At the Gate
Color splashed from the bubbled window panes onto the walls as morning ambiance gave way to the cresting sun. The stain glass glowed and dimmed sporadically as clouds rippled across the sky. A persistent green ripple reflected from the mirror to puddle on Haijka’s face. He scrunched his eyes, rubbing sleep away with his hands as he sat up.
The guest apartment’s walls were paneled with dark wood on the lower half and topped by forest murals. Delicately carved furniture decorated the chamber. This was the chamber for a guest of high status, not a relation of a servant. He’d never been given the best apartments anywhere else. When he left he knew the bedsheets would not be burned. This was always a moment to savor.
Haijka slid off of the feather mattress of the metal-framed bed. At the completion of his morning routine, night clothes and accessories were bundled into a bag. He pulled the green cloak over his dayclothes and tied the leather strings at his throat. Now he was ready to leave.
Where might Zyhaneve be?
Last night, after dinner, the Rider and Lord Nymar had gone once more into the study. They’d likely discussed strategies to deal with Ularttian leaders and chatted about the price of local goods and foreign imports that came down the river. While Haijka was indifferent to such talk, Zyhaneve had always been interested in politics and communities, having once trained to enter the town council. With the lord and Rider ensconced in the private study, Haijka spent the evening entertaining the remaining family. Lights sparkled at his fingertips and shadows moved in delightful miniature shapes on the walls. Flowers grew from the stone tiles and sang or became birds. Each illusion faded into the next, each bringing cries of wonder from the children and Lady Cylene.
This morning, Haijka didn’t have to go far to find Zyhaneve. The Rider was eating breakfast in the dining area, hood down. A leather tie bound the Rider’s long hair. Traditionally most young men and young women kept their hair long and down until they were married or turned thirty, when it was either cut or pinned out of the way. The Rider used the tie to prevent any wisp of hair from spilling from beneath the shadowed hood, something Haijka had tried but was not as successful at. As Haijka entered the dining hall and saw the back of his friend’s head, he realized what the sight meant. For the first time in a long while, the black shadow did not block the Rider’s face. Sometimes, when the hood was down, the Rider was the friend Haijka remembered.
Hearing approaching feet, Zyhaneve grabbed the cloak’s hood and flipped it on to hide in shadow.
“It’s just me, Zyhaneve,” the sorcerer said to quell the Rider’s fear. “Not safe to eat anymore, huh?” he joked and sat down. He placed his bag on a chair to his right. Although Haijka could not see the Rider’s eyes, he was sure they were glaring at him.
“That’s not funny, Haijka. Announce yourself before entering.”
“Can you imagine saying your name every time you enter a chamber? Whether or not anyone is inside?” He smiled, but got no chuckle in reply. “Slide the hood down again,” Haijka suggested, “I’d warn you if the servants or the family came.”
“No, I’d rather not take the chance.”
The sorcerer shrugged as if he didn’t care. Zyhaneve chose to wear the hood, despite its limitations. The hood interfered with Zyhaneve’s eyesight, restricting visibility to the immediate front as the edges cloth blocked the peripheral view. Often Zyhaneve had to fully turn to see either side. Though this was a matter of irritation Zyhaneve had expressed in the beginning, the hood offered the best privacy, which was one of the reasons Haijka had insisted on its creation in the first place. Still, when he created the veiling spell, the sorcerer hadn’t realized Zyhaneve’s mask could be used against him as well.
“Gliagh, bring the sorcerer some food,” Zyhaneve called. The kitchen door opened and the cook’s assistant brought out a dish.
“Thank you,” Haijka said. The man left without word. Haijka wasn’t sure if the servant really cared for his thanks. Unlike Nymar, Haijka was never certain of the household’s like for magi. Zyhaneve claimed all were friendly, due to various reasons, most having to do with Nymar’s helping their relations. Haijka believed friendly and tolerant were two separate meanings.
Some time after sunrise, Nymar’s family tromped down the stairs. “Good morning. I see you have finished breakfast. If you would wait in the parlor until we’ve finished, we’ll discuss your departure,” Nymar said cheerfully and fast above the arguing of his children.
The two travelers bowed to the family and took themselves and their bags to the parlor. Although near the hearth room, the parlor did not have the same welcoming feeling of the smaller chamber. Here, family heirlooms were displayed. Paintings and tapestries hung on the wall between snarling animal heads. A flag, displaying the Chalis coat of arms, hung in the most prominent of places across from the corridor door. Central on the blue rampant was a gold and crimson goblet.
