Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part IV
ord Loriod sat on the divan with his legs up. One fat hand languidly plucked a grape from the cornucopia to his right. Macaban, the raised welts where the whip had landed on his back showing clearly through his fur, was kneeling before him. The air was cool here, and comfortable, and Loriod basked in the luxury. The donkey-servant was reading aloud the monetary report. Taxes were good and the recent but necessary expenses were more than compensated for. He touched the grape to his lips, and savored the rich aroma. This was real fruit, not those apples that were so common in this area. Only a real noble could afford to eat grapes. Farmers were unable to raise them on these cold northern slopes. This far North the little delicacies were exceedingly rare and expensive- nobody but Loriod touched these grapes.
"And then there is the matter of replacing the stock that you used in town. I noticed that one the precious stones in your aquarium is missing, and that will take a few gold to replace as well, My Lord." Macaban's voice was droning on, but this caught his ear.
Loriod leaned over from the divan, grabbed Macaban by his donkey ears, and hauled him up. "What did you say?"
Macaban averted his eyes. "Sir, I said that one of the precious stones from your aquarium is missing, and that it will cost a few gold to replace, My Lord."
Loriod nodded, shifting his weight around. This was trouble- he had not expected anybody to notice the stone's absence. Macaban was a good retainer, and it was certainly nice to have an observant servant. However, it could also be inconvenient. Inconvenient for two reasons. One, that Macaban had noticed that it was precious was bad enough in itself. Secondly, that it was the pyrock that he was talking about. "Stand still, Macaban, do not move." Loriod put his finger to the donkey's chest, and suddenly the blue nimbus began to follow the path of his finger. When he took his finger back, Macaban stared blankly at him.
"Sir, what happened?" Macaban asked in a confused expression.
"Nothing, loyal Macaban, just continue with your report." Loriod leaned back on his divan, and plucked another luscious purple grape. The "forget" rune didn't really erase any memories. It just blocked certain areas of the mind away. Anybody with the counterrune could find the truth out. The voices seemed angry with his flagrant use of what they had taught him. Loriod sucked on the pleasant juices. Let them be angry; they needed him more than he needed them.
My fur was still reeking of smoke when I went to see Thomas. We had urgent planning to do, and serious matters to discuss. There was no time to bathe. A single look at the state of my usually neat coat and the set of my ears sufficed to make my needs clear. We were alone in Thomas's office in minutes.
"What is it, Phil?"
First I gave him the good news about our "Rat of Might", carefully not telling any more than I had promised. Matthias had accepted his place and the mission, I explained, and matters were proceeding accordingly. The equine Lord was quite gladdened by the news, and reported that work on a neutralizing package for the amulet was showing promise. "I think it will be ready in three days," he concluded.
"That's great!" I replied. Then I told him about my suspicions regarding Loriod's coach. "Who would do such a thing. My Lord?"
Thomas half-nickered. "Almost anyone, Your Highness. Loriod is not the most popular person in Metamor, you know."
I rocked my ears. What an understatement!
Thomas continued. "I regret that we have to continue dealing with Loriod- I am not so blind to his excesses as some folks seem to think. But there are certain things we cannot change all at once, not while we are living in a war zone that could boil over at any time."
I nodded solemnly. Lord Thomas and I had upturned many a mug together talking about the divine rights of nobility and what it all meant. Even my father, Tenomides, had expressed support for reform in government, for more respect of the wishes of the common folk. Together, we three cherished many notions of a new tomorrow. But dealing with our Enemy continually frustrated our efforts at reform. If the Enemy triumphed, all was lost. Now was not quite the time to take chances or undertake experiments...
"So, Loriod is an essential part of our economy. I can appreciate this," I said. "But can we really tolerate one with ideas as old as his?"
"We have no choice." Thomas said bluntly. "Unless we can all learn to eat stone. For without Loriod, Metamor would soon starve."
I nodded, making my ears flop. " I know. It's just..."
"..just that Loriod insults you, treats you as an animal and a social inferior?" Thomas was looking at me with his most piercing gaze. "You are not alone, Phil. Do you not think I see the greed in his pig-eyes when he looks upon my throne, hear the hesitation as the words 'My Lord' hang up in his throat? I KNOW that he is an ass, but he is a common sort of ass. He has committed no crimes. Or at least no crimes that three out of four nobles in the world today haven't committed as well. And as long as he does not, I dare not interfere with how he treats his subjects. The world is not always as we wish it to be, Phil. I would have assumed you had learned that lesson by now."
