The question of who would ride and who would walk was resolved by Tyat Morelo, who pulled up on the path by Ranof's holding driving Nirok's cart. Wari again had to quell the stirrings of his heart--she looked quite fetching, laughing, eyes sparkling, hair blown in disarray by the speed of her drive. She was wearing the most practical finery the Seeker had ever seen--quite as colorful and elaborate as the most constricting lady's gown, yet swirling about her freely, slit up both sides so she could run as fast as usual, if she wished. She wore knee-boots underneath, confirming that possibility.
Mateo seemed rather dubious about the safety of a trip with Tyat as driver--he had noticed, of course, that the cart-horse was a magnificent roan gelding, sweat-soaked, prancing and snorting from exertion and excitement. But the lad got in the cart, after stowing his and Wari's necessities of the evening aboard. Wari gave him a reassuring clap on the shoulder, then climbed up next to Tyat.
Ranof and his family saw them off, with many cheers and cries of blessing. They knew as well as the Seeker how important the next few hours would likely be. But they were far more certain of a happy outcome.
"Blessings on you, Seeker!"
"Good fortune, friends!"
"Enjoy the banquet, Tyat!"
"Don't kiss any girls, Mateo! Save that honor for me!"
That last, of course, was from Joqirl. Mateo waved cautiously back at the shepherd family, then hunkered down and hid his pink face in his hands as the path curled around a hill. Tyat briefly reached back to ruffle his hair, laughing, then leaned forward to snap the reins across her gelding's back.
Wari had looked forward to having a pleasant conversation with the vibrant Tyat Morelo on the ride in to Ikmos, but he discovered quickly that he would have all he could do to keep from falling off. Heedless of slipping stones, narrow path, and steep incline, the lady constable seemed to live for swift running. Wind stung their cheeks--in the back, Mateo grimly clutched the side and the straps of their packs. Wari's teeth rattled until he clenched them, and he felt certain that the cart would be battered and shaken to pieces.
"Isn't this wonderful?" Tyat shouted.
Wari gritted out a smile. "Splendid!" She looked even more attractive this way, rich brown hair flying behind her, face glowing with color, but he could not take time to enjoy the sight.
The merchant Estaed's house was at almost the exact center of Ikmos, as if testifying to its owner's importance in the community. Only the Meeting House was larger, across the square from the house, and it did not rival the wool merchant's home for displayed opulence. The very grass of the place seemed tended with care, short and rich green in the fading light, the lawn dotted with carefully organized flowerbeds, bushes, and trees.
Tyat drew up the cart almost arrogantly near the house, careless of proprietry and customs. Perhaps she didn't know that it was considered rude to block the path to the door of one's host. A valet rushed up to care for the horse, giving the hill woman a snooty look of which she seemed entirely oblivious.
"Come, we're here," she said to Wari and Mateo as she hopped down from her driver's perch. "Be nice to Apple," she told the valet, patting the gelding's sweat-damp flank. "He bites." Panic swept the man's features, displacing snobbery, and he was very careful as he led the horse away.
Tyat ran her fingers through her disheveled hair as Seeker and youth cautiously regained the solid earth. Mateo gave Wari a questioning look, and the Seeker indicated that he should leave their things in the cart. They wouldn't be needed 'til later. Tyat gave them each a brilliant smile, as if noticing them for the first time.
"Spiffy duds," she said, looking Wari up and down. He was reasonably certain that it was a compliment. Again she ruffled Mateo's hair, and he looked vaguely insulted, though he didn't draw back. "Nice haircut, kid. You looked pretty scruffy the last time I saw you. Clean up pretty well, don't you?"
Tyat turned away to greet the man coming from the house to meet them, and the boy looked at the Seeker, wonder and irritation mixed in his eyes. "Why did she call me a baby goat? Should I be offended?"
Wari shrugged, then also turned to greet the man. It was their host, Estaed, an ornately dressed ball of suet. His voice felt as oily as his face looked.
"Welcome to The Poplars, Mistress Morelo, Seeker Wari. This is the apprentice, Mateo? Perhaps you'd like to join the other lads around back? I believe they were going to have a little archery competition while the light lasts. I understand you are quite proficient with a bow?"
"I . . . know how to use one," Mateo said warily, leaning back a little as if anticipating a need for escape.
Estaed smiled greasily. "Then go on, lad, to be sure. We adults will have a little discussion by ourselves."
