The rys breed among themselves now. The second generation retains traits that we seek, yet we cannot look upon them without feeling a deep distaste. I will oversee another round of refined breeding spells with pure blood tabre. Our hopes are high that this time the Kwellstan Sect will enhance the race according to its inspired visions. ~ Daykash Fane, 1862 Kwellstan calendar
Dacian pushed away troubling concerns about his reprimand. The peace of deep meditation soothed him until a lifeforce drew his attention like sweet nectar attracting a bee. A rys was approaching Jingten from the west. He watched her with his farseeing mind while lying on his bed. Although he appeared to only be staring at the ceiling, his mind filled the Jingten Valley and went up the slopes of the mountains until he felt the aching cold of the snowy peaks in his bones.
Across this majestic landscape he watched the solitary rys female. A crow seemed to be following her.
When Dacian extracted his mind from meditation, he contemplated the mystery of where she could have been. Dacian sat up and swung his bare feet off his bed. He had begun his meditation yesterday, or perhaps…he was not sure. His body felt hungry. His meditation must have lasted longer. Even a rys needed to eat sometimes. Power did not come from nothing.
Stretching his arms, Dacian went to the open window. The morning sun was pushing back the chill that had gripped the valley all night. He selected a clean tunic from his wardrobe. He was surprised that Halor had not disturbed him from his lengthy meditation, but it was likely Daykash Breymer was keeping him busy. Dismally, Dacian supposed Halor was glad to have him out of the way since the incident with the acolytes from Kahtep.
He slipped on the tunic and cinched the waist with a leather belt. After pulling on soft suede boots he headed for the kitchen. The breakfast crowd had cleared out and the dining room was empty, but three rys workers remained in the kitchen. They were talking pleasantly among themselves until the cook sensed Dacian quietly standing between the pillars that separated the dining area from the kitchen.
“Dacian,” the cook smiled and waved him into the room full of fires and kettles and rows of utensils, jars, jugs, and sacks.
“Good morning, Exaton,” Dacian greeted and nodded amicably to the two other workers, Ifil and Lang, who were scrubbing dishes in a large sudsy sink.
“Ah, you are hungry,” Exaton observed. “I have not seen you at a meal for three days.”
“That long?” Dacian murmured.
Exaton waved a hand impatiently at his subordinates, silently commanding them to fetch a plate. Ifil and Lang reacted, but they did not take their eyes from Dacian and so they bumped into each other as they headed for a cupboard while wiping their hands.
“Come sit with me, Dacian,” Exaton invited. “We were just about to have a snack.” The cook ushered him to one of the work tables and pulled out a chair. As Dacian seated himself, Exaton said, “So, have you been deep in some great spell all these days?”
Dacian glanced up at the broad-faced rys in a sleeveless white shirt and clean apron. The cook was sincerely interested in what Dacian had been doing. He seemed even to think that it was important.
“Meditating,” Dacian said simply.
Exaton seated himself and nodded gravely. “Yes, one such as you has much to think about. Great spells don’t just make themselves up. It’s not as if you are just trying to boil beans like me.”
“I imagine cooking takes some care. Even boiling beans,” Dacian said.
Exaton shrugged modestly, pleased by Dacian’s graciousness. “It’s usually easiest just to use the fires. Zapping a roast with a spell is only practical if one’s pressed for time. Still, it does not come out quite the same. Some things can’t be rushed,” he said.
Lang set out dishes for all of them while Ifil delivered a pitcher of cold water, bread, cheese, sliced cold venison, and a bowl of spiced squash sweetened with honey.
They started eating without much more conversation. Dacian was distracted by his hunger among other things. He tried to sort out his priorities for the rest of the day. He had studies that had gone neglected. Master Halor would not ignore him forever.
Exaton, even with his average rys perception, sensed the restlessness in Dacian. The cook suggested that he accompany them to town to shop the markets. The lowland traders from Nufal would be leaving in a few days before the heavy snows came to close the pass. “A trip into town would do you good,” Exaton added.