“Did I ever tell you Chalis was once called Chalice?” Zyhaneve asked.
Haijka at first didn’t hear the difference in the words. He was puzzled until Zyhaneve said the name again and gestured as if drinking.
“No,” Haijka said. “Where did you hear it?”
“Nymar. It was his family’s surname generations ago. His forefather was the chalice bearer to the local high mage. After the Great Exile that man took over the city and all the high mage’s lands—a grievous betrayal, I imagine. A trusted servant turning against his master.” The hood shook, echoing the gesture from the hidden head. “The city’s name was altered to Chalice in honor of their new lord, but eventually the descendants replaced it with Chalis so they would not be reminded of their servant status.”
“That isn’t much of a change.”
“It is enough. Only Nymar’s family recalls the event, although he tells me he learned of it after study, and by accident. Even the lords prefer to forget.”
Haijka said something agreeable.
While Zyhaneve examined the displays appreciatively, Haijka sat on the plainest of chairs, but even this chair was extraordinary. Carved from midnight wood, its upholstery was blue silk. Even if the color was a little faded, it reeked of wealth. Other furniture was elaborately carved from wood with the smoothest quality and unique colorings. The chairs, tables, and display cases stood upright on animal pelts and Egretion woven rugs. Imported vases from Itrilio rested between stuffed birds and jewel-encrusted swords of ancestors. Still, despite the impressive affluence, neglect and age had crept into the decorations. The designs were old, the weavings moth-eaten, and the animals balding. Unlike his forebears, Nymar had no wish to add to the clutter and so no new thing stood out bright and glossy to draw attention.
“You woke early for being up late,” Haijka said, watching Zyhaneve wander. “What’d you talk about last night?”
“We conversed about Ulartte cities. Nymar has dealings with the border lords. He knows more of Ulartte policies than I. Lady Neiss will be pleased with our preparation when we enter the country.”
Zyhaneve drifted over and mentioned some of the more interesting policies, most having to do with Ulartte’s large military force. Unlike other countries, only Ulartte had formal armies with active training. All young boys and girls between the ages of eleven and sixteen had to participate. At graduation, the students decided if they would continue training or choose a different vocation. Perhaps it was this community participation and self-moderation that made Ulartte the most advanced country in Art. Other countries paid dearly for technologies invented by Ulartte craftsmen. Only the mechanics of the warriors’ one-shot pistols were kept secret.
The lord of Chalis abruptly came into the parlor. His wife and eldest son were close on his heels. “Thank goodness! You haven’t yet left. A servant came to me saying that the constable is at the front door,” Nymar motioned the guests closer. “The stablemaster is going to take you out the back. Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me and when I find out which of my servants told, I have an unpleasant task in mind.”
Nymar’s normal speech was swift but this was even faster. His cheeks and forehead had tinged a deep red. Perhaps it was anger or maybe embarrassment that his friends could be caught by the lawman.
“You’re certain he’s here for us, Nymar?” Haijka’s brow creased, shading his eyes.
“Yes, most positive. He asked directly for you and said that if I did not let him search the house, I would be stricken from lordship. That my mother would take over the ordl until one of my brothers could be instituted. Phano, give them the bag. In it is some food. It’s not much, but at the last moment it was all we could gather. Brem! Where are you?” he glanced at the doorway.
Phano, Nymar’s eldest son, gave Haijka the bag and said a quiet goodbye. “Come back soon. I think a new constable will be elected by harvest,” the youth whispered.
Zyhaneve, meanwhile, shook the lord’s and lady’s hands. “Lord Nymar, all of your servants are invested in your ventures. You’ve helped many of their relations who were born with magic. They wouldn’t do this.”
“Which is what I said.” Lady Cylene’s voice was as flat as water in a scrying bowl. “Nymar, your mother doesn’t really care for your guests.”
“My mother? No. She wouldn’t have told him. Not herself. Although I don’t put it above her to have the message passed on. Why she wouldn’t have done this sooner is the only thing that surprises me.”
In accordance to the Old Laws, there was a common punishment on those who harbored or assisted magi. Perhaps this was why Wellrynn had never acted before now, fearing that she or her son would be included in the punishment.
The arrival of the stablemaster halted any additional suppositions.
“Have the grooms ready the horses?” Nymar asked.
