One Last Quest, Part Six

The conclusion!

~*~

Lachlan’s stomach clamped over his pickled-herring sandwich and four cups of coffee. He nearly wished it were empty, except that then it would probably feel worse. He swallowed, and again, as the carriage moved toward Adeon’s address. He didn’t want to look out the window. The boy’s reaction—why had he never considered it?

It was entirely possible Adeon was simply finished with him. His stomach clenched tighter, but he supposed he would sooner that than the alternative: that Adeon had been somehow incapacitated, or worse, killed.

No. He couldn’t bear it. If Adeon didn’t want his company anymore, well, he could bear that, though not with good grace. And what of the boy’s mother? She might see him as nothing but some filthy Revanar predator come to harm her son. His worry climbed the scale, pitching high until he shook, and in the absence of his chair arms to grasp, resorted to clenching his fingers over his stumps, the tips digging cruelly into pinned-trouser ends. There were so many things he hadn’t thought of in his haste to get to Dreamport. His mind spun wild scenarios, and wilder ones, until he could hardly breathe for panic.

The ride felt endless. What would he do? What would he say when he saw Adeon? The whole thing was a fool’s errand, and all his thought for better was a fool’s dream. The cab stopped again and again, and each time his heart leapt into his mouth. After a minute or two it would roll on—they must be stopping at crossroads—and sometimes take a turn, but Lachlan’s pulse never settled all the way, and his chest never quite unknotted.

“Are you well?” Cathal asked, concerned.

Lachlan didn’t dare look up; didn’t want to see the pity on his valet’s face. He shook his head slightly, denial and dismissal at once. Cathal laid an awkward hand on his shoulder, squeezed lightly, and drew back again. They didn’t speak.

At last, the carriage came to a stop for good. Lachlan forced himself to get out, to drop himself off the seat into his chair, stiff with anxiety. Too close to turn back now, too close even to think of such a thing. It would be unfair to Cathal. If he got nothing else from the trip, at least there was Cathal. He breathed slowly, collecting himself, as the cab rattled away.

He blinked in the late-morning light. The street was so poor. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but not this, the cobbles beginning to crack, the tenements sagging on the soft ground. He could smell the wharves, the fishers’ wharves, even see them among the buildings. It stank. Old fish insulted what remained of his nose. Adeon came from this place? The light of Lachlan’s tired life? So wrong—it was all wrong—it couldn’t be.

“This one,” said Cathal from behind him. “Right here. Fourteen, you said.”

“Yes.” It came out small and shocked, quivery, unsure. He glanced a question over his shoulder.

“It’s the right place.”

“It’s… so…”

“There’s no money here,” Cathal said. He pointed out a pack of human children playing in and out of the street. “No shoes. That boy, Adeon, he never had shoes on either.”

“I didn’t think he was so poor. I thought he didn’t want to wear them.”

“Might have some for fancy dress. He wouldn’t want to mess them. Come on, Lord. We’re so close now.”

“All right,” Lachlan said, and Cathal helped him turn the chair about. The listing tenement might as well have been the entrance to Yehoram’s cavern lair. His stomach bounded and his nerves stung, just as they had then, with Rex and Mariella beside him and Kep perched on Rex’s broad shoulder. His valet was no doughty warrior, but perhaps that wasn’t what he needed just now. “Thank you,” he said.

“Oh,” said Cathal, “it’s been hardly anything at all, especially when you match it up with what I’m getting out of it. Look, there’s a bell.” He pushed Lachlan forward. Lachlan reached up and touched the faded enamel bell rune. It still worked; from within he heard a single chime echoing.

They waited forever then, or so it felt. Lachlan itched and twitched, and at last he lifted his hand to ring again.

The door jiggled. It seemed to be stuck, but then it lifted slightly and creaked wide, revealing a small Movanar woman in a plain brown dress. That was the only plain thing about her. She had Adeon’s nose, and hair the color of honey, and blue eyes that took their fill of his face—

And she smiled. “You’re Lachlan,” she said.

“Yes,” he said, strangled, searching for words. “Adeon. Where?” It was all he could force out of his closing throat.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sounding it. “He’s gone away. Just this Longday past.”

Where?

