Authors: Donita K. Paul
Reluctantly, Toopka released Kale’s hand and took Mistress Orcutt’s. She marched beside the matronly woman as though she were being led to an execution.
“Have a good time, Toopka,” Kale called after her, then spoke quietly to Bardon, “Why do I feel like I’ve tossed her into a bubbling stew?”
“Because she usually plays with minor dragons.” He put a hand on her elbow and steered her through the open door. “Relax, Kale. Remember, Toopka was once a street urchin. She’ll have the time of her life.”
“She’s changed, Bardon. An odd sort of changed. She came to us as a scrappy alley cat, and she’s become more timid, still curious, but somehow less sure of herself.”
“She’s Toopka.” Bardon put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and guided her toward their chamber. “Toopka is a mystery only Wulder could explain.”
Kale nodded but kept her eyes on the little doneel until she rounded the corner with the housekeeper. “I believe we are going to be astonished when Wulder reveals Toopka’s mystery.”
Bardon kissed Kale’s cheek. “Rest up a bit, consider your gown, and I’ll be back before you know it. I’ve something to see to before the festivities begin.”
He made a hasty escape down the corridor before his very astute wife could pin him to the wall with questions. His brain felt fuzzy from guarding secrets. He didn’t want her to discover the pleasant surprises of the coming evening. And he certainly didn’t want to spoil the surprises with worry over the Followers in the mysterious village of Paladise. Paladise! What a name.
Mikkai guided him through the castle without a problem. Apparently, the map dragon had seen somewhere the blueprints for many of the greater homes in Amara. The difficulty was finding Namee. They visited all the likely places for the host to be and found plenty of guests but not the wizard. Finally, a servant suggested they look in the kitchens.
Bardon’s boots clattered on the stone steps as he followed Mikkai. As they got closer, he didn’t need his guide. His nose could have led him to the cavernous rooms where chefs congregated with their minions around floured tables, bubbling pots, and red-hot ovens. Happy chatter flowed among the staff. Wizard Namee sat at a pastry table, eating bits and pieces of stolen dough in between slurps of hearty chukkajoop broth from a bowl.
The wizard raised his chalice to Bardon. “Come join me. Are you hungry? Better grab a bite now. Ten o’clock is an absurd hour to begin dinner, but it’s tradition, you know. Tradition. How can we dance the whole night through if we start at a more seemly hour? It’s tradition to dance till dawn. If we start at six, no one can last until the morning star appears. So we have to start at ten.
“My wife says it is because in the old days, before wizards cooled the air in the castle, dancers dropped dead from the heat. Now that would ruin the festivities, wouldn’t it? But I say times have changed. I can cool the air. And she says it’s romantic to start at ten and cool the air anyway. So I come to the kitchen to do a taste test. Wouldn’t want to serve my guests something foul.”
He raised a braised leg of a large heatherhen, laughed, then sank his teeth into the meat. “Besides, I get too busy mixing with the guests to sit down and have a proper meal. And it would seem that my stomach does not like a ten o’clock supper. I’m usually not hungry that time of night.” He took a bite of a roll that the baker had just placed on his plate. “Hot! Ouch! Hot!” He drank and gestured for Bardon to sit with him.
Bardon chose a chair next to his host but waved away a servant’s offer of a plate and bowl. He took the tankard.
Namee arched an eyebrow. “I deduce that you are not hungry.”
“No sir, I’m not.”
“Then it is me you seek out. The culinary arts of my fine staff did not lure you away from our fascinating guests above.”
“Yes, that’s right, sir.”
He sighed, put down his chalice, and pushed his plate aside. “What is it?”
Bardon leaned closer. “Have you heard of a group of people calling themselves Followers?”
Wizard Namee pursed his lips, swirled the liquid in his chalice, then took a drink. “I have.”
The simple answer perplexed Bardon. Wizard Namee sounded cautious, and caution was not one of the wizard’s hallmarks. “What do you think of them?”
“I find them curious.”
“I came across a group of Followers in a village in my district. What can you tell me about those you’ve encountered?”