Mateo looked at Wari, and the Seeker nodded. "Go ahead, young one."
The boy went back to the cart to retrieve his pack. He gathered bow and quiver, then walked behind the house, frequently glancing back. He did not look happy.
Neither did Tyat. Her joy from the swift drive seemed to have faded completely. Wari could tell by the set of her lips alone that she despised this house and everything connected to it.
Estaed's smile was unchanged, but Wari thought it would take a major disaster, like a tree falling on his powdered head, to alter that merchant's expression. "Come into the house and meet the other guests."
The front door led directly into a large hall stretching from the front of the house to the back. People clustered about in scattered clumps, all dressed in the finest Ikmos had to offer, though even Wari could see that they were several years behind the fashions. The place was quite opulent, with many shining fixtures, rich tapestries, and expensive glass windows.
Wari allowed himself to be introduced to a confusing whirl of people, noting each name and face for later consideration. It was not a large gathering, but all the wealthy and semi-wealthy people of Ikmos were there. More than half of the adult men were constables, looking much more comfortable in this plush setting than they had on the practice ground of the common green. The women looked at the Seeker with jaundiced eyes, mildly interested in the rugged stranger. But they took their cues from Servant Hyran, who allowed his displeasure with Wari to be shown in subtle ways--a shift of the eyes, a smile that was less than enthusiastic.
The younger women huddled at the back windows, pointing at the young men outside, giggling behind their hands. A couple sent Wari flirtatious looks, but they were much more interested in the youths in the back garden, who were likewise talking among themselves as they organized their archery equipment. The young men, also, let it be known that they were interested in the girls watching them, but they were too far away to see Wari, so he did not know yet how they would react to his presence. He saw them only because of his heightened senses, and even so, he could not catch a glimpse of Mateo.
The boy was probably fine, Wari decided, turning back to Estaed and the latest introduction. The Seeker couldn't decide if he should be concerned or amused by Mateo's timidity, but the youngster would do very well in archery, and probably earn some respect, however grudging, from the town boys. If that shy lad was comfortable with anything, it was with a bow and an arrow.
"This is Farig Solma," Estaed said in his smooth voice, introducing the ordinary-looking man. "He, too, is a new arrival in Ikmos."
Interest sparked Wari's eyes. Anyone who went in and out of this isolated region was either a very good actor, to get past the constables by convincing them he was on their side, or in Servant Hyran's confidence.
"I have been sent to appraise the situation," Farig Solma said. His voice was neither old nor young, high nor low, rough nor smooth. "My employers are very interested in Ikmos."
"Truly," Wari stated flatly. That could mean many things. "Are their intentions toward the people benevolent? You will understand that, as a Seeker, I am most interested in that aspect of their plans."
"We mean the people no harm," Solma answered. Wari detected no trace of deception. "We are more interested in Servant Hyran--and his methods."
The other hesitated. "We have heard many things about this Servant. We wonder if he doesn't need some . . . discouragement."
Wari pretended to misunderstand. "You don't like his methods?"
Solma cast a significant glance at Estaed, but shook his head infinitesimally. "Perhaps this is not the place for such a discussion."
"Perhaps." Wari eyed the man thoughtfully. A spy. Perhaps an ally. "Tell me something about your employers."
"They have . . . political connections. They are also traveling north, and will arrive soon." Still no trace of deception.
Wari smiled. "I think I have information your employers will find useful. We'll discuss this more, later."
Solma nodded solemnly. Estaed continued to smile vapidly--apparently, it had all flown right over his head. Tyat's mouth was twitched in a smirk; she understood it all. Wari wondered briefly how the Prince and Princess had learned about this situation, as Ranof had said that Servant Hyran allowed no one but the wool merchant to leave. Perhaps someone in one of Estaed's caravans had been loose with their lips, despite orders to remain silent.
Suddenly shock and horror ripped through the Spirit Dimension like a shout in Wari's ear, and he started back, blinking. Tyat grabbed his arm in concern, and he looked at her, still blinking, stunned by the silent cry. Her lips were moving.
"What happened? What's wrong?"
