The Festival of Lights
Al-Mamun, Gateway to Ilskaa
The Sixteenth Day of the Month of Harvest, Year 1113 of The Atheri Empire
"Pay attention and keep moving," Duke Adrien warned, tapping Ginger on the shoulder. "If anyone gets a good look at us, they'll give us trouble."
Ginger nodded obediently and ran to catch up with the two men in front of her, the Duke and Meyat. Her wound still pinched a little, but it was quickly getting better. Duke Adrien, despite having a broken arm only a week ago, seemed completely healed.
The same could not be said for Cain. With his leg broken, he'd chosen to remain behind at the Guildhouse, and every day that he was gone, Ginger missed his calming presence. Though Ginger had meant what she'd said about wanting to go home after her near-death experience facing the Weaver, as she began to recover, she realized that she could not stop thinking like a mercenary. It seemed vitally important that someone maintain a clear head, and that person was certainly not going to be Kestrel, Duke Adrien, or Meyat.
The Swordmaster was calmer than she had been when they'd left the Weaver's lair, but that was only because she was watching Duke Adrien like a hawk. She was suspicious of him, and Ginger didn't blame her. He had killed Prince Naara when they'd first crossed paths in Valsarra. It was not easy to forget that. Even Sir Alaric, possessed by a fiend, hadn't gone so far as to murder one of his companions.
Meyat had been skittish since the first suggestion of traveling to Al Mamun, and it was clear that the Festival of Lights made him nervous. Ginger was not sure that she wanted to know why. It seemed personal. Still, Guildmaster Kor had insisted that a representative of the Guild witness any and all negotiations, so that he might better gauge the official position of the Mercenary's Guild when Kestrel decided to strike at the Fiend of Fiends.
Will had fallen very far behind. Ginger wasn't certain whether he was thinking about Naara, Sir Alaric, or something else entirely. She sighed heavily. For all the years that she had known Will, she'd hoped that he was the one she'd someday marry. He'd always been so clever, and so gentle, which was pleasantly different from her father, her brothers, or any of the other boys on Angedras. Ginger had always believed that Will ignored her because she was too poor, or too ugly, but the longer they traveled together, the more she found herself wondering if Will ever paid attention to anything. He was always distracted. If something bad happened again, Naara would not be there to protect everyone, and Ginger suspected she would have to save Will, rather than the other way around.
"Ginger!" Meyat called out.
She sighed heavily in disappointment, grabbed Will's arm, and pulled him after her. Being in Ilskaa for the legendary Festival of Lights was exciting, but dragging around boys who were walking around with their heads in the clouds wasn't romantic in the least.
Kestrel spoke to the city guards in a mix of broken Ilskaan and Trader. They didn't seem to like her, but they decided she wasn't a threat, and while she was arguing about not having any money to pay a bribe, Duke Adrien and Meyat slipped through the crowd.
As they passed through the city gates, Ginger glanced over her shoulder. A thundering sound and a massive cloud of dust on the horizon warned that the Moving City of Vaakab was quickly approaching. It was far bigger and faster than she had imagined it being.
"And these people are all in a hurry to jump on that thing?" Ginger snorted. "What a bunch of dunderheads. They're going to break their necks."
At midnight precisely, as they had for nearly a thousand years, the walls of the two cities would scrape past each other, leaving a space of only five to ten feet. Revelers would line up along the walls holding lanterns, and as the Moving City nearly collided with the port, pushing it a little closer to the sea, the bravest would attempt to leap the gap.
According to Cain, every year, there were a number of deaths… and not all of them from "jumping the wall". In the morning, the greatest horse race in the South would return the stragglers from Vaakab to their homes, before the Moving City began turning East towards Cadiz. The Sun Race had no particular rules, except that there were two men on each horse and one of them had to be too drunk to ride without assistance. The grand prize was always something exceptionally rare and valuable.
Ginger took a deep breath.
The sound of pounding drums in the market square almost rivaled the mechanical grinding of the Moving City. All around her, people were talking, but she only understood the smallest bits of what they were saying, things she'd picked up from Meyat. Everything smelled like fire. Two acrobats with bells and coins sewn all over their clothing and a blind man with a flute and a dancing lizard attracted a good crowd. Another street performer conjured fire with his breath, and a very large woman wearing nothing but gold paint posed as a statue.
