He cried out in pain and was suddenly sitting in the corner of the supply closet where he had been when he had rubbed the White Visio on his eyeballs. His eyes were tired but that was not why they were watering so profusely. His nose hurt like hell, and he looked down to see a huge amount of blood running down onto his shirt front.
Getting up, he grabbed a white towel from a stack on a shelf nearby and pressed it to his face. It was quickly turning red. It was the only bit of color in the room of white and grey. Still holding the towel to his bleeding nose, he opened the supply closet door and peered out into the hall in both directions. There wasn’t a person in sight. He stepped out into the hallway and closed the door behind him. He moved quickly away from his hiding place. He had to take the towel away from his nose in order to climb a ladder up to the next deck. The blood began to drip quickly again as he climbed.
On the next deck, he pinched his nose with the towel to try and slow the blood flow, but winced in pain. He looked around for a moment and then realized where he had to go. He stepped quickly along forward, but had to stop after a moment and lean against the wall because he was feeling lightheaded. He took a few deep breaths and continued on. At last he came to the cabin door he needed, and knocked. The door popped wide open and the broad body, big stomach, and round, rosy face of Father Ian appeared.
“Good to see you, Captain Dechantagne!” boomed Father Ian’s voice. “Don’t stand out in the hallway. Come in. Come in. Good gracious, what has happened to you?”
“I cut myself shaving,” said Terrence, pulling the towel away from his face. “I was hoping that you could help.”
“I should say you have!” Father Ian let out a long whistle. “Sit down. As a matter of fact, I have just the help you need right here. Sister Auni here is just the person to set you right again.”
In the corner of the room, unnoticed by Terrence until this moment was a very thin woman in the long white robes of a church acolyte. Her jet black hair was cut straight across her forehead, and hung down low in back. She had deep set grey eyes and prominent cheek bones. She stood up from her seat and was several inches taller than Terrence, though only about half as wide at the shoulder. When she spoke, it was in breathy tones.
“I’m very please to make your acquaintance, Captain Dechantagne,” she said. “May I take a look at your nose please?”
She placed long thin hands on either side of his face and tilted his head upward so that she could look at his injury.
“Razor slice,” she said. “I would expect to see an injury like this in a tavern brawl.”
“Sorry. No taverns available,” said Terrence.
“In the name of the Holy Father I see your pain,” she said. “In the name of the Holy Savior I heal your wounds.”
Terrence felt life flowing from her hands. Not only did his nose stop stinging, but the pain in the back of his head and in his shoulders that he hadn’t even noticed before went away. The residual stinging in his eyes also went away. He was sure that any redness caused by the White Opthalium was gone now. Sister Auni pulled her hands away from his face and smiled.
“I knew I came to the right place,” Terrence said.
“Of course you did, my boy,” said Father Ian. “Perfect timing, too. The sister and I had just finished our prayer session. You are just in time to see her back to her cabin.
“You couldn’t be in any safer hands,” he said to Sister Auni.
“Oh indeed,” she said. “I know that already.”
Shrugging, Terrence offered his arm to the acolyte and led her out of the room.
“Good night to both of you!” Father Ian called out in his thundering voice, and then he closed the cabin door behind them.
Walking through the narrow halls of the ship, Terrence usually found it difficult to escort a lady and had to walk in a sort of shuffling sidestep to make room, and if the woman was wearing an evening gown, it was pretty much impossible to walk side by side in any case. This was not so with Sister Auni. Not only did her clerical robes flow straight from her shoulders to the floor, her entire form was scarcely as wide as his two hands splayed out side by side. Her shoulders seemed almost too narrow to hold up her normal sized head.
“Sister Auni!” A young woman Terrence didn’t know came running down the hall toward them. “Sister Auni! Mrs. Duplessis is having her baby, and the doctor wants you there as quickly as possible.”
“Lead the way, child,” said the acolyte.
The three of them made their way through a series of hatches and corridors until they came to a closed cabin door. A group of several women and girls were standing outside in the hallway. The door was quickly opened and the young woman who had fetched her, led Sister Auni inside. As she turned to close the door after her, she looked into Terrence’s face.
“Thank you, Captain Dechantagne,” she said in her breathy voice. “But I think I shall go on from here alone. Have a pleasant evening, and watch out when you are shaving.”
Terrence stood thinking for a moment. Then he gradually noticed that he was being watched from all sides by the six or seven females around him. He felt as though he had stumbled onto a stage without a script, or stepped into the middle of some savage ritual whose codex he didn’t understand.
“Ladies,” he said, and slowly backed out of the hallway, and then turned and made his way up to the topside of the ship and out onto deck.
He was surprised to find that the sun had already set. It seemed that he no longer really had any concept of time. His stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten in a while. He had porridge for breakfast, but wasn’t really sure if that was this morning’s breakfast or some day in the past. This was just about dinner time though, and he decided to take his sister up on her standing invitation to dine. So he stopped by his cabin to change into a clean shirt, then went and knocked on Iolanthe’s cabin door.
The salad had already been served when he arrived, and the wait staff were just setting out the main course of roasted chicken, creamed potatoes, and pea fritters, which was just fine as far as Terrence was concerned. The waiter set a very manly portion in front of him and the other staff member, a waitress in this case, poured him a large glass of sparkling white wine. He didn’t waste any time tucking in.
“So what have you been up to?” asked Iolanthe.
“Mmph,” he shrugged non-committaly, his mouth full of food. He looked around the table. Iolanthe, Lieutenant Staff, Wizard Labrith, and an empty chair faced him. On his side of the table, Terrence’s was the only one of the four chairs occupied. He swallowed his mouthful of chicken.
“Loosing some of our popularity, are we?”
Iolanthe wrinkled her nose, but didn’t answer.
“There seems to be a medical emergency that requires Mrs. Marjoram and Dr. Kelloran,” said Lieutenant Staff. “I believe they were all invited to dinner this evening.”
“Oh yes,” Terrence said. “Mrs. Duplessis is having her baby.”
Iolanthe blinked in surprise. She had evidently not expected for him to have any idea of what might be going on. She no doubt had assumed that he had sequestered himself away somewhere, which of course he had, but he wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of knowing that.
“Yes, I’ve just come from there,” he said. “Sister Auni is there as well. I’m sure they will take very good care of the woman.”
He smiled to himself and took another large mouthful of chicken, then followed it with a pea fritter, mashed up peas dipped in batter and deep fried. He would have recognized the flavor of Mrs. Colbshallow’s batter, even if he hadn’t known that she did all of Iolanthe’s cooking.
The two most talked about entrances were the wizard Suvir Kesi and Sorceress Zurfina, whom Zeah thought must have been meeting for the first time. Kesi wore traditional Mirsannan garb—a long brown robe, lined all along the open edge with ferret skins, and reaching to short, black boots. Beneath the open robe, he wore blue silk pantaloons and a yellow and red striped silk shirt. