Sunday, December 23, 2012

Paid in Gold and Blood Chapters 9 & 10

(Two chapters are posted every Sunday and Wednesday. Links to the other chapters can be found HERE)
Chapter Nine

The shutters rattled with a force stronger than the breeze, waking Katashan with a start.  A pale, moon-white light flickered at the window and a soft keening voice rose on the growing wind.

Katashan sat up and pulled the warm blanket up around him, frowning at the play of shadow and light across the floor.  He looked to the door and wondered who stood guard tonight.

The shutter shook harder as the wood bounced against stone.

"Not this time, Sherina," he said aloud, annoyed at having another night's sleep disturbed.  He lifted his hand and brought a small amount of magic to his fingers; not as strong as if he used blood, but still a noticeable glow in the dark.  "Be gone."

The keening became a howl.  She would wake the entire fortress again if she kept up, and that certainly wouldn't go well with her father.  Katashan wondered if she would try any of the other windows if he sent her away.  No, she needed a link to draw her in, and he was her key -- the person who had severed her other links to the world when he broke the ritual. 

Did she come to him out of need to bond to something or a more sinister reason?  He still didn't know who had performed the sacrifice and who might still have enough hold on the ghost to use her against him.

He lifted his hand toward the window, whispering just a slight magic.  He only wanted to test her out, to gently dissuade her without drawing down all the keep on them.

She quickly wearied of rattling the shutter and went away.  He closed her eyes and felt out the ward and the trail of magic she left behind, but she had gone far away and would not bother anyone else in the fortress.  Katashan curled back up in his blankets and slept well.



He came awake.  Cork stood at the door, out of his uniform, and looking not altogether comfortable.  His dark hair, no longer confined by his cap, twisted in curls around his face.  He'd replaced the high collar of his uniform for an open necked tunic with long, wide sleeves.

Katashan blinked, connecting the familiar voice with the new look.  "Oh.  I slept late.  Past the dawn?"

"Yes sir.  An hour or so by the bells."

"My apologies."

"No need, sir." Cork picked up a chair from outside the door which he had obviously carried up from elsewhere.  Wise man.  Now one of them didn't have to sit on the bed.  "I just ordered breakfast, sir.  You'd have missed it entirely otherwise."

"Thank you," he said, although he didn't find the idea of food particularly appealing as he sat up.  He put his feet over the side of the bed and ran a hand through his long, matted hair.  "Should I apologize for your change in assignment?  It was not my intention --"

"Oh, no need to apologize, sir.  I volunteered."  He settled the chair by the window and sat down, grinning.  "All in all, I'd much rather be up here jawing -- talking with you, sir, than out on the work field or down patrolling the docks.  Or, gods forgive me, worse yet would be walking his Lordship up and down the halls while he rants about the Gods knows what.  He was badly drunk last night.  He'll pay for it this morning, and that won't put him in any better mood, either.  I don't mind being here at all, sir."

"I'm glad this isn't an arduous assignment, then," he said.  "Excuse me."

He went to the private privy, came out and splashed some water on his face and brushed down his hair.  The food arrived not long afterwards brought in by a servant boy who looked around nervously and scampered out without a word.  Cork uncovered the tray, and the food smelled so good he decided it would have been a crime to miss this after all.

"Captain Serrano said to tell you his Lordship will be taking the body and going home either this afternoon or early tomorrow morning.  He warns that Lord Arpan will probably want to see you again before then."

"I would guess so.  Is he aware of the unusual occurrence here the night before last?"

"Yes sir," Cork said.  He put aside his cup of cider.  "But -- just an observation, not anything the Captain has said -- he seemed damn little interested in it."

"Really?  Is magic common in his family?"

"His Lordships?  No, not at all.  At least not so it's common knowledge. They frown on nobility with powers at court.  There's always rumors, a'course, but that's common in any noble house.  We like ta' gossip about those in power, and tales grow in the telling."

"True enough."  Katashan sipped at his cup and decided it would not be a good idea to pursue that line of questioning, even with Cork.  "Well, we're in for a boring day, I would think.  Let's talk about the town again.  If there's a chance at all I'll settle here, I'd like to know more about the merchants and their shops."