“They seem harmless. A bit more intense than most folks, but I surmise that it is a pendulum swing. The citizens of Amara acknowledge their mistake in being too apathetic during our former troubles. Now this group has shifted to the other extreme. Time will balance it out.”
“Nonetheless, I feel the need to report my finding to Paladin.”
“He won’t be here tonight.”
“May I use your gateway?”
“Indeed.” He signaled for a servant to come to his side. “Don’t worry overmuch on this, Sir Bardon. This won’t be a popular movement. Their ranks will be slim.”
“Why do you say that, sir? Is there something you know that I can add to my report?”
“Only that these Followers aren’t inclined to enjoy themselves. Odd clothing, dull food, and no entertainment. I also understand that one has to be enlightened in order to be given the privilege of producing offspring. Sounds anomalous to me.”
Bardon rose. “Yes, strange and inconsistent with previous teachings from our scholars.”
A tumanhofer bowed to Wizard Namee.
“This is Namutdonlowmack. He’ll escort you to the gateway chamber. Be back in time for dinner, young man. It will be a feast worth tasting.”
Once in the hallway, Bardon spoke to the servant. “It isn’t necessary to escort me. Mikkai can direct me.”
“Certainly, Sir Bardon, but I wish to speak with you.” The tumanhofer glanced around at the many people wandering and socializing in the halls. “This way, sir.”
Namutdonlowmack darted down a corridor and scuttled up a winding set of stairs leading to the top of one of Namee’s towers.
“Would you mind sending your dragon to make sure no one lurks in the shadows? I do not want what I have to say to be heard.”
Curious, Bardon nodded to the dragon who had perched in a window. With the signal, Mikkai winged off on his mission. As soon as he left, Bardon sized up the tumanhofer and determined from his frown that Namutdonlowmack was not going to spend the time in idle conversation. Bardon sighed, leaned against the window frame, and watched the skies. While they waited, two more large dragons landed in the field.
Mikkai returned. Bardon nodded in response to the minor dragon’s chitter. “He says there is no one in the tower other than ourselves.”
The tumanhofer hesitated.
“I have an urgent message to deliver, and I have little time.”
“I’m aware of the nature of your message, Sir Bardon.”
“Of course.” Namutdonlowmack shuffled his feet. “I wasn’t near enough to listen to your conversation with Wizard Namee until I moved a bit closer. It is important to know what is going on in the castle. I am one of his most trusted servants. If he had not wanted me to hear, he would have said so.”
Bardon nodded. “The kitchen is not the best place for private conversation. But please, I must go.”
“And Wizard Namee’s control of sound included his knowing where sound is traveling, when it bounces off barriers, and in the case of conversation, who can hear.”
“Yes, a very useful talent. The point, Namutdonlowmack.”
“Wizard Namee wishes me to relay information that he did not feel he could speak of in the kitchen. About the people who interest you. Two things. First, there are representatives of the Followers here for the ball.”
“I thought they spurned such activities.”
“These men do not profess outwardly to be of this society. They are here seeking information and to look for potential converts.”
“Converts? What a strange choice of words. How does one convert a person from one doctrine to the same doctrine?”
“You have already begun to suspect that their doctrine is not the same. That is why I chose to speak with you.”
“So they look for recruits, if the term ‘converts’ does not please you.”
“None of this pleases me. But I feel you have a personal quarrel with the Followers.”
Bardon caught the slight jerk of Namutdonlowmack’s head, and the fierce gleam in the tumanhofer’s eye backed up the intensity of that affirmation.
“My brother’s son, my nephew, thought the words these men spoke appealing. He followed. And got lost. We did not hear from him for six months.”
Bardon waited. The tumanhofer cleared his throat and looked out the window. “He’s dead. We know he’s dead.”
Bardon leaned forward. “But how do you connect his death with the Followers?”
“It’s what we don’t connect. He went with them to one of their villages. Only their villages have no citizens other than o’rants and mariones. He owned a shop in Baranst. Now the shop is owned by another man who bought it from a marione.”
“And his death?”
