When I could not move my body I begged my friends to kill me. How could I return to my family like this? They ignored my pleas and took me across the wild lands to the nearest temple. The tabre healers could only restore half my body. Am I grateful? Yes. I’ve watched my children grow and learned from watching my wife the true meaning of duty. ~ Journal of Zehn Chenomet, 2042 Kwellstan calendar
The final Bozee bout of the summer was about to begin. Spectator barges filled with tabre and humans converged on the watery arena in Lake Kwellstan. For centuries the competitions had been among the fighting guilds of the Kwellstan Sect, but in recent years a pair of Bozee champions from the rival Drathatarlane Sect had claimed all glories. Their extraordinary skills kept them undefeated, and the crowds swelled more every summer when they fought. The Kwellstan Sect organizers had begun limiting spaces for human spectators, but the big event still put the whole city in a festive state.
Cruce Chenomet was excited to have obtained a place on a spectator barge. Because of high demand for the available spots, the Kwellstan Sect issued barge passes through a lottery to members of the estate and trader classes. Cruce’s sister had won two passes. She would have preferred the company of her favorite suitor, Radello, but Cruce had blackmailed her for the extra pass by threatening to tell their father about her escapades with her lover.
“Radello should be seeing the twins and not you,” she complained.
“Forgive me, Dayd,” Cruce said without a hint of regret.
Dayd moped over the glassy smooth wooden rail of the barge. Her bare arms glowed like warm ivory in the sunshine. A thick bracelet of jasper beads clustered around her left wrist, and her lacey white dress fluttered in the breeze. Her blue eyes matched the lake splendidly, but her long golden hair that she had so painstakingly curled that morning was going limp in the humidity.
Before she had become a woman, and a bold one at that, Cruce and his older sister had spent their childhoods together in fun and sport. It was nice to have some time with her again.
“At least you get to see the twins fight,” Cruce offered.
Dayd straightened from the rail and fussed with her hair. “You should be embarrassed to be seen out with your sister. Can’t you find a girl to spend time with you?”
Cruce answered, “If you’re so concerned about my love life, you should have given me your pass too so I could have invited a girl.”
Dayd shot back that it made just as much sense that she should be there with Radello.
Anticipating his little victory, Cruce said slyly, “Your love life doesn’t need any help now does it?”
Dayd smirked. She supposed there was no point in spoiling the day to spite him. “I hope they are as marvelous as I have heard,” she said. Twins among the tabre had never occurred before. The twins, Tempet and Alloi, were the pride of the Drathatarlane Sect, and their powers were the envy of the Kwellstan Sect. For ten years, the twins had made Kwellstan their summer home in an unprecedented display of Drathatarlane diplomacy. The more cynical among the Kwellstan residents, both tabre and humans, insisted that the twins only summered in Kwellstan so they could show off their supposed Drathatarlane superiority. A friendly spirit of competition could not have been the sole motivation for the twins to end their seclusion in Drathatarlane, as was expected of adherents of that Sect.
A final thump was struck on the drum and the rowers brought in their oars. The barge slowed and anchors were cast off each side. Cruce moved closer to his sister as the observation deck became more crowded. Other barges were anchoring in a semi-circle on both sides of their vessel, and slender skiffs were slicing toward a cluster of tiny islets that sprouted from the shallow north shore of the otherwise deep lake. Banners flew from poles at the back of the skiffs where sculpted tabre warriors paddled vigorously. Male-female fighter duos occupied each skiff. There were seven teams. Four from Kwellstan, two from Kahtep, and the twins from Drathatarlane. All the colors of the major Bozee guilds flapped over the waters that dazzled in the noon sun. The Kahtep guilds flew crimson or green and beige. The orange and blue stripes of the top Kwellstan pair were in the lead skiff ahead of the white and gold stripes of its sister guild. Kwellstan fighters had the advantage in water fighting because their city bordered the lake, but the battle skills of the Drathatarlane twins had usurped the glory of the traditional champions.
