The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Part II, Chapter 9: Sacrificed Pawns and Captured Virtues

While Cylayni’s brisk stride was a struggle for the four monks hampered by chainmail and girt swords—the mail skirts pulling taut and scabbards clacking against their knees—by applying a mincing trot, her guards lagged only a few steps behind the sorceress. Though it was a horrible day for a walk—gusty, sprinkling, and a black cloud ballooning to an imminent cloudburst—Cylayni was determined to enjoy her turn for their weekly shopping trip.

The most necessary ingredient in coercing a captive wizard to work spells on your behalf is the right incentive, whether life, limb, or liberty, but this did not preclude the canonical trappings of enchantment, such as paper, ink, glassware, chalk, and slates, as well as the particular fixings requisite to each charm, such as fairy tears, clovers of varying leaf count, wings of bats and birds, or dragon scales. Moreover, Mother Alyana’s special assignment drained their cache along with the few rarities available in Cjantosk, then went on to dry up the supply of violet tulip bulbs.

When their guards filled the shopping list dutifully, but with a poor eye for ingredients, Vituro and Cylayni persuaded Mother Alyana that if they did not make the trip themselves, the work might get mucked up by substandard elements. Assuming it might be a pretext for escape, Alyana allowed that one wizard, guarded by four monks, might make a weekly shopping trip.

Cylayni had rolled her eyes at what was a tacit admission of what Alyana had long denied, that the Holy Mother would never allow the wizards their freedom, in fear they might undermine the Pax Coruna. Despite their weekly pay—a weighty sum of gold that seemed immodest for a monastery salary—Cylayni had no illusions that they were other than hostages dependent on Mother Alyana’s goodwill, a virtue of which she only had a few drams, compared to gallons of fury.

Ironically, Cylayni had been ready to leave Kanar’s tutelage and seek a position with the Order, whom she admired for their quick transition from thought to deed compared to the monolithic monarchy and its glacial political machine. She had always preferred scholars of any stripe, whether wizards, priests, historians, or poets, to nobles of any breed, as barons, counts, and dukes were all the same animal, with the same avaricious and rapacious instincts, differing only by the degree of the license which they learned to compose until it resembled restraint. But the reality was much different, for while noble refinement only mimicked education, Alyana had swelled the Corunan ranks with two-legged beasts that had little of either, and she soon forgot which elements of The Faith she had liked in her detestation for the monks.

While the most prosperous shop could have filled her order, Cylayni took care to buy only one ingredient from each merchant, not only to prolong her shopping trip, but to spread it out over more opportunities for escape. Though the tall wizard’s giraffe-like gait carried her yards ahead of her clueless guards’ belabored breaths, all she found was an increased taste for freedom and exercise, which she extended by straining their credulity well beyond the elasticity of any human gullibility, until there could be no doubt that the order was assembled.

“That’s it,” Cylayni said, having checked off the last item. While she would have liked to depart with a mental list that she could expand at will, the guards were perspicacious enough to insist on a paper list they could supervise.

One of the monks smiled, and with a feeble attempt at chatting her up, said, “are you happy with your selections?”

“What do you care? Take me back. I’m hungry, and what you call dinner won’t be served much longer.”

“Knowing how long these shopping trips take, I asked the cook to cover our plates.”

“How thoughtful, though I would be happier if you had reservations for Sawyn’s.” Though the monks didn’t allow make-up, and her pale, white-blonde face wasn’t born to seductive pouts, she gave it her all, and he smiled back.

“We have leftover funds. I can arrange that.”

While she didn’t think herself unattractive, she was suspicious both by nature and by experience, and began to wonder about this eager young man. As the acquaintances she attracted with her modest and restrained good looks had, in serving themselves, disappointed her, she was disillusioned as to the merits of attraction. Though some pretty women make as long a study of the school of attraction as wizards do in their apprenticeships, and end in narcissistic failure, by getting wrapped around their own finger next to other finger-bound lovers, Cylayni’s intellectual gifts were immodest and unrestrained, and she decided early on that turning heads was not making friends. Her apprenticeship to Kanar was too time-intensive and mentally exhausting; if anyone wanted her friendship, they would have to work at it. “Lead the way,” she yawned, and waved him on as if she extended the courtesy, “since I’m a little tired.”