“We don’t know, but when the family started making inquiries, we met with stony faces and false leads. Then one of them—pretending he wasn’t one of them, but we knew he was—showed up and sadly presented us with young Forretpuranson’s copy of the family principle, written on leather, wrapped ’round his music stick, and tied with the ribbon his mother had used when his father first made the keepsake. Told us a tale, which didn’t ring true, and went off, expecting we believed the pack of lies.”
“What do you want me to do, Namutdonlowmack?”
“Tell Paladin,” he said between gritted teeth, “that it isn’t just principles they’re twisting. It isn’t just controlling people’s ways of doing things. They’re lying, thieving murderers.” The tumanhofer bowed his head after his outburst.
Bardon rested a hand on the servant’s shoulder. “I will.”
“Go then.” Namutdonlowmack sniffed and gestured toward the steps. “The gateway’s at the top.”
Bardon bolted up the stairs and through the portal. He emerged in Paladin’s palace courtyard. One of the two guards on duty escorted him directly into a chamber where Paladin was conversing with two emerlindian grands.
All three men rose as the footman announced their visitor.
“Good,” said Paladin as he came to greet Bardon. “Now we have a warrior to send forth. Enough of our academic splitting of straws, gentlemen. Wulder has provided us with eyes and ears. Come in, Sir Bardon. Tell us what you have discovered.”
“Do you know of the Followers?”
“Yes, and we are concerned. More than concerned. Ready to gather information so we might act wisely.”
“They say you initiated their work.”
Paladin gently shook his head as he guided his knight to a chair. “And you have reason to doubt, of course. We have yet to determine exactly where this offshoot sprang out of the main branch. We know these Followers have taken what was initiated from this office and forced it to grow in a direction not intended. They’ve grafted on a foreign branch and are trying to pass it off as the tree itself.”
Bardon sat with Paladin and his two advisors. “What do you want me to do, sir?”
“I hear you’re going on a quest to find the meech colony.”
“Yes, but I can put that aside if you have another mission for me.”
“No, this suits our purpose well. You will have a legitimate reason to be seeking information and to be away from your usual business. Go on your quest, Sir Bardon, but along the way, gather the facts we need to face our new enemy.”
“Enemy? These are mariones and o’rants, our own people.”
Paladin’s eyes saddened, his face grew more solemn. “It is true that the enemy we face so often turns out to be ourselves.”
Kale came out of the side room to find Bardon alone in their quarters. “Where—?”
“I sent the minor dragons out to explore and perhaps bring back some tidbits of useful information.”
Kale nodded and unbuttoned her blouse. She would hang up her clothes and give them a thorough cleaning before she rearranged the fabric and color to make her evening gown.
“That water closet is amazing, Bardon. Namee has a cylinder tank that holds water for a bath. The water is heated right there.” She mumbled more to herself than to her husband as she continued to hang her clothes on the wall hooks provided. “Not all of his guests are wizards who can heat their own water. I’ve studied it and see the principle upon which it works but haven’t figured out all the details.” She draped her split-skirt next to her blouse.
Bardon lounged against a wall, arms crossed over his chest. “I’m not very interested in Namee’s system for hot bath water.”
“What?” Kale turned toward him and saw the look in his eye. “Oh.”
“I am alone with my wife. Toopka is gone. The dragons are gone. I thought…”
“I know what you’re thinking. Even with Namee’s block on mindspeaking, I know what you are thinking.”
“I’d like to kiss my wife.”
“You are having a string of excellent ideas today, Sir Bardon.”
“You’re no longer grumbling against my plans?”
“Who, me? Grumble?”
An hour later, Kale stirred from a light sleep to sounds from the water closet. Bardon splashed in the tub, obviously having taken an interest in the water heated above the porcelain receptacle.
Kale pulled the covers close around her and gazed at her clothes. The material began to shake as dirt and oils were vibrated out of the individual threads of the fabric. After she freshened the cloth, she removed the color and infused the basic blouse and skirt with a soft yellow. That pleased her, and she attached the skirt to the bodice she transformed out of the shirt. She rearranged the waistband, making it a wide sash over a full skirt with an added swag of creamy white. She shook her head and dropped the added feature. The material tumbled to the floor.
