The Mud River was a sluggish, wandering tributary attached to the Thaya like a sticky grub latched onto an oblivious python. It wriggled pathetically between desolate clay hills on one side and dusty plains on the other.
When work was hard to find, Ahme and Rees abandoned the great river and towed their salhulk up the Mud to Masons Hole. One of the royal quarries, Masons Hole always had cuts of marble or limestone to send downriver and feed the kingdom’s insatiable appetite for towering monuments and grand temples.
Daughter and father found work quickly, or rather it found them. Ahme had barely finished tying their salhulk to the Hole’s dockside when a squat, toad-faced man with bulging eyes and glossy brow trotted awkwardly across the wharf toward the ship. As he came near, Ahme watched the man’s face twitch and contort back and forth between panic and relief.
“You’re the northman, right?” the man barked. “You’ll haul magestone?”
The man stopped at the far end of the gangplank. He steadied his quivering hands on his knees, then let out a huge sigh.
“By the Thaya!” he proclaimed. “I’m saved!”
The man straightened his back, wheezing like bladder pipes. He glanced nervously over his shoulder.
“I’m Dockmaster Fenka,” he said. “Sorna’s breath, I’m sweaty.”
Master Fenka jiggled his collar, trying to cool off. Ahme agreed, the man dripped like a leaky pipe.
“You were expecting us?” asked Rees.
“What? Oh, some other salhulkers said you were a day or two behind. They dropped your name after refusing the magic goods I’ve got causing a rumpus on my docks.”
Rees raised his hands in protest.
“I will ship magestone,” he said. “I do not transport magic cargo.”
Master Fenka shook his head.
“Magestone, magic goods! What’s the difference?”
“What is the difference between a log and a bonfire!”
The dockmaster snorted.
“Look, I can’t make you take on cargo if you don’t want it,” Fenka said. He glanced behind him again.
“But if you take this job,” Fenka whispered, “I promise to waive docking fees.”
Ahme watched her father narrow his eyes.
“Berthing and inspection?” he asked.
The dockmaster nodded.
“If you take that cursed woman’s offer,” he said, pointing across the wharf.
Ahme followed the man’s finger, past the sailors loitering nearby. Her eyes widened as she saw a golden apparition gliding across the dusty wharves toward her salhulk. It took the girl a moment to understand what she was watching, for she had never seen a person dressed in so strange a manner, nor move with such grace.
The figure was a woman, Ahme realized. A noble woman of very high standing, if her expensive clothing was any clue. She was dressed in a thin honey-colored robe wrapped with zebra bands of gold fabric. She walked in soft leather sandals with intricate bindings that climbed up her ankles and disappeared under the hem of her amber gown. Gold and silver bracelets piled up against one another on her slender wrists, while a jade scarab beetle attached to a gold necklace nested against the woman’s throat. A snowy white headdress as balanced on her head like a fresh dollop of cream.
Ahme was stunned by the woman’s glamor. The girl noticed she was not alone in her reaction. As the woman made her way toward Ahme’s ship, the crowded wharf had grown quiet. The dock workers, masons and quarrymen, the sailors, even Rees; all of them stood mesmerized. Ahme sensed it was more than the noble woman’s extravagant wardrobe that captivated them all. There was a desirous glare in many of the men and women on the wharf. Hyenas were more subtle about their prey.
Ahme felt uncomfortable for the woman, who was being looked upon like a Three Step trophy. Strangely, the woman did not seem to mind. Her confidence seemed to flare, like a fire fed by rising winds.
The noble arrived at the gangplank and turned her chiseled chin left and right as she inspected the salhulk. Master Fenka nervously watched the woman’s expression. It was difficult to read, for her face seemed unnaturally smooth. Almost ageless. Any wrinkles around her eyes were concealed by ocean blue eyeshadow that matched the thick blue line painted from the woman’s lower lip down to the tip of her chin. Ahme tried to guess the noble’s years but the elegant woman could have been between twenty and fifty.
“Captain,” Master Fenka began, “Bow your head before High One Neri-Teri of House Osor.”
Rees tipped his head ever so slightly. He did not bow. Ahme knew her father never bowed to noble folk.
Neri-Teri’s bracelets jingled as she folded her arms.
“A salhulk!?” She threw back her head and laughed. “This is your remedy, Funkle?”
“It’s Fenka, High One. Master Fen-…”
“At the very least, I expected a private galley or a military barge. Not this dung-glued pile of twigs.”
Anger warmed Ahme’s cheeks. She looked to her father to defend their home.
Rees leaned his hip against the railing of his ship. He raised his eyebrows but kept his mouth shut.
“This is the only crew that will handle magestone,” explained the dockmaster.
Neri-Teri tapped her finger against her opposing elbow. Her eyes sparkled as she considered Ahme and her father.
“Where are the rest of you?” she demanded. “Lemra, make a note. Peasants are always breeding. It is suspicious when a peasant family is few in number.”
A voice chirped back.
“Yes, High One!”
Ahme flinched, wondering how she had failed to notice the large woman hovering behind Neri-Teri. A servant of some kind, Lemra was dressed in a simple tunic tied with a gray sash around her plump frame. Strands of black hair had escaped from her straw sun hat. Her face was round and friendly. While Ahme watched, the servant plucked a leather notebook from a bag strapped to her shoulder. She pulled a quill from behind her ear, dipped its wick into a small vial worn around her neck, and proceeded to write down Neri-Teri’s peculiar observation.
The noble pressed for an answer.
“My daughter and I are the only crew this ship needs,” said Rees. “We have been sailing together for twelve years now.”
“So the child is a girl,” Neri-Teri said, eyeing Ahme as though she were a strange toad.
“Who would of thought it! What’s your name?” she asked.
Rees spoke before his daughter could reply. Anger tinged his voice.
“What are you looking to transport?” he asked.
“The manners of these peasants!” Neri-Teri exclaimed. “Lemra, write down this title. Zel Osor’s Simple Guide to Basic Civility for Peasants.”
Lemra’s quill scratched furiously in her notebook.
“We shall fill in the rest later,” the noble added. She spoke again to Rees.
“I seek a vessel to transport my statue to Shimmer Veil.”
“How large is the statue?” asked Rees.
The noble motioned to Lemra.
“Including the pedestal,” Lemra hastily replied. “It measures eight feet by three feet at its longest and widest dimensions. The statue weighs one ton.”
The steward pointed at the docks to a narrow stack of cargo draped in canvas sheets.
“That is it, right there,” she said.
Ahme and her father looked at the statue. The canvas stretched tautly over the statue’s bulging head but otherwise concealed the object’s shape.
“Is that all magestone?” asked Rees, impressed.
“It is,” Neri-Teri said proudly.
“And it is enchanted?” .
Neri-Teri frowned as though this was a silly question.
“Barely,” she said. “It is imbued with a passive illusion spell. Completely harmless.”
Rees thought for a moment.
“I think we will pass.”
Fenka groaned pathetically, as though he had eaten a bad batch of lemon mussels.
“Perhaps if you took a glimpse of my statue,” the noble said, “you would see there is nothing to fear. Then you would reconsider.”
Rees shook his head.
“Do not bother,” he began, but it was too late. The dockmaster, desperate to be rid of the demanding noble and her magic statue, gestured frantically to some workers on shore. The canvas was stripped away and Neri-Teri’s statue revealed.
An odd silence fell over the wharf as everyone stopped to admire the stone figure. Odd because, Ahme thought, the statue was surprisingly bland and rather poorly carved. It portrayed Neri-Teri standing on a block, rigid like a pillar, her hands cupped together as though waiting to receive something in her open palms. At least, Ahme assumed the figure was Neri-Teri. It did not look like her. The statue’s head was lumpy and too round. The legs were too thick. The artist had struggled to carve simple clothing. Instead of a noble gown, the figure looked like it was dressed in a wrinkled grain sack. Try as Ahme might, she could not tell if the sculptor had chiseled hair or a hood atop its head.
The statue, Ahme concluded, was terrible! She was baffled as to why the adults around her were so mesmerized. She supposed they were awed by the mystical rock that made up the sculpture. Magestone was rare and frightfully expensive. A fistful cost a small fortune, and here was a life-size rendering carved entirely from the magical ore.
Whatever illusion the enchanted object was supposed to cast, Ahme did not see it. The black mineral was polished and shone with a subtle scarlet gleam. She saw nothing else, yet something was affecting the adults around her, including her own father.
“It is impressive,” he reluctantly admitted.
Ahme shot her father an incredulous look.
Neri-Teri inclined her head with gratitude.
“Will you reconsider my offer?” she asked, confident she knew the answer.
Ahme watched as Rees frowned, waging some inner battle in his brain.
“Sixty gold nebs,” he gasped as though he had just spent a moment too long under water.
The dockmaster’s face turned ashen while Lemra’s friendly features hardened like stone. Neri-Teri lowered her arms and folded her hands over her waist. Her eyes shone like silver. Ahme could tell this was not quite the response the woman expected having unveiled her statue.
“Why so much?” she asked, her voice soft like a snake’s probing hiss.
“Magestone rates,” he said. “I charge seven silver per ton per mile. Plus docking fees.”
“Most salhulk captains charge three nebs per mile,” Lemra said.
“You can bring your rates down a little, right captain?” pleaded Fenka.
“Quiet, Phlegm-ga,” snapped the noble.
“It’s Fenka, my High One.”
Rees gestured at the vessels anchored nearby.
“Most salhuklers will not touch magestone,” he said smugly. “As you have undoubtedly learned.”
Ahme hid her smile.
“Tell me, Captain,” Neri-Teri’s voice was like silk concealing a dagger. “Why you are willing to transport that which others will not?”
“Magestone is just rock.”
“Then why do the other salhulkers avoid it?”
“Superstition, mostly,” replied Rees. “I’m not superstitious.”
“Are you an enchanter?” asked the noble.
“Not at all.”
“Intriguing.” Neri-Teri brandished a winning smile at Ahme’s father. Ahme was surprised when Rees smiled back.
The noble glanced at her statue then at the salhulk captain.
“You are most unusual,” she declared. “Sailing with you shall be an interesting diversion. Very well, I agree to your terms.”
Rees nodded his head, a cocky expression messing up his face and filling his daughter with worry.
Neri-Teri turned to the relieved dockmaster.
“Thank you for your assistance, Master Funbuns.”
Fenka’s smile evaporated.
“That doesn’t even sound like my name,” he muttered sadly.
Ahme waved at her father, seeking his attention.
“Rees,” she hissed.
Rees ignored her. Ahme watched helplessly as her father held out his fists side by side to honor the contract. Neri-Teri did the same. Their knuckles touched. The deal was made.
Ahme sighed. She was too late.
“Please have your cabin cleaned for my arrival,” said Neri-Teri. “I trust we will depart in the morning.”
Rees nodded then dropped his jaw.
“We!?” he asked.
“Lemra, prepare my luggage. Notify Hekten that we have found a ship, and I use that term loosely…”
Ahme’s father smacked his palm on the railing.
“I agreed to take your rocks. You are not sailing on my salhulk.”
Neri-Teri’s eyes widened with shock. Her astonishment was almost convincing.
“I said sailing with you shall be an interesting diversion, did I not?”
Rees opened and closed his lips, yet no sound came out.
“Such a statement clearly implies my passage on your vessel!”
As Ahme watched, her father dropped his head in defeat. He had completed the ritual joining of the fists. He could not back out of their arrangement.
Neri-Teri smiled in triumph.
“See you in the morning!”
Ahme shook her head as her dumbfounded father gaped like a catfish. Rees stared as the noble and her steward departed as though on a pleasant evening stroll.
Ahme could not believe what she had seen. Her father had been had! Ahme had witnessed Rees haggle discounts out of Golian silk merchants and make pious Sorna priests negotiating for passage curse his name. To watch him blunder such a basic shipping contract was mystifying. She glanced suspiciously at the dark statue clouding the wharf.
“Did you not hear her?” Ahme snapped. “When she mentioned coming along?”
Her father’s cheeks brightened.
“I was distracted,” he said.
“Distracted by what?” she asked.
“I will tell you when you are older,” he replied.
The girl scoffed. Before she could reply, Rees retreated into his cabin.
Master Fenka ordered the statue loaded onto the ship immediately.
It took fifty dock workers to transport the precious cargo from the wharf onto the salhulk. Ahme and Rees watched as the covered statue was lowered by rope and pulleys into the forward half of the hold. As the crane creaked with the strain of the ponderous load, Rees mumbled with annoyance.
“A stone mage could do this in minutes! Fenka is as superstitious as the rest of them!”
He glanced at his daughter.
“They better not drop that thing through the bottom of our hull.”
Ahme did not know what to say. Her father had been in a sour mood since making his deal with the the noble.
Despite his grumbling, the workers succeeded in their task. The statue was laid on her back along the center of the ship. It would spend the remainder of the voyage gazing at the sky.
At dawn the next morning, Ahme went about her usual chores of stowing beetle globes, letting out the chicken coops, checking for leaks, and other small tasks. When she finished, she was surprised to find her father in a jovial mood as he made breakfast at the ship’s kiln.
“I baked honey cakes,” he declared as Ahme sat down by the blazing oven.
She happily received a steaming golden biscuit and set it aside to cool.
“Why are you so happy?” she asked.
“Do you know what the word vague means?” he asked.
“Well, it goes both ways.”
The statement confused Ahme, although she knew mischief had joined honey cakes on the morning’s menu. She anticipated another contest of wills between the salhulker and the noble.
Sure enough, as Neri-Teri arrived with her steward, several guards, and a dozen baggage handlers in tow, Rees raced across the gangplank to greet them. Or perhaps he was trying to block them. Ahme wasn’t sure as she walked up to the railing to get a better view. She worried her father was about to lose their contract and the sixty-two gold pieces with it.
“Good morning, Neri!”
Rees bowed down, flourishing his hand as though turning an invisible crank. The dramatically sarcastic gesture startled the noble.
“Goodness,” she said, placing a hand against her cheek. “Someone is peppery this morning.”
Neri-Teri was dressed in a more subdued outfit of plain white silk, better suited for travel. Her jewelry was gone save for the scarab necklace. Her face was undecorated but still smooth and ageless. Her puffy headdress from the day before remained. Neri-Teri turned to her steward, who only seemed to possess one outfit.
“Place the baggage in the cabin.”
“Pardon me,” interjected Rees. “But I never agreed to giving up my cabin.”
A deathly silence fell over the ship as the captain and noble locked eyes. One of the guards stepped forward.
“Shall I slap his face, Zel Osor?”
Fear gripped Ahme as she surveyed the guard’s grim face. He wore a leather vest and arm guards over a gray tunic. The warrior held a spear in one hand and sported a short bronze sword tucked into his belt. Although he was shorter than Rees, the guard’s shoulders were twice as wide.
Rees was not intimidated. He kept his defiant stare fixed on his true adversary.
“Thank you, Hekten,” Neri-Teri replied calmly. “That won’t be necessary.”
She smiled at Rees.
“Where would you have me sleep?” she asked.
He pointed at the hold.
“There is plenty of room down there, Neri!”
“You will address her as High One or Zel Osor.”
“I am the captain of this ship,” shot back Rees. “I am not a peasant.”
“I told you this would be interesting, didn’t I, Lemra?”
“Yes, High One,” the steward nervously replied.
Neri-Teri wove her fingers together and held them to her lips. She considered Rees for a moment before speaking.
“I have been trapped in this backwater for almost a month,” she spoke over her knuckles. “If we were back in civilization, I could have you seized and dropped on a prison barge and take your ship wherever I please.”
Neri-Teri’s eyes flashed as she stepped towards Ahme’s father.
“I recognize that out here, in the forsaken wilds of the kingdom, compromises must be made.”
She stopped, her lips inches from Rees’ jaw. The man was slightly taller, yet somehow the noble seemed to stare down her nose upon the captain.
“Sleeping in your rat-infested hold is not one of them.”
The tension between the man and woman made Ahme’s stomach churn. Her father’s calm was astounding. Whatever had muddled his wits the day before was not distracting Rees today.
“You out-bargained me,” Rees admitted. “Because of that, I too will make some compromises. But do not think that you own me, my daughter, my rats, or my ship.”
Neri-Teri pursed her lips.
“What do you propose?”
“In addition to our original terms, five silver per passenger. I run the ship, decide its course, and choose when and where we anchor at night.”
“Isn’t that your job as a captain?” she asked with a snide little smile.
“I have transported nobles before. You have a bad habit of playing captain as well as passenger.”
“Any other terms?”
“This is not a pleasure barge. Your servants may use the oven and draw water from our barrels, but Ahme and I will not cook for you.”
“Of course you will not cook for me. Peasant food isn’t fit for my dogs.”
Rees ignored the insult.
“That just leaves your accommodations,” he said. “The hold and top deck are available for your comfort.”
Neri-Teri gingerly rubbed the corner of her eye with her pinky.
“I really must have the cabin,” she said.
“Then you really must have a cabin mate,” Rees replied. “Because I’m not moving out.”
The noble smiled.
“Fine,” she said, making Rees flinch with surprise.
