Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 16
“Come in,” Tobimar’s voice said cheerfully in response to her knock.
Entering, she saw her friend’s hair completely unbound, a flowing waterfall of smooth ebony startling in its length and black-shining perfection. “Balance, I know a lot of women â€“ and a few men â€“ who’d kill for hair like yours.”
“Why, thank you!” Tobimar bowed, the hair following in a smooth flow that he cast back from his face with a practiced gesture as he rose again. By Myrionar, he is handsome. And now I can let myself recognize it.
He raised an eyebrow as she didn’t say anything, then grinned happily. “Are you staring at me?”
She didn’t try to conceal the blush. “I am. You’re worth staring at, Tobimar Silverun of Skysand.”
“As are you, Kyri Vantage, Phoenix Justiciar!” He stepped forward swiftly and kissed her; it turned into something longer than the quick peck it had started as; the world faded away for the several seconds his lips lingered on hers.
Finally they separated, and both laughed, just a bit, and she knew he laughed for the same reason â€“ for the joy of seeing their own joy reflected in another.
“Keep that up, and I’m going to have to go to that party by myself,” Poplock commented from the nearby table, where he was packing away an astonishing assortment of crystals, springs, gears, gadgets of various types, and other supplies. “And they’re not even supposed to know about me.”
“I’m tempted,” Kyri admitted candidly.
Tobimar’s dark cheeks darkened further. “Iâ€¦ well, we’ve only just startedâ€¦ Andâ€¦”
She laughed. “Your people really do have rituals around this kind of thing, don’t you?”
He shrugged, but smiled in response to her laugh. “Yes. I suppose much of it came out of the desperate years where we were trying to survive, and as the Silverun family we’re much more subject to etiquette than the average person. Aren’t there any â€¦ traditions around dating in Evanwyl?”
“A few, yes, but not that would apply to adventurers. It’s not like we’re children without any awareness of responsibility.”
She could see he was thinking that over as he got that magnificent mane under control and tied it back. Knowing how much simple magic she used on hers, she was impressed that he was apparently doing it all by hand.
Finally he finished tightening the silvery ribbon with a fancy flourish. “Done!” He looked up to her. “I’llâ€¦ think about how I want to approach this, Kyri. Theâ€¦ Way of Sacred Waters, as we call it, is something very unique and precious to us. I lived in Zarathanton long enough to come to understand that for some it’sâ€¦ no more important than any other form of pleasure that involves other people, but it’s very special to me and I don’t think â€“”
She held up her hand. “Tobimar. I’m â€¦ somewhere in between; sex is a special thing, but not the sacred thing your people make it. So I can understand both sides. But believe me, I appreciate your hesitation. And it’s fine. Besides, as Poplock pointed out, we’re trying to keep him a secret, and in any case I don’t want to risk the damage Poplock could do on his own.”
“I beg to point out,” the Toad said dryly, “that it wasn’t me who incinerated two hundred yards of tunnel and forest in one blast.”
“True enough. So, o cautious and non-destructive Toad, any new observations before we go?”
“A few. I was thinking about those Eternal Servant things, and how hard they should be to make, and then I remembered that the Wanderer said something about that.”
“He did? I don’t remember him saying anything about golems or automata,” Tobimar said, strapping on his swords.
Poplock was almost done replacing his equipment in his pack. “Not in so many words, no. But he said something about magic placed into items being more common.”
Kyri nodded, making sure her Raiment was as spotless as possible by surveying herself in the full-length mirror. “You’re right, he said it was like that in Elyvias as well. So maybe it’s easier to make such things here than it would be in our part of the world.”
“Could be,” Poplock confirmed. “What little tests I’ve been able to do have seemed to show that making physical things with magic â€“ alchemical tricks and such â€“ are easier than just calling up the magic and letting fly with no physical channel. Even so,” he continued, hopping to his accustomed place on Tobimar’s shoulder, “that kind of thing’s not going to be easy, and to have made hundredsâ€¦ I want to meet this ‘Master Wieran’ of theirs.”
“I can’t blame you,” Tobimar said. “For my part, we were able to show that there did used to be an ancient tower near the center of town, in that park with the huge tree in the middle, but given that they’re trying to keep some of the facts about us quiet we couldn’t ask about it in more detail. I’m hoping we can get some of that settled tonight.”
Kyri knew just how important that was now. If Tobimar was right, one of the Seven Stars might be here â€“ buried under the ruins of the tower, perhaps. The thought was enough to send a chill down her spine; she followed Myrionar, she respected many gods, but Terian was the shining beacon that even other deities looked to. What must it mean to Tobimar, whose family â€“ whose entire country â€“ followed Terian’s guidance?
“Are we ready?” Poplock asked.
“I think so,” Kyri said. “Remember, I am simply Phoenix, or Justiciar Phoenix. I see no reason to reveal other names, and since I’m on dutyâ€¦”
“Oh, none of us are arguing,” Tobimar said. “We’re hiding Poplock’s existence as our equal, and in my case we’re going to say nothing of my family name or background unless we have to. There’s something wrong here, behind all the perfection, and this means we’d better be doubly careful.”
“Thenâ€¦ let’s go!”
Miri was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, bouncing from foot to foot with energetic excitement. “Oh, there you are!” she said.
“Good thing you came down now,” Dania said, and looked fondly at the diminuitive Light. “Miri was about to wear a hole in the floor pacing.”
A slight rose tint touched Miri’s startlingly fair cheeks â€“ lighter than almost any skin Kyri had seen â€“ and she gave an embarrassed laugh. “Well, it’s so â€¦ exciting!” she said, repeating herself from the prior night. “Come on, I’ve got a coach for us!”
