The occasional observations of Carolyn Kephart, writer

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Life and Works, an Introduction

However you found your way here, reader, my thanks for stopping by.  I've created this post to introduce myself and my published work, much of which is free here with my compliments. In addition, I'll be linking here to more fiction in the near future - new tales, sections of the Ryel Saga continuation, and bits from other works in progress. Other posts relate to past travels, like the three-part Visions of the Mystic East and others describing Europe and Japan, embellished with lots of my photos. Please feel free to browse those and my other reflections on the writing life.

My well-received epic fantasy THE RYEL SAGA is now available in its entirety on this blog. The first chapter is here, and the other twenty-six can be accessed via the Archive at the left of the screen, or with the link at the bottom of each chapter page.

Yan Qi, a short passage involving two favorite characters in an ancient China-inspired realm, can be found here.

Short fiction:

The Kind Gods - Did the old gods really die? A warrior seeks answers at the grave of his greatest enemy. Published in Bewildering Stories.

Everafter Acres - Happily ever after isn't always perfect, but dark knights can be illuminating. Published in Luna Station Quarterly.

Last Laughter - A cautionary tale about a wicked court jester and his comeuppance. Published in Silver Blade Fantasy Quarterly.

Regenerated - Cela always hoped she'd see Jorgen again, but was this really Jorgen? Published in Quantum Muse.

The Heart's Desire - A government scryer's life is a prison until she discovers the ultimate secret language. 

My Facebook author page is here, and I also have a Friends page here, where pals can find out what I'm up to lately.

At The Core of the Happy Apple: A Mystery Solved examines the inner workings of a beloved vintage toy, and is my most popular blog post so far.

My current publications, available at most online outlets:

Wysard  and  Lord Brother, Parts One and Two of the Ryel Saga duology, acclaimed  epic fantasy

The Ryel Saga: A Tale of Love and Magic, combining the duology in a single volume

Queen of Time, contemporary magic realism that takes the Faust legend in new  directions

At the Core of the Happy Apple: A Mystery Solved, an essay on the inner workings  of the popular 1970s Fisher Price wobble toy  

PenTangle: Five Pointed Fables, a collection of short stories previously published in  ezines

(Photo: Pond flowers, taken by the author one lucky afternoon.)


Sunday, November 27, 2022

Snippet #1: Yan Qi

A revised bit of my work from a long-ago, fondly remembered writing group. For links related to my other writing either free to read or available for purchase, visit here.

Yan Qi took a reflective draw from her long-stemmed pipe, blowing the smoke in a fine straight line toward the fire in the hearth and watching as the flames licked it up. Yet again she ran her hand through her hair, or rather what was left of it. She was cropped as close as a monk.

“You have been scythed, Autumn Grass,” she murmured, yet again; and her thoughts returned to a far land and interesting times.

***

No one of the imperial court’s innermost circle had doubted the Son of Heaven would grace this transitory plane for only a short time. His habitual indulgence in stupefying substances and the pleasures of the table, as well as carnal exhaustion in the company of countless favorites, had left their mark very soon and aged him far beyond his years, which would have numbered forty in the Dragon Month. As it was, he had expired in the Month of the Pig, depriving his disconsolate subjects of their opportunity to fund a natal celebration as heedlessly lavish as his febrile imagination might contrive.

Scarcely had he breathed his last than the entire court had erupted in every permissible extremity of grief for the departed Son of Heaven. Some of the distraught imperial ministers had piously hoped that the time-hallowed practice of including sacrificed retainers in the burial would be revived, and the court poisoners were accordingly put on alert to their rather unseemly glee; but the Emperor’s iconoclastic obstinacy had been firmly manifest in his will. Only terracotta figuresof life size, to be surewould attend him in his tomb. Capable workmen duly shaped and painted the hundreds of soldiers and servants required, but the most noted artists of the realm were given the exacting task of faithfully rendering the likenesses of the emperor’s ladies. The famed Li Wan himself was charged with portraying the graces of the reigning favorites, among which exalted cadre Yan Qi was astonished to find herself included.

“The clay at least does not despise you, Lady,” the sculptor had said a bit tersely, after perhaps an hour had passed in silence as Yan Qui stood unmoving in her thankfully undemanding pose. Li Wan was a busy man at present and temperamental at any time, and truncated Yan’s title as much out of convenience as rudeness, since Yan was neither Empress, nor a primary concubine, nor a beauty. When he had at last completed his work, however, he honored Yan with a wholly unexpected bow. “You might be one of my best. I will make a copy, since it would be wrong to bury you forever.” And so he did, having embellished her likeness with tasteful ornaments wrought from his own fancy; and the original found its way over time to the Asian collection of the Louvre.

The Emperor had further stipulated in his will that none of his ladies would be suffered to knock out their pearl teeth or scarify their petal cheeks in his honor, and his order was scrupulously obeyed. It was, however, incontrovertible custom to cut off the hair of the head in mourning, and the ladies of the court duly complied, since they had been denied the bliss of joining their lord in his tomb. Still, there were some whose extravagance of grief was such that they locked themselves in their quarters once they heard the order, and had to be forcefully persuaded to emerge by the imperial guard. The great courtyard of the First Palace became the official shearing-room, and its central square was soon heaped with fragrant masses of long black locks, among which the most fine and raven-glossy had been Yan Qi’s.

Sitting before the mirror of her day chamber in the Third Palace, Yan had impassively regarded her unpainted face, shaven head and stark white garb of coarsest weave, the bodice of which she kept prudently sprinkled with water to simulate the marks of tears. Some ladies, she was aware, used oil for the purpose because of its lasting qualities, but the stains were unconvincing. All around her the noise of wailing and weeping tore at the air, rising and falling in stridently orchestrated waves.

“It is really regrettable,” a smooth voice over by the room’s eastern corner quietly commented, threading its way with graceful sureness amid the howlings and shriekings. Yan Qi gazed past her reflection to see Court Sorcerer Jung Lao sitting at her study-table, slim and lithe, clad in a long robe of stunningly inappropriate crimson silk, an ornate ewer of wine and two slim goblets in front of him. Lifting the elegant silver vessel, he began to pour in the difficult manner most admired, a stream high, slender and splashless. “It is indeed unfortunate,” he continued while thus engaged, “that the Son of Heaven in his mercy elected not to honor the established practice of his ancestors, who went to their last homes accompanied by fresh corpses rather than hollow clay simulacrums. The old custom made, so to speak, a clean sweep; no troublesome persons left behind to vex the new administration. As it now is, the Empress will most naturally exact revenge upon those she considered her enemies…or rivals.” By now the second silver cup was full. “Let us drink to her august son, the successor. Join me.”

Yan Qi turned to regard her unexpected guest. “This is the first time that you ever deigned to visit. How glad I am that I and my quarters were in fit condition to receive you.”

If he noted Yan’s implicit reproach, Jung Lao chose to ignore it. “I selected the time with care. When the Emperor still honored our unworthy realm, a private meeting between a undoubtedly ambitious concubine and an imperial mage with ample powers to satisfy those ambitions would hardly have been countenanced.”

Yan barely shrugged. “I have neither known nor been especially impressed by influence, riches, youth, or beauty. Small wonder that the ladies of the celestial court gave me the name Autumn Grass.”

“Some qualities are no less remarkable for being ineffable.”

Exerting her will to keep her face as smoothly impassive as the Wushi's was, Yan watched as he lifted his glass. “It is, as I am sure you know, a capital crime to indulge in alcohol during the period of imperial mourning.”

Jung Lao’s inscrutable mask of a face made a faint upturning at the lips. “Everyone in the palace is indulging today. Drunk with wine, or witless with opium, or both. And no wonder, for the new Son of Heaven is a callow idiot with strong and stupid opinions. His reign faces almost certain calamity.”

Yan Qi did not return Jung Lao's graceful toast, and drank the precious vintage in a single draught. “What becomes of us?”

Jung Lao filled her cup anew, and answered the crude question it as it deserved, with blandly vague indifference. “The Empress has numbered the days of many, including our own. Reason would seem to ordain departure with discreet and immediate haste. I have found a suitable haven, arranged well before the current lamentable misfortune.”

Yan Qi was unsurprised that the erstwhile court sorcerer pointedly excluded her from his plans. As she sipped the rich wine meant only for the most select of palates, a privilege she would more than likely never taste again, she considered which places in the world—unlike her esteemed teacher, she was limited to one world only—would afford her simple shelter, much less extend a welcome.

