Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mere Acquaintances- Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven

Joanna Bailey sat in her wheelchair in the common room, absently watching the other patients play ping-pong-- the ones that could, anyway-- or watching cartoons, or simply sitting and talking. She didn’t move, except to blink and observe.

It was Becca Smitts who noticed Ryan enter the common room, Emery on his heels looking tired or bored or both. Ryan looked around and wandered by the others in the room, looking and pointing and smiling without saying a word. Emery seemed to committed to looking bored and tired.


***

If he hadn’t known firsthand what life in a menagerie was like, Draegon was sure he would have found the Traveling Sight of Wonder much more enjoyable. He’d overheard children saying they wanted to join the menagerie-- out of earshot of their parents, of course-- and the freedom was probably a draw for anyone, but inwardly he shook his head at the people who thought foolishly that menagerie life was desirable. Still, he was enjoying the shows at least a little bit, mostly because this was Keffinen’s domain and there was nothing the bastard could do to touch him. So he strode among the patrons and the attractions, basking in the sudden feeling of being unshackled that the silver braid on his arm gave.

He actually recognized some of the performers in the menagerie. And when he thought about the ones he did think he knew, often some hint of a name would come back to him. The girl who ate fire was named Rin. Rin… Ramkan? As he watched her display, he managed to catch her eye, and she actually almost spluttered as she wrapped her mouth around the flaming end of a thin metal stick. Lucky for her she managed to recover instead of choking on the fire. Was it recognition or just the fact that he was Keidenelle?

The other watchers clapped and moved on, some of them tossing a few coins into the cracked bowl next to the little painted wooden sign advertising Rin’s bit of the show. Draegon waited by the bowl, hoping for a word with Rin. If she was afraid of him for being what he was, she hid it well, and after he told her who he was and why he was allowed in the menagerie without Keffinen breathing over his shoulder, she went away laughing.

There were others who remembered him, and who he remembered. The six acrobats had been much younger the last time he saw them-- they were brothers, or claimed to be-- but the years hadn’t been so bad to them that they didn’t still look like themselves. He had memories of extra water brought to him by them, of kind words spoken through cage bars-- even though he hadn’t learned enough language back then to know what the words meant-- of one of them simply sitting next to his cage now and then to keep him company. He told them, too, of the situation with Keffinen, and of his own good, semi-successful life as a traveling bard. Everyone he could tell about that, he told. Let them know what happened before Keffinen got into a huff at them and started spreading lies.

The only fly in the honeycake was Roark, the hefty man Lady Ara had set to keep watch on him. The hulking ox didn’t leave his side. Apparently, the oath he took, he took very seriously. Draegon didn’t think he would get out of Roark’s sight until his oath was fulfilled or broken. But why would he break it? There was too much profit in keeping the Seeker’s Oaths. He could walk freely without worrying about hiding from anyone, he got to keep his own instruments-- give them to Keffinen, indeed!-- he actually got to be part of the Search-- he had never considered it before it was necessary-- and now he had his own personal guard! This was the high life! He should have faced off with Keffinen years ago… if there had been a Search then…

A contortionist was performing in another of the little roped-off areas that caught Draegon’s eye. She couldn’t have been more than a handful of years younger than him, judging by her eyes, but her body looked younger. She was very lean and had a girlish figure, and were they up close, she would probably only come up to Draegon’s shoulder.

The contortionist spotted him straight away when he approached-- even though she was in the middle of her performance-- and gave a start that almost made her lose her balance. But she managed to recover, and all through the rest of the frightening positions she twisted herself into, her eyes kept finding him and staring. The words behind her tan eyes were “I remember you.”

Draegon couldn’t say he remembered her, but he stayed and watched her through the end of her display. When she was done, she approached him.

“I don’t have any money to give you,” he said immediately, for the first time feeling sheepish for not tipping the performers

“I remember you,” she replied. Either she hadn’t heard his money comment, or she didn’t care. “You used to be in a cage.”

“I don’t remember any contortionist.”

“Well, I wasn’t one back then. But do you remember a little girl? I used to bring you treats.”