I sadly shook my head. Thomas was right, of course, But it didn't make it any easier to accept the boorish ignorant oaf. I explained that I would make arrangements to ship MattRat out in four day's time, and excused myself to get to work. I had set a lot of tasks for myself. Including tracing down magical symbols, investigating an arson, determining the connection between Loriod and the Rat of Might, and, just as an aside, planning the most difficult and important spy endeavor of my life.
The first step had to be writing a dispatch to the Fleet. A fast courier vessel was always stationed in Menth for the quickest possible communications between the two allied lands. I summoned the Captain personally, giving no explanations, and sent a well-mounted rider off with my note. Then, Rupert appeared from nowhere as was his habit. It was amazing how talented a bodyguard he was- most of the time I literally did not know he was about. But when he was needed, he appeared in a flash. Tenomides had provided him tutoring on rabbit care, and given him strict instructions that I was to be the best-kept rabbit in all the world. And then he had given me the only Royal command I had ever personally received- to defer to Rupert in these matters. And so it was that I had to submit to bathing and brushing, whether time allowed or not. It WAS pleasant to get the soot out of my fur, but it took much of the afternoon. And then I had to eat- SO much time a rabbit has to spend eating! Before I knew it the evening had passed, and with a full belly, soft clean fur and little rest the night before the result was inevitable. I was in my nice secure cage and unconscious before I really realized that I just didn't have time for such things.
The sound of the footsteps brought his eyes to the door once again. The feeble light streaming in through the bars was as always depressing. It seemed many things were depressing these days. Who knew what Phil was doing, but had he taken the hints that he had been given, then things should be set in motion to bring about his own redemption. Matters were moving too quickly it seemed of late, and the threats and countercharges passed back and forth in the last few days made his head spin from the possibilities.
So it was that when the door opened to admit Lady Kimberly that he was sufficiently estranged from reality to be overwhelmed at her appearance. She cried at the sight of him dirtied and sullied in the dark dank corner of the cell. He launched fully into her arms as she did his. They stayed there standing and weeping with bitter melancholy at the turn of events for quite some time. Charles felt as if his heart were going to rise up into his throat and then roll forth from his tongue into her lap.
He hated having to invite her into his dark abode, but it was what had to be done. She sat down on the straw in the dark and he offered her some of the cheese that they had given him only an hour earlier. She took a bite, but otherwise did not say anything immediately. He wished that she would just say something so that he might hear her voice and exult in the ecstasy of the one perfect sound in all the world.
It was not as if she hadn't visited before. On the contrary she had visited him quite regularly. However, each time before he had been sinking in the quagmire of misery of his own worthlessness as a creature created by God. This time, he was swept up in the machinations of forces that were rushing fast to a collision and threatened to take down everything he cared about in a maelstrom of destruction. It was the forces of Nasoj and of Loriod fighting against the Keepers and himself.
So to have such support from one who could be harmed and killed by both was a sight beyond elation and into the realms of spiritual exultation and sanctification. Lady Kimberly was at these moments the embodiment of everything pure and noble and holy. She was a true saint, and in his mind there was no doubt about it. He gripped her close, wishing once more to hear her angelic voice upon his ears, to know that she loved him and that he loved her. What did the Sondeckis matter if he could not have her? What would his vow against killing do him if she were dead?
"You are so beautiful. I am enchanted by you. I love you, my Lady. You are the most blessed thing on this Earth." His voice shimmered in the radiance that he felt building within himself. He would die for her without hesitation. Never before in his life had such feelings or emotions come over him as did his love for her. Ever since he had met her his heart had been pulled and tugged and drawn into union with her own. There was no regret about any of it. Nothing about her he would ever want to change.
She sniffled a bit, her whiskers twitching and tickling his face. "I love you too, Charles." She whispered as her head settled against his chest. He pulled her close, his heart beating faster. He wished for this moment to last forever.
Lady Kimberly pulled her head back up a little and she asked a question he wished she hadn't asked. "Are you ready to tell me yet?" Each time she had come she had asked why he had done that. Each time he had told her that he was not yet ready. Goodness she was a persistent woman!