Dacian drank some water and considered the invitation. He was tempted by their companionship. The tower walls were feeling close this morning.
Instead he said, “Master Halor has bid me stay in the tower.”
Exaton frowned sourly. “I know the great Dacian is not so meek. If a cook is not chained to his pot, how can it be that an acolyte is locked to his books?”
“It is not that,” Dacian said. “It would be best if I did not go against the orders of my Master.”
“Oh, is this still about that nonsense with those Kahtepian fools?” Exaton said. “Master Halor should get over that. You were just exercising as a strong young rys should do, Dacian. Those tabre are overreacting.”
“It was more serious than that, Exaton,” Dacian insisted. “I was…reckless.” He recalled Bagdoa’s terrible burns. At least he had healed them, but he had learned that his magic could hurt.
“You are NOT reckless,” Exaton said emphatically. “You are the most thoughtful rys I have ever met. And, in my three hundred years, you are certainly smarter than any tabre I have met.”
Dacian enjoyed the compliment, but he still politely declined the invitation.
“Come on, Dacian,” Exaton coaxed, undeterred by two rejections. “Halor and the Daykash are all wrapped up fussing over their tabre favorites. Halor won’t notice. He is busy petting his Daykash trying to make him purr.”
Ifil chuckled at the derogatory observation. “Yes, come with us, Dacian,” he said.
Dacian looked at Ifil and Lang, and then looked into Exaton’s twinkling black eyes. They want me to go, he thought and then realized with greater clarity that they wanted him to defy Master Halor.
Their urgings to defiance were unexpectedly exciting. Dacian saw now that to his fellow rys he was not the disgraced acolyte who had caused trouble with visitors. He was the rys acolyte who had trounced a tabre in a Bozee contest, and it made them proud.
Pride is dangerous, Dacian recalled from one of his books. But pride also felt good. His strength made the other rys feel better about themselves.
Tempted as he was, Dacian would have obediently remained at the tower except that he estimated that the female rys should be arriving in Jingten any time that day. She had been somewhere in the west, and Dacian truly wanted to hear of her travels. Going to the west was forbidden of rys, and the tabre seemed disinclined.
“Very well. I shall go,” Dacian said.
“Good! Good!” Exaton exclaimed. “Let’s get ready.”
Getting ready did not involve Exaton doing anything except trading his apron for a long vest trimmed with rabbit fur that had many pockets. The cook, however, gave numerous orders to Ifil and Lang and had them scurrying about wiping plates and tables before they left.
“They seem to mind their master well,” Dacian observed wryly.
Exaton looked up from his coin purse where he had been counting his funds. “I only ask them to do their jobs, Dacian. I swept floors for a hundred years before getting head cook at the tower,” he said. Then a bit defensively, he added, “And I ran off without leave from time to time.” Exaton slid the coins out of his purse and muttered that he had lost his count and started over dropping the polished stone Kwellstenums into the pouch.
Dacian followed the rys workers out of the kitchen and to the stairwell. It was required of the rys servants to use the stairs.
Outside the tower the lake lapped on the gravel shore. Several boats were beached in a row and one pleasure barge was docked. The black and red painted vessel was rarely used. Dacian had been told that such vessels were common on Lake Kwellstan where tabre and humans gathered for various water events.
He helped his three companions push their row boat into the water, and then cast a quick spell that dried their boots after all of them were in the boat. Ifil and Lang thanked him profusely as they each grabbed an oar.
“I tried that once and burnt my toes,” Lang said.
Dacian was not sure how to respond, but he did imagine the blackened pair of boots.
As they crossed Lake Nin, Exaton talked about the items he hoped to find in the markets. Some things he needed for the tower kitchen, but others he wanted for his home.
“My wife wants fine wool cloth from Kahtep and wine from Kwellstan,” he said. “Her tastes are not cheap.”
“Wife?” Dacian said. “I did not know, Exaton. Congratulations.”
