[Anyone who reads "Winter's Dreams" will instantly be aware of its many shortcomings. This is my first assay into short fiction in fifteen years. Some minds are better suited to long, I suppose. Some lack the capacity to leave things out. My last short work appeared in Asimov's, Mid-December 1982 issue. 1985 saw publication of a 240,000 word trilogy prequeling events in that story. "Winter's Dreams," for me is noteworthy for the thousand things left out. It is ever thus. There are always more questions to answer about these people from other dimensions and more events in their lives to chronicle. If they survive.
In effect, "Winter's Dreams" is like an artist's preliminary pencil sketch for one panel in a triptych. A lot of detail and color and polish need to be added before a satisfactorily finished whole appears to my eye.]
The light of three racing moons drenched the smoky city. Silver shadows schooled lazily amongst crowded spires and steeples and minarets, making the gargoyles appear to stir and stretch. Mist crept through the narrow, tortuous alleys and streets, heavy with odors foul and sweet. The air scarcely stirred. Tall black prayer banners rose toward the weary stars, swaying like kelp beneath a gentle sea.
A broad-winged shadow wheeled like a hunting moth, began a circumspect descent that seemed to ignore but never moved out of sight of a certain open window high in the city's tallest tower. The separation dwindled. Then ceased to exist.
An indeterminate form perched on the windowsill, wrapped in its own darkness. The city was silent but a deeper stillness gathered 'till it seemed a clash of cymbals would not dare speak louder than a whisper. The darkness stole inside. A faint, crackling acetylene light tickled the necks of the grey towers facing the window. The gargoyles stirred uneasily.
The room was cramped with gaunt, pallid, hand-wringing men in black, few of whom had any business being there. Functionaries and menials, there was not a fat cell among them. Senior Magician Ymarjon Shredlu thought they resembled nothing so much as a brood of devoutly terrified mantids.
"What's wrong with her?" a reedy voice demanded.
Shredlu glanced at the only fat man present. "I've only just arrived, my lord. But as a preliminary I suggest she be allowed more air."
Lord Everay Sloot shooed retainers. They continued to hold their long, bony hands before them as they retreated, robes flapping like raven's wings. Agitated whispers stirred like the soft rustle of trampled leaves. They sensed trouble.
Lord Everay continued to bluster and throw his weight around. Though not half so imposing a figure himself Shredlu ignored the man. He concentrated on Sloot's daughter.
Everay Ake Winter was a golden child-goddess, a throwback to the Star Walkers, perfectly proportioned, at fifteen summers swiftly approaching the peak of her beauty. The Everays bred stronger by the generation. Already Winter outshone her mother's best.
Master Shredlu hardened the shell round the spark he was amazed to discover still dwelt within him. There was a fierce and alien taint to the air; a smell of something from the Old Times. It troubled him deeply, as though he recognized it down on some near-instinctive level like an almost-forgotten fear-fragrance from early childhood. He rested the tips of the central pair of fingers on his right hand upon Winter's forehead, each and inch above the eye. He shut his own eyes to the gothic splendor surrounding him.
An electric tingle climbed his arm. "Uhm! Tackoo?"
"What?" Everay demanded. "What is it? Is she in danger?" Winter was his beloved and overly indulged daughter, in keeping with tradition, she carried his successor already, conceived within the fortnight, with the Senior and Master Magicians chaperoning the rut to guarantee the quickening of a son. Though he saw it every generation, Shredlu did not enjoy witnessing those couplings. But it was essential to the stability of the domain.
Shredlu paid Lord Everay no mind. The man was fatter, but weak. Shredlu turned Winter's head slightly. In profile she resembled her mother more strongly. He beckoned his apprentice. "Shubam. Razor and soap. Quickly."
"What is it?" Everay demanded. He indulged Shredlu's moods. Shredlu had been around a long time.
"A moment more, my lord." Shredlu stepped to the window. The alien scent was stronger. He stared out at
the grey towers while brushing the sill with the spatulate fingertips of his left hand. The sensitive cells there picked up more of the musk and a strong, ugly taste.
