Their arrival at Aldon-Sur brought a brief happiness to him as he recalled that the hour is too late for being admitted at court, but not too late to pay a call at the Upper Esplanade and see his good-sister – or so Nog claimed, and he agreed despite the slight pangs of his conscience.
Kelena's eyes glowed with genuine delight upon their arrival on her doorstep. She embraced Nog with warm sisterly affection and exclamations of surprise, pressed Thadorn's hand and inquired after the children, gave her polite respects to old Geynir, greeted Akira with the cordiality due to a kinswoman, and expressed the expected interest in Nicholas, the man from The-World-Beyond. And yet something was wrong, Thadorn could not help but sense it. Kelena had always been unaffected, sincere, warm and gentle, yet now there was a tension in her that seemed almost unnatural. Once or twice Thadorn's glance wandered towards Dankar Gindur, who professed his warmest friendship and brotherly hospitality towards the relations of his wife, and he wondered whether something had passed between Kelena and her husband to make her smiles seem a little strained. He had always known it was not a match of affection, to be sure, yet now it seemed as though there was something else, a deeper discomfort.
... Nicholas felt as though he is being dragged along. In a strange world he still knew next to nothing about, in a situation that made him question his own sanity, he found himself an appendix to people who bothered themselves with him only because they thought him mildly curious. That was why he was summoned by their king as well, he was certain.
But the most disturbing thing about this feeling was that it wasn't exactly new. For most of his life he felt as though he was being dragged along, following a respectable career, living a respectable life... and what did he have to show for it? He was thirty-eight, single, disillusioned, firmly attached to his loneliness, for it was the only way of life he was familiar with... and even now, when all the familiar things remained behind, he stayed the same.
He always prided himself for having an analytical mind, yet now he had to face the facts: he was an historian, not a mathematician, and this meant something. He spent a large portion of his life confronting, dissecting and dismissing myths with contemptuous exclamations such as "pagan nonsense" or "silly medieval tales". Or if he were in a more kindly mood he might say, "yes, this is very interesting, but I deal with history, with facts that have been recorded and proven" – and only in the privacy of his thoughts he would uncomfortably admit that the reliability of thousand-year-old records could be questionable.
He wished he knew more about physics; he wished there was some kind of theory, however far-fetched, that could enable him to begin to understand what happened to him. Could it be that a cosmic whirlpool descended on him, sucked him in and instantly transported him to a world which was not so very unlike his own, but in which the stars above his head formed constellations that definitely did not belong to planet Earth? And what of the language? What neurochemical reaction in his brain enabled him to instantly speak a language he had never known before?
The people of Tilir treated all these unbelievable things with a natural air – to them, he was unusual, but not incredible. They knew of his world, and these giant cosmic whirlpools were named "Stormglass gates" by them. It was all part of the Essence of the Spirit, as they said. He was not the first, nor would he be the last, to cross the borders between the two worlds, borders that consisted of more than space and time...
Perhaps I have lost my mind, Nicholas thought dully. Perhaps all this bending over ancient scrolls and reading of legends and a solitary life that felt as though it was happening in the Middle Ages had taken its toll. I might be in an asylum for all I know, and all these people around me, and this entire world might be but a highly detailed work of my inflamed imagination.
But at least the food in the asylum is good, Nicholas told himself wryly as he tore a wing off a capon and took a sip of very fine wine. He spoke little. He was a quiet man and an observant one. Right now he watched his hosts, a handsome but unlikely couple if ever he saw one.
The man Dankar was dark and very good-looking, and all his movements had the smooth dangerous fluidity of a panther. Nicholas had already begun to understand something of Tilirian customs to see that the elegance of his clothes, his speech and his manners surpassed anything he had seen so far. His house, too, was splendid and very carefully furnished, and everything seemed to be new, selected with excellent taste and meticulously cared for. The fare laid on his table would not have disgraced a king.
His wife, Kelena, was fair and delicate and beautiful and had a sweet air to her, and her features were animated with gladness for seeing her brother and her townsmen, yet it was plain this was no true happiness. There is a story here, Nicholas decided, but it is one I am unlikely to ever read. For all his benevolent and gracious air, Dankar struck him as a man who zealously guards his private affairs.
This did not prevent him from meddling in the affairs of others, however. Just before the sweets were served, along with a light golden wine of a fruity scent, he inclined his head sideways and looked at Nicholas with a smile of benign curiosity.
