The oppressive summer light scoured the wharf, where wagons stopped with cargo, or empty beds to haul it, and where two men leaned on the posts of a roped-off pier.
The older was also a head shorter, and with half a head of hair crowded gray and thick on the downslope flowing over his shoulders. Though his haughty frown was fixed on nothing in particular, his gaze bobbed vaguely to any unusual sounds and alighted on merchants having the Vanoori look. The younger peered more diligently, scrutinizing every passing face, wagon bed, and coach window. He was not only taller, but broader, with muscles laid like bricks to fill out an impressive volume, despite the long, dexterous fingers which seemed as out of place on a dock as the rest of him seemed made to order.
“Why must we always loiter at the wharf?” the older man carped.
“You know why.”
“What I mean, nephew, is why loiter here after so much disappointment from previous lurking?”
“While a good broker cordially serves all comers, a good assassin patiently waits for a singular customer.”
“To increase your odds, should you not linger where they’re likely to go?”
“A good idea, uncle, were they not wary of an assassin that studied their haunts and habits.”
“Nephew, this is contrary to all sense! Though merchants are among the most habitual of people, you would linger here a year for one to go out of their way!”
“Not so far out of the way. It is, after all, a wharf.”
Although Nine Tails had a complacent smile, he fidgeted as much as his uncle. When Elgar’s stomach growled, Nine Tails’s barked louder.
“There’s the lunch bell.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Those oysters were anything but fresh”
After a pause, Elgar said, “I suppose you could call them familiar, as familiar as a rotten banana or moldy bread.”
“No, his face is familiar.”
When Elgar’s glance lingered, Nine Tails thumbed him in the ribs. “Ow! You don’t mean that monster, do you?”
“Could another lout share such a homely face?” While the unwitting butt of their frviolity was a mammoth, with such roomy muscles that you might have buried three people in his vast frame, his wispy chin and speckled lip said that he was little more than a boy.
“No, he’s one of a kind.”
“If he’s the one I mean, uncle, he shouldn’t be here.”
“Now that’s simply uncharitable, nephew. Surely there’s a place for him somewhere on Lamuna--a rocky lair, a menagerie for curiosities, or a bridge to hide under--though he doesn’t belong in Klyrn, not with that red hair, those freckles, and that unfortunate face.”
“Rather, call his face fortunate, for if he looked a month older, he might be fertilizing my roses. Elgar, follow him.”
“What about lunch?”
“We’ll eat by and by. Follow him. I’ll be close behind.”
Despite the broiling sun, the crushing humidity, and the dawdling pace of his puny, weary legs, Elgar had no problem tailing the Vanoori boy, who stood a head taller than the Klyrnish, and whose broad back was topped by fiery red hair.
Their piecemeal pursuit went something like this: when Caldur stopped to investigate choice fruit, pies, ices, beer, or other ware—always food or drink—Elgar would halt and wave to Nine Tails, who lagged far enough behind that Caldur would never spot Nine Tails, nor would Nine Tails see Caldur directly without his uncle as an intermediary human periscope.
After the fruit market and the food vendors was the bazaar, where Elgar glimpsed The Voyage of the Lark, a rare book he had coveted for twenty years, but in the exigencies of the chase, he only uttered a strangled cry, lifted his eyes skyward to the abdicated throne of divine reason, then collided, chin first, with the giant boy’s back.
Boy? When Elgar looked up at the fresh-faced hulk, he took a dizzy step backwards, less from reflex than from his momentary confusion in the shadow of the behemoth, and in the end, it took two more retreating steps before he could apprehend its full shape. Surely it was more than man, and nearly a monster. An absurd grimace--splayed teeth and button-sized freckles-- topped muscles layered on muscles, as if baked into being by an absent mind who trowled on brawn long after it was useful, and stopped one second before Caldur would have lived as an immobile brick of beef.
Elgar realized that either his contemptuous fascination or his indignation at being jostled must have showed, for the monster’s contrite look slid into a well-rehearsed preemptive scorn, underscored all the more by a contemptuous snort. “What are you looking at, peabrain?”