Charles lowered his eyes, taking them away from hers. He hated to admit his shame, and found it hard to speak when pressed. Confessing to Phil had been a trial, but Lady Kimberly was somebody he loved, and he did not want to hurt her in any way. "I do not think so. But I have been thinking about it. I just am not ready to speak of it."
Kimberly nodded, and then rested her head back in his arms and on his chest. Charles enfolded her in his arms and paws, and rocked her gently back and forth. He had a mission to perform, and it might very well cost him his life. How could he protect her then? He shuddered at the thoughts, and turned his mind back to just enjoying her company for now. Those things could be dealt with later. Now he wished to be happy.
The next morning came lapine early, as my rabbit body sensed the predawn twilight and woke me to feed at the safest possible time. Rupert was up as well, and without being asked he brought me some delicious hay and a bountifruit stick to gnaw on. While I dined I considered the strange events of the past couple days, and tried over and over to piece them together. Runes. Arson. Amulets. Matthias dodging around saying certain things aloud...
A couple pieces wanted to try and come together right away. Loriod had visited the strangely-acting Charles, and his coach had been deliberately burned outside. Was it a coincidence? Most likely, but it looked as good a place to start as any. Reluctantly, I looked at my writing materials and the special quill that had been fashioned by a fan so that I could hold it in my mouth. I had been inspired recently to write about a fanciful actor-rabbit with an anthropoid companion named after my own Rupert, but just hadn't found the time. And at the current rate I probably never would.
It was a silly idea, anyway. Would never work out...
The only physical evidence I had of anything was the burned-out coach. Honoring my request, a guard had been mounted over the charred wreckage and it had not been disturbed. As soon as dawn broke, I hunted up an old comrade, Wessex. He and I had hoisted many pints at the Mule together, though on the surface we had little in common. But both of bore one important burden together, one so subtle that others did not even recognize it. My friend wore his boyhood body, fixed at age twelve. He had been a very attractive child, tow headed and blue-eyed. Trapped by the Curse in such a body, Wessex had a terrible time being taken seriously, just as I did. Even other Keepers have difficulty dealing with people so “cute” as us. The mage was a specialist in foreign magics, and I had worked with him very frequently over the years in my intelligence role. His work was anything BUT cute, dealing as it often did with matters of great darkness. Yet several times I had been forced to use the Royal standing he lacked to lend credence to Wessex’s warnings and cautions. So, I felt comfortable approaching him even before dawn. As I expected, he was still up poring over his scrolls.
“Don’t you EVER sleep?” I asked when the mage answered his door.
“Phil!” he said, mischievous blue eyes sparkling despite the hour. “Well met! And I might ask what you are doing up so early, as well.”
“It came with the nose job,” I replied. “What’s your excuse?”
“You know that I study the magic of Nasoj. Many spells must be cast in the hours of darkness.”
“Really? I never knew that.”
“It’s true. I was just going to bed. But I suspect you have other plans?”
“Indeed. I have a fire I would like you to investigate...”
Once we arrived on the scene, it took my friend all of two minutes to tell me that the coach fire had been caused by magic. "Simple magic, Phil," he had explained. "Probably a pyrock or a salamander." After my friend explained the two items in a bit more detail, I thanked the mage, and encouraged him not to talk about this to anyone. With a youthful grin, Wessex agreed. He would never admit it to anyone, but he LOVED playing at spies...
And with that, I was off to Loriod's castle.
Rupert took me in a wagon, of course. He wouldn't dream of letting me travel cross-country in a land potentially full of predators. Nor did I spurn the ride- fear runs deep in lapines and is often fully justified. The journey was brief, though, and I had Rupert circle the minor fort once so that I could give it the old look-see.
The place was terribly over-ornamented, with hideously dysfunctional "gingerbread" work blocking important lanes of fire and threatening the integrity of the basic defensive layout. Gallons of bright paint had been expended to turn what had once been a nice natural gray look into a gaudy gewgaw. One of the towers was even candy-striped! I shook my head in disgust- no professional military man would have tolerated the degrading of the defense, and no being of any refinement at all would have considered the paintwork tasteful. The result was testament to childish tastes and an overweening but misplaced drive to impress. Small egos with small minds created monstrosities like this, in my opinion. And Rupert agreed. He could no longer speak since taking on gorillahood, but his disdain for the architecture was quite clear.