When he bowed his head, and took the lead, Cylayni followed, just in front of the other three monks. Though she no longer set the pace, they still did not walk like guards accustomed to the weight and noise of armor, but like monks, with heads bowed.

While Sawyn’s was a favorite of Cylayni’s, the restaurant was also a favorite of the Prince, and she hoped the loyalty worked both ways, with patriotic patrons, chef, and staff standing in the monks’ way during her escape.

Though it was the beginning of dinner hours, and there were many empty seats, the waiter—whose smile Cylayni remembered and appreciated, though she knew not his name—sat the monks and wizard at a place of honor, a round table large enough for ten place settings. While the refined eatery had, at Alyana’s order, recently relaxed its prohibitive dress code of “no wool, no linen, and no skins” that only the nobility and the merchant class could afford, there were no monks, peasants or soldiers enjoying the establishment.

The waiter soon returned with salted sourdough rolls and oven roasted potatoes and carrots. Thinking it wouldn’t hurt to enjoy a light dinner before her escape, she ordered asparagus almondine with rice, and only poured one glass of red wine when the carafe was offered.

“Is that all?” said the monk. “You must be hungrier after all that walking.”

“As I’m more faint than famished, if I overindulge I may let go what I’ve eaten.”

“As my bad news may make your knees weak, you should eat,” he said.

Had he seen through her ruse? Was she poisoned? Would they soon string her up like the king’s guard, having served her sacrificial meal? Though her mind screamed the alternatives, she remained silent.

When he began “this is your last meal...“, her face flushed, and her hot gasp nearly overcame her, as he let the inhumane suggestion linger with a cruel leer before continuing, “...on your host’s tab, and at the Holy Mother’s request, you’re not to return to the monastery.”

Though Cylayni was dumbstruck, the irony was not lost on her that they fired her before she could escape, and her speechlessness bubbled over into a wordless cackling, until she finally sputtered, “what? Why?”

“As Mother Alyana only needs one wizard, doesn’t much care for you, and hoped not to explain herself to her cabinet, she asked me in confidence to allow your escape. That was several weeks ago. Despite relaxing our safeguards and bidding my men to play the fool, you have refused to rise to the occasion until today, when the Holy Mother was so aggrieved by your timidity, and mine, as to suggest that I give you a gentle push. Then she gave me permission to use a not so gentle one, if necessary.”

“After hearing denials of my captivity for so long, I should be gratified to be right, and more satisfied to be set free, if you weren’t goading me into an escape that will preserve your dishonest authorship of my fictitious crime; a begrudged liberty and a contradicted vindication is an oppression, not a comfort. Since a wanted escapee can’t show her face, and must pray that her reputation for good work can be clothed in anonymity, what will I do? Though you tolerate my escape, if you take from me my good name, you take from me my livelihood and my future.”

The monk shifted in his seat, and his good humor cooled. “As town criers will read reports of your escape tomorrow afternoon in every market square and residential district, you have tonight and the better part of tomorrow to find your long as those feet walk you outside the gates, and well on your way to another land.” His smile took a wicked turn. “Had you not led us to every shop in Cjantosk, you might have had a few hours of daylight today.”

“You’re exiling me!”

“Nothing so uncivil and final as a banishment, as we must acknowledge that there is no place you can flee from the will of the goddess. As we are not professional statesmen, but monks at heart, we must allow the inevitabilities of judgment and forgiveness. Though she drafted her statement three weeks ago, I believe Mother Alyana phrased your status as fugitive from divine justice. Would you like a refill?”

“No! Yes! Please,” she said, holding out her glass.

He tipped the carafe liberally until her glass brimmed with wine.

“None of this is personal. Though I loathe sorcerers, I have great respect for you, and judge you a wizard at shopping. When I thought a more diligent buyer might fill her list from two stores at most, I compared the rejected goods with your purchases, and learned to admire your discriminating eye.”

Though she felt nothing but contempt for this young man, Cylayni couldn’t disillusion this young man, whom at the moment was her only fan. “Thank you,” she said. “What of Vituro?”

“We hope your disappearance and persecution will motivate him to finish his project. Speaking of which, surrender those goods.”

“That’s sensible,” she said, handing over the satchel.