Lemra gasped while Hekten puffed his cheeks with indignation.
“High One,” he sputtered. “This is indecent.”
The noble flicked her wrist.
“Calm down, Hekten. We’ll hang a sheet or something.”
The guard’s stormy gaze only darkened.
“I cannot vouch for your safety if you share a room with this pirate.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied.
“That’s enough!” Neri-Teri snapped.
The guard fell silent.
Rees presented his fists.
“I hope you’re comfortable in a hammock,” he smirked.
Neri-Teri flashed the same dazzling smile she had wielded the previous day. Ahme was baffled to see it disarm her father so easily. His smirk fizzled.
“I think I shall manage,” the woman replied.
Their fists joined. The contract was revised. Ahme’s unease grew.
Before departing the royal quarry, Ahme was pulled aside by her father.
“Keep an eye on this woman,” he whispered. “Ignore her lessons, but learn her truth.”
“What does that mean?” she asked.
Her father, in typical frustrating fashion, did not explain.
Neri-Teri was accompanied on the voyage by her steward, the head guard, Hekten, and his three subordinates. With only a statue taking up a fraction of the main hold, there was plenty of space below deck for the servants to unroll mats and blankets and settle in. Biteface was fenced into the forward hold with the magestone statue. Throgs being terrible jumpers, a three-foot tall screen of thick bamboo was enough to keep Biteface from attacking the passengers. After a few days, Lemra and the guards grew accustomed to the little monster’s murderous glares and gnashing snarls whenever Biteface glimpsed their heads over the fence.
The first day of their journey down the Mud River was uneventful as far as Ahme was concerned. With the river too narrow to sail and the current too slow to simply drift downstream, Yogo had to tow the salhulk. From dawn until dusk, Ahme guided the yak down the towpath. Although she could see and hear the passengers chat idly on the deck, the girl spent the day alone on shore.
She worried she wouldn’t have any contact with their guests. It was rare for Rees to take on passengers. Most voyages were shared between just daughter and father. Despite her father’s eccentric games and endless stories, Ahme longed to spend time with other people.
Her father came ashore that evening to help Ahme remove the yak’s harness and return her to the salhulk. As Rees yanked and shimmied the yoke off the beast’s shoulders, he angrily informed his daughter that they would be trading positions the next day.
“I will guide Yogo,” he declared. “You steer the ship.”
Ahme hid her eagerness for this trade of duties.
“Why are you so upset?” she asked.
“Rotten nobles!” he snapped. “They are the same in any land.”
Her harried father shot a resentful stare at the sternhouse. Neri-Teri had spent the day inside the cabin.
“Keep an eye out for mutiny,” he grumbled.
Rees sighed. He grew calmer.
“Yes,” he whispered conspiratorially. “With me on shore and only a child left on board, I can envision Neri telling her guards to take over the ship.”
“It seems like you are joking,” Ahme said. “But your voice sounds like you are not.”
Her father smiled.
“What do I do if there is a mutiny?” she asked.
“Easy! Let Biteface out of the hold,” Rees said. “Then swim to shore.”
“So easy!” Ahme cried out sarcastically.
“So easy, indeed.”
The morning of the second day, Ahme sat cooking eggs at the kiln when her father emerged from his cabin. She was curious how his night had been, sharing quarters with the imperious woman.
When asked, Rees scowled.
“She snores,” he said. “And the cursed parrot keeps squawking at her. How she slept through that, I have no idea, but I was up half the night.”
He grabbed a slice of boka melon and stuffed his mouth. He was done talking.
After a quick breakfast, Ahme tidied while her father led Yogo out of her pen and down the gangplank onto shore. In minutes, the yak was yoked and hitched to the ship. The salhulk resumed its journey.
The tiller was located on the roof of the sternhouse. Ahme spent the next day standing on the dried palm fronds covering her father’s cabin, her hand resting gently on the tiller’s long smooth handle. As Yogo mozied down the path, effortlessly hauling the salhulk, Ahme made occasional, small adjustments to the tiller. It was easy work, and dull.
Her monotony was broken in the afternoon when a giant sunshield made of straw appeared at the edge of the sternhouse in front of her. As it rose higher, Ahme saw that it was held aloft by a bamboo rod. Whomever was lifting it struggled mightily, for the shield wobbled and swung from side to side, like a pelican fighting a windstorm.
“Mind my head, Lemra!”
Neri-Teri’s voice was followed by her indignant face as she popped up along the edge of the roof. The noble warily eyed the straw disc teetering above her.
“Higher, higher!” she demanded.
“I’m trying, my High One!” shouted Lemra, her voice strained.
The bamboo rod shot upward, lifting the cumbersome shield into the sky.
Ahme considered running forward to help, but it was dangerous to abandon the tiller. She watched as the noble climbed higher while trying to dodge the straw pendulum. The girl noted Neri-Teri’s ever-changing array of clothing. Today she wore a green tunic and brown leggings that billowed gayly in the wind.
“I’m losing it!” cried the steward, still out of sight below.
Neri dove, her fleetness surprising Ahme, who jerked the tiller in surprise as the noblewoman rolled onto the deck. The shield clapped the roof with surprising force.
Neri-Teri hopped to her feet and dusted off her clothes.
“Did you see that, Lemra?” she called out. “What fun! I leapt like a Dekardo acrobat!”
“Amazing, my High One!”
Lemra collapsed onto the rooftop, pinning the straw shield to the ground before the wind could scoop it back into the air. The steward’s face was flushed and her sun hat askew. Her disheveled hair pooled on the rooftop beside her like spilt tea.
“Imagine if I behaved so athletically before my fellow nobles.”
Neri-Teri laughed at the absurd notion.
“They would take away my lands! Shade, Lemra! I must have shade.”
“One moment, High One!” the steward wheezed.
The noble turned and smiled at Ahme.
Neri-Teri plopped to the ground, crossing her legs beneath her. She curled her finger at her steward, beckoning her forward. Lemra struggled to her feet.
“Take note, Lemra,” Neri-Teri said, bouncing with energy. “Exercise is invigorating. Our fellow nobles should try it.”
She looked up at her steward. Lemra stood nearby, clutching the bamboo rod as she struggled to keep the wind ravaged shield between her master and the sun.
“Are you not invigorated?” asked the noble as she sat comfortably in the shade.
“Yes, my High One,” Lemra said through grit teeth.
Neri-Teri placed her hands on her knees and let out a long, satisfied breath.
Ahme watched the noble, her curiosity mixed with nervousness. The girl had a desire to observe the peculiar woman, but Ahme was surprised Neri-Teri would visit her.
“Your name is Ahme, yes?”
She nodded again. Neri-Teri’s eyes sparkled as she watched Ahme manage the ship.
“How very talented of you,” Neri-Teri spoke after a while. “Steering this great big thing!”
“It is not so hard,” Ahme replied modestly. “Not when we’re headed downstream.”
Ahme shook her head.
“It’s much harder when the weather is poor, or when we’re not being towed.”
“It is an accomplishment,” Neri-Teri spoke. Her attention shifted to her frazzled steward.
“I suppose these peasants have their own accomplishments,” she said. “Instead of falconry or languages, they have…”
Neri-Teri frowned as she struggled to think of the unfamiliar tasks of the lower classes.
“Digging ditches…” she said. Her face lit up as her eyes fell upon the tiller.
“Boat steering!” she said, pointing at Ahme. “Wearing rags. Whatever else your kind do!”
“I speak other languages,” she said. “I do not dig ditches.”
Neri-Teri suspiciously narrowed her eyes.
“What languages could you possibly speak?”
“Golian,” Ahme said proudly. “Nanzenze. Old Nebettan. A little Mantoch. And some of my father’s language.”
The noble remained doubtful.
“Oongla feth muy,” she spoke in the sing-songy tones of the Golian people.
Ahme was flustered to be tested on the spot.
“I am twelve,” she replied.
A look of mild surprise crossed the noble’s face. Neri-Teri resumed speaking in common Nebettan.
“And why, by the Thaya, would a peasant girl need all those tongues?”
Ahme shrugged. Her father insisted on teaching her some of the languages found in the settlements along the great river. Nanzenze was useful for trading with desert folk. But encounters with Gollian merchants were rare, and they all spoke Nebettan anyway. As Ahme pondered this, she was uncertain why Rees made her learn so many languages.
“Trading with merchants, I guess,” she said sheepishly.
The noble sat silently for a while. The only sound was the wind whistling through the nooks and windows of the salhulk, and the steward’s grunts as she struggled to keep her master shaded under the cumbersome shield.
Her father was walking alongside Yogo about fifty feet ahead of the salhulk. Rees was dressed in his sun hat and a large tunic that covered most of his arms and legs. He was far enough away that when he turned and pointed to the opposite bank of the river, his excited shout was like a distant bird call.
“Oryx!” he cried. “Scimitar Oryx!”
Curious murmurs broke out on the deck below as Hekten and his warriors made their way to the starboard rail.
Neri-Teri climbed to her feet, surprising Lemra as the steward struggled to adjust the sun shield. The wind took hold of the straw shield and smacked it on the roof of the sternhouse. Lemra cursed.
“Sorry, my High One,” she added as she curiously eyed the far side of the river.
Ahme searched the shore for a herd and was surprised to find but a single, lonely gazelle drinking from the river. Its coat was white like distant mountaintops. It had a red chest that looked like a reflection of the muddy river flowing between her dark hooves. Inky black markings on her pale snout reminded Ahme of her father’s scrolls lovingly inked with tidy words. The oryx’s horns were long and thin, curving back over the creature’s distinguished head.
“Why is your father making such a fuss?” asked Neri-Teri. “It is a large gazelle.”
Ahme shook her head. Rees claimed that nobles were all educated, but Neri-Teri was evidently unaware of how special it was to see a scimitar oryx.
“These are very rare,” she said. “The ancient khets hunted most of them away.”
The girl grew sad as she realized that seeing this animal without its herd was an ominous sign.
“I wonder if she is injured,” she said aloud.
“If she is,” replied Neri-Teri, pointing downstream. “She will shortly be relieved of her pain.”
Ahme followed the noble woman’s gesture. A hundred yards downstream, on a stretch of bright orange clay, giant crocodiles basked in the sun. She watched as several of the armored reptiles slid cunningly into the river, aiming their toothy snouts upstream at the oryx. With barely a ripple, the hunters descended under the water.
“That little creature will be devoured,” stated the noble. She stifled a yawn.
Desperate to warn the oryx, Ahme was about to clap her hands when movement on a hill behind the gazelle caught her eye. A leopard was sifting through a clump of bushes with barely a rustle. Its spots oozed through the shadows beneath the scraggly leaves.
The oryx sipped from the river, unaware of the danger squeezing in from land and water.
Rees’ voice cracked the quiet atmosphere.
The oryx raised its head and gazed curiously at the people drifting by. As Rees shouted, Ahme clapped her hands.
The oryx hopped backwards, just out of the stream. Fascinated by the salhulk, it did not move any farther. Ahme began to dread the arrival of the hidden crocodiles.
“Run!” she shouted, her voice echoing across the river.
One of the soldiers below called out.
“Quiet or you’ll ruin all the fun!”
Ahme fumed. She continued clapping.
The oryx did not stir. The ship had almost passed by the gazelle, taking its distracting noises with it.
The leopard stirred. The oryx jerked its head to the side. The cat pretended it was a bush.
Long shadows, like slicks of oil, appeared in the water near the gazelle’s legs.
“Here it comes,” Neri-Teri remarked.
Ahme caught her breath.
The crocodiles attacked first, their jaws gaping as they rode their own waves onto the shore. The oryx leapt into the sky, over the scaly tidal wave crashing underneath. She landed on the armor of one of her attackers and sprang away.
Lemra and Ahme cheered then gasped in unison as the oryx bounded up the hillside.
The leopard pounced. The sight of its claws reaching around the gazelle’s neck knocked the wind out of Ahme’s lungs. She raised her fists to the sides of her head and leapt up and down.
“No, no, no,” she cried, as though her words could stop the carnage.
The oryx veered away, its head ducking beneath the leopard as it sailed overhead. As momentum peeled the predator from its prey, the leopard twisted and snapped its jaws. Teeth closed on the antelope’s horn, wrenching the creature to the ground.
Leopard and oryx clambered to their feet, throwing up clouds of dust. The gazelle rose first, one horn shorter than before.
“I cannot watch this anymore,” whispered Lemra, lowering her eyes.
Ahme did not want to watch either. The oryx was wounded and stunned. Hungry crocodiles stood at her back while the leopard coiled itself for a final assault. The gazelle was certain to perish.
The lone oryx surprised them all. Whether by cunning or luck, although Ahme would later insist it was by cunning, the oryx turn and sprang at the crocodiles. The leopard followed, its claws grasping its prey. As the armored serpents lurched up the river bank, the oryx turned and shot to the right. Leopard and crocodiles collided in a maelstrom of scales and teeth. The oryx sprinted downstream. She turned and disappeared over the hill.
Ahme let out a long breath of relief.
Her father let out a loud whoop on the towpath. She smiled as she watched Rees toss his hat spinning into the air.
“That was entertaining,” conceded Neri-Teri. She seemed oddly disappointed, as though the spectacle across the river had deprived her of something.
Somehow, the leopard survived its collision with little more than a limp. It slunk back up the hillside as the crocodiles hissed after the cat from the mud below.
“You know a thing or two about animals,” the noble said, her tone almost accusatory.
“Rees taught me.”
Neri-Teri pursed her lips.
“Quite the education.”
Lemra moved toward the sun shield but was stopped by a wave from the noble.
“Let us return to our work, steward.”
Ahme frowned, wondering what work Neri-Teri had to do.
The noble turned to leave.
“That poor gazelle,” said Neri-Teri. “I hope she is able to find her mate. She’ll not survive without one.”
She shooed her servant.
“Come now, Lemra. Much to do.”
The two women departed, leaving the confused girl behind.
Ahme considered the lone oryx and how it turned its enemies against one another. The oryx, she concluded, survived just fine on her own.
They stopped that evening at a campground along the towpath beneath some small brown cliffs. The campground had a freshwater spring that fed a long trough carved out of a palm tree. On one side of the trough was a square paddock with rough brick walls. After anchoring the salhulk to some trees, Rees led Yogo into the enclosure. Two other vessels headed to the royal quarries, a barge and another salhulk, had also stopped for the night. Yogo shared the paddock with two wary oxen and a friendly mule. The yak was pleased to have company, grunting happily as she and the mule sniffed one another.
While Rees gossiped on shore with his fellow captains, Ahme prepared dinner. She kneaded dough on the stone dais supporting the kiln, while Hekten and his guards lounged nearby on the deck.
She disliked the head guard, who was gruff and intimidating. Hekten mostly ignored Ahme but was rude and hostile to her father. She longed to sting the guard with a few sharp words, but waited for the guard to draw first blood. Frustratingly, Hekten never did.
His three subordinates were kinder to Ahme. Her favorite was Rensha, a funny young woman with long braided hair and mischievous wit, who teased Ahme for being too quiet and stern.
Rensha leaned against the wall of Yogo’s empty pen, popping grapes into her mouth while she watched Ahme drive her fists into the dough.
“Have mercy!” she pleaded gaily, revealing flecks of purple in her teeth. “What injury has that dough committed upon you, little captain?”
Ahme hid a smile.
“No injury,” Ahme admitted. “Baking brings out the darkness in me.”
She pounded her knuckles into the squishy dough. Rensha hooted with laughter.
“Look out for this one,” she said, turning to the other guards.
Pictat and Dever were seated by the edge of the hold, playing cards and drinking wine. Pictat flashed his handsome smile at the girl as he shook his head, throwing tangled curls from side to side.
“She shares your twisted sense of humor, Rensha,” he said before returning his attention to his cards. It had been Pictat who protested Ahme’s attempts to warn the oryx. Since then, his jovial nature softened Ahme’s opinion of the warrior.
The last guard, Dever, eyed Ahme curiously but said nothing. She was the oldest of the three and the least open about her thoughts. She offered polite greetings to Ahme in the mornings, which put the soldier ahead of Hekten in terms of Ahme’s private passenger ranking. Dever and Pictat were apparently a couple of sorts, as they stole affectionate glances and touched one another’s arms when they thought no one was watching. Ahme once spotted the pair lean against one another like two blades of grass blown together by a breeze.
“Mind the pies,” Dever muttered to her opponent.
“It is Rensha’s turn,” Pictat shot back.
“I am too tired,” Rensha said, slumping against the railing. The back of her hands lay lifeless on the deck. Frowning, she tried tossing a grape into her mouth using just her fingers. The little ball struck her chin and rolled down her chest. Rensha pouted.
Hekten’s gravelly voice grated on Ahme’s ears. The head guard was lying with his head propped against the railing. A damp cloth covered his eyes.
“If you singe the High One’s dinner,” he said, “there will be bloody murders.”
Ahme glanced nervously between the guard and his subordinates. No one seemed to take Hekten seriously. Rensha grudgingly climbed to her feet.
“Cooking is the steward’s job,” she griped.
“Steward’s busy,” Hekten snapped. “See to the pies.”