Cork settled into his food, looking very pleased.  "I can't tell you much about how they're run -- Maylee might be a help there.  Her father owns one shop and her uncle another.  She works here in the kitchens.  Once his Lordship is gone, maybe we'll go down and see her."

Katashan guessed from the man's smile that he had other reasons he wanted to see the woman.  He ate some of his eggs and made no show of it.  They discussed Salbay and the people who made up the town. Cork turned out to be an excellent source of information about a number of business practices, including general information on the taxing of different establishments.

"And the boats hire themselves out to a person or a shop, usually for a season, sometimes for an entire year," he said later as they stood by the window, watching sails out on the bay and beyond.  "You're bound by law to sell only to them, at a set rate, everything above half the catch of the day."

"And the other half?"

"One third goes to the temple, which uses it to feed the poor here and in the smaller villages, and the capital.  The rest goes to his Lordship's men, who have first chance to sell in market, though more often they just pack it in ice in another ship and send the catch off to Atshila where there's more money to be made.  You need a special license to ship to the capital, though, and they don't give them out for free."

"Fishing is the biggest market here?"

"Yes but there there's also salt, wood and snow," he said.  "Atshila has the better bay, but the city is set back from the mouth of the Black River, with no easy reach of the high passes like we have -- and they've stripped the land there about of all trees anyway.  We're a little wiser here.  We farm the trees, but we make sure there's plenty of second growth.  We can pack wood and snow down to the bay with ease, and the city is only a day's sail away in good weather.  We're lucky because the winds run true in the summer when they most want snow melt down in the hotter plains.  And except for the bay itself, Atshila is mostly marshland along the shore -- good for hunting fowl, but they've never had a good salt pan there. So that's really our big contribution, and why we rate a garrison and fortress.  You can see the outer edge of the larger salt pan, off to the left of the bay."

Katashan craned his neck out the window to see, and found the square dyke filed with a discolored stand of sea water and larger than any of the salt pans he'd seen in the north.  The bright green of the salt pan looked lovely at this distance, but he knew they were hard to work.

"Salt mining is our boon and bane," Cork said as he stepped away.  "This is the only defensible spot of any worth on the coast between here and the capital, so this is where the salt pans went.  But that makes us a target as well.  Five years ago --"

He stopped suddenly, and Katashan turned back to see the man frowning and looking embarrassed for the first time. 

"Five years ago, my people were here and we were at war," Katashan said.  Cork nodded.  "We need not go any farther with that discussion."

"Yes, sir," Cork said, formality returned.  "Best to let it be."

"When we were up at the pass, Tyren said there was a village nearby in the highlands.  Are there many such places, up in the mountains?"

"He'd have been talking about Holding, I suspect.  It's one of the villages along the mountain edge. There are far more then we will ever know about," Cork said with a little frown, but he looked relieved for the change in subject.  "They don't take allegiance with his Lordship and refuse to pay taxes unless they come down to the towns for some reason.  We hold the coast, and they have the inland valleys and mountain peaks.  We've got the better deal, truth be told.  There's no good land back there -- but you've seen it."

"Yes." Katashan stepped back from the window, and thought about crossing the mountain range.  "Craggy mountains, high peaks, and pines everywhere."

"That's what I hear.  I've never been farther than Silver Pass on the inland trails.  Most everyone follows the old Iron Road, like you did.  We never know what's back there, really, off the main path.  Hear tales, of course, about huge cities and temples of gold, but only fools go looking, and they never come back.  There be some outlying villages up on the mountains above us, like the one Tyren spoke about, but we think there might be much more, in the valleys where we can't see."

"Really," Katashan said, sitting down at the table again.  Now this was a fascinating bit of trivia.  "And you've no contact with the mountain people?"

"Once a year we hold a tax-free market by the fortress and that draws some down to sell sheep and crafts.  But any other time, encounters are not usually friendly.  They don't like that we are cutting down the forest, going ever higher for more wood.  I can't say I like it much myself.  And every five years, when the king's tax is due, his lordship sends an army up to collect their share of the tithe.  It's never worked as far as I can tell.  And nine years ago he lost a whole squadron -- a little over a hundred men -- to the mountains."