Brem bowed to Nymar and his family. “As we speak, sir.” In his stoop, the tall man had picked up the bags of the Rider and the sorcerer. “Follow me, if you would, sirs.” The stablemaster left the room as rapidly as he’d entered.
With one last parting wave toward the family, Haijka and Zyhaneve followed him out the door.
“Lord Nymar, and I, regret we haven’t any supplies to give you,” Brem called over his shoulder. “There wasn’t any time to buy from the bazaar. You came somewhat late, and this . . . well, you leave too soon.”
“It’s not the first time we’ve had to manage on our own,” Haijka assured him. “Besides, Nymar provided us with food before we left.”
The stablemaster appeared mollified.
The door to the stableyard snapped open, revealing the saddled Colbaltan and Neverhane. Brem tossed the bags to the grooms who held the horses’ heads. Soon the bags were part of the saddles. Haijka and Zyhaneve had no trouble mounting, but the horses, aware of the humans’ anxiety, grew restless. They picked up their feet and shook their heads, repeatedly whickering. This was echoed by the horses inside the stable.
Brem glanced at the stables. “Hurry. Haijka, do you know a spell to keep yourselves hidden? There may be men be outside the gates.”
“Don’t worry, Brem, no one will see us. Lord Nymar will be fine.” The sorcerer’s voice was soothing. He smiled, but as he turned away from the stablehands, he swallowed down the jittering tickle at the back of his throat.
“We greatly appreciate the hospitality this household has often shown us,” Zyhaneve said.
The horses were urged across the cobblestone yard to the wall.
As Brem watched the horses rush through the back gate, he believed that Haijka had forgotten to conjure a spell. They would be caught. Lord Nymar would be arrested and held on trial. Lady Wellrynn would be given the authority of the household again. A gray feeling settled inside of Brem as thick as last night’s storm clouds. Then suddenly, both horses and riders disappeared. There had been no shimmering nor sound. They were suddenly gone as if they’d never been at all. Like dew drops drying in the sun. Brem shook his head, shaking away the fears. He would never be able to understand how magic functioned. He was simply grateful Haijka knew how to control it. His own sister died from a spell gone awry, accidentally killing their father as well.
Returning to the present, Bren turned to the grooms. “Get back to work! Get those stalls cleared!” Obediently, the grooms returned to the horses they were in charge of, behaving as if nothing unusual had wrinkled their morning. The back gate closed and was locked before any of the constable’s men reached the far end of the estate.
Haijka had swiftly created the spell. It was a ‘perfect’ one, blocking both sight and sound to the onlooker. There had been no show in this magic, like the ones he had entertained the family with, nor similar to the ones most magi did in front of normal people. He murmured the words and with a flick of his hand the spell had been cast. The horses were not bothered by the magic, perhaps not noticing their lack of sound or their missing companion. Now they were bound for the Ulartte Canyon.
Inside the house, Nymar welcomed the constable of Chalis into his home. “You’ve heard rumors, Constable? From whom might I ask? No, you will not tell. Hmmm. Well my good sir, why would I, a lord, mind you, muddle with the likes of bandits? With something as dangerous as magi? You should arrest the one who said it was so. Would you like a buttered crisp?”
That was how Nymar began distracting the city’s peacekeeper.
Inspired by Bell’s words, Tymoss lingered near the warriors’ quarters the next few days. There had to be a warrior he could trust. Someone who would listen to him and would take his troubles to the warrior leader. Someone who could take the responsibility from him. Not enjoying solitary existence, not after rediscovering companions, the tom cat often left the quarters to hunt with Claire. Often Tymoss would not return to his vigil outside of the warriors’ headquarters.
Claire had offered her home to him on his second day in Woappin, but he’d refused. He wanted to be a lord’s cat. While he was sure her owner was nice, she could not provide the comforts he envisioned. He didn’t tell Claire of this arrogant thought, instead declining politely. She took no offense, happy enough to spend time with him outside her home. They stalked birds in the community garden deep in the city next to an artesian well. They would walk through the city or would sleep in sunlight, Claire talking about everything that flitted through her mind. Then, around evening, they’d head to the lord’s mansion. Fluffy was kind enough to allow Tymoss to live in the mansion with her. She admitted she liked his company. Generally she had little contact with other cats unless they visited her. Fluffy never left the lord’s home, claiming the city was too bustling for her, filled with carts and children. Tymoss couldn’t agree more, but he looked forward to joining Claire for their daily walks. With her as a guide, he wouldn’t get lost or into trouble. Often on their return to the mansion, he and Claire met Bell leaving. Claire would depart with Bell then, and the pair went home to their owners. Tymoss would watch them go, sitting on the doorstep until they were out of sight. If he wasn’t out too late, the kitchen door might still be open. If not, he’d yowl until a servant came to let him in.