The Movanar woman took a breath. “Lord, he’s gone to be a Knight of the Air. I had a letter this last week; he’s on a ship bound for Hayed.”

“Oh,” Lachlan said. Again it was all that would come to his lips. There was a weight on his chest. It was so much better than he’d thought, and at once so much worse.

“I’m going to post this to him right now,” she said, pulling a cheap bit of paper out of her dress pocket. “I know you swore you’d never write him, and made him swear not to write you. He was so upset over it. ‘I’m supposed to see Lachlan, what’s he going to do?’ But an oath is an oath.” She moved off down the street, motioning for Lachlan to follow. “If you liked, you might write a postscript on my letter,” she offered. “Then he’d know it was all right to write you—ah—if it is all right.”

“There’s nothing I’d like more.”

She led him down around the corner, and Cathal followed, hands ready to assist if Lachlan hit a rough patch, but for the most part he managed well enough on his own.

“My name is Elain,” she said.

Lachlan blurted, “I can see why King Muirrach took an interest,” and his face burned with unaccustomed embarrassment. What would possess him to say such a thing?

Mariella would have slapped him sideways, but Elain only laughed. “I was prettier then.”

He said nothing, but truly, he found it hard to credit, she was so very pretty now. At least the post office was close by to spare him further humiliation. It was small and shabby, with sun pouring through grubby windows. They waited on line for some time, but while they waited, Elain gave Lachlan her letter, the sort of fussy, chatty, loving thing Lachlan had received from his own mother when he was on the road. He was careful not to read it entire, only scan it looking for the bottom.

Cathal handed him a pen. There was little space left, but between “Love, Mother” and the edge of the page, he managed to squeeze: “Write me or not, at your pleasure. Be sure to direct any hypothetical letters to me personally, and they will find me wherever I am.” He hesitated over the closing before writing simply, “Your friend, Lachlan Vistridir.”

He insisted on paying for the letter to be sent in the most expensive way, folded like a paper bird and wrapped in a bubble of force. All three of them watched the letter disappear into the distance, rapidly swallowed by the Redwood’s crown.

“Thank you,” Elain said. “For everything. You were good to my son when you had every reason not to be.” She wiped at her eyes, beaming. “Maybe another time, yes? Only I’ve got to get to work, I’m already late. Good-bye, Lachlan.”

He lifted a hand in stunned farewell as she hurried away, and watched her turn the corner. Adeon’s mother.

After a long time, he turned to Cathal. “Tomorrow I’ll take you sightseeing. Only help me get back to the inn for today, and you’ll be free to do whatever you like.”

“Yes, Lord,” Cathal said, and they rode another cab back to the inn. This time Lachlan opened the curtains on his side, but he stared out unseeing and numbly exhausted. When they reached the inn, Cathal carried the chair, but Lachlan would not allow himself to be carried, instead pulling himself up the steps. He wasn’t used to doing it, and the hardwood hurt his knuckles, but his arms were strong and he won the landing without too much trouble, there to heave his body back into the chair.

Cathal didn’t remark on it, only smiled.

Lachlan retired. He was asleep before he heard Cathal leave, and he slept dreamless and deep, and woke rested as sundown crept through the window. Cathal sat in a chair next to the bed.

“Did you like it?” Lachlan asked.

The valet didn’t speak, but there was light in his eyes.

***

Lachlan sat in his study, reading Giant Fleas Abroad—a fine sequel, all things considered. The room was rather larger than his study at the Palace of Green Glaciers, and rather shabbier, but he preferred it by far. An old, comfortable armchair cradled his body, and his wheeled chair stood out of the way in the corner.

The snow had come to Dreamport, and even now fat flakes drifted by the window, collecting on the sill outside—but it was warm in here, with the fire and the heat-box together, and not so damned drafty as the Palace. Cathal sat in the other armchair, mending an overcoat with tiny stitches.

In the great city, Lachlan’s disfigured face was just another in the crowd. It was far more common here; certainly not an everyday sight, but there were plenty of humans who carried scars, and they stared at him, if they stared at all, with fear rather than disgust and dismissal. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, nor—he supposed—much better, but it was different. Everything else more than made up for it.