Katashan looked up, surprised by that statement.  "That's no myth; it's well within current memory."

"Yes, sir.   It's real enough, those disappearances.  My uncle was a corporal in the group; fool, he was, to ever leave the sea.  But then, that makes me a fool, too, doesn't it?" he said with a sudden laugh and a glance at the window and the ocean beyond.  He shook his head and looked back.  "They went off to the mountains and never came back."


"Most likely, sir.  We never knew."

None came back.  He thought that very odd and intriguing.

"Don't get that look, sir.  People what get that look head up into the mountains and never come back as well.  I'd regret that, having told you the tale."

"Ah, well.  I'm just fascinated by the idea of unexplored lands and strange places.  It's what brought me here, you know."

"Dangerous life to lead.  Sometimes there's no going back."

"And sometimes there's no reason to go back.  Maybe they found the temples of gold and the vast cities."

"Yes sir, maybe so."

"Does make me wonder why Lord Arpan keeps sending people, though, if he just loses them."

"Oh, the guards, we joke that it's to cut down on the tithe he has to pay on kept soldiers," Cork said.  He grinned.  "You're too easy to talk to."

"But I am discreet."

"That's probably going to save my neck."

"There's no gain for me to cause trouble to the only person who's been of help since I arrived."

"Captain Serrano likes you, sir," Cork said softly, glancing at the doorway again.  It reminded Katashan that there was reason to worry.  "Otherwise you'd be in a cell now rather than a room here with a warm bed and nice view.  I get the feeling he thinks you did us a good turn somehow, by bringing her ladyship's body here.  Odd thing to be grateful for, I think, especially since there's magic involved."

"You figure that one out on your own, did you?"

Cork ran a hand through his hair, glanced at the door, and then leaned closer, his voice dropping to a near whisper.

"Wasn't hard to figure, not the way Pater Matish has been hovering around the body ever since you brought her in.  And then there have been those . . . incidents at night.  Rather hard to ignore, though his Lordship is doing a fine job of it."

"And I find that very odd," Katashan said just as softly.

"Yes, I do."

And they said nothing more of that matter, either.  In fact, they were discussing -- of all things -- rabbits when Captain Serrano came into the room.  Well, at least the man wouldn't suspect Katashan of getting important information from Cork.  He stood in the doorway for a moment while the conversation died down and both men looked at him.

"I thought you should know that His Lordship has gone to the bay to inspect the wharf and will be back by third bell.  He wants to see you then, Katashan."  Serrano stopped and shook his head, his mouth clamped shut. 

Katashan knew the look, and he quelled the worry that almost came to his face.  There was more news, and it wouldn't be good.

"And?" Katashan asked.

"I think he shall order your arrest."

"Ah.  What will happen then?"

"He'll transport you back to Atshila with him to be dealt with at the Court."  Serrano glanced outside the doorway, and then stepped into the room.  His voice softened.  "Providing that you ever reached the city for trial.  I've reason to think he would rather that didn't happen at all, no matter if he could rig it or not."

"I don't understand.  Why bother?  Why not better to leave me here -- ah.'

Captain Serrano nodded.

"Sirs?" Cork asked.  "I don't follow."

"He doesn't want word of how I found his daughter's body to be spread.  One assumes it is the question of magic that worries him?"

"I think so, but I can only assume that by default," Serrano said.  He didn't look any less worried.  "Magic was the one thing he does not discuss."

"What about Tyren and his men?"

"I seem to have failed to mention that you came in with the caravan and I suggested they move on last night. They're already gone," Serrano said.  He didn't look happy with any of these admissions.

"And what about Pater Matish?  He knows what's happened and about the magic."

"He presents a different problem and one I'll keep watch over to make certain he remains safe.  I don't think he will do anything to draw the attention of the temple, though.  Arpan has avoided Pater Matish as much as possible since his arrival.  I think the priest is safe.  That still leaves you.  If --" He stopped and looked at Cork, then continued softly.  "If you were to leave the fortress before next bell, I would not be able to say where you went."