“What color would you like me to wear?” she called.
Her lips moved to form the word
just as Bardon answered, “Pink.”
She sighed and, with a nod, changed the yellow to a pale pink. Since the ballroom would be crowded and hot, she chose a lighter fabric and spent some time loosening the weave of the material she worked with. She removed the buttons on the front and made a solid bodice with a scooped neck. She decided against sleeves of any kind as she got up to pull gloves from one of the hollows of her cape. By the time Bardon came out of the bath, her gown was ready, and she had cleaned his clothes and reshaped them into evening attire. She hadn’t asked what colors he would prefer, because she knew he would answer green and black. He truly had no imagination.
“You should wear a tiara,” he suggested.
“I hate wearing a tiara. It always sparks.”
“It sparks, and you know it. I nearly caught a curtain on fire at the urohm wedding.”
“The affair needed a little more excitement.”
“I need a bath.”
He stepped out of the doorway, made a bow, and swept his arm toward the water closet.
“I’ve used all the hot water.”
“It’s a good thing, then, that you married a woman who can heat her own bath.”
When they were dressed and ready to go down to dinner, a tap on the window announced the arrival of a minor dragon.
Bardon unlocked the casement and pulled the glass panel open. Filia and Tieto flew in, gave Bardon a disgruntled glance, and landed on Kale.
“You locked them out?” Kale tried to look stern but barely hid her amusement.
“Oh dear,” she responded to a bit of news Tieto related.
“What is it?”
“He says he doesn’t like the aura he sees around some of the guests.”
Kale shook her head as she puzzled over the continued chittering of the unhappy dragon. “Tieto says the light contains threads that look almost identical to those surrounding teachers of Wulder’s Tomes.”
“Yes, but the difference is so subtle, he can’t discern the discrepancy. He wishes Regidor were here.”
“That’s one person I know will not be attending tonight.” Bardon tilted his head, studying Tieto. “He matches your dress well enough. Bring him along, and maybe we can ferret out the underlying cause of his dislike.”
Kale looked at the blue and green dragon and at her pink dress. They didn’t clash, but the dragon would not blend in either. Filia came along, and as they walked down the hall, Kale allowed the dress to absorb the colors reflected off the pink and purple dragon. The original shade altered subtly to form a good backdrop for Filia clinging to her sleeve. For Tieto, Kale arranged a shoulder cascade of flowers, one of which was the blue and green dragon.
When they entered the banquet room, a servant ushered them to a partially filled table. Kale embraced Sir Dar, Wizard Cam Ayronn, and Lord and Lady Brunstetter. Leetu Bends, Lee Ark, and his lady wife greeted Kale and Bardon. Leetu went so far as to hug Kale and plant a kiss on her cheek. Bardon’s father, Sir Joffa, blustered in his usual way and clapped both Bardon and Kale on the shoulders. His pride for his son shone through his gruff exterior. Shimeran and Seezle, two kimens she hadn’t seen since her first quest, sat on the far side of the table on raised chairs.
Wizard Namee had worked some spell that subdued the sound in the crowded room. She knew she spoke in a normal tone, but the words floated softly to the listener, without disturbing those at other tables. And she heard distinctly any comment made to her. But the voices of all the guests together only made a soft murmur, not unlike the sound of the sea quietly advancing on a sandy shore and then flowing back.
A string quartet played dinner music, and each note drifted above the dining crowd without hindering individual conversations.
Kale soaked in the sight of so many dear faces and relished each bit of news, but the aroma of seared meat and the buttery sauces held no appeal. She visited with first one person and then another, discussed ideas with several people at once, and expressed joy at hearing the good news among them. She ignored her plate.
Bardon drew her attention by placing a hand on her arm and leaned in to whisper, “Are you all right?”
“Of course, why do you ask?”
He pointed to her untouched kitawahdo, a tumanhofer bean dish that she ordinarily devoured.