“The boys and I took a collection from our cloistered brothers by way of recompense.” When he removed a scrimpy pouch from his cloak and upended a trickling of gold coins into her palm, she was careful with her expression; while she couldn’t be so dishonest as to feign gratitude. and she couldn’t live on so little for very long, these funds were necessary, and for all she knew, more than a monk pocketed in five years. As an apprentice sorcerer, she had long known how to fake humility to please Kanar’s vanity, and she presented this humble face now, all the while thinking that she would burn through it in a month or less, for she did not have inexpensive tastes.

“That’s very gracious,” she said. “Is there more?”

“Excuse me?” the monk said.

“Not the money, which was very generous. I meant to bring your pitch to a close. Because Kanar practiced magic as a business, he was pitched constantly by merchants, other money-minded wizards, and sometimes ordinary people that hoped to partner with a magician to bring their more or less extraordinary ideas to fruition. The direction and style of your presentation is so reminiscent of that hopeful patter, that you must be leading up to something.”

He turned to the other guards. “Now that you’ve finished, head back for evening orisons.” When all left but one, who was still eating with gusto, the young monk glared and drummed his fingers until his subordinate excused himself. When they were alone—and they were now truly alone, for the smattering of dinner guests had gradually trickled into the streets—he added, “I might have guessed a wizard to be so perceptive. I’d like to provide conversation and company on your long journey.”

Without meaning to, Cylayni smiled. Though her first instinct was to mock this fool, she did her best to guide the smile in an inoffensive, upward direction, though she couldn’t so easily untangle her twisted, wry humor. “What a wonderful idea. Judging by your looks, you have much to offer—perhaps too much to offer an unfortunate woman without a future in your native land. What’s your list?”

“My what?”

“The spells in your repertoire.”

“Monks don’t learn spells.”

“You’re too modest. Ancient monks write of mighty prayers, and rumors say these powers now thrive in Cjantosk. Surely you’ve learned something, if our age is newly steeped in these divine blessings?”

Though the young monk cleared his throat, nothing came out.

“Don’t answer—we shouldn’t gossip about sacred things. What weapons have you mastered?”

At this, the faltering monk bumbled forward. “While I wouldn’t call myself a master, we meet twice a week with swords and halberds.”

Cylayni hunched forward, as if eager for the details. “You’ve done that your whole life?”

“Well, no. About a month.”

“No worries. There’s more to life on the road than weapons and magic. Many people never fight, not even once in a lifetime—though the veterans in the three marching armies do more than their share of murdering.”

“Three armies?”

“Did not your Holy Mother close the gates?”

“Only to fend the king’s troops.”

“Only that? You’ve not heard the rumors of rebel armies inside and outside the walls?”

“I’ve never seen any rebels.”

“Perhaps it’s because you’re so frightening.” Cylayni almost lost her composure, but masked her derision by drinking a slug of wine.

“If a siege and civil war are on the horizon, there’s no sign outside the walls.”

“I expected you to be fearless of the Holy Mother’s daily reports. Knowing the king’s mounted patrols might shoot us before they know our faces, you’re surely planning for us to outrace them on your steeds.”

“What steeds? I don’t have any horses.”

“No matter. I’ve never heard of anyone outracing arrows. Do you know the roads? Maybe there’s a back way.”

“I’ve never left Cjantosk.”

“Well, if you did join me,” Cylayni asked, enjoying this more than was proper for a woman her age. “What could you offer?”

“All the love in my heart and the prayers in my soul,” said the young man, leaning forward on his elbows in such a way that his pasty face, inflamed by lust, jutted witin a few inches of her nose, as if he wanted it understood that every gram of his manhood was tabled along with the chaste offerings.

As he was an innocent, if a brutish one, she regretted serving him such a humiliating browbeating, though he might not understand it for months or years. Still, she could not leave things as they were, having composed such an excellent coda to her argument: “While love and prayers vanquish anxieties, weapons and spells vanquish armies; though love and prayers transport us from our cares, horses, maps, and guides transport us to cities; moreover—and do not think me a cannibal for the suggestion—your fine virtues cannot be eaten, and I have always preferred food to love. Lastly, while I admire a man in touch with his feelings, if you do not introduce yourself by name before you profess them to your beloved, it comes across as madness. No one past the age of nineteen believes in love at first sight, and only whores are flattered by the voyeuristic conceit of anonymous love.”