He hadn't expected the Captain to make such an offer.  The magnitude of it was far beyond just letting him slip away.  He would have to answer to Lord Arpan afterward.  "Why would you risk this for me?"

"Because I know you're not involved in the murder.  Because I don't want Lord Arpan to do something irreparable.  Because I believe in justice, and not just a noble's rights."  He looked at Katashan, and gave a nod again.  "But mostly, I think you should go because I talked to Tyren, and he says there's no way you could have missed the cleared path to the Verina Guardian.  I believe the Goddess directed you to the body and that means this is something none of us should undo.   I don't want to be part of another man's folly to step between you and a Goddess-given fate."

He had several good points but Katashan still felt uncertain.  It put the man in a very dangerous position.  "You think I should go."

"Very much so," Serrano said.  "I would not be here risking my career, and my life, by making such suggestions if I didn't think this was important."

"I don't want to put you in danger," Katashan said, shaking his head.  "This isn't wise.  He'll know you had to --"

"He believes you have magic," Serrano said.  "I can use that to my advantage if I need to, and direct his attention to there when you can't be found.  So unless you really do have magic to fly away, I suggest you clear out quickly."

Katashan cast one quick look around the room and all the supplies with which he had hoped to start a new life. Nothing had ever been that easy in his life.  He pulled up his bag filled with a few pieces of clothing and dragged out his cloak, a hat, and his purse of gold coins.  "How do I get out of here?"

"Cork, take him down to the cliff gate.  His Lordship won't be coming back at that way, but keep an eye open for Arpan's men.  Get into the hills, Katashan.  His Lordship won't go that way, not himself."

"I'll do my best."

"I'll take you," Cork said.  "With the Captain's permission, of course.  I know some the trails near here, and I'll keep you from wandering too far, sir."

"Good man, Cork," Serrano said and dropped a hand on the soldier's shoulder before Katashan could protest.  He didn't want to drag someone else into this mess.  "Get down into the city and wait for nightfall before you go up to the top again.  One week, Katashan.  By then his Lordship will be back in his keep.  He has a notoriously short memory, especially if anything else takes his attention -- and I'll find something, Katashan.   One week. Then you come back, because I damned well want answers to all of this before we're done."

Katashan hastily pulled on his cloak, and looked at Cork, shaking his head.  "You don't want to go with me.  I draw trouble."

"And you draw the eye of a Goddess herself," Cork reminded him as he stood.  "Should I not want to be part of such a cause?  Besides, I don't think it's wise to let you go wandering off into danger, sir."

"Just go, go," Serrano said, frantically waving towards the door.  "I'll see to your belongings."

"Thank you."

Cork hurried to the door, looked out, and then signaled that it was clear as he started away.  Katashan followed him, glancing back only once to see Serrano close the door and head in the opposite direction.

Damn and damn again.  This was not right.



Chapter Ten

Cork knew his way through the labyrinth of servant's passages as well as he had known the maze of halls and stairs in the rest of the fortress.  Katashan wanted to ask how he came by such knowledge.  He wanted to ask more about the building which still fascinated as Cork led him farther down into the heart of the fortress.  He said nothing, though, and instead followed as quickly and quietly as he could. 

They descended several fights of bare, stone-walled steps where only an occasional torch at an opening to a floor lit the way.  When they had to leave the stairwell, they slipped past closed doors and open archways and twice abandoned one set of stairs to scurry down a hall until they found another set.  Katashan was lost beyond all hope of finding his way back.  He realized they had gone down farther then the ground floor, and here the walls felt damp and cold.  Soon the steps grew narrower, carved from the living rock.  He wondered if they were going all the way down to the sea.  He could take ship, perhaps --

The first time they met up with a servant, Katashan nearly panicked at the sight of the old woman, a shawl across her shoulders and a basket of herbs hanging from her scrawny arm.

"On our way out, Elga," Cork said, patting her on the arm.  "Not a word."

