. "I'm just confused because mercy doesn't seem powerful enough, and justice doesn't seem universal enough. From what I heard of the Dragon's nightmare this morning such confusion is where the Builder wants us.
Crede yawned and then continued, "I don't think I will set out again to do a good, grand thing. I've learned such a quest involves more than I anticipate and desire. But I can try to act grandly while doing little things. I know that there are ways to be good by doing grand things, and if they come my way I will do my best. But meanwhile I'll just worry about the little things. The Architect takes care of providing little things every day, and the big things when appropriate. My job is simply to do right with the little things so that when the big things happen I will have enough experience to do them right too."
"Experience?" asked Jasmine.
"Well, wisdom," said Crede. "Perhaps I'm trying to say that I only seem to grow in wisdom when I'm doing good. What have you learned?"
"I think I understand what you've said," Jasmine said. "I like it. I would also add that the fake Eldrich's skunk philosophy was incomplete. Besides what he called fear and terror there is a third kind of fear which is much worse: the despair of being neglected, unloved, ignored, and powerless. Perhaps that fear is the thing from which we saved the Sandy Isles."
Chamomile had woken up without them noticing. She opened one eye groggily and said, "This island can have peace now: not just the political peace that is an absence of fighting, but the true peace that is when you can choose your own worries."
Jasmine ran one hand through Chamomile's bangs. "So peace is freedom?"
"No," said Chamomile, yawning. "People who follow me are giving up some freedom to do so. But by following me they are choosing a certain kind of worries. And whereas King Alconar consults me about whether his projects are worthy ideas, Crede doesn't follow me that much yet." Looking at Crede through sleepy eyes she said, "You were feeling torn inside and decided on your own to travel. You only asked me where to go. You could have started one step back and asked me what to do about feeling torn inside. But you didn't, so on this trip you had other kinds of worries as well as my kind."
Then Chamomile was asleep again, before Crede could answer.
That afternoon many changes were finalized.
The new Fairy King agreed to let the Dragon remain at the Sandy Isles. Their two peoples could protect each other and together discourage any newcomers.
Since his island was no longer at war the Dragon did not need a guard. He invited Claude and Marilla together to be his apprentices. They would study with him and Alyssum, analyzing the things the dragons would bring. Later Claude and Marilla would inherit his magical items that produced magical energy, and leave to establish themselves as mages.
The fairies agreed that some of them would visit the Dragon often, coming and going in the form of a dragon. The baron would often enjoy the sight of such grace and strength in his skies. His kitchen would always have ready the human foods which fairies liked best. The town's potter laughingly suggested she make a set of blue dishes.
The Dragon, after consulting with the fairies, decreed that each anniversary of this day of victory would be a holiday for their people. Children who behaved well the past year would get to ride on a dragon's back above their island.
After a lengthy sessions of youthful pleading, it was agreed that the first such rewards could be enjoyed today instead of a year later. Chamomile was given the first chance to ride, although her part in the day's dangers had been kept secret from the townsfolk. "That will be best," Chamomile had asserted before last night's bedtime. "They have enough to deal with without thinking about me being a seer."
Since the Dragon was the only human ruler left on the Sandy Isles, his people decided he and Alyssum should be called King and Queen instead of baron and baroness. The Eldrich agreed; he was not planning on trying to find his old subjects or rule an island again. He would rather live on the Dragon's island, assuming he could have a house there and move over the furnishings Chamomile had made for him.
Someday Alyssum and the Dragon would visit Windsong, but not for a while. Jasmine wondered if the Dragon had stopped Alyssum's aging; perhaps they wanted to wait until Jacaranda was gone. Then Jasmine chided herself for such thoughts. Someday they would all be in heaven together—surely there was no need to wait until then to be civil in each other's company.
Crede gave his ring and sword to the Dragon. "As long as Jasmine is going to need a replacement ring I'll get one too," he explained. "Please keep these. Maybe the dragons' hoards will have other magical items of Valan's that the sword can help you analyze. Even if that is not true it seems the sword should stay with the crown." The Dragon understood what Crede was truly saying, and agreed.
Chamomile adopted a pet skunk. Crede and Jasmine politely declined.
At sunset a ship arrived at the Dragon's island: a flying ship, which circled the castle and town once before landing within the castle courtyard.
The Dragon noticed that the ship flew a flag with Fulmer's insignia. He spoke briefly about Fulmer to the crowd that had gathered in the courtyard. He also decided Claude and Marilla were his ambassadors as well as his apprentices, and flew them up onto the ship to provide a welcome from the new King and Queen of the Sandy Isles.
Fulmer and King Alconar climbed down the ladder from the ship's main deck to the ground. Claude and Marilla floated down beside them. The Dragon and Alyssum walked up to stand a few paces before the bottom the ladder and waited.
When everyone was standing on the ground, Claude announced, "King Alconar of Windsong and his friend, the mage Fulmer, come bearing gifts."