Kyri found herself smiling as well. There was something infectiously cheerful about Miri’s boundless enthusiasm. “Lead on, then!”
The coach was, like everything they’d seen in Kaizatenzei thus far, beautiful in every aspect, wood polished to a mirror gloss, ornamented with carven vines outside and lit within by a soft, forest-green luminance that emanated from the roof of the coach. One of the Eternal Servants drove the coach, which was drawn by four sithigorns, of a breed Kyri had never seen â€“ black with gold-edged tailfeathers. The overall effect was striking.
Miri insisted on them getting in first, then bounded in and sat across from them. “To the Manse, Quickhand,” she called up to the driver.
“Yes, Light Miri,” the Servant said, and the team of giant birds immediately began pulling the coach along.
“So the ‘Manse’ is the local ruler’s home?” Kyri asked. “Would that be the Color you mentioned, Kerrim?”
“Oh, no, Kerrim isn’t the ruler here. That would be Reflect Haldengen.”
“Reflect?” repeated Tobimar. “That’s a title?”
“Yes. You of course can’t help but notice that we’ve built our whole country around the theme of light â€“ something you’ll understand more, I think, as you stay here â€“ and the cityâ€¦ ruler, head, whatever you might call it, is called a ‘Reflect’ because something that reflects returns light to those it is directed upon.”
That made sense to Kyri; symbolically it meant that the ruler was reminded that their job was to make the world better for those being ruled. “An inherited position?”
“Oh, no. We have almost no inherited positions in Kaizatenzei, at least not in government!” Miri’s voice held a note of pique, as though the very idea was an offense. “Reflects are elected by a general vote of the population, once every five years. It’s of course not uncommon for a Reflect to maintain that position for a long time, if he or she does a good job, and in fact Haldengen has been Reflect of Murnitenzei for seventy-three years as of today.”
That was a long time. “With such time of service, I venture to guess that he’s either extremely old, or not entirely human.”
“Oh, very good. Haldengen Baldersedge is his full name.”
The significance of the name did not escape her. “An Odinsyrnen, then. So he has ruled to the approval of the population for that long? I look forward to meeting him.”
“No more than he’s looking forward to meeting you. I’m hoping that the Lady herself will be able to come. She said she’d let me know if she could.”
Tobimar raised an eyebrow and leaned forward. “Your own ruler? The Lady of Light, you called her? But wouldn’t she be in your capital?”
Miri smiled, this time with that particular narrowing of eyes that says I have a secret! “Oh, yes. But still she may tell me she will come, and then you shall see indeed.”
Kyri saw a tiny movement from Poplock â€“ one of the trivial-seeming movements they’d agreed upon for various signaling purposes. Tobimar acknowledged Miri’s secretiveness with a chuckle. “I see there’s something you want to show off later. I notice a lot of magic â€“ the lights along the road, the Eternal Servants of course, the clean stoves within the inn we stayed at, and so on. You must have many powerful wizards here.”
“Well, of wizards we have relatively few â€“ if by that you mean those who cast spells freestanding, so to speak. Many alchemists, gemcallers, summoners, a few symbolists and chosen of various religions, that sort of thing. You’ll be meeting one of the best in the magical arts tonight â€“ I’m sure that Hiriista will be there.”
Kyri kept her face neutral, but she could see the satisfaction in Tobimar’s eyes. That fit exactly with what they had deduced. Magical activity connected to material media â€“ alchemical products and devices, the spirit housings of summoners, and so on â€“ was highly functional here, making up for the difficulty of direct application of mystical or deific power. “That’s very different from home,” she said. “There, impressing magical energies into any object is a more difficult project, and while I’ve heard the term gemcaller, I’ve never met one, and I’m honestly not even sure what it means.”
Poplock’s mouth tightened with heroic resolve, preventing him from entering a conversation obviously dear to his heart. She wondered if he’d explode sometime during this party from sheer frustration. But they all agreed that Poplock had demonstrated just how deadly he could be when his presence, or capabilities, were unknown, and even under these conditions Poplock had himself insisted he remain an apparently stupid, harmless toad as long as possible.
Miri shrugged. “Actually, I’m not terribly well versed in that either, but you can ask old Hiriista if he’s there.” She looked out the window. “Oh, we’re almost there!”
The Manse was a lovely home, much of it carven out of and into the stump of some gargantuan tree, fifty feet high and seventy feet across, showing that something awe-inspiring had once stood here. Flowing out from the wooden bulwark that formed its central pillar, the remainder of the Manse was constructed in harmony with that source; even in the fading light of sunset she could see that the wood had been carefully matched, the polished stone facings chosen for their complementary color and patterns.
Golden light shone from the windows, and she could hear music faintly echoing through the air as they drew nearer, accompanied by the susurration of distant conversation and laughter. A pang of memory struck her heart as she remembered the so-similar sounds and lights of another party, the one in which her brother celebrated his selection as a Justiciar. There was the same air of joy, of wonder and faith, that had been in the air that day, too.
Once more she was struck by the rightness of everything in Kaizatenzei; even their construction was of a piece with everything else they had seen. Yet by the Wanderer’s warnings, and by those of Myrionar, she knew there had to be something else, something darker, waiting somewhere near. What is hidden here? HOW is it hidden? Will we get our answers here?
“Here we are!” Miri said, and bounced from the coach before it had even quite stopped. “Come on, I can’t wait to introduce you!”
“Coming, Light Miri,” Tobimar said with exaggerated formality. As they alighted, they exchanged glances.
All eyes open. All senses alert.
Let’s see what mystery awaits here!