“Forgive me, my love—I am Maguscin. And there is no need for either of us to eat my feelings, for I can cook.”

“Furthermore, cook?” As Cylayni was an awful cook, who had charred every loaf she ever baked and was known to boil noodles into glue, she felt like biting the evil tongue that almost caused her to journey with nothing but stale bread, salted meat, and preserved fruit. And if he was Mother Alyana’s spy, blabbing about her itinerary, who cares? Let him stay close to her, if his self-interest aligned with her own, and he knew a few recipes that complemented her finicky tastes. “Shouldn’t we take the shopping bags? Though much is only good for spellcraft, a good chunk is edible or potable.”

“That was why I asked for them before dismissing the others.”

“You not only cook, but think ahead. A master of prep.”

“I try,” said Maguscin.

“Then, noble monk,” she said. “let us flee, after stopping at my master’s estate, where we might find something worth taking in the pantry. And as few would dare his magical defenses, we might find funds for our journey.”

“While the contents may still be as you say, Her Holiness has stationed there a dozen monks.”

“That might present a problem were I not Kanar’s apprentice.”

“By what sorcery might we enter a manor so bewitched?”

“Don’t fret. I’ve been in and out of those doors thousands of times.” When Maguscin still seemed anxious, she added, “just what do you think magicians do?”

“How would I know?”

“Well, we don’t drink blood, eat human flesh, or steal souls--and if we did, none of that would be a prerequisite of opening a door. Come on. I’ll give you a primer on the way.”

After the monk called over a waiter to settle their tab, they exited the doors into a dark, bracing wind, the last smear of sunshine crushed under heaps of blue evening, and the first starry motes twinkling at the zenith. Though her exile was deferred for a day, this was likely her last sight of Cjantosk, and while she had not lived there long enough to call it home, she had served her apprenticeship there, and changed her peasant’s garb for a sorcerer’s cloak, and it was not devoid of pleasant memories. She took in what she could, knowing she would wax nostalgic when the city lay behind her; as a younger woman, she had once even liked Cjantosk before it was corrupted by clergy.

Even Sawyn’s flew a white flag stitched with an orange sun girded by a golden crown, with sword-wielding Passions streaming from the angles. Up and down the street the Corunan flag flew, although less affluent businesses hung a streamlined and unembroidered orange patch on a white pennant. The charming character of each storefront sign, hand-painted with distinct lettering and figures that allegorically spoke to the contents of each shop (a brazen-looking sheep stood on two legs, advertising Rough ’Ewn Coats; gemstone Pegasi, Gorgons, and Dragons were painted heading into the door of Crystal Fables, a curio and collectible dealer), was smothered by the relentless religious pageantry.

No doubt this last glimpse is how she would remember Cjantosk, not that she would bear an audience of children or grandchildren to hear stories of her youth. She even resented her current infantile audience, who reminded her that she had promised to tell him about magic. “There are so many schools of magic that even the wizards of myth rarely learned them all. While many schools of magic, such as Illusion and Foretelling, are so common that every library has one of their spells tucked away in an abstruse tome or anonymous scroll, some guarded colleges have only a few secret scholars, such as the Aleatory school we studied under Kanar.

“Aleatory? While I’ve heard of the other two, as well as the Imploration and Elemental powers bestowed by Coruna’s Passions, I’ve never heard of the Aleatory.”

“Put a pin in that for a future conversation. While I’ve read about Passions in ancient texts, I’d like to hear the current canon and dogma.”

“With pleasure. You were talking about the Aleatory school.”

“I’m older than you, but not old, Maguscin. While Kanar’s definition was much more complex, I would call the Aleatory the manipulation of chance. That said, I’m no expert in theory, though I did master all his Aleatory spells--at least, the ones he taught.”

“Manipulation of chance--isn’t that like luck? Why not use it to escape?”

