Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 21
Meb woke in the pale hours of dawn. Sleeping as she had been, in the big sewing room, light came in through the high skylight. Besides it was not quite as quiet as a house could be at that time of day. They moved like ghosts, but Leilin and her sister still couldn’t pack quietly. Meb watched for a while before saying anything. She couldn’t see Finn anywhere . . . .
“What are you doing?” she asked warily.
“Ah. The ‘prentice, wakes,” said Leilin, with just a hint of sarcasm. Meb suspected that the alvar woman didn’t entirely believe that she was Finn’s apprentice. “We’re leaving for a while.”
“Maybe for ever,” said her sister. “The sort of trouble that Finn brings along with him is something that we’d rather avoid. He’ll be gone and then people will come looking for him. Somebody might have seen him arrive here. So by the time they come searching we’d like to be a good long way away.”
“Where is he?” asked Meb slightly nervous. She still wondered if the jester would somehow just disappear.
The two looked at each other. “About his usual mysterious business I would think,” said Leilin. “It doesn’t pay to inquire too closely into what he gets up to. He tends to vanish when you do. He didn’t spend the night with me, however.”
“He’s up to mischief somewhere,” said her sister. “He’ll be back. He always comes back, eventually.”
“Mind you, it can take him a few years at times,” said Leilin.
Just at that point Finn stepped in through the doorway. “You’re running late,” he said. Plainly their departure was no surprise to him.
Leilin waved airily at Meb. “We were trying not to wake the sleeper.”
Finn found that rather funny. “Time that the Scrap was up, fed and watered anyway. And definitely time you two were away. You will take my advice, and take the bridle path going across to Mount Jindar?”
Leilin grimaced, nodded. “It’s muddy, but I assume you have your reasons.”
“Put it this way, I don’t think anyone will be following it for a week or two, if ever again,” said the gleeman. “And Jindar’s a stable area. Firmly grounded, and correctly aligned.”
It didn’t make a great deal of sense to Meb. But then she didn’t quite understand at least three quarters of what Finn said. She wondered whether all traveling gleemen were just as mysterious. But surely that was unlikely? People would have realized they were up to something by now. Or would they? They never stayed anywhere very long, or even came back that often, her inner voice wondered beginning to dream a great conspiracy of gleemen . . .
“Snap out of it, dreamy-head,” said Finn, “and help the girls pack. It’s likely this area will be a hornets nest of searching guards by tomorrow.”
So Meb did her best to help, and went along with them to help carry their belongings to the livery stable. They did not seen too unhappy to be leaving.
“I’d like to stay and see the mess,” said Leilin with a nasty smile. “But he’s been very generous with someone’s silver. And I can’t say that I’ll be sorry to see the back of this place. That was our lake.”
“And may be again, Leilin,” said her sister. “Good luck, child. Take care of Finn.”
That made Leilin laugh. “You’ll have your work cut out for you.”
Somehow Meb hadn’t thought of it as her having to take care of Finn. She was, by the standards of her fishing village, a grown woman, only unmarried because . . . well, she didn’t look particularly womanly, or pretty. Her darker skin, and wiggly auburn hair hadn’t helped. And she’d had no kind of dowry at all. But she’d resisted growing up. Resisted being responsible. The idea of being responsible for someone like Finn seemed even more bizarre. Yes, he did strange and unpredictable things. But he seemed so casually capable of taking care of himself. “I’ll do my best,” she said, doubtfully.
“All we can ever do,” said Leilin. “And farewell, Finn. Until next time.”
He nodded. “There may be one. You never know.”
They went back to the house of the seamstresses, ate and then packed up their belongings, with Finn’s gaudy outfit and her dress being carefully folded before being put into a simple, anonymous canvas bag, of the kind that peddlers often used for their wares. Finn had another two of these — much larger ones — but he did not explain what was inside them.
A little later they made their way away from the tucked away grubby slum, and back down to the beautiful straight paved road to the white gate-house of the delicate and elegant city by the lake. They collected their passes . . . as he took them Finn dropped one of the bags, seemingly accidentally. The side ripped open, and a delicately made cage rolled out, and opened. The small, brightly colored birds inside the cage seemed so shaken up that they nearly didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. Then they, one after the other, fluttered out. None of them went too far in the first few seconds. “My birds! Boy, catch my birds. Help me catch my birds!”