The twins approached at a leisurely pace. Their confidence was total and they had no use for haste. The male, Tempet, precisely plied the water with his paddle. Water hardly dripped from the paddle when he raised it, and, when he plunged the paddle into the lake, he pulled hard and efficiently. His arm muscles rippled and his lower body was steady inside the skiff. His skin was darker than most tabre. His black hair was cropped short, which drew attention to his sharp symmetrical face and full lips. White enameled armor encased his torso and his white pants met the straps of his white sandals just below his knees.
His sister, Alloi, stood behind him with the black and white flag of Drathatarlane rippling behind her. Her hair was long, and its onyx shine was striking against her white tunic.
The crowd around Cruce and Dayd murmured with excited observations as the twins cruised by their barge. Tempet did not deign to look upon his admirers but Alloi raised a hand to them. Her eyes twinkled with her rising powers, and, as she passed by, every man and woman on the barge felt that she had looked at each of them individually.
“Ah, if only Kwellstan could have two such as that,” Cruce lamented quietly.
“Are you going to cheer for Drathatarlane?” Dayd asked.
Cruce glanced over his shoulder. Everyone on the top deck still tracked the twins with their eyes. “I want any team from Kwellstan to win, especially Tavo Guild,” he said.
“Oh,” Dayd said, uncertain of his sincerity, but it did not matter. It was appropriate for Cruce to speak his support for the Kwellstan Sect, which contracted with their family for food, horses, copper, iron, precious metals, and other supplies.
Once the skiffs had passed the spectator barges, they fanned out among the islets. Cruce and Dayd watched Alloi hop lightly from her skiff and climb to the top of one of the chimney-like islets. The female partners of the other warriors were doing the same. The lone males paddled vigorously back to open water. The people on the barge jittered with anticipation, and those near Cruce and Dayd pressed closer, coveting their good spots by the rail.
The males formed a ring with their skiffs. The combat had few rules. Nothing prevented teams from negotiating deals ahead of time to gang up on other pairs. A team was finished once either fighter was knocked into the water although a fighter could enter the water voluntarily as long as he or she was not forced by an opponent.
The male fighters set down their paddles, and their skiffs bobbed gently. Each picked up the single weapon that he had selected for the battle. Four carried simple staves, one a flail, and two had whips, including Tempet.
“He’s not used the whip before.” Cruce overheard a man behind him say. Cruce assumed he spoke about Tempet.
The nearest barge to the competitors bore the Nebakarz priests who presided over the event. Only members from the Kwellstan Sect were present because Drathatarlane priests rarely left their sacred city in the mountains. The tabre priests in their red and black robes began chanting in their temple language that the humans did not understand. The low pulse of their voices came across the water.
“I can feel it happening,” Dayd breathed excitedly. She had been told that people could feel the rise of magic when the bout began. She felt it start inside her and swell like the thrill of waiting to hear the winner of an award.
The sensation peaked and then the fighters erupted into action. Four tabre sprang from their skiffs, buoyed by levitation spells, and jumped onto the skiffs of opponents. Two landed on Tempet’s craft, obviously trying to knock him out fast and early. One fighter swung at Tempet with his flail. Tempet ducked low. His whip remained coiled in his hand and he fought with his magic. He appeared to the humans as only a blurred ball of white light and then he was gone. The two fighters on Tempet’s skiff looked around frantically, seeking to spy him under the water. He had slipped into the lake before they could touch him. Tempet pushed his skiff out of the water with an explosion of magic. The fighter from Kahtep was dumped into the lake, the first loser of the day. The other fighter from the local Tavo Guild bounced himself off the surface of the lake with a fast levitation spell and landed back onto the small deck of the skiff.
Tempet grabbed the edge of his craft and pushed himself quickly out of the water. Steam rose from his skin and armor that were hot from his magic. He landed in a crouch on his skiff and met the descending staff of his opponent with a bare hand. He grabbed the staff, twisted the fighter off his feet, and then shoved him into the lake with a fierce attack spell that caused a cloud of steam to explode from the water and even left part of the skiff smoldering.
“So much for Tavo,” Cruce muttered, glad that he had not placed any bets on the fights.
The other skiffs moved toward Tempet, except for one who started paddling toward Alloi on her mount of rock. A cheer rose from the Kwellstan spectators as they saw their Bozee fighters continue to press the Drathatarlane pair.