As Rensha trudged up to the kiln, she winked at Ahme.
Lemra had not been seen in hours. She was detained by Neri-Teri inside the sternhouse. Strange rumblings occurred inside Rees’ cabin, making Ahme wonder what mischief Neri-Teri committed while Ahme’s father was on shore. She would soon find out, for having finished chatting with the other sailors, Rees made his way onto his salhulk.
“Cool evening,” he said as he hopped from the gangplank. Rees looked at his daughter.
“It’s getting dark,” he said.
Ahme nodded, understanding it was time to fetch the globes.
“I’m almost finished,” she said as she squished the dough into a bread pan.
Rees peered over his daughter at the head guard relaxing with his eyes covered.
“Busy day, Hekten?” he said dryly.
Hekten puffed his cheeks but said nothing.
Rees smiled at his daughter. His mirth disappeared as he glanced at the door to his cabin.
“Is she inside?” he asked, looking suddenly exhausted.
Ahme pretended to search the ship.
“Where else would she be?” she asked.
Rensha chuckled beside her.
Rees nodded. He placed his hand on the door latch and took a deep breath. He entered his cabin.
“What have you done!”
Her father’s indignant, terror-stricken shout jerked Ahme around. Hekten sat up, the cloth falling from his eyes as a satisfied grin split his face. Startled, Rensha dropped a steaming pie on the ground while Pictat and Dever shared a strange, knowing look.
Dull murmuring followed from inside. Ahme could not make out what was being said.
After a moment, her father’s shouts again rang the air.
“Put it back!” he demanded. “All of it!”
Rees stormed out of the cabin. His face was red as a beet. His grimace reminded Ahme of a hideous face carved into a gourd. The man’s fingers dangled like vines hungry for something to snag and throttle.
“What?” Ahme asked.
Rees seethed. He spoke despite a clenched jaw, his words creaking out the side of his face as he stared off into space.
“She organized!” he snarled.
Ahme leapt to her feet. She sprinted to the doorway and peered inside.
The cabin was spotless. Every surface had been tidied and scrubbed. Clothing had been washed, folded, and stowed. Dishes polished and stacked. Furniture had been dusted and rearranged. The cramped, overstuffed den that would have intimidated a packrat was now an airy, open chamber with enough room for twenty people to relax comfortably inside.
The two responsible, Neri-Teri and Lemra, reclined at the far end of the room, lounging like river queens in matching hammocks. They luxuriated in the cool night air flowing through the large open windows, the dusted and neatly mended shudders spread wide. Both women were smudged and covered in sweat. Ahme was surprised to see that the noble had clearly worked as hard as her steward. No longer wearing a headdress, Ahme saw that Neri-Teri’s black hair, bunched atop her head, was exceedingly long and lustrous. The monumental task of transforming the stuffy cabin into a small, open air court made the woman shine.
“Ahme!” Neri-Teri’s eyes lit up as she spotted the girl’s arrival. She florished her hand like an all powerful mage. “See what I have wrought? Is it not marvelous?”
Ahme admitted to herself, she was most impressed. Her eyes fell upon her father’s table tucked against the wall.
“His stories!” she said, sharing her father’s fear for his most precious possessions.
Neri-Teri turned to the table. The scrolls, codexes, the stone and clay tablets were all gone, replaced by a sumptuous banquet of fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Oh, do not worry!” the noble woman replied. “Great care was taken putting them in order.”
She pointed underneath the table. Small baskets sat underneath, stacked on top of one another in orderly columns.
“They’re all there,” Neri-Teri continued. “The few that we read were quite good, weren’t they, Lemra.”
The steward nodded.
“I liked the one about the angry monkey spirits,” Lemra replied with delight.
“That was a rambunctious tale!”
She looked at Ahme.
“Your father has talent,” Neri-Teri said, “Although his forms are rife with errors. A small criticism, considering that a peasant wrote them. Who knew salhulkers could read, much less hold a quill?”
Neri-Teri chortled at her own joke. Lemra forced a smile while shooting Ahme an apologetic wince.
Ahme stood speechless. She wanted to side with her angry father but could not deny the improvements brought about his cabin. In truth, while Neri-Teri had insisted on sleeping in the sternhouse, Ahme had pitied the noble for having to endure the claustrophobic wreck that was her father’s bedroom.
“It looks really good in here,” she admitted. “Excuse me.”
The noble beamed.
The girl slipped out of the sternhouse, closing the door behind her.
She found Rees furiously gathering hay for Yogo’s dinner.
“Fetch those globes,” he snapped at his daughter around an armful of dried grass. “I can barely see.”
Rees stumbled across the gangplank, his arms full of hay. Ahme felt sorry for her flustered father as he stormed across the campground like an angry child clutching a pillow.
Rees had not returned by the time Ahme pulled the bread from the kiln. She decided to eat dinner in her own cabin. She tipped the hot crusty loaf out of its pan onto a cloth, grabbed the butter jar and some dried fish, and stood to leave. She was pleasantly surprised when Rensha waved for her to join the guards dining nearby.
“Eat with us, little captain,” the warrior beckoned.
Ahme could not help but smile. She took a seat between Rensha and Pictat. Lemra had also joined the group. The steward was relieved to have a rest after a long day of cleaning. The atmosphere on the deck was so pleasantly cheerful, that Ahme did not mind that Hekten sat across from her. The grump even shot Ahme a nod as she sat down.
“Thank you,” Ahme said to the group.
“It is nice to have a decent meal again,” Rensha said as she dug into a meat pie.
There were words of agreement all around.
“This journey is taking forever,” said Pictat. “I have not had a proper mug of beer in a month.”
“At least we are moving again,” said Rensha cheerfully. “When our ship sank, I was frightened we would be stuck in that mud pit.”
Dever rolled her eyes at Pictat.
“She makes it sound like the ship sank to the bottom of the river.”
“It nearly did!” declared Rensha.
“It had a few leaks,” said Dever. “It sits in a dry dock as we speak!”
Rensha ignored the other woman.
“All I am saying,” she continued, “Were we to wait for the ship to be repaired, we would be trapped all summer in Masons Hole. I am happy to be underway.”
“We should never have been up there to begin with,” grumbled Dever.
Pictat shushed her, but the woman continued.
“Why the High One insisted on retrieving the statue herself?” Dever shook her head, before adding. “She is a peculiar one, even for a high born.”
Worried she had spoken too much, Dever glanced sideways at her superior. Hekten caught the look but did not reprimand his sullen warrior.
“She is indeed,” he said, keeping his voice low.
“Still,” broke in Rensha. “What a statue!”
Ahme laughed before she realized the young woman was joking. Rensha peered wide-eyed into the hold at the chiseled rock.
Pictat nodded his head in agreement.
“It really captures her hair,” he said, looking down. “The most fetching hairdo in the kingdom.”
Ahme glanced at the jagged ridges covering the statue’s head. If looked nothing like the thick locks Ahme had just seen inside her father’s cabin.
It seemed that Dever also disagreed.
“You’re crazy,” she said, making Ahme think that she wasn’t alone in her negative opinion of the sculpture.
“What the statue truly captures,” Dever continued, “is the High One’s commanding height. Tall and powerful, like the Great Gardens!”
The girl frowned. The statue was squat and brutish. It was nothing like the alluring towers of the ancient khets.
“Powerful, yes,” he said. “And bright! The statue shines with Zel Osor’s dignity. Any who look at that statue will recognize the woman’s noble bloodline.”
The girl saw no shine emanating from the dull hunk of rock down below.
“How does it show her blood?!” she mumbled. No one seemed to hear. They were too busy staring at the enchanted statue.
She chewed her bread, wondering why everyone was so impressed with the rubble pile lying in her hold. Only the steward, Lemra, seemed immune to the statue’s power. She ate in stony silence, waiting for the guards to regain their senses.
After dinner, the guards descended into the hold for the night. Ahme lingered by the kiln and waited for her father to return from shore. Candlelight shone around the edges of the sternhouse shudders while orbs swarming with incandescent insects illuminated the rest of the ship in a ghostly green hue. Rees eventually made his way across the gangplank. He looked like an unarmed soldier marching into battle.
“Rees!” Ahme called out softly.
Her father jumped.
“I did not see you there,” he said.
“Do you want to share my cabin?” asked Ahme.
“Of course not,” replied Rees.
Her father leaned forward, narrowed his eyes, and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
“That woman is trying to drive me out of my own cabin. She is a hyena rubbing her glands over a lion’s territory.”
Ahme pictured the absurd vision of a noble crawling around on the floor of her father’s cabin, scraping her cheeks on the furniture. The girl chuckled.
“It’s not funny,” her father said, although a tiny smile crept onto his lips.
“You could sleep on deck,” Ahme said.
“Do not worry about me,” Rees whispered. “Catch some dreams!”
Ahme nodded. As she made her way toward the bow, she heard the sound of the sternhouse door opening and closing, followed by heated murmurs. Ahme hoped her father would keep his temper.
Their salhulk reached the confluence of the Mud and Thaya early the following afternoon. At the outskirts of the city, Rash-Ha, Rees brought Yogo aboard and put the yak in her pen. Daughter and father took up oars and piloted the vessel beneath the Rainbow Bridge, from the narrow brown tributary into the the broad, scaly grey currents of the great river.
As their salhulk curved around the city, a sandstorm wailed from the east. Its wind kicked up the river like an army of stomping toddlers darkening the sky with fistfuls of sand. Sorna’s light was blotted out and afternoon turned dark as night.
Visibility was so poor that Ahme could only see about a hundred yards ahead of the swiftly moving salhulk. It was barely enough distance to react to vessels crossing their path. Still, Rees insisted they continue. He knew this part of the river well, and as long as the storm did not grow worse, the man was certain he and his daughter could continue safely.
The passengers were less confident. Hekten glued himself to the towpost, shrieking and waving his arms like a chimpanzee whenever he spotted another ship. It was enough to make Ahme chuckle, although she too was concerned the salhulk was moving too quickly.
Hekten’s subordinates hid themselves below deck, away from the stinging wind. Ahme had considered warning Rensha that the hold was probably the most dangerous place to be should the salhulk collide with another ship. The girl decided to hold her tongue, for she did not want to further upset the nervous passengers.
“Who is steering the ship?” Hekten shouted, his eyes wide with panic. The guard had noticed that with father and daughter on opposite sides of the ship, no one was at the tiller.
Ahme wrestled her oar along the port side while her father managed his wooden blade starboard. They were dressed head to toe to escape the nettle-like sting of sand. The chickens and ducks had taken refuge in their coop while Yogo hunkered inside her pen. The deck was abandoned save for the salhulk’s dedicated crew and the frightened head guard.
Rees threw his voice into the wind.
“The Thaya!” he shouted.
Bewildered, Hekten cupped his ear.
“We are in the heartstream,” Rees continued. “The main current! As long as we avoid other ships, the heartstream will carry us safely from Rash-Ha to the Marrow Hills.”
Confused and exasperated, Hekten shook his head. The brawny warrior turned toward the bow and began hopping up and down like an overexcited child.
“SHIP!” he cried. “SHIP!”
Rees and Ahme had already spotted the vessel ahead, an overloaded grain barge with thirty oarsmen smacking their tangled oars against one another as the vessel cut sideways across the choppy river.
“Pull!” Rees ordered.
As Ahme drove her blade into the water, her father did as well. While she rowed, guiding the ship to starboard, Rees dug in his heels and held fast to his oar. His blade held in the water like an anchor, swinging the salhulk into a sharp turn. They veered around the floundering barge.
“You play with our lives!” shouted Hekten.
“Calm down, please,” said Rees, although his tone betrayed his relief to Ahme. The barge had been a surprise. They had nearly collided.
Neri-Teri appeared suddenly beside Rees, as though the wind had deposited the noble from the sky. Lemra was there was well, fighting in vain to shield her employer with that annoying straw shield. Ahme feared the wind would scoop the parasol and steward overboard, never to be seen again.
Neri-Teri’s tone was so cheerful, Ahme wondered if the woman was aware of the sandstorm.
“Now is not a good time to chat,” Rees said, working his oar.
Neri-Teri did not seem to hear.
“My steward and I have checked our calendar,” she began. “Despite the hideous torment of being trapped in Masons Hole, we discovered, to my great cheer, that this terrible delay comes with a silver lining. With our new schedule, we shall pass by Fawl on the Equinox.”
Leaning against his oar, Rees groaned.
“What of it?” he grunted
“I am glad you asked,” Neri-Teri chirped. “Every spring equinox, House Davmose hosts a grand soiree. A party, if you will.”
“I know what a soiree is!” snapped Rees. “And no, we are not stopping.”
Neri-Teri was cheerfully undeterred.
“Hear me out,” she said. “This party is the perfect place to officially unveil my statue! All the highest nobles from Shimmer Veil to Rash-Ha will be there. It is the event of the season.”
“This sandstorm is the only seasonal event I care about right now,” said Rees. “No.”
Neri-Teri maintained her gay tone, though she began to tap her toe impatiently.
“I will of course cover the extra cost of our stay in Fawl,” she said. “As well as docking fees and whatever petty expenses you incur.”
“It would also be my delight if you and your daughter were to accompany me to the party.”
Ahme and Rees both froze with their oars dangling over the water, forgetting the sand encrusted gales whipping at their cloths and threatening their ship. They turned sharply to face the noble woman.
“Us?” cried Rees. “A couple of salhulkers?! At a highborn party!”
Neri-Teri beamed as though the sand scouring her face was massaging her cheeks.
“Lemra has nearly finished a parade-gown for your daughter,” she said.
“That is not necessary,” said Rees.
“What is a parade-gown?” called out Ahme.
“She does not know what a parade-gown is?” Neri-Teri said, scandalized. “What are you teaching this girl?”
“I teach her what she needs to know, at the age she needs to know it.”
“She is at that age!” said the noble.
“She is not!”
Ahme’s thoughts whirled. She and Rees were invited to dine and dance with the nobility. It was a ludicrous proposal. Still, Ahme was surprised by her desire to attend. Music, dancing, decadent foods… she dreamed of such experiences. And a parade-gown?! Whatever it was, Ahme was intrigued.
“Why, by the Thaya, would you want us to come?” Rees demanded.
Neri-Teri opened her mouth then hesitated.
“Perhaps you should mind that ship right there?”
A salhulk was cutting across their bow.
“Rees!” she shouted as she lifted her oar. The blade tilted down, snagging the implacable river. Ahme was dragged across the deck, her bare feet rubbed raw.
From the corner of her eye, Ahme saw her father row hard and fast. Their salhulk cut right, avoiding the other vessel by a few feet.
“Watch it, northman!” a salhulker shouted from atop her sternhouse.
Neri-Teri watched the near miss, unphased.
“I want you to come,” she said, “and share one of your stories.”
Rees trudged silently across the deck.
“As you may have noticed, I am a bit of a scribe myself,” Neri-Teri less than humbly explained. “Storytelling is fashionable among the nobility. A wondrous tale of magic and adventure, featuring thrills and a little bawdy humor… Your stories would be most popular. By the Thaya, you could make a name for yourself as a bard.”
The noble wagged her finger at the storm swirling around the salhulk.
“Leave this drudgery behind, perhaps.”
The sand clouding the air began to thin as the winds settled. The storm had passed. Rees and Ahme were able to raise their oars and let the heartstream guide their vessel down river. Neri-Teri waited patiently for Rees to respond.
Ahme unwrapped the dusty towels protecting her face from the merciless sand. She watched Rees do the same. As he pulled the dusty linen from his face, she was surprised to see an eager gleam in her father’s eye.
“By the Thaya, yes!” he said with a vengeful enthusiasm.
Neri-Teri’s smile fell as Rees’ tone filled her with doubt.
“And I will be paid for my performance.”
“You are an amatuer,” argued Neri-Teri. “It is a privilege for you to be invited. What if you recite your tale and embarrass yourself?”
“All the more reason I should get some nebs,” snapped Rees. “My humiliation comes at a price.”
Although she had just weathered a sandstorm like it was a pleasant sprinkle of rain, Neri-Teri now shifted anxiously. Ahme could see that the noble was having second thoughts about inviting Rees to her party. Perhaps she feared sabotage, a public humiliation orchestrated by an embittered salhulk captain. Ahme could see her father doing just that.
After a moment, however, Neri-Teri made up her mind.
“Add it to my bill,” she grumbled.
She turned to leave but spun back to face Rees one last time.
“I have to say that for a commoner, you are exceedingly arrogant,” she said.
Neri-Teri poked an accusatory finger into the man’s chest.
“Your superior air is going to cause you and your child tremendous hardship some day.”
Before Rees could respond, the noble stormed across the deck into the sternhouse.
Ahme waited for Neri-Teri to leave before calling out to Rees.
“What is a parade-gown?”
Her father did not seem to hear. He pointed to the roof of the sternhouse.
“Mind the tiller,” he said. “I have to decide which of my babies will make the biggest splash at this little soiree.”
“Your stories are not babies,” she said.
“No. But you are!”
Ahme rolled her eyes.