"None, Cork," the older woman said, slipping back to a slightly wider area.  "Go by the south wing.  His Lordship's guards are harassing the servants near our quarters."

"Bless you, Elga," Cork said, and gave her a quick hug.  She smiled, a crooked-tooth grin full of delight as she nodded to Katashan, and continued to trudge up the stairs.  Katashan turned back to watch her disappear.

"Don't worry.  You can trust the servants -- many of them, at least.  Serrano treats them fair and that wins a good deal of loyalty in this place."

"Dangerous for them, helping us like this," Katashan said, worried again.

"Not really.  No one will ever know we went this way, and even if they do, they'll never know if we met a servant or not."

"Then you're the only one who's putting himself in danger."

"And you.  And the Captain."  He stopped on the stairs and looked back at Katashan, his head tilted to the side.  "Tell me it's not worth it, sir. Tell me we don't live in dangerous times, and that there's nothing more to this than a young woman's death and his Lordship's bad manners?  I'll take you right back to the room if you tell me that's all there is -- and nothing to do with Gods, ghosts and magic."

"Go, go," Katashan said, waving his companion on.  "Things are dangerous enough, you're right."

Cork nodded and started down the steps again.  These steps were older, the stone worn slick in spots, and grooved in the others

"How much farther do we need to go?"

"Another two levels, sir.  We'll come out below the fortress and just inside the herbarium, which is all nicely walled and private.  I'll scout things out a bit before we head out into town proper, just to make sure none of His Lordship's men are taking in the sights or heading for a tavern."

"Sounds wise," he said.

"Wise, I wouldn't know, sir.  But it is a plan."

Katashan didn't argue.  By the time they made the final flight of stairs, he felt as though disaster followed close behind them.  He even glanced back when they reached the old oaken door at an otherwise dead end.  Perhaps something white and diaphanous moved at the corner of his sight.

Cork shoved the door open and they stepped into a surprisingly lovely little garden, fragrant with flowering trees and herbs planted on ledges carved out of the red stone of the cliff.  He looked up to see deep, blue sky high above, a spot of white cloud, and the finished stone walls of the fortress towering above them at the top of a nearly sheer cliff.

Looking down, he found worn stone beneath his feet, and the only dirt in wooden boxes where the herbs and trees had been planted.  It was an ingenious little garden.  They even passed a well in the midst of the garden, and servants gathered there.  They waved to Cork and looked away again.

"A well within the walls," Katashan said, nodding toward it.  "That's wise, but quite a surprise, considering the ground seems to be solid stone."

"Yes sir, it is," Cork said, and stomped his foot against the stone as though to prove it.  "But that's an artisan well, dug in from a water table in the hills just behind the city. That's what they tell me, at any rate.  Hard work it must have been, but it's a century or more old, and still providing water when we need it."

Katashan looked back at the well, the wall around it, and the buckets stacked nearby.  The servants didn't seem to be gathering water to take into the fortress.  It was probably just a popular resting place, and water most times provided by easier access like rain water in gathered in cisterns.

"There's the gate out into the city, sir.  I'll take a look.  If you would hold the gate so the bell doesn't ring twice, we'll draw less attention when we leave."

As they went past flowering bush a couple tame chickens rushed them like dogs looking for a treat.  Apparently they knew Cork well, because the guard reached into his pocket and scattered bread crumbs with such ease that it looked like a natural thing for him to do.  Katashan smiled and followed behind, careful to avoid trampling the creatures.

The tall, narrow wooden gate stood at the far end of the garden. Two small towers flanked the heavy wooden door but the parapets stood empty today.  No doubt anyone trying to take the fortress from this side would be in for a hell of a fight, both here and on that narrow stairwell the two had descended. 

Cork pushed open a gate, the bell ringing loudly.  He gave a slight smile and moved out, while Katashan held the gate slightly open, seeing nothing but more stone across a wide path.

He could hear voices outside, but there didn't seem to be too many people.  Someone shouted a hello to Cork.  Probably not a surprise that the local man should be recognized, but it made Katashan nervous.