Three skiffs came alongside Tempet, and he put his whip into action. The lash coiled around the pointed prow of the closest skiff and, with a mighty pull, Tempet upended the craft. The tabre fighter hovered a moment with his magic, seeking purchase with his feet on the flipped boat. Tempet raised his hand and a flash of attack magic flew from his fingers. It struck the armored chest of the fighter and sent him into the water.
Just as two tabre attacked Tempet, he jumped onto the upturned boat and shook loose his whip. Attack spells crackled around him, but he kept his balance on the rocking boat. One tabre leaped onto to Tempet’s empty skiff, and Tempet jumped back onto his boat to confront the opponent. He punched the Kwellstan Sect tabre, whose face twisted aside from the impact. Tempet kicked the tabre’s legs out from under him and grabbed him with a levitation spell and made him slide into the water.
The remaining tabre confronting Tempet struck. He used a whip also. The harsh leather braid laced with threads of enchanted metal coiled around Tempet’s waist. He braced himself with one foot against the side of his skiff and resisted the pull of his opponent. They were stalemated physically, so Tempet cast an attack spell. But the Kwellstan fighter was protected by the magic of his female partner. They had combined their shield spells into a double layer of magical resistance to fend off the powerful Drathatarlane fighter.
Alloi wanted to the assist her partner, but the two remaining female fighters were hitting her with attack spells, and the male fighter who had broken off to come to her was now climbing her rocky perch. The worthy challenge of three attackers excited her and added to her power and confidence. Dividing her mind among the trio, she kept the attack spells of the females at bay with her shield magic, and then created another spell in her mind. The stone islet beneath her feet grew hot and started to crack. She shoved her mind into the fracturing stone, guiding the cleavage. The rock crumbled and cracked beneath the hands and feet of the male fighter climbing the islet. He scrambled to gain new purchase and grabbed the hot broken edge of the islet and started to pull himself up, but Alloi exploded more rock and flung him back. With chunks of rock pelting him on the way down, he landed hard on the water, back first. Stunned, he sank until struggling weakly back to the surface.
When Alloi defeated the advancing male fighter, his female partner was obligated to break off her attack, defeated as well. Harried now by only one attack spell, Alloi threw back the other female’s magic and bested her with an attack spell that sprawled her across her rocky mount. Rattled, she clung to the rock, trying to unscramble her mind and cast another spell.
Tempet finished the contest. Because his opponent was no longer assisted by his partner, Tempet crushed his shield spell as if he squeezed a rotten tomato in his hands. Then his whip grabbed the fighter about the neck and pulled him down. The tabre fell hard on the edge of his skiff. Tempet let go his whip and jumped into the rocking boat. He reached down and grabbed the fighter by his armor and tossed him in the lake. Breathing hard, he raised his arms to exult in his victory.
Defeated fighters slowly pulled themselves back onto their skiffs as the Kwellstan priests in the barge looked on with palpable disappointment. Being bested again by the Drathatarlane fighters stung, especially in front of a home audience.
The human spectators on the barges clapped and cheered. Although their local champions had not won, the fighting talent of the twins had been amazing to see.
Cruce leaned into his sister’s ear. “It took longer to cross the lake than to watch the combat,” he said, almost complaining.
Dayd continued to clap. “Do not tell me you are disappointed after ruining Radello’s day,” she warned playfully.
“I’m not disappointed,” he said and admired the Drathatarlane twins as Tempet paddled toward the islet to retrieve Alloi.
Alloi descended onto her skiff in the glow of a levitation spell. After she landed on the deck, she took the flag into her hands and lifted it higher. The black flag showed a white tree inside a comet. Tempet paddled the skiff in a victory lap around the spectator barges.
Cruce watched the twins cruise by. They were beautiful and powerful, and Cruce was thankful that tabre Sects no longer fought in real combat. Bouts such as these were only ceremonial remnants of the actual battles once waged long ago among tabre factions. In the old days, the tabre of Drathatarlane had sought dominance over the other tabre settlements, at least as the story was taught in Kwellstan, but the separate tabre groups had finally allied and fought Drathatarlane to a stalemate that eventually created a society of peaceful coexistence.
Cruce appreciated the course that history had taken. His ancestors had found civilization among the tabre in their land of Nufal, and they had been welcome in the tabre cities with the exception of Drathatarlane. Humans were not allowed in the secluded mountain city where the twins had been born.
Although humans were a part of Kwellstan-ruled Nufal, no one had any illusions of equality between humans and tabre. Many tabre enjoyed humans for company, made friends, and respect was often given, but tabre were superior and the Nebakarz were supreme. Officially, humans were to look to them as the agents of the Great Divinity. The Nebakarz reached out to the divine for the benefit of the world and they offered the humans spiritual guidance and morality as well. The Nebakarz were typically disinterested in the economic and petty concerns of the human society in their midst. Wealth was the birthright of tabre for fine homes and jewels and all the bounty of Ektren were theirs to have. Their magic made all things easy and they had never known want. They could survive such hardships as bad winters and failed crops much more easily than tender humans whose mouths always needed to be filled.
As the crew of the barge weighed anchor and the rowers extended their oars, Cruce watched the twins finish their victory lap and paddle to the Nebakarz barge. The Bozee pairs that had lost lined their skiffs up and saluted the victors when they reached the priests’ barge.
The crowd loosened up on the spectator barge as people moved away from the rails. Cruce turned his back to the lake and lounged with his elbows on the rail. His blue shirt with black trim was open across his chest, where a few hairs curled upon his lean but maturing chest. His brown hair was thick and short.
Fidgeting with the black horn handle of his dagger in his silver studded belt of blue leather, Cruce remarked to his sister that he was glad that the tabre had no cause to fight for real.
Dayd chuckled at the silly concept. “They are too civilized for that. All men would do well to follow their example,” she said.
“Truly,” Cruce agreed. Although Kwellstan in the heartland of Nufal knew only peace, Nufalese militias defended frontier settlements beyond Kahtep from marauding savages.
The plodding thump of the rowers’ drum started again and the barge swung ponderously back toward the city. Dayd slipped away from her brother to mingle in the crowd. She was young and lovely, and not quite officially unavailable, and she enjoyed a good flirting session.
Cruce scanned the crowd. He had not actually needed a second pass to invite a young woman who interested him because she was already in attendance, but Cruce had not roused his nerve to insert himself into her company yet. He would have to do it soon or lose his chance.
“Cruce Chenomet?” a man said.
Cruce tore his focus from scanning females and saw a man he did not immediately recognize. By his nice clothing and the fact that he was on the barge, he had to be estate class or trader class, and Cruce thought that he should know the man who looked a few years older than himself. He had tan skin, gray eyes, and wavy light brown hair. Over a white shirt, he wore a stiff vest of leather armor, beautifully tooled and dyed burgundy. Then Cruce noticed the blue and green patch on the man’s sleeve that signified the Kwellstan Militia.
He was the commander of the Kwellstan Militia, and Cruce finally remembered his name. “Bradelvo?”
“Gehr Bradelvo,” the commander said and lifted a hand. “What did you think of the bout?”
Cruce clasped Gehr’s palm in the upright handshake that was standard between Kwellstan men. “It was a short show,” Cruce said as he recalled that the Bradelvo family was a minor estate class family. Gehr was the son of his family’s matriarch, who had never married. Their name was not on the Founding Tablets, but they did hold upland pasture lands between Alicharat and U’telmeran where they grazed sheep and therefore supplied a good portion of the wool market. But it was not a glamorous or exclusive commodity, which limited Bradelvo affluence and probably accounted for Gehr’s militia career.
Gehr laughed, and his grin showed his appreciation for Cruce’s willingness to criticize the season’s most hyped event. “Maybe it does not go so quickly for tabre eyes,” Gehr suggested.
Cruce shrugged, supposing that made sense but starting to wonder why this man had struck up a conversation.
Rolling his eyes toward the Nebakarz priests’ barge, Gehr commented, “I’m sure our Divine Lords are just thrilled.”