“The Great Mother pronounced it blasphemy before we were born, for manipulation of chance amounts to manipulation of fate, which is not allowed in Corunan theology. On top of that, when Aleatory spells are employed, reality takes on a game-like aspect that can be jarring when it’s not used for entertainment. I’ve never used Aleatory spells on anything involving real stakes; you might be equally reluctant to turn your actual life and freedom into potentials of an equal value as death and captivity, in order to balance the ingredients of a gambling enchantment. But mainly, it was the fear of blasphemy, for Mother Alyana wisely ordered us always watched.”

“That double-edged order was responsible for my infatuation.”

“Then it wasn’t my great beauty? You were accustomed to me, not attracted?”

“Though I admired you on first sight, that timid monk only became a lover by burning the days and weeks in the unquenchable fire.”

“Had I known a poet favored me, I may have attempted escape. Still, as we were housed in the subbasement, it would have taken some doing even if we eluded my immediate guards.”

“”If your spells are little use against guards, I pray we find what you want in the first few rooms.”

While walking the path that bordered the south outer wall of Kanar’s estate, Cylayni and Maguscin rounded the corner to find the gates forced, three monks face down in seeping blood, and no cause in any direction. When Cylayni ducked back behind the south wall, Maguscin seized her wrist and pulled her toward the iron doors, where in treading silently over the monks, they got an eyeful of the gashes and gaping thrusts that killed them, and Maguscin added vomit to the gore.

“What happened here?” asked Maguscin.

“Not that I would know,” said Cylayni, “but why do you care? What I wanted wasn’t so important that I’d pay in blood. Let’s go. Now.”

When the young monk shoved the leftmost manor door, one of a dozen killers clad in black pointed a sword clad in gore, and Cylayni and Maguscin dashed into the grounds, though the urgency of their sprint was soon burdened by slogging through the puddles and pooled mud caused by the nonstop drizzling.

Not having time for a lengthy incantation, Cylayni cast her simplest Aleatory trick, the Foot Charm. As she was only encumbered with a light dress and a sleeved cloak, her speed was already a little greater than her armored, sword-waving pursuers, and when the Foot Charm ensured that every step found purchase, she glided above the muck accemted by such enchanted daintiness and grace that the mud sloughed from her shoes and hem.

As Aleatory magic was fueled by schadenfreude, heaping mischance on passersby and acquaintances to ante good luck to the magician, bad luck spilled on Maguscin. Already unaccustomed to armor, the young monk became alienated from his feet, wheeled his arms, lurched in a series of discombobulated pratfalls, then backslid towards his pursuers. While Cylayni couldn’t hear the details, when sharp words produced blubbering in Maguscin, the killers broke into a shout.

When she stopped, turned her head to pant, and saw too many to outrun, even aided by her charm, she cast the Aleatory Curse, which Kanar said stole wind from sails and ripped the grass from under peoples’ legs. By the time she incanted the spell, they were a few yards from lunging, but when she pronounced the final rune, they were their own two feet short of walking. Those who tripped over their own feet were the lucky ones, for the stumblebums that staggered into each other knocked themselves out, cut off a hand, and impaled their leader. When one boot slipped neatly into a rabbit hole, its wearer flopped forward to cause a horrible snap. When one seized her by the wrist in seeming defiance of the enchantment, a low hanging branch cracked near the trunk of its tree and crushed his head. The corpse then stumbled backwards from the sheer momentum, pulling Cylayni on top of him. As she extricated herself from his death grip, those that survived the Aleatory Curse were rejoined by the other killers, and Maguscin at swords’ point.

Cylayni cursed the gods for her own bad luck--shared by the touch of the dead man. When she stood, any terror she felt at capture was dwarfed by the awe and horror of the carnage wrought by her curse. Kanar’s curse, she told herself; however much she was the instigator of this, she wasn’t the author. Surely the gods would hold her master accountable for these deaths?

Recognition struck. “Don’t I know you?”

The grizzled veteran had gnarled, ropy limbs and stubbly hair and beard. “The name is Czebek. While I never forget a face myself, we were never introduced. But that can wait, as you’re coming with us before the guards come.”

“Kanar’s guards are in cells,” said Maguscin.

“What about you then,” said a tall and white-haired man. Cylayni had met this one too, at one of Kanar’s grand gaming soirees.

“Some of the brethren might come,” said Maguscin.

“He lies. No one is coming,” said Cylayni. If these killers thought they were pressed for time, they might murder for that reason alone. “And I lived here. I can help you.”