“Well, I am working on the wife part. She seems willing to live with me but reluctant to make promises,” Exaton said.
“I have been warned that rys females are slow to commit,” Dacian said.
“And quick to break off,” Lang added and proceeded to describe his two failed relationships over the past fifty years.
Dacian, having never had a female companion, had no experience to share. As a Nebakarz acolyte, it would be unseemly for him to pursue the distraction of the opposite sex. Once he was an ordained Nebakarz priest, he would have more freedom to expand his personal life. For now there was great satisfaction in learning from the long tabre tradition of magic use.
They docked at Jingten’s single public dock, where three other empty boats were tied. Jingten was never exactly busy. Although it was the only town Dacian had ever known, it remained a solitary colony on the fringe of the Nufalese realm. Dacian anticipated greatly the time when he could travel to Nufal and see Kahtep and then the famous Kwellstan, the crown of civilization.
Jingten was a handsome budding colonial town. The original timber buildings from the first tabre settlements some four centuries earlier were being replaced by stone buildings. The stone was quarried from the surrounding mountains, and the hard blue stone created buildings of beauty and permanence. Many of the roofs were slate, but the newer ones were sheets of copper, gleaming in the bright autumn day. The wealth of Nufal was starting now to show in Jingten, despite the misgivings many tabre had about the settlement.
Dacian took the investment in the newer buildings as a good sign that the tabre would accept the rys as cousins and the racial tensions would eventually ease. He felt encouraged toward his goal to improve tabre opinion about rys. The tabre could not ignore his talent, and once he was a Nebakarz priest of the Kwellstan Sect, he would lessen the prejudice shown his kind and perhaps even cure it.
He walked with Exaton and the others toward the town square where vendors made an open air market in the fairer seasons. Jingten was a comfortable place for Dacian. There were more rys than tabre, and he found undeniable ease among those who looked like him. The original tabre population of the settlement had dwindled over the last two centuries, and their movement back to Nufal had accelerated in recent decades. They left because their offspring had come into the world as rys blues and thereby disappointed their parents.
This fact was wounded the rys, many of whom had seen their parents abandon them. Dacian had been spared this sadness because both of his parents were rys. He was among the second generation that was entirely rys-born. Having had the benefit of both parents, Dacian and others like him tended to be sympathetic to those rys left behind by their unhappy tabre parents.
His parents resided in Jingten, as all rys did, and Dacian decided to visit them while he was in town. They never came to see him at the tower.
Once Dacian reached the market square, he told his companions that he would reunite with them later. He walked quickly across the square, only glancing at the vendors’ merchandise. About half of the sellers had already left for the season, and those that remained had plenty of room to spread out their products. Dacian noted the stacks of wool cloth for which Exaton would soon be bargaining.
Many of the stalls had food to sell. The bounty of the Nufalese harvest in its lowland fields far exceeded anything that could be grown in the alpine Jingten Valley. Tomatoes beamed redly from baskets and green-skinned apples piled proudly amid sacks of wheat and rye. As Dacian walked past an open barrel of apples, the scent of the fruit danced into his nostrils, and he imagined the warm summer showers that had nurtured the fruit along with sunny days.
Two blocks beyond the square Dacian approached his ryslinghood home. His parents shared a modest timber home, tidy if aging. He meant to walk in, but it had been so long since his last visit, he felt that he should knock. As he raised his hand over the door, it opened, and his mother, Illyr, stood there. She had of course sensed her son coming down the lane. Her face brightened as she greeted him and ushered him inside.
“I did not expect to see you so soon,” Illyr commented.
“I have not been here for months,” Dacian said. He entered the home of his parents. The place seemed more cluttered than the last time he had been there, but he was not surprised. His father had an almost compulsive need to keep whatever trinket, tool, hat, belt, or basket that came his way no matter how worn it was or unneeded.