Wari shook his head in confusion, drawing away from her. "I . . . I don't know . . . Nothing like that has ever happened to me before . . . ." He reached up, but didn't have to touch the marcellia jewel before he knew. "Mateo--something happened to--"
Without another word he began running toward the back of the hall, pushing through the scattered crowd, unheeding of the exclamations of surprise and disgust that surfaced in his wake. He sense Tyat at his back, but did not acknowledge her, too busy looking for a way out. There--a flimsy frame of a door, with a glass window up and down its length. Wari ignored the young ladies' stares and rushed through.
The young men standing outside looked completely non-plussed, but not by Wari's stormy entrance. They were staring at the two youths on the lawn, who were engaged in a heated argument. The smaller was Mateo.
Mateo was bright pink--not with embarrassment, but with anger. As Wari watched in utter astonishment, Mateo stamped his feet and gesticulated wildly, pointing alternately at the boy he argued with, the bow in his hand, the other young men standing around, and something out of sight on the far end of the lawn. His voice was the most passionate the Seeker had ever heard it.
"You cannot expect me to take part in this, this terrible thing! I will not! I won't shoot my arrows in such a contest! By my mother's bones, I cannot! And I cannot stand by while you shoot, either! You and all your friends! You cannot do this horrible thing! You, you dishonor yourselves! You dishonor the King Who made you! You dishonor your skills! You, you don't respect anything! Anything that is, that is good! Or right! Or true! You, you don't respect life!"
It occurred to Wari that he had never seen Mateo angry before. The slight boy was quite intimidating in his indignation, small stature only magnifying the power of his rightful wrath.
The larger youth rolled his eyes wearily and opened his mouth to respond, but Wari pushed through to join the debate, his mouth tight. He wasn't sure what had worked Mateo into such an uncharacteristic frenzy, but he didn't doubt that it was worth the outrage. "Mateo, what is happening?"
The boy paused and looked up at him, panting like a frightened bird. His entire body was tense as a drawn bowstring. "That," he said tersely, pointing at the other end of the lawn. "The target for our archery competition." His voice was bitter, revulsion and fury still strong underneath it.
Wari turned to look. The dog Hikano stood there, tethered by a forepaw to a post in the ground. Blood ran from a gash on his flank, darkening his mud-colored fur.
Eyes smoldering, Wari turned back to Mateo and the other youth. "Whose idea was this?"
The strange young man seemed about to take a step back, but he changed his mind. His eyes were heavy-lidded and insolent. "I am Zoan son of Hyran. It was my flash of brilliance that led to this archery contest."
Wari looked at the youth more closely. He was perhaps a year older than Mateo, but considerably taller and more broad about the shoulders and chest. His face was fair, as well molded as his father's, but not as skilled at hiding his studied arrogance.
"Mateo speaks truly," Wari told the Servant's son. "You disrespect life, treating it so flippantly."
Again Zoan rolled his eyes in preparation of giving the reply he had been about to give Mateo when the Seeker interrupted. "How is it any different from shooting a creature in the forest? As I understand it, Mateo has performed that feat countless times." He looked at the smaller boy smugly, daring him to contradict such a brilliant argument.
A shudder ran through Mateo's slender frame. "I did that for necessity," he said shakily, voice hoarse after all the shouting. "In the forest, your quarry has a chance to escape; it isn't tied to a stake in your back yard. You do not stand for minutes on end holding the drawn bow to your eye, trying to aim properly--you draw and loose in a single heartbeat, or you will miss. When you kill a creature, you take its flesh for nourishment, its skin for warmth, its bones for arrowheads. But most of all, most of all," he glared at the other boy, emphasizing each word, "you do not take hours to slay it, laughing and talking among your friends as you aim first for the tail, then for the ears, the paws, the legs, the stomach, and last the head for a killing shot. You do not torture your prey."
Zoan sighed in exasperation. "Father gave me the dog. It's mine to do with what I wish."
Mateo shivered again. He looked nauseated, near tears.
Tyat stepped forward. Wari didn't know how long she had been standing quietly at his elbow. Long enough, apparently.
"I beg to differ, Zoan," she said casually. "You've put the dog up as an archery target and invited your friends to come play with you. The dog doesn't belong to you now, but to everyone that's come to shoot."
However fuzzy her logic, Zoan nodded enthusiastically. "Aye, it belongs to all of us. And we all want to shoot. Don't we, men?" He looked over at the other youths.
Some of them shifted from foot to foot, looking uncomfortable, but they all nodded.