Perhaps the auguries were overly optimistic. Of the thousand futures foreseen for Winter only a scatter in the far estuaries of probability shone brightly.
Apprentice Shubam announced proudly, "Razor, hot water, towels, and shaving lather, master." Shivering, Shredlu turned. His face betrayed nothing. He considered Shubam. The boy was enthusiastic but sloppy - despite knowing what had befallen his predecessor. He had cut no corners with so weighty a witness present, though. The razor was sharp, the towels and water hot, and the lather were of a precisely calculated temperature and consistency. Shubam did well when he concentrated.
Shredlu turned Winter's head farther. "Hold her there, Shubam. Gently!" He daubed lather. Lord Everay continued to fuss but stayed out of the way. Shredlu did not listen. He was old enough to entertain doubts that weight and condition of birth bestowed divinity.
It took just two small strokes of the straight razor to confirm his fears. "Clean her," he told Shubam, dropping the razor into the water. "My lord, she hasn't fallen into a coma at all. A tackoo came in the night,"
"Spare me any witchmaster's obfuscations, Shredlu. Speak only with precision and concision. What might a tackoo be?"
Shredlu maintained his bland exterior. Even an apprentice as raw as Shubam - who had gasped - knew, though no tackoo assault had been reported for generations. Magician's generations.
But the dark reaches of the world still harbored many nightmares from the Old Times. Shredlu summoned one or another himself occasionally.
"Tackoo. One of the Artifact Folk. A vampire of dreams. See the mark on her temple." That was a rusty hourglass an inch tall formerly concealed by Winter's hair. "It took her dreams. Now she is trapped in a sleep where no dreams occur. If she does not dream, she cannot awaken as Everay Ake Winter." Shredlu straightened a strand of golden hair, then thumbed open an eyelid, exposing an empty blue iris. It was not necessary for Sloot to know she could be wakened as something else. "My lord. It's going to be a long siege amongst the books."
Lazy Shubam made a whimpering sound.
In private, Lord Everay Sloot seldom betrayed the impatience and petulance so often demonstrated before an audience. Shredlu suspected the public Sloot of being a pose. Indeed, he suspected Lord Everay wore several personas, onionlike; the real man might never be found by peeling. Shredlu did not let Sloot concern him overly much. One day he would be replaced by the yet unborn Vonce. Sfoot waited quietly while Shredlu consulted his library. Shredlu instructed Shubam who directed a covey of raven men who made haste to comply, lashed on by Lord Everay's unforgiving gaze.
Shredlu sketched a gesture with his right little finger. The light went out of the book before him. It closed itself.
"This is a matter best not discussed in every pantry and alleyway, my lord."
"As ever, your advice it without flaw, Shredlu. All of you, leave us."
Shredlu nodded at Shubam, who seemed uncertain if the directive extended to himself. Alone with Sloot, Shredlu announced, "My memory betrayed me only in the details, my lord. Tackoo do, indeed, dote on a relish of stolen dreams. They are among the oldest of the Artifact Folk. Literally. They do not die. Neither do they breed. There cannot be more than three left alive in this late age. Our night-visitor will have been the tackoo Syathbir Tolis."
"You put a name to the demon so swiftly?"
"Of the three tackoo known, at most recent report, to survive, only Syathbir Tolis has the capacity for flight. Tackoo are undoubtedly hardy, but I hesitate to credit that even the most resolute non-flyer could clamber past the wards and gargoyles to reach Winter's window."
"Why would even a flyer visit the child? Can her dreams be so much tastier than easier prey found far nearer the lurking places preferred by Old Time things?"
"A flyer would if it were conjured and constrained and placed under obligation."
"A Magician is responsible?"
"Such a conclusion is inevasible, my lord, Your reasoning is apt, no Old Time demon would descend upon us while easier prey is available closer to home. Someone selected Syathbir Tolis from the literature, then found it and bound it to his will. Tackoo appear to be dull of wit and, once located, easily manipulated."