Dacian noted that the home had been remodeled. Fresh pine panels covered the walls. The panels were pale and polished and still smelled of the forest, which was comforting. The wooden floor had been replaced with warm red tiles. The floor was well done, but Dacian did not care for the color although he did not say so when his mother asked him if he liked it. Illyr gave him a suspicious look after he replied with polite praise.
He followed her into the kitchen. The window shutters were open and sunlight spilled between the houses and warmed the little herb gardens on the sills. Illyr gestured to a tea kettle and Dacian nodded agreeably.
As Illyr dipped the kettle in a water barrel and placed a hand on it to heat the water with her magic, Dacian heard his father coming down the stairs. Dacian greeted his father when he came into the kitchen although part of him dreaded the encounter.
Glaxon was a handsome rys, as was his son. He was tall and slender yet muscular. He worked hard in the forests, selecting trees to fell for building materials and cutting and milling the wood as needed. Glaxon wore a deerskin jerkin and matching pants. A string of crystal beads was around his neck. Making the small crystal beads with his magic was a hobby of his. Many such beads adorned Illyr’s clothes, and she was admittedly proud to wear his “little charms” as she called them. A sparkling row of beads on her sleeves was one of Dacian’s earliest memories.
“Should you be here?” Glaxon inquired gruffly.
“I was welcome last I knew, Father,” Dacian said, unable to hide his hurt over the dismal greeting.
Glaxon frowned, a little embarrassed. “Of course, you are welcome, Dacian,” he said. “Only we thought you were confined to the tower.”
Dacian glanced at his mother. She took her hand from the kettle and removed its lid. Steam drifted up and she began to crumble tea herbs from a jar into the hot water. “We heard that you had needed discipline,” Illyr said quietly. Sympathy showed in her black eyes.
Glaxon grabbed three ceramic cups from a cupboard and set them on the table where he sat down with his son. “You should stop mixing yourself up with those tabre. They will never approve of anything you do,” he said.
Dacian fingered the lip of his cup. It had not taken any time for his father to start his old lecture. Why did I even come here? Dacian asked himself.
“Because your mother misses her son,” Illyr answered.
“I miss you as well,” Dacian replied and smiled as she poured him tea. “You could come to the tower to see me whenever you want.” He told his parents this year after year, but they never heeded the invitation.
“And you could come live at home where you belong,” Glaxon said.
Dacian had heard the admonishment many times. As he always did, he patiently explained himself. “The tabre will never respect rys if we keep to our place. Once I’m a Nebakarz, other rys will see that they can also develop their talents and pursue any position in society. We should make ourselves more a part of Nufalese society so the tabre will cease to see us as strange. In another one or two hundred years things will be better, Father. You will see,” Dacian said.
“Indeed we shall see,” Glaxon muttered and sipped his tea.
Dacian sighed. His mother settled into a chair at the table and they shared a moment of peace as they drank.
Leaning back in his chair, Glaxon said, “Dacian, tell me about this tabre you beat in a fight. That would please me.”
Although uncomfortable with the memories, Dacian shared the story of the Bozee training that had ended so badly. He told how quickly he learned the physical moves and the spells. It had been exciting, but it was dangerous sport. He told them of getting hurt, healing himself, and then of how badly he had hurt Bagdoa before healing him.
When Dacian finished his story, the eyebrows of both his parents were arched with impressed surprise. The tabre version of the story had not credited Dacian with his deeds of magic.
Thoughtfully, Glaxon murmured, “You are powerful, my son. You would do best not to let those tabre goad you.”
For once Dacian agreed with his father. “Master Halor has made that clear to me,” Dacian said.
“And now he has released you from probation?” Illyr asked hopefully.
Dacian thought to lie to her, but she probably already knew that he was defying his confinement and just wanted him to admit it.
“I did not ask my Master’s leave to come here,” Dacian said. “But do not worry. Halor will indulge me.”
“Yes, indulge you,” Glaxon said. He seemed to have more to say, but he occupied his mouth with the dregs of his tea.