He seemed to have divined her thoughts, as was too often the case. “I would suggest, as interim sanctuary, an amusing place called the Inn Between Realms. All sorts of odd types, human or otherwise, find refuge there, and you'd be well entertained by the incessant intrigue. I certainly was, enough that I'd be glad to return.”

“Then you propose that we make the journey together?”

Jung Lao's facial immobility made a slight, unfathomable shift. “Not at this time. I'm called elsewhere, by a power whose service I swore to enter as soon as my current obligation ended. Perhaps the scope of my duties will eventually include the Inn.” The slightest hesitation. “I hope so.”

Their eyes met for what seemed a long time, in silence broken only by muffled waves and throes of court mourning. To Yan's surprise, Jung Lao looked away first, and the subtle music of his voice sharpened.

“Go and make ready. No finery; riding gear only, concealed by a hooded cloak. Take your jewels for barter, but hide them well. You are to resemble a mere traveler of humble means, a wandering anchorite, asking nothing but a place by the fireside and the simplest fare.”

At the mention of riding gear Yan felt her breath catch, then hasten as she felt the winds of her homeland, memory so strong that she had to close her eyes against it. Her sole, invaluable freedom as the Emperor's chattel had been to accompany him on the hunt, galloping at his side; and he had always enjoyed watching her rise in the stirrups at top speed, drawing her bow to bring down the prey with a single shot. “There are grasslands around this Inn?”

“There is everything. Wide steppes, high mountains, deep forests, seashores, rivers, deserts, all readily reachable.”

“But how will my language be understood?”

“The moment you arrive, you'll find yourself speaking a tongue called Common. I've no idea how it happens, but it's extremely useful.”

Yan smiled. “You describe a realm of fable.”

“It is nothing less. Now go and prepare. Take this, too; you'll need it.” The mage materialized a dagger, slim and plain in its leather sheath. “There will be many dangers.”

Drawing the weapon and testing its edge, Yan gave a nod of thanks. “An excellent blade. Will it prevail against a dragon?”

“I'd not try to find out. But certainly ogres, manticores, and basilisks.” The mage lifted his head at a sudden clamor of shouts and steel rising above the wailings in the courtyard. “Soldiers of the Empress. You have less time than I thought. My Art will hold the door, but be quick.”

While Jung Lao calmly savored another libation and yet another from the apparently inexhaustible ewer, seeming to meditate on his next plane of existence, Yan went to her bedchamber and packed the few belongings she deemed necessary, then changed out of her mourning dress into the garments Jung Lao had specified. It did not take long, and the planar transition from imperial palace to Inn fireside proved to be brief and not overly disorienting. The court sorcerer and the concubine had not said farewell to one another; her full bow from the waist and his faint inclination of head more than sufficed.

***

Her bowl of vaporing tea at her side, her pipe in her relaxed hand sending up delicate curls of smoke, Yan reclined on her cushions and regarded the play of flames in the hearth, her ears attuned to the many comfortable, harmless, reassuring sounds around her; but she saw far beyond the fire, even as she heard past the darkness trouble at no great distance, growing ever nearer.


© Carolyn Kephart, 2022


Image courtesy of AI Art Generator.



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Tuesday, November 08, 2022

THE RYEL SAGA: Chapter Twenty-Seven (Conclusion)

Below is Chapter Twenty-Seven of THE RYEL SAGA, which combines both volumes of my WYSARD and LORD BROTHER duology. This is the final chapter of the book, with a glossary and other information at the end. Enjoy, with my compliments. For the first chapter visit herelinks to succeeding chapters are given at the bottom of each entry, and can also be accessed via the Archive panel at the left of the screen. For links relating to my other writing either free to read or available for purchase, visit here.

THE RYEL SAGA:
A TALE OF LOVE AND MAGIC
(WYSARD and LORD BROTHER
Complete in One Volume)

By Carolyn Kephart

Revised 2013 Second Edition

“Intricately layered and exotic” ~Robin Hobb

Lord Adept Ryel Mirai leaves the great Art-citadel Markul to rediscover the long-lost spell that will release his mentor from the wraithworld of the Void, but a malignant sorcerer likewise imprisoned has enlisted the aid of Ryel’s strongest rival to find the spell first. Amid dangers, joys and temptations, Ryel encounters unlikely allies and unforeseen enemies, and learns that he may well gain all that he wishes...although perhaps not as he wished it. 

Chapter Twenty-Seven
Homecoming

Suddenly there was light, ten blurry bits of it—the candles, now burnt almost to nothing. Hard rain battered the windows. Ryel picked himself up from the floor where he must have fallen. Other than a bruise on his shoulder where he’d struck furniture, he’d sustained no harm. Getting to his feet, he steadied his thoughts awhile, then went over to the bed. Michael Essern lay as always, motionless.

Motionless…save for the rise and fall of his chest.

Ryel caught his own breath. “You’re back. I brought you back!” Tearing Michael’s silken robes open halfway to the waist, he pressed his hand over the heart, searching out the pulse beneath flesh that no more yielded to his touch than would white rock. Under his palm surged a steady beating like a call to war, inexorable and endless.

“I’m good,” the wysard said softly, unable to resist a smile of purest delight in his Art. But then came the everlasting sorrow. “And you will never see it, ithradrakis.” He moved his hand to the Red Essern’s brow, speaking ever quietly, but in a voice of command. “Awake.”

Michael’s deep-set eyelids twitched to disclose glinting slate-gray at first unfocused. But then the eyes found Ryel, and blinked hard. His lips parted after an effort or two, and he breathed deep; exhaled slowly. His breath was, as always, inexplicably sweet, but his voice came out gravelly and slow, with none of its wonted resonance. “Are we dead?”

“Not yet.”

He coughed. “Then I could use some water.”

Ryel brought some as Michael sat up very slowly, with many a cursing groan. He drank greedily, then looked about him and frowned. “Where’s this?”

“Markul.”

Michael pushed back his hair, and with that gesture observed the egregious length of his blood-colored locks. “Great Argane! How long was I in the Void?”

Ryel started, as much from the suddenly reverberant voice as its question. “You knew you were there?”

“Of course I knew,” Michael impatiently replied. “But for how long?”

“Your rai has been separate from your body for more than half a year.”

Michael murmured a stunned curse. “Half a year? But what’s become of the World? What of Dagar?”

“Dagar is destroyed.”

For a time Michael was silent. “And Meschante?”

“He died. Horribly.”

“Good.” A longer hesitation. “And Destimar? The Dranthene princess?”

Ryel glanced away momentarily. “I’ll tell you the whole story soon enough. Are you well?”

“I’ll live, since it looks as if I have to.” Michael rose from bed, but no sooner stood than staggered, the waking color in his cheeks suddenly draining white.

Alarmed, Ryel caught him. “What is it? Are you in pain?”

Michael seemed to consider, perplexedly. “Nothing hurts,” he said at last. “I’m all right. You can let go of me.” And he stood upright, although uncertainly. “Still, there’s something strange. I feel...crowded.”

Ryel sharply lifted his head. “Crowded?”

“More than myself. I can’t explain it.” He glanced down at his Markulit garb with surprised and profound distaste. “Robes. I can’t stand them. Too cumbersome.” He rapped out a sharp air-command, and in another moment the battle-dress of a Barrier colonel of horse appeared in orderly array on the bed, fresh regimentals and snowy linen, the exacting garb of the dread Black Dragons. “Good,” Michael said, inspecting the garments with satisfaction. “My servants haven’t deserted me—but they wouldn’t dare.” He threw off his trailing layers of precious silk and began to dress. “We’re in your house?”

“We are.”

As he arrayed himself Michael gave a summary glance about, and seemed to approve. “Not bad—though somewhat spare. My own house in Elecambron is more elaborately fitted. Books and pictures and the like. But I don’t think I’ll be returning to my City any time soon …if ever again.” He fastened the black breeches, pulled on the tall riding-boots, and reached for the shirt. “Is there a house empty hereabouts that will suit me?”

“As many as you wish. We’re the only ones in the City.” And Ryel explained why. Michael listened silently as he adjusted the various items of his gear.

“So Markul and Tesba are down,” he said when Ryel had ended. “Which means the other Two are strong.”

“Not all strength is in numbers,” Ryel replied. “No adept in either Elecambron or Ormala is the match of us.”

“More than likely,” Michael said, fastening his jacket’s many clasps with practiced one-handed ease. “And I doubt that that truth will be tested any time soon.” Having clothed himself, the Red Essern went to Ryel’s mirror to behold his image, made a grimace at the inordinate length of his hair, and drew the dagger at his side. Wrapping his long red skeins around his right hand, he hacked them away to shoulder length with the razor-edged blade.