Elain was definitely the source of Adeon’s light. She came often to Lachlan’s rooms, bringing good food and sunshine and laughter along with her. Shattered in body he might be, but the White Worm hadn’t killed his heart, and he loved her. From afar was enough for now. There was Cathal, too, always Cathal, wandering through the city on his itchy feet, with Lachlan or without him, and bringing home interesting trinkets.

Lachlan looked up from his book at the sound of tapping from the window. A little paper bird fluttered against the glass, seeking entry.

“I’ll get it,” Cathal said, laying the coat aside. A blast of cold came through when he opened the window, bearing the letter forward. It turned a lazy circle around Lachlan before settling in his lap. “Who’s it from?” Cathal asked, and shut the window.

“I don’t know yet,” Lachlan said, “but I’m about to find out.” He unfolded the paper bird and smoothed it over his thigh. His eyes flew wide.

“Come on, who’s it from?”

He grinned. “Guess.”

 

One Last Quest, Part Five

He woke as the train shivered into the station at Dreamport, the pilot fighting the magic of the rail. Outside the windows, it was gray-drizzle morning, and fine droplets frosted the panes. Cathal stretched. Lachlan levered himself into his chair, aching more than usual. It must be the wet.

The faint rain dampened his hair and stuck in beads to Cathal’s, glittering against the valet’s darker blond. There wasn’t enough to soak, only enough to make clothes cling and chafe, to wet the ground, and slow small puddles collected where the cobbles were uneven. All the greens of the city blazed in the wet: pines everywhere, dark or muted; oaks and ashes with brighter leaves. The City Redwood stood straight and proud with drizzle-slick, bright bark and rosemary needles. Moisture streaked the basalt of the great basin, and of the cliffs all around. Away to the north, across the crater, the bay lay calm, with only the occasional whitecap breaking the rippling blue-gray surface. Here and there, earthy peat smoke, traditional for Dreamport, curled up in rich tails from the forest of chimneys below and around them. The streets bustled, coursing between buildings like veins.

Above everything floated the sound of the falls, tumbling hundreds of feet from the Ennis to the crater floor, there to land in a white torrent. Cathal couldn’t decide where to look first, and seeing his wide eyes shine, Lachlan felt a pinch of regret. Perhaps he should have brought Cathal here before; there were dozens of places the young valet must have longed to see that Lachlan could have shown him.

Lachlan had wasted decades on moldering with his furniture. Of course it wasn’t reasonable to expect anything more from a wreck, but his interest in being one waned by the moment. He was afraid—being out-of-doors, out of his rooms like this, how could it fail to spike his pulse?—but whenever he felt the urge to return to seclusion, he thought of Adeon, and he looked at Cathal, and he thought his fear would pass. When had he let it stop him before he was hurt? Why should he let it stop him now? Why had he ever? So many years.

They went inside, though Cathal had to put the bags down to open the door. “So where are we bound?” he asked.

“Fourteen Emmerick Road, number six.”

“How do we get there?”

“I don’t know,” Lachlan confessed. He stopped short in the middle of the station. When he looked down at the polished granite floor, it reflected his face and body back at him, mocking his resolve. He set his jaw and looked away. “We’ll hail a cab. They’re supposed to know how to get everywhere.” It seemed wrong to get in a carriage so close to their goal. He remembered walking all over with his friends, driving ever nearer to their destinations, opposed by more and still more vicious enemies, but to get in a cab? It wasn’t a proper quest by half.

Still, there were challenges. First they discovered none of the drivers would take them into Old Town—the address, they said, was in Old Town. They weren’t allowed, they explained, to take anyone down into the crater. Cathal looked down at the walkways to the bottom, juggling the bags, forlorn.

“Let’s find lodgings,” Lachlan said. “We need to anyhow. We haven’t come all this way just to turn around and go home as soon as I speak to Adeon.” He hadn’t realized he’d been thinking that way until the words came out, but damned if he would waste the opportunity.

Cathal dropped the bags. It was an accident, Lachlan thought; his valet’s face glowed, so excited that words to describe it didn’t exist. “What will we do?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Sightseeing, perhaps. There’s a square with all sorts of fountains, I think. Perhaps the University, and the Royal Palace. Temple Row is something to see. The humans have a dozen gods and goddesses at least, did you know that?”