“Beating the twins does not seem possible,” Cruce said. He was not happy with the Drathatarlane victory. Like any Nufalese, his faith was guided by the Kwellstan Sect, but there was no denying the Bozee skills of Tempet and Alloi.
Gehr said, “Fast as it was, it was still awesome to see. I’ve been trying to get a pass for the lake bout for three years. The Kahtep temple finally decided to reward militia commanders for once and I got one.”
“You fight on the frontier?” Cruce said, realizing he wanted to hear about it.
The pleasant mood that lighted Gehr’s face dimmed. “Yes, I fight the savages,” he said. “If you want to hear about it, I’m having a party tonight. My friends and some other militiamen. I’ve got a place off Fisher Circle.”
Like any eighteen-year-old, Cruce perked up at the mention of a party, especially an informal one not hosted by stodgy parents. “Thanks. Sounds fun,” he said and then gestured to Gehr’s leather armor and told him it was nice and asked him who had made it.
Gehr explained that a craftsman in Kahtep did the work and added, “It’s just for show. I don’t actually wear this when I’m on patrol.”
A couple men near Cruce parted to make way for Dayd. She smiled to Gehr and welcomed him back to Kwellstan. “Enjoying your summer leave, Commander Bradelvo?” she inquired politely.
“More now, Lady Chenomet,” he said and deftly plucked up her right hand and kissed her fingertips. “Please, call me Gehr,” he insisted. Their eyes danced together. Dayd withdrew her hand, but her gaze remained engaged by Gehr’s eyes that were disarmingly bright on his tan face.
Gehr continued, “I was just telling your brother about my party tonight. If you were to attend, I’d promise to be on my best behavior.”
Dayd tried to avoid smiling with naughty interest. “Is Cruce going?” she asked and skewered her brother with a demanding look that warned him she was about to assign him a position in one of her games. Cruce considered a moment and then nodded. He wanted to go to the militia party. Gehr Bradelvo surely had many interesting experiences to recount and his easy confidence was the type that any young man wanted to be around.
But Dayd had Gehr’s attention now, and Cruce was more interested in his own opportunity to flirt, which was quickly ending as the barge closed on the shore. He spotted a trio of young ladies, pleasing as flowers in their pastel summer dresses, climbing the steps to the upper deck.
Cruce slipped through the crowd like a snake through daisies and caught up to the women. He greeted them confidently then focused on the girl he admired. “It is good to see you, Ribeka,” he said, enjoying the quickening pace of his heart.
Her hair was dark brown, like deeply polished hardwood, and her eyes were an intriguing hazel. Under the bright sun, they seemed to be all colors. Ribeka smiled to him reservedly with little uncertain curves at the edge of her exciting lips. At her side was her older sister, Chelma, who was not nearly so attractive. She had a plain face and dishwater hair, and was drifting toward plumpness. They were estate class like Cruce although their family, the Larka, was not nearly as prestigious as the Chenomet. Growing up in the same social class, Cruce had met the sisters superficially over the years, and he had recently decided to expand his relationship with Ribeka, if he could. The third girl, he presumed to be one of their friends.
“Cruce Chenomet,” Chelma said like a challenge. She edged just a bit between him and her sister. “Are you having fun playing the little lordling?”
The derogatory question jostled his poise. How else would a young male heir comport himself? And Chelma was only one year his senior, which he hardly considered license to treat him like a child.
“I am not playing at anything,” he said and cursed the hurt tone in his voice. After clearing his throat, he asked the women if they had enjoyed the show.
“Oh yes. Alloi is breathtaking. Oh, to have such power,” sighed the girlfriend.
Cruce nodded stupidly, wishing Ribeka would say something.
“I saw your sister,” Chelma commented.
“We came together,” Cruce said and then thought how lame that sounded. The confidence that had taken him by the shoulders and marched him over to the women was stumbling.
“What are you doing when we get to shore?” Cruce asked, making sure not to direct the question to Chelma.
Ribeka actually responded. “Our parents have arranged a concert at our house,” she answered.
Merciful magic, she spoke to me, Cruce thought. “That sounds nice, but, um, would you like to go to a party with me?” he said, relieved somewhat to have forced out the words, but now aching for acceptance.