The streets were filled with hundreds of red paper lanterns, each glowing brightly with a fire inside. Some were secured to buildings or vendor's stalls with bits of twine, while others were carried by hand or still others floated in midair. Enchanted lanterns danced along with the music, unfolding like flowers, or changing colors. A few larger lanterns bearing names in black ink bobbed down the street on a set course, leading festival-goers through the city's labyrinthine streets to specific shops or parties.
There were Traders everywhere, placing bets and hawking their wares.
Beyond the market, the crowd thinned. Those with lanterns were headed up to the wall by way of a massive old staircase made of white stone. The stairs were unusually tall, which meant that the drunkest of the jumpers were doing a great deal of stumbling and needed some assistance to reach the top. Meyat stared at the top of the wall for a long moment. He said nothing, but it was obvious that he'd been to Al Mamun before, and probably stared out over its walls during the Festival of Lights.
Kestrel was looking in a different direction altogether. She pulled a smudged scrap of paper out of her pouch and read the street signs.
Ginger tapped Cain's red and blue Guild pin for good luck, and then rubbed her hands together, blowing warm breath on her cold fingers. The south, as she understood it, was normally very hot, but at night sometimes the temperature dropped precariously. It was not as bad as it had been in the mountains, but it was still cold.
"This way," Duke Adrien said, following the Swordmaster down a narrow alley.
Though Al Mamun was a port city, and there were visitors from every part of the world, Duke Adrien was well-known and universally despised in Ilskaa. He avoided speaking or showing his face. Fortunately, most of the revelers on the street were very drunk, and did not seem to think anything was amiss when the suspicious-looking company of foreigners passed them by.
Their objective, so far as Ginger understood it, was to secure passage on a ship bound for Vil Saciel. Kestrel had assigned Ginger the task of making sure they were not being followed. It was an important job, she knew, but she still found it all too easy to be distracted. She kept her hand on her ax.
Kestrel stopped at the end of the narrow street, took a deep breath and knocked on a door that was at least a foot too short to be used by a person of normal height. There was a light inside the shop and a merchant's shingle swaying in the wind that showed an open book on it.
"Cain's going to be sorry he's missing this place," Meyat said, though without his usual smile. "He loves bookstores."
"I'm not so sure it's a bookstore," Duke Adrien paused. "There's something strange about this place. I'm sensing a lot of magic. Powerful magic." He ran his fingers across the window glass and studied the way that it flickered. "Hm."
"Where are we?" Will asked.
"The winter home of one Elsinore Lovelace," Kestrel replied. "A… friend, I suppose you'd say."
Ginger squeaked. She realized she'd made a louder noise than she'd meant to and quickly covered her mouth. "Like the books?" She whispered.
Kestrel nodded. Will's eyes were wide, but he said nothing. Meyat grinned.
Duke Adrien paused. "So that nuisance is a Mage after all. I suspected as much. Must be a pen name, though. I've been on the Tower Council for just shy of a hundred years, and I don't recall any Lovelaces."
"Yes, it's a pen name," Kestrel replied. "But as for his real name, well, that'll be up to him whether he wants to tell you or not. The point is, whatever he wants to call himself, Lovelace is filthy rich, and he's made his entire fortune off of Naara's stories. I'm certain he's heard that Naara is alive, which means he'll be desperate to know what he's been up to since his first "death". Now, not only can Lovelace help us find a ship, but he might also be able to dig up some information that will help us against the Fiend of Fiends. Or something we can use against the Weaver," Kestrel explained. "Although… I suppose it goes without saying. Like most of Naara's friends, he's a little.. eccentric. Let me do all of the talking."
She knocked on the door.
There was no response.
Ginger peered in the dusty window. She couldn't make out anything in the dark, except for dozens of books.
Kestrel knocked again.
"Pas shal! Go away!" a man's voice shouted. "Nomo tasak! Not this house!"