"Who?" Sloot wondered aloud. "Why? I have no enemies."
"We all have enemies, my lord. Occasionally, our enemies do not declare themselves publicly. Often we find the source of their rancor inaccessible or obscure. I suggest we concentrate instead upon freeing Winter, knowing that quest will certainly expose your enemies."
"There is hope?" Sloot brightened. He did love his daughter in more than a carnal manner, as a vessel for the Everay seed, far more than he ever loved their mother.
"The tackoo is a vampire of dreams but seldom a
destroyer or vandal. They cherish and keep them. They can be reclaimed. They can be restored. Unless your enemy is so virulent he has compelled Syathbir Tolis to repudiate his very nature. I choose not to believe this is possible."
"What is accomplished by this blow? Vonce resides in her womb already. The progression \cannot be interrupted... She will not perish of this, will she?"
"She will go on as one in a coma. For however long her allotted span. The cruel truth, though, is that Vonce will enter the world with no dreams, either. The Everay progression can be maintained but you will the last to think and rule."
Shredlu saw the suspicion poison Everay's thoughts. Sloot's eyes narrowed. They became evasive as he examined the possibility that his enemy was his own Senior Magician, bent on rule through a progression of empty-minded puppets.
"Not I, my lord," Shredlu said. Not this time.
"What will you do next?"
"Locate Syathbir Tolis. The Tackoo is the key."
"Find him. Be not retiring in assessing his chastisement."
"Fear not, my lord. Rue and woe. Rue and woe betide."
Shredlu watched as Lord Everay waddled out of the library. Sloot was lost in thought, perhaps reflecting on the strange circumstances that had made him master of Everay a generation before his time.
He was not deep and persistent. Thought would abandon him once he reached the pleasures of the bath and seraglio.
Not all Artifacts and Old Timers were confined to the shadowed reaches of the world. Only those whose aspect offended or whose talents terrified and who were not otherwise useful on a regular basis. And those considered too dangerous to Real People. Shredlu saw several of them as he passed through the domestics corridors. They did not see him. Not even the guards. He wore an illusion supplementing their natural disinclination to see the thing that did not belong. They felt him. They moved out of his path, puzzledly, though even under torture they would recall with certainty nothing concrete.
Shredlu returned to the principal hallways for the final approach to his destination. Manners forbid making his entrance like a servant. He scratched at the appropriate door, waited patiently. She would come when it became clear he would not go away. Someone might pass and remark upon his presence.
Lady Everay Non Ethan appeared beautifully serene when she opened the door herself, more swiftly than Shredlu anticipated. She had prepared herself to receive company. Elegantly gowned and coifed and bejewelled, she appeared a regal vision of Winter, tall, lithe, blonde, her forty-six summers unbetrayed by cunningly engineered lighting. "Shredlu. Will you stand there gawking 'till some roving band of functionaries tramples you?"
The Magician stepped forward. "You surprised me, Ethan You were waiting."
"Am I so isolated and deaf that alarums and tumults fail to reach me entirely? I hear Winter's name whispered when they think I cannot hear. What disaster has befallen the child so soon after her cheerless nuptials? Has she been laid low by melancholy, like her mother before her?"
Ethan confused melancholy with bitterness, Shredlu feared. Her bottomless well of bitterness was the principal reason he came visiting so seldom anymore. "She is laid low but wicked magic was the agent. Someone sent a tackoo to steal her dreams." His gaze swept the decadence around him. Ethan certainly made Everay pay for her participation in its progression.
"How could that be? Tackoo and dorado and the gell people.... They're nightfears you Magicians made up so you can extort a livelihood from the rest of us."
She did not believe that. It was a play-argument from a time when there had been less cool between them.
"This is no game, Ethan. A determined and abiding malice has turned its countenance upon Everay. The weight of its animosity is being born by Winter but it is not she who won the motivating hatred. She's never been out of the tower."
"Perhaps she has an enemy inside. Tuft Yarramal springs to mind. Yarramal hates everyone."