Before he could think better of whetting an ogre’s taste for blood and sabotaging his nephew’s interest in tailing the boy, Elgar took so much umbrage that his self-importance inflated to twenty times its size, so that in a battle of egoes, he would be puffed up and well-prepared.
“You should be fenced in, you giant cow.”
“Are you calling me a woman?”
Though the monster loomed, and its fist seemed to swell, Elgar could not find the internal valve to deflate his puffed-up ego, and, in fact, felt his self-assurance bulk to an absurd degree. There was also the soothing assurance that if fists were raised, he might count on his nephew for a rescue, or failing that, vengeance. Despite this burgenoning confience, the monster’s apparent non sequitur was quite a puzzler, and the longer he mulled it over, the more that staleness contaminated his reservoirs of hot air. In the end, he simply pushed ahead with as much bravado as he could muster. “I might have!” he shouted, “if I’d thought of it.”
As Elgar continued his retorts in the face of an opponent a third his age and three times his weight, a sizable crowd formed.
The musclebound boy chortled. “You’ve never been on a farm, have you.”
“Why do you care?”
“Cows are female.”
“So? You’re diluting your metaphors, you monster!” The irony of the massive youth calling the usually mild, middle-aged man a monster was not lost on Elgar.
“Metaphors? This is a shouting match!” As if to emphasize that he had no desire whatsoever to engage in fisticuffs with the herculean brute, Elgar lowered his fists.
“While calling me a bull would have been funnier and held a grain of truth, you changed my shape and sex at the same time. If I called you a waddling hen, that would just be cruel. Those who would laugh at that aren’t worth knowing. On the other hand, calling you a rooster is funny and fitting, not only because of what you look like but how you’re acting.”
“I look like a strutting cock, do I?”
“Yeah, a big old strutting cock.”
The overgrown boy’s sneer fragmented in a paroxysm of terror. “Sir!” The shuddering shout not only carried through him in a burlesque of fear--his arms shaking and his kees knocking--but his humongous stagger tremored under Elgar as well.
“How are you here, Caldur?”
Nine Tails scowled. “I left instructions. You should not be here.”
“Well, sir--you’ve heard of the war.”
“Not that it reached Kelisori.”
“While you’ll be happy to know your village, manor, and vassals are intact, even to the blades of grass and the hairs of their head--except for good Jondul, who lost his last hairs in the stress of what was to come--”
“Tell your tale by the direct route, Caldur.”
“The Klyrnish took Kelisori.”
“What do you mean ‘took?’ I half expected to slay King Algus’s brigands, but hadn’t thought Klyrn would care for remote Kelisori.”
“They used it for their headquarters.”
“While I suppose I should have expected as much, I’m not interested in the why, Caldur. I asked the how. Regardless who believed they were master of Kelisori, my servants would never allow you to leave on pain of death.”
“Really?” Caldur had a confused expression. “Forgive my stupid question, but with you gone, how were they to do the dying, with no one doing the killing?”
“Not their deaths--I’m an enlightened employer. On pain of your death, Caldur.”
Caldur blanched. “I’m very happy they didn’t, sir.”
“Though I ordered that you should remain comfortable until I return, boy, I could care less about your happiness. Have you no explanation?”
“I d-d-do.” As Caldur’s shaking recommenced, his quivering lips and stammering teeth powderized whatever the boy meant to say next until his mouth tremors had somewhat subsided. While what finally emerged was still crumbling gibberish, Nine Tails reconstituted the meaning from the wreckage, a kind of archaeology that, as an assassin, he occasionally plied upon the blubbering incidental to his profession. “B-but y-y-you sh-sh-sh-sh”; here Caldur’s gasping for breath took the place of the missing word fragment; “h-hear it fr-from another.”
“From another? What do you mean?”
“I c-c-c-annot-annot s-say,” said Caldur.
“That’s no lie,” smirked Elgar.
“There’s no reason to be cruel,” Nine Tails said, although he turned his darkest frown on the mountainous boy. “I don’t object to an intermediary, Caldur. I use an agent myself. Just don’t make me wait.”