“Maybe you can,” said the white-haired man. “Aren’t you Kanar’s apprentice?”

“If he lives. Who are you?”

“Call me ‘my lord.’”

“Lord Tilonus?”

“You’ve heard of me.”

“Are you offering your skill at arms to Mother Alyana?”

“Not in a million years. From here, I’ll ask the questions. I may answer yours if you’re helpful.”

“As I said, how can I help?” Without a fawn or toady’s taste for boot, Cylayni had never excelled at scraping to authorities, and it was all she could do to unpry her gritted teeth and speak this with a bit of a lilt.

Either Tilonus did not notice, or he did not care. “We came for a magical edge over my competitors. As we couldn’t crack the doors or windows, we were about to leave, when along came the prize we weren’t expecting.”

When Maguscin sneered through a broken, bloody mouth, Cylayni turned her head. “Prize, he called you.”

“What’s so funny?” asked Cylayni. “You said the same not three hours ago.”

“That was Vania’s scheme to open the doors.” Maguscin chuckled until Czebek clouted him with his mailed fist. The steel rings tore the young monk’s cheek, leaking blood into his cowl. Maguscin continued, “she’s no prize, Lord Tilonus. Though I’m sure she believed Kanar meant well when he said there was nothing else she could learn, the apprentice you want is in our sub-basement. He’s nearly all wizard, while this one’s too gullible to master magic. She even believed me smitten with her--a woman old enough to be my mother.”

Tilonus said, “I’ve heard enough. If he talks again, cut out his tongue.”

“He may be the smart one, my lord,” said Czebek.

“Both of you saw what this wizard wrought,” said Tilonus. “He’s blinded by rage or resentment; what’s your excuse? And what do you say for yourself, wizard? To whom should we listen?”

While echoes of the monk’s insults circled Cylayni like scavengers, ready to pick at her self-esteem if she stirred to life, when Tilonus cupped her jaw in his hand, she found her voice: “I want you to cut out his tongue too.”

When Tilonus brayed, his men followed suit, and laughter filled the grounds until he stopped, sighed, and waited for them to realize their laughter overstayed its welcome. When the air cleared, he said, “that’s all you want?”

“My freedom would be better, but you’re not releasing me, so I’ll suffer in satisfaction.”

“That’s a pretty turn of phrase, but I think you meant, ’I’ll suffer in satisfaction, Lord Tilonus.”

“While I’m no Lord, my father is Duke Junt. That makes me a lady of such high degree that the distinction between our ranks takes fancy needlepoint to signify.”

“Duke Junt of Alsyrii?” Tilonus turned to Maguscin. “Quite a prize.”

He stared at the monk to drive the point home, and possibly to provoke the monk into speech so he would answer it with his threat. But the monk remained silent.

Tilonus stared at Maguscin to drive the point home, but the monk remained unprovoked. “Nothing? Very well,” Tilonus impaled him lazily, so the monk had time to claw at the well-honed edge, which bit fingers, thumbs, and palms. When the hilt struck his ribs, the monk buckled, then collapsed, breaking the sword, and Tilonus screamed and beat the corpse with the pommel.

Once he composed himself, Tilonus spoke offhandedly to the body, “since that wasn’t my best sword, now we’re even.” To Czebek he said, “she’s your responsibility. If she works spells, cut her. Don’t kill her, just cut her.” Turning to Cylayni, he said, “Open those doors.”

“I could, but...” she started.

“Don’t say you can’t. You expected to get in.”

“I could, but you said no spells. I’ll get you in if he doesn’t cut me.”

“Cast your spell. If it does anything but open the door, I’ll cut you myself.”

“It’s not so simple. Kanar is obsessed with games. Only one may enter each door, as if each was a different starting square.”

“Only one? Isn’t he famous for parties? Czebek, did you and that monk enter together?”

“Game night disables the security spells,” said Cylayni. “Unless you want to wait three days for game night, or unless you want to test the might of the most powerful wizard in Cjantosk...”

“The most powerful wizard in a dragon’s dollhouse, you mean.”

