“Magistrate, can you hear me?” Kasita touched Thane’s shoulder. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
He groaned. “Jethan, is that you? It hurts. I’m just…” His eyes fell shut, but his breathing steadied.
“We need to get this man to a temple.”
“What about the last tower?”
“I can fly there on Charon, and — wait, Cordwynn is an ogre. Even a giant raven can’t carry her.”
After a brief conference, Wildflower hefted Thane and ran west, to the Temple of Kalagon. The priests couldn’t do much — the magistrate just needed rest and time to recover — but they agreed to keep an eye on him.
Jethan / Kasita
Kasita flew south on Charon, clutching one of Wildflower’s trinkets. (“Just a bit of my size-changing power. Touch Cordwynn, and it will shrink her to a size you can carry”.)
By the time they reached the pillar, the rats were gone; but Chapton was still fending off a mob of sailors on the tower-top.
They weren’t Kasita’s problem. A scaffold cantilevered over the sea, with Cordwynn suspended from it. Kasita flew close to untie her bonds.
“Ah, a would-be rescuer. Are you prepared for failure?”
Kasita ignored the ogre, and drew out the wand.
“So, you have shrunk Cordwynn Zandt. Have you succeeded?”
“Stop being ridiculous.” Kasita flew close a third time, and cut the rope. The ogre fell.
Charon caught her. But even shrunk, she was heavy. Wings strained. The raven’s breath hissed through its beak.
Kasita let their flight dive towards one of the tied-up boats.
Charon strained up and away.
On the second pass the waves were in their favour. Cordwynn dropped into the boat, grabbed the oars, and waved farewell.
Jethan flew straight for home, and climbed up to their rooms.
Wait, wasn’t the bar downstairs normally open on nights like this?
The night’s work was done. Vinnie had commandeered a trireme, taken it out to the tower, and arrested everyone fleeing in boats. He’d even had them imprison Rat Kid; under constant guard, naturally.
Now, Wildflower and Vinnie tried to find a place to sleep.
Well, Wildflower tried. Vinnie found. He found a one-foot wide shed between two buildings, full of lumber. It was too narrow to climb into, but he could sense something magical inside.
There was nothing for it but to cut his way in.
“What are you doing?”
“Wildflower! I’m collecting these.” Vinnie held up two black checkers, gummed together by time and old paint.
Something was wrong with these two-by-fours, though. No amount of hammering would get them to repair the wall. Eventually, Vinnie had to settle for leaving the horse, d’Ouvres, standing in front of the damage.
Wildflower had found the perfect house to buy; and in the meantime, this abandoned building was enough for tonight. Time to relax.
There was a ritual to this. At the bottom of their (surprisingly capacious) bag was a hidden pocket. In the pocket was a pipe, and a supply of suitable leaf — nothing too strong, tonight. Wildflower charged the pipe, and lit up.
Then, they reached under the leaves and extracted a cheaply printed novel. Remove the bookmark, and the ink transformed into neat handwriting. Wildflower flipped to the first blank page, and wrote in the house’s address.
One more puff on the pipe, then the bookmark and book returned to their places.
Wildflower smoked for some time after that.
Tomorrow, it was time to buy a house. A few questions pinpointed the owner: one Solophon, in the Travel district.
For a purchase like this, you needed moral support. Jethan answered Wildflower’s message by ring, and headed north. (Tolophon the bar owner was missing, by the signs there this morning.)
Vinnie slumped out of his blanket and strapped on his armour. (“Did your sword just talk?” “No…”).
Solophon’s house was a small green building with a large, overgrown garden.
Vinnie walked straight down the garden path, and disappeared into the bushes. Wildflower circled the undergrowth and knocked on the door.
An old, slumped man opened it. “That house? Yes, it’s for sale. I had to move out after I lost Lystra — too big, too hard to heat.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’d be glad to take the place off your hands. Does two thousand gold sound fair?”
“It has to be worth at least five thousand.”
“Two thousand five hundred.”
“Three and a half, and not a mite less.”
“That’s still a high price. I’ll have to consider it for a bit.” Wildflower stepped back from the door, and surveyed the garden. “How long did you say you’d been here?.”
Vinnie / Paladin
Vinnie followed the path deeper and deeper into the garden. It coiled back and forth, left and right, and then ran out through a wide, green lawn. From here, Vinnie could make out a labyrinth of paving, winding in to a centre he couldn’t quite see.
He cut straight towards the centre. After what seemed like an hour’s walking, he reached the next loop of the path.
Two maids — one in black, one wearing red — waved to him. “I’m Anna, and this is Betty. She does the boots and shoes.”
Betty apparently also did lawns. She knelt on the edge of the path, and snipped it with a pair of two-foot-long shears.
Her eyes widened, and she picked something up from the dirt. “Is this yours?” It was a black statuette of a rearing horse, on a small plinth.
Vinnie thought of the little statue he had of d’Ouvres. Where was that again? He felt in his pockets. Nothing; d’Ouvres was still standing in front of the two-by-four shed. But maybe…
Betty was happy to hand him this statuette. Vinnie whistled, and heard galloping behind him. His steed!
Well, someone’s steed. A great black stallion, with a coat nothing like d’Ouvres’ bay curls, but nonetheless saddled and happy for Paladin to mount. No longer on foot, he made better time across the next few rings of the labyrinth.