Caldur nodded, crooked his shaking finger in a gesture to follow, then turned down a slanting alley which ran to facing tenements of titanic stone so black that they not only repelled the brightness of day but shone with their own lustrous darkness. They were adorned with ornament both less effulgent and more colorful, the laundry lines strung between the buildings and strewn with blouses, shirts, and dresses swaying in the breeze. While the lively dance of these fabrics might have made the hulks less inhospitable, the effect was squashed to a more sordid reality by the sullen tenants clustered on the steps: one, juggling knives; another, snoring while cozied with a wine bottle which he seemed to adore despite its profound emptiness; two women wrestling over, and rending, a lacy dress that fell from the lines; and, six emaciated children crowding a window to gawk at the immaculately dressed lords, whom the giant boy, in bringing to his doorstep, had outdone all wayward children on every street of any human world, who only ever brought home stray dogs and cats and motherless birds, not wandering lords.
“Someone here countermanded my order?” scoffed Nine Tails.
“In a m-m-man-man-ner-anner of...”
“Never mind,” sneered Nine Tails. “Lead the way, Caldur.”
Having unlocked a dilapidated tenement door patched by a few boards of a brighter grain of wood, the boy led them up rickety and winding steps, then more rickety and winding steps, where he pointed at two shattered steps, which they crossed by propping their backs against the stairwell wall and shimmying around the hole; after two more rickety, winding flights, he led them down a hall with facing doors, many open wide to air out their poverty-stricken inhabitants, who, if they were fortunate, lay overwhelmed by the heat wave on tawdry beds, sticking to their sweaty imprint on the sheets, and if unfortunate, puddled on their unfurnished floor.
After rapping on the penultimate doorway, Caldur creaked it open and poked his head in cautiously, like a turtle torn between cowardice and necessity.
“Are-r-r you-you-you dee-dee-decent, love?”
Having lost his patience, Nine Tails barreled past Caldur, until a familiar voice made his hand freeze to the doorknob.
“What’s got into you, Caldur?“Although the voice was not fresh in Nine Tails’s memory, it blasted through the pretensions of adulthood as it echoed from every moment of his childhood, which was understandable, for family ties, in tethering not past times, but present memories, have a strong hold on the mind.
As they thought alike, spoke alike, and even comdemned and liked alike, Nine Tails should have expected that they might pity alike, that having spared Caldur, universal law would decree the boy would also be saved by Lady Honor. Unfortunately, his sister had the bad habit of keeping the things she saved.
When he stepped inside, his sister--as naked as she was born--covered herself with a linen so thin that she need not have worried for her modesty, then said, “Brother! What are you doing here?”
“I’m on business, as always. I see you’re on business as well.”
“And what do you mean by that?”
“I only mean that though you’ve obviously given up the chaste part, you’re continuing the grand Brynnelmark tradition of charity.”
In spite of herself, The Lady Honor snickered, though her cheeks colored as she retorted, “I’m still a good woman. And Caldur is a good man.”
“He’s very good, brother.”
“I meant barely a man.”
“I’m not that much older, brother.”
“Fifteen years older, sister.”
So emboldened by the banter as to feel like one of the family, Caldur sat on the bed, draped his arm around the neck and shoulders of Nine Tails’s sheer-sheeted sister, and said, “it doesn’t matter to me. Older women are more womanly.”
“To be honest, your height interested me first--not many can look me in the eye—but it was your age that appealed to me. I like matronly women.”
“Matronly? Caldur, shut up. Now.” The Lady Honor’s cheeks blazed bright red. “You’re not helping.”
“Why should you need help? It’s only me and your family.”
“Yes, it’s only you. Caldur, there isn’t a world in the stars where matronly is a compliment.”
“Don’t worry for Caldur’s sake, sister. It isn’t so much that he insulted my sister as you offended yourself by encouraging his contemptible company.”
“Contemptible? What do you mean?”
Before the boy could sink anew into a stuttering funk, Nine Tails spoke in his most buoyant and warmest tones, though they floated in sarcasm. “I was only quoting your bestiary description, Caldur, and I have nothing but sincere regards for your contemptible person. That said, I can hardly stand by as a monstrosity corrupts my sister.”
Lady Honor laughed. “I don’t know what’s funnier. Though he’s only Caldur, you’re only my brother, and neither of you could change my mind.”