“There,” he said, throwing the severed tresses down upon the table and running his hands through his shortened locks. “Now I’m right. But why did my hair grow, and not my beard?”

“Because of one of my Art-sister’s spells,” Ryel said. “She liked your looks clean-shaven.”

“I thought you said we were alone here.”

“We are now.”

“Not quite,” Michael said. “Let’s go.”

“Where?”

“To see the one I killed,” Michael said, his deep voice’s music rough and harsh. “She that lies in your death-tower. Take me there.”

“It might be better if you waited until—”

“Shut up and come on.”

The roaring downpour of the night before had waned to mist, and the air was sodden and chill, but Michael never seemed to notice. Feeling the cold keenly himself, Ryel wrapped Edris’ mantle well about him as he led the way to the Silent Citadel. Again he entered the dark tower, again caused the torches to burn. In that radiance shimmered the body of the Northern beauty who had almost been Ryel’s death, lapped in rich robes of black and gold brocade that streamed down on either side of the stone bed upon which she lay.

Michael went to her side. His face showed no emotion save for an almost imperceptible tremor around the stone-gray eyes. “You kept her well,” he said to Ryel. His resonant voice barely shook at all. “I’d swear she was alive and ready to wake. But you say she’s dead.”

“Yes.”

“Dead, and not in the place I was. Not in the Void.”

“No.”

“She couldn’t be. Because I would have known, had she been there. I would have felt her.” He took her hand and gazed into her face, searching every feature. “I would have felt you,” he said softly. He then addressed Ryel, although he never took his eyes from that fair immobile visage. His words came slowly, although his deep voice never faltered. “We met in Hallagh. She was the daughter of a great scholar with whom I studied—fully as learned, and joyous and gentle. It took all the self-command I possessed not to love her. When I left Hallagh for Elecambron, I put her out of my thoughts and gave all my being to the Art. But one day some years later I looked down from the wall and saw her lying there in the snow, all but dead. I took her into my house, and cared for her until she was well again. Never until then had I observed the Art within her, and how strong it was—but it had no place in that City of cold. It should have flowered in Tesba under the sun, far from any thought of me—”

His breathing had become labored, and his last words were barely audible. He covered his face with his hands, and for a silent interval his shoulders shook. But then he gasped, and jerked his hands away from his face to find them wet with tears.

“It’s been long,” he whispered. “So long…” Raising a finger to his lips, he touched his tongue to the salt wetness there, and gave a little start. But in another instant he’d roughly dashed his cheeks dry, and become as stone again.

“I’ve no right to mourn her. I will only remember, and that will be my punishment, every hour that I live, until death gives me rest at last.”

His face never flinched, his voice never shook, but his gray eyes glittered with a terrible light. “Come away a moment,” Ryel said, unable to bear that look. “There is something I would show you.”

Michael did not reply for a long time, did not look round. But at last he nodded assent. They climbed the tower to its top, where the bodies of the First of Markul once were kept in reverent state. Ryel led Michael to the funeral bed of Lord Aubrel.

“This was your kinsman,” Ryel said. “From this man came both Markul’s greatness, and the curse of the Red Esserns.”

Silently, with folded arms, Michael regarded his forebear. “I wish he’d been stillborn.” Some time passed before he spoke again. “Many believe the rai is deathless. But we who have Crossed know how fragile the rai is, and how easily destroyed.”

Ryel shivered, remembering his own shrieking fall, that burning up. “Yes. We know.”

The Red Essern lifted his head, meeting the wysard eye to eye. “The Void that was Dagar’s prison was my freedom. There I transcended both life and death.”

“Did you sense anyone else there with you?”

“I had no self left—but I sensed other emanations. One of them was very strong.”

“The rai of Edris.”

Michael bent his head. “Yes. I could sense its restlessness. Its yearning to escape. I had no such desire.”

“Edris’ rai has been delivered from pain,” Ryel replied, but he felt his voice catch.

Michael inclined his head again, not so much in assent as regret. “True. But his body has been destroyed.”

“How could you have known?” Ryel asked, amazed.

“Because I was the one who sent plague to Markul.”

Ryel froze, incapable of speech. Michael continued, slowly.

“Yes. I sent it. I made sure that your father’s body was corrupted beyond any healing.” He did not look up. “To make you suffer.”

It was Ryel’s turn now to look away. He could barely breathe the red dense dazing air around him. “You got what you wanted, Michael,” he said somehow. “I have indeed suffered.”

“I’ll never expect you to forgive.”

Ryel could make no answer, and barely felt Michael’s hand upon his shoulder.

“Ryel.” The deep voice shook with remorse. “If I could do anything to restore Edris’ body, I would.”

“You cannot.” Ryel freed himself, though gently, and looked down unseeingly into the face of Lord Aubrel. “It doesn’t matter. For I am certain I have not lost Edris forever. There have been times when his rai escaped, and I spoke with him.” Ryel studied the pattern of Lord Aubrel’s robe. “Two rais can exist in one body, Michael. I’ve witnessed it.”

“Where?” Michael demanded, very suddenly.

“In Almancar, when Dagar and Meschante shared the double of your form.”

Michael frowned. “But surely one of them must eventually conquer, and one die—”

He halted choking on the last word, and clutched the edge of Lord Aubrel’s bier. Ryel looked up, roused from his numb reverie by the livid distortion overtaking Michael’s face.

“Brother!” He reached out to him. “What…”

Michael struggled to speak, uselessly, then swayed and collapsed, falling across the body of his ancestor. Ryel seized him by the shoulders, lifting him up, struggling with his dead weight.

“Brother—” He caught Michael’s wrist, seeking the pulse; found none, and after an eternal moment’s horror damned himself for his stupidity. “I should never have let you come here. It was too soon.” He lowered Michael’s body to the floor, kneeling next to it and trying all he knew of both Art and World-lore to rouse the limp form to life ... all to nothing. At last Ryel knew he was incapable of any further effort, and bowed his head against the icy alabaster of the bier.

“Gone,” he whispered. “Everything. Gone.” He sank down, taking the Red Essern’s hand in his own, bowing his forehead to its back. “I never thought to lose you again. Never this soon.” And his eyes clenched in numb sick agony.

But then he gave a cry, heart-stoppingly startled by a blow to his face, a hard stinging smack athwart his cheek more stunning than any full-fisted wallop. Staring wide-eyed down into Michael’s face, the wysard felt his mouth fall open, and could not close it. The Red Essern’s eyes were now open, and still cold storm-gray, but now it seemed that Ryel looked past them, into eyes far different—brown nearly to black, and longer, and aslant. The same eyes that had pierced Ryel’s inmost soul that winter night on the Steppes, when his entire life had changed forever. They turned him to stone, those eyes, and strangled any possibility of speech. Then came the voice.

“You needn’t look so goggle-eyed, whelp—and quit that idiot sniveling. Yes, it’s me.”

Those deep bass tones—less sonorous than Michael’s, but to Ryel’s ears a thousandfold more sweet—dinned him back to life, and an imperative shake like countless well-remembered others jolted out his speech, word by gasping word.

“Edris. Father. Ithradrakis. But how? How—”

“Easily enough,” said Edris, letting him go with a grin. “I sneaked in unbeknownst from the Void with the rai you’d summoned. There wasn’t much other chance to get back, what with my body turned to stinking ashes.”

“But how could you—”

“I slipped in during your spells—which you did very cleverly, I must admit—and waited until I saw my time.”

“I can’t believe it,” Ryel said. But he could, and never had he known any joy like to this. “I can’t believe you’re back.”

“Better than ever, I might add.” With supreme complacency Edris gazed down at his tall muscular form in its military black. He tested his arms and shoulders, stood to admire his legs, fingered the angles of his face. “I feel downright handsome—that’s new. How old do I look?”

“About thirty-two.”

Edris grinned. “Better and better.” Stripping back a sleeve, he less cheerfully assessed his skin’s icy whiteness. “Hm. Rather on the pale side.” Catching a strand of his hair, he held it in front of his eyes, which instantly widened. “And this mop’s as red as a monkey’s arse…” He comprehended, then, amazedly. “By every god. Am I in the body of Michael of Elecambron?”

“You are.”

A fierce flash of laugh, nothing like Michael would ever give. “It’s too good—the body of your bitterest rival, and I in it. Unbelievable.”