"What prize have you offered the winner of your contest?" Tyat asked. "Was it to be only the joy of shooting at a living creature? Where I come from, it is customary to have something more permanent at stake."
Zoan suddenly looked uncomfortable himself. "I'm sure we can find something."
Tyat smiled brightly. "Oh, I know! Why don't we ask the guest of the party what he would like for the prize? That is the way it is done where I come from."
Zoan frowned, perhaps suspecting a trap, but he nodded readily enough.
Tyat glanced around as if searching for the 'guest of the party,' but quickly turned to Mateo, her smile warm and pleasant. "I believe that would be you, lad. What prize do you suggest for the winner of this contest?"
Mateo hesitated, unsure of what she was getting at.
Wari was catching on. He put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "What do you want, young one?"
"I want . . ." He licked his lips, then looked at Tyat. "I want Hikano, the dog. Alive."
Tyat shook her head in mock regret. "That wouldn't work too well, would it? Choose something else."
"No." Mateo looked Zoan firmly in the eyes. "I want Hikano."
The other youth scowled.
Tyat cast her eyes at the deepening sky in truly magnificent false exasperation. "Then we will have to have a contest before the contest." She caught Zoan's eyes and held them. "You and Mateo will shoot at something else. If he wins, you will let the dog go. If you win, he will complain no more, but let you and your friends do as you wish."
Mateo looked at the woman in wonder. She was truly a marvel. He had no such talent for persuasive words and smooth arguments. How deftly she had trapped her adversary! Obviously she did not always live up to the 'acid-tongue' of her surname.
But Zoan didn't look quite ready to swallow the hook. He was probably worried he would lose--those silly legends about Mateo's skill must have reached his ears.
Mateo turned to the Servant's son. "Better than that," he suggested, trembling inwardly at his temerity, "choose any target, however small, however far away, as long it is in eyesight and not untouchable, like the sun or the moon. If I miss my first two shots, I will concede the match to you." And then go hide somewhere where I won't be able to hear Hikano's cries. Merciful High King, don't let it be!
A smirk slowly blossomed on Zoan's face. He nodded. Mateo swallowed against the dry chaff that had lodged in his throat and extended a hand. The two boys clasped and shook on it.
Zoan began looking about for a suitable target. He immediately dismissed all of the back lawn and garden, stepping away from the house. The property was so large that it touched two of the village streets, one in front and one in back. Zoan paused at the back street and looked west, toward where the sun had touched the roof of a house on the dead end. Mateo followed, carrying his equipment. Others followed behind him, Wari and Tyat, the young men, and now more guests from inside the house, sensing the unusual import of this latest boyish competition.
Zoan turned to look at Mateo, the smirk strong on his handsome face. "There," he said, pointing into the setting sun. Almost at the end of the street, perhaps three hundred paces away, a crab apple tree leaned over a fence into the road like a woman gossiping with passerby. "The outermost apple on the lowest branch."
Mateo stepped up next to the larger boy and squinted down at the target. The apple was in plain sight, per agreement, but the light was in his eyes. And it had been so long since he had held a bow to use it, weeks, how many he wasn't sure. He should have found an opportunity to practice as soon as he could stand without swaying after that bad fever, but they'd been so busy, and he had avoided it. He didn't know why.
Mateo nodded. "Very well." Be with me, Maker.
He picked up his longbow and unwound the waxed string from its tip. The bow was only a pair of finger-widths shorter than he was. It would be considered arrogant and foolish to use a bow taller than he, something like wearing trousers two sizes too large, but Mateo had been making himself bigger and stronger longbows as he grew. He realized that he would need a new one, soon.
Mateo was pleased to find the bow almost as easy to string now as before his fever--the strength was back in his arms, at least. The string twanged musically when he tested it. Perfect.
He rested the bow against a nearby trellis and stooped to lift his quiver. Zoan eyed it curiously; straight white and red stitches lined all the seams and marched in a triple row on the strap, like tally marks on a tavern-keeper's credit board. The red stitches numbered around three score, Mateo knew. He didn't bother to keep track of the white.
"What do those marks mean?" Zoan asked, a faint spark of interest in his haughty blue eyes.
"Red are Katamobic beasts, white normal." Mateo bit out the words, using as few as possible. He kept his attention on sorting through the arrows, choosing the best he had.
Zoan paused for a moment, paling just a little. Creatures embodied by Katamobi were supernaturally strong, twisted and corrupt. It was something to brag about to kill even one, much less the number indicated by the marks on Mateo's quiver.