“Fair enough. Tell me if I have my facts straight. When I did not return to Vanoor, you went to Kelisori, where you found Klyrnish invaders, your brother nowhere in sight, and my servants catering to Caldur’s infantile whims. You not only cozied to his unique charms, but persuaded him to join you as you looked for me in Klyrn.”
“That’s very close,” said Caldur.
“Shut up, Caldur!” said Lady Honor.
“What did I get wrong? I’m guessing it doesn’t put any of us in a flattering light.”
“Brother,” sighed Lady Honor, “we journeyed to Klyrn in the ironic hope of escaping the Klyrnish invasion.”
““You hadn’t thought of me at all?”
“Not as such. It’s only fair. You didn’t think of me in your escape from Vanoor.”
“Was it thoughtlessness, or thoughtfulness? If memory serves, only us four and my steward know of our true relation.”
When shouts in the street were answered by clattering shutters and casement windows, and rejoining hollers from the facing buildings, whatever wise but wiseassed advice Elgar was about to contribute scattered when he sidled to the window to peer at the hubbub.
“What is it, uncle?” said Lady Honor.
Although Elgar was still abstracted in peeping at the show below, he said, “It’s only the mailman.”
“That can’t be right.” Caldur shouldered aside Elgar. “They’re hooting about something--now they’re running!”
“Close the door,” said Lady Honor. “I don’t want to hear that racket.”
“They’re not running inside, but toward the street. Something happened.”
“Is the mail usually accompanied by a riot?” asked Nine Tails.
“I’m going to have a look,” said Lady Honor. “If you gentlemen will have the goodness to clear the room. Not you, Caldur,” she added testily when he fell in step behind Nine Tails and Elgar. “Did you forget this is your room, Caldur?”
Nine Tails closed the door, then pulled Elgar by his arm toward the stairs.
“We’re not going to wait?” asked Elgar.
“Why? Don’t you need to clear your head after that spectacle?”
“Spectacle? I agree that it’s embarrassing to watch anyone make mistakes, even those old enough to make their own choices.”
“What are you insinuating, uncle? Do you intend any comparison with me? She’s deviating not from an ignoble profession, but an honorable calling.”
“Though I once had dreams of being a great lord, nephew, I have settled for being rich, and watching you become great. If you have only half of my youthful ambition, the ‘great,’ and not the ‘lord,’ you have usurped the rarer crown, for while few are born to noble blood, greatness is a scarcer commodity. As for honor, that is only a brassy relic, and everyone has had a turn wearing it, after coronating themselves with a mirror for their only attendant. Why am I not brokering deaths, and you investing in them, if you have not deviated from your own chosen path?”
“You’ve no children of your own, uncle,” fumed Nine Tails.
“But I have had a sister, and though I was never pleased with my brother-in-law,
he was her choice, and I’m more or less delighted with the product of that marriage. Meaning you and Lady Honor.”
“I’m not a customer, old man; you needn’t spell things out for me. Though later I might be inclined to listen to the voice of reason, or your froggy approximation, right now I want comiseration, uncle. I liked her as a Brynnelmark.”
“Then don’t make noise about this, nephew. If this adventure mostly took place in Klyrn,
she could return to her devotions with a heap of smoldering thoughts for kindling the altar of chastity.”
“Uncle,” Nine Tails screeched, “you’re not helping.”
“You’re not either,” said Elgar. “Unless I’m going blind, you’ve led us into a cul-de-sac.”
Utterly consumed by their discussion, Nine Tails had taken them the wrong direction, toward the end of the gray rowhouses. Nine Tails’s scowl melted when he looked up, and realized the news was shocking indeed for so many windows to be left open in the occupants’ hurry.
Though they hastily backtracked towards the cross street, they were intercepted by Caldur and Lady Honor--now nattily accoutered in the fashion of a Klyrnian lady, with a particolored silk sash binding a narrow feathered gown--who descended the steps with exaggerated pomp. When Caldur hollered, “there’s my big brother!” with an apish grin, Nine Tails strove to keep his face passive, but couldn’t keep his nose and the corners of his flat smile from wriggling.
“Local fashion suits you, niece.”
“Thank you! I’m flattered, uncle.”