Cork finally came back, slipping inside the gate and giving a nod of encouragement.  "Stay close beside me.  We'll head to the right and past the temple.  I know a tavern where we can sit for a bit and get the feel of things.  We can't head for the gate until this evening, and we'll have to find out if his Lordship has already put his guards everywhere on the path."

"I'll walk nearby, but not with you," Katashan said.  He met Cork's stubborn look with one of his own this time.  "If they put out a description of me, this cloak isn't going to be much disguise.  I'll stay close enough that I won't lose you."

"I'd feel better if you were close enough that I knew I could use my sword, if need be --"

"And that's exactly what I don't want."  Katashan caught hold of Cork's arm and made certain he had the man's full attention, even with the chickens trying to get past.  "If they come after me, Cork, there's no reason for you to go down as well.  Remember that you are here to help me avoid trouble as best you can, but nothing more."

He frowned, and finally nodded reluctant agreement before Katashan let go.  Katashan couldn't be certain his companion would back away if they ran into trouble, so he determined not to find any. 

Cork listened for a moment at the gate, and then carefully slipped out on to the walkway.  The people outside laughed when he shooed the chickens back in, but didn't seem to take any other notice.

"Now, sir.  Quick, and to the right."

Katashan obeyed, bowing his head, and moving as fast as he dared though the gate and along the stone pathway.  It seemed narrow, and then realized there would be no need for anything wider.  No horses down here, Katashan realized.  No wagons.  Just people walking.

Sounds echoed oddly and he could smell fish everywhere. He walked along, close to the stone wall on the right, which he took at first to be nothing more than the smooth surface of the cliff.

Then he saw the carved relief of waves and fish.

He looked up. 

The sight stopped him, even now in the midst of danger.  He could do nothing but stare.

A city of red, beige and white stone rose all around him, the buildings carved out of a chasm in the cliff.  To the left, buildings of only a story or two had been carved from the rock -- carved completely through in many places, because he could see to the sky and ocean through openings.  To his right stood buildings so tall he had to crane his neck to see the tops.  The locals had carved them into the cliff wall, and around the doorways stood pillars of multicolored stone, topped with gargoyles, eagles and dragons.  Statues of men, gods and creatures seemed to grow from the building walls, carved from the world around them.  He could not take it all in --

"No time for gawking, sir," Cork said, taking hold of his arm and hurrying him along.

"I have never -- I am -- words fail me."

"Yes, sir.  I've heard that before.  I admit, even for a local boy, it still takes the breath away -- but we haven't the time to play tourist.  This way, sir."

"Get away from me."

"I don't think so," Cork answered with a bright smile.  "We'll walk along like a couple old pals, heading for the tavern.  You can look around to your heart's content, and I'll just steer us along."

Katashan stopped arguing because he did, truly, want to see, and with a glance around, he could tell no one seemed to pay them any attention.  He ran his hand over the edge of one pediment covered in near perfect stone roses.  "It's magnificent."

Cork looked at the wall, and then at the buildings to the left.  He smiled.  "Yes, it is, sir.  People in the capital say this is a city built by the gods themselves.  It might be that old.  There's another level further down the cliff side, a single row mostly of suites and apartments.  Up here are the markets, the shops, the taverns, and the temples.  City government has buildings here, as well. That building there on the right -- the one with the two hawks carved over the door frame -- that's the Hall of Justice, where the city council meets and settles disputes and gives judgments in trials.  The building goes far back into the cliff, a cubbyhole of offices and they say you can get lost in there. That people never come back out."

"You live in a dangerous world where people are forever disappearing into mountains, one way or another."

He laughed.  "Yes, sir, you're right.  I'd say it's safer to be a ship's man than work for the government -- soldier or clerk -- but, of course, we lose ships now and again as well.  I've lost more relatives to the sea than to the mountains."  He looked toward the ocean, visible through the windows of the stone-carved building to the left.  Cork waved toward it.  "That's the Salt House.  Always a busy place there, so keep your head down and we'll hurry by.  And the next door down, that's the Fish House.  You go there if you want to arrange the hire of a ship for the sake of the catch. Always busy as well --"

"Magic," Katashan said and almost lifted his hand.  He stopped before Cork did more than draw a quick, hissing breath.  "There's magic everywhere."