“Michael and I are no longer rivals,” Ryel said. Despite his joy, he could not quiet a misgiving qualm. “What has become of Michael’s rai?”

“Oh, it’s still here. We’re sharing this body, him and me. But I don’t know how long I’ll have the uppermost, so let’s not waste time. I’m perishing with hunger. Let’s get out of this tomb and find some food—and drink.” Impatiently Edris seized Ryel’s wrist, yanking him to his feet. “Come on, brat. Is my house still standing?”

“It is. But everyone’s gone from our City, father. No one’s—”

“No one’s left but us? Good riddance, I say. Come on.”

They left the Jade Tower, Edris descending the stairs at a run, Ryel following. But as they traversed the dank streets, suddenly Edris slid to a halt.

“Remember this place, lad?”

They had come to the courtyard where they once used to fight with swords. A long time he and his father regarded one another. Ryel never saw the form of Michael Essern, but only the long dark eyes and hulking lengths and crags of the Steppes warrior, he that had fought Warraven in the Temple of Argane, he that Ryel had dwelt with and learned from for every day of twelve years.

“Call me what I am,” Ryel said, each wrung syllable snagging in his throat.

“I did a long time ago.” Edris reached out, pulling Ryel into his arms. “I said it when we first met, years ago in your mother’s yat. You’re mine, Ry. Mine.”

Ryel felt the embrace wrap him in all the serene wholeness of life finally understood, all the deliverance of a great truth beautifully brought to light. “Father,” he whispered. “Ithradrakis.”

Edris touched his lips to Ryel’s temple. “I’ve always been proud of you, little son. Always, since the day you were born.” He let go, opening his eyes again, flashing that old fierce irony. “But I’m still taking back this—and this, by your leave.” With a swift jerk he stripped Ryel of his scarlet cloak, and in another moment had slung the rune-strong Kaltiri tagh over his shoulder. “That’s better.” Turning on his heel, he strode off into the mist, flinging an irritable last word over his shoulder.

“Damn it, are you coming or not?”

Overwhelmed but obedient, Ryel followed.

Once inside his house, Edris inspected its yatlike appointments with tolerant disdain. “To think these walls were enough for me, more years than I care to count. Well, I’ll try to endure them yet another night.” Sharply he issued commands, and soon a plentiful Steppes feast was smoking on the low table, before a hearth brilliantly ablaze. Tossing his cloak where he always had, unslinging his sword and throwing himself down upon the floor-cushions, Edris motioned Ryel to join him, and without more words energetically attacked the food, washing each ecstatic mouthful down with long draughts of rich red wine. Ryel had never seen Edris so gluttonous before, and hardly knew whether to show concern or smile. But the smile won out, to see such greed seemingly exhibited by the habitually stoic Red Essern.

“Don’t kill yourself,” he said. “I only just got you back.”

Edris wiped his mouth with his sleeve, leaning back upon his cushions for a moment’s respite. The drink had colored him ruddily, and his dark eyes gleamed bright. “You’re not losing me any time soon, whelp. Not when I’ve got this stalwart young soldier to live in. I know you cured Michael of the Red Esserns’ blood-bane—I can feel it. Has he any other ills I should worry about?”

“As far as I know, Lord Michael now enjoys perfect bodily health,” Ryel replied. “But tell me, do you sense his presence? Can you read his thoughts?”

“I don’t know. Let me try.” But after some moments’ concentration Edris shrugged, defeated. “I can’t look into him—not that I care to. He always struck me as a surly young beast. But though I can’t say much for his mind, I’ll never quarrel with his body.” And he turned a luxuriant stretch into a flex, jolting his biceps into truculent bulk. “It’s not often an old codger like me gets a chance like this.”

“You weren’t old, father,” Ryel said, tasting the last word like something indescribably sweet.

“Bah. I was nearly sixty. Almost twice the age of this fellow.” And Edris for the tenth time ran his hand over his smooth cheek, and traced his eyes’ edges with a searching finger. “No crow’s feet here—but my former carcass had them aplenty.” He poured out yet more wine. “I’d forgotten what it was to know my full strength, the strength of my prime.” His eyes shone with reverie. “You remember that night we met?”

“As if it were last minute.”

“When Mira ran out of the yat to speak with me, I was sure Yorganar would follow to drag her back. But he didn’t. What she and I said to each other I can’t recall now. But never will I forget how it felt to wrap her with me in my cloak to keep her warm, and kiss her until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and curse myself for a fool. I want to make it right. And I will, in Almancar. If you don’t object, I plan to marry her.”

Ryel smiled, but with strong reservations. “I have no quarrel whatever with that; but Lord Michael well might. And I doubt my mother will think it proper to wed you as you now look.”

“Bah. She’ll like me all the better.” As if the matter were settled, Edris reached for another skewer of meat. But hardly had he grasped it than a trembling fit came over him, and he gave a gurgled cry.

Ryel lunged forward, appalled. “Father! What—”

But in that moment Edris grew calm again, looking about him in blinking amazement increasingly wary and disgruntled.

“Where’s this? A Steppes gypsy’s tent?”

Alike as Edris’ voice was to Michael’s, Ryel nevertheless knew the difference well. His heart sank to see those ice-gray eyes’ resentful stare examining the room. But before he could reply, the Red Essern observed the table in front of him, and the food on it. He lifted up the skewerful of meat Edris had dropped, eyeing it with dislike, sniffing it first in suspicion, then in loathing. “Mutton,” he growled under his breath. “Disgusting.”

“It isn’t mutton, it’s lamb,” Ryel said, not a little indignant.

“Sheep’s sheep. I detest it.” Throwing down the skewer, Michael lifted his hand to his head, resentfully grimacing. “And why do I feel so—strange?” But he found his answer in the golden cup. With deepest revulsion he inspected the precious vintage glimmering in the bright metal. “Wine? I’ve never touched wine in my life.” He glared at Ryel. “Was I eating and drinking this vile stuff? What’s happened to me?” Indignantly he glanced downward, discovering yet another anomaly. “And why am I squatting on the floor like a savage?” Abruptly surging to his feet he barked out an order, and at once a great chair took form. Into this massive—and in its Steppes surroundings most incongruous—furnishing Michael instantly dropped, gripping the cushioned leather arms as if determined to keep his rai firmly dominant in his body.

“Clear that trash away,” he commanded with a glare and an Art-word toward the table, and in a moment every atom of the Rismai banquet had disappeared. But its savor only too apparently still lingered on Michael’s palate. “Agh. I can still taste that greasy sheep-fat and garlic.” Another word and a crystal goblet appeared, brimful of clear water. Michael drank deep before he spoke again; and when he spoke he looked, for the first time Ryel had ever observed, confused, apprehensive, and utterly taken aback.

“It’s your father that’s within me. His rai.”

“Yes,” Ryel said; and his emotions were the complete opposite of Michael’s. “He has returned to me.”

Michael glowered at his Art-brother. “Not for long. I know the spell to drive him out, and send him back to the Void.”

“In which case I’d use the same spell on your rai, then bring Edris back to take full possession of your bodily form, which I can assure you he’d be well contented with.”

Michael surged to his feet, unsteady and furious. “Just try it, Markulit!”

Ryel, too, was standing now, equally irate and very much in control. “Don’t be such an overbearing fool.” With not a push but a word he hurled Michael back into his chair. “You might show a little gratitude. Were it not for my Art, your body would have lain lifeless forever. Just as without me, your blood would still be poisoned with the bane that plagued your family for a thousand years. Your blood, and your brother’s. But now you’re both free of it.”

Michael stared up at him, hands frozen on the chair-arms. “What do you mean?”

Ryel told him of the cure he had wrought upon the Count Palatine, but said nothing of the sickness he had taken upon himself, and how it had tortured him; told him of the uprising that would have been Yvain Essern’s unspeakable death. When he had made an end, Michael sank back into his chair, leaning on one of the great arms, turning his head so that Ryel could not see his face for a while. When he again looked round, a faint trace of color humanized his harsh pallor, and his voice though barely audible seemed to fill the air with resonant warmth, and his gray eyes glittered harshly in the firelight.

“Yvain,” he whispered. “They would have burnt Yvain ...” With a grimace he averted his eyes from the leaping flames of the hearth. “So we both owe you our lives, my brother and I. For his at least I thank you.” Michael reached for the crystal goblet, holding it to the light, seemingly absorbed in its faceted flame-bright scintillations. But his eyes glinted more. “I’ve missed him,” he said quietly, mostly to himself. “More than I can say, I’ve missed him. All my desire is to return to Hallagh after these many years apart, and see him again—and I will, at once.”