Shredlu examined the proposition from obscure and descant angles. Tuft Yarramal did indeed hate everyone but only as a mannered attitude. Nor did Yarramal hate herself enough to devise her own destruction. "It is a
thought, Ethan. I shall consult Yarramal."
"Will you go without so much as touching me?"
"My time is no longer my own. I came as a courtesy, to inform you, to caution you."
"Catastrophe has struck once. Forewarned, we need not let it slide into our midst again." Shredlu surveyed his surroundings once more. He turned to the door.
He steeled himself against her loneliness. "I must. I must reclaim Winter's dreams."
He was gone before she whispered, "And what of Ethan's dreams?"
In addition to Senior Magician Ymarjon Shredlu and his varying apprentices, Everay employed Master Magicians Rolo Kintrude and Aleas Dubbing, their several apprentices and Journeyman Magician Tuft Yarramal. Yarramal was the sole female in the magical establishment. She subscribed to none of the purported feminine weaknesses, she considered all soft emotions vices. Shredlu suspected she would become a Master at an early age and a threat to his position, if not his person, soon afterward.
The Magicians and their followings assembled in Shredlu's laboratory in response to his summons. He observed a shadow as they awaited his pleasure, unaware of his presence. Kintrude and Dubbing remained near the entrance, in an area plainly devoid of pitfalls, managing their impatience and that of their companions. They did nothing to temper the curiosities of Tuft Yarramal, however., Yarramal prowled the aisles between Shredlu's worktables and curio cabinets, here picking up an alembic full of gangrenous ichor, there a moldy book with an angel's feather as a bookmark. Never a word of caution crossed the lips of the Masters. Perhaps they hoped Yarramal stumbled into something. They had no love for her.
Shredlu noted carefully which particulars attracted Yarramal most strongly. He had shut down most of his little protections, partly as courtesy, partly to allow Yarramal's overconfidence to build to the point where she would take the one step too many if the impulse seized her.
Shubam made his entrance on cue, fawning obsequious to the Masters and haughty toward their companions. The lad looked like he was gaining weight on a diet little better than bark tea and gravel. He might find that proclivity a greater source of embarrassment than his inclination toward sloppiness.
Yarramal poked a finger into a case displaying several ancient tintinabula, one of which was said to have come from beyond the stars on one of the ships that brought the First Fold before the beginning of the Old Times. Yarramal did not subscribe to the theory that Real People were not native to this world. She believed all evidence supporting extraterrestrial origins to have been manufactured....
A distinct clack reverberated throughout the laboratory. Yarramal yipped in surprise. She tried to withdraw her hand from the display. The case ignored her desire. Shredlu noted that she neither panicked nor yielded to an impulse to implore aid of Kintrude and Dubbing. With her free hand, she rolled up her sleeves and began to experiment.
Yarramal remained unaware of Shredlu's presence 'till he reached past and probed the case with the elongated digit of his right hand. The catch devil recognized him and accepted his admonition against further restraining nosy journeymen. Shredlu said nothing, words had little impact upon Tuft Yarramal. He joined the Masters. Yarramal followed.
Shredlu spoke straightforwardly. "Winter's state is the result of a predatory visitation by the tackoo Syathbir Tolis.
There can be no doubt on this point. The tackoo's present whereabouts must be determined. An expedition must be mounted to collect the miscreant so that we may inquire into the causes of its remarkable behavior. To this end, we will now pool our knowledge and resources, reserving nothing, for we have already staked our reputations upon the welfare of the Everay domain."
Kintrude nodded. Dubbing employed all six fingers of his right hand in a gesture indicating absolute agreement. Only Tuft Yarramal disdained demonstration.
Shredlu issued his instructions, Rolo Kintrude to hunt the craggy wastelands to the west; Aleas Dubbing in all his skill to search the haunted forests to the north. The Senior would employ his own powers seeking Syathbir Tolis in the ugly fens and marshes and swamps to the east, known to be a favorite retreat of the more dark and insane Artifact Folk. Tuft Yarramal would examine the registers of Magicians and associated castes in an effort to determine the most probable villains in the case. She could not handle the south; nothing lay in that quarter but a cold, grey heaving ocean.
