The girl behind the bars seemed a strange mixture of conflicts to Lord Jeneyeru. At once so defiant and so unsure, her initial anxious outburst startled him a little as her hands gripped the bars, but as she restrained herself, seeking to regain some measure of control despite the nerves she could not hide, a gentle smile crossed the wizard’s lips.
Sesus is a city of masks indeed, he thought as he listened to the recitation of excuses and assurances, but surely the truth was in the first, unguarded speech before this little trickster managed to scramble behind her disguise.
“You know who I am?” he said. “Then you must know your situation is quite serious, too serious for playacting.” The wizard waved vaguely at the iron bars. “Can we not have these, please?”
Aeto Arrowwise snapped at the jailer, who immediately unlocked the cell gate and pulled it open with a metallic screech, allowing Jeneyeru to enter Lotye’s narrow accommodations. The elf walked right up to the young eorman woman, minding neither how close he was nor how nervous she might be. He looked her up and down, raised a slender, dark hand to brush the air before her face, caught the strand of her soft hair she had been twisting, rolled it between his fingers like a sample of silk thread. He even leaned in close to breathe deep the scent of her, withdrawing then with a sharp-toothed grin.
He drew from a coat pocket a small brass instrument. Popping open the case, he whispered a few words of Atul and made a sign over it. He held it out towards her, and the dial inside began to spin – and spin and spin and spin, faster and faster, and his grin got sharper and sharper — until he snapped the device shut again.
“Of course, you’ll have to have her properly measured,” he said to Aeto Arrowwise, “but I am afraid her aura is quite strong and active for one of her kind.”
Aeto’s face fell. “Oh, no, really?” The attorney frowned and sucked her teeth in annoyance.
“But aura is only the beginning of the story. Next, we must determine what training she has had, what levels attained, who her master is, and what school she follows. And then I suppose we must test her in some way or other.”
The eager light of experimentation burned in Jeneyeru’s dark eyes as he looked down at Lotye, but before he could begin, the resident forensic wizard arrived, up from the evidence vaults in the cellars of the keep. In his hands was the Box of Nothing bearing the paper seal of the Guardians of Kledy.
“The cards, milord,” said Aeto.
Following procedure, the attorney and guardian wizard both signed and dated the paper seal, which was then broken so the box could be opened. When it was to be closed again, a new seal would be attached, signed and dated as well. There was only one seal to be broken now, indicating that no one had looked at the cards since Lotye’s arrest. The forensic wizard sliced the seal with the tip of his dagger.
“Do not open it,” said Jeneyeru quickly, following with an apologetic smile. “Allow me.”
“Certainly, Master,” said the guardian wizard.
Taking the Staff of Ghosts in both hands, Jeneyeru gripped the long bone cap and drew out the long thin blade of the dark crystal dagger within. He handed the ebony shaft of the staff to the surprised Aeto, who took it hesitantly.
With the box in one hand, he used the crystal blade to lift the carved black lid, letting what was inside out in a ghostly sigh, echoed by the sharp intake of Jeneyeru’s breath. The image of the cowering madmen turned the master wizard’s blood to ice, and as the blade lifted that card and revealed the next, the armor on the mountain, his handsome, gentle face hardened into a mask of anger.
The Tearing Gibberers. The Mountain Ghosts of Ygloguath.
“Do you know what they are, my lord?” asked the forensic wizard, only to be interrupted by Aeto.
“You know better than to ask that,” she said. “We’ll let you know when we’re done.”
The guardian shot her a harsh look, but the privacy privilege of attorneys was one of the most basic rules of the law. Grumbling, he withdrew back down the stairs of the tower. When he was well gone, Aeto turned to Jeneyeru.
“Do you know what they are?”
Jeneyeru closed the Box of Nothing, shutting off the oppressive atmosphere that seemed to emanate from within it.
“They are playing cards,” he said, “meant for games.” He sheathed the crystal dagger in the staff again, and with the box held tight in his hand, he sat down on the meager cot in the cell.
“Sit with me, Mistress.” He nodded from Lotye to the space next to him. “And tell me how these cards came into your possession. Tell me truly now, and no masquerades. Much depends on your answer, for you as well as others.”
— — — — —
Meanwhile, in Plesz…
“Refugee?” The Chancellor of the Customhouse looked up sharply from her document, her pen and the two pens mirroring her writing all stopping at once.
The elegant woman had dutifully written down the bizarre series of words and numbers Y’lanna had given as her place of residence, as if she was reciting coordinates of latitude and longitude, but the clarifying questions the Chancellor would surely have asked were cut off by that politically charged word.
“Refugee from what?” she said, cocking an eyebrow at the purple alien. “Was there a war in your homeland? Or another kind of disaster? How were you displaced, why were you being pursued, and by whom?”
“Good gods, milady,” exclaimed Lord Ruili returning from his theatrical musings, “does it matter?”
“Of course it matters, milord,” the Chancellor replied. “Is the Duchy to be drawn into a foreign conflict? What if her government wants her back? What if someone comes looking for her?”
“What, through a vortex?”
“Why not? You went through and came back, didn’t you?”
“No, actually, we didn’t. That is to say, we went through vortices, but they never dropped us in the same place twice. What I mean is, it was a circuitous voyage.” Ruili grimaced slightly, thinking about the passages of the past. “I think it highly unlikely that Mistress Sparti will be followed here.”
“Regardless, it affects her status. Until we determine the conditions and authority she claims to have fled, I cannot account for her as a refugee.”
“Then account for her as something else.”
The Chancellor of the Customhouse rolled her large, dark eyes. “Noble cousin, she said it right in front of the seals.” She passed a hand over the row of medallions in a carved holder on the desk. “Once applied, they will testify to it regardless of what I write or don’t write. You cannot un-say a sealed statement.”
“Well, what does this mean? Is she to be denied entry? What shall we do with her then?”
Both of the elves looked long and closely at Y’lanna, Ruili with a mix of concern and curiosity, and the Chancellor with official irritation.
“Ugh, no, of course she may enter,” the bureaucrat relented at last, “but their Graces must rule on this. I cannot give her a passport and let her run all over the realms under our protection, not as things stand now. I’ll make this a visa allowing her to reside in the Isles, but anything beyond that will have to be a special case. I’m sorry, but it’s the best I can do.”
The Chancellor set to writing out the rest of the document, filling in the space below Y’lanna’s information with the text of a resident visa rather than that of a passport of the Grand Navigators. Of course, whatever she wrote, it all looked like an intricate and delicate calligraphic artwork in the fluid script of the Common language of Aeldreth. Y’lanna, if she could make out letters looking at it upside down, would not have been able to read it anyway until she had a chance to do so through the Amulet of the Lens of the Dragon’s Eye she had been given.
While the Chancellor wrote and the enchanted scrivener’s pens copied her writing of their own accord on separate sheets, Ruili leaned his elbow on his knee and rested his chin on his hand, regarding Y’lanna curiously and unabashedly.
Finishing up, the Chancellor put her quill into a holder – the other two pens flew into the holder with it – and shook fine sand from pewter shaker over the three freshly written sheets to dry the ink. She shook each one clean, and turned all three towards Y’lanna.
“Now, young mistress,” she said, “this is your visa. It is a very important document. You must sign all three and then swear your oath that you do so as your own free act and deed, under no duress or coercion. Two of the originals will remain here, and the third will go with you. Milord Windwolf, will you witness her oath?”
“Certainly,” said Ruili.
“Very well.” The Chancellor took a different pen from a different holder, dipped it in a glass bottle of black ink, and held it out to Y’lanna.