Fawl was a wealthy settlement with quaint shops along wide avenues shaded by giant fig trees. Its ancient temples to forgotten gods were converted into trendy marketplaces and bathhouses. Thousands of intricate fountains featuring carvings of spouting deities and animals speckled the countless plazas and filled the air with a pleasant babble. A resort city popular with highborns, Fawl was crowded with hilltop palaces stacked atop garden terraces. Only the Nebettan capital, Rolan-Ha, possessed more numerous lavish dwellings of the ruling class.
Ahme had stopped in Fawl dozens of times, but never before had a reason to leave the harbor. Rees did not permit her to venture beyond the warehouses and granaries lining the wharf. Now that they were to attend a party within the city, Ahme could explore Fawl beyond the familiar waterfront. She was eager to see the plazas famous for lush trees and decorative fountains.
After arriving, Rees and Hekten crossed the gangplank and waited for the dockmaster. When he arrived, Hekten handed over nebs for docking fees, then more nebs for the hire of a stone mage to transport Neri-Teri’s statue.
As the enchanter boarded the ship, Neri-Teri and Lemra emerged from the sternhouse, dressed in long white cloaks and broad hats. Ahme looked at the modest attire and realized the noble was concealing her arrival.
Rees realized the same.
“Feeling suddenly shy, are we?” he asked with a smirk.
Neri-Teri raised her nose at the salhulk captain.
“I do not wish to spoil my grand entrance to tonight’s festivities,” she explained haughtily.
She called out to the mage.
“Careful with that,” Neri-Teri warned the enchanter as she stood at the edge of the hold. “Damage my statue in any way, and my guards will feed you to Sporus.”
The mage bowed her head but said nothing. Ahme watched as the woman closed her eyes and extended her hands over the opening below. The mage paused. Her eyelids fluttered open as her face creased with concern.
“This statue is enchanted!” she exclaimed.
Neri-Teri smiled with pride.
“It is indeed!” she replied.
“Do you have any idea how powerfully enchanted?” the incredulous mage asked.
“I do. As I said before, be careful with it.”
The mage cautiously eyed the noble. She resumed her work, muttering quietly so that only Ahme happened to overhear.
“I’m not the one who needs to be careful around this device,” she whispered ominously.
Ahme watched as the statue was raised slowly into the air by unseen forces. No stranger to magic, the girl never tired of seeing a mage at work. Ahme was a little annoyed when Neri-Teri beckoned her to accompany the noble and her steward.
“Put this on,” Neri-Teri ordered, pointing at a thin white cloak cradled in Lemra’s hands.
“We must make haste to Blossom Stair,” she added testily. “Do you not want to attend the party?”
Ahme jumped about, forgetting the mage’s mystical workings as visions of palace halls and rich gardens cast their own enchanting hold over her.
She seized the cloak from Lemra and threw it around her shoulders.
Neri-Teri nodded with approval. She turned and led the way across the plank to the wharf. Her steward followed while Ahme took up the rear, an excited puppy mimicking the larger, more dignified hounds.
Hekten intercepted them.
“I know I am to mind the statue, Zel Osor,” he said, “But allow my guards to escort you.”
Neri-Teri exhaled impatiently.
“An escort! In Fawl?”
Hekten opened his mouth. The woman glared the man into silence.
“Lemra, do we have time to chisel some tablets explaining the concept of a surprise entrance so that we may distribute them to snarky riverboat captains and lump-headed warriors?”
The steward smiled.
“I am afraid not, High One.”
Ahme hid a chuckle at Hekten’s rosy look of befuddlement.
“Pity,” said the noble. She pressed by her embarrassed guard.
They filed past Rees as he gave his daughter a warm smile.
“I will see you this evening,” he said, reassuringly.
They made their way from the waterfront up a long central avenue kept wondrously cool by the shade of its massive trees. The dim shadows beneath the sycamore branches washed over Ahme like a cool bath.
The people, commoners and prosperous merchants, as well as a few nobles, mingled on the streets. Accustomed to the bustle of the city docks, Ahme was astounded that so few people inside Fawl seemed to do any work.
She called after Lemra.
“What is Blossom Stair?” she asked.
“Blossom Stair,” repeated the steward. “It is that palace there!”
She pointed to a distant hill covered with whitewashed terraces brimming with green gardens. A large hall with thick columns crowned the top. Beside it rose a slender tower draped with bright red and violet banners that rippled in the breeze.
“It is the winter home of Lorigar of House Davmose.”
Ahme gazed at the lofty structure. It was by no means the largest or most grand palace in sight, although only the hill occupied by the city fortress loomed higher. From a distance, she could see that Blossom Stair’s dense gardens rivaled those of any other palace in Fawl. In a desert kingdom, Rees taught her, the ability to water thirsty botanical wonders was a sign of extreme power and wealth. Lorigar’s influence and fortune, Ahme observed, was like that of a khet.
“You know that you are to address Lorigar as High One or Zel Davmose?”
Before Ahme could reply, Neri-Teri interjected snidely.
“Just do not call him the catty matchmaker, which is what he is.”
“Neri, please!” Lemra protested.
The servant’s familiar tone surprised Ahme. A change had occurred between steward and noble since leaving the salhulk and Neri-Teri’s guards. Garbed in matching robes that hid their disparate stations in life, the two women walked side by side through the city, addressing one another like friends. It was a fascinating if temporary transformation.
“Your situation will not improve if you offend Zel Davmose,” Lemra said sternly.
Neri-Teri waved her hand dismissively.
“My situation can only improve,” she said gloomily. “Insulting Lorigar is the least of my concerns.”
The noble glanced at Ahme. Neri-Teri frowned as she saw the girl hung onto every word.
“Mind your own business, child,” the noble snapped. “You are not here to eavesdrop on my personal affairs.”
Ahme chafed at being so rudely reprimanded.
“Why are you bringing me to this party?” she asked.
Neri-Teri hesitated as Lemra shot Ahme a look of concern.
“I will tell you,” the noble spoke softly. “After we arrive at the palace.”
Ahme was startled as Neri-Teri warmly draped her arm around the girl’s shoulder. The woman smelled of coconut milk and lotus petals.
“Do not worry,” she chirped. “You will have great fun tonight, I promise. Lorigar’s parties are wondrous spectacles.”
Excitement welled up like oasis waters inside Ahme. She glanced at Neri-Teri and was dismayed by anxious creases fanning out from the smiling woman’s eyes.
“Will you have fun as well?” she asked.
“My clever child,” Neri-Teri said, “I am not here to have fun.”
“We have arrived,” Lemra said to Ahme.
The girl paused, surprised the entrance to Blossom Stair was so worn and battered. The plastered walls were chipped and faded. There was a large weathered door perhaps eight feet wide and ten feet tall, made of warped planks held together by scuffed brass bands.
They stood before it in a narrow alley that reeked of urine and stale beer. The air was smokey and the surrounding buildings grimy with soot.
Ahme had never visited a palace before. Her father’s tales painted grander images of their entryways.
Neri-Teri had her steward take the lead. As the noble watched, Lemra approached the door and yanked a chain dangling from the wall. They heard the muffled ring of a bell.
They waited. From behind the door they heard the dull clink of metal workings. The door was pulled slowly inward, revealing a dark, windowless chamber. Two guards appeared dressed in simple leather armor. They looked unimpressed at the three visitors dressed in plain white cloaks.
“What is your business?” one of them asked coldly.
Neri-Teri stood with her chin tilted upward as though unaware of the man addressing her.
“Zel Osor seeks an audience with Zel Davmose,” Lemra stated ceremoniously.
“I will send word at once,” the guard replied, bowing his head. “Please wait inside, High One!”
They were ushered into the dark chamber. As one guard closed the door, the other guided them to the far side of the building. They passed through an arched gateway and emerged into Ahme’s visions of what endless wealth and power could command.
They had arrived in the first of the many carefully tended gardens of Lorigar’s home. Giant succulents like jade statues nestled together beneath hedges and bushes carefully pruned to resemble exotic animals. At the center of the garden was a circular pool fed by a bubbling fountain.
On the opposite side of the fountain rose the Blossom Stair itself. The broad stairway was a wonder of masonry and clever design. It was made of polished rocks of every color imaginable, assembled along the steep heights of what now seemed to Ahme, standing at its base, more mountain than hill. Adding to the rainbow of stonework were potted flowers placed at the ends of each step. Every pot was brightly painted and glazed, and overflowing with brilliant flowers. Each floral arrangement was unique. The Blossom Stair popped with dazzling hues, like a tangled rainbow unraveled over the hill.
Her eyes followed the blazing trail, searching in vain for the the palace above. The stairway cut back and forth, tracing cliffs and ridgelines above, but the hall was obscured.
Movement by the fountain pulled her attention back to earth.
A servant girl no older than Ahme had appeared, dressed in a fine cotton robe. She approached the edge of the pool with her head down. By the fountain sat a silver platter resplendent with ornate cups and goblets. The girl ladled the fountain water into three cups and offered them to the palace guests.
As Ahme received a cup of refreshing water, she noticed one of the guards standing before the largest bird cage she had ever laid eyes upon. The aviary was big enough for her to stand inside. It was filled with shimmering birds, or what Ahme first mistook for birds. The guard reached through a small door in the cage and pulled out a blue dragonfly the size of a small pigeon. He released the shimmering insect into the air. The dragonfly hovered for a moment, glistening in the sunlight, before darting up the side of the hill.
“Would you care for some honey cakes?”
Ahme turned to the serving girl waiting upon her with a tray of delectable golden cakes. Ahme smiled but the servant kept her eyes glued to her tray.
“Thank you,” Ahme said, plucking a cake off the tray. She was not really hungry, but worried she might offend the girl if she refused.
“Thank you,” the girl repeated flatly. When the other guests declined her cakes, the servant briskly disappeared through a small doorway in the side of the garden.
The guards returned to the dank gatehouse, leaving Ahme, Neri-Teri, and Lemra to sip water and nibble their snacks. Ahme realized the dragonfly was a messenger of sorts, sent to alert Lorigar of their arrival. She gauged that climbing up and down the stairway would require quite some time. She was correct, for perhaps twenty minutes passed before someone descended Blossom Stair to greet them.
That someone turned out to be Lorigar himself, pattering down the grand staircase, dressed in a thin purple robe and worn leather sandals. His modest appearance did not match Ahme’s notion of a stuffy highborn. His behavior, she was about to discover, was even less becoming of this noble station.
“Neri, Neri, Neri!” Lorigar cried with an infectious smile as he hopped down the final steps of his ridiculously long stairwell. “Neri-the-Terror-Teri!”
Stunned by this provocative greeting, Ahme turned, expecting Neri-Teri to be furious. The woman’s smile was as broad as the spindly man’s outstretched arms.
“Hello, old friend,” Neri-Teri said as the two embraced.
They hugged for a long, tender while.
“What a splendid surprise,” said Lorigar. He pulled back from the hug and clasped the woman’s shoulders.
“Of course you arrive just in time to spoil my party,” he said.
“Yes, but you do not mind if I spoil it, do you?”
“Only if you embarrass yourself thoroughly!” Lorigar demanded.
Uncertain what to make of this odd banter, Ahme glanced at Lemra. The steward looked back and rolled her eyes.
“As much as you would adore seeing me fail, Lori,” Neri-Teri explained, “I will triumph. I must!”
Lorigar backed up further, surveying his peer. He folded his long arms behind his back.
“You are delicious,” he said. “Simply delicious! You rival the frozen crab cakes I have had shipped from Dolphin Bay.”
“Crab cakes!” Neri-Teri replied, impressed.
“The centerpiece of tonight’s meal,” he gloated.
“That must have cost you a diamond neb or two.”
“Wait until you see the dessert! The Khet himself will not spend so much on his own wedding banquet.”
An envious gleam chilled Neri-Teri’s warm smile.
“For a man who does not eat, you throw fortunes on food.”
“Do not be angry with me,” Lorigar replied. “You refused my loan. You cannot say I have not offered…”
Neri-Teri shushed the man, driving the smile from his lips.
“What, I cannot speak plainly before your steward,” said Lorigar. “Hello, Lemra!”
“High One!” the steward replied.
“I hear your employer dragged you up the Mud River,” he said, his face full of pity. “To the frontier!”
“It was a great adventure,” Lemra replied dryly.
“I am sure it was not,” Lorigar said.
He turned to Neri-Teri.
“By the Thaya, why would you go up there?”
Neri-Teri’s smile returned, sly and knowing.
“You shall see tonight,” she said.
The excitement in Lorigar’s eye was almost frightening.
“Oh, what scheme are you about?” he asked hungrily.
Neri-Teri pretended to lock her pursed lips with an invisible key.
“Very well,” he said, “I shall wait.”
He turned to Ahme.
“New maid?” he asked.
Neri-Teri presented the frowning child.
“This is Ahme of House Aser,” she said.
“House Aser!” Lorigar scoffed. “I have never heard of it.”
“A prominent noble family from the lakes region.”
Startled by this lie, Ahme managed to keep her expression blank as Lorigar eyed her suspiciously.
“She is a peasant,” he said, widening his eyes.
“How dare you!” Neri-Teri cried indignantly. “You insult a bloodline as ancient as the Great Gardens!”
Lorigar wagged his finger.
“Please, Neri,” he said. “I know an imposter when I see one. Her hands are calloused, her skin sunscorched. She smells like a burp. You would have better luck convincing me one of my throgs is the khet’s vizier.”
Neri-Teri threw up her hands.
“A bath and some powdering, she will blend in with the rest of your guests.”
Ahme wondered if this small welcome garden was all she would get to see of Lorigar’s home. The noble seemed to consider sending her away. The thought of being dismissed because of her class made Ahme surprisingly furious.
“I am not a peasant,” she said, startling the adults. “I am a salhulker! Pretending to be a prissy highborn is not my idea.”
“You spicy pickle!” Lorigar exclaimed, delighted. The owner of Blossom Stair reconsidered Ahme. After a moment he nodded his head thoughtfully.
“I will go along with it,” he said. “I do love your scandalous little games, Neri.”
He dragged the woman into another hug, speaking affectionately in her ear.
“There’s nothing as entertaining as the humiliation of one’s peers.”
Neri-Teri grimaced in her friend’s arms.
Ahme wondered to whose humiliation Lorigar was referring. The noble man turned to the girl.
“Let’s ride, Ahme of House Aser!”
Soon, Ahme was seated on the back of a mule as it lumbered up the palace stairway. Behind her, Lemra clung desperately to the neck of her own mule, the color draining from her face as she teetered up the mountainside. Ahead of Ahme, Neri-Teri was poised gracefully with her legs crossed over her mule’s flank. Her eyes gleamed ambitiously as she watched the city below.
Ahme was comfortable with high places. Climbing her salhulk’s mast had made her accustomed to dizzying heights. Besides, her mule was surprisingly stable. Its sturdy backside shifted familiarly, like a salhulk in a strong headwind. The animal never stumbled or hesitated. It did not disturb the delicate flower pots lining each step. She suspected the mule could make the climb blindfolded.
Lorigar surprised Ahme by refusing to ride. The pampered noble walked briskly at the head of the mule train, sweating but not the least bit winded. Every so often he would stop at one of the small fountains that dotted the landings and splash water on his face. There was a youthful step to the elder. Ahme supposed climbing the palace stair kept Lorigar, whom she guessed to be at least sixty years old, fit and spry.
The stairway reached its zenith at a broad courtyard surrounded by tall swooping palm trees bent over by the easterly winds. A surprisingly low, white marble wall traced the irregular edges of the towering hilltop. One could easily stumble to their death over the knee-high border.
Servants helped the newly arrived guests climb down from their mules. Then, to Ahme’s amazement, the mules made their own way back down the stairway.
Her host saw that the girl was impressed.
“They could do it blindfolded,” Lorigar bragged, confirming Ahme’s previous suspicion.
She looked around the courtyard. A small army of servants was busy setting up banquet tables, pruning dead palm fronds, and stringing decorative lanterns and banners from the trees. Others scattered heaps of flower petals in the fountains and a vast swimming pool at the center of the courtyard. This last feature impressed Ahme most. She peered into the pool and saw it was deeper than the hold of her salhulk.
Lorigar observed the work, calling out instructions here and there, as he led his guests across the courtyard, toward the hall held up by rows of thick round columns.
“Welcome to my home, Ahme of House Aser,” the nobleman said politely.
The structure looked more like a temple than a house. There were no walls and only a few curtains hung between the columns around Lorigar’s bedroom. The noble did not seem concerned for his own privacy.
Beyond the hall rose the slender tower Ahme had spotted from the city below. It was smaller than she first perceived; little bigger than a chimney. It was barely wide enough for a ladder to squeeze inside and allow access to the top.
At the edge of the hall, they were met by a distinguished man dressed in a fine tunic with silver fringe. Similar in age to Ahme’s father, the man’s handsome features wrinkled with suspicion as he greeted Neri-Teri.
“Zel Osor,” he said stiffly.
“A pleasure to see you too, Karmose,” she replied. “I am surprised Lorigar has kept you around this long.”
“There is no greater threat to a noble than a disgruntled former steward,” Karmose replied darkly. “Isn’t that right, Lemra?”