"We shall gather here again in four hours," Shredlu announced. "I shall provide a banquet. We will plan our expedition."
Nervously, Shubam took down the panels concealing the adonnai orden. each a five foot by seven painting in the neoclassical representationalist mode pioneered by Wensby Strait. Each cast a mythological creature against some well-known attractions outside the city. But for one latecomer by Everay Non Ethan, the paintings remind himself not to be rigidly intolerant of others infatuations. Time tended to suppress the inessential and pretentious.
The features of six olive drab faces filled the spaces once covered by the panels, each taller between lip and eye than was Shredlu between head and toe. The adonnai slept, kerchiefs and mist wisps of ectoplasmic matter darting and larking in their breaths, into their nostrils and out again, to buzz out across the world like worker bees, harvesting the pollen of secrets. Shredlu considered them for several minutes. There were no immediately apparent differences between the six. All would be equally testy if awakened. All harbored an unreasonable resentment over being bound to his service. He had provided the ingrates a warm and secure place to sleep.
"Shubam, have you carried out my instructions?"
"Yes, master." Shubam was a lad of few words, unlike the run of apprentices, who seemed to have automated the hinges of their jaws.
"Then take the table to the very end." He would begin with Xyzzys, the least tractable of the adonnai. If by clever badinage and cunning evasion he compelled Shredlu to waken a second adonnai, more animosity would be directed Xyyzyx's way than Shredlu's. The adonnai resented one another more than any other entity.
Shubam positioned the wheeled table. Shredlu stepped up. His apprentice had failed to overlook any items and had positioned all with absolute precision. Shubam had heard rumors about the fate of his disorderly predecessor. Adonnai featured largely in every version. Adonnai did not restrain their irrational rancor when tempted by lax preliminary work.
"Excellent, Shubam. Would you care to cast the invoking incantations?" They were simple enough.
"Master, I would prefer not to enjoy my first exercise with Xyyzyx."
"Very well, I will not insist." Time was passing. Scarcely two hours before the Everay Magicians assembled. As he commenced the awakening,. Shredlu asked, "Has anyone approached you about our work here?" Particularly about our current course of experiments?"
"No, master." Shubam stirred nervously, warily keeping Shredlu between himself and Xyyzyx.
"Has no one shown any curiosity at all? Tuft Yarramal, perhaps?"
"I have never, to my recollection, spoken directly to the Journeyman."
"Excellent. I urge you to persist in your neglect."
"Thou pestilent Ymarjon," Xyyzyx boomed. "I will not ask thee why thou disturbest mine slumbers. I have
anticipated thine importunities. Thou art, in point of fact, tardy in launching them."
The huge olive face opened its eyes. They proved to be the most human of the an's features, being vastly enlarged orbs identical to those of a brown-eyed man-'till ghosts began to wisp in and out of their pupils.
"You understand what moves me to trouble you?"
"Thou wishest to unravel the mysteries surrounding a theft of dreams."
"You know about that?" Shredlu was troubled. The adonnai were seldom so direct. Xyyzyx in particular preferred evasion and misdirection.
"Much escapes me. I spend my life in sleepy reverie."
Shredlu supposed it was too much to expect the adonnai to volunteer anything though it was obvious the Artifact was deeply concerned and quite possible frightened--if such a creature could make the acquaintance of fear.
"Thou needs must ask the right questions, Ymarjon Shredlu."
It could not shake its nature completely. Shredlu asked questions. Scores upon scores of questions. He studied the huge olive face with every one, taking clue from its swift play of expression whether he pursued the correct will-o'-the wisp. Xyyzyx was doing his best to communicate. This fact continued to impress Shredlu.