The portcullis was up, and we rolled right in. Immediately I was struck by how the peasants seemed so dull and lifeless compared to those at neighboring Metamor. They were clearly poorer, and showed far more respect to me than I was comfortable with. In fact, the level of bowing and scraping and "Your Highness"es was almost unnerving. Even Rupert was bowed to as we made our way through the little courtyard and to Loriod's home.
Mind you, I had no real plan or idea of what I might accomplish in visiting. But the guilty flee where no man pursueth, or so MattRat's holy book claims. And that particular book does contain some excellent advice. So boldly I showed myself at Loriod's very door, and waited while servants received orders to let me in and conduct me into His Lordship's presence.
As we walked the hallways, I saw that the interior was no better decorated than the outside had been. Overly ornate statues and tapestries were everywhere, making me wonder how Loriod had contrived to pay for it all. And, all of it was junk. My people are traders first and foremost, and even those of us who do not ourselves buy and sell learn at our parent's knee how to judge that which has real value. Loriod had filled his halls with expensive garbage, and proudly put his ignorance on display for all to see. It was sad, in a way. But it fit the man so well...
Loriod kept me cooling my heels for half an hour before receiving me, though no one left the ante-room before I was called in. My guess was that the wait was a calculated petty insult, an impression that was reinforced when he offered me neither refreshment nor chair. "Your Highness," he said without enthusiasm. "What a pleasant surprise."
"Lord Loriod," I replied formally, inclining my head just the proper amount. "How are you today?"
"Quite well, considering the unseemly heat. What can I do for you today?"
I looked him over carefully, then rather insultingly sat rabbit-style on the floor. It was more comfortable for me than any normal chair anyway,. "I just wished to see that all was well after your narrow escape yesterday."
"Your coach, My Lord. Had it burst into flames like that while in motion you might have been seriously hurt, maybe even killed."
"Oh! Yes, of course! My coach..."
I widened my eyes a bit. This made me look even more rabbity than usual, I knew. And, to someone as prejudiced as Loriod, less intelligent. If he wanted to see me as an animal, by heavens I would let him look upon an animal..."It was terrible, my Lord!" I said, deliberately taking on a childlike aspect to my speech. "The flames must have been awfully intense- everything was already burned up when I came out just a few minutes later. Gosh, it must have been hot!"
"It surely was, Phil," Loriod replied in a condescending manner. "Did you see how the gold fittings were melted to nothing?"
They had been brass, covered with gold foil. But I was willing to bet Loriod had paid full gold price. "Uh-huh! And the whole bottom was gone!"
"That's right. It was quite a fire, wasn't it?"
If Loriod wasn't the weakest minded man in a position of authority I'd ever met, he was very close to it. And I had met many. "It must have been neat when they tried to put it out! I hear twenty men were throwing water, but it kept burning."
The noble shook his head. "The peasants probably didn't coordinate their efforts properly. You know how it is when there are no leaders about."
I nodded vacantly, then hopped over to Loriod's bookshelf. He stood over me for a moment proudly explaining how much he had paid for the works there, but I found none of the grimoires I had hoped to detect. Loriod was going on and on about what a deal he'd gotten, but he'd paid three times the going rate. And never even read the impressive-looking tomes, judging by the lack of wear on them. Without waiting for him to finish, I eagerly scuttled on all fours over to the aquarium. "Wow! I didn't know you had fish!"
It was paydirt, I knew immediately, though in fact I had selected the objective simply to stay in character and gain time until I could figure out what next to snoop. Sometimes you just have to get lucky, I guess. Loriod stiffened and stood silent for a guilty moment, then decided I was genuinely no threat.
"Yes, Your Highness. They are called 'goldfish'. A distressed trader offered them to me at a great discount years ago while they were quite small. They truly are made of gold, you know. And they grow to considerable size. When the creatures die I will make a large profit."
I let my jaw fall open, and made "wow" noises as I studied the glass fishouse intently. But I could find no trace of what was being hidden. Yet, I was quite sure that I was onto something important.
But Loriod bumblingly countered my ploy. "Your Highness, it so happens that I have some fresh carrots in store, the very first of the season. Would you accept some?"