A frantic, clumsy chase followed. Finn showed himself to be singularly inept at catching the little fluttering creatures, even losing his grip on the one a helpful guard shoo-ed into his face, but he did get most of the other people who had come to visit the marketplace distracted into trying too, and had all the attention of the guards. They failed at catching any of the birds, and eventually a dismal-looking Finn had to watch them fly off, before he and Meb continued into the city.
Meb had been around the gleeman for long enough to realize that that had been no accident, and that he’d been up to something. But they were already safely inside the city, so it had not been to evade the guard. She tried to puzzle it out. “What were you doing, master?” she finally asked, when they were comfortably out of earshot of anyone.
“I was returning their passes,” said Finn cheerfully. “Now, as far as their numbers are concerned, when they close the gates this evening, we will already have left. It’s a pity that we won’t have.”
They walked to where you could see the palaces sloping down to the limpid azure water. Here they quietly left the second large bag under a bush. Finn had found a perfect place for them to hide and change — a large colonnaded building full of artwork. At least, Meb was sure that some of it was artwork. The place was entirely deserted.
Finn surveyed the strange sculptures on their plinths. “An appreciation of the finer things in life is something that everyone likes to pretend they have. Or at least everyone who likes to pretend they are important likes to pretend they have.”
Meb found herself wrinkling her forehead at this: “They like to pretend to pretend?”
“Something like that. It doesn’t work very well.”
“I think I also pretend too much sometimes,” admitted Meb. “I like to imagine things. I used to do it a lot back in Cliff Cove,” She looked around. “I got it wrong a lot.”
“Imagination and pretense have their uses and places,” said Finn. “Like now, when we need to pretend to be what we’re not. I need water to affect my disguise. You slip in behind those pictures and change. Roll up your clothes up and bring them along. Meet me back here. I’ll need to give you a hand with a bit of make-up.”
So Meb did. She’d tried the clothes on for several fittings, but now they felt different. She wished she could see herself in the outfit — lilac and canary. They were beautiful colors on their own . . . but together? She was just a fisher-brat but surely not? She had five crimson tasseled balls to juggle with too.
“The girls did you proud with the glamour that they put on that dress, Scrap,” said a tall alvar with a raised crest of red hair wearing a lilac coat, with canary knee-breeches and lilac hose who was leaning languidly against the wall.
Meb nearly ran . . . and then recognized the suit and the voice. “Master?”
“Who else would wear such a charming outfit, Scrap? A fright helped your pallor, but I’ll add to it with some makeup. And I need to sort out your ears and nose.”
It was his voice . . . but he was so tall and slim and supercilious-looking it made her suspect that he too had used a magical glamour.
A little later they sauntered slowly down a broad boulevard into the part of the city that was off limits to visitors: heading towards the royal palace. Most of the alvar rode, of course. But there were enough others taking the evening air — it was a pleasant evening, one of those autumn evening which ought to be in summer, when a layer of cloud had sealed the warmth of the day in — for the two of them not to be unusual. Well, they were of course. But Meb noticed several other alvar in similarly odd clothes.
In the distance, a great horn sounded. Finn held a canary-yellow handkerchief indolently in front of his nose. “It’s the cabbage they eat in these parts.”
“What?” Meb looked around.
“It’s either that or they have closed the gates,” said Finn. “Their little town is all secure from riff-raff like us now.” He grinned. “Shall we go? I think a bit of juggling is called for, Scrap. You leave the talking to me. Actually, pretend to be dumb. Pull your tongue in and point at your mouth and make some gargling noises if anyone tries to ask you anything. You have an unconvincing accent.”
Besides that, thought Meb, she had no idea just what to say. This was all too strange. She felt like a piece of driftwood in a wild sea, caught in a storm so big that she was only vaguely aware of the greatness of it, and was merely feeling the effects of individual waves. It was almost swamping her with new experiences, not to mention doing things that her village-bred morality insisted were wrong. And yet . . . defiantly, she didn’t care. She was going to do them anyway.
The palace, it appeared, was not a house as other houses were. People came and went, it seemed, almost casually. The great doors were thrown open and gentle music tinkled somewhere inside. And while Finn was taller and somewhat more outre in his dress than others, he was merely an exceptional eccentric among many. The grandees looked like some vast field full of butterflies, thought Meb, as they walked into a great salon. Finn behaved as if he owned the place . . . and it bored him. Meb was glad to be able to start juggling, and to focus her concentration on the tasseled balls, instead of gaping.