Lemra suddenly looked like she was back on top of her mule.
“Hello, Karmose,” she replied sheepishly.
Karmose smirked as Lorigar draped his arm over the grim man’s shoulder.
“That’s enough, my steward,” the noble chuckled. “Escort our special guests of honor to the Blue Balcony so that they may prepare for tonight.”
Karmose smirk slackened into a frown as he glanced between Lemra and Ahme.
“Guestsss?” he hissed. “Did Neri wed Lemra, raising her to nobility?”
“You wish such a thing were possibile, don’t you, Karmose!” Neri-Teri said snidely.
“Truce!” interjected Lorigar. The noble was no longer amused.
“Both of you, please,” he pleaded sadly.
Karmose bit his lip but added nothing.
“I have preparations to oversee,” Lorigar continued. “Then lunch and a nap! I am very busy.”
He turned to Neri-Teri.
“I will see you this evening,” he said.
“Thank you, Lori,” she replied.
As their host turned to leave, a giant purple dragonfly buzzed through the air over their heads. Ahme watched as the insect darted over Lorigar’s bed into a cage similar to the one at the bottom of the hill.
Lorigar watched the purple blur then turned to his steward.
“Another delivery?” Lorigar said aloud.
“All my orders have arrived,” replied Karmose. Ahme could sense he was a very organized individual.
“Oh, I’m having a little something delivered,” she said. “I trust your guards will let it through.”
Lorigar waved his hand dismissively. He left.
Neri-Teri glanced at Ahme and widened her eyes with delight.
Karmose watched disapprovingly at the shared glance, then shook his head.
“This way, High One.”
They walked around the hall to the base of the tower. There, they found a narrow stairway tucked between two boulders bulging out of the corner of the hill. They descended the steps, down the chasm, and arrived at a small balcony carved into a hillside covered in vines with small blue blossoms.
The balcony held an impressive view of the northern neighborhoods of Fawl. Ahme could gaze into courtyards and alleyways, spy out private gardens and yards. From the balcony’s height, lesser palaces below resembled ornate dollhouses. Ahme looked beyond the city at the broad green crescent of irrigated farmlands. Rich croplands gave way to stark brown floodplains that spread to the horizon. The Thaya unfurled up the eastern edge of the vista, while the shadowy towers of the forgotten khets punctured the sky to the northwest.
A dour voice pulled Ahme’s attention from the grand view.
“I will have refreshments sent,” Karmose said grudgingly as he turned to leave.
“Thank you, steward,” Neri-Teri said.
Karmose hunched his shoulders. He quickened his pace up the stairs.
“What a grump!” Neri-Teri whispered.
Ahme looked around the small balcony. Apart from enjoying the view, there was nothing to do in the cozy pocket embedded in vines and rock.
“Are we supposed to just stand here until tonight?” she asked.
“What are you on about?” Neri-Teri asked. “We must bathe and dress ourselves.”
Before Ahme could ask how, the noble pointed behind the girl.
Ahme turned, her eyes spreading like eggs cracked over a skillet. Inside the hill was a glistening cavern hall. Jagged honey-colored spires embedded in amber mounds of rock held up the vast ceiling above. Rich carpets were spread across the cavern floor while brilliant tapestries were hung along the walls. Natural platforms in the rock were fitted with beds and furniture. Brightly painted silk screens formed private areas for guests to dress behind in the vast airy chamber. The cavern sparkled with hundreds of white candles clumped together on glaciers of hardened wax inching their way down shimmering brown rocks.
Lemra was already inside, standing on one of the guest platforms and building a fire beneath a brass cauldron filled with water.
“Are you making a stew?” Ahme asked.
The steward laughed.
“This is for your bath,” she replied.
“Oh!” Ahme exclaimed. She had only ever washed in a river. As the steward shoved logs into the hungry flames beneath the metal tub, Ahme grew anxious.
“You are going to boil me dead,” she said.
Lemra laughed again.
“Nonsense,” Neri-Teri said. “A hot bath is just what you need.”
She tousled Ahme’s hair then withdrew her hand with disgust.
“We will have to wait for my luggage to arrive,” the noble said glumly. “We need soap.”
Ahme jerked her head away from the woman’s hand.
“What is soap?” she asked.
As evening approached, Ahme sat in the steaming cauldron of water, her hair clinging like a hot rag to her scalp as Lemra scrubbed the child’s back with a long-handled brush.
“That hurts!” Ahme whined, gripping the sides of the tub.
“What does?” Lemra asked, breathless from scrubbing.
“All of it!”
“Good! That means you’re getting clean.”
The steward resumed scouring Ahme’s flesh. She groaned.
They were alone. Neri-Teri had taken up the highest bedroom in the cavern. She was hidden behind a set of silver painted screens, presumably taking her own bath in preparation for the coming banquet. The talkative noble had grown quiet during the afternoon. Ahme considered the fearless woman’s mounting anxiety.
“What troubles Neri-Teri?” she asked over her shoulder.
The steward hesitated before answering in a hushed voice.
“You are not to tell anyone this,” she whispered, “but Zel Osor is in search of a husband.”
The girl frowned. This was not the kind of trouble she expected of a beautiful highborn.
“What is stopping her?” asked Ahme, genuinely confused.
“There are a few obstacles,” Lemra said. “First off, Neri-Teri is bankrupt. Few nobles know this for certain, but many suspect it. Their greed prevents them from marrying a poor noble, no matter how esteemed her ancient lineage. House Osor can trace bloodlines back to the days of Xeva. Yet without two nebs to rub together, Neri might as well be a fishmonger’s heir.”
“And, of course, she does not want to marry,” added the steward. “She has spent most of her life avoiding it, with great success. She values her freedom too much to be trapped by marriage. It is only her fear of being poor that makes Neri risk that freedom now.”
“What is wrong with being poor?” Ahme said.
The steward laughed.
“Nothing,” she said. “But try convincing a noble that!”
Lemra chortled some more as she poured sweet smelling oils into Ahme’s hair. The steward’s powerful fingers massaged the oils deep into the girl’s scalp. Lemra continued.
“Women are fated to marry. Avoiding that fate for the better part of three decades has made Neri-Teri a bit of an outcast. Nobles also do not like that she is eccentric and strong-willed. She likes to travel, to exercise and do the occasional spot of work. She is constantly trying to learn and improve herself. Very unusual for a noble woman.”
Ahme’s confusion deepened.
“What is wrong with all of that?” Ahme asked. “I am strong-willed!”
“Neri and I have observed this,” Lemra said, a hint of admiration in her voice. “But you are young. You will find out one day, your strength will shine and intimidate others. They will hate you for your glow.”
“That is silly,” Ahme shot back.
“Noblemen are the most insecure creatures under Sorna’s Sight,” Lemra continued. “Most would not set foot near a confident woman like Neri. I suspect salhulkers will treat you the same.”
The steward sighed.
Ahme sat grimacing in the tub. Lemra’s explanations were absurd and cruel.
“All Neri has left to entice her peers is her singular beauty,” the steward continued. “And even that is fading with age. She is past forty.”
Ahme threw up her hands.
“What does age have to do with beauty?” she demanded. To Ahme, Neri-Teri was majestic and stunning, like a blue crane soaring on the edge of a storm, or the trident contours of the Great Gardens when the sun sets behind them.
The steward held a finger to her lips.
“Not so loud,” she hissed.
Frustrated, Ahme struggled to lower her voice.
“If she is so undesirable,” the girl scoffed, “then how does she hope to find a husband tonight?”
Before the steward replied, a thought occurred to Ahme.
“The statue!” she said aloud.
“What does the spell do exactly?”
“I do not know exactly,” the steward replied. “No one knows but the High One and the Mirrorvex mage she hired to carve and bewitch that thing.”
Mirrorvex! Ahme lit up with wonder at the mention of that forbidden place. The most distant and isolated of the royal quarries, Mirrorvex was the primary source of magestone in the kingdom. The mine was so valuable, Khet Rothmose stationed an army there, despite the fact that the settlement was so remote, no enemy could possibly reach it.
“Neri has spent the last of her fortune on that cursed thing,” said Lemra. “And now she plans to use it on the other nobles.”
Hearing these last words, Ahme felt a chill race up her spine.
“Is the statue dangerous?” she asked.
“I do not know,” Lemra replied. “I hope not. I know Neri does not want any harm to come to you or your father. She brought you along out of a genuine desire to see you have fun and learn a little femininity. Like I said before, Neri is eccentric. Disguising commoners and bringing them to a highborn party is part of her mischievous streak. An act of defiance to a society that tells people how to look and behave.”
Ahme considered this rebelliousness and decided she approved. She hoped jokingly that Neri-Teri’s statue did not accidentally kill her.
“It was nice of her to invite Rees to tell his tales,” she said.
“Well, that was done more to convince him to stop at Fawl than it was admiration for his writing.”
Lemra shook her head.
“Some of his stories are rather weird,” she said.
Ahme liked her father’s stories, but she did not disagree.
The parade-gown, in Ahme’s opinion, turned out to be a wearable torture chamber. Designed by Neri-Teri and engineered by Lemra, it made the girl feel like a sausage wrapped in metal flatbread. The primary source of Ahme’s pain was the main feature of her evening wear; a golden bodice curled tightly around Ahme’s torso from her waist to the top of her chest. Despite bare neck and shoulders, the outfit was stifling. Torrents of sweat gushed down the small of her back into sponges sewn into a green leather belt cinched around her waist.
“How does it feel?” Lemra asked. The steward was busy putting the finishing touches on the thankfully simple silk skirt hanging loosely around Ahme’s legs.
“Is that a joke?” Ahme asked, shifting uncomfortably.
The steward’s concentration broke as she offered a pitying glance.
“A little pain is expected,” she said.
“I think my armpits are bleeding,” Ahme said sarcastically.
If this was how young noble women were expected to dress, Ahme was thrilled to be a common salhulker. Sailors did not have to fear getting dressed.
“One last thing!”
The steward took a bunch of brilliant feathers bound together like the head of a lavish broom.
“What poor bird died to make that?” Ahme asked, having never seen such long blue quills.
Lemra attached the feathers to Ahme’s belt.
“Peacock feathers,” Lemra replied. “They are from a distant land… I forget the name. They are very expensive.”
Ahme looked down at the plumage dangling from her waist.
“What does it do?” she asked.
“That’s it!” she said.
Neri-Teri’s voice marked her arrival.
“It signifies that you are unwed,” the noble said.
Ahme watched as the woman descended from her bedroom through the cavern. She wore an elegant gown of yellow silk which flowed like cream down the stone steps. Ahme noted enviously how loosely the older woman’s gown draped over her body, although the fabric appeared a bit snug above the noble’s tummy.
“Of course I am unwed,” Ahme said. “I am twelve years old.”
Neri-Teri shook her head as though embarrassed on Ahme’s behalf. She stood beside her steward, the two women silently appraising Ahme’s appearance. At last, Neri-Teri nodded her head with approval.
“Fine work, Lemra,” she said.
The steward sighed with relief.
“Thank you, High One,” she said.
“Fine work!” cried Ahme. “I cannot turn my chest.”
She demonstrated, straining from left to right like a rudder caught between two rocks.
“You do not need to turn,” Neri-Teri said. “And no bathroom breaks, either. Avoid drinks. You cannot pee until the party is over.”
“I am sweating a river,” Ahme shot back. “If I do not drink, I will pass out.”
“Young noble women faint all the time at parties,” Neri-Teri replied dismissively. “It is a sign of privilege and fragility.”
Confused, Ahme glanced from Neri-Teri to Lemra.
“That’s a good thing,” the steward explained.
Before she could protest further, Neri-Teri motioned to the balcony.
“It is time,” she said. “Follow me.”
Sorna had departed, towing behind her a violet robe embedded with raw diamonds. Renthu, free of Sorna’s fiery gaze, began to sigh, venting the day’s heat from his body into the air. The shimmering vapors continued to cook Fawl, but Renthu’s breath could not reach the top of Blossom Stair. The palace atop the hill was much cooler than the city below.
Ahme followed the women to the balcony. As the girl admired the city with its sparkling lights below, she was surprised when Neri-Teri wished her steward a pleasant evening.
“Good luck tonight, High One,” the steward replied.
“You are not coming?” Ahme asked Lemra.
She shook her head.
“Servants do not attend the Equinox celebration,” Neri-Teri explained. “It is an old tradition. It is the one party of the year where they are forbidden.”
“The common folk are not to share in the food and wine of their betters, nor witness their entertainments.”
Ahme sneered with disgust.
“That is not fair,” she said.
“That is the point,” she said
“Then what about me?” Ahme demanded, knowing salhulkers were seen as commoners.
Neri-Teri motioned for Lemra to depart. The steward nodded and slipped into the cave. The noble then surprised Ahme by gently taking hold of her hand. Neri-Teri smiled warmly at the child. Together they walked carefully up the stairs. Distant music, lively and inviting, echoed from above.
“Tonight,” Neri-Teri began, “I need you to be my ward. You are Ahme of House Aser, a young noble on the cusp of womanhood, sent by your wealthy family to be my protege.”
Stunned, Ahme vigorously shook her head.
“What?” she asked.
Neri-Teri’s response only deepened her vexation.
“Your gown signifies you are now a woman. As such, you are ready for marriage.”
Ahme looked down at the gold squeezing her lungs like a metal fist. She seized hold of her collar, ready to pry the bodice off.
“I am not marrying anyone!” she defiantly declared.
Neri-Teri grabbed her hands. The noble’s grip was surprisingly strong.
“Of course not,” Neri-Teri said with a smile. “Nor are you really my ward. I am asking you to pretend to be these things, just for tonight.”
Ahme pulled herself to the side of the stairway, out of Neri-Teri’s grasp.
“Please,” the girl pleaded. “Tell me why.”
Although Lemra had confided her employer’s troubles, Ahme wanted to hear Neri-Teri’s own explanation.
The sudden look of sadness on Neri-Teri’s face startled Ahme. The noble backtracked down the stairway, passing Ahme by a few steps so that the pair could face each other, eye to eye.
“Lemra has perhaps told you of my difficult situation,” Neri-Teri whispered.
“Minor nobles pay great sums to send their children to learn from the great houses,” she explained. “My having a ward demonstrates I have a source of income. Rumors of my financial ruin will be dispelled, making suitors more likely to call. After that, my statue will do the rest.”
Neri-Teri placed a warm hand on Ahme’s shoulder.
“Will you do this for me?”
Ahme’s desire to help was strong, yet one concern held up her agreement.
“Is the statue dangerous?” she asked, thinking of her and her father’s fate.
“Not at all,” Neri-Teri replied. “It simply heightens my appeal.”
This vague explanation only filled Ahme with more questions concerning the statue’s powers. Yet she could see from the urgency in the noble’s face, Neri-Teri would no longer delay her attendance to the party.
“I will help you,” Ahme said reluctantly.
Neri-Teri’s grin was beautiful and disarming.
“You and your father are fantastic,” she said. “Who knew commoners could be so frustratingly complicated and unexpectedly friendly?”
Annoyed by the woman’s condescension, Ahme shook her head and held back a few sharp words. The noble then offered her hand for support. They continued carefully up the steps.
True to Neri-Teri’s explanation, the army of servants who toiled to prepare Lorigar’s party was nowhere to be seen. In their place were hundreds of the most bizarre and garishly dressed people Ahme had ever laid eyes upon. She gawked at the galaxy of jewels and dyes splashed across the crowd as the people danced to the heavy drums of the musicians. Everywhere she looked, magnificent and cumbersome displays of feathers caught Ahme’s eye. She quickly forgot her self-consciousness about the paltry feather duster dangling from her belt.
Even with a stiff wind blowing across the hilltop, the air was heavy with the smell of the upper class. Pungent oils and perfumes assaulted her nose so much that it was a struggle to keep from plugging her fingers into her nostrils. Ahme was flabbergasted that no one else was bothered by the overwhelming atmosphere. She did her best to pretend the same immunity.
The music, at least, gave the girl hope for a fun evening. A band of musicians wedged against the edge of the pool made the air pulse with electric harmonies. They were accompanied by a pair of light mages, whose mystical crafts filled the sky above with violent dazzling swirls of color that seemed to battle and make peace over and over again.
“Are they not servants as well?” she asked, bobbing her head as she pointed at the artists by the pool.
“Exceptions are made for entertainment,” Neri-Teri said. The noble did not seem particularly interested in the lights or the music. She was too busy scanning the crowd.
Ahme gazed in wonder at the magical performance. The music thrilled her ears. Her legs bounced, her arms noodled. The rhythm thrummed her chest. Ahme found herself smiling.
She stopped swaying as Neri-Teri tugged on her hand.
“We must be seen together,” she said, glancing at a distracting blue orb that had appeared above the party. Jagged glowing fissures raced across the sphere. The cracks fumed tendrils of yellow smoke as the orb shuddered then exploded into a thousand swimming fish of every shape and color imaginable. While Ahme was astounded, the noble was barely impressed.
“Cute,” she said, turning back to the child beside her.
“Do not worry,” Neri-Teri added. “I will let you wander alone soon.”