“I have an idea about it,” Cathal said, picking up the bags, “but you know how it is, don’t you? You think you know something, and then you see for yourself, and you were wrong.”

“That’s so.” He’d thought he knew something about humans until he’d met Mariella, here in Dreamport, and fallen in love with her, and she wouldn’t have him for the longest time—what felt like the longest time. He’d learned just how long five years could feel. “Well, we’ll go and see it. The temples are spectacular, as good as the one at Shirith. I don’t suppose you’ve seen that either.”

“I haven’t.”

He took the chest again and laid it in his lap. “I’d say we’ll go, but I’m sick to death of the People.”

“Can’t blame you.” At last, Cathal got the bags balanced. They stood in wordless communion for two heartbeats, three, and then set out to find lodgings. If there was a moment when Lachlan decided he would not return home, it was this one, but for now it went unmarked, lost in a frustrated blur. They couldn’t find lodgings on the ground floor, no matter how many places they went to inquire—and right near the train station, inns proliferated so abundantly that Cathal joked someone must have scattered a handful of inn seeds.

At last they settled on the one with the widest staircase, a place called the Hunted Hart, and managed to acquire a single room on the first floor. Lachlan ordered breakfast in the common room while Cathal stowed the bags upstairs.

While they ate pickled herring and onions on rich black bread and drank strong coffee, they discussed how best to reach Old Town, whether on one of the footpaths or on the lift. The lift seemed best, in the end; Lachlan wanted to reach Adeon now, today, as soon as they could do it, and any of the paths would be terribly hard work for the both of them.

The falls weren’t far. They could be heard from the Hunted Hart, and as Lachlan and Cathal approached they grew louder and still louder, roaring enough to make talk nearly impossible. In the roped-off waiting area the two tulon forbore speech, but Lachlan saw all he needed in Cathal’s youthful face, in the posture of his body: mouth open at the massive, gleaming gears and pulleys, his fingers trailing the maroon velvet rope at his side. When they boarded, there was more. Cathal all but pressed his nose against the glass window of the pedestrian car as it progressed smoothly down the side of the falls. They passed the other car on its way up, all steel and brass filigree hanging from titanic chains. The lifts moved like the counterweights of a clock, both the passengers’ side and, across the falls, the overwhelmingly huge freight lifts, laden with wagons covered tight against the spray. And all around there was Dreamport: Dreamport the beautiful, Dreamport the great.

As they slid below the level of the Redwood’s needles, the roofs of Old Town spread before them, hundreds of slate peaks in black and gray and red and green. “So many people!” Cathal exclaimed, seeing them all move on the streets below, in the markets and the squares, like salmon in a stream. He was silent again after that, silent with wonder except for his little gasps, which grew louder as they drew nearer the ground.

They debarked, Cathal gazing all about him, flabbergasted. Lachlan remembered feeling the same way for over a week when he’d first come here, and if the humans stared at him, he hardly noticed, enchanted as he was by his valet’s amazement. All the way to the cab stand, Cathal’s mouth worked, but when at last his bottom struck the wooden bench under the stand’s roof, he turned to Lachlan. “Lord,” he said, so hushed Lachlan could hardly hear him through the falls’ roar, “Lord, I never knew.”

It brought tears to Lachlan’s eyes, but he blinked them away and said, “Now you do.”

They sat silent until a carriage rolled up. It wasn’t long. When Lachlan and his chair were safely stowed, and Cathal climbed onto the red-leather seat beside him, it rolled away again, clattering over the cobbles. Immediately, Cathal parted the curtains on his side to keep looking out, but Lachlan stared at the curtains themselves, red in the warped square of sunlight from Cathal’s side.

One Last Quest, Part Four

The station rang with the song of the rail. The magic of the thing was so great, so powerful, that none could fail to see it, no matter how dull their sense of such things might be. No sorcerer would dare to open a third eye here, so close to one of the lines of force that sizzled across Rothganar. Even to normal vision, the rail was a rope of light thick as a man’s wrist, flickering now red, now violet. If one watched long enough, eventually he would see every color known pass through the rail, from palest peach to deepest blue.

Lachlan had parked his chair at the end of a weathered wood bench, which nonetheless glistened with polish. The work of some unfortunate Movanar, no doubt, just like the perfect, gleaming windows behind him: ten feet high if they were an inch, from the top of the wainscoting to the bottom of the eaves, all along the side of the station.