“What a magnificent accouterment!” said an alvar in tall cocaded hat. He was dressed all in black, which made Meb want to ask who had died. He had a small fluffy white dog . . . carried on a black satin cushion by a servitor. “Sell her to me, do, Lord? Can you sing, girl?” He sounded as if he’d burned his mouth eating.
Meb took some pleasure in gargling at him. Why, she was becoming as bad as her Master!
“I am afraid not. She bites. And she is dumb,” said Finn, in an accent indistinguishable from the black-and-white alvar’s. “But she does tricks that help to relieve the ennui.”
They moved on.
They walked through the enormous high-vaulted hall, where a trio of musicians played stoically above the noise, and went out of a small far door. “Leads to the jakes,” said Finn. “But there used to be a door here . . . Ah, just behind that planter. It’ll be locked, but I can deal with that.”
He did, with a wiggle and a sharp cracking of wood. They stepped through into the passage beyond, closing the broken door behind them. The passage was a narrow one, and obviously not intended for the butterflies out there. The only servant they met looked puzzled to see them there. Puzzled, but respectful. Certainly not about to raise a hue and cry, or even to ask what they were doing here. Meb decided it must be the angle of Finn’s nose. It was enough to make her want to apologize for being alive.
They walked out of the narrow passage and back into more plausible areas for a noble alvar to be in — into a large gallery in which many portraits hung. “The rogues gallery,” said Finn, with some amusement. “Look there, Scrap. That is the current master of this pile. Prince Gywndar.”
Meb looked up at the cold alvar face. “He looks like he had some bad fish for breakfast,” she said, seriously.
That made Finn laugh, as he led her off down a different passage. It was still the kind of passage that you might find nobles in — if they were the sort of noble that actually worked in the royal establishment. It was high and well lit, but simply utilitarian. It led down. Down, down into the depths of the palace. To a place that was important enough to be guarded.
“Halt!” said one of the guards.
Finn looked down the length of his nose. Meb just kept on juggling, changing to a cascade, because they were standing still.
“What is your purpose here, my lord?” asked the taller of the two guards, both of whom still stood, watchfully, in front of the locked door.
“I’ve come to rob the royal treasury,” said Finn, with a yawn. “What does it look like, sirrah?”
The guard blinked. “Er. No disrespect intended, my lord. But you need special permission to go into the treasury.”
Finn drew a large key from a pocket. “Having the key would seem reasonable permission to me. Do you know who I am?”
One of the guards stood hastily aside. But the other was made of sterner stuff. “I am sorry, my lord, I don’t.”
“Well,” said Finn, frostily, stepping forward and putting the key into the lock. “You’d better see that you do something about that.” He waved his free hand at the guard who had stood aside. “March him off to see Commander Pencival, and ask him to explain who the new high magician is.”
“Er. We can’t leave the place unguarded, sir,” said the first guard.
Finn nodded. “True. Very well. I should not be long. And I’ll need someone to carry certain treasures up to my chambers in the east tower. He can accompany me, and talk to the Commander.” He jiggled the key slightly and the heavy metal-barred and studded door swung open. “Come little one,” he said to Meb. “Let us go and loot the royal treasury,” he said, with a toothy smile at the guards.
“We didn’t know, m’lord,” said the one who had been doubtful at first. “No one ever tells us ordinary soldiers anything.”
“Ah,” said Finn, as he closed the door behind him. “You can’t say I didn’t. And most of it was the absolute truth too. I even had a chamber in the east tower, once. Unfortunately, people usually hear what they want to hear. Come on, Scrap. It’s not every day you get to loot an ancient alvar treasure house. And I missed an important bit last time, because it wasn’t in here. But it is this time. I made sure. Now we just have to find it.”
“What are we looking for, master?” asked Meb
“Bit of dry seaweed and a few little pearls, and there might be a dried starfish together with some other things you might find on the beach, if I remember right. Value means different things to different folk, I guess. In the meantime there are too many rubies in this place. Take some with you. And there is far too little gold for a good treasury. I don’t share the alvar taste in sliver.”
Meb was not too sure what a ruby was — besides red, so it was a good thing that he showed her what he was talking about. There were a lot of them. Dry bladder wrack, on the other hand, she had seen plenty of cast up on the strand. So maybe it was easier for her to spot it in the narwhal ivory casket than it had been for him. There were pearls yes, but they were small, and set in little bits of carved narwhal and walrus ivory, spiked into the dried seaweed and a few starfish, and the whole thing was spiked together with fishbones . . . An odd treasure!
“You’d better carry it then,” he said sniffing and grinning. “You’re more used to the smell of fishy things than I am.”