Ahme was intimidated by the thought of navigating the party alone. She determined that after Neri-Teri released her, Ahme would cozy up to one of the palm trees on the edge of the courtyard and enjoy the music and magic by herself.
Neri-Teri towed Ahme through the throng. Her guide, Ahme noticed, was greeted by surprised looks amongst the crowd. Some that recognized Neri-Teri angled their attention to the golden girl walking beside her. Ahme felt her neck broil under such ruthless stares.
She spotted other children dressed like her. Girls around eleven or twelve years old, wrapped like shiny little packages to be presented to society. Ahme tried to catch the eye of those she passed, to share a secret sympathetic glance. She was astonished that the other girls did not seem to mind being sheathed like ceremonial daggers. Some looked at Ahme with indifference. Others were aghast, as though the unfamiliar girl had arrived to steal attention.
Ahme’s plan to hide by a tree was growing more appealing by the moment.
Before she could escape, Neri-Teri guided her towards Lorigar and his steward, Karmose. As they drew near, Ahme spoke into Neri-Teri’s ear.
“I thought servants could not attend,” Ahme said.
“Servants, no. Lovers, yes.”
Ahme nodded. She better understood the two men’s relationship. She was pleased to discover some fairness amongst the elitist gathering.
Indeed, Karmose was dressed every bit as rich and pretentiously as his partner Lorigar. They both wore long, finely pleated robes. Lorigar’s was a pale blue and Karmose’s a deep red. They each wore a gold necklace with obsidian scarab pendants hanging over their chests.
“Neri, you look divine!”
Lorigar smiled gaily as he seized Neri-Teri’s hands. Like a rooster, he pecked her knuckles with kisses. Lorigar looked down at Ahme and raised his eyebrows with surprise.
“As does your ward,” he said with a sly wink.
The man and woman chuckled. Ahme frowned.
“A river rat disguised as a palace kitty!” Lorigar laughed.
Anger welled up inside Ahme. She was about to offer a few harsh words when Karmose beat Ahme to it.
“Shut your mouth, you old bigot!”
Stunned, Lorigar’s teeth clicked together. Karmose cheeks were as red as his robe.
“You speak like you’ve never seen a commoner disguised as a noble. People like her are born with class. What she has is not found in clothing provided by rich snobs like you two.”
As Karmose railed against Lorigar and Neri-Teri, he jabbed an accusatory finger into his lover’s chest. Neri-Teri tossed her head indignantly but remained silent. Lorigar wilted like a flower pressed with a hot poker.
Ahme’s anger subsided as she witnessed the harsh flogging administer on her behalf. Karmose’s fury surprised her.
“Calm down, my love,” Lorigar spoke softly. “You have been so moody today.”
Karmose let out a deep breath. After a moment, he grew calm.
“I am sorry,” he apologized. “The Equinox gala makes me feel so judged. I hate it.”
“What would you know about being judged!” she said with a sneer.
Expecting Karmose to bite back, Ahme was surprised when the man seemed embarrassed. Whatever trials and insults the steward had endured, Karmose believed Neri-Teri’s situation to be worse.
“My apologies,” the man said, holding up his hands in surrender.
“Come now,” Lorigar interjected. “This is my party and I won’t have my two favorite snappy crocodiles chewing each other to pieces. It is not the kind of humiliation I enjoy.”
Ahme anxiously wondered what kind of humiliation Lorigar so desired. She hoped it did not involved her.
His mood softened, Karmose addressed Neri-Teri.
“That is quite the delivery we received today,” he said slyly. “I expect you want to show it off. Shall we unveil it before or after the parade!”
“After, of course. I want it to be the climax of the party.”
Neri-Teri paused to search for her statue.
“Where is it?” she asked.
“Calm yourself, Neri,” said Lorigar. “That dour mage delivered it in one piece. She is waiting to bring your statue when beckoned.”
“How long?” the noble woman asked impatiently.
Lorigar glanced at a time coil hanging on a nearby palm tree.
“How about two hours from now,” he said.
“Very well,” she said, turning to Ahme. “Go mingle!”
“Mingle?” repeated Ahme. “What does that mean?”
“Chat!” Neri-Teri said. The woman seemed suddenly eager to be free of the child’s company. “Talk to people. Eat some food, enjoy the music. Whatever you desire, go do.”
Annoyed to be so rudely dismissed, Ahme wandered into the party. To her relief, she was largely ignored, like a spirit haunting the top of the hill. Oblivious guests stepping on her toes and jostling her elbows reminded Ahme that she was not a ghost.
Maybe it was the metal sheet cinched around her aching stomach, or nervousness from being surrounded by so many well-to-do strangers, but Ahme was not hungry. She passed by the vast tables spread with unfamiliar foods, many of which looked unappetizing. One table was covered in baskets of bog plums, gruesome fruits the color of rotted leaves that stank of swamp vapors when opened. Ahme was astounded that the inedible fruits were being served. Another table was devoted entirely to meat, roasted and fried, boiled or raw. In the center was a large tray with rows of neat little mounds of pink flesh that Ahme supposed were the crab cakes Lorigar gushed about earlier. The smorgasbord made her queasy.
She made her way to the base of a palm tree along the northern edge of the hill. There was a tin lantern hanging from a hook in the trunk, but it had blown out. With no servants around to rekindle the flame, Ahme was able to lean inconspicuously against the tree. She felt free in the shadows to enjoy the music and magical illuminations.
Her privacy was immediately invaded by a tall boy a few years older than herself, dressed in leather armor over an expensive cotton tunic. The wannabe warrior brandished a decorative spear made of polished wood with bright red ribbons streaming like blood from the spearhead.
“Cool evening,” the boy said, bowing his head.
“Hello,” Ahme replied.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said grandly. Although his voice was bright and merry, his hard little eyes stared down his sharp nose like a vulture spying out a dead rabbit.
“Go ahead,” Ahme interjected. She instantly detested the boy’s haughty air. She wondered if he knew she was a commoner and was treating her as such.
“I am Whenmose of House Crulekut,” he declared. “And you are?”
Although Ahme was not very knowledgeable about noble houses, the Crulekut name was vaguely familiar. She was too busy pretending to be a noble to give House Crulekut more thought.
“Ahme,” she replied, before hastily adding. “Oh, of House Aser.”
She wondered if a noble introduction required more, like mention of being Neri-Teri’s ward. The boy’s nod of satisfaction made her conclude she had said enough.
“A pleasure, Ahme of House Aser!”
Ahme flinched as Whenmose snatched her hand and pulled it toward his lips. Her nostrils flared, taking in the stench of the boy’s cologne.
“No thanks,” Ahme said, plucking her hand free. Whenmose’s beady eyes widened with shock. He pulled back his rejected paw and ran it over his glossy black bun of hair.
“House Aser…” he began, regaining his poise. “I have not heard of it!”
Somehow, this admission of ignorance came across as an accusation. The boy’s charge of dishonesty made Ahme furious, even though she was in fact trying to fool him.
“We hail from the lakes,” she said, proud of her quick, credible response. She knew she had distant relatives in the lakes district, and she had once heard a nobleman use the word hail. Ahme was tickled by her own usage of the word.
She hesitated, not expecting a follow-up question. Although she had seen most of the lakes district, she suddenly could not recall any of the lake’s names.
Whenmose waited impatiently for a reply.
“All the lakes, of course,” she blurted. “We are a large house.”
Somehow, the boy not only believed Ahme, but was greatly impressed by her apparent wealth. His predatory gaze gleamed with hunger as he inspected her gown.
“House Aser must be a relatively young clan,” he said. “Otherwise, I would have heard of it.”
He looked up, a queer smirk on his lips.
“Young?” she asked.
“New money,” he whispered, as though sharing in a nasty secret.
“Do not worry,” Whenmose whispered. “Unlike my parents, I do not mind new money. They would not prevent our union if I found favor with you.”
“You have not heard of that term before? Do they not school girls in the frontier lands?”
Ahme clenched her jaw. She had had enough of this uptight, sneering lion cub.
“I refer to marriage, of course,” Whenmose continued. “My parents…”
The boy paused as Ahme burst with laughter. The thought of marrying this sniveling snob was so silly, it made her bend over cackling as she squeezed her arms around her stomach. People nearby turned to see what was causing so much mirth.
“Marry…” Ahme gasped for air. “You!”
Whenmose sniffed but otherwise stood still, silently enduring the gale of laughter.
“I’m sorry,” she said, regaining her breath. She tried to speak, blurting out her thoughts between hearty chuckles. “Not really… you’re so unpleasant… Your confidence… it’s absurd!”
As she finally reigned in her snickering, another boy and girl approached. Like Ahme, the newcomers were tickled by Whenmose’s stuffy discomfort.
“Goodness, When,” the girl said. “Even in this shadow, I can see your cheeks are red.”
“He shines like a baked ham,” the boy chimed in. “What did this woman say to embarrass you so.”
Ahme stopped laughing. She looked from her apparent suitor to the boy and girl dressed in their fine attire. The girl was rolled in a sheet of gold, just like Ahme. It dawned on her that while she saw a group of children gathered under a tree, these nobles saw themselves as young adults ready for marriage and all that entailed. The realization was chilling.
“Cool evening, Peritet,” Whenmose tightly greeted the girl. “Jaren.”
Despite his humiliation, the boy mustered incredible control as he politely introduced the newcomers.
“Ahme of House Aser,” he said, regaining his imperious air. “Allow me to introduce Peritet of House Rothmose, and my cousin Jaren of House Crulekut.”
Ahme grew nervous as she recognized Peritet’s house. The girl was related to Khet Rothmose himself.
“Hello,” she said awkwardly. She had no idea she would be interacting with the kin of Nebetta’s omnipotent ruler.
Peritet greeted her politely. The noble seemed completely at ease in her rigid gown. Her smile was likewise hard and shining, a superficial fixture to her face.
Jaren’s smile was less constant but more sincere. He flashed his bright teeth at Ahme as he threw an arm over his stern cousin’s shoulder. The boys did not look anything alike, with Whenmose tall and birdlike, and Jaren stout and cheerful like a well fed puppy. While Whenmose played at being a warrior, his cousin shirked armor and wore just a plain silk tunic. The only flourish was a long white cape fastened with gold scarab pendants on each shoulder.
“Where are you from, Ahme?” Jaren asked.
The boy’s sincere curiosity made Ahme feel guilty for lying.
“The lakes,” she said.
“Which one?” asked Peritet.
“All of them,” she said.
Peritet’s smile was rattled but held firm as she shared a doubtful glance at her companion.
“I mean,” Ahme stammered on, “We have palaces on all the main lakes. Crane Lake, Ibis Lake, Pelican Lake.”
She trailed off before her silent audience. All three noble children were drenched in thick smelling perfumes and oils. It made Ahme want to gag.
“They say Crane Lake is ruled by salhulkers and pirates,” the boy said before adding with a chuckle. “As if there is any difference between the two.”
Jaren and Peritet laughed, while Whenmose cracked a mean smile. Ahme joined in, her sarcastic guffaw drowning out her confused peers.
“Ha-ha-ha!” Ahme paused to flick away invisible tears. “That is so funny. Right? Because they have opposite behaviors. Oh, the irony!”
She fake chortled some more.
Peritet’s veil of teeth finally dropped. Whenmose gazed in open disgust at Ahme, while Jaren watched her laugh in silent appraisal.
“I think I’ll have a drink,” she said, turning to leave. Realizing that she could not do much more damage to her image as a polite noble from the north, she paused for a parting comment.
“You southern nobles wear too much perfume,” she declared, pinching her nose.
Whenmose and Peritet both gasped.
“You smell like a rosebush stuffed with dead fish.”
Jaren furtively sniffed his armpit.
Ahme made for the beverage table. She had had enough mingling.
Lorigar had provided his guests with enough wine and beer to fill the swimming pool. Stacked wine jars and barrels formed a barricade between the main house and the festivities. Ahme found a basket filled with cups and goblets and pulled out a silver cup. She found a jar with painted with the image of grapes hovering above a river and dipped her cup inside.
She took a sip of watered-down wine and realized she was truly thirsty. As she downed the rest of her drink, she glanced at the other children. Peritet and Whenmose were whispering to one another as they shot disapproving glances at the strange girl by the fortress of libations. Jaren had disappeared.
A burst of laughter pulled Ahme’s attention to a small gathering nearby. Some twenty or so men and women had gathered in a circle. As their laughter died down, Ahme caught a familiar voice rising from the center of the ring.
“Rees,” she said, feeling inexplicably nervous for her father. Refilling her cup, she made her way to the gathering. As she wormed her way through the bodies encompassing the storyteller, Ahme began to make out the words.
“Not The Scum Merchant of Elnia,” she groaned.
She had once, and only once, read the scroll containing her father’s ribald story. Mortified, Ahme swore to never read it again. A few months later, she was forced to listen to the tale from her father’s own lips. He used the story as a distraction during a card game with some rival salhulk captains. The ploy worked. His vulgar telling broke the concentration of the salhulkers, allowing Rees to rake in ten silver nebs. The money almost made up for his daughter’s trauma, who was charged with keeping the card players’ cups full of beer and thus could not escape the cabin during the telling.
Ahme was about to turn around, when a familiar line boomed over the crowd.
“She stepped on the ball!”
The gathering roared with laughter as Ahme rolled back her shoulders with relief. The punchline told, The Scum Merchant of Elnia, had ended. As the nobles applauded, Ahme forced her way into the inner circle.
She found her father beaming roguishly as nobles clapped his shoulders and offered him drinks. He was astonishingly dressed like a prince. Where he had found such a handsome ensemble, Ahme had no clue. Rees wore a black silk tunic with decorative brass fittings. An equally unfamiliar pair of fine leather sandals nestled his pale, freshly washed feet. Rees’ usual sunhat was gone, revealing the man’s bald crown and smoothly combed hair. The only thing familiar about this regal stranger was the crocodile-tooth necklace around his neck.
Eager to ask where he got this fine wardrobe, Ahme stopped, unsure how a noble girl from the lakes region should address a bard. Rees, having spotted his daughter, came up with a solution.
“Cool evening to you, young High One,” he called out to Ahme. “Have you come to request a tale more to your liking?”
A few nobles watched Ahme as the girl fidgeted nervously.
“Um… No, thank you.”
Rees crouched down beside his daughter, a charismatic entertainer trying to put a young audience member at ease. Those nearby saw this and turned to mingle amongst themselves. They did not see a father and daughter trying to meet in disguise.
“Are you sure?” Rees continued. “How about the Celebration of the Jackals? Or The Society of Numbheads! Or my daughter’s personal favorite, The Cursed Golden Sausage!”
“I do not know any of those…”
She paused, forcing her angry grimace into a tight grin.
“I am not a sausage,” she whispered.
Her father’s eyes sparkled with mirth.
“May I recite to you The Salhulker’s Escape?” he asked. “It will cheer you up, should this party become a bore.”
Ahme shook her head. She knew her father was suggesting she return to the salhulk.
“I want to see Zel Osor’s statue,” she said.
Someone sneered over her shoulder.
“Don’t we all!”
Ahme turned, gazing up at a woman draped in red silk and bejeweled like a Gollian merchant’s jewelry stand. Although she was responding to Ahme’s comment, the woman had no interest in the girl.
“What has that odd woman come up with now?” the noble said cattily to a man with a silver handprint stamped on his bald head.
“Another pathetic act of desperation!” the man replied. A third guest added her own disparaging tone.
“Can you believe she sailed to the royal quarries herself,” the woman scoffed. “A zel! Traveling practically alone! To the frontier!?”
The man shook his head.
“She has always been a funny one,” he lamented. “Hard to believe House Osor has fallen so low.”
Ahme listened, fascinated by this petty bashing. She was startled by her father’s hand on her shoulder.
She looked at Rees. He shook his head slightly, warning her to remain quiet. He recognized before she did, Ahme’s sudden urge to defend the once-irksome woman who had hired their salhulk and smuggled them into this highborn party.
Instead of interrupting the snark beside her, she made a request of the bard.
“Why don‘t you tell everyone the story of Puddel the Thief.”
Rees’ smile slipped away.
“I do not think that story would be appropriate,” he said, glancing around nervously. “For this particular crowd.”
A nobleman with an emerald necklace standing nearby tilted his ear toward the bard and young girl.
“Oh? A tale more scandalous than the last!”
The man guffawed.
“Let’s hear it, bard!” he demanded.
Other nobles cheered, nodding their heads.
“Yes! Let’s!” one said eagerly.
Rees glared at his smug daughter before reattaching the smile to his face.
“My apologies, High Ones,” he boomed. “If it is scandal you want, I have a number of frothy tales for your amusement! Just let me think for a moment…”
Ahme called out.
“Puddel the Thief! Puddel the Thief!”
Her chant was taken up by the man with the emerald necklace. Soon the bard’s whole audience was shaking their fists, demanding Puddel the Thief.
Rees raised his hands.
“Very well,” he called out. “If that is the tale you wish to hear, then that is the tale I shall tell.”
The crowd cheered.
Rees leaned down to his daughter’s ear.
“Now I will have to improvise a new story on the spot!” he complained.