Zoan recovered his composure and sneered. "What a barbaric custom. Did you nail their heads to your wall, too?"
"Nay." Mateo paused just long enough to give the Servant's son a hard stare. Who are you to speak of barbaric customs? He went back to his sorting. "It was my father's idea. I obeyed his commands." Though I really don't know why he cared. Maybe he just wanted to know exactly how resentful he should feel.
Two arrows, as perfect as he could find. Mateo handed one to Zoan, then nocked and drew back the other, turning toward the tiny, distant crab apple. A thousand memories washed through him with the familiar sensation of hard wood in his hand, the tension of the readied weapon, the glint of light on the sharpened bone arrowhead.
Here was the reason he had avoided picking up his bow earlier. It seemed too much a part of the life he hoped he had left behind forever. Now it seemed to return, overpowering his senses.
He closed his eyes for a moment, willing himself not to reel with dizziness. Filtered green light in the forest, the rustle of fleeing prey, the huff of panted breath, sticky sweat clinging to his forehead and crawling down his back, the touch of forest musk in his nostrils, damp leaves under his sensitive feet, the scent of fear and blood and the excitement of the hunt that always left him sick to his stomach when he saw the product of his skill. Another innocent creature slain, twitching in death, then utter stillness, red flowing black on the green . . . .
And in the beginning, his father had been at his back, sometimes guiding his hands on the bow, sometimes whispering encouragement, always teaching, proud of his little son's progress. He had laughed, Mateo remembered. Droc had always loved hunting. And once, only once, small Mateo had seen a faint nimbus of gold about his father, a holy thing that repelled the blackness and drew Mateo to it like a fire on a cold night. Mateo did not know, could not remember, when exactly the gold faded, but fade it had, until nothing was left.
Mateo opened his eyes and looked at the crab apple. Already the fingers holding the string were starting to ache--he was dismayed to realize that his archer-calluses had begun to soften. He really would have to find time to shoot a couple hundred practice rounds, as soon as possible.
"How long does it take you to aim?" Zoan asked caustically. "I thought you had to draw and let loose in a single heartbeat, if you didn't want to miss."
Mateo lowered his hands and relaxed the string, letting the arrow hang loose. He stared at Zoan for a moment, then at the crowd that had come to watch. They were all looking at him, Wari and Tyat, the young men and ladies, the townspeople and the constables--including Ingfred, who looked very interested in the goings on. Servant Hyran stood at the edge of the press, arms folded across his chest. Mateo saw darkness in the people, shadows, shades of gray--a few sparks of gold, but most Light was muted, buried, or snuffed completely.
Enough. Time to end this. Mateo had never shot for an audience before, and he wanted to get it done as quickly as possible.
Swiftly he drew, swiftly aimed, and swiftly let the arrow fly. A leaf next to the apple disappeared as the dart sped on. "Fewmets!" Mateo stamped his foot in frustration and snatched the other from Zoan's hand.
Faster than the eye could follow he had drawn and loosed that one, too, and this time he heard a small but satisfying thunk as it struck. Zoan stared. Mateo did not waste time--he spun smartly on his heel and walked over to let Hikano free. The people parted to let him through, all in silence.
Wari came over after a few minutes, carrying his healing supplies. He bound the gash on Hikano's rump, and the dog licked his hand in gratitude, then rested his head on Mateo's shoulder, quivering a little in the boy's arms. Mateo did not relax his grip on the dog, arms around the shaggy neck, head bowed so Wari would not see the silent tears that slid down his face onto Hikano's brown fur.
Wari seemed to know, anyway. His hand was gentle but firm on Mateo's back, understanding and reassuring. "Well done, Mateo. I am proud of you."
"I couldn't do otherwise," Mateo said hoarsely. "I wish every arrow I ever shot had saved a life, not taken it."
"I know." The Seeker sighed softly. "You have a double burden, my lad, with your love for the beasts and your acceptance of the Seeker's path. It will not be an easy load to carry. But I do not doubt that you will bear it well."
They knelt in silence for a time, as the daylight died around them. At last Mateo gathered himself together and raised his head. Everyone else had gone inside, and sunset painted the garden roses a deeper, softer shade of red.
Wari smiled encouragingly and offered the boy a kerchief. Mateo accepted it and scrubbed at his face, still slightly abashed, but recovering from his bout of tears.