It would have been out of character for me to refuse. So I let him feed me carrots and tell me of the great bargains he had made in furnishing his castle while sometimes fondly scratching my ears. He had always hated and resented me, but as soon as I conformed to his prejudice of what I should be like things went along just fine. True, we hardly knew each other. Our social interaction to date had been a series of mutual snubs. Loriod's own pride had kept contact between us to the bare minimum. But surely he knew I was brighter than this...
Or does everyone assume bunnies are dumb?
What a revolting thought!
I kept up the silly rabbit act all the way out the front door, and licked my lips theatrically at the two cases of succulent orange roots Loriod insisted on sending along as gifts. But my playacting availed me no more information.
That was OK, though. I had the aquarium cold. As well as two cases of fresh carrots...
My next stop, since Loriod had so graciously provided lunch, was at Pascal's laboratory. She was busy, as usual, with a pot full of boiling dye.
How could bubbling liquid possibly be polka-dotted? But it was...
Usually it was pretty hard to get Pascal's attention, but this time I caught her at break-time. She was in her latex lab-skin, and lounging easily as the mix she was supervising did its stuff. "Phil!" she greeted me. "And Rupert! Ready to give up that plain-jane fur, either of you?"
I rocked my ears, but didn't even hint that I was tired of white. In a way I had grown rather fond of it, which was just as well since it seemed unlikely I would ever be rid of it. Rupert offered the 'pine no encouragement either. "Actually, I am here because I need a favor, Pascal."
She rolled her eyes. "Isn't that what everyone comes for?"
"It's a favor for Thomas."
Her face became serious at the code phrase. I often had need to consult with her professionally. "Close the door, would you Rupert?" He did, and Pascal continued. "Is it about the package? All's well here."
"No, Thomas is coordinating that end directly for me. I need something else entirely."
"Which would be"
"Do I recall correctly that you study magical runes as a hobby?"
"That was a month ago! I'm into foreign coinage now."
Pascal went through hobbies like some folks went through socks. But she never forgot what she learned. "I'm not surprised. Someday I'll show you the coins I've saved from my own travels. Some are magical. I even have a few Zilvaras."
"That would be great!"
"No problem. If I'd known you were interested, I would have let you see them before. But what I need help with is magical runes."
"Okey-Dokey! I guess you know how to draw them safely?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if you draw a rune it can become active if you're not careful. What you do is leave the first stroke off, and indicate with dots where it should be. That way, it's harmless."
"Ah. I know so little about this," I apologized to the 'pine.
"No problem," she replied, and I drew the two signs Matthias had repeatedly shown me, with the first stroke dotted as instructed."
"Hmmm..." Pascal chirred, studying the marks intently. "The 'S' is a basic silence spell, of a variety employed mostly by our Enemy. But the 'X' is something else entirely."
"What do you mean?" I inquired.
"It is in the style of the Enemy too. But the 'X' is always a blocking spell, varied to fit specifically the magic it is intended to counter. This is totally unlike any 'X' I have ever seen. It counters an unknown magic. Mind if I make a copy?"
I thought about Charles's need for secrecy. "Sorry, my many-pointed friend. But this is one you are better off forgetting ever existed."
"That bad?" she asked.
"Yes, that bad!" I replied simply.
Pascal grimaced slightly, but her bubbly demeanor returned quickly. "Well, if you want to know more, consult Wessex. I borrowed the books on runes from him."
"Really? I didn’t know he studied rune magic.” And absent mindedly I thanked her, said good-bye and left
All sorts of things were spinning in my head. But above all a clue I had failed to notice before. My ears are very, very good. It is often impossible for me to avoid eavesdropping, in fact. But I had not heard a single word from either Loriod or Matthias during their conversation. And I certainly should have.
What was Loriod doing using magic runes in the dungeon? And if he had, it was a good bet that he had used the "X" as well as the "S". Further, it was also very likely that it was Matthias's unique brand of magic that was being canceled, thus Pascal's lack of familiarity with the symbol. How would Loriod come into the possession of such specialized knowledge? And how did it all tie into the carriage fire, or the aquarium?
I sighed. My head hurt, and it was getting on towards dinner time. Maybe some research at the library would help me out. Besides, I hadn't seen Fox in a long time; Wessex would have to wait till later. A friendly face might help my headache.
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