Elgar cleared his throat and smiled charitably. “I only mean I’m not used to such masculine cuts in women’s garments.”
“Speaking for myself,” said Caldur grandly, “I haven’t missed the hoops, lace, and other frilly things. Vanoori women are so dainty.”
“Shut up, Caldur,” seethed Lady Honor. “I can be dainty.”
“Sister,” said Nine Tails with a raging snark, “you’re further from fragile than a ship of war.” Having reached the intersection, they turned down the sloping cross street towards the harbor.
“Remember, I’m not just seaworthy”--Lady Honor seethed the word--“I’m bigger than you, brother.” Then she seized Caldur’s hand and dragged the monstrous boy between Nine Tails and Elgar, which tipped them into tall hedges lining an estate.
Nine Tails scratched his hands in bramble as he pulled himself upright. Through the hedges, the estate showed no signs of life--the stable doors were open on their empty interior, spades littered the garden, and rakes and shears were cast aside on the grounds..
“Was Klyrn invaded, uncle?” He pointed at the desolate grounds.
“I don’t know, nephew. In Vanoor, you only see this kind of lifelessness outside of a festival.” They continued toward the harbor.
“Maybe that’s it,” Nine Tails wondered aloud. “Caldur, is there anything on the Klyrnish calendar?′
“Not that’s stirred our little nest, sir.”
Nine Tails winced.
Ten minutes later, they were still wandering towards the harbor. While it hadn’t seemed this lengthy a walk when Caldur led them to his apartment, a sense of ominousness now lingered in the air, exaggerated by the grotesque antics of the gigantic lovers.
While the murmur of the surf reached them a moment after the clangor of Klyrnish rabble, the ocean was soon drowned out by the clamoring crowd. The sea of bystanders was composed not only of sailors and dock workers, but every wave of Klyrnish society, as well as droplets here and there from foreign lands, so that no one looked on the four Vanoori with any curiosity. On the contrary, confusion and incomprehension were writ on every face in the back rows, for rumor rippled slowly through the masses.
By falling behind lumbering Caldur, they pressed their advantage, and plodded relentlessly through the crowd. The nearer they came to the harbor street, the faster they had to move with the surging foor traffic, and the further they passed through the excited throng, the more frequent were the leers of excitement, with children, taller youths, and even excitable adults jumping up and down, so possessed were they by the news.
“Are they saying sea monsters?” said Elgar. “Then why head to shore?”
“Is it some sort of performance?” Caldur shouted over the din, but Elgar mimed that he could not hear, then by an exaggerated casting down of his eyes and pointing ahead, indicated to Caldur to keep his head down and join the flow of the crowd.
When the scaly mottled rim of a reptilian loop taller than any mast at harbor slid its shifting and flashing patterns through the sky, threatening to crush the underlying sails, ships, and wharfs like so much kindling, Elgar suprised himself by sprinting straight for the monstrosity, not only jostling the rubberneckers, but upending two children from their perch on their fathers’ shoulders. Now motivated not only by the sensational sight, but by angry parents behind him, Elgar’s heels pumped even faster, until he barged through the mob crowding a pier.
Behemoths beyond number slithered in the churning water, and when they spiraled from the deep, their scaly hoops crested three times higher than the waves sloughing off to drench the awestricken people on the dock.
Having caught up to Elgar, Nine Tails laid his hand on his uncle’s shoulder. “They weren’t lying, were they?”
“That was my first thought—that they were well acquainted with migrating whales, whom they familiarly called them sea monsters. I’ve never seen the like, nephew.”
“Though I’m glad you had no opportunity to witness feasting griffins, I’m happy you’re here with me now, for this is the grander of the two sights.”
“Sights? There’s too much of them to see, nephew. Even if one was to come ashore, I doubt it would be possible to take it in with a single glance. They’re truly sublime.”
“You wouldn’t be so inspired if you were in the water, just as griffins are a horror when you can see their eyes.”
When Lady Honor and Caldur joined them, their observations were less profound and more profane.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!” yelled Caldur in a cadence of profanity.
“Quiet gods—are we safe here?” At Lady Honor’s tone of dread, a passing group of Klyrnish gentlewomen were emboldened to turn their heads, reddened either by Caldur’s curses or the great heat of the day, and answer.