He narrowed his eyes. Treats. Like a dog. But he did remember, a younger version of the woman in front of him: a wide-eyed, jolly little girl who would slip him bits of food now and then, almost treating him like a favorite dog-- one that had gone feral. Well, maybe not so much like a dog, because he had vague memories of her sitting next to his cage after dark, when he was alone, and her talking to him even though he didn’t understand.

“You do remember me,” she said, smiling as she saw the recognition in his eyes. “But I would be surprised if you remembered my name. Well, to avoid an awkward moment, I’ll just go ahead and tell you I’m Kemeny. Did you ever get a name?”

Yep, this woman was definitely that little girl, all grown up. “Draegon.”

“Ooh. That’s a very Gaernin name.”

“My old master was from there.”

She smiled at him gently. “I’m happy for you. I won’t bring up the past and ask you what happened since you disappeared, but I will ask what you’re doing now… besides Seeking.” She reached out and gently plucked at his braid. Well, she certainly didn’t lack for nerve!

Behind his shoulder, the hulking Roark shifted his weight heavily from one foot to the other and let out a low grunt that was undoubtedly meant for Draegon’s ears alone. The guard was undoubtedly fed up with the menagerie and was ready to go out and do his duty. So Draegon gave Kemeny the short version of what was going on and what had transpired with Keffinen. She bristled at that but didn’t say a word.

“Good luck, Draegon,” she said gently, lifting up on her toes to kiss him softly on the cheek. “I always wondered what happened to you.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mere Acquaintances- Chapter Six

Chapter Six

To the unobservant eye, it looked like Emery, Lydia, and Ryan were just sitting on the grass in the courtyard. Not talking, not even really looking at each other-- just sitting. But Vale knew better. He could see their expressions changing, their hands gesturing ever so slightly; he could even see, when he really looked, the almost undetectable movement of their lips and tongue as they spoke so softly only they could hear. He didn’t like being left out of events like that. Ever. Sitting himself hard on a bench, he kept watching them, even though he couldn’t hear. His eyes were riveted on them.

***

Surrounded by common people, many with the Seeker’s braid on their arms, Zanthys watched as Jaidyn and Hoeth turned and left the plaza, pushing their way through the throng. Even with Jaidyn whispering, he had heard what was said. So Jaidyn believed himself Cheyne reborn. That is some information many people would be very interested in.

Turning, he made his way through the crowd. He hated these kinds of festivals. On normal days, the commoners would realize who he was and make way for him, even if he didn’t have his guards around, shouting for them to move. That was only proper. But on festivals, they didn’t seem to see him, or if they did, they simply didn’t care to give him his way. And he had slipped out of the manor without his guards. Good thing, too. Had Jaidyn heard them shouting to make way, he would never have heard Jaidyn’s “secret”. That in itself was worth being jostled a bit, he supposed.

Finally, he came to the door of his father’s plaza-side manor-- the other manors were either in less busy parts of the city or out in the country-- and nodded slightly to the servant who opened the door for him. He strode the carpeted hallways towards his chambers, thinking about exactly how to approach this information. What gossip! A few whispers in a few choice ears could make things very interesting in Jaidyn, Cheyne Firdin-supposed-reborn. He actually found one of those choice ears in the hallway, a man in the gold and white livery of House Advissen. He whispered his words along with an order to pass to another fellow, and dismissed him. That other fellow would see to it that Zanthys knew exactly where Jaidyn was when he needed to.

His bedchamber was empty when he stepped in and closed the door behind him. Striding to his study, he smiled at the many full bookshelves. Once his father had learned of his love for books, he had begun buying every one he could get his hands on. Zanthys had one of the largest collections in all of Gaern. But the book he took from the shelves was probably not in any of the other collections. It was a chronicle of the known lives leading up to Cheyne, including a rarity: a full description of the legendary blade, Sonsedhor.

Sitting at his desk with the book and a writing box, he copied the description and went on to commit it to memory. It couldn’t hurt, after all, to really know what it looked like. The twisted grin on his face felt strange; he wasn’t usually one to play jokes like this, but Jaidyn was asking for it. He couldn’t be Cheyne Firding reborn. Zanthys liked to think he could see the good in anyone, but it was very difficult to see anything in Jaidyn except spite and envy. Perhaps this would put some humility into him.