Ryel reflected that Edris might not be in favor of Michael’s decision. But before he could offer objections, Michael spoke again, seemingly to himself.

“But I’ll not stay there. I’ve done cruel murder, and untold wrong. Were I coward enough, I’d wish my rai back in the Void, safe in the nothingness, forever forgetful of the World I came into only to harm. But my crimes require penance, harsh and unending.”

Ryel felt his mouth falling open. “By every god! Haven’t you suffered your entire life? You couldn’t help how you were born. You—”

Michael shook his head. “I could have helped what I became. I should have fought the Bane, not yielded to it. I should have been strong enough to resist Dagar. I was weak in all things; weak, and vile. It will take the rest of my life to make right the harm I did.”

“Then you might as well begin in Almancar. More than enough needs to be made right in that city.”

Michael waved away the very notion. “I’ll never go back there. I never want to see that place again, that I almost destroyed...or the Dranthene princess, whose death I nearly caused.”

“Her name’s Diara. And if you were a man, you’d go to her and ask her forgiveness on your knees.”

A long silence at that, and a barely audible reply. “Never.”

“And what about my father’s wishes?”

The Red Essern shrugged in scorn. “Let that Steppes gypsy Edris do what he can to overcome my rai. He’s old, and his Art’s no match for mine.”

Ryel lifted his chin. “You only say that because you’re drunk from the wine he made you drink.”

“I’m not drunk! Although I admit I feel...strange. At any rate, I’m damned if a mere graybeard Markulit is going to push me around.” Propping both booted legs upon the table, the Red Essern settled himself back in his chair in a posture defiantly immovable. In another moment his scarlet-skeined head, unbalanced by drink, fell upon his breast. His next sound was a muffled snore.

Ryel sighed, knowing that Edris wouldn’t let Michael sleep for long. “Rest while you can, brother mine,” he said in deepest sympathy, endless vistas of new roads rising up before him as he spoke. “Rest—while my father lets you. Because tomorrow we head for Almancar...all three of us.”

END


A Guide To Names:

Many of the names in The Ryel Saga are influenced by French and Greek, and should be pronounced accordingly.

Agenor: AGG-en-or

Bradamaine: BRADA-main

Dranthene: Dran-THEE-nay

Diara: Dee-AR-ah (rhymes with “tiara”)

Edris: EE-driss

Essern: Accented on the last syllable

Guyon de Grisainte Desrenaud: GUY-on deh GREE-zahnt DEZ-ren-aud (”aud” rhyming with “lode)

Mira: MEE-rah

Priamnor: Pry-AM-nor

Roskerrek: Ross-KERR-ek

Riana: Ree-AHN-ah

Ryel: Rye-EL

Srin Yan Tai: “Tai” pronounced like “tie”

Valrandin: Val-RAN-din

Yvain: Ee-VAN

A note on Steppes names: It is customary among males of the Steppes phratri of Destimar to use a first name followed by a patronymic (the father’s name, with the additional ending -em) and a matronynmic (the mother’s name, with the additional ending -ai): thus, Ryel Edrisem Mirai, Ryel son of Edris and Mira. Females upon marriage take as a surname the first name of their husband, with the additional ending -a. Upon the death of a parent, the patronymic or matronymic is not used for some length of time—usually three to five years—as a sign of mourning.

Glossary

Aliante: (al’YANT): The lowest type of mercenary soldier, one that changes loyalties at the slightest whim. Always an insult.

Chal (rhymes with Hal): a hot drink relished by the folk of Destimar, especially those of the Inner Steppes. It is green in color (dark murky green in the Inner Steppes, where it is brewed very strong), and is invigorating, warming, and nutritious. Among Steppe-dwellers, chal is traditionally brewed in a chaltak―a wide-mouthed jar-shaped vessel that can also double as a canteen―and drunk from the close-fitting lid that serves as a cup. Chaltaks can be made of simple fire-hardened porcelain or of precious enamel, depending on the means of the owner.

Ilandrakis (Ill-an-DRAK-is): Almancarian endearment, signifying “dearer than brother.” Used by both sexes. The feminine equivalent is kerandraka.

Ithradrakis (Ith-rah-DRAK-is):: Almancarian term of respect, signifying “dearer than father.” Used by both sexes.

Kerandraka (Kerr-an-DRAK-ah): Almancarian term of respect, signifying “dearer than sister.” Used solely by a man to a woman, and betokening a deep platonic bond of the heart.

Keirai (Keer-AYE): A High Almancarian greeting, used solely between blood relations of the imperial house.

Kriy (Kree): A Steppes game similar to polo.

Krusghan (KROOS-gahn): The seven-holed transverse flute of the Steppes, usually made of blackwood with joinings of carved stone.

Kulm (Kool’m): A peat-like substance dug from the substrata of the wide plains of the Steppes, lightweight and long-burning; used as fuel for stoves or cooking fires throughout Destimar.

Lakh (Lack): Sweets made with finely-ground almonds and sugar, enclosing a filling of apricot conserve. A favorite delicacy of Destimar.

Silestra (Sill-ESS-trah): An Almancarian term of endearment, meaning “as fair within as without.” Used principally to describe women, but can also be applied to men, in which case the word becomes Silestor.

Sindretin (Sin-DRET-in): A Destimarian celebration commemorating one’s fiftieth birthday, signalized by lavish revelry.

Sovran (SOV-ran): The male ruler of the imperial house of Destimar. The female equivalent is Sovrana, which also the title of the Sovran’s consort. Male heirs apparent are given the title Sovranel; females, Sovrena. Younger brothers to the titular ruler are styled Sovranet; females, Sovranara.

Tiraktia (tir-AK-tee-ah): A privileged member of the Diamond Heaven, whose primary role is to entertain with music, dance, or song. Tiraktiai are at liberty to choose their lovers as they wish.

Yat: The traditional dwelling of the nomadic tribes of Destimar’s steppes. Its form is similar to the yurt, with a hole in the roof to provide escape for the hearth-ring’s smoke.


Carolyn Kephart’s publications:

Wysard and Lord Brother, Parts One and Two of the Ryel Saga duology, acclaimed epic fantasy

The Ryel Saga: A Tale of Love and Magic, combining the duology in a single volume

Queen of Time, contemporary magic realism that takes the Faust legend in new directions

At the Core of the Happy Apple: A Mystery Solved, an essay on the inner workings of the popular 1970s Fisher Price wobble toy

PenTangle: Five Pointed Fables, a collection of short stories previously published in ezines, plus a bonus tale:

The Kind Gods: Did the old gods really die? A warrior seeks answers at the burial-mound of his greatest enemy in this Norse-themed elegy first published in Bewildering Stories.

The Heart’s Desire: A government scryer's life is a prison until she and her bodyguard discover the ultimate secret language.

Last Laughter: A cautionary tale about a wicked court jester and his comeuppance, first published in Silver Blade Fantasy Quarterly.

Regenerated: Cela always hoped she’d find Jorgen again someday...but was this really Jorgen? A tenderly bitter tale of love and giant lizards, first published in Quantum Muse.

Everafter Acres: Happily Ever After isn’t always perfect, but dark knights can be illuminating. A wryly humorous fairy tale first published in Luna Station Quarterly.


© Carolyn Kephart 2013, 2022

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

THE RYEL SAGA: Chapter Twenty-Six

Below is Chapter Twenty-Six of THE RYEL SAGA, which combines both volumes of my WYSARD and LORD BROTHER duology. I plan to post a chapter every week (27 chapters total). Enjoy, with my compliments. For the first chapter visit herelinks to succeeding chapters are given at the bottom of each entry, and can also be accessed via the Archive panel at the left of the screen. For links relating to my other writing either free to read or available for purchase, visit here.

THE RYEL SAGA:
A TALE OF LOVE AND MAGIC
(WYSARD and LORD BROTHER
Complete in One Volume)

By Carolyn Kephart

Revised 2013 Second Edition

“Intricately layered and exotic” ~Robin Hobb

Lord Adept Ryel Mirai leaves the great Art-citadel Markul to rediscover the long-lost spell that will release his mentor from the wraithworld of the Void, but a malignant sorcerer likewise imprisoned has enlisted the aid of Ryel’s strongest rival to find the spell first. Amid dangers, joys and temptations, Ryel encounters unlikely allies and unforeseen enemies, and learns that he may well gain all that he wishes...although perhaps not as he wished it. 

