One Last Quest, Part Three

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~*~

In the cab, the ride to the stationery shop Adeon had mentioned time and again was mercifully short. Lachlan could hardly wait to see the boy again, and if he could, he would have leapt from the carriage the moment it rolled to a stop. As things stood, he all but flung himself into his chair as soon as Cathal had it set safely on the ground.

His valet straightened his coat, then stepped back to take stock. “You’ll do,” Cathal said, and returned around the chair to push him into the shop. Just as they reached the walk, Devnet came out in a flurry of velvet and petticoats, trailed by her friends and her footmen, who each carried two wooden cases. Lachlan remembered her letterhead, a twining thing dotted with the clustering dev flowers of her name. Hydrangea, it was, in the Traders’ tongue. He had received more than one love note on that pretty stationery, before he’d lost his nose.

She checked when she saw him, the tiniest hesitation in her step, the slightest flicker of expression before she put her perfect little chin in the air and pretended she hadn’t seen him. For his part, he pretended not to watch her pass—but he could not feign that he didn’t see her go flying face-first into the street, and couldn’t hide his grin either. She was a tangle of pretty legs and petticoat froth, and she let out the most gratifying shriek, which did absolutely nothing to stop her landing in a road apple there by the hitching post.

Lachlan choked on his laughter. Cathal pushed him past as if nothing had happened, but as he reached forward to open the glass-paned door, the valet muttered, “Serves her right,” and Lachlan smiled ghoulishly.

Inside was a small space scented with paper, expensive glue, and the chemical prickle of ink. Cubbies filled with writing accessories lined the walls, and there were a few tables along either side, displaying pens, desk sets, and sticks of fancy wax. Sunlight streamed in through the bank of slim, many-paned windows behind the counter, where a harried young woman with a plain apron over her brown dress sorted through stacks of bills. Suddenly, Lachlan had no idea how to proceed, and his tongue stuck to the roof of his dry mouth. He shouldn’t be afraid. Hadn’t he faced hydras and gryphons and the White Worm? And here he was, so close to his ultimate destination, with nothing like words and a tremble in his remaining fingers.

He cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”

The counter girl looked up, and he saw her throat work, but a moment later she pasted on a smile. Too bright, too broad. “How may I serve you, Lord?” she said, and Lachlan straightened.

“There’s a boy,” he said stupidly, but after a moment he recovered himself and went on. “He works here in the summers. Adeon.”

“Oh.” Her face fell. “He never came this year, Lord. We could use him, what with the master’s accident and all. If his mother’s written, she must have written to the master at his home, and got lost in the shuffle after he died.”

Lachlan could only stare. His chest hurt, and he envisioned, couldn’t help envisioning, all sorts of dreadful fates for the boy, from the mundane to the fantastic. Hit by a runaway cart. Rent asunder by a manticore. A sudden illness. A horde of the shambling dead.

He sat in horrified silence, frozen solid, as if he were yet in the cave of the White Worm, trapped from feet to thighs and stretching fruitlessly for his sword. Seven fingers vised over the arms of his chair, sharp knuckles threatening to break the skin. He felt the bitter cold.

“Is there any way to find him?” Cathal asked, after God knew how long a silence. Lachlan squeezed his eyes shut and fought to push the cavern away from his thoughts. “He’s important, you see,” Cathal went on. Did he see Lachlan’s jaw working the teeth together? He could feel the hard, slippery casing of ice around his legs, and how it chipped under his dagger blade, chipped but wouldn’t crack. From burning cold to numbness to pain…

He clenched his hands tighter. He wasn’t in the cave. He was in a sunny shop that carried stationery and pens, and something was happening, something he needed to see and hear. He made his hands relax. He made himself breathe.

When he opened his eyes he saw the cave. He began to sweat. It wasn’t real. He shut his lids again. The shop, by God, he was in a shop. Wasn’t the light pressing warm and red against his lids? There had been no sun beneath the earth, only a pinprick where they’d gone down among the bones of adventurers and the icicle spikes.

He began to hear again, besides his own ragged breath and the slow pounding of blood in his ears. Cathal had the counter girl charmed; he could tell it from the tone of her voice, regretful, and of Cathal’s, light and teasing. But she didn’t know where the boy could be found, she told Cathal sadly.

“His direction,” Lachlan broke in. His voice shook under the wash of relief he felt to see the shop around him.

“Lord, I’m sorry, we haven’t got it here,” the girl said. “The master—”

“I’ve got it.” Lachlan glanced up at Cathal. “I have his direction. He tells me everything.” Adeon had begged him to write, but Lachlan would not. Any correspondence he sent or received was sure to be opened; he didn’t trust even the paper-bird letters that zipped from place to place, which were difficult for any but the intended recipients to catch. Difficult, but not impossible. “Let’s go outside. Thank you for your help,” he added to the girl, for courtesy’s sake. He hadn’t flexed that social muscle in years.

Cathal pushed him out of the shop and down the sidewalk. He sat silent, thinking, until Cathal broke in: “Are you going to write him, then?”

“I can’t,” Lachlan said. “I swore to him I never would, and made him swear not to write back… I don’t trust them!” His fingers went tight again over the arms of his chair, tighter than before. The polished wood creaked.

“You’re not the only one.”

For a while they didn’t speak. Lachlan’s wheels rattled on the sidewalk.

“When do we leave?” Cathal asked.

“I can’t ask that of you.” He wished he could. “Only help me get to the train station tomorrow, and I’ll release you from my service. You can find another master, and stay with your family.”

Another speechless age between them, filled with street noise and rattling wheels. “Lord,” Cathal said, “why do you think they gave me to you? I don’t have anybody to speak for me. I only have you. I don’t mind it,” he added hastily. “You need me. When do we leave?”

Lachlan’s eyes swam. He had no words for this.

“We could go tonight,” Cathal said, when he didn’t speak. The valet’s voice bore an avid edge. “I can run up to the Palace and fetch our things, and you can wait at the station. Let’s do it!”

“How old are you?” Lachlan blurted.

“Coming up on my second century. Any year now.”

He blinked. He himself had nearly four centuries, and he felt every minute. “I didn’t know you were so young.” Cathal had already entered the long, practically ageless prime of a tulon’s life, when it was difficult to tell just how old anyone was. He might have been six centuries, but here he had only two.

“It is what it is,” said Cathal, and quite suddenly leapt on the back of Lachlan’s chair. He pushed off with his foot; they went streaking and rattling downhill, with Cathal whooping all the way. Lachlan was nearly thrown from the seat, but his arms were strong, and he managed to stay on. He left his stomach at the top of the slope, but he didn’t fall, and when the initial shock had passed, he felt only thrill. The wind whipped his hair, and his skull-like features stretched into a broad grin, all the way down. People leapt out of their path, shouting and cursing, but what did Lachlan care?

At last they slowed, on the way up the next hill. Before they fell back too far, Cathal hopped off the chair and pushed, all the way to the top. “Oh, glory, that was fun!” he crowed. “I’ve always wanted to try that.”

“Rude child,” said Lachlan amiably. He couldn’t wipe the smile from his face.

“What about it, Lord? Do we fare to Dreamport on a quest? Or do we forever leave the fate of a silver-haired lad in doubt?”

“Very rude. We’ll go.”

“Hey-la-hey!” Cathal shouted, and sent them careering down toward the train.

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