"Welcome," said the Dragon. "Your timing is quite opportune." He noticed Fulmer's smile.
King Alconar replied, "Thank you. It is good to be here again. Your two greeters tell me you are now a king. I feel honored to be part of the first diplomatic visit to the newly peaceful Kingdom of the Sandy Isles."
Fulmer decided to answer the Dragon's implicit question, and said, "Greetings, Dragon. We were alerted that something of significance was happening when Jasmine's ring, linked to Windsong's stone-sword, was channeling vastly more magical energy than she would need for her mage sight. A little scrying showed us the rest. Your protections against scrying, by the way, are quite commendable although there some tricks you young ones are not aware of..."
King Alconar quickly added, "We bring Fulmer's aid in cleaning up the mess under which your town is suffering. We bring this boat, since you are hosting a group of sailors who are in need of a new one. And we bring much curiosity about how my relations and friends have been doing."
The Dragon nodded politely, and motioned for Jasmine, Crede, and Chamomile to join the diplomatic gathering. "Your daughter and her family can tell you their own story. First I should make a formal introduction. This is Queen Alyssum." The others quieted, trying to provide a sense of noninterference.
King Jacaranda Alconar had been avoiding looking at Alyssum. He took a deep breath and did so now.
"Hello," he said, his voice trembling slightly. "You haven't changed much." She had been nearly twenty years younger than him. The discrepancy looked doubled. Yes, the Dragon had magically halted her aging.
"Hello," said Alyssum. "You've changed a lot."
"So, you're a queen," he said.
"And you're a king," she answered.
"I guess things didn't turn out too badly then," he offered lamely.
She said nothing.
He asked, "Have you been happy?"
"No," she replied, "but thanks to our daughter and her young man all the reasons for the unhappiness have recently been dealt with. The future looks very bright."
"I could say the same," he answered, smiling proudly at Jasmine and Crede.
"You're still unmarried?" asked Alyssum.
"Yes," he said, then explained, "Until recently I was still fighting the Rhyn dynasty. That somewhat consumed me. Then I became King of Windsong. I receive many presents each week which are obviously politely subtle queries of interest from various women. But I'm now old enough that, sadly, a wife would be fated to spend more time caring for me in my old age than enjoying my company until I begin to fall apart." He laughed, enjoying a joke privately, then continued, "And Fulmer is staying at Windsong...well, I trust his care more than anyone else's. I have not asked why he seems resigned to eventually caring for me once I begin withering, but I am extremely grateful. I expect he is shocked to hear me speak as if he is replacing a potential wife."
Fulmer's face was a model of neutrality.
Alyssum asked, "Why don't you have him stop your aging?"
Jacaranda laughed again, this time an odd mixture of merriment and dryness. "I have seen heaven. Why prolong the wait? My work on earth is done: my family is mature and happy, my kingdom is restored. I will live as Windsong's king while that is best, and hopefully enjoy a few more years watching the next king do an even better job of ruling the island I love. That is enough." He paused, then said, "If you wish to really help, I'd like my seer back." He hastily added, "Not that she's really mine, but she once promised to stay with me while I was king. With her beside me I know that when my day to die finally comes it will be within the Architect's plan: not a moment too soon or late. That is better than not aging."
Alyssum, surprised, asked, "She's not their daughter?"
Jacaranda laughed for a third time, even more merrily. "Oh, goodness no! Jasmine is only eighteen, remember. And she only met Crede Rhyn three months ago."
"He's a Rhyn?" stammered Alyssum.
"Oh, my!" said Jacaranda as his laugh continued. "I didn't realize what had not been said. His story is quite a bit more exciting than mine, I'm happy to say. I suppose the two of them are not quite ready to leave after all. I'll wait to hear their recent news if you want to first hear their news three months old..."
There was no more awkwardness after that. Fulmer and the Dragon cleaned up the remains of the dead dragons, and helped the island's townsfolk to repair damaged buildings. Jasmine and Crede told everyone the story of Windsong's recent excitement. King Alconar and Alyssum were never comfortable in conversation together, but managed to not be too uncomfortable either.
The next morning Fulmer magically transported himself, King Alconar, and Chamomile back to Windsong. Jasmine and Crede would return a few days later on the flying ship, which would then be given to the sailors they had befriended.
During the next three days dragons continued to visit the island, depositing loads of treasure before returning home for another trip. No merchant ships were seen at the Sandy Isles. Some townsfolk conjectured that the large number of dragons in these skies must have scared them off. Others said that perhaps it was finding the Battlemaster's island desolate.
"Have you realized," said Crede after breakfast, "what a stir the continent must be in because of what happened here? Most of those kingdoms have the most despicable type of feudalism. The news that so many dragons have left their hoards never to return must be causing great trouble—maybe even civil wars! Add news about dragons emptying their hoards and what a mad panic there must be!"