"It is a great honor to have you under my roof, distinguished guest," he said ceremoniously. "I wish you to make yourself quite comfortable, especially as tomorrow will be a grand day. I will present you at the court myself, along with my kinsmen Thadorn and Nog, and you shall bask in the radiance of His Grace, the king Alvadon."
"I can scarcely wait," said Nicholas with barely disguised sarcasm. He displayed less interest than he felt. In reality he had never seen a king face to face and was rather looking forward to it, but if he had been given a choice between this foreign court and an instant return to his homeland, there can be no doubt as to what he would have chosen. Interestingly enough, the thing that bothered him perhaps most of all was leaving Kate without a warning. He pictured her on the night of his abrupt departure, standing in the middle of the Stone Circle and calling out his name, alone and frightened in the stillness of the night... he wondered what she did next, after realizing he was gone without a trace. Hastened down to the village to tell it all to Jim O'Keeffee, and allowed him to soothe her fears, a bitter voice in his head said. Then he might have obtained her help for writing his story, and that could have led to other things by now. And why not? Why should you care? What is it to you if the insolent Irishman gains more than an article in his ridiculous magazine?
The windows were closed, and the air inside grew stifling. Nicholas excused himself and made his way back through the doors and into the garden. It was chilly outside, as he knew it would be, but the cool breath of air upon his face was refreshing, and the quiet solitude was like balm to his nerves, which were irritated by the prolonged company of people he cared little about.
There were cypress trees growing along the rounded stone walls of the garden; they looked old, as if they were planted here at least a century ago, when neither the handsome man Dankar, nor his father, nor perhaps his father's father were born. And yet the house was built by the men of Gindur, their host had boasted of it during supper; they had roots, they had a pulsating net of blood attaching them firmly to this land. They were not like him.
Drifting through this world, through any world, alone, always alone... he was truly needed by no one. If he never returns home, he will be remembered for a while because of the unusual way he disappeared – but then that, too, will be forgotten, and not even a mossy headstone in a cemetery will remind the occasional passerby of his name.
The stone balustrade caught his eye. It was expertly carved and chiseled, beautifully polished. With the simple tools the Tilirians used, he could just imagine how much this work cost... and this was only the outside wall of the garden.
Suddenly, he noticed movement behind that wall.
The people who were fortunate enough to live on Upper Esplanade seldom walked. They either rode or were carried in palanquins; but now a young man paced back and forth restlessly, and once in a while he threw an anxious, longing look towards the house of Gindur. He had the air of a soldier, but although his face could not be seen in the shifting weak light, it was clear he was almost a boy. He did not notice Nicholas when he finally stopped his pacing and leaned against one of the posts that carried oil-filled streetlamps. It seemed as though he waited.
But what for? No one seemed likely to come out of the house. Then, as Nicholas looked up by chance, he saw the dance of a candle in one of the windows... as though someone brought it close to the windowpane, then drew it back, then brought it closer again. It seemed like a signal, a sign, and the man stood still. Then the candle was extinguished, and he quickly walked away.
When Nicholas came back inside, the party was already dispersing, and with the most ceremonious graciousness his host wished him good night.
"Your chambers are humble, but I hope you will not be too uncomfortable," he said with the solicitousness of a man who knows his 'humble chambers' are fit for a prince.
As Nicholas was ascending the steps, he stopped at the sound of voices, speaking together in a low murmur. One he recognized as Thadorn's; the other belonged to a woman, and by its simple elegant speech he knew it could not be one of the maids; it had to be Kelena, then - Dankar's wife.
"... hope you pardon me for taking the liberty," Thadorn was saying, "but I just thought I would inquire whether all is well."
"As well as can be, Thadorn," said the woman. "Do not trouble yourself."
"You retired from the table early."
"I was afflicted by a sudden headache. I thought I would come down now, offer my excuses to those of the guests who might still be remaining downstairs."
"You are too scrupulous, my good lady. No one should blame you for being a little tired, and anyway you will find no one downstairs. Everyone dispersed to their chambers, your brother the first among them. He was yawning so violently it seems a wonder his jaw didn't break."
"Nog was always that way," Nicholas could hear a smile in the woman's voice. "He is like a young animal. He needs his sleep."
"You had better rest too."
"I will. Thank you, good-brother."
"I..." Thadorn hesitated, then went on with difficulty. "We both know it is unlikely I will remain your good-brother for very long."