"Come, young one, let's take Hikano and the healing supplies back to the cart. He will be content to nap after this harrowing experience, and they are expecting us inside."
Mateo nodded and rose to his feet, keeping a hand on Hikano's neck. The dog trotted wearily at his side and proved Seeker Wari right by flopping over into a snoring heap almost as soon as they boosted him into the cart. Mateo set his archery equipment on the other side, so the dog wouldn't break something if he rolled over, and retrieved the other parcel, the one they had spent the day and the previous evening preparing.
Before they went inside, Wari paused for a moment to gaze at the sunset, as burnt orange and dusty rose faded to star-scattered indigo. "Beautiful, isn't it, Mateo?"
Mateo shuddered, barely glancing at the colorful western sky. "I hate sunset," he said, voice low and harsh.
He did not elaborate, and Wari didn't ask him to.
After that intense, draining collision of boyish passions, the rest of the evening seemed strangely anticlimactic to Seeker Wari. The banquet itself was boring, all of his oblique questions whooshing directly over Estaed's head, though Farig Solma, sitting on Wari's other side, often hid a secret smile.
Mateo was seated across from Wari. He sat next to Zoan, who pointedly ignored him, and Estaed's seventeen-year-old daughter Omia, who talked incessantly, gossiping about the other guests and discoursing on the price of silk. Her pert nose was uplifted as if in disdain, her entire appearance more superficially elegant than that of any of the other young ladies there. By the increasingly desperate hints he gave indicating he didn't want to talk, all of which were disregarded, the boy was finding his first banqueting experience a thoroughly excruciating affair.
When Wari drew Servant Hyran and the merchant Estaed over for a chat after the meal was finished and before the dancing began, he expected the strong confrontation he'd been anticipating for a day and a half. He showed them the package of documents he and Mateo had prepared, scribed carefully on precious paper made from frayed, worn-out cloth and sawdust pasted together with sheep-bone glue and then dried in the sun. They were testimonies from almost all the farmers and shepherds within a day's ride of Ikmos, about Chief Constable Gordath and his fellows and what they did, about the many times Hyran had turned his face away and named another scoundrel as constable.
"This copy is for you," the Seeker said, outwardly serene. He handed the packet to Servant Hyran, watching with the eyes of a hunting eagle. "There are two others, well-hidden from the terrible thieves who have been so bedeviling your township." It had strained Mateo's almost-forgotten literary skills to the limit, transcribing the farmers' words as Wari interviewed them. Teacher Arandfel had joined them for the copying, though, and the papers Servant Hyran leafed indifferently through were covered with the elf's small, strong script.
"Very interesting," Hyran said, tone belying his words. "You've saved our Town Recorder quite a bit of time. I'm impressed with your initiative."
Wari watched the handsome ruler, mouth set hard, like a horse taking the bit in his teeth. He saw no fear in the man. "Princess Elladia will receive her copy, come catastrophe or Katamobi," he stated. This was a fact. "Were I you, I would fear for my position."
That had sounded more threatening than he'd intended to be just yet. But he really wanted to wipe that bored expression from the Servant's face.
It didn't work. Hyran gazed placidly back, eyes calm and dreamy as a cow chewing her cud and meditating on the flavor of hay and timothy mixed with meadow grass. "Seeker Wari, you seem to think that I and my constables have something to do with these insufferable thieves. Look around you, wise one from the wise land of Maychoria. I have no more wealth than my Servant's salary allows. My constables are poor as rocks, having given up their regular jobs to patrol for these thieves, unlike most constables, who keep their usual employments while wearing the constable's cap and accepting the pittance Phelturn allows. Perhaps the farmers of this region have been deceived by clever brigands masquerading as constables. Perhaps I am to be blamed for not catching them sooner. But you can stop fearing for my position, I assure you."
Wari expected it to escalate from there, but Servant Hyran turned and walked away, carelessly letting the papers drop onto the embroidered cushion of a chair. The merchant Estaed shrugged at him, smiling vacantly, then hurried off to claim the first dance of a heavily painted but wealthy-looking woman some years into the last edge of her prime. The Seeker's eyes narrowed as he considered this turn. He felt let down, somehow.