Certain he had the description memorized, Zanthys tucked the copy into his pocket. A word to his father, and the best blacksmith in the city would be to work within the hour. Zanthys had no training with the sword. He had never even touched one, not even in play. There was no need. Dozens of others, scores even, would do any fighting required for him, would die in an instant to protect him from the slightest threat. But if he told his father now that he wanted a sword, Banjay wouldn’t object. And Zanthys wanted a sword. This sword.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mere Acquaintances- Chapter Five

Chapter Five

Vale Stapleton had been one of the patients in the courtyard during Ryan’s outbreak, and he had seen it all: Emery watching at the window, Lydia being bounded into, the staff rushing to contain the incident. He had been close enough to Emery’s window-- partly opened because of the warm weather-- to hear the man’s mutters. At the same time, he just happened to be close enough to Ryan’s bench to hear some of the words he half-mumbled, half-sang. But he’d been far enough removed from the incident that he wasn’t considered an associated party.

Parts of him remembered being a journalist once, and he maintained that observational nature even as a patient in the asylum. He locked away all the information he could from what he had seen and heard from Emery and Ryan, the whole time sitting still and looking stoic, a picture of good behavior in a crazy world.


***

Around the edges of the greater plaza in Morena, capital of Gaern, the manor houses of the highest noble families were clustered together, packed in like beggars in the sanctuary on alms day. Seven great and powerful families, and no less than ten manor houses between them. It was enough to make Jaidyn sneer. His own family was as old as any of theirs-- older, probably-- and yet his father still did not occupy one of the great seats on the council that ruled the city and nation. That injustice was only one of the reasons he’d decided to abandon Morena completely and wear the braid.

The other reason was because he knew he would be the one to find Sonsedhor. He was Cheyne Firdin reborn; that had been a certainty of his for the last few years. The children of the sanctuaries taught the catechisms, all about the memories that came to everyone, of lives lived long past, and Jaidyn had come into the memories of Cheyne Firdin. He hadn’t told anyone yet-- he didn’t want to give himself away until he had his sword. Yes, his father would be upset when he found out his oldest son and heir had cast off his birthright to become a Seeker. He would get over soon enough, when Jaidyn came home triumphant, fabled sword in hand, and claimed rule of all of Gaern for House Huntley. Seven councilors be taken by the Dark Father, he would set things right.

One of his memories crept into his head, and it wasn’t Cheyne’s. This memory belonged to a more recent life of his, that of a former member of the council. Lexan Hallech had been unfairly dismissed from the council nearly a hundred years ago, and House Hallech had ended with him. But instead of House Huntley taking its place, no, House Advissen had been chosen to replace it. It made Jaidyn want to clench his fists and shout in anger, but his self-control prevented him. No sense in wasting energy. He would need all his strength to reclaim his sword. And it would do him no good when he returned if he was remembered as a foolish man who shouted at nothing.

The worse of it was, Lexan hadn’t deserved to be dismissed as he was. Not to mention executed. That he definitely hadn’t deserved. The teachers of history painted him as a tyrant, an arrogant power-driven man who sought to make himself a king. But Jaidyn had the truth of it from his memories. He had always been just and generous, and so selfless that the other noblemen grew jealous of his popularity. They brought him down simply because he didn’t seek personal glory and comfort like they did. He undermined them by doing what was best for the commoners, not for the Houses.

The memory was of one of the many land ownership disputes he had settled. A pair of neighboring farmers had come to him, each arguing that the strip of good land between their farms was his. What could he do but settle it the way he had all the others? The strip of land they were arguing about couldn’t be both of theirs, so why seem to favor one man over the other? He rejected both their claims to the land and claimed it for his own. All the money made from selling the produce from it went straight to alms and to the government coffers, of course. He’d actually gotten lots of “tax land” as he called it, this way, until by rights, nearly a fifth of the farmland around Morena had technically been his. None of it was a single stretch suitable to call a farm, though. An acre here, a half-acre there. But it certainly brought in the money.