Chelma presumed to answer. “We’re expected at home,” she insisted.
“Sorry. Maybe next time,” Ribeka offered and Cruce rummaged out a smile for her despite his disappointment.
Chelma slid a hand around her sister’s waist and moved past Cruce. “Have fun,” she said with a triumphant air that annoyed Cruce. He even narrowed his eyes at her before he could help himself, but it only seemed to amuse Chelma. He could not imagine why she wanted to give him a hard time. At the age of eighteen and the Chenomet heir, he presumably was wildly appealing.
The ladies brushed past him although Ribeka did glance back. “Have a nice evening,” Cruce said to her.
Ribeka turned away and Cruce stared at the laces on the back of her dress. He sighed with frustration. He had approached her with such confidence but had lacked any game plan for retaining her attention or sidestepping her bothersome sister. Tension squeezed his shoulders and he glowered at the scrubbed boards of the deck.
Discouraged, he returned to where his sister was still chatting with Gehr.
“Who were you talking to?” Dayd asked.
“The Larka sisters,” Cruce said, trying to sound indifferent. He could see in her eyes that she knew about his growing crush on Ribeka, but she was kind enough not to tease him.
The Kwellstan docks grew closer. The tall, conical and segmented building that was the Nebakarz temple called the Altular loomed above the city. The polished granite temple seemed to absorb the sunshine and glisten with its never-diminishing power. With the exception of the four towers of the Atocha, the great school of the Kwellstan Nebakarz, the rest of the city seemed small beneath the temple, like kittens gathered around their mother cat. Most of the buildings were constructed of cut blocks of granite. The tabre dwellings were encased in polished marble or limestone. The human buildings were left as bare granite, but they were decorated with bright flags, glass windows, and red-painted trim. Great old trees thrived in the city that was carefully built into the ancient forest that filled the Valley of Nufal. The trees’ crowns spread over the cobbled streets and slate roofs. Thick green flowering hedges grew in the boulevards that all met at the docks and dissected the city like the spokes of a wheel. East and the west of the docks artificial shores of enormous stone blocks framed waterfalls that poured into the lake. The famous springs of Kwellstan were organized by channels and collection pools throughout the city, and the waters exited through the falls.
With an elbow on the rail, Cruce watched the city draw closer. Dayd and Gehr joked with each other and talked about people who were a few years older than Cruce. A couple times, he wanted to join the conversation and ask Gehr a question about the militia, but he supposed he would hear enough about it at the party. Although bored, Cruce discarded the idea of seeking out Ribeka again. He figured bungling one attempt to speak with her was enough for one day. He made a mental note to try to run into her when Chelma was not around, if that ever happened.
The drum beat of the rowers slowed as they maneuvered into dock. The other spectator barges were lining up behind the barge in which Cruce rode. The docks were crowded with people. The tabre on shore would have already spread the word of who was the winner of the combat, and presumably people lingered for a glimpse of Tempet and Alloi when they returned. The barge with the Nebakarz priests and tabre fighters was still across the lake though.
Before being engulfed by the urban press, Cruce lifted his gaze and took in the vista around the lake. Kwellstan and its lake sat in the center of an oval valley that was surrounded on all sides by mountains except for a gap in the west that opened onto a prairie. Two cities were set above the valley on the lower slopes of the mountains, and Cruce could see them. U’telmeran in the east and, to the north across the lake, the buildings of Alicharat rose bright and white amid many green terraced fields. Only forest and open water surrounded Kwellstan. The woodlands had not been cleared for agriculture. Food was shipped in from the grain fields and pastures of the prairie towns or the terraced gardens and orchards of U’telmeran and Alicharat. Except for home gardens, Kwellstan did not undertake the mundane task of large-scale food production.
When the barge docked, Dayd took Cruce’s hand and told Gehr that she would see him later, and Gehr melted appropriately into the crowd.
Radello was waiting for them on the docks. Dayd waved to him happily as she and Cruce waited in line to get off the barge. When they reached Radello, Dayd kissed him merrily on the cheek. Radello was shorter than Cruce and he kept his light brown hair long. He wore green trousers, leather sandals, and a sleeveless cream-colored linen tunic. Radello smiled to Dayd with genuine pleasure and then greeted Cruce curtly.