Then he reached an intersection. The path still ran left and right around the maze; but a centre branch led straight inwards. He followed it
“So, we agreed on three thousand? Half now and half in a year and a day?”
Wildflower held out a hand to Solophon. “We have a deal.”
Once the paperwork was filled out, Wildflower broached another topic: “I happen to be a gardener and topiarist. Would you be interested in my services?”
The two of them glanced around the overgrown yard.
“I suppose I could use your work. How much do you charge?”
“A reasonable price — but don’t pay me just yet. Keep a record of what you owe me, and when it reaches enough we’ll call the house paid for. After that you can pay me in cash.”
“I can agree to this.”
When Wildflower had the garden cleaned up, they looked up for Vinnie and Jethan. Both were gone — probably into that thicket of trees in the corner. Not a problem — Wildflower still had the matched ring. They imagined Jethan’s voice…
“I’m sorry, but the person you are trying to reach cannot be connected right now. Would you like to leave a message?”
There was nothing for it but to start on the topiary. Platonic solids, perhaps?
Vinnie / Paladin
Paladin had reached a wide lawn, with a grand marquee in the centre. People in frilly clothes milled around, talking, listening to musicians, and sampling food from a long table: jellies and trifles, cold soups and cucumber sandwiches.
Three women in fine hats seemed the most important. The eldest, in red, waved Paladin over. “Your travels are over, Sir Knight. Come, dine with us.”
He circulated through the group for a few minutes, and sampled the dishes she had suggested. This was a lovely place — a glade surrounded by an unbroken ring of trees. Calm, and peaceful. But something didn’t sit right.
“How are you finding the music, Sir Knight?”
“It’s lovely, but … open your eyes, my lady! This cannot be real!”
She opened her eyes. Then she blinked, once. “I know. Believe me, I’m happy here as I am. You are welcome to join us.”
Paladin sighed, and returned to the buffet table.
“Another cucumber sandwich, sir?”
The servant had no face.
Paladin looked up. No-one had faces, except the three women in red and black, and the musicians. And all their eyes were shut. He checked his reflection in the ever-present bottle of wine.
His own eyes were shut.
When Jethan arrived, Vinnie had already disappeared. But his tracks were clear: through a thicket of bushes, then along a looping path through a wide green lawn.
This was a place for peace and contemplation. Jethan followed the path at a steady but relaxed pace, taking in the atmosphere.
A field of poppies. Jethan picked one, but resisted the temptation to rest.
Another circuit of the path, and it led into a red brick house standing alone in the lawn. An Oread greeted Jethan at the door. “Come in! Rest a while! We have a meal laid out.” Jethan rested their legs for a few minutes, but declined the food and went on.
Except for a single, silent figure in red robes, the path was empty from then on.
Vinnie / Paladin
The wine in Paladin’s eyes stung like vitriol, but at least he could see clearly now.
The glade was brown and faded, under a twi-lit sky — but now a path led out again.
The food was unappealing, but edible: gruel and dry leaves.
The guests were still reluctant to leave. The younger woman in red, Narsifiette, insisted she had to stay with her mother. Of the musicians, only the viola-player and double-bassist would go. (“Why would I leave? This is a Stradivarius!”)
And Scarlett, in black?
A blue meeple danced across her palm. “I serve the same master as you, but we have to fight this place from the inside. There are another sixty-four souls here to save. But she is … interested.” A nod towards Narsifiette. “Her mother only insists she must stay until she is engaged.” Scarlett winked.
Narsifiette held out a ring, and somehow Vinnie had agreed to an engagement.
“We marry in a year and a day, unless it be proved unwise before.”
Jethan’s path ended at a wide, paved circle, with a red granite throne in the centre. A grey-and-greying man slumped in it, a rust-red crown slipping over his forehead. Hopefully he was only asleep.
A child ducked out from behind the throne. “Hello! Would you like some candy?”
“Not now, thank you.” Jethan held out a hand. “I’m Jethan. Who might you be?”
“You can call me Princess.”
“So is this man your father? The king?”
“Not quite.” Princess smiled. “I help him out with the things he can’t do. I’m helpful. You can stay here and help too, if you like?”
“I’m afraid I have my own home to go to. But before I go, may I offer you this?” Jethan held out the metal Festival flower.
“Thank you.” The child curtsied. “This is a very pretty thing.”
They made their farewells, and Jethan turned to face the path home.
There was a path for every point of the compass.
“Could you show me the way home?”
“Sure! This way!” The path Princess chose looked no different from the others. “Farewell, Jethan. Next time we meet, I fear it won’t be like this.”
Two steps towards home, Jethan stopped. “How do you know my name?”
“You told me.”
While following the spiral path out, Jethan met up with Paladin and Narsifiette, and led them back to the safe road. Who knows where they could have ended up otherwise?
When he stepped back into the garden, Vinnie checked his pockets. The figurine of the black horse was gone; but in its place there was the familiar statuette of his own curly-haired d’Ouvres. Narsifiette’s red lace dress and hat were replaced by armour, a sword, glaive, and bow — and memories of the final battle for the city she had left.
A clear, light voice sounded through the ring on Jethan’s finger. “You have ‘one’ new message(s).”