"Of course there is, sir.  How else could they keep a place like this dry and livable, so close to the sea?  Do watch yourself, sir.  Common people don't have magic here, so they don't take notice of it.  But we have a priesthood and they keep their eyes on such things, and every generation or so a true mage comes in and renews the spells, though that's not well known either.  The locals, they just wouldn't understand, since they've no magic of their own and mistrust it."

"I understand. The common people at home don't have magic either --" He stopped himself with a silent curse. 

Cork gave him a look that showed no surprise, but rather a little nod of confirmation of something he had obviously already considered.  Katashan quickly steered the conversation away from that dangerous ground, though.  He wasn't ready to answer questions about himself and why he was not one of those common people. 

"What is that building with the dolphins carved all over it?" he asked, pointing toward an area with dolphins carved around a wide opening.  Two women entered, laughter echoing back out from the cavernous interior.

"That's the baths, sir."

"Baths.  Really?  How delightful."

"Oh yes, sir.  We're very nearly civilized here.  There's a hot spring inside, and cool water from the same source as the wells.  It's a lovely way to spend a free afternoon."

"Do you see any sea people here, Cork?"

"Once every ten years or so, they come in to trade, mostly bringing their lovely pearl work and trading for good nets and rope.  Twenty or so will come in at once, and then swim out and another twenty will come in.  We're the only city on the entire coast they visit.  The gods alone know why.  If their visits were more often, or at least predictable, we'd be famous and rich for it."

"Is that what you want for this city?  For it to be famous and rich and filled with people?"

Cork gave him another startled look.  "When you put it like that -- no, I guess not.  How odd.  I always thought -- well never mind."

Katashan nodded.  "I've lived in cities famous for one reason or another.  I'm looking for somewhere less hectic now.  However looking around, I would think it must be hard to get a shop here," Katashan said, deliberately turning the conversation aside again.  "Limited space, yes?"

"Yes.  Many shopkeepers start up on the bluffs by the fortress, and apply for a cliff shop with the council.  The list is long, but shops do close here every year for one reason or another.  And some businesses join forces and share a space.  Usually the wait's no more than three years."

That sounded like a frighteningly long time to Katashan, although he wasn't entirely certain why.  Perhaps he only wanted to fit in here -- or somewhere -- and feel as though he had found a home.  Maybe he was ready for the journey to end and to find peace again. He pushed that thought away, though, with the reminder of things going on here that didn't promise much peace in the near future.

"And there, at the branching, is the temple of Peralin, the patron god of Salbay."

Katashan looked up with a start and found the path parted before him with a narrow crevice to the right, a wider one to the left.  In the center stood an ornate building that put the others to shame for the amount of detail carved into the surface.  Stairs lead upward, narrow at the bottom, widening before two broad doors of silver.

Between the doors stood a statue, and not one carved of the local red and pale stone, but rather jet black:  A man cloaked, sitting upon his horse with the animal's head high.  Katashan felt his heart pound and his breath catch.  He stopped and he stared, aware that Cork tried to urge him on.  He could not, for the moment, move.

"What -- the statue --" he said, fighting for words in a language the man would understand.

"Ah, yes.  No one knows how they got so large a statue down here, either.  Myth says he rode in all by himself and took sentry there.  And that, on the day we see him riding elsewhere, we'll be in a damned lot of . . . damned . . . lot. . . .  Oh hell, sir.  No.  Say it's not true."

"We shared a hay shed the night before I arrived.  The horse is called Night."

"So it is, sir.  Yes.  It is.  Gods all.  What does it mean?"

"It means, I suppose, that we are all in a damned lot of trouble."


Cheryl Peugh said...

Oh, ho! Curioser and curioser! Katashan seems to have attracted a lot of god-like attention.

Zette said...

This was such a fun book to write that I'm really going to be sorry when I'm even done editing it. I'm glad others are enjoying it, though!