“Just tell them the real story,” Ahme suggested.
“Very funny,” he said. “Some of these fools are wearing swords. I do not wish to die tonight.”
Rees gently shove his daughter away as he cleared his throat.
“High Borns!” he called out. “I shall now commence telling the infamous tale of Puddel the Thief!”
Ahme folded her arms, eager to see her father wiggle out of his predicament. Reciting Puddel the Thief to nobles was like standing amidst a pod of hippos and shouting at them to share their territory while smearing barbecue sauce on their calves.
“Puddel was the greatest thief in the kingdom,” Rees began. “One day he decided to steal the magic opal of Demigraw…”
Ahme’s slumped with disappointment. Her father had kept the story’s title, but was telling the tale of the Cursed Jewel of Demigraw, another bawdy story unpleasant to hear from her father’s lips. Ahme fled.
She had not gotten far when Neri-Teri appeared, wordlessly, adjusting Ahme’s hair.
“What are you doing?” Ahme asked, swatting away the woman’s hands.
“It is time,” Neri-Teri said.
“Time for what?” Ahme asked, glancing about the party. She noticed Peritet likewise being groomed by a pair of noble women. A strange dread filled Ahme as she saw that just about every girl imprisoned in a metal bodice was touching up hair and smoothing skirts.
Satisfied with her ward’s appearance, Neri-Teri stepped back.
“The parade,” she said. “I will announce you, then you will walk slowly around the pool.”
“Why would I do that?”
“So the men can witness what a charming young woman you have become.”
The cloud of fury darkening Ahme’s face startled the calm noble. Neri-Teri took a cautious step beyond the girl’s reach.
“Do not look at me like that,” Neri-Teri snapped. “Walk around the pool, wave at the crowd, smile like a fool, and then you are free to do as you please.”
Neri-Teri was as tense as Ahme was angry. The parade was evidently important to the woman’s plans.
“Fine,” Ahme grumbled.
The music stopped. Lorigar appeared by the pool while guests cleared a small space around him. The zel held up a bog plum. As he spoke, he tossed the ripe little fruit from one hand to the other.
“My fine guests,” the man called out gleefully. “Even though this is my party, honoring me, your handsome, eternally youthful, splendiferous host…
People in the crowd chuckled. Not seeing the humor, Ahme supposed most of the guests were drunk.
“Tradition forces me to share the spotlight with you little brats,” Lorigar continued. “Our fine young ladies, the cusp of womanhood, those hideously outdated gowns, blah, blah, blah!”
The nobles were no longer amused by their host. Ahme chuckled.
The zel paused, brandishing the plum over his head. He looked at Ahme and his smile widened mischievously. Ahme stopped laughing.
“Let us begin!”
The crowd cheered. As the girls made their way toward the pool, boys scrambled like famished rats over the table of bog plums. They piled their arms with the ugly fruit.
“What are the plums for?” Ahme demanded.
Neri-Teri responded by sliding like a viper behind Ahme and nudging her forward.
“The boys throw plums at the girls they like,” Neri-Teri said nonchalantly as she forced her ward through the crowd.
Ahme dug in her heels but it was too late. They had reached the clearing around the pool. The musicians began to play a sweet, chirping melody that she instantly hated. Everything was happening so quickly, she did not have time to flee the woman guarding her back like an executioner.
“If anyone throws anything at me,” Ahme said through her grinding teeth, “I will tear off their…”
She was interrupted by a man in a lavish silver robe and pearls embedded in his hair.
“House Starpel of Rash-Ha,” he eagerly blared, “presents the womanhood of the beautiful and accomplished Yutet Starpel!”
Ahme was startled by thunderous applause as a young woman with bright red cheeks and a nervous smile detached herself from the grip of the man in the silver robe. Realizing they were father and daughter, Ahme watched curiously as the girl moved awkwardly toward the pool under her parent’s proud gaze. As she strolled along the edge of the water, another parent called out.
“House Viken of Silver Veil,” a mother shouted, flashing a set of gold teeth, “presents to our fellow highborns, the womanhood of the darling Hoolnen Viken!”
More applause accompanied the second girl’s arrival. Hoolnen was more confident than Yutet. The daughter of House Viken strutted like a vain rooster, flashing a smile brighter than her metal-mouthed mother.
“House Vebtose of…”
The introductions continued as more and more young women debuted around the pool. Some waved, most smiled. A few wore blank expressions as they walked like bewitched statues oblivious to the cheering crowd.
Ahme watched the mortification parade and tried to steady her nerves. A few laps around the pool, she told herself, and it would be over. These other idiots would get smacked with fruit while she minded her own business. No one would throw plums at Ahme, because no one knew who she was. She would never again have to see these obnoxious, leering creeps.
She managed to stay calm. Taking a deep breath, she glanced up at her guardian. Neri-Teri was watching her with warm, sparkling eyes.
“You are very kind to do this,” she said appreciatively. “And brave.”
Before Ahme could respond, Neri-Teri stepped into the clearing around the pool. The cheering died down as people watched the elegant noble present her false ward with an elegant hand flourish.
“The great and ancient House Osor of Silver Veil,” Neri-Teri sang aloud, “presents to this grand assemblage, the womanhood of my ward, the dignified and brilliant Ahme of House Aser.”
Despite her anger, Ahme was touched by the tailored introduction. She was disarmed further by the thunderous applause that greeted her, a stranger, as if she was equal to any other young woman parading around the pool.
She scooted forward, feeling once again like a ghost amongst the living. Even though hundreds watched her as she fell in line with her golden sisters, Ahme felt calmly detached. She forgot to smile as she walked. Instead, she gazed with open fascination around the pool.
She saw Lorigar and Karmose hand in hand, the older man plainly bored by the procession, while his lover frowned with disapproval at the catcalling onlookers. Neri-Teri stood chatting with Peritet and her parents. She seemed to have forgotten Ahme completely. Not so, Ahme’s father, who wormed his way through the crowd. He had just noticed several nearby boys clutching bog plums. Rees stole a glance at his daughter, gesturing at the fruit as he did so. His lips moved without making a sound.
“What are these for?” he mouthed.
She did not dare say, knowing her father would pluck her from the lineup and ruin Neri-Teri’s charade.
Ahme spotted the snob Whenmose, who stared back at her with raw contempt. She ignored him, turning the corner of the pool and catching sight of the boy’s cousin.
Jaren stood near a corner of the pool surrounded by a rowdy gang of young men. As girls turned the corner before them, they whooped and called out strange, unsettling comments.
Hoolnen looks soft as felt!
Mind Yootet, men! She’s ripe as a boka.
The daughter of Viken struts like an ostrich queen!
As Ahme reached the end of the pool, Jaren and the men turned their collective gaze upon her. She quickened her pace, feeling as though she passed the mouth of a broiling kiln. Their words fell like hot sparks on her ears.
The ward of House Osor! Hair kissed by Sorna. Arms like a lioness. Eyes like deep amber.
She sought shelter inward, crouching within the fort of her own skin. She peered out, an archer eyeing the invading horde circling her flesh. She spotted Jaren outside. He did not speak.
His silence did not matter. Her patience for this pageant was exhausted.
The final girl was announced.
“House Rothmose, the bloodline of our divine Khet, demonstrates the womanhood of the beautiful and esteemed Peritet.”
Flashing her endless smile, Peritet glided confidently to the edge of the pool and joined the procession just behind Ahme. Why the noble seemed so eager to have plums hurled at her body, Ahme could not begin to imagine. Peritet’s excitement was palpable.
The introductions stopped. The procession was complete. Ahme counted twenty girls circulating around the poolside, their bare heels grinding down the flower petals spread by Lorigar’s servants.
Ahme ducked as the air filled with plums. Fruit exploded and ricocheted off gold bodices as a pungent mist filled the air. The young women stopped, some laughing, others screaming shrilly as they hopped up and down.
As the hail of fruit began to die down, she was relieved to have survived the storm unscathed. As soon as she stood up, however, a plum globbed onto her chest. Ahme looked down as the rotten orb slid down her front like a dead slug leaving behind a putrid trail of jelly.
Furious, Ahme turned to her attacker.
Jaren grinned with triumph.
She tore the plum from her bodice and hurled it at the boy’s face. Jaren dodged the shot. His smug smile returned, prodding Ahme’s fury into an vengeful wrath.
The plums continued to fly. Ahme bent down and scooped up ammunition.
She hurled a spinning brown orb at the boy. Jaren ducked, barely escaping. Ahme threw and the boy ducked again.
“What are you doing!” a voice cried behind her.
Ahme turned, startled by the manicness around the edges of Peritet’s fixed smile, cracking her picturesque face like damp clay pot drying inward.
“He’s mine!” Peritet hissed.
“Jaren?” said Ahme. “He threw a plum at me.”
“Nonsense,” the other girl snapped. “He would never do that. You got in his way.”
Ahme noticed that Peritet was coated in plums. She was not alone. Ahme surveyed the other girls and saw that most were plastered with bog plums. Very few returned fire at their attackers. Across the pool, Yutet Starpel coyly approached a handsome young man in the crowd. She laughed, her cheeks as red as apples, as she tossed a plum into the boy’s hands. The adults nearby cheered and grabbed each other’s shoulders.
She realized Yutet and her admirer were now promised to one another. As it dawned on Ahme that Jaren’s plum attack was a perverted noble offer of romantic entanglement, the salhulker gasped in horror. That she had unwittingly returned the gesture made her want to throw up.
“I did not mean to…” Ahme stammered as she tried to explain herself.
Peritet clenched her jaw.
“You frontier highborns are little better than peasants,” she said, barely moving her teeth.
Ahme did not reply. The plums had stopped flying. The crowd closed in around the pool. The parade had ended. Peritet stormed off.
Neri-Teri popped up beside Ahme and spun her like a top as the noble inspected the girl’s gown.
“Only one plum!” she said, her face full of pity. “Well, do not be too disappointed. You are a stranger to these people.”
“You think I want more plums!”
“Of course you do,” Neri-Teri said. “Every young woman desires an orchard’s worth of suitors.”
“What about you?” asked Ahme. “How many suitors have you found this evening?”
The woman did not answer. Something or someone caught Neri-Teri’s eye and she flitted away like a hummingbird.
Feeling abandoned and frustrated, Ahme searched for her father. She was ready to leave. The sight of Jaren, grinning at her like a hyena salivating over its kill, threw Ahme into a panic. She wriggled her way into the densest part of the crowd, clawing away from her pursuer.
“Watch it, young lady!” a woman cried as Ahme shouldered past.
She squirmed free of the clump of bodies and darted toward Lorigar’s hall. She decided to squirrel herself away in the cavern with Lemra for the rest of the evening.
As she was about to slip amongst the columns of the house, her path was barred by a tall, broad-shouldered man with a bluff jaw and precipitous forehead. His eyes glimmered like dark waters in the canyon separating his cheekbones and brow. While the gold hanging from his neck and adorning his fingers proclaimed the man’s nobility, his polished armor and sword revealed the hardened man’s occupation as a royal officer.
She thought it was silly so many men wore armor to a party. While considering this trend, Ahme saw something familiar in the man’s stern countenance.
“Cool evening, ward of Zel Osor,” the man said, lowering his head ever so slightly. “I am Zel Crulekut.”
“You are Whenmose’s father,” Ahme said.
“I am,” the zel replied. “My name is Widmose.”
“I am Ahme of H-…”
Widmose interrupted her.
“House Aser!” he said knowingly. “My son informed me. I told Whenmose I had never heard of your house. Where is your family’s palace?”
Although she had been startled by the man’s ambush, Ahme’s confidence returned once she realized she was being tested. She was sick of these highborn men and their sons talking down to her.
“Our grandest home is on Crane Lake,” she replied, then added hastily, “Have you been to Crane Lake?”
“I have not,” admitted Whenmose. He was about to continue, but Ahme had seized the reins of the conversation. She not only refused to let go, but jerked them hard to the side.
“Why are southern nobles so fearful of travel beyond Rash-ha?” she asked. “From here to the lakes, the Thaya is not so dangerous!”
Widmose stared down at the her, remaining silent for a time.
“My son told me you were impertinent,” he said.
“How was I impertinent to him?” Ahme demanded. Despite Whenmose’s delusion that he was an adult, Ahme knew they were both the same age. As far as the boy knew, they were also noble peers. How can she be impertinent to an equal?
“That is like saying a duck outranks a hen,” she snapped. “They both lay eggs and eat bugs.”
Widmose tightened his lips so that his mouth nearly disappeared.
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said. “I really do not care. I have not been to the lakes because I am the general of our divine leader’s southern army. Every highborn, even a young woman such as yourself, should know that.”
The general shot her a pointed stare. Before Ahme could respond, however, he continued.
“What is your relationship with Zel Osor,” he demanded. “How did she come to meet your family?”
Fearful that she had been discovered as an imposter, Ahme frantically scrambled her wits in search of a plausible story. After a moment, she recalled her storytelling father’s advice for coming up with an original tale. Give life a new hat. Ahme grew calm.
“She met my father at the royal quarries,” she explained. “We were on a pleasure cruise.”
Widmose arched an eyebrow.
“A pleasure cruise!” he said. “On the Mud River?”
Ahme fixed a vacant smile onto her face.
“Have you ever been?” she asked, affecting a noble tone.
“On the Mud River?” said Widmose. “No. I have heard it is a dismal, ugly little creek.”
“Not at all,” Ahme said. “It is a magical place. Grand quarries. Rare oryx. You really must visit sometime.”
“Perhaps,” Widmose said doubtfully. “I would rather see the sights along the Thaya, such as Garetet and Temple Red Tooth!”
The man waited expectantly for her response.
Ahme tried to look confused, even though she knew exactly what the man was doing.
“Forgive me, Zel Crulekut,” she said. “But I think you mean the fortress at Red Tooth.”
Widmose must have thought her dumb as a throg. Even if she hadn’t travelled by it countless times, the Red Tooth fortifications were renowned throughout Nebetta. No child in the kingdom would ever confuse it for a pious place of worship.
“And Garetet is not much to see,” she continued nonchalantly. “The Khet’s war galleys left it a pile of rubble and ash.”
Widmose nodded thoughtfully.
“I have heard as much,” he admitted. “I have never been stationed north of Rash-Ha. I see that you have indeed travelled. I had suspected Neri-Teri snatched you off the street here in Fawl and dressed you up like a young noble to fool everyone into thinking she had a ward. You have too much muscle for a southern noble, and you are obviously sunscorched. You speak crudely.”
Ahme was worried she had failed Neri-Teri. Widmose had sniffed out the girl’s commoner roots.
“But your arrogance is not an act,” he continued. “Nor is your knowledge of the Great River. I suppose your rough behavior is common for frontier nobles.”
Noble or not, Ahme did not like being judged.
“And you southern nobles,” she said, “Are as stuffy as a head cold.”
An angry cloud passed over the man’s face. Ahme decided to quit while she was ahead.
“Forgive me, Zel Crulekut,” she said with an apologetic smile. “I must take my leave.”
Widmose stepped out of her path. He surprised her by remaining civil.
“Cool evening to you, Ahme.”
Zel Crulekut made his way back to party. Ahme was relieved as she watched him go. A waving hand caught her eye. Neri-Teri stood by the pool, beckoning her to come forward.
Ahme slumped her shoulders and let out a long groan. She had nearly escaped.
She dragged her feet to the noble’s side.
Neri-Teri folded Ahme beneath her arm like a bird tucking a fledgling beneath its wing.
“What did Widmose say to you?” she asked excitedly.
“He asked me a bunch of annoying questions about the places I have been,” Ahme replied. “He tested me.”
“And did you pass his test?”
“I think so,” Ahme said. “He said I did.”
She felt frustrated.
“Maybe he was lying,” she said, throwing up her arms. “Maybe he was trying to trick me into admitting who I was.”
Neri-Teri smiled, shaking her head.
“Widmose is many things, but he is not a liar. He is very direct, especially for a high born. It is one of the reasons he is on my list.”
Realizing that Neri-Teri meant her list of potential husbands, Ahme frowned.
“That boring snob?!” she said.
The woman did not seem to hear her.
“His wife died three years ago, during the last plague,” she said with a strange smile. “Questioning you shows he has decided at last to move on from grieving.”
A ghoulish gleam in Neri-Teri’s eyes made Ahme uncomfortable.
“May I go?” she asked. “I cannot stand another…”
She stopped talking. Neri-Teri had already slipped away.
Ahme was about to do the same, when a oily little hand closed around her wrist.
Like a petulant child laying claim to a toy, Whenmose tugged on her arm as his eye shot daggers over the astonished girl’s head.
“Back off, Jaren,” he said as Ahme felt another hand cup her shoulder.
The pretty young noble, Jaren, stood at her other side, laying claim in a more gentle if no more endearing manner than his rival.
“Take your hands off the young woman,” Jaren righteously demanded.
Ahme sneered as both boys tightened their grips. Although Jaren had an athletic look and Whenmose was thick and bulky, the girl knew she was stronger than either of them. She was about to teach them both a lesson on the dangers of manhandling a salhulker when Peritet appeared before her, her smile in ruins as she shoved Ahme’s chest.