“My grandmother liked the proverb, dragons do not make swords less sharp, meaning the existence of legendary killers doesn’t lessen the deadliness of lesser scourges and their weapons. Though she meant that her sorceress granddaughter should still beware thieves, rapists, and murderers, we can also say that a powerful wizard captured by a dragon remains powerful.”

“But not respectable. Tell me how to get in.”

“Only five may enter every hour, one for each door.”

“When we opened this door, there was another impregnable door—made of a black glass, without knob or keyhole.”

“Did you hear five chimes?”

Tilonus paused, then said, “now that you mention it, I did.”

“When one is opened, all the doors play the five chimes, cuing the next guest. When the second door is opened, four chimes play, prompting the next visitor, and so on, until the fifth door opens, and all the impregnable doors open for two seconds.”

“Are you sure only five can enter? What’s to stop my men from rushing in two at a time?”

“I don’t know. Kanar never said what would happen if more than five tried, and I rarely tested my master on any subject. He’s a serious wizard for all of his game playing.”

“I’ll tolerate this, whether it’s his unattended amusement or your diverting lie. We’ll only send five.” Tilonus turned to his men. “You three stay here, and after five minutes, see that she opens this door.” Tilonus then told Czebek to head for one of the doors, two of his other men to go for another, and Tilonus would open the fifth door.

“How will we know the five minutes?” groused an unkempt killer.

“Use your best guess. But if you try too soon, making us start over, or if we wait too long and begin cursing, it might factor into your bonuses.”

When Cylayni’s guards guessed well, she soon found herself thrust inside the manor, which presumably meant that Czebek, Tilonus, and two others also were inside. While they might regroup in the central hall, he hadn’t issued additional orders, and she chose the most intelligent course of action that would not get an unwilling employee killed—and headed for her former quarters.

Since her room looked ransacked, with strewn clothes and food-crusted plates, Cylayni knew no one touched it since her abduction. She looked around wistfully. It wasn’t right that an exile should lose not only her belongingness but her belongings. She grabbed her purse from where it hung on her desk chair. Though weighted with once important things, she could not summon any of the contents to mind. After she riffled through the coins, baubles, and scraps of notes, she buttoned and shouldered it, finding its familiarity comforting despite its insignificant accumulation of past details. Then she peeled the pillowcase from her thickest pillow, and stuffed it with more useless but priceless mementoes.

From the doorway, Tilonus said, “should my instructions have been more explicit?”

“On the contrary--thank you for so much leeway, that I could avoid the company of four killers. Can you blame me for wanting a few things? I’ve been a captive of the Holy Mother for months.”


“...because I couldn’t escape?”

“No, I meant to what end did Alyana kidnap a wizard?”

“Two wizards. We studied dragon scales.”

“That’s a reasonable subject for a would-be dragonslayer who aspires to be the top murderer in Cjantosk. Now you will help with my schemes.Where are the rest of the manikins?”


“The manikins! The handmade people!”

“Oh. You mean Lair. What do you mean the rest of them?”

“Having acquired two, I want to complete the set.”

“Have you tried the game room?”

“We can’t find it. Not that we don’t know where it is, as we’ve all been here as off-duty guards. It just isn’t there to find.”

“Have you been in the game room when it wasn’t a game night?”


“Neither have I.”

Tilonus growled. “I hope you don’t mean it’s off limits until game night, because you could have mentioned that before entering. What rigamarole is required to enter the game room’s doors?”

“It’s not a matter of locks. The game room only exists on game night.”


“Kanar can’t spare the room during day to day operations, as he uses every inch for development and artificing.”

“What do you mean it only exists on game night? Where does it go?”

“Technically, it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s still there, though noncorporeal. It occupies the same space as the greater laboratory, and on game night, the spaces switch.”

“How do spaces switch? This is nonsense. If this is a joke at my expense, I’ll drag you through the halls by your locks until I rip your hair out.”

“It’s no joke.” Though as a wizard’s apprentice and a duke’s daughter she was doubly practiced in composing a mask of impassivity, feigning calmness after such a mortifying threat was such a dissemblance that every eyelash and eyebrow seemed to quiver in terror. “And there is a way. When Kanar wants to enter the discorporated game room, he cheats the calendar.”

“Don’t think that I care to know any of this. Just do what you must to get my manikins.”

“Though I’ve only watched him do it, it should be easy enough.”