“Good lady,” said a slender Klyrnish beauty of an indeterminate age between seventeen and thirty, “only merchants need fear seaworms.”
“Only merchants?” frowned Elgar. “That’s a very specific seasoning. They might see me as an appetizer. Should we not admire these colossi from a greater distance?”
“I mean only that seaworms are a great impediment to trade—and moreover, many will sicken of this display, and the harbor eateries will suffer as well. While there will come a day months hence that we become accustomed to their oceanic groping and monstrous remains, soon after they will depart.”
“This is a mating dance?”
“More than a dance.” The Klyrnish gentlewoman’s laugh was light. “It’s a festival to them. Some die in its throes and litter our beaches with their hulks. The last time they came, I was a little girl, and played with my brothers among the bleached bones.”
“How long does this go on?” said Nine Tails, with a note of reservation in his voice.
“It varies. As long as there are fertile seaworms presenting themselves for mates—never less than a month, sometimes a season.”
“We’re stuck here, nephew. What will we do in Klyrn”--Elgar underscored the name with exaggerated agony--”for so long?” The Klyrnish gentlewomen sneered at this, joined her friends, and sauntered away.
“More to the point,” said Nine Tails, “I didn’t bring nearly enough money, and my safehouses are on the other end of that ocean.”
“Are you game for setting up shop in Klyrn?”
“What choice do we have?”
“Honest work?” gibed Lady Honor. <
“That’s a good one coming from you. Nothing about your stay here is honest.”
“Then you don’t want to share our dishonest accomodations?”
“We have a room, thank you.”
“Nephew!” Elgar shouted this full in Nine Tails’s ear, so that he winced. “Given our room’s view of this monstrous harbor, I prefer your sister’s magnanimous offer—at least for tonight.”
“If you’re disturbed by the sight of fornicating monsters, it’s better to latch the shutters than board with my sister and her pet behemoth.”
Elgar tittered, then stifled his snarky laughter almost immediately. “While apt, that was petty. You’re both my sibling’s children, and you should apologize, after accepting her generous offer.”
Though Nine Tails was angry at his sister, he did not wish to frustrate his uncle, so he sighed, growled, then nodded in Lady Honor’s direction, a rude but relenting acquiescence which she was graceful enough to accept. “Fresh lodgings and new business in the morning then.”
“Old business. Fresh faces and new steps, perhaps. Where do we start?”
“I rather liked the look of those gentlewomen. They had the flitting sort of faces that might flutter in a wide net of social butterflies. Not only might we build our clientele by applying to their society, but they might lead us to our wayward merchants.”
While discomfited at the prospect of renewing his acquaintance with those he so recently offended, Elgar inclined his head in assent. “I still see them, nephew. I’ll ask their forgiveness for my gross disappointment, put in a good word for you, and finagle an invitation.”
“Procure me also an introduction,” said Nine Tails, following his uncle. “I weary of anonymity, and might try infamy for a change.”
After they left, Lady Honor relaxed her hold on Caldur’s hand. “You upset me today, Caldur.”
“What? How did I upset you?”
“You embarrassed me. My pet monster should not so easily play the part of the callow youth.”
“It’s you and your brother that attribute that to me. I’m no boy. I’m nineteen!”
“A man would not scrape to my brother. If he was my father, I might understand if you wanted to impress him—at least, if you had any honorable intentions.”
“My intentions are wholy honorable!” protested Caldur. “I worship the ground you walk on.”
“Enough to walk down an aisle?”
“You know I’m not ready for that!” blurted Caldur. “And you’re a Brynnelmark!”
“A lady does like to be asked,” said Lady Honor peevishly, “and if you would be a man, you should not fear my choice.”
“If it will make you happy,” said Caldur, “Lady Honor, will you...”
“Not like that, Caldur. You lump me in with the mating monsters if you think I’ll accept such a raw proposal. And where’s your stammer?”
“Why should I stammer?”
“I’ll have to find a new boy that fears me more than my brother,” she scowled, then stormed away, leaving Caldur to gawk at the hulking, shuddering coils thrashing in the water.