The bladder wrack was so old and dry it could hardly have smelled. But, if he wanted her to take it . . .
“Put it in the bag for the juggling balls,” he said. “And don’t let go of it. There are going to be some folk who will be very glad to see it again.” He was busy pouring a handful of gemstones into the front of his bulgy knee-breeches. “It’s to be hoped I don’t leak gems past the buckles.”
Meb ended up with several jeweled rings on her fingers, and jewels in her pockets. She refused all the necklaces. “I have one, master.”
So . . . he was a thief, then. She had known it . . . but had never really acknowledged it before. And now, so was she.
Finn took a pair of rather ugly but very ornate ear-rings, which had some small bells on them, as well as dazzlingly faceted, fiery stones.
“Go first, then drop these. I’m going to have to deal with the two guards,” said Finn, casually.
The guards were armed. He was not. And . . . well, it seemed unfair. She’d resolved to leave fishing village morality behind, but . . . “Can’t we just bluff our way out again?”
“We could,” said Finn. “But then the guards would be hanged. This way they can tell their officers how they fought like the very heroes and were only laid low magically.”
Somehow that lifted the feeling of oppression that admitting that he was a thief — and that she was too, had put onto her. She skipped along to the door and, trusting him completely, opened it and went out. She actually juggled with the ear-rings . . . until she realized that wasn’t going to work. They didn’t realize that those weren’t her props. So she dropped them. And one of them bent down to pick the noisy bauble up, while the other laughed.
And Finn stepped out, no longer the languid dandy, but something more like a striking adder, hands moving so fast he almost seemed to blur. They were armed alvar wearing mail-coats and metal helms . . .
Meb had been in enough rough-and-tumble fisher-brat fights to know that it wasn’t that easy. Or it shouldn’t be. She’d been ready to try and help . . . and secretly expected to lose. Maybe. Her master seemed so good at everything, but an element of doubt had crept into her mind about fighting armed alvar. They were great and terrible in war.
Finn grinned. “Neatly done, Scrap. I think we’ll leave the door open. A little surprise for Prince Gywndar. I can just see him standing there and enjoying the sight.”
So could Meb. Clear as anything she could see the alvar prince with his look of dyspepsia disappearing into rage as he stared at the door. She was still full of adrenaline from the sheer audacity of it all and the sudden violence.
The shout of outrage from the Prince echoed down the passage.
Finn’s look of surprise was closer to the one Meb had imagined on the Prince’s face. But Finn charged straight at him. After a moment’s hesitation the prince turned and fled, as nimble as only an alvar could be.
“That’s torn it,” said Finn. “Come on, Scrap. We need to run now ourselves. Try to stay with me. And don’t imagine any more disasters.”
But seconds later they had one. The Prince had a group of four soldiers with him, coming at a run. Finn yelled triumphantly. “Got him! Seize that alv! He’s an imposter using a glamour to pretend that he’s Prince Gywndar! It’s a trap!”
Such was the conviction in his shout as he ran toward the alvar — who all had swords drawn — that they did pause for a moment. Gywndar fell over one of them. He went flying, and landed in a sprawl between Finn and his soldiers. Before he could get up Finn was onto him. He had him by the scruff of the neck, holding him between himself and the soldiers. “Prince Gywndar is hunting in Mortdale. Everyone knows that! It’s fifteen leagues away over the mountain.”
The Prince struggled. “Unhand me! He’s an assassin! I am your prince! Kill him!”
Finn slapped him hard enough to rock his head back. “Don’t be ridiculous. If I was an assassin and you were the prince I would have killed you. I am unarmed, as you can all see.” He thrust the stunned Prince at a soldier. “Quick, take him with you! We need the guard-commander. And we need to call a general alert! There may be more of these miscreants in the palace. There was a trap back there with swordsmen. We barely escaped with our lives! Come on, run! Protect us!”
And the soldiers did, half dragging the prince along between two of them. And somehow Meb and Finn were lagging just behind the soldiery . . . and then they sidestepped into a passage. Finn closed a heavy door behind them, dropped the bar, and they ran on.
They ran. And ran. The next few minutes of Meb’s life — which had gone from predictable to chaotic ever since she’d seen the black dragon over the bay — were an extreme of chaos. They seemed to run from one group to the next, each escape getting narrower, but they were getting higher. Finn seemed to be trying to get somewhere, besides just away.