In response to a particular inquiry, Xyyzyx replied, "Thou art more intuitive than most would suspect, Ymarjon Shredlu. The call for the tackoo did indeed originate within the Everay domain. Sadly no adonnai can identify the source with precision." Shredlu noted five more pairs of adonnai eyes open and turned his way, though he had done nothing to conjure them forth from their sleep. "The thing was done clumsily, though. As thou hast noted secretly. A lack of skill was revealed both in the summoning itself, and in the concealment of the source and nature of the summons."
The attack originated within the Everay domain and was directed against the Everay domain. If Winter failed to dream, it would be but a few generations till the Everay progression concluded.
"You have placed me deeply into your debt." Shredlu confessed.
"Swift recompense of obligations is urged by all great thinkers. Strike while the mood of generosity is yet upon thee. Let down these prisoning walls."
Shredlu chuckled. "Where is the tackoo Syathbir Tolis? One suspects your reveries might have touched upon this matter."
"Indeed. It was an intriguing task. The tackoo's slow wits reached the inevitable conclusion only after it was too late to desist or recant."
"I presume the tackoo eventually converted to the doctrine that his only hope of salvation lay in hiding. That being what he is, he has long had several refuges prepared."
"Thou art intelligent. For a mere man." The adonnai
Xyzzyx's grin exposed hideously deformed teeth. Ghosts fluttered in and out of its sparkling eyes. It was prepared to bargain hard.
Master Magician Aleas Dubbing declared, "The tackoo Syathbir Tolis failed to make himself evident in my quarter of the compass. Sources available, however, suggested he might be located by an investigator who turned his eye upon the Dustrake Reach of the Lesser Miasmatic Swamps."
"A suggestion in substantial agreement with my own conclusions," Shredlu said. "Kintrude?"
"I found considerable consternation on all levels Outside. Syathbir Tolis is nowhere amongst the Wastes. Outsider rumor reliably places him within the Lesser Miasmatics."
The tackoo appears to have confused no one. Yarramal? Have you contradictory evidence?"
"None such was to be found within the registers, even of a caste so remote and narrow as the Necromancers."
A caste of one, which consisted of Shredlu's cousin the freelance charlatan Ousted Delf. Shredlu was confident Yarramal had made her own locational inquiries. "Did you find a name that can be attached to this dream-theft villainy?"
"None whatsoever, Senior." She frowned thoughtfully, as though taking a last look at a decision already made. "Perhaps it is irrational or unreliable intuition, Senior, but I have arrived at a conviction this crime germinated inside the Everay domain, probably within this very tower, possibly close to the child."
"Substantially my own assessment. Shubam. I see you have returned. Have you extended the invitations?"
"And the airmen?"
"They have been alerted; His Lordship expects to launch a spontaneous picnic foray."
"Excellent. You outdo yourself in these times of crisis, Shubam. We shall have to reward you by adding to your duties."
"My gratitude knows no bounds, master."
Shredlu could only suspect that Shubam was being less than honest. "Come, then. Let us be off.... Shubam. You did send to the kitchen for appropriate provisions?"
"I did, master."
Yarramal asked, "We are going out to the Miasmatics?"
"It will make a wonderful afternoon excursion."
"It occurs to me that your plan puts all the domain's Magicians in the same place at the same time."
"It does indeed. And one of us may be the villain of the piece. The blackguard may be hoping for this eventuality. A grave risk. Which of usn should remain behind?" Shredlu chuckled. There was a dirth of volunteers, it being evident that suspicion would surround whoever held back.
It would be an interesting journey as each prepared for the worst while pretending to share a social jaunt. "I think we need not take our apprentices. Come. Time flees." He strode forth, snatching his cloak and staff from Shubam as he passed. He offered the apprentice q sharp look. Winter would be his responsibility in his master's absence. Winter would be a test.
The airmen had brought the sky yacht Vangier, there would be no sneaking into the Dustrake Reach. In any event, it would have to do. There was no time to cover its gaudy paintwork. Lesser craft could not transport the entire party. Nor could he keep an eye on everyone if they scattered amongst several smaller vessels. And it was a picnic, after all.