Nicholas held his breath. Suddenly he realized he is eavesdropping, and that Thadorn would probably hate to be overheard. But he did not know how to move forward without creating an extremely uncomfortable situation, and he was afraid they would hear him if he started back downstairs. His best bet, he decided, was to remain in his place, wait until they would finish talking, and then pretend he just came up.
"You will always be my good-brother," said the beautiful and sad woman Kelena, her voice quivering with emotion. "My brother," she amended.
"A true brother would not have left you in distress."
She tried to laugh it off. "If you mean what I felt when I realized the cook had overbaked the pies again – "
"Please," the softness in Thadorn's voice was unusual. "I would not presume to be taken into your confidence. But do know that if there is anything at all – "
He stopped abruptly and Nicholas guessed, more than seen or heard, that his good-sister had kissed him chastely on the cheek.
"Sleep well, Thadorn. Tomorrow will be a long day."
Nicholas heard the faint rustle of silk against a luxuriously soft carpet and the sound of a closing door. A sleepy child's voice could just barely be heard behind it, and the woman's voice responded in soothing tones. No doubt Kelena went to look at her son in his bed.
He thought it would be now safe to go upstairs, but when he made a few cautious steps up, he found himself against the threatening burly form of Thadorn Tionae, standing in the middle of the corridor with his arms crossed and an expression on his face which was far from benign.
"Despite several occasions which might have indicated otherwise," the big man said, "I am not blind."
Nicholas tried to say something, but Thadorn clearly was not in a mood to listen. Nicholas was quite unnerved to find a thick finger stuck in his chest.
"You," said Thadorn, "have been eavesdropping on me."
"It is not – " said Nicholas. "I could hardly care – I mean, I have no interest in hearing other people's – "
Thadorn dropped his hands, as if deflating under the influence of some external force which had nothing to do with Nicholas.
"I had better hope so," he said darkly. "You make the impression of a decent man. I have been wrong before, of course," he added with a hint of bitterness in his low rumbling voice.
"I assure you it was an unfortunate coincidence," said Nicholas, "I was just coming upstairs, and..."
Thadorn waved a dismissive hand. "Forget it," he said. "I know you meant no harm. I have a feeling no harm will come from you... even though I don't believe you are very important."
Although Nicholas was loath to admit it, this frankness stung. Prompted by his pride, he said, "Your king believes otherwise."
Thadorn shrugged. "I was not instructed to think for myself, beyond the scope of my duties. I live to serve, to obey. But if you ask me, I believe that the Stormstone is a tricky substance. It sometimes chooses people to move between the worlds for no apparent reason, and I believe that at this time, His Grace would do better to concentrate on what is going on at his borders."
"Especially in the west?" Nicholas asked slyly. He did pick up some things during his stay with Rogell and Lya.
Thadorn looked uneasy. "Yes. That is, no one really knows... but if there is a congregation of people practicing some obscure art, even if it all is nothing but a rumor... it is certainly worth investigating."
Nicholas knew, if a little vaguely, why Thadorn would pay such close attention to what is happening in the west. His wife was there, or so it was rumored... but Nicholas was not a fool. He knew there are some things one had better not say.
"Are you a man of family?" Thadorn asked abruptly. Nicholas hated this question, but this time he thought it has an importance beyond idle curiosity.
"I have no one," he said pointedly. "No wife, no children, no parents, no siblings. I am all alone."
Thadorn nodded, satisfied. "Then you believe you are not missed?"
It was strange how this coincided with his very own thoughts from earlier. Then Andrew's face came into his mind... and Kate's. Perhaps this is a folly of a man on the point of becoming an old bachelor... but if it is, so what? It is a folly that makes me feel alive. Perhaps I will never go home again, perhaps I will never see her face again, but this doesn't forbid me from thinking of what could have been.
Nicholas slept fitfully that night, and once a ray of moonlight fell on his face and made him thrash in his sleep and cover his eyes with the back of his hand. Several times he rose almost to the surface of wakefulness, only to sink back into the black uneasy currents of strange evasive dreams. Finally, in a conscious effort he made himself wake up.
The air was crisp, and the summer song of the crickets could be heard no longer. Something in the black stillness around him told him that it was still the dead of night. His throat felt parched, so he felt around on his bed-stand until he found a water jug of glazed clay, and a cup of similar design, and poured himself some water. He drank slowly, feeling strangely in peace with himself.