During his time at the warrior quarters, Tymoss met Benvle Chadwyn. One day glass doors opened and out stepped a clean-shaven, moderately young man with the badge of a cavalry troop leader stitched to the sleeve of his thick upper arm. The cat was sprawled on a low brick wall that surrounded the base of a statue where he often rested. His fur glowed as bright as a sunbeam, drawing the man’s attention. Benvle patted the tom’s warm fur.
“Hallo, Tom-cat.” With that soft swipe, Benvle promptly left, joining the morning crowd. His footsteps disappeared into the cacophony of voices and creaking carts.
Tymoss open his eyes and stared after the warrior. This wasn’t the first time he’d been noticed. The others hadn’t returned, so would this man? Tymoss wasn’t fond of strangers, having matured in a place where cats were considered tell-tales of mages. Still, he had to find someone. Better a warrior attach himself first. That way Tymoss would not be forced go out of his way to track one down. As a cat, no one forced him to do anything.
Later that day, Benvle returned in time for the daily parade in Garrison Square. The large open space situated in front of the warriors’ quarters separated the warriors’ main building from the stables, practice yard, armory, chapel, and other warrior things Tymoss didn’t understand. Routinely, the warriors held practice parades in the square. A troop of warriors would stand in formation and obey the commands of their troop leader, marching up and down the square in well-practiced maneuvers.
After the first startling presentation of armored men marching, clashing swords, and firing a one-shot salute, Tymoss found it all very boring. Even when the horses or the young trainees were on display. Citizens watched regardless of the presenters. The younger children especially found the warriors entertaining. They mimicked the men, marching and firing pretend one-shots. Many times the youngsters climbed up the brick stand to the bronze statue, sitting on top of the horse either in front of or behind the rider. If they were paying attention, observing warriors would shoo the miscreants away, but not before the children had made a gallant ride at an unseen enemy. Tymoss was certain to stay out of the youngsters’ way, not wanting to be chased across Woappin again. If he saw them coming, he would scramble for the hedge lining the quarters. The tangle of branches were too thick even for a child to poke their hand through, but it was high enough off the ground for a cat to squeeze under.
Today, Benvle sat beside Tymoss on the stone plinth of the statue. They watched the parade together. Benvle stroked the cat’s back with a large hand. Tymoss eased next to him, encouraging the attention. Benvle spoke to him with a hesitant and quiet voice.
“You know,” Benvle confessed, “My family had cats when I was younger.” Tymoss tilted his head, directing Benvle to one of his ears. “Ever since I started training as a warrior, I realized just how much I missed them. It’s rather lonely here in the garrison without them.”
Tymoss could barely hear him and certainly wasn’t paying any attention to the words. This felt very nice. He leaned into the rubbing. His back leg twitched, scratching the air, and Benvle laughed in his boisterous bellow.
In the days following their first meeting, Tymoss and Benvle greeted each other every morning. The warrior usually brought food or feathers for Tymoss. Tymoss began to think that maybe not all strange humans were trouble. He liked Benvle. It didn’t take him long to listen for the man’s name, perking his ears whenever he heard the others speak of the troop leader.
When Tymoss was not with Benvle in the mornings, or Claire during the day, he accompanied Fluffy. Together they’d rest near the lord or lady, listening to news the pair discussed. Lady Sylva enjoyed the tom’s company. If he happened to be in the same chamber as her, she’d find a treat and give it to him. She even took time to play with him. Tymoss brought her the toys Benvle gave him until they littered the floor. Eventually, a servant placed the unbroken ones in a basket in the hearth room. Sylva would kneel on the floor, dangling the cloth balls and feathers over his head or throwing them for him to retrieve. Tymoss enjoyed chasing after the flitting objects, for a moment forgetting the toys weren’t real prey. Lenn used to play with him this way.