And he’d been deposed for that! It was infuriating!

There was movement on the balconies of the great manor houses. Men in clothes even finer than Jaidyn’s own came into view, the councilors of Gaern, some with their sons. Endren Prake, tall and fair-haired with his sickly son Burgess; Rabian Hartume, darkly handsome with his son Meck; lithe young Fastolph Kerning; Lec Ravits, who wore a strange contraption of lenses and wire over his eyes he claimed let him see better; Berrot Larac, the woman who dressed in men’s clothing as though tt actually made her a man. Jaidyn thought it was silly, the way she paraded around in trousers and a coat; the woman was well old enough to be his grandmother. Her husband had been a councilor before her, but when he had died, she had insisted on taking his seat rather than her oldest son, the proper heir to the seat. What a to-do that had been. Riots, mobs, brawls, fighting… but there she was, among the men, wearing her men’s clothes, and no sign of her son. And what was worse, she refused to remarry and set a man in her place. For that, she should be deposed.

And there was the seventh Councilor: short, dark-haired Banjay Advissen. And next to him, his ridiculously tall son Zanthys. Jaidyn sneered at the young man he considered his rival. Two years younger than Jaidyn, Zanthys held the place that should have been Jaidyn’s, not to mention the romantic interests of half the young women in Morena. Zanthys was tall and lithe, with strong features but a bone structure so delicate it should have belonged to a woman. A ready smile sat underneath ice-blue eyes that by all rights should have radiated frost, but more girls swooned at a glance from him than even looked twice at Jaidyn. His chestnut hair was always clean and pulled back into a short ponytail that looked soft even from this distance. And even though Jaidyn was older-- nineteen years old!-- he couldn’t manage to grow more than scraggly whiskers on his lip, while Zanthys kept a well-trimmed patch of hair on his chin.

Zanthys had all the power and respect that by rights should have been Jaidyn’s, and there he was, up on the balcony, waving and overlooking the Seekers and Gaernin people he would one day share the rule of. Jaidyn wasn’t sure how the insufferable man-- no, at seventeen, Zanthys was still a boy!-- managed to pick him out in the crowd, but he saw the look of recognition and acknowledgement in his eyes, and knew that one flick of the hand-- was that supposed to be a wave?-- was directed at him. Jaidyn let his lip curl into a sneer. House Huntley stood behind House Advissen. Jaidyn’s own father was a supporter and advisor for Zanthys’s father Banjay. As a result, he had actually met Zanthys, even played with him a bit as a child. And as much as he wished Zanthys’s manners and politeness were a fa├žade, the simple fact was that he was a truly nice and honorable young man. There wasn’t a drop of arrogance in him, even though he was a notorious gossiper. If he had a fault, it was his fondness for gossip.

“Zanthys is waving at us!” came a familiar voice behind him. And there was stout Hoeth Karzark, the sixteen-year-old son of Viddad Karzark, Rabian Hartume’s right-hand man. Hoeth was of the same noble station as Jaidyn himself, and he had been a much closer childhood playmate than Zanthys had been. That still didn’t mean Jaidyn had to like him. As third son of his House, Hoeth’s chances of inheriting anything worth having were slim, so the silver braid on the boy’s arm was not a surprise. He was stretched up on his tiptoes-- at least he was shorter than Jaidyn-- and waving frantically at Zanthys and the other councilors’ heirs.

“Quit stretching like that,” Jaidyn snapped. “You’ll give yourself a hernia.” His eyes went back to the braid on Hoeth’s arm. He plucked at it. “Did your father approve of this?”

“He suggested it,” came the reply. The younger man’s boring brown eyes contemplated Jaidyn’s own braid. “What did your father say?”

“He doesn’t know yet, but I need to go on this Search.” Darting his eyes around to make sure no one was listening, he leaned in close to Hoeth. “What I’m about to tell you is in the strictest of confidence, Hoeth. It’s not something you can tell anyone else. Do you understand?”