The picnickers assembled upon the airmen's promenade, eighty levels up Everay Prime. Rolo Kintrude and Aleas Dubbing stood together, conversing in low tones. Tuft Yarramal stood apart, introspective, as was her wont. Lord Everay Sloot stood between his mother, Everay Non Ethan, and grandmother, Everay Tak Arone. In the cruel light of afternoon it was difficult to distinguish which woman was the younger. They did not chat. The Everays had little to say to one another, ever.
The airmen cursed one another as they wrestled Vangier into position for boarding. A breeze made the ship difficult to manage. Nevertheless, they performed their task and the picnickers boarded without a festive face among them. Senior Airman Mug Rusale barely waited 'till the boarding steps cleared. Vangier sprang upward; grey towers began to slide away underneath. Mists and smoke concealed the streets way down below.
It was an hour's flight to the Lesser Miasmatics. The picnickers remained disposed as before, a group of three, a pair, two alone. Only Kintrude and Dubbing ad a word to share and that quite seldom, no one attempted to probe Shredlu's intentions. Questions might bestir presumptions of guilt.
Xyzzyx and his family had been of incomplete assistance in determining the identity of the person responsible for the attack on Winter. Reason and information gathered argued that the villain had to be aboard the sky yacht. Shredlu was inclined to suspect Tuft Yarramal but could not fathom a motive.
As the yacht approached the Miasmatics, the sky outside filled with bizarre creatures more colorful than the airboat itself. The largest of these was an orange-bellied, blue-backed pseudopteronodon with a wicked and intelligent eye. "Hemmaus?" Yarramal asked from behind Shredlu. "It fits the deamon's description."
"Hemmaus," Shredlu agreed. "We have done business before. A dangerous entity, Hemmaus. Intelligent, unpredictable and occasionally treacherous. In no sense should you ever show him your back. But he is a powerful ally when it suits his humor."
A score of Hemmaus' lesser cousins larked around like flickering confetti.
The sky yacht descended. Mug Rusale regaled himself with imprecations, critiquing his own performance. The swamp began to impinge upon more than the eye; its odor, then sound, penetrated the cabin of the airship. The odor alone sufficed to convince even the slowest wit that the wetlands were appropriately named.
Shredlu directed Mug Rusale to a particular stretch of Dustrake Reach. Several thousand acres of vegetation were of a uniform green so dark it verged upon the black. That sprawl consisted of a single million-trunked nedereyya tree harboring an ecology all its own.
Rusale excoriated the yacht for its sudden inclination to proceeded in a nose-down attitude.
Dubbing and Kintrude had come forward. Dubbing asked, The tackoo is hiding in the canopy there?"
"So my sources indicate. What of yours?"
Both Master Magicians nodded. Shredlu examined them closely. Neither seemed distressed by the swiftness with which the hunt was closing in on Winter's tormentor, not that either would have given himself away easily. Each was a master.
Mug Rusale found a bit of solid ground convenient to the vast tree, brought Vangier to earth.
Shredlu attended to his host's duties immediately. With the aid of Mug Resale he set up tables and chairs, put out insect repellers on poles at a distance of fifteen feet. There were no protests and no urgings to get on with it. Great stakes were on the board; caution was indicated. Yarramal and Rusale brought out the picnic baskets. Shredlu served a rare wine from his own stock..Lord Everay commented favorably, the first he had spoken since boarding Vangier.
Shredlu cast the occasional glance toward the nedereyya, at hemmaus wheeling high above. Unless he had been anticipated, something would happen soon.
Shadows were long and purple when the swamp suddenly grew raucous with the approach of Hemmaus' smallest cousins. Their reptilian barks and hisses and squalls swept back and forth behind concealing foliage. Shredlu was pleased. Lord Everay's patience had grown lean. Much longer and he would have demanded an end to the outing.
A black butterfly silhouette sprang up against the rosy lilac sky, fluttering in panic. Hemmaus' cousins darted around it. It shifted directions with greater facility than its tormentors, but they had numbers. Where one was outmaneuvered, another flashed in.