“I must be too excited to eat. My stomach is bubbling, and I have a tight place, like a muscle spasm.” She placed her hand over the top of her abdomen. “Right here.”
“Can you call for Gymn?”
She concentrated for a moment. “Horse feathers! What has Namee done here? I’ll send Filia to find him.”
The small dragon flew away, and Bardon put a piece of bread broken from a round loaf in her hand. “Here, eat this. You may just be hungry. You haven’t touched your food.”
Kale laughed. “I’m too busy talking. It is so good to be here. Thank you again, Bardon, for dragging me away. I think I could go back home and be content for years on this one evening alone.”
“Nothing doing, lady of mine, we’re off on a quest tomorrow.”
Kale sighed, nibbled on the bread, and soon got interested in a story Sir Dar told of a castle being built by one of the mountain wizards.
“Perhaps a relation of mine,” she whispered to her husband. “My mother comes from the mountains.”
“Is that why she is seemingly ageless?” Bardon grinned. “As old as the hills, but beautiful in a majestic way?”
Kale narrowed her eyes at him but couldn’t contain the twitch at the corner of her mouth that threatened to bloom into a smile. “My father is from the hills. My mother is from the mountains. A definite distinction is made among the families.”
“Snobbery,” said Bardon.
“Exactly,” said Kale.
“Next, your relations will be looking down their noses at my ears.”
She giggled. “I love your ears. A half-emerlindian is just what this stodgy old family needed.”
“Your mother is not stodgy.”
“And my father is?”
“Yes, but I didn’t say it. You did.”
Wizard Namee approached and claimed their attention. As host he walked from table to table, greeting his guests.
“I am particularly happy to see you, Lady Kale. Regidor and I have perfected a weaving of the old gateway spell that innovates—” he broke off, cleared his throat, and continued. “But that’s a treat for tomorrow. Before you all leave, I will gather the wizards who have graced this evening’s celebration and teach you the weave. Then you can teach it to those you meet as you travel.”
“Celebration?” asked Kale. “I’m sorry. I don’t know the occasion.”
“Life! Life is the occasion. I envy your going on a quest, a peaceful quest, at that. I’m too old to be gallivanting around the countryside.” He smiled, patted her shoulder, the one that didn’t hold the flowers and Tieto, and wandered off to attend to his other company.
Tieto climbed out of his camouflage and nestled against Kale’s chin.
“Bardon, Tieto says that Namee’s aura is off, pushed to one side as if something was trying to get in from the outside.”
“Odd.” He watched the man as he moved away.
Namee now spoke to a gentleman urohm, and although the large man spoke with a booming voice, they could only make out a whisper of sound from the conversation.
Kale leaned against Bardon’s side. “He doesn’t look a bit different to me. Yet Tieto insists something is amiss.”
Bardon placed his arm around her shoulders. “I don’t detect anything in his manner that is untoward.” He shook his head. “Now
wishing Regidor were here.”
Filia returned with Gymn, who wrapped himself around Kale’s neck. The little healing dragon was unconcerned that someone might comment on the Dragon Keeper bringing her entourage to the banquet. Truthfully, dragons didn’t like to mix with the high races in their festivities. They thought the activities always overdone.
Kale’s stomach settled immediately, but she still ate sparingly, giving more bites to the three dragons than to herself.
The musicians ended a song, packed up their instruments, and left the raised platform at one end of the room.
Moments later a chorus of trumpets heralded the beginning of the ball. The guests filed out through several sets of open doors and entered a dazzling white hall where shining alabaster walls glistened with pale yellow lightrocks. Pillars supported a towering ceiling too far above their heads to discern the structural design. Magnolias, gardenias, lilies, and sprays of snowdrops twined around each column. Minuscule, but brilliant, pastel lightrocks nestled in the green vines.
Wizard Namee led his lady to the center of the dance floor and bowed to the orchestra to begin. Kale was not educated in music other than tavern songs and ballads that the wandering minstrels sang. Bardon named the tune and the composer for her. The melody enchanted her. Gracefully, Namee and his wife twirled around the room. When they had completed one turn, others began to join them on the polished floor.