Tymoss began to adjust to this pleasurable life, enjoying it immensely after his experience in the canyon beyond the city. He’d found contentment after so long. He never wanted it to end. Why pay attention to what occurred Out There, when everything he ever wanted was here in Woappin? Why ruin it? The desire to warn the humans grew fainter with each passing day he settled into the lord’s household. But the pinpricks that first drove him to the warriors’ quarters progressed to the point where every paw step felt like he walked on blade-grass and he found playing with Sylva difficult. The knowledge he’d tried to push away from his life intruded. He’d thought being so far away from the cause of his discomfort would ease the threat, but it was not so. Something was coming. He had to protect himself. Driven by these thoughts he proceed with his plan. He learned when the next leader meeting was to be held and prepared himself.
The morning of his planned intervention, Fluffy had a question for him.
“Why do you devote your days to these humans, young one? Warriors and lords do not have pets. They can only adore you for a mouse-life. Settle down and find a family, don’t bounce between buildings. Even birds keep a nest.”
“Do you think me an alley cat?” he asked pausing in his morning wash. “A wild cat?” He had come to realize that because he had not answered Bell’s question the day he’d met the City Cat leader, the rest of the cats thought he was ownerless. A stray with a fancy name. Many didn’t interact with him when he and Claire went on their walks. He’d seen many of them turn the other direction when they realized who approached.
“I think you should find a human and stay with him,” meowed the old she-cat. It was obvious she didn’t approve of his split attention between Benvle and the city lord.
“I do have an owner,” Tymoss whispered. “I can’t belong to someone else. She wouldn’t like it.”
“You what?” Fluffy stopped her own washing to stare at him. “Then why are you here?”
Tymoss’s ears lowered. He stared into the corner of the chamber, remembering the lofty idea he’d first imagined when he’d met Claire and Bell. Now he wanted to forget, wanted to ease into this comfortable life.
“If only she weren’t coming,” Tymoss meowed without thought, finally giving voice to his tension. He paused and perked his ears in false pleasantry. “Not that you need to know that. So, why am I here? I’m trying to help.”
“Like the City Cats.”
“What does that mean?” Fluffy’s body was still, as if she were purposefully withholding her feelings. He couldn’t blame her, having displayed false emotions to her for the first time.
Although cats didn’t lie (body language could quickly betray any falsehood) they could inventively tongue-wiggle around an issue. Most cats spoke this way daily, a habit Tymoss quickly learned was discouraged by Bell and the other City Cats. Cats not in the order or those not speaking about business used the tactic more often. Tymoss, not having grown up around other cats, only felt confusion. His blunt blunders hadn’t endeared him to other cats outside of Woappin.
Tymoss flicked his ears. He didn’t want to be false with Fluffy. “I said I’m going to protect the humans, too. Like the City Cats. I just don’t want anyone else involved, all right? I’m not putting you in danger too.”
She followed him from the chamber, clearly not intending to let him get away with that. He ignored her, heading for the kitchen. There was food in a dish by the outside door, waiting for him and Fluffy. She headed for the meal, expecting him to join her and to continue their conversation. He headed through the doorway. The servants often left it open to release heat from the fires. It allowed the cats to freely come and go, something Tymoss appreciated. Especially now. He escaped before Fluffy realized he was gone. He thought he was clean away until he saw Claire rushing toward him across Golden Ingot Square. Another cat, one with short silver fur tipped by black, loped behind her.
“Tymoss!” Claire yowled as she ran. “Many catches! I thought we could catch breakfast at the slaugherhouse. Seal says she could use help and she’d like to join us at Bell’s later. You don’t have to go to the garrison, do you?” Claire reached him during her rush of words. She panted, waiting for his answer. Seal dipped her head in greeting. Tymoss was too distracted to respond in kind.
He licked his lips. Why was she tempting him? He longed to go with Claire. Here was his chance. He could hold his tongue, let everything he knew fade away. He was only a cat, why must he be responsible? But his unease twitched his tail and his ears pricked for something he could almost hear. She was coming. He had to do it. Now or never. He was the one with the knowledge and although the City Cats strove to repay an imagined debt owed to humans, Tymoss realized their safety meant his own. By protecting them, he protected himself and Claire and Bell. After so long he didn’t have to remain silent anymore.
“I’m sorry,” he meowed, ducking his head. “I have to go. I have to. I’m sorry!” He raced away. He couldn’t look back.
If he had he might have seen Fluffy exit the mansion for the first time. She padded to Claire and Seal. “Don’t take it hard, he’s in an odd mood. Something about saving the city and his owner coming for him.”