With a line of sight established, Shredlu could now bend his own will upon the tackoo. He drew it in, struggling like a fish reluctant to leap into the pan. Shredlu brought it to a perch upon one of the picnic tables. It quivered in terror, surrounded by Real Men. Above Hemmaus' cousins hastened toward their aeries. Night was falling. Darkness would summon forth creatures less condign than they.
Hemmaus himself called down an admonition for Shredlu to mind his debts faithfully.
Shredlu responded in the tongue favored by the flying artifacts. He always discharged his obligations. Were that not true, Xyzzyx would not have arranged events so that Syathbir Tolis joined the Everay picnickers.
Rolo Kintrude said, "Senior, we should, perhaps, consider going home. Already the night grows aware of our presence."
Shredlu felt it himself. "Rusale, load the sky yacht. Yarramal, lend a hand." The Senior Magician remained close to Syathbir Tolis. He would not allow it out of his sight. He would remain artfully alert on levels natural and magical till he could isolate the creature within his laboratory. Never had the tackoo had another so concerned for his well-being.
Under other circumstances, an attack would not have been a disappointment. It would have exposed Winter's enemy and, perhaps, have defined what motivated such an evil assault. Under other circumstances, however, Shredlu would have had a better notion whence trouble might come. At the moment, he trusted only Mug Rusale and, to a lesser extent, Lord Everay. His imagination was fertile: he could conceive of circumstances whereby Winter's bereavement would profit each of the others.
The entire party was so paranoid that not a sigh expired but every eye registered that fact and every brain sorted implications. Tension mounted as Vangier approached Everay Tower. Shredlu began to doubt his reasoning. Everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to crack.
In the end it proved that he had been anticipated. Winter's enemy had no need to indulge in self-betrayal aboard the sky yacht. An ambush was in place at the dock. Its fellowship, however, were understandably apprehensive about the risks inherent in an attack upon the combined Magical masters of Everay. Nerves caused a premature tripping of the trap.
Events thenceforth were foreordained: the air howled with vortices of color, screams of despair were heard, prisoners were taken. Shredlu paused a moment to help Mug Rusale extinguish a scamp cantrip gnawing at a landing claw on the sky yacht.
Aleas Dubbing and Rolo Kintrude appeared a bit tattered. Tuft Yarramal smoldered at left hip and right elbow. Shredlu himself had taken no part once he determined that the others were adequate to squelch the tumult. He merely observed, hoping the behaviors of others would prove instructive.
Tuft Yarramal did not become involved till the ambushers, in despair, hurled their final efforts her way.
"I suspected Yarramal from the beginning," Shredlu announced in his laboratory. "Simply because she was most likely, in character. Shubam was a surprise, though. And the motives of all involved remain elusive." He considered his sullen apprentice, in restraints beside Yarramal. Shubam's motives became transparent instantly. Slothful ambition coupled with passion. And Yarramal's self-destructive behavior became less opaque when her glance fell, as it did often, upon Everay Non Ethan.
Rolo Kintrude and Aleas Dubbing were proficient readers of pregnant glances themselves. Not only did they discern the source of Everay dismay, they also read Shredlu's cautioning frown. Lord Everay would not hear a word of accusation against the woman who was both mother and sister, however much he detested her personally.
Particularly unfathomable were Ethan's motives for putting together the broad but inept conspiracy in the first place. What hatred could she possibly bear her own daughter? Successful, the plot would have meant the end of the Everay progression.
Senior Magician Ymarjon Shredlu oversaw the bringing together of mothlike Syathbir Tolis and Everay Ake Winter, resulting in the restoration of Winter's dreams. Then, with Winter her sparkling, cheerful self once more, none the worse for her misadventure and full of helpful suggestions and even lending a playful hand, he oversaw the punishment of the guilty. He thought a great deal about Ethan while he worked. He cherished what had been and now could never be again. He thought about the Everay progression. He worried about where he might find a teachable, tractable apprentice.
He was using them up at an alarming rate.