Chapter Twenty-Six
Homecoming

Succeeding days brought rituals of thanksgiving. The temples of the gods were hastily cleansed and repaired, and their priests either freed or found in order that ceremonies as magnificent as was possible given the disordered times might be performed on behalf of a grateful citizenry. Every Almancarian had witnessed the marvelous apparition of Destimar’s pantheon hovering over the city, as had the Zegry and mercenary forces. And while Ryel could not but acknowledge that Lady Riana’s stratagem had been the most effective possible, nevertheless he regretted that the City of Gold would undoubtedly now become a place of religious pilgrimage for all the credulous in Destimar, and the World beside.

“I call that a clear gain,” was Priamnor’s calm judgment. “At least now the temple district will replace the Diamond Heaven as Almancar’s most notable attraction.”

He and Ryel were alone by the gold-mosaic pool, having just swum, and now they basked under the sunlight, glad to be together in the calm again at last. But the young Sovran’s remark clouded the wysard’s thoughts. “Far too much harm has been done to the World already by religion,” Ryel replied. “The cult of the Master did enough on its own.”

“Wholeheartedly agreed,” Priam said. “But the gods of Almancar are gentle and forgiving—and powerful, as many people saw with their own eyes during the struggle on the wall.”

“That was a trick. It wasn’t real.”

“Then never did trick come at a better time, ilandrakis—the Immortal Riana be forever thanked for it. And my thanks to you as well, for revealing to me the true identity of the Zinaphian enchantress, my first love.” The young Sovran gave a short laugh. “I knew she was an older woman, but not that much older.” He smiled again, savoringly reminiscent now. “I hope she retained the same fond memories of that time as I did.”

Ryel nodded assent, but thought it best not to tell his kinsman how very friendly Riana had been with himself, and with Guyon Desrenaud. “You won’t require any help from the Art from now on,” he said aloud. “Yours will be a great reign, one that poets will immortalize.”

“They’ve already started, from what I hear.” Priam glanced over at the wysard. “But I want them most to sing the praises of my chief minister. When will you take office?”

“As soon as I return from Markul.” Even as he spoke Ryel arose from where he lay, reaching for his Steppes gear, no longer able to rest quietly. “I understand you have much to think of and attend to, but don’t forget that you’re invited to join the Steppes encampment for the celebration feast tomorrow night. They’re making great preparations, from what Shiran tells me.”

“I look forward to it very much, and I’ll be bringing Diara with me, and your mother and sister. I wish you were joining us.”

“If all goes as it should, I will be…and not alone.”

Priam’s eyes glinted. “I hope that dearly.” He smiled, then. “I even have suitable garb to wear for the occasion, in plain strong cloth and leather, not silk. Your mother lent me one of your shirts that she’d made for you—I hope you don’t mind.”

Remembering the time-honored custom of his land, and Edris’ cloak that had been Warraven’s, the wysard returned the smile, but could say nothing because his heart was too full. Dressed and ready, he took his kinsman’s hands, touching them to his brow. “I’ll return soon.”

“May all go as you wish it, ilandrakis.”

Ryel winced inwardly, recalling the parting words of Riana. “Whatever awaits me, I cannot have come so far and risked so much for nothing.”

“Was it nothing, to save a world?”

“Ask others that, not me. Farewell, Priam.”

“Wait.” And the Sovran took Ryel around the shoulders, touching his lips to his kinsman’s temple in the Steppes way. “There. Now go, and return to us as soon as you can.” He tried hard to smile. “I look forward to meeting your father.”

Immeasurably moved, Ryel seconded his friend’s gesture, and took his leave.

***

Returning to his rooms to make ready for his journey, the wysard found Srin Yan Tai sprawled at her ease in his favorite chair, riffling through a pricelessly illumined volume of Destimarian epics, looking manifestly unimpressed.

“Finally,” she said, glancing up at him as she flung the book aside. “I was wondering when you’d show up, if ever.”

The wysard sighed, not in joy. “What are you doing here?”

“Such exquisite politeness. Waiting to add to your congratulations, obviously, in a more private way than up on the wall amid a crowd.” She contemplated Ryel with immense gratification. “You really came through, lad Ry.”

Ryel shook his head. “Not yet, Lady Srin.”

“I assume you refer to the life of Edris. But you’ll set that right, too. You’ve done everything else so far.” She sobered, then. “It means very much to you.”

“It means everything. I want to share the whole truth at last with him,” the wysard said. “To bring him back to Almancar, for my mother’s sake.”

“Does she know of your plans?”

“I thought it best not to tell her.”

Lady Srin inclined her jewel-braided head. “That’s wise.” She rose from the chair, her armorings and ornaments making a rich clatter. “I’ll be leaving Almancar myself in a few days. I’m not especially fond of cities, and this one’s in sad need of repair.”

“Where will you go? Back to your tree-yat?”

Lady Srin swung her plaits in negation. “I’m getting a little too old for arboreal abodes. You and I haven’t had much time for talk since the battle, but now I can tell you my news. For some time it’s been revealed unto me that Riana the One Immortal wasn’t just a figment of legend revered and enshrined. She’s alive and well—amid a screeching plethora of monkeys, from the looks of things.”

“How long have you known of her?”

“Long enough. She’s had her hand in many matters where you’re concerned, lad.”

“As when you wrought the spell that sent me to Hallagh? And when Jinn re-appeared outside Markul’s walls, a horse only in seeming? And—”

“You needn’t name ‛em all.” Srin Yan mused a moment, somewhat enviously. “I must say she shows considerably less than her thousand years. She’s suggested that I join her in that jungle realm of hers. Of course I’m going, since she possesses knowledge I wouldn’t mind sharing; who knows, I might even end up looking younger. Make sure that you tell Serah Dalkith to come up and join us. She’s getting too creaky for Markul.”

Ryel had to smile. “I doubt she’d thank you for saying that.”

“I lived a long time in that fog-smothered City, lad, and I can assure you the damp played the devil with my old bones. Well, I’ll leave you to pack.” Lady Serah rose from her chair, and for a moment stood regarding the wysard, the respect in her moonstone eyes no longer tinged with irony. “You’ve impressed me very much, young Ryel. Your father would be proud.”

“I hope to hear him say so.”

“Greet him for me, then. And bring him with you when you come to visit me and the other old girls.” She grinned. “I daresay he wouldn’t mind making Riana’s acquaintance.”

Ryel inwardly resolved never to bring that meeting about. “I’ll be sure to, Lady Srin.” The wysard put his hands on her mailed shoulders. “You gave me wise counsel when I most required it. I won’t forget.”

“You’d better never, lad.” She embraced him with mankind strength, cheek against cheek in the warrior’s way, and took her leave. Ryel stood silently awhile, memory overwhelming him. Then he slowly reached for his journeybag, and made ready for the final trek.

***

Ryel left for Markul quietly in the dawn, passing through the southern gate that had been closed and barred for so long, yet now swung open wide in triumph. Although the dead and wounded had been carried away, the terrain was still littered with wreckage from the Zegry war, and the wysard steered Jinn around the shattered siege-machines and other debris. But then something not of death, but of life caught the wysard’s eye. Leaping down from the saddle he grabbed up a handful of earth, and examined it with wonder. Bright green blades sprouted from the rain-dampened once-barren dirt, stretching toward the sunlight, and in the midst was a tiny flower, its heaven-blue petals only just beginning to unfurl.

“In the name of All,” Ryel murmured, his heart full and humble. He knelt to plant the grass safely in the earth again, and inwardly thanked Riana, glad to think of the City of Gold once again surrounded by lush fields and fruit-heavy orchards, and Diara and Priam walking among them.

Dusting off his hands, he looked to the city’s walls, and their fair stonework now battered and defaced, all the gods and creatures reduced to fragments by the cruel weapons of the Zegry forces. He remembered his first sight of those walls, how the fair stone glowed in the warm dawn and the shadows of the deep reliefs shifted as the sun rose, bringing the graven shapes to life. Until the Zegry onslaught, those walls had never known harm in all their centuries of existence, and Ryel sorrowed to look upon such wanton, heedless destruction.

The birthing of the day gave him strength and guided his inspiration. Lifting his hand, he spoke a mantra and began to outline the wrecked shapes with his fingers, drawing them in the air. Little by little the great walls mended to wholeness, the massive stone blocks returning to their former splendid state, all their ancient carvings once again bold and whole.

“For you,” Ryel whispered to those he loved still enwrapped in sleep; and he wished them the most soothing and wondrous of dreams, in which he hopefully played some kindly part. Then he smiled, to think that the restoration of the walls would be attributed to the gods who had hovered in the air over the city, and hailed as yet another miracle.