They’d been inside a while ago, he and Cathal, to buy tickets to Dreamport. Now Lachlan sat half in shadow, half in sun, watching the traffic go by and waiting for his valet to return with the baggage. At first, he’d perhaps childishly resisted the idea of Cathal’s going back alone, but Cathal had impressed on him the difficulty of taking him up the mountainside only to bear him back down again, and he’d agreed to stay here.

Cathal was taking ages, but he supposed it could have been worse. He might be staring at the walls again. The same walls he’d stared at for decades, the faded tapestries and hangings, the patchy velvet bed curtains, everything worn, slowly decaying as he watched, the depredations of time staved off by the desultory efforts of chambermaids. The Palace was behind him, behind the station, blocking the sinking sun, but here there was light and the hope for more.

Lachlan was under eyes, quick darting glances or gazes that couldn’t seem to move away from him, but he didn’t care. There were children here. He’d forgotten how much he liked them, other than Adeon. Somber or smiling or wailing, dragging their feet, skipping, running, holding their parents’ hands… Once a little girl stopped, staring out of soft brown eyes at Lachlan’s face, and she opened her mouth to say something, but her mother hurried her along with a fearful expression.

It depressed him—he would have liked to speak with her—but only for a moment. It was enough to watch. Children’s voices never rang through the halls of the Palace; they were quickly shushed and sent to the nursery. Devnet would have shushed them. As well he hadn’t married her. And he had a trove of lovely memories of human children from his few short years with his friends. Rex had had a small son. If only Lachlan had been in any shape to see how the boy fared.

He would be an old man now. What a missed opportunity! Sad and sorry, Lachlan was, a wreck of himself—but perhaps there was still a chance, perhaps he could track down Rex’s son. All he wanted was a chance.

It was full dark by the time Cathal reappeared, puffing and laden with baggage. “Did we miss it?”

“It isn’t that late yet,” Lachlan said, smiling in spite of himself. “It won’t come until midnight. Why ever did you bring so many bags?”

“You never know.” Cathal settled on the end of the bench next to Lachlan’s chair.

Hardly anyone waited for the train just now, but those who did gave Lachlan a wide berth, which he tried not to mind. “Any minute now,” he said, dropping the subject of Cathal’s overzealous packing, and didn’t mention at all the behavior of the others.

“What’s Dreamport like?” the valet asked eagerly, when “any minute” had come and gone.

“Haven’t you been there?”

Cathal’s mouth thinned. “You know nobody leaves. Especially not my kind. I’m bound to my master and to the land.”

“You haven’t been to any of the other kingdoms, then.”

“Never served anyone who’d go,” he said, almost apologetic.

“I’m sorry they foisted me on you.”

“That’s all right.” He smiled. “When I was younger, they had me with the Dowager Duchess of Morning’s Last Touch. She didn’t even go into the garden while she could—and then she couldn’t anymore. She didn’t last long though,” he added. “And then they gave me to you.”

“I suppose it could be worse.” Lachlan didn’t quite believe it. Shackling a young fellow to an ancient woman, and then to a broken wreck? It didn’t seem fair. They might have given him someone older, more settled in mind, rather than a man in the prime of life. Surely Cathal had more use elsewhere than he did to Lachlan! Another monstrous injustice of the High Ones to the Little.

“Beg your pardon, Lord, but it could be much worse, and that doesn’t bear talking about, if you don’t mind.”

Lachlan said nothing. It was only the truth. The High Ones did as they pleased with the Little Ones, for no reason discernible to him other than that they could. The Revanar had the magic; rare was the Movanar with power to challenge even a Revanar child. He hadn’t thought much of it before he’d left, but only a few months out from Green Glaciers he’d seen it with a clearer eye, and it disgusted him beyond telling. He could easily loathe his own blood—loathe himself, for though he’d never been purposefully cruel to the serfs of the People, he hadn’t been kind, either.

They didn’t speak again for above an hour. When the rail began to crackle with colorful lightnings, Cathal sat forward eagerly. “Soon,” Lachlan told him.

“Will it be?” Cathal watched, intent. The lightnings grew stronger, more spectacular, blazing with color and setting off miniature thunderclaps in the chill night air.