They found the place he’d been trying to reach. It was a small, locked room, at the end of a narrow passage. The pursuit was close, and Finn fiddled with his key. It seemed to fit a great many doors. Meb had always thought that keys fitted specific doors — she just wished this one worked faster. At last the door swung open and Finn pulled her in behind him. The floor was painted in an ornate pattern, with small candles set around it at various cardinal points, and little mirrors shining on tiny glass globes.
“Aha!” said Finn. “How convenient. Traditionalists. Well, let’s show them that the night is traditionally dark. Alvar see well in the dark, but not as well as I do. And it should release sufficient energy. Balance things up nicely. It’s going to go dark in a few moments, Scrap. Very dark, and the cloud has hidden the moon. You can cling onto my coat again. It’ll crumple it, but I don’t mind. Lilac really isn’t my color, after all.”
Meb had noticed the pale, glowing globes that lit the palace. But like so many other things their mechanism was beyond her understanding. Light, as she knew it, came from tallow dips, or fish-oil lamps, or candles, or fire or the moon. Mysterious alvar devices were not something she understood. Just accepted.
Finn walked around the room, roughly brushing away patterns, pushing candles together . . . They grew very bright, and then very suddenly and went out. His deep chuckle was loud and . . . almost not human in the darkness.
To Fionn, the absence of visible light really was no impediment. He could see heat, magnetism, and the lines of force from earth, air, water, just to start with. He could also see his young charge. He had to laugh. He’d brought this on himself, hadn’t he? The dvergar treasure she had on her neck was bad enough, and he had made her carry a load of water-magic too. He’d thought it wise to avoid direct contact with the treasure himself, considering the protections on it . . . he hadn’t thought of the consequences of having her take on even more of a magical load. With the alvar being river-folk and her being a summonser to start with . . . Ha. What a mess. And now they had to move out, because the cascade of overloaded force-lines was about to get re-aligned.
“Take hold of my coat, Scrap,” he said. He wondered if she had any idea what her true name was. Possibly not. Of course he knew. It was written into the very fibre of her being. To Fionn she might as well have had it tattooed on her forehead.
It was not a name to be taken lightly.
There was something very reassuring about the firm grip she had on his coat even if she could see nothing at all. She could certainly hear enough! The palace had been disturbed with shouted orders and yells before. Now added to that were sounds of panic and screaming. They walked down the passage, turned right — they way they’d come, turned right again . . . and Finn said: “Time to sit down, Scrap. Let’s hope this place is well built.”
They sat. It was not quite what she would have chosen to do, but she was glad of the rest. And her master seemed to know what he was doing. Which was more than she did. Her plans went as far as “run, because they really all want to kill us.”
And then it seemed that the earth wanted to kill them too. Because the world shook under her. She was glad to be sitting down. She was also very afraid and clung to Finn.
“It’s all right, Scrap. Just a little realignment of natural force lines.” He sounded pleased. Satisfied. “And to make it even better, their pipes have burst. The lake does not like being constrained.”
Neither, by the sounds of it, did the people of the white city like what had happened. There had been a lot of shouting in the palace. Now there was yelling, lots of screaming and, by the sounds of it, panic in the entire city. He couldn’t have caused a minor earthquake, could he? Surely not. He was just a gleeman . . . and a thief . . . and seemed to know a lot.
“You can stop clinging to me, Scrap. I doubt if there will be any more. The noise is mostly panic. It wasn’t a big one. Broken windows and the like, and quite a bit of good flooring flooded, that’s all. The real damage is on the road, which is empty at night. They have a curfew . . . Come, we must get out while confusion reigns. Back to the museum and we can change into more comfortable clothes.”
He led her off again, and while water washed over their shoes once, that was the most serious problem they had. They had to wait until some people passed — and just let others run past them. Soon they were outside the palace, in the walled gardens, but the wall provided little obstacle to Finn, and he hauled her up it easily. The streets were full of milling alvar. Meb and Finn were just some more of the same. Order was being shaped out of chaos by the yelling and by soldiery spilling out of the palace, but it was not quickly enough to stop the two of them walking peacefully to the museum. It was just as dark inside there, after Finn had let them in with his “fits anything key,” but he knew his way, or could see a great deal better in the dark than she could. Soon she was reunited with her familiar breeches, cotte, cloak and boots.
“Don’t forget to transfer the things you have in your pockets. Or to bring with you the bag with the Angmarad in it. It’s been a lot of fun, but I think it might be harder if we had to do it again too soon,” said Finn from the darkness.