Remounting, the wysard pressed his heel to Jinn’s flank, and the horse tore off like a meteor. But when Ryel could no longer see the towers of Almancar, he brought Jinn to a halt.

“You’re fast, little one—but not fast enough. We’ll do a little wind-riding now, by your leave.”

He willed himself to forget the World he had dwelt in for the past near-year. To forget friends, enemies, adventures, lands and realms and cities, driving them all out of his mind awhile, giving his entire thought to Edris, again seeing him tall, spare and strong, hearing his mocks and curses, feeling the ferocious glint of those ironic eyes. A expectant thrill imbued the wysard’s blood, warming the ever-thickening, ever-chilling air around him. Reveling in his Art’s strength he closed his eyes and called out the mantras that would harness the elements of water and air; and he laughed as wild rain pelted his face.

At last the storm abated, and Ryel beheld tall shadows looming amid the mists. A sharp gust tore the haze to rags, revealing vast gray-black battlements and dark towers. The wysard gazed at that familiar sight with rapt joy and deepest relief. “Markul,” he breathed. “Best and Highest.”

How often he had felt himself a prisoner within those walls, cut off from sunlight and freedom. But how often since his departure he had yearned for the peace of those cloud-wrapped citadels. I’m home, he thought, letting out a glad World-weary breath. Home.

He looked upward, expecting to find watchers there; but the stark ramparts were empty. Ryel only shrugged. Rain had begun to fall yet again, drizzly and slow, and the City’s denizens were in all likelihood keeping dry within doors. He dismounted, shouldering his journeybag and stroking Jinn’s damp mane.

“You’ll have to stay here, little one. But I won’t be long.”

Standing before the huge iron-wrought portals he hesitated. How should he enter? To his knowledge, no one of the Art-brotherhood had ever returned to Markul after leaving it. Steppes prudery forever relinquished did not decide him, but the chill dank rain certainly did. Wrapping Edris’ cloak more closely about him, he said the words that would cause the gates to open—and to his mild wonderment they did so without hesitation or noise, swinging wide to admit him. He entered amid silence broken only by the steady drip of rain, and for a time wandered in aimless disquiet among the wet still streets and stairways, seeking any sign of life.

“But this can’t be,” he murmured at last, his breath vaporing. “There’s no one here.”

The City was deserted. Neglect and abandonment dismally haunted the gaping doors and windows, the herbs and vines straggling and gone to seed in gardens and at casements. And now it occurred to Ryel that many of the little clumps of discarded belongings outside the walls had disappeared.

“They’ve left,” he whispered.

“Or died.”

Turning to the faint voice that had spoken, Ryel found Lady Serah standing nearby in a black mantle wet with rain. His Art-sister had known terrible times since his departure, he saw when she pushed back the cloak’s hood. Very sick and frail she seemed, her once fox-red tresses closely shorn and now entirely white, her keen-edged beauty lost to sudden age and long torment.

She bowed to him in slow painful obeisance. “Most gratefully welcome, Lord Ryel,” she said, her voice faint and unsteady. “You have overcome our great enemy with Mastery as great as that of the Builders of this City. Of all mortals your Art is strongest.”

Ryel stared, stricken. “Sister. My dear friend. What has happened here?” And he hastened to her, taking her thin cold hands in his own. “I never knew it had gone this far. I would have returned to help you.”

“No, great brother,” said Lady Serah, clasping her fingers about his with none of their old firmness. “Your work in the World could not be interrupted.”

Ryel gazed helplessly into those eyes that had once held such bright deviling glints, and were now so weary and dull. “Come out of the rain to my house, my lady sister,” the wysard said, very gently. “We’ll talk long, as we used to.”

Lady Serah faintly smiled assent; but then trembled with sudden fearful memory. “Ah, Ryel. I must warn you that—”

Ryel hushed away her consternation. “I know Lord Michael was sent here. But we’ll not speak of it now. Come.”

With the wysard’s arm steadying his Art-sister’s steps, the two adepts ascended the levels of the City to the dwelling of gray-black granite that had been Ryel’s home. As he crossed his threshold for the first time in many months, Ryel felt the entirety of his Markulit existence enfold him as completely as Edris’ cloak. The deep many-colored carpets underfoot, his belongings safe on their shelves, the air’s warmth, the rigors and horrors and marvels of the Art—he had them back again. And he could feel, too, a pervasive presence like a vibration in the air.

Emanations of the rai, he thought—yours, Michael Essern. Strong emanations, indicating an overmastering impatience to return. You have not long to wait, my lord brother.

Lady Serah touched his arm, very lightly. “I kept everything here as it was when you departed,” she said. “It seems so long ago, now.”

“You even remembered the flowers.” Breathing their fragrance, Ryel took his Art-sister’s hands and bent his brow to them. “Permit me to thank you.”

Summoning the air, the wysard gave Lady Serah hot chal and a good fire to warm her, and wine of Ghizlan to set her eyes alight in the old way, and Steppes sweets. A long while they sat together by the hearthside and spoke of the changes in the City and the World. But then Ryel stood, driven against his will by the imperative presence in the next room.

Serah knew. “He is in your bed.”

“Yes. Let’s see him.” And Ryel led the way to his bedchamber, throwing back the heavy curtains of the windows to let in the gray rainy light.

Lord Michael Essern lay as if asleep, save that no rise and fall of breath stirred his inert form. His body was clad in magnificent Markulit robes, rich flowing layers of dark violet and muted silver and night-black. The heavy scarlet skeins of hair that once grazed his shoulders had grown twice as long, streaming like blood over the pillow, but his face was smooth, and no change whatever lessened the forceful symmetries of his form and visage, save for the deep dreaming serenity of the motionless features.

“He became bearded,” Serah said. “I used a spell to stop it. More handsome he is this way. I liked to come here and look at him, and comb those long red locks of his—and remember how flaming and flowing my own hair used to be.” She seated herself at the bed’s edge, all too plainly still tired from her climb through the City’s levels. “Well may you imagine my astonishment to find Lord Michael here, when I came as has been my daily wont to see that your rooms were as I’d left them. To expect only to arrange a few flowers, and then to find your bed taken by a Hryeland soldier to all seeming wounded to the death! But in another moment I recognized him, and healed his wound. Without a scar I healed it, I might add—I’d much regret to see him marked, for he is so good to look upon. I have made sure he is always warmly covered, although he surely cannot feel either heat or cold. Other than that he requires small looking after.” She hesitated. “Do you wish to wake him now?”

“Not yet, sister. You have yet to tell me about the plague.”

Serah Dalkith was silent awhile, and let out a long wearied breath before speaking. “A ghastly scourge it was, Ryel, without cure or relief. Many of our brotherhood died, and they say it was fully as bad in Tesba. Those who chanced to survive were marked forever after by it, as you have seen only too well from me. After the dead were burned—for we needs must burn them, as they were too foully corrupt to be laid in the Silent Citadel—most of our brotherhood left the City forever, fleeing to their homelands. At last I alone remained.”

“You are all that is left? Everyone else is gone?”

Serah inclined her head. “Everyone else, Ryel. And I must confess I never expected you to return. But I suppose you came for Lord Michael’s sake.”

“No, sister. For yours as well,” Ryel said. “But there yet another reason.” And his sorrow lifted cloudlike as he spoke. “In my travels I learned that I can restore Edris’ rai to his body with the right Mastery. Tonight I will attempt to bring him back.”

He expected Lady Serah to rejoice with him, to at least show some glad emotion. But she was silent as if ensorceled into a statue.

“Sister.” He found he could barely say the word, and had to force out others. “Sister, what has happened to my father?”

After a long silence Lady Serah replied. “So you learned what he was. We always knew.”

“Tell me!”

She sighed as if worn to exhaustion. “Not only the living suffered the plague, Ryel.”

Numbing white horror seized him. “You…you burnt him? You destroyed his body?”

Serah clasped her hands. “We had to, brother. He—he stank. He was crawling with…” She turned away “I’ll not tell you. Too dreadful it is to speak of.”

Ryel felt himself going numb. “You destroyed him.” Unable to stand any longer, he sank down at the bed’s edge. Serah Dalkith clasped him around the shoulders, but warily.

“Nothing else could anyone do, Ryel. Nor was Edris the only one in the Jade Tower who met that fate. All of the Builders save for Lord Garnos and Lord Aubrel had to be given to the fire, and many others.”