Ginger glanced up at the address on the merchant's shingle. Sure enough, when she let her eyes follow the sound of revelry, she could see that a house down the street was covered in red lanterns. Several drunks were dancing on its balcony.
"Answer the door, old man!" Kestrel retorted.
The moment she spoke, the entire city quaked. A massive cheer rose up from the city, almost louder than the sound of grinding as Vaakab and Al Mamun tore past one another, causing glass to shatter and pieces of rubble to tumble into the streets. Ginger grabbed Will, and Meyat grabbed a street sign. All of the potted plants hanging outside of Lovelace's tiny home rocked off of their hooks and crashed to the ground, except for one, which Kestrel caught, surprising herself as much as anyone else.
When the rumbling ceased, Kestrel took a deep breath. She pushed a piece of shattered terra cotta with the toe of her show, scraping it across the cobblestones. Though the sounds of the city coming past hadn't elicited a reaction from him, the sound of broken clay did bring Lovelace to his door.
"What have you done to my plants?" Lovelace gasped.
Ginger and Will both stared.
The man who'd written the stories that the children of Angedras treasured so much looked nothing at all like they'd imagined. He was short, but not at all stocky, with sharp blue eyes, and an outrageous, bright yellow mustache. His shirt was spattered in ink and a tiny pair of gold spectacles were perched on his huge nose. His clothes were ostentatious by any standards, mostly blue and back with excessive gold embroidery. If anything, he seemed too richly dressed for his humble home.
Kestrel smiled slightly. "You forgot to bring them in. Like you do every year."
Lovelace grinned very broadly. "Why, Kestrel Yfair! I heard you were in prison."
"I was. It's a long story," Kestrel replied. "Are you going to let us in?"
"Oof. It's going to be real crowded in that tiny place," Ginger winced.
"So they don't know?" Lovelace observed, evaluating each of the four in turn.
"Well, that's Duke Adrien standing in the back over there, so I suppose you can decide whether or not you want to tell him," Kestrel replied.
Lovelace grimaced. "Fair enough. Where's Naara?"
"That's why we're here," Kestrel sighed.
They piled into the small house. There was no furniture, apart from a writing desk piled high with books, a pot-bellied stove, and an unmade bed, which Meyat immediately say on, folding his hands on his lap in anticipation of a good story. Kestrel did the same. Duke Adrien stubbornly tried to stand, his head striking some cloves of garlic hanging from the ceiling. Ginger and Will sat on the floor. Sighing heavily, Kestrel began to relate their tale.
When she had finished, Lovelace sighed heavily. "I have… or rather, I should say, I had exactly what you need. The spellbook of Ttzaeshiel Azadra, the late, great Queen of the Dragons. It is quite possibly the only book which can tell you anything about the Old Ones, and it so happens that Ttazaeshiel also had a few… problems with the Prince of Dhima, whom you now know as the Fiend of Fiends."
"How did you get Ttazaeshiel's spellbook?" Kestrel eyed the old man suspiciously. "We solved the labyrinth in the Citadel. It wasn't there."
"Of course not," Lovelace replied. "That would have been too easy. Naara stole it when he found the Library of Saciren. As I understand, the Librarian is still looking for him."
"Along with the Nok, the Weaver, and every other monster in creation," Kestrel sighed. "I suppose he'll have to get in line."
"The Library of Saciren is a myth," Duke Adrien scoffed. "It was destroyed a thousand years ago!"
"Oh yes, quite completely. And yet… not completely," Lovelace replied. "Are you familiar with my books? Prince Naara and the City of Sands, in particular."
"Rubbish," Duke Adrien snorted.
"You would think that," Lovelace sighed. "Incidentally, it's why I've never wasted my time with you."
"The only person wasting time anyone's time here is you. And you don't know me," Duke Adrien retorted. "I'm a Mage of the Tower Council and brother to the Emperor, may-he-live-a-little-longer-yet. You should address me with some respect."
"Respect? Poppycock! You're boring me already," Lovelace rolled his eyes. "Anyway, as I was saying, the book you need I did have, until quite recently. You see, I put together a little gift box for this year's Sun Race and I… well, I mistakenly switched Ttazaeshiel's spellbook which Naara gave me for safekeeping with another spellbook of still-substantial but significantly lesser value that I… eh, "borrowed" from the Caliph."