“You didn’t miss much, Radello. It went quick,” Cruce said. “I won’t steal your place in the future.”
“Nice,” Radello grumbled, uninterested in Cruce’s condolences. Putting an arm around Dayd, Radello led them through the crowd. He was stout and broad-shouldered and had little trouble making his path clear.
Cruce hung back, finding his own way off the dock. He noticed Gehr reuniting with a half dozen of his militia comrades. By his sweeping hand gestures, Gehr was presumably describing the action of the combat to them. Gehr noticed Cruce and waved to him invitingly.
A little surprised, Cruce hesitated but he did not want to be unfriendly so he joined the group of militiamen.
“Cruce, hello,” Gehr said jovially. “Tell my fellows how fast Tempet is. He makes the other tabre look like turtles.”
Cruce grinned and shared his observations about the fight. Gehr then told everyone that Cruce was coming to the party that night, and the other militiamen approved. When Cruce took his leave, Gehr ducked close and said, “Even if your lovely sister changes her mind, you still come.”
Cruce moved on. It felt good when he reached the shade of the stately old maples that lined the meandering avenue to his family’s home. His skin stung slightly from being in the sun on the open water half the day.
Ivy-coated stone walls encased the grounds of the Chenomet house that lounged long and low among ornamental trees whose red or purple leaves mingled with pale green willows that hunkered like shaggy cows in a flower garden. The gates were open. They were always open. As Cruce entered the yard, an orange cat stood on top of the wall, stretched, and then settled back down.
“Good afternoon, Slick,” Cruce greeted the cat that was so named because supposedly not even a tabre could catch him. Tempet or Alloi could, he thought.
Blaker, the head gardener, was trimming shrubs near the front entrance. Snips of branch and leaf were speckling the ground around his worn leather sandals like dandruff. Blaker waved to Cruce with his wood-handled bronze clippers. “How was the show, Lord Cruce?” he inquired cheerfully.
“Quick, yet amazing,” Cruce answered and continued down the lane.
The front doors to the house were painted red and had brass handles and hinges. Cruce pushed one open on its quiet oiled hinges. The foyer had a domed roof, and slender skylights let sunlight peek down unto the polished birch floor. Cruce crossed the golden floor and headed down the left-hand hall to the informal chambers of his family. The right-hand wing of the house was for formal gatherings and the central wing was for the kitchens, workshops and servant quarters.
The walls of the hall Cruce walked down alternated between stained wood panels and paintings of Chenomet ancestors in various settings. Women and men dressed in the fashions of their times watched Cruce go by. Some of them looked strikingly similar to Cruce, while others did not. The older portraits had been preserved with costly tabre spells to delay decay.
Because it was summer, the windows of the home were open, and lightweight linen drapes with delicately embroidered edges fluttered in the languid afternoon breeze. Tiny chimes hanging in the windows tittered happily.
Cruce entered his family’s private water chamber. The burbling water fountains and pools made the marble-paved room cool, and gauzy curtains across the ceiling filtered the sun through the skylights. Here he found his father, Zhen.
Zhen bathed in a deep pool. Beside him on a stool sat a tabre small in stature with large eyes and thin silvery hair. Steam rose from the pool that had been heated by a tabre spell. The steam mingled with the therapeutic vapor drifting from the simmering pots of herbs, also heated by the tabre.
“Father,” Cruce said and bowed his head respectfully. “Artor,” he added in greeting to the tabre.
“Greetings,” Artor said pleasantly. He liked Cruce as most tabre did. They found him more interesting and worthy than most humans, although he could not guess why.
“Cruce, I did not expect you so early,” Zhen said.
Cruce explained that the combat had been quick.
“Tempet and Alloi the victors?” Artor said as if resigned to the fact.
Cruce nodded. “I am sorry, Artor, they are much better than our Kwellstan champions. I must admit it.”
“Drathatarlane pride will run like rivers in spring,” Artor muttered.
Zhen chuckled. “We don’t envy them on their bleak mountain, do we? Kwellstan is beautiful, and we are luckiest. Cruce, get me that robe.”