He could not feel her embrace. “How could you.” He had not enough strength to make the words a question. “How.”

Lady Serah replied with a spark of her old energy. “Had we let him lie as he was, rotten even to pieces, would you bring his rai back to such a body? I think not. We did what we had to. There was no choice.” The weak helpless tremor had come back to her voice, and she let go of him. “Ah, Ryel. I am sorry. So sorry.”

“Yes. As am I. Leave me, sister.”

Serah tried to take his hand. “Forgive us.”

He would not be held. “Go. I beg you go. We’ll meet again later.”

She did so, wordlessly. A long time Ryel stood at the bedside, staring down at Michael’s face, memory breaking over him like salt waves, searing his eyes.

You have lain here long, my lord brother, he thought. My father Edris lay even longer in the jade tower, awaiting the life I strove with all my power to give him back. We were going to be together as father and son, he and I. You will return from the Void to this young strong body of yours, but Edris—

Dazed with pain he rose, and with slow faltering steps left his house, seeking the tower of the dead. The rain fell harder, but he did not raise the hood of his cloak against it, unregardingly letting it stream down his hair and face.

The silent citadel was lightless. Ryel sharply commanded the torches to flare brilliantly aflame, and silently paced among the icy echoing rooms. Lord Aubrel lay intact as Lady Serah had said, as did Lord Garnos, and the beautiful silver-blonde woman whom Michael had loved and killed. But very many of the stone beds were vacant, most empty of all that which once held the lean massive form of Edris.

“Father.” Strengthlessly the wysard sank to his knees beside the great porphyry slab. He had not wanted to weep, had steeled himself against it with all the iron in his will, and not a tear escaped him. But grief and rage poured out in a stammering rush as he knelt first embracing, then beating with both fists the hard chill rock, all his being racked beyond the power of thought.

He awoke cold and aching. At some point before unconsciousness he had stretched himself out upon the stone, and now he lay as Edris had, on his back with arms folded high upon his breast. The torches had dimmed, and night had come on loud with yet more rain. Wrapping his cloak closely about him, Ryel joined his thoughts with the downpour, letting the steady soft roar fill his emptiness.

For an unknown interval he listened unmoving, letting the dripping blackness fill his mind. Then he hoarsely whispered a word. An all but invisible plume of mist oozed from the foot of the bier, rising and widening and taking on form. In wraithlike indeterminability the srih Pukk wavered, its eyes of glowing amethyst unblinkingly and impassively fixed upon its summoner.

“Yourw ill?”

Slowly and with pain Ryel sat up. “Tell me what to do.”

“Youknow,” the srih replied.

“I don’t. The body of my father no longer exists.”

Pukk wavered shruggingly. “And?”

“Tell me how to bring him back.”

“Hei sinthe Void.”

“I know that, you vaporing halfwit,” Ryel said with weary forbearance. “But what if I were to instill his rai into a dead body? One freshly dead, and undiseased at death?”

“Theb ody willcon tinue torot.”

The coldness of the stone filled Ryel’s veins. “That cannot be true,” he whispered. “Surely that is a lie.”

Pukk whitened as his purple eyes slit to glowing lines. “I tisno t.”

“But the Immortal Riana was dead when Lord Garnos—”

“Shew asn otdead. Herrai wa sinthe Void.”

“Then what of Garnos? What of Aubrel Essern? Are they—”

“Theyd ied. Wi tho utthe Artofth isplace theywoul drot.”

Ryel sickened with mute dismay. Pukk continued, ever impassive.

“Theb ody ofth eredha iriss trong. Ta keit.”

At the absolute unemotion of those words Ryel’s despair heated to rage. “Michael Essern still has his own chance at life. I won’t rob him of it. Leave me, you babbling gas.”

As Pukk leisurely dispersed, Ryel returned to his house and slammed the door behind him. With a taut command he caused the fire to leap into crackling fresh life, and tried to warm himself at it; gave up at last, and went into the room where Michael lay. Near the bed was another fire-hearth, and Ryel ordered it alight as well.

“It’s for you, friend,” he said bitterly to Michael’s unheeding form. “I wouldn’t want you catching cold as soon as you came back.”

But he was in no mood to bring the red wysard out of the Void just yet. Going into his bath-chamber he commanded the great crystal vessel to be lit from beneath and filled. Taking from his journeybag a gift of the Sovrena Diara, a vial very like the one Michael had brutally crushed underfoot in the ruined castle, Ryel scented the water with a drop of the perfume. Ineffable sweetness rose upon the air, each breath of it bringing yet another remembrance of his time in the World, and bodily ease. But neither remembered pleasure nor physical respite could solace his agony of mind.

“I’ve lost you,” he said, his voice thudding against the tall surrounding shafts of mirror. “I have failed, ithradrakis.”

A long time he spent in the water, wombed in its enervating heat. Sometime, somehow, he got out of the bath at last. Never once feeling the touch of the towel he dried and robed himself and returned to his bed, where he lay next to his unmoving Art-brother, losing himself in oblivion as if sliding down into a solid white world of fog.

***

A faint knocking awoke him. The mists that had swallowed Ryel the night before now pressed impenetrably against the windows. Next to him Lord Michael lay ever trancebound, warm but unbreathing.

The wysard threw him a grim glance. “Good morning. At least you didn’t talk in your sleep, or snore.” He rose and went to his house-door, opening it to find his Art-sister standing there, a traveling-bag in her hand.

“The Immortal Riana appeared to me last night,” Serah Dalkith said, before Ryel could speak. “She wishes me to join her. And having considered the matter, I deem it best that I go.”

The wysard blinked, unable at first to understand. “When?”

“As soon as I give the word. I came here to say farewell.”

He stared into her face, disoriented by regret. “But sister. We had only just met again.”

Lady Serah shook her head with a pale sad smile. “You’ve shown me how much you desire my society. Nay, no apologies—I well understand. Aloneness you require now, and time to mourn.”

“But that is no reason for you to leave.”

The wysardess sighed. “Other reasons have I, young brother. Unwilling though I am to admit it, I am old, and the plague made me older. Very weary have I grown amid these wet windy barrens with never a sight of the sun. Riana has promised me warmth and light and peace, all of which I am more than willing to accept, especially since Srin Yan Tai will bear me company.” Her mouth gave a quirk very like its old way. “And when such enticements are offered by the One Immortal herself, refusal is most rude—if not unwise.”

The wysard embraced her, sorrowing to feel her so thin and infirm in his arms. “I wish you happiness in your new home, sister.” He bent and touched his lips to hers. “Forgive my anger. It wasn’t meant for you.”

Bright color welled up in Serah’s thin cheeks. “How I wish I weren’t leaving you here alone, poor lad.”

“I won’t be alone for long. And you and I will meet again, I hope.”

“May it be, young brother.”

They bowed to one another in farewell, and then uttering the needful Art-word Lady Serah slowly vanished, until only wet footprints lingered on Ryel’s doorstep. The wysard after a moment’s reverie returned to his bedchamber, and regarded awhile the tall figure that lay as still as wrought marble beneath its opulent swathings. “At least you’ll get your life back, Lord Michael,” he said. “And without further delay.”

Striding to the curtains, he pulled them shut and called for light. The great branch of candles by the bed instantly burned ardently, flames stretching high. Remembering Riana’s silver book, the wysard envisioned once more the instructions therein, instructions he had indelibly committed to memory long since, and began his work.

It was really a very simple procedure, bringing a rai out of the Void. All one had to do was take oil of quiabintha and ritually encircle the eyes of the dispossessed body, then anoint the mouth and the ports of the ears, then speak a few Art-phrases. There was almost nothing to it. The only difficulty was that death might occur at any moment of the spell if the one performing it allowed his or her concentration to waver in the slightest. The least intruding thought, the merest notice of any extraneous occurrence would be the wysard’s last.

On a table near one of the windows was a little chest wrought of malachite and pearl. In it Ryel found a vial of quiabintha oil among the other drugs he had used during his learning of the Art. The flask was tightly stoppered, and the oil had kept fresh. The wysard closed his eyes and steeled his will, for the spell started with the opening of the vial. A twist of his fingers, and it began.

He never smelled the oil, although in less crucial times he had always partly enjoyed, partly disliked its sharp acrid redolence. He never saw the room around him, never heard the winds howling outside, never felt Michael’s skin under his fingers; never heard the words he spoke. When blackness overcame him, he never even wondered what he had done wrong.



Chapter Twenty-Seven, the conclusion, is here.


© Carolyn Kephart 2013, 2022