Duke Adrien paled. "Are you implying that you turned over the most powerful spellbook in the world to be a prize in a race where half of the competitors, must, according to the rules, be too drunk to ride?"
"It may have happened something like that," Lovelace admitted.
"You are unimaginably incompetent!" Duke Adrien slid down to the floor and buried his face in his hands. "Great gods! To think I've come to this!"
"Stop it!" Kestrel hissed. "Youdo not want to fight with Lovelace! I'm not warning you again!"
"He's an imbecile! If he can be believed at all, he had in his possession the most significant book of magic ever written, and he mistakenly gave it away? Who does something like that?"
"Somebody who doesn't need it," Will interrupted. Everyone turned to stare at him. He was focused on a small paintings on the wall, just above Lovelace's desk. It showed an unimaginably vast library with huge, sand colored columns. Two dragons stood in the center of the piece, one gold and one dark blue. The blue dragon coiled around a battered book as if to protect it, while the gold dragon seemed to be offering a kind of blessing.
Will realized he'd seen such a dragon before, many times while he was a slave of the Pasha of Tagra. It was the way southerners depicted the God Weylan.
Lovelace winked, and Will gulped, feeling his heart skip a beat.
He'd guessed correctly, he was sure of it.
"Clever boy," Lovelace replied. "You're right, you know. I've no particular use for spellbooks. I find them interesting, in a purely academic sense, but… eh. I'd rather go do things than read about them."
"Well, I'm not much of a reader if you want the truth," Ginger said. "But if this book can help us beat the Fiend of Fiends and get the Boss back, as I see it, we've got to get it."
"Agreed," Meyat nodded. "Which means that right now, we've got to do three things. Decide who's going to ride, decide who's going to get drunk, and..."
"Call in a favor with Yfaar," Kestrel finished.
"I was going to say, we've got to get ourselves a good horse, but… Horse God, I suppose we could do that," Meyat paused. "That seems like cheating though."
Lovelace said nothing. He only sat, looking smug, with a froglike grin on his face. "It's not cheating when there aren't any rules." He said.
"You're enjoying this too much," Kestrel told him.
"Mm. I am," Lovelace agreed. "Goodness me, will you look at the time!" He said, picking up an hourglass on his desk and promptly flipping it over. The sand did not behave in the normal manner. Instead, it began to flow in circles.
Kestrel took a deep breath. "For what it's worth, thank you," she said, taking Duke Adrien by the arm and guiding him in the direction of the door. The Duke brushed her off and watched Kestrel suspiciously.
"I'll explain later," she hissed, shoving him out the door, and then sending off Meyat. Will was the last to leave, and when he stepped outside, the door slammed shut behind him.
"What's wrong?" Will wondered. Kestrel seemed especially uneasy.
"Al ekhara ekhava," she replied, speaking in Trader. "What will be, will be."
"You knew this was going to happen?" Will observed.
"Oh, someone did. Someone was counting on it," Kestrel replied, staring back in the direction of Lovelace's little ship. The light was out, and the merchant's shingle swayed slightly in the breeze.
Most improbably, the potted plants that had shattered on the cobblestones were once again hanging on the porch, as if they had never been damaged at all.
"Hunh. The plants?" Ginger hissed. "How'd they get back where they were?"
"Magic. Oh, "I don't need a spellbook", my ass!" Duke Adrien said, storming off with his nose in the air. "And the Library of Saciren! He can't possibly think that I'd believe such nonsense! That old fool is up to something, and I will find out what!"
Meyat shook his head heavily. He paused for a moment where the street turned and gave him a good view over the city's walls. All that could be seen of Vaakab was a cloud of dust rolling off towards the east.
"Happy Festival, Efazi," he said, almost inaudibly.
"Who were you talking to?" Will wondered.
"Nobody," Meyat replied. "Just… remembering."
"I wish Cain was here," Ginger said.
"You and me both," Meyat agreed, tousling her hair. "You and me both."