In the far corner of the greater laboratory, on a mahogany desk stuffed with papers and spilled ink wells, a brass device not unlike an astrolabe, but consisting of seven interlocking, rotating rings, each with several spheres threaded, clacked and clinked as it imperceptibly revolved along its intertwined axes. “Should I backdate it to the nearest past game night four days ago, or advance it three days hence? As he said more than once the past does not exist, I’m guessing future. Here we are--and here we will be.” When Cylayni grasped the astrolabe and wound the spheres a few clicks, the bold lines of the laboratory blurred, then faded, but continued to displace the dim silhouette of the game room. Even when it had fully manifested, the dark, dingy game room, obviously in need of a thorough dusting, seemed out of focus.

“Here we are,” said Cylayni.

“Can’t you turn the lights on?”

“Only with a spell,” she said.

When he nodded his approval, she spoke the keywords that activated the lights. Kanar’s dream factory now seemed lackluster and tatterdemalion, with a thick snow of grime on the games, dust shadowing the mirrors and the glass of the enchanted chandelier, and cobwebs stretching from the table tops and legs to the wall.

“They should be just over here,” Except for the two missing game pieces, Juniena and Miunanor, Lair was intact. The other two tokens, Halkoffar and Valuna, were frozen in place, as if waiting to take turns. “Here they are. What do you want them for?”

Tilonus’s nose flared and his eyes widened. “The novelty of my wizard is wearing off.”

To Cylayni’s surprise, Tilonus glared at her, his face effulgent with rage, until she looked away. She hadn’t been stared down since she was a teenager, and receiving the adolescent challenge from an old man alarmed her more than his threats. This man did not know himself, she realized--he acted only by impulse. “I’m not in a negotiating mood,” he said, “so eighty coins a week, with occasional bonuses. Why are the manikins lifeless?”

“Despite their miniature personalities, these game pieces are not flesh and blood, and live in direct fulfillment of concise in-game instructions.”

“Really?” snickered Tilonus. “I installed the others as spies in the monastery.”

“How did you make them break the rules?”

“We cheated, so they’re not breaking any rules. We said the monastery was Lair, and Alyana the dragon.”

“Why do you want Halkoffar and Valuna?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Am I to help you operate these toys?”

“Two enchanted dolls can’t extract

“Though two dolls can’t budge the treasure I covet, it might be stolen by four.”

“Why not a human agent?”

“This prize is so persuasive that it can change the minds of its owners and bearers. In this case a weak-willed human spy would not be as trustworthy as enchanted personalities that have no will of their own.”

They left the way they entered, but with the two miniatures in their possession. While Cylayni expected at least a day’s journey, four hours later they arrived in a massive army squatting on Cjantosk’s northern trade road. Since the Corunans had not discouraged the ebb and flow of trade, no doubt stories of the vast encampment Tilonus purchased from the west were waved through the north gates along with his spies.

As they waded through the mercenaries, Tilonus smirked ear to ear, and nodded as this or that lieutenant, captain, or sergeant rattled off numbers and jargon that were gibberish to the sorceress. The former Captain of the Guard was still a beast, but a beast in his element, and became, if not kind, amiable and tolerant. Though he dragged her into his tent, and cupped his hand to her breast, when she pushed it away, he did not press his advance. He called to the guards posted at the flap, and they took her to another tent full of trollopy camp followers, whom they ousted, and installed the sorceress. Though the wretches complained and cursed, they did not look Cylayni or the guards in the eye; still, the sorceress was relieved when the whores left to find new lodging. She was not so relieved when the guards brought not only a thick cotton bedroll, but silk sheets, fur trimmed blankets, luxurious delicacies she hadn’t eaten since she lived in her father’s duchy, a red satin dress with a violet sash, and lavish cosmetics and perfumes. While pondering whether she ought to attempt escape or renegotiate the terms of her contract, since it appeared that other than sorceress was assumed in the job description, she also contemplated the future of her adopted town. Whether Tilonus won by his own efforts, or as part of a victorious alliance assisting the King’s entry, she might soon return to Kanar’s manor, where she might use Kanar’s notes and laboratories to master his last Aleatory spell, Aleatory Continuum, cribbed through the notebook stuffed in her pillowcase with her bric-a-brac.

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