Jasmine's eyes widened at his insight, and after a moment she replied, "No, I had not realized that. But your first adventure must also be causing quite a stir. Maximus Grim was involved in many evil plots, and helped support many evil rulers. His sudden death must have upset many things on the continent."
That afternoon Adze and Glaive announced that they had decided to stay on the Dragon's island. They would try a new occupation, which they had invented after noticing that the humans and fairies had begun to behave awkwardly together, unsure of how their very different cultures could mix to mutual benefit. "You see," explained Adze more than once, "what Glaive and I have found most fascinating about each other lately is our various stories and games. Together we know so many! We're going to organize new types of Contests for these islands. Physical contests and sports won't work since the fairies don't need exercise: they can simply change shape into a physically fit form. But mind games and story telling competitions will do wonders. We know the fairies won't cheat and join minds; they're honorable folk. The Dragon understands, and has appointed Glaive and myself as Bardic Gamesmasters, whatever that means!"
If Glaive noticed the irony of her organizing the new Contests between kingdoms she wisely did not mention it.
Adze reclaimed the sack he had carried ashore, which contained the shiyun of all the slain Slayers. He asked permission from the Dragon to turn a clearing halfway up the island's lone mountain into a shrine of sorts; the Dragon readily agreed.
Jasmine and Crede never did have their meeting with Adze. They thought about it but were unsure what to do or say. They asked Claude about who in the town might be able to assist them and Claude recommended the potter and her husband.
"Oh, yes," agreed the potter. "We're very happy. I'd be happy to keep and eye on Adze and Glaive and poke my mouth in when needed."
From heaven Valan and the old Fairy King watched the restoration of the Sandy Isles.
"Your people have friends," said Valan. "It is good to see."
The Fairy King replied, "We have soul now. Of course we want friends. The seer was right: I have redeemed myself. I killed you before you learned how to use the crown to give us soul, but that work which I prevented I finally brought to completion."
Valan offered, "You are allowed to enjoy heaven and not merely watch them. You have not stopped watching since you arrived here."
The Fairy King replied, "For now I want to learn by watching how others enjoy life. Somehow I absorbed all your principles and morality and etiquette while serving you, but was unable to put myself in your place and see how to enjoy life. That is why I was bitter and grew angry. Now I am merely afraid. No, not even that: just uncertain. So I will see how they enjoy life and then try it myself, a little bit at a time."
Valan nodded. "There are more pure examples to learn from here. But I suppose you will learn more by watching those you are fond of."
The Fairy King asks, "Hm? I love them now, don't I? I knew it was not simply contentment but was unsure what words to use."
Valan laughed. "No, you are merely fond of them. But there will be plenty of opportunities to learn love."
King Alconar greeted Jasmine and Crede formally in the throne room when they returned to Windsong a week later. Fulmer and Chamomile were also there with him.
"Welcome back!" the king said happily. "I must admit I am disappointed. The sword before us still points to me. I was hoping your travels would mature one of you enough that I could pass on this crown to someone else. Oh, well."
Jasmine laughed. "It is good to see you, father. It is good to be home." Then, jokingly, she added, "And it is a wonder that someone so self-centered is fit to be king!"
Fulmer asked Crede, "Did your traveling accomplish what you wanted?"
Crede chuckled dryly. "No, not at all. But I was with Chamomile, so it accomplished exactly what I needed."
King Alconar observed, "So you say, but you are standing here in this palace without the least visible discomfort. Surely some inner cleansing has occurred."
Crede made a small bow of acknowledgment. "True, but I have also gained new insight into how much of myself needs cleansing. Just because my vices will be shed when I enter heaven does not mean I can wait until then to begin. I have seen too many examples of how inner turmoil can harm those we love. I do not feel like any worthwhile improvement has been made."
King Alconar smiled, and replied, "As your elder, let me offer this advice: the way in which hindsight makes old problems seem less significant should affect how we think of hindsight, not how we think of old problems."
"Oh please!" moaned Crede melodramatically, "I am having enough trouble learning to have a proper perspective on the present. Please do not ask me yet to also properly understand the past!"
"Very well," said the king with a grimace. "I give you a different assignment, which you should feel free to debate or reject. Stay on this island and find a trade or two. Now that you are home you need to remember you and my daughter are only engaged. And I want my daughter to marry someone who does something other than adventuring for a living—for my own peace of mind if not hers! Actually, she should also find a trade. After all, you have a noble house to establish."
Crede smiled. "Alyssum said that she and the Dragon might visit in a year. Perhaps by then the Rhyn name will be something noble instead of hateful. I can try."
Jasmine squeezed his hand. "Before we traveled you couldn't try. At least not while living here."
Crede nodded. "Perhaps I was cowardly to run. But running enough somehow managed to teach me how and where to stand."
Jasmine hugged him. "Beside me, Mister Rhyn."
Crede laughed. "Well, of course."