As detached from this world as he insisted on being, he could not help but like its people. He admired their simple faith; and true to his nature, he could not help but study their history whenever he could. As far as he could learn, they had always believed in the Great Spirit and the shades of its Essence. They had no rivaling conclaves, no religious wars over fine hues of their belief, no high priests with almost unlimited power in their hands. He was told, however, that their neighbors, the Malvians and the savage tribes of the borders, worshipped idols of stone and wood, and beasts they revered as gods. For the Gorgors it was the mountain bear, while the Lyaki believed the grass snake represented and guarded their people. The chief deity of the Totoks made flesh was the formidable cave lion. But according to the Tilirians, all of them, even the most brutal savages, still acknowledged the presence of the Great Spirit, even if they had a different name for it in their tongue, and grudgingly admitted that the people of Tilir were the closest of all to it.
He padded over to the window. The nights were getting chilly, and so the luxurious carpets were already brought out of their summer storage and spread over the cool smooth floor tiles; the velvety carpet caressed his bare feet as he walked across the room. He wasn't sure what he expected to see, but he was not surprised to notice the same silent sentinel as before, the young man that gazed up at the house with such poetic wistfulness that it seemed to Nicholas as though someone lightly touched the strings of a harp, and a song sounded faintly in the night air:
Alas, my love, you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously...
For some reason he found it easiest to believe the young man's presence had something to do with their host's wife, the beautiful Kelena. Whether this was merely platonic admiration or a more earthly affair, however, he did not and wished not to know. If it was the latter, and the noble man of Ginudr knew of it, Nicholas pitied the young man, whoever he was. Dankar Gindur struck him as a man not to be trifled with.
He drew the curtain over the window, plunging the room into complete, soothing darkness. He lay down on his bed again and closed his eyes, and his dreams were sweet, and when he woke the room was full of sunshine and his heart was easy.
The easiness did not last long, though. He remembered his presentation at the royal audience chamber which was scheduled for that day, and his immediate sensation strongly resembled what he felt as a student before a formidable exam. He could not satisfactorily explain this, though; after all, it would not be about any skill or knowledge of his. The king of this strange land merely wants to acquaint himself with an other-world oddity. It makes no difference who I am, Nicholas told himself. It makes no difference what I have learned, what I had done. All they care about is the place where I came from. The Other World, they called it. To the Tilirians, it was far and almost unattainable but still possible to reach, much like another planet would be for those who live on Earth. There were Tilirians who went "there" and came back; they were increasingly rarer in every generation, but they existed. Nicholas wished he could meet one of them, and then perhaps some of his questions would be answered.
Breakfast was an early and quiet affair. None of his companions seemed in the mood to talk. Dankar, sitting at the head of the table, ate his cold fish stew and sipped his herb tea in dignified silence; his wife was pale and didn't seem to have much of an appetite. Thadorn was somber as a cloud threatening rain, the learned man Geynir looked to be deep in thought, and even Nog and Akira were affected by the overall atmosphere of oppressive silence and bent their heads over their bowls of stew.
"Well," said Dankar once everyone had eaten, briskly clapping his hands. "It is time to prepare. Audience only lasts until midday, and we still need to get our friend here properly attired," he added, looking over Nicholas with a critical eye.
"I did not know anything was wrong with my attire," Nicholas said defensively. His old clothes were discarded long ago, of course, in the home of Rogell and Lya; the clothes he wore now were very generously pressed on him by Rogell. They were a little loose to begin with, but Lya made a few alterations and now they fit well. They were unpretentious good wool and linen, which reconciled him to the loss of his unchanging English style.
"Oh, not wrong," Dankar said easily, looking over him again. "But when one comes before the king, one must make an effort to look his very best."
When Nicholas stepped out of the doors half an hour later, he was walking a little stiffly, because his garments were so fresh and crisp, so newly sewn, and so surprisingly well-fitting that it made him feel self-conscious. He was dressed in black from head to toe, in a black tunic of the finest, smoothest silk, with a black doublet over it, black breeches held by a black silver-studded belt, supply shiny black boots and a billowing black cloak, livened slightly by its lining of silvery ermine and its silver brooch, shaped like a raven with eyes of glittering black stone, jet or onyx, he could not tell.
He was a little unnerved how they all seemed to form an escort around him; the glib-tongued, dangerous-eyed Dankar, somber Thadorn, the handsome young Nog and the old venerable Geynir, and Akira Kotsar, restless, arrogant and proud. Dankar's beautiful wife, Kelena, waved them all away from the doorstep, raising her hand in a rather helpless manner, then turned on her heel and closed the door behind her.