“It will.” Lachlan waved a hand at the rail, not that he needed to indicate the display. “They’re braking the train, on up the line. It travels very quickly, and the rail keeps drawing it on even while it’s at rest. Takes tremendous energy to stop it. Only the best sorcerers can pilot the trains—but I suppose you know all that.” He grimaced again. It was as bad as old times. Get him talking, and he’d go on for ages.

“I didn’t. They don’t teach you that at lessons—and after you’re through with lessons there’s no time.”

“Have you ridden before?”

Cathal shook his head. “When I came back from Morning’s Last Touch, they gave me a pony.”

“You’re in for a treat then.”

As if on cue, the train slithered into the station. Every train was fashioned to look like a different animal; this one was a great silvery snake, with massive peridot gems for its eyes. Each scale was a separate piece over the tubes of the carriages themselves, made by hand with utmost precision, and inlaid with sweeps of tiny runes that continued seamlessly all over the train. Cathal leapt to his feet as passengers debarked. “I’ll take the bags,” he said, “and come back for you. All right?”

Lachlan snorted and rolled himself forward. “I have wheels, remember? It wouldn’t do to leave on a quest and be carried to the train. Give me one of those bags.”

Laughing, Cathal put a small, heavy chest in Lachlan’s lap, and together they crossed the platform. Porters lifted the wheeled chair onto the train, directly into a carriage with an empty compartment. Lachlan rolled carefully down the low-lit, narrow hallway carpeted in deep green, leaving twin tracks in the plush pile.

They settled in the compartment. There were glass windows to the outside, and a glass door for access from the inside, so that Lachlan couldn’t avoid the sight of himself except by staring at a point on the wall just above Cathal’s head. Even then, his peripheral vision didn’t allow much relief.

He looked into his lap, allowing his hair to fall over his face. The train hummed beneath him, eager to be off again, if objects could be eager; the line’s power drew forward against the great charms and the power of the pilot holding the vehicle back. Cathal stood at the window, between the seats, trying to peer past his reflection into the darkness beyond.

“You’ll want to sit down,” said Lachlan.

“Why?” Cathal asked, and the next moment the train leapt forward like a racehorse. He fell heavily against the black leather seat, bounced off, and landed on the floor. “Oh, I see,” he said, and started to laugh.

Lachlan tried to suppress his own laughter, but in the face of Cathal’s, it welled out of him.

Once he’d grown accustomed to the motion of the train—in no time at all, it was so smooth—the valet rose from the soft carpet on the floor and flopped into the seat next to Lachlan. “I can’t believe we’re really going,” Cathal said. “I can’t wait to see it. Is it true there’s a huge tree in the center?”

“The City Redwood, yes. Nearly as tall as the crater’s walls. Its shadow sweeps around the city each day. A powerful shaman—a tulua—attends to its needs. When they had a human guardian, the tree began to fail, and the same thing when the guardian was male…”

Lachlan went on at length, answering the questions Cathal peppered him with, but then the valet asked him about his old life. He deflected the questions with the vaguest responses he could think of, and afterward, before Cathal could press him, feigned a huge yawn.

They fell silent, and Cathal fell asleep, but Lachlan did not. His thoughts tangled, a deep bramble undergrowth spiked with thorns: this way the Movanar, that way his past, until he was utterly lost in a terrifying place with no egress, and he succumbed again to the cold of Yehoram’s cave.

One Last Quest, Part Three

Hope you guys are enjoying this! 🙂

~*~

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.

One Last Quest, Part Two

Continuing from last week!

~*~

At dawn, he rose with Cathal’s help. He brushed his own hair, could still do that much for himself, missing fingers notwithstanding. From the dark wardrobe, they chose his best forest-colored broadcloth coat, the brown brocade waistcoat, a shirt as crisp as autumn morning. Cathal knelt before Lachlan’s chair to pin up the legs of his dead-leaf breeches, neat and precise as always, folding them just so.

After breakfast—the cooks would send him pap and poached eggs, no matter that he requested something, anything, else—Lachlan wheeled himself through the Palace with Cathal at his side. The ice-green corridors were deserted at this time of morning but for Movanar servants scuttling on their business. All the Revanar slumbered in their beds, or the beds of others. As they neared the heart of the building, the corridors ended. Marble staircases with delicate brass balusters spiraled into the open space of King Muirrach’s atrium.