His eyes brightened. “I love a good secret! What is it?”

“I am Cheyne Firdin reborn, Hoeth. I have the memories. But I don’t want to publicly come out with it until I have Sonsedhor. But all those times you and I and your brother Jairome played at being heroes when we were younger, you remember? Those weren’t made up adventures. I drew a lot of those out of the memories I have from Cheyne. They wre stories of things that really happened-- that I really did in my past life!”

Hoeth’s eyes went huge, making him look like a child hearing stories at his mother’s feet. “Really, Jaidyn? You’re really… So what happened to you? To him? Cheyne? Why did he… you… he disappear all of a sudden? And Sonsedhor-- where is it? Where did you leave it?”

It struck Jaidyn suddenly that his memories didn’t answer those questions. What he remembered told him nothing of Cheyne’s disappearance or the location of the great sword. But he wasn’t about to let Hoeth know that. He would doubt, and then he would spread the story. “Look, Hoeth. Those memories aren’t something I’m emotionally prepared to deal with right now. Just thinking about actively remembering them is making my throat close up. I have so many wounds tied to that old life that I can’t really deal with-- can’t really talk about, anyway-- until I have the sword and come into my own. I know where it is, though, and I’m going to get it; I just can’t talk about it. But don’t ask me to talk about them. It opens up a lot of old scars.”

Turning away from the fervently-apologizing Hoeth, he let his eyes wander back across the milling crowds and up to the balcony where the councilors were. Some were still there, the masses apparently forgotten by them, as they were chatting among themselves. The others were gone, Zanthys Advissen being one of those missing. He didn’t do anything to suppress the sneer that curled his lip.

“I’m going to leave this afternoon,” he said, interrupting what was probably Hoeth’s twentieth apology. “You can come along, if you like. Maybe you’ll get mentioned in the tales the storytellers spin.”

“Really?” his mouth spread into a broad grin. “Which way are we going? Where’s Sonsedhor?”

“I told you not to ask. Especially here. Others might hear if I were to answer you, and they would go after the sword themselves. We can’t have someone unworthy taking hold of Sonsedhor now, can we?”

No one will get what is rightfully mine, he thought. Part of him wondered if that thought was his; it almost made him think of Lexan Hallech.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mere Acquaintances- Chapter Four

Chapter Four

In an effort to understand exactly what had happened in the courtyard, Dr. Carolyn Anderson had the three involved patients brought together under her supervision. Ryan Pellin the musician, and Emery Landers the former policeman, were both out of breath from their running and were now under the watchful supervision of a few of the burlier nurses. Lydia Rhys, the woman Ryan had barreled over in the courtyard, had voluntarily followed after Emery without being told to accompany them.

The three patients sat in chairs facing each other in a bare-walled room. A two-way mirror sat on one wall, and behind that Dr. Anderson and her intern Becca Smitts observed their interactions with each other. The conversation baffled them both, though for a long time at the beginning, none of them said a word.


***

“I want to know exactly what happened out there.” Lady Ara Fusica said from her high seat on the dais of the audience chamber. It wasn’t a throne room, nor was her chair a throne; she was no queen. Lady of the Land, yes, but no monarch. “I want the truth, from one of you at a time, with no interruptions from the other. Is that clear?”

Before waiting for the Keidenelle man to agree, the dark-haired man stepped forward. “My name is Jonal Keffinen, my Lady, and I am the owner of the great menagerie outside the very walls of this grand city. If my Lady hasn’t yet seen the wonders of my Traveling Sights, I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to a private showing-- free of charge, of course-- anytime you wish.” Keffinen made grand gestures as he spoke, making many flourishes of a cape he wasn’t wearing. The young Lady looked bored with him already, but she made her thank-you and bade him get on with his explanation of his actions in the streets.

"I have known this man since he was a child,” Keffinen began, letting his voice boom as if he were introducing performers in his tents and addressing his story not only to Lady Ara, but to all those in attendance. “Some years ago, while traveling-- this was before my show grew to its present grandeur, of course-- I came upon a squalling child in the wilderness. The baby had been abandoned by his savage parents and left to die. I expect he was meant as a sacrifice-- you all know what those Keidenelle are like, of course. But I could not, of course, allow an innocent, helpless baby to die alone like that. So, even knowing of his bloodlines-- for he had a bit of that pale hair even as a baby, my Lady-- I took him into my wagon and vowed to raise him as my own son.”