They rode just a little way forward and were about to leave the Upper Esplanade and begin their ascent to castle and court when a rider crossed paths with them and pulled the reins of his horse, halting. Dankar Gindur raised his hand in a gesture of welcome, looking pleased.
"Lieutenant," he said, "the very man I had hoped to meet."
The rider inclined his head politely.
"This is Torwen Mattar," Dankar turned to his companions. "A bold warrior and a promising young man. I am glad you were able to extend your leave," he turned to his acquaintance.
"Only for a short while," said Torwen. "My duties at Fort Sand call me to return before long."
"To be sure," Dankar said, "to be sure. But in the meantime, is it too presumptuous to ask you to pay a brief call at my house? It should not take more than a few minutes. We are going to court, and I would rather be certain my wife wants for nothing. Also, I forgot to tell my lady that I will most likely be gone throughout most of the day, and I would wish her to be forewarned so that she does not worry."
Nicholas stole a look at his companions, then at the young stranger. There could be no mistake; this was the same young man he had seen from his window the other night. But if he is acquainted with Dankar, why would he hide? An impenetrable pleasant smile played on their host's lips, while the rest of the company looked politely unconcerned – all except for Thadorn, who frowned and gave a barely perceptible shake of the head.
"Of course," added Dankar, "only if it is not too much trouble."
"No trouble at all," said Torwen Mattar, the young man who had looked up so desperately at Kelena's windows the night before. "It will be a high honor to call upon the lady Kelena and deliver your message."
Dankar gave a satisfied nod and spurred his horse forward. The company rode on, and so did Torwen Mattar after a polite salute, only in a different direction – down the Upper Esplanade.
"It is good to have friends one can trust," said Dankar in such a pleasantly unconcerned voice that no one dared to make a comment except a nod and a few incoherent sounds; it seemed to Nicholas that Thadorn wished to say something but restrained himself.
Further on their way up, they had another encounter. The streets were busy and lively here, but in a respectable way – expensive shops attracted dignified customers, and palanquins with costly embroidered silken hangings blocked their path every now and then. One such palanquin was so large and bulky and moved so slowly that it was a sore trial to their patience. It was carried with difficulty by six big-bodied burly servants who looked enough alike to be the children of one man's loins, and who were sweating so profusely that Nicholas though the man inside the palanquin cannot weigh less than half a ton.
But then a white hand pulled the draperies aside in one swift motion, and it became plain that the only passenger of the palanquin was a young woman, fair and slender, who rose from the silk pillows on which she reclined, and beckoned her servants to help her descend. She was smiling, and so was Dankar, who opened his arms in cordial recognition. Nog and Akira, too, rushed forward to greet the woman, who had a look of importance and wealth about her, but the learned man Geynir hung back, and so did Thadorn, who wore an unpleasant scowl on his face.
"Rani," Dankar said, "you look more beautiful than ever. The summer at the Provinces did you good. I was not aware you would be back so soon, though."
"Oh, my house at the Provinces was pleasant enough for a month or two," said the woman called Rani, "but I could not bear to stay there longer. It was too boring, I was growing restless. And so here I am, back in Aldon-Sur."
"Where your friends no doubt have been waiting anxiously for your return," Dankar said with very polite courtesy, but there was an amused twinkle in his eye which Rani seemed to miss. For all her slenderness, she was extremely buxom, fair of hair and pink of cheek, and reminded Nicholas of sugary sweet pictures of Swiss milkmaids.
"This is Rani Kotsar," Geynir whispered in Nicholas's ear. "She is originally from our town, but was married very young to a very wealthy childless man, inherited all his fortune, and has been a widow for nearly a decade now."
"Yes, that is what often happens," said Rani, who apparently overheard him, but was not the least bit offended, "when a fourteen-year-old girl is taken to the bed of a seventy-year-old man." She was a Kotsar, then; this explained her familiarity with Nog, whom she was now kissing as she would a little brother. "And where might you be going in such a hurry so early in the morning, Dankar?" she asked curiously.
"Oh, the business is not mine," he explained modestly. "I am only escorting someone to await the king's pleasure. A visitor from the-world-beyond," he added with would-be indifference, gesturing toward Nicholas.
Rani's hazel eyes lit up with unfeigned interest, and she brushed a lock of strawberry blond hair from her face as she stared at him.