It was a beautiful place. Before Lachlan had left to wander the world, he hadn’t realized how breathtakingly expensive the construction must have been. The railings shone, all the exquisite figures of brass, animals—foxes, bears, elk, hares—climbing the newels and icicles dripping from the handrails. From the landing Lachlan could see the gleaming floor, whiter than a field of snow, inlaid in the center with a great Circle of brass. They must have done some rite here the previous evening. Tall green candles stood half-melted around the Circle; one had fallen on its side, spilling wax on the floor. A hint of rich opiate smell hung in the air, even so far above. He wondered that no one had yet come to clean up.

“Come, Lord,” said Cathal, lifting him from the chair in small, powerful arms. Movanar were so often stronger. As Cathal bore him down the winding staircase, he looked up over his valet’s shoulder, watching the peaked top of his chair disappear above the steps. Cathal left him at the bottom to fetch down the chair, and Lachlan sat rubbing his prickling stumps. Two servants came out of a concealed door at the back and crossed on soft boots to clean the Circle. Their supply cart made next to no sound, not a squeak of wheel or a clank of contents.

They whispered to one another, throwing glances like darts to stick in Lachlan’s flesh. He put on his blankest, most dismissive look, which must have been all the more terrifying delivered by a High One with a triangular, bifurcated pit for a nose. They fell quiet to focus unnecessarily on the task of scraping wax from the stone.

Back into the chair. Lachlan could do that himself, once Cathal brought it down. They repeated the process outside, on the long white flights leading down the mountain into the city.

Four ladies of the Court came rushing down, a cluster of footmen trailing after them. One of them nearly knocked poor Cathal off his feet with the surge of her fur and velvet train. Lachlan remembered her—remembered all of them—from the days before he’d left home. When he was younger, and popular, and oh, so achingly beautiful. They had all wanted him then, and he, fool that he was, had done his level best to accommodate each and every one.

They were all vipers, and Devnet, his long-ago betrothed, the worst of the lot. He’d thought he loved her, but it hadn’t taken half a year out on his own before he’d decided he would never marry such a venomous snake as she. When she saw Lachlan on the fifth landing her lip curled. “What do you here, Lachlan Vistridir?”

“Taking the air,” he said, as lightly as he could. He looked into her pale perfect face, at her thin arched eyebrows and elaborately painted eyes, at her lips stained redder than blood. “Am I interrupting your view, Lady Devnet?”

“In a word, you are.”

“No words could possibly convey my utter apathy, milady.”

“You have apartments for a reason,” she hissed.

“Apartments,” he said. “Not a cell, last I knew. You might visit me sometime.”

Her crimson lip curled over perfect teeth.

“You did so love to visit me.” Soft, soft. “I could still make you—”

Oh!” she cried, and whirled away.

He smirked after her, calling, “Another time, perhaps.”

“You are disgusting!” She threw it over her shoulder at him, all edged with spite, that he dared to remind her he’d seen her unclothed.

“I’m not the one with the purple dolphin tattooed on his arse,” he said to twist the knife.

“Oh my God,” the others whispered to each other. “Oh my God.” They covered their giggling mouths and swapped glances. Devnet stormed down the steps, flying two hot-red flags on her cheeks. Her train washed a frothy wake behind her.

“Is it true, Dev?” asked one of them—Mairead, he thought she was called.

Oh my God,” said Devnet.

“It’s true,” said Leandra as she swished down with the rest. “I see it once a week at the minimum. Don’t fret, darling, it’s really quite a fetching piece, and you…” She trailed off, with increasing distance, into incomprehensible noise. Lachlan laughed to himself as a storm of footmen surged past in a colorful wave, their various livery brilliant in the late-morning light. When Cathal reached him, they grinned slyly at each other, no words. Damn, but he’d been taking his valet for granted all these years! Cathal wouldn’t have grown a sense of humor overnight.