Dacian did not pursue the matter. He made small talk with his parents instead. Eventually, they left the kitchen and went to his father’s workshop next door, and Dacian listened contentedly as Glaxon discussed the timbers he was cutting for a new building. He spoke respectfully of the trees he had cut. Dacian knew that his father took seriously the ending of each tree’s life, and he was careful to select those trees that were best suited to a purpose so that he could reduce wasted wood.
The shop smelled of wood, of course, and the chippings and shavings from the timber were everywhere in curly piles. Dacian ran a hand along the mighty timber that his father was almost done squaring up with his adz. The wood was thick and strong. It would be the task of a Nebakarz priest to cast preservation spells upon the timber before it went into construction. Dacian longed to do it now and show off his skill to his parents, but enchanting the wood might only get Glaxon in trouble when he delivered it. A rys woodcutter must never presume to work the magic of a Nebakarz.
“How long can you stay?” Illyr inquired.
“I should go now,” Dacian said and explained that the rys workers he had come with from the tower would be finishing their shopping soon.
“It was good to see you, Dacian. Very good,” Illyr said.
He kissed her forehead. Glaxon surprised him by walking with him out into the street. Dacian bid him farewell, but his father set a hand on his shoulder to stop him. With restrained affection, Glaxon said, “It was good to see you, Dacian. But I am worried and feel I must warn you.”
“Of what?” Dacian asked.
“You know that I have never approved of you becoming a Nebakarz acolyte,” Glaxon said. Dacian’s posture became impatient as his father continued. “This trouble you’ve had will not be the last time. Now that you have shown your talent instead of failing, the tabre will look for ways to keep you back. They don’t want you, my son.”
“Why don’t you believe in me?” Dacian demanded bluntly.
“It’s not that,” his father quickly defended. “I suppose you just have not lived long enough to understand how much the tabre dislike our existence.”
Dacian could not resign himself to his father’s grim view of rys status. Indeed all rys seemed to accept the tabre-dominant status quo. I will change things. I will, Dacian vowed.
“I need to go,” he said testily.
Glaxon gave his son’s shoulder a squeeze and let him go. Dacian headed up the street toward the square. He did not look at the familiar homes lining the lane, and his eyes drilled through the cobbles beneath his feet without seeing them. He seethed as he always did after a visit to his parents’ house. The conflict created by his need for their approval and their discouragement scratched his heart like a cat playing with a cornered mouse. It left him angry and lonely, and he welcomed the distraction when he felt the lifeforce of the wandering female. She was close, and the fire of her existence was so much brighter than ever he had noticed before. Dacian quickened his steps and hurried into the square.
Exaton waved to him. Dacian walked over to the cook but continued to scan the market. Exaton had just finished haggling with the cloth merchant and he started telling Dacian about his purchase, but Dacian only half-listened. Ifil and Lang reunited with them as well. They were carrying bundles and sharing reports on the various goods they had seen.
Exaton asked Dacian how his parents were. He answered absently, but then he saw the female and fell silent. Her entry into the market square was noticed by all. Bartering and conversations diminished as the scandalous female returned from her forbidden journey. All rys knew each other, and Onja was known to be a problem. Although being abandoned by her parents was not uncommon or particularly stigmatizing, she had always been defiant and rude to her foster parents, and gone through three different guardians before recently reaching ryshood at age one hundred and disappearing from Jingten.
She seemed to welcome the stares of the tabre vendors. A simple hooded cloak of human-made brown homespun draped her body to her ankles. The hood drooped across her forehead and a few black strands of hair hung out. A crow flapped down and landed on her shoulder.
“I wonder who will take her in this time,” Ifil whispered.
Exaton said, “Unless I’m wrong, I think she is no more a rysling. She will make her own home I expect.”
“I will go speak to her,” Dacian announced. The symmetry of her face and the indigo gleam in her black eyes were making him truly contemplate female beauty for the first time. He liked the vulnerable thrill of the new sensation.