“How dare you!” Peritet cried, her shrill voice and watery eyes stunning Ahme into forgetting her captors. She felt an inexplicable pity for the heartbroken noble.
“Who are you to just wander in?” Peritet demanded. “You haven’t put in the work…”
“Peritet,” Jaren said soothingly. “Calm yourself.”
Peritet spun angrily on the boy.
“Do not tell me to be calm, you fickle runt!”
Jaren blanched as though struck across the face.
“This is most unbecoming,” Whenmose said, forgetting that he still gripped Ahme’s arm.
Peritet responded by striking her open palm against the boy’s neck.
A hideous gurgle escaped Whenmose as he released Ahme and clenched his own throat.
Ahme laughed, then jumped in surprise as Peritet spun like a tornado and kicked the gagging boy into the pool. These noble women were not as delicate as they seemed.
“I am very disappointed in you,” Jaren said, sniffing his nose. “The Khet’s own cousin.”
Expecting Peritet to unleash more of her martial art, Ahme was disappointed when the other girl shrank into herself. Jaren’s scolding words hurt like a belly punch.
“Come now, Ahme,” Jaren said, pulling on her shoulder.
Ahme decided to show these southern dandies that she was not to be towed around like a grain barge. Dropping anchor with her feet, she seized his hand and twisted it like an oar handle.
“Ow-ow-ow!” Jaren cried pathetically as Ahme steered him over the edge of the pool.
Whenmose dove out of the way just as his rival crashed into the water. Onlookers laughed and chided the flailing boys. Spats between gold-wrapped girls and their suitors, Ahme supposed, were entertainingly common.
Peritet watched the boys scramble out of the pool before turning to Ahme. The distraught child seemed to have changed her opinion her rival from the north.
“You are strong,” she said admiringly.
“You have moves!” Ahme replied, very much impressed.
“I am twenty-third in line for the crown,” Peritet said, matter-of-factly. “I have to be able to defend myself against assassins.”
Twenty-third! Ahme was intrigued. What dedicated assassins would want to murder their way through that many nobles? Before Ahme could ask the many questions about assassination that popped into her head, the music stopped. Both girls turned.
Lorigar’s voice filled the air.
“Attention, attention!” he boomed. “My distinguished guests, your attention! We have another surprise in store. A delicious treat! A fabulous marvel of mesmerization, spirited here by the unique, unbridled, unrivaled…”
Lorigar paused, raising an eyebrow mischievously.
“The unmarried,” he said with a grin, “zel of House Osor.”
A space cleared at the far end of the pool where Lorigar delivered his feverish introduction. Neri-Teri stood beside him, one hand on her hip while her other arm gestured glamorously toward the statue draped in white silk floating through the air behind her.
Ahme almost missed the blackclad mage walking inconspicuously behind the statue. The silent enchantress levitated the massive object inches above the ground, toward the pool.
“Is that Zel Osor?” asked Peritet as she eyed Neri-Teri curiously.
Jaren appeared beside her, soaking wet but otherwise unphased by his dip in the pool.
“I suppose,” he said. “My parents say she is strange and penniless.”
“She is not penniless,” Whenmose grunted as he clawed his way out of the water. He stood up, cautiously eyeing Peritet.
“Yes, she is,” Jaren argued.
“She has a ward!” Whenmose said, pointing at Ahme. “And she spent a fortune traveling to the north to get that statue.”
They all watched as the mage lowered the monument to the ground. Neri-Teri backed coyly away from the crowd, toward the veiled stone.
“She certainly is beautiful,” Peritet exclaimed.
Ahme silently agreed. Neri-Teri beamed with grace and seductive charm.
The noble gingerly took hold of the corner of the sheet. With one swift pull, she unveiled her enchanted likeness to the crowd.
A curious mix of reactions rippled across Lorigar’s party. Fascinated, Ahme’s head darted back and forth as she took in the eclectic responses.
Some were mild. A few nobles applauded politely, while others snickered under their breath. Jaren was one of these.
“Did a blind man make it?” he sneered.
Peritet shushed him. Although she had never met Neri-Teri before, she thought it captured her stunning figure.
“It is as elegant as she!” Peritet said, a look of wonder in her eyes.
Jaren and Ahme frowned at one another.
Whenmose’s reaction was even more bewildering.
“She looks like my mother,” he said sadly.
Ahme turned from the melancholy boy, searching across the pool where Whenmose’s own father stood admiring the stack of magestone. Widmose’s comments bounced clearly back to her.
“It shows her integrity,” he said approvingly. “Her honesty.”
Rees’ voice pulled Ahme’s head around. She spotted him toward the back of the crowd, where his commanding height and story-teller voice carried his opinion across the gala.
“It displays her ruthless cleverness,” he said with a mixture of fondness and frustration.
His tone shifted, making his daughter’s cheeks turn red.
“Her handsome face with its brain-muddling smile.”
Jaren’s voice echoed Ahme’s own thoughts.
“The bard has a crush,” he said. “But I would hardly call that expression a smile.”
Ahme agreed, yet as she looked at the crude visage, she sensed the statue was working its strange magic on her as well. The face seemed less poorly carved than she first supposed. It wore a defined expression that was both proud and stoic. It was the face of a woman who endured public hardship while preserving her dignity. The statue made Ahme forget Neri-Teri’s selfishness and patronizing behavior toward her servants. The statue, she realized, emphasized the noble’s qualities that impressed Ahme the most.
She noticed something else. Something strange and unsettling. While she and the other guests stared at the statue, the black stone took on a pinkish gleam.
Ahme scanned the crowd, wondering if anyone else noticed the intensifying hue.
“Is it glowing?” Jaren asked.
“It is,” confirmed Ahme.
An anxious murmur spread across the hilltop garden. Those entranced by the statue no longer admired the carving, but leered at it with unfettered lust.
“What a figure!” one man shouted, his tone making Ahme’s skin crawl.
“Delicious!” a woman agreed.
“Scandalous,” another cried out.
The pink aura deepened into a crimson haze.
Ahme grew increasingly alarmed. She was not alone.
While Neri-Teri reveled by her statue, the mage stood beside her, clutching the silk sheet in her hand.
“We should cover it!” the mage warned.
“No! We should chip away its dress,” an onlooker shouted back.
“It’s not wearing a dress,” another noble shouted gleefully.
The crowd surged forward as bewitched men and women reached for the statue’s flesh. Ahme was astonished as frenzied nobles wrapped their arms around the pile of stone.
“I must have it!” a woman cried.
“It’s mine!” another shouted.
Startled, Neri-Teri leapt aside as more people tried to take ownership of her figure.
Among the throng were Widmose and Rees. Both men seemed to have lost their wits as they shoved their way toward the statue.
“Go, Father!” cheered Whenmose. “Go!”
Alarm turned to outright fear as the mindless throng swarmed like ants over the statue. Ahme’s father disappeared into the writhing mass.
Lorigar, his face white with panic, ran up to Neri-Teri as she shouted at the mage to do something.
The mage nodded. She faced the statue and squatted down. She formed a circle with her arms as though she were about to lift a heavy barrel off the ground. Her cheeks flushed as she grit her teeth. Very slowly, she began to rise.
The statue, now red as ripe cherries, shuddered and then threw up its arms. Admirers were flung like ragdolls through the air. Some hidden force struck the mage, prying her arms apart and knocking the woman to the ground.
Ahme clapped her hands over her mouth. The statue had come to life. Its square pedestal oozed up into its legs and spread throughout the statue’s body, augmenting its size. Roughly hewn edges and crude curves transformed into a smooth and graceful figure with terrible strength. The living statue swept its heavy arms back and forth through the mob, leaving behind a ruin of bruised and senseless nobles. The violence brought the delirious onlookers to their senses. Screaming, they fled.
“Let’s get out of here!” Jaren cried, seizing Ahme’s arm.
Ahme shook off the boy’s hand. She charged across the plaza, determined to rescue her father. Dodging from side to side, she wound her way through the stampede of frantic nobles.
Ahead, she watched as Widmose, his senses returned, pulled a dagger on the statue.
“Back, you monstrosity!” he shouted.
Widmose lunged, jabbing his blade at the statue’s chest. The blade snapped and clattered to the ground. Stunned, Widmose gaped at his broken weapon as the statue raised her leg. She booted the noble into the pool.
Ahme found her father unconscious, lying faceup near the corner of the pool. As Widmose splashed nearby, Ahme knelt and cradled her father’s head.
“Rees,” Ahme cried, patting her father’s whiskery chin. “Wake up!”
Her father did not move.
“That is enough!”
Ahme looked up as Neri-Teri strode defiantly toward her murderous art project.
The statue turned to face the woman. The enchanted figure had swollen to twice Neri-Teri’s size. This did not seem to phase the noble.
“You are me!” Neri-Teri said haughtily. “I created you! That means you must do as I say.”
The statue did what statues do best. It waited.
Neri-Teri blinked, then folded her arms.
“And I say…” she hesitated, “I say, you stay right where you are. And if at all possible, go back to being just a piece of rock. Yes. Do that now!”
For a moment, Ahme believed the noble’s half-command, half-plea worked. The statue did not stir.
Neri-Teri nodded with satisfaction. She took a step toward the statue then ducked as a dark red arm swiped at her head.
“How dare you!” she cried, scrambling backwards. The stroke would have killed her.
The statue gave chase. Although it was strong, it moved slowly. Neri-Teri fled behind a row of palm trees.
“Mage! Do something!”
Ahme turned to the enchanter standing helplessly with Lorigar nearby.
“I cannot!” the mage shouted back. “My last spell made it stronger.”
“Use a different spell!” Neri-Teri shouted from behind a palm as the statue mashed its stone fists against the trunk. The tree bent and then slumped over as Neri-Teri scuttled for new cover.
Ahme looked at the wounded nobility scattered across the tiles and along the edge of the pool. She pitied the timid snobs, fragile and helpless against the magical creature rampaging through their gala. Their creepy, elitist customs were offensive, but not worthy of such devastation. No one deserved to die at the hands of a cursed statue. As she considered this, Ahme’s fear gave way to anger as hard and flinty as the monument’s fists.
She looked down for something to throw and found an ivory goblet. Ahme snatched the vessel from the ground and hurled it at the statue’s head.
The goblet shattered against its cheek. The statue paused midstride. It turned its lifeless red eyes on the girl standing across the pool.
Ahme’s blood chilled as the statue considered her for a moment. The cursed creature decided the child was not worth her time. It tilted its head back toward Neri-Teri as the noble cowered behind a tree.
Ahme pondered another way to keep the enchanted idol’s attention.
“You’re ugly!” she shouted.
The statue swivelled toward Ahme, its heels grinding on the tile like millstones. It gazed menacingly at the child.
Ahme’s throat was suddenly parched. She swallowed.
“You look like a clumpy pile of wet hippo dung!” she snapped.
The statue lurched toward the pool, its gaze locked on the impudent girl heckling from across the water.
“So clumsy!” Ahme chided. “You walk like a stork with swollen ankles!”
The statue’s walk hastened into a march.
Ahme glanced down at her father. Rees lay dazed and frightened as he looked between his daughter and the monster closing in.
“I have an idea,” Ahme whispered out of the corner of her mouth. She called out again.
“You have the manners of a loggin fishwife!”
It was the type of insult that a noble would make, although Ahme knew loggin fishwives to be pleasant and polite people. Her heckle worked. The statue broke into a stilted run.
Ahme leapt into the pool.
“Get out of there!” Rees cried after her.
She ignored him as she treaded water, watching the statue as it skidded to a halt along the edge of the pool.
“You are an empty, worthless, stone-faced, blank-eyed, penniless piece of lifeless rock no better than the mud you were dug out of…” Ahme cried out, slapping her hands against the water.
The statue stomped its foot, sending cracks racing through the tiles along the edge of the pool.
“No one likes you, no one admires you, no one even ever thinks of you!”
The cursed object could no longer bear Ahme’s hateful stream. It lunged forward, its hands raised above its head like hammers seeking to bash the child’s brains. Ahme dove as the monster plunged into the pool.
Opening her eyes below, Ahme watched as a white cloud of bubbles tore through the water like a comet churning through the atmosphere. The statue thrashed its arms and kicked its legs. As Ahme guessed, the statue was too dense to swim. The monster made of stone sank hard, striking the bottom, face first, with a clanking thud.
Bubbles dissipated around Ahme as the statue struggled to its feet. It stood, but even at its full height, the water’s surface was still several feet above the statue’s head. It stood along the side of the pool and raised its arms, seeking to pull itself out of its watery prison. Its fingertips breached the air, but were still a foot shy of the edge of the plaza above. The statue was trapped.
Ahme swam to the surface.
Rees and Widmose plucked her from the water as Lorigar and Karmose watched, the older man leaning heavily on his partner’s shoulder.
“That was brave!” Widmose noted approvingly. “And exceedingly clever.”
“Yes, and unforgivably dangerous,” Rees said.
“Mind your manners, bard,” snapped the noble. “You do not talk down to your betters.”
Rees ignored the general. He kept his worried attention on his daughter. Ahme could see her father longed to wrap her in a hug.
Ahme grimaced but said nothing. Her hands trembled and her teeth chattered despite the water being warm. She was tired.
“Thank you, Ahme.”
Neri-Teri bent down and placed a warm hand on Ahme’s shoulder.
“You saved my life!” the woman said. She looked strained and tired.
From the corner of her eye, Ahme noticed as Widmose discretely smoothed the wrinkles from his damp clothing. After a quick adjustment to his hair, the zel of House Crulekut bowed his head to the zel of House Osor.
“Your ward is a worthy addition to House Osor,” he said. “She is as courageous as you, High One, whose beauty and…”
“Stick a horse apple in it,” Neri-Teri exclaimed, keeping her tender gaze on Ahme.
Dumbfounded, Widmose looked like he just broken another dagger.
“Come now!” Neri-Teri rose to her feet. “We must look after the wounded.”
Ahme tried to rise. Rees held her down as Neri-Teri raised her hands in protest.
“Not you!” she said.
“You must rest here,” Rees said. “That took more out of you than you realize.”
Once he was sure Ahme would not move, Rees regained his feet. He joined Karmose and Lorigar as they tended to injured guests. Widmose left to join his son. Whenmose stood with a dozen or so rattled nobles as they replenished their drinks from the wine barrels.
Neri-Teri lingered for a moment.
“You have a good father,” she said.
“I am sorry your statue turned into a killing monster,” she said.
“Me too,” Neri-Teri said.
“I am sorry your chances of getting married are ruined.”
“Do not bother about it,” Neri-Teri said. “Marriage has never been my wine of choice.”
Some nearby groans caught her ear. She made to leave before looking at Ahme once more.
“I expect to marry Widmose by the end of summer,” she said knowingly.
Neri-Teri winked at Ahme. The zel of House Osor strolled off.
Ahme laid her head on the tiles and closed her eyes. She could feel the statue moving heavily along the bottom of the pool. Its vibrations thrummed the girl’s spine. She shivered.
Some god or spirit, or more likely a combination of both, must have been minding Lorigar’s party when all turned to mayhem. Such was Lorigar’s belief, for while dozens of his guests had been injured by Neri-Teri’s statue, no one was killed or even seriously maimed. Ahme would later learn that despite its disastrous events, the gala was to be viewed as quite the grand success. Nobles bragged of their attendance and wore their bruises as badges of honor. Most would deny they were ever afraid, that the murderous statue was just a bit of ill-enchanted entertainment gone astray. Attendance was well worth a light drubbing.
As for the statue, Lorigar kept it. He had little choice in the matter, for no local mages knew how to remove the creature’s spell nor how to safely get it out of the pool. For years, the statue roamed back and forth beneath the water, like an angry crab in an oversized aquarium. Nobles from as far away as Tol-Han and Mantoch visited Lorigar’s palace just to glimpse the cursed monster. It was said that when guests looked into the pool the statue would cease its mindless wander. It would raise its face toward its admirers and bask contentedly underneath their gaze, like a crocodile sunning itself on the banks of the Thaya.
Neri-Teri ended her contract with Rees, electing to remain in Fawl while she courted Widmose. Revealing that she was broke, the noble paid less than half what was agreed upon. She promised to pay off her debt once she was married and her fortune restored. Rees was doubtful, but Ahme knew the noble would follow through on her word.
Daughter and father set out on their salhulk and headed north along Kilroy’s Way. Once Fawl was out of sight, Ahme, minding the ship’s rudder, looked to her father as he guided Yogo along the towpath. She had recalled his advice from the beginning of their journey with Zel Osor.
“I learned her truth,” Ahme called out.
“And what truth is that?” Rees shouted back.
“Life is harder for a woman than it is for a man.”
Her father nodded.
“Well observed!” he said.
Ahme thought for a moment.
“It is depressing to think about.”
“I expect that it is,” Rees replied. “What are you going to do about it?”
“I do not know.”
Rees took off his sunhat. He rubbed his bald head and let out a sigh.
“Neither do I,” he said gloomily. “But when you do know, I will do what I can to help.”
Rees gave her a reassuring smile. It helped Ahme a little.