Of a sudden he realized that the ordinary-looking spy, Farig Solma, was standing just behind and to the right of him. Wari turned to face the man, exhaling his frustration and tension in a single breath. "Enjoying the banquet, Master Solma?"
The other smiled a smile that didn't touch his eyes, yet seemed much more genuine than Estaed's empty mask of a grin. "Marginally. I am interested in these documents you have gathered, and I think my employers would be, also."
Wari eyed him thoughtfully. "You get right to the point, don't you?" He still saw no deception in the fellow.
Solma nodded slowly. "Perhaps we might meet to discuss it? Perhaps tomorrow afternoon."
Wari forced himself not to jolt in surprise. The warning whisper almost cut across his sensitive mind, as the undercurrents of the Spirit Dimension cried 'Ware! "That would be acceptable," the Seeker said calmly. "Where would you like to meet?"
I hear, Wari responded.
The silent, whispering yell receded to the usual soft flowing of a stream in a deep, quiet bed.
"The common green?" Solma suggested. "There will be children playing there on a sixth-day afternoon, and we will not seem strange."
Hiding right in the open. Clever fox. Which side are you on? Is the danger from you, or the Servant, or enemies I know naught of yet? I will be ready for anything.
Wari nodded. "That sounds well. I look forward to our meeting."
The spy nodded and looked over the dance floor, where couples were beginning to pair up. Mateo stood against the far wall, almost hidden in the shadows by a draped window, looking miserable and quite handsome in his new suit. Farig Solma's eyes swept right over him as if he didn't exist, the same as they passed over everyone else. They were all beneath his notice, small birds engaged in some curious but uninteresting mating ritual.
Wari's eyes didn't leave Mateo for a moment, though, and he wondered at the difference a haircut and a change of clothes made for the boy. Strange that in all their weeks together, he hadn't noticed how shaggy and ill-kempt Mateo's hair had grown. A smile would improve the lad's appearance even more, of course, but those were rare, and usually bittersweet. The Seeker had yet to hear his apprentice laugh. He imagined that it would be a pleasant sound, worth a great deal of trouble to extract.
As Wari watched, Constable Ingfred cautiously approached the lonely youth, carrying a pair of cups in his hammy fists. The Seeker noted that Mateo's face lightened--he liked the constable. An observation worth remembering. Already Wari knew that the boy's instincts were as sharp as his own.
Mateo accepted one of the cups, and the two conversed briefly. The youngster seemed quite a bit more relaxed, though his eyes swept constantly over the dance floor as if searching for danger. Then he glanced at the front door, back at Ingfred, and at the door again as he said something. The constable nodded and took back the cup, and Mateo started making his way toward the door. Wari understood--the boy wanted to check on his friend Hikano.
A hand touched Wari's shoulder and he jumped, whirling to face the newcomer. It was Tyat, grinning broadly at him.
What could Wari say but yes?
Zoan stifled his self-satisfied chuckles so he wouldn't miss the rest of his quarry's conversation. Wonderful hiding place he had found. The poor fools hadn't a clue.
"I'd like to see how Hikano's doing," the komi forest brat said.
The fat, clumsy constable nodded and accepted the cup the boy held out to him. "See you later."
The boy, that cursed Seeker's apprentice, nodded and began making his way across the crowded hall to the front door. It would take him several minutes to get there, with the way he moved so slowly and cautiously. As if he thought all the finely dressed fools were wolves preparing to bite him. Idiot.
Zoan slipped out from behind the drapes and hurried toward the back of the hall. Constable Ingfred didn't notice him, didn't even look up from his deep, philosophical contemplation of the elderberry cordial in his hands. Imbecile.
Zoan still burned with anger at the pleasure that had been stolen from him by that slip of a pale-faced, virginal forest boy. He knew by experience that the anger would continue to burn until he purged it from his soul. Teacher Arandfel, that elf-loon, would recommend prayer and begging of forgiveness to push back that darkness and let the light shine brighter. Zoan's father would recommend something a bit more practical, and more to the strong young man's taste. It was bodily exercise that bled the rage from the heart, sweat and the aching of muscles. It was doing, not kneeling and talking to nothing.
Zoan knew exactly how he wanted to do it this time, too.
It took him no time at all to gather a couple of like-minded friends, and then the three slid out the back way and started hurrying around the house. At the rate Mateo had been moving, they would be hidden in the front yard at least two minutes before he reached the door.
They would be waiting for him.
--end tale the sixth
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