Even though none of the three patients had spoken a word yet to provoke him, Ryan made a protesting sound.

“Did you not agree to listen to each other’s story without interruption, sir?” Lady Ara snapped the moment Draegon opened his mouth. He got out no more than a grunt. Keffinen gave him a wry look.

“For years I raised him, until as a young child, he showed a desire to learn a trade. My show was growing splendidly at this point, my Lady, so I had many performers of many different skills. He was showing that he had indeed become civilized under my careful parenting, so I wasn’t afraid to let him to his own devices. My performers taught him anything he wanted: tumbling, high rope walking-- I have an exceptional trio of high rope walkers I’m sure would delight you, my Lady-- animal handling, fire eating…”

Draegon suppressed a grin at Lady Ara’s annoyed expression. Keffinen noticed as well, though his only response was to develop a tightness around his eyes and cut off the list of his performers abruptly.

“By the time he had reached his teen years, he had shown an aptitude for music, so I bought some instruments for him to learn with. As his talent grew, I allowed him to perform a bit and even let him keep a percentage of the profits as his own pay. But the price of the instruments had yet to be paid off, since his profits have been rather measly of late.

“Imagine my surprise seeing him walking the crowds of the city when I had expressly told him to remain in the menagerie area and perform! And with my instruments, no less! The ungrateful wretch must have thought to bolt today, thinking he could simply disappear into the crowds. It’s a good thing I never tried to hide his heritage by using color on his hair, or else he might have gotten away! And it’s another good thing that I happened to be making my advertisements in the plaza and saw him as he tried to escape. You see, he has the instruments on him, my instruments, the ones I so generously bought for him. They are still my property, you see, and worth a great deal.”

Ryan’s jaw clenched along with his fists. Still silence between the three patients, but he looked absolutely furious. That was when he spoke.

“The truth of matters, my Lady, is not in any word he has said. I was sold to him by a slave trader when I was a child, and Master Keffinen made me an attraction in his menagerie. He made no efforts to civilize me, much less treated me as his son. Ask him to name me, and he wouldn’t have a name for me. I was nothing more than a savage to him.”

It was Keffinen’s turn to open his mouth to protest, and Draegon did his best not to look gratified when the Lady ordered him quiet.

“The onset of Search fifteen years ago found his show in Gaern, and it was there that man broke open the cage that held me. I will not lie and say I completely understood everything at the time, as I had no semblance of a civilized education, but the man was my liberator. Now I know he was a particularly greedy man, a bard, and he was only kidnapping me to use me for his own profit. It was that bard who taught me music and made the efforts to civilize me. And he gave me my name, Draegon.

“But I was still little more than a means of moneymaking to him, and some years ago, I managed to make my escape from him and begin building my own life. The instruments I carry were bought honestly, with money I made myself.”

Ryan finished his nonsensical story, spoken so quietly Dr. Anderson and Becca Smitts could only completely make out one sentence in every three. Emery kept his eyes on him, then flicked them to Lydia when she began speaking-- more loudly, but no more understandably.

The woman merchant whose wagon had been hit said very little. “This Keidenelle man was running and my cart happened to be in his chosen path. Obviously, being pursued as he was, he wasn’t able to take time to pay me back for what was broken, but he did take the time to apologize for his actions, even if it was only in a look. I had some wares broken, but I don’t think the price of what was lost is worth anyone being imprisoned over, my Lady.”

Draegon’s eyes widened. She wasn’t angry? Keffinen’s eyes were wide, too, but more likely he was surprised that the thought of money could be so easily put aside.