Cruce picked up the cream colored robe draped on a bench and stepped closer to the pool. As he held the robe open for his father, Artor lifted his hands like he was feeling his way in the dark. White light snapped in his eyes. Slowly, Zhen rose from the water. The skin on his soft skinny body was pink from the heat and his withered legs were wrinkled from the soaking. Cruce held the robe out so that his levitating father could put his arms through the sleeves. Zhen tied the robe closed and Cruce slipped his arms beneath his father’s armpits and embraced him from behind. As the levitation spell ended, Cruce bore the weight of his father and took him to his nearby wheelchair. Zhen relaxed into the chair that had conveyed his body for over a decade. Artor inhaled deeply to recover from his exertion.
Zhen thanked his tabre physician. “That bath was most soothing,” he said.
Cruce moved behind the wheelchair to push it, but his father waved him off and grabbed the wheels himself. His muscles bulged in his thin arms and the chair started to move, slowly. Fine crafting and maintenance kept the tabre-engineered chair in good operating condition and allowed Zhen some mobility in his crippled state.
Zhen told the tabre that he would see him tomorrow.
“What of your treatment?” Artor inquired gently.
Cruce knew that Artor referred to the regular pain treatments the tabre applied with his magic healing powers. Since Zhen Chenomet’s horse riding accident while hunting, his body had been broken and left in chronic pain.
“The bath will suffice,” Zhen said, and Cruce was heartened to hear that his father was presumably having a good day. Pain ruined many of his days. Since the effects of drugs had weakened over the years, Zhen had needed to seek tabre healing more often.
“As you say,” Artor said, although he did not sound convinced.
Artor set the stool against a wall and then held open the curtains of a doorway for Zhen. Cruce followed his father out of the water chamber and Artor took another way out.
Cruce walked slowly beside his father. Although he wanted to push his straining father, Cruce admired how his father labored with the wheels. Moving his wheelchair had not always been so difficult, but Zhen’s strength ebbed a little more each year.
When they reached another door, Cruce opened it and Zhen rolled down a ramp that had been installed since his accident so that he could access an inner courtyard. The sun was bright and hot. Sweat sprouted on Zhen Chenomet’s balding head by the time he managed to reach the shade of a dogwood tree’s spreading braches. Groupings of roses grew throughout the courtyard, and the perfume of their full blossoms weighed upon the air like an invitation to dream.
Cruce sat on a bench in the shade next to his father.
“Is my son troubled?” Zhen prompted.
Cruce shrugged. “No.”
Zhen raised his eyebrows, showing his doubts, but he accepted the answer. A son new to manhood did not always need or want to take his father into his confidence about everything.
“Did your sister come home with you?” Zhen asked.
“I think Dayd is on her way,” Cruce said.
Zhen chuckled and told his son that he was a loyal brother.
“I am supposed to go out with her this evening,” Cruce said.
“Not as her chaperone, I am sure,” Zhen remarked.
“Father, she is twenty one,” Cruce said, trying to prove he had no way to be responsible for her.
“I know, Cruce. And she’s a fine daughter. I am not worried by her,” Zhen said and he meant it. A Chenomet woman was supposed to be bold. He then urged his son to describe the combat. It had been many years since Zhen had watched one. He stayed home mostly, receiving visitors and conducting his business in private. Although he had accepted his infirmity, he remained reluctant to face the public. Competition among the estate class families for Nebakarz contracts, land, and markets was an omnipresent reality, and he did not want to project weakness.
As Cruce described the combat to his father, he recalled Tempet’s unconventional tactics and the precision of his fighting moves. Surely such a warrior had not been born since the dim ages of the Sect War.
Listening to his son speak, Zehn admired how well his son had grown up. Cruce was everything that Zehn had once been: vital and strong, handsome and swift. Seeing that the future of the Chenomet family was secure comforted Zhen more than tabre spells. He believed that Cruce was ready to accept the reins of family leadership. The maintenance of Chenomet political power needed youth and energy instead of the tinkering of a recluse. Zehn could not delay transferring these burdens to his son much longer.