They’d begun an hour after dawn. The sun shifted over the city below, playing shadow across white-marble domes, green slates, and golden thatch. The bolt-train slithered through on its track of magic, a silver, flashing ribbon. Cobbled streets, still at this height like thin brown snakes, crawled between buildings and around the mountain. It was noon before they won those streets: steep and slanting, all curves and corners. Lachlan needed Cathal’s help to navigate; the stones and inclines made it nigh-on impossible to steer, though Lachlan did what he could, braking to keep the chair from careering out of Cathal’s control.

If he’d had any magic, his life would have been easier—but Yehoram had taken that from him, too, destroying his aura with his legs. He tried not to think of levitating himself down the steps and turned his mind to soaking in the atmosphere of Green Glaciers as he hadn’t in long decades. No, his apartments weren’t technically a prison, but he’d always gotten the feeling many would prefer it thus. He hadn’t been out of the gardens in an age, no farther than that clearing by the south wall.

Now, though. His bones rattled with the chair, and his arms cramped from pushing back on the wheels. His hands, callused though they were, began to ache and burn under the strain. He didn’t care. Behind walls for so long, he’d nearly forgotten what the world felt like. He remembered the look of it, but not the feel. The layers of sound. The outside air on his skin. The smells, still tickling at what was left of his nose with mouthwatering smoked-pork richness.

After pap and poached eggs, and all the blandest, even what little Lachlan perceived of the scent was wildly delicious, flooding his mouth with saliva. “Wait,” he said, braking harder. “Do you smell that?”

Cathal obediently stopped. “How could I not?” His voice came right into Lachlan’s good ear, the one the White Worm hadn’t frozen off. “Want to eat?”

Lachlan glanced over his shoulder at him. “Are you honestly asking me?”

Cathal laughed and helped steer the chair to the source of the smell: a little smokehouse set some way back from the street, with a stand in front. There a slightly rounded Movanar woman with cheeks bright as apples sold shredded pork with deep red sauce, stuffed into wheat rolls. Alongside came paper cups of cabbage slaw.

They laid the sandwiches in Lachlan’s lap and found a nearby bench to eat. Lachlan wasn’t given to melodrama, but he thought he might expire on the spot after his first bite. It had been so long. Even his diminished sense of taste couldn’t fail to wake, and the textures were more than enough to make up for the lack. The crust of the roll crisped away to soft inside, slightly soggy from the thick sauce. Meat between his teeth again. The heat of the food itself and the warmth of the spice on his tongue. He had gone to Paradise. The slaw crunched, cool and creamy in his mouth, with a sting of black pepper and horseradish.

Afterward, while Cathal disposed of the trash from their meal, he spread his arms on the back of the bench and tilted his head back. Relaxed. Forgetting, for the blink of an eye, what he had become, what he looked like. Then he let a sigh through the cavity of his nose and remembered. All the noise of the street eddied around him, around a bubble of space engendered by his presence. No one dared come too close; no one dared speak to him. Riven as he was, still no one could mistake him for anything but Revanar, anything but noble. No Movanar wore hair like Lachlan’s, snow white and like a living thing, falling around his hips. At the very least, down here in the city he had the protection of his station. He wondered why he had stayed so long in his apartments.

It hardly mattered. Soon there would be Adeon to chat with, and he could come down here whenever he pleased, really. He wasn’t required to stay in his rooms. He didn’t have to rot away at the back of the Palace. The thought put a smile on his face. He might even visit Adeon again after this, and that thought widened his smile further.

Cathal cleared his throat.

“How long have you been standing there?” Lachlan asked, opening his eyes.

“Oh, long enough,” Cathal said. “You know where this place is, I’m assuming.”

He sounded like he assumed no such thing, but Adeon had told Lachlan a thousand times where to find the little stationery shop, and he felt certain he could. “As a matter of fact, I do.”

To his credit, Cathal managed, mostly, not to look surprised. “And how do we get there?”

“It’s on the Boulevard of Bolealt,” said Lachlan, and when Cathal started to protest, he held up a hand. “I know it’s a bit far.”

“Let me get us a cab. I’ll never get you home again if we go all that way.”

Grimacing, Lachlan agreed. He’d sooner not be pent up in a carriage, but he allowed Cathal to hail one regardless, and once within the maroon-velvet confines he was secretly glad of it. He relaxed into the seat, rubbing at his left stump, the longer one. His leg hadn’t prickled like this in years.