For a long few minutes, Lady Ara thought over what she’d heard. “Here is my decision,” she said finally. Draegon was glad; he was growing tired of the nearly murderous looks Keffinen was shooting him. “No matter which of your stories is true, they do agree on one point. Master Keffinen has been derived of property that was rightfully his. But whether that property was taken by Master Draegon or it is Master Draegon is of no matter. Either way, he is responsible. Personally, I do not approve of the slave trades, and I have outlawed them in my own lands, but it is not in my power or right to free a slave that is not mine.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Draegon saw Keffinen’s smile grow more and more. No doubt thoughts of money were running through his head.

“I give you three options, Master Draegon. Number one, you may return to Master Keffinen’s custody. You admitted freely yourself that you were his slave, and I admire your honesty in that. I would think any other man would deny it, especially since it was something your accuser didn’t mention. Slavery is a touchy subject for all. So your second and third options will allow you your freedom. Your second option is to simply give Master Keffinen your instruments. They are, after all, the property he claimed. Your third option is to pay Master Keffinen the full value of either the instruments or yourself as a slave, whichever price is lower, to offset the costs of the property he lost. Mistress Merchant?”

“My name is Gossard, my Lady. Mistress Gossard.” The merchant woman looked frightened.

“Mistress Gossard, you do not wish recompense for your lost wares?”

“No, my Lady. As I said, it is not worth someone losing his freedom for a few broken vases.”

The young Lady nodded as if pleased. “Then all I have for you is a small request for your services. If you would, please appraise Master Draegon’s instruments. And if you are comfortable with it, appraise Master Draegon, as well. We need to know a fair price for him to pay Master Keffinen if that is what he should choose.”

Draegon felt awkward as Mistress Gossard looked him up and down, judging him as one would a horse. At least she didn’t check his teeth. He didn’t want to part with his instruments, but a single reassuring look from the merchant made him more willing. She turned the carved wooden hand dulcimer, his silver-chased flute, and his rather plain tambour over in her hands one by one, gently plucking out a few notes on the dulcimer for tone and thumping the tambour twice to test them before handing them back.

“Considering the fine quality of his instruments and the physical shape Master Draegon is in, I would judge them to be of comparable value. Somewhere around seventy-five gold marks.”

Keffinen’s eyes glittered while Draegon’s fell. Seventy-five marks? And gold marks, too! He didn’t have that kind of money.

“Master Draegon? What is your decision?”

Draegon looked at the lords and ladies lining the walls of the audience chamber. Each of them avoided his eyes as if he were a fearsome animal, even though it should have been obvious from his behavior during this whole interval that he was no savage. No matter what, he wouldn’t go back to being one in their eyes. No one would cage him again. He fell to one knee and put a hand over his heart.

“Before the eyes of those around me and the ever-graceful and loving eyes of the Great Mother, I pledge myself to the Search for Sonsedhor. I will speak no untrue word. The innocent will fear no harm from me. It is for righteousness that I Seek, not for glory. Until the fabled blade is found or I pledge myself to another cause or master, I will Seek. This is my oath.”

Keffinen burst out with a string of obscenities that caused Lady Ara to have him removed from the chamber. “You realize what you have just said, Master Draegon?”

He only held out his hand in response. “My braid, my Lady.”

Sighing, Lady Ara produced a silver braid of the Seekers from somewhere about her and placed it in Draegon’s hand. As he tied it around his arm, he repeated, “This is my oath.”

“The oaths you have just made free you from all debts and obligations for the time being, Seeker Draegon,” Lady Ara said with resignation. “But do not believe it puts you in my good graces. It is a coward’s way out you have chosen, and I place no trust in cowards. Your oath only frees you from my verdict until the sword is found, until you die, or until you give up and begin again paying taxes to some lord or lady. But I will not even let you get away with that. If you are ever seen without your braid, you forfeit your oath, and you will be required to pay twice what you owe to Master Keffinen: a sum of one hundred and fifty gold marks. And to ensure that you don’t simply return to a life of performing and make your escape, my man Roark will accompany you on your search.” A single glare at Roark from Ara ensured he did as he was told.

Emery let out a grunt that could be taken for surprise, then mimicked Ryan’s behavior in kneeling with his hand over his heart and murmuring something neither the doctor nor her intern could hear.