Exaton, who had so recently urged Dacian to break his probation, now counseled prudence. “Leave her be, Dacian. You’ve your own problems with the tabre right now. Mixing with her will make them worse. She is a deviant. They won’t tolerate her, especially after this. Even rys are sick of her.”
Dacian dared to give his elder a judgmental look. He disliked how he seemed to reject her and so suddenly accept tabre authority. It was not right. He broke off from his companions and approached her boldly.
Dacian snaked his way through the crowd. He caught her attention while still a few steps away and she stopped and looked at him. Dacian raised a hand toward her but then lowered it because his reaching seemed inappropriately eager, almost rude.
“Welcome home, Onja,” he said, presuming to say her name.
Shyness made her cast down her eyes. His friendly confidence befuddled her after months away from her kind.
“I am Dacian,” he added.
Her lips twitched with a little smile before she looked up. “Your name is known to all, acolyte of the Kwellstan Sect,” she said.
By the way she called him acolyte, he was not sure if she was impressed or ridiculing him. Automatically, his mind sought her thoughts, but he could discern none of her feelings with any certainty. Her aura was like rowing into a thick fog on the lake. He could only be sure that there was water beneath him and he could not see the shore.
“Where have you been?” Dacian asked.
She looked among the other nearby rys. Her shyness slipped away as she announced that she had traveled to the west. A path could be found through the mountains, and many humans lived in the lowlands.
Patting her bird, she announced, “Any who would hear about the west may gather around and I will answer questions.”
Her offer easily aroused curiosity and many rys decided to hear what she had to tell even if they would never dare to travel outside the valley. Dacian nodded eagerly and several rys gathered behind him. Onja looked around for a likely spot where they could sit together, but before she could proceed, the crow screamed and flew away. A score of tabre from the tower led by Daykash Breymer entered the square. The Daykash was resplendent in his red, black, and gold-lettered robes, and his acolyte and priest attendants followed him like an extension of his body.
The tabre flowed around Onja, and the Daykash stopped in front of her. They were of the same height, but her youthful face with its crisp features made his old smooth face with its high forehead look like an eroded hill.
“You will surrender yourself to the custody of the Kwellstan Sect,” the Daykash announced.
Onja blinked rather innocently. Glancing at the stern tabre on all sides, she said, “It would seem that I am surrendered.”
“Then come with us,” Breymer said.
He started to turn, but Dacian pushed through the ranks of tabre and intercepted the esteemed Nebakarz. “Greetings, my great Daykash,” Dacian said.
“What is it?” the Daykash said sharply.
“With respect, my great Daykash, why do you take this rys female into your custody?” Dacian asked.
“How dare you?” Breymer spat, and a white hot flash of anger showed in his eyes. “No one can question my actions. Be silent!”
The priestly tabre lord spun with a regal flourish and led away his party with Onja. Dacian stood still as the tabre passed by. He met Onja’s eyes as she was hustled away. She seemed not to be afraid.
The tabre departed on the road around the lake to the tower. The rys and tabre in the square dispersed into murmuring cliques. The arrest of a rys was quite unprecedented, and no one knew what it might mean for the rys female who had been so suddenly interesting. Even the tabre admitted that they would have liked to have heard her reports of the west.
Exaton, Ifil and Lang came up behind Dacian, who remained standing where the Daykash had left him. With soft sympathy, Exaton said, “You see now how it is best not to mix with her, Dacian. She provokes the tabre with the liberties she takes.”
Dacian said nothing. Glumly, he helped his friends with their packages back to their boat and hunkered in the boat as they rowed across Lake Nin. Along the shore, he could see Breymer marching on the road with his group and his…prisoner? The concept was ugly. Surely breaking the ban on travel out of the valley did not warrant confinement. Why can’t rys go where they want? Dacian wondered.
Still glowering at the tabre on the shore, Dacian asked Exaton what they would do to her, hoping that the older rys might have some historical perspective on this incident. Exaton only shook his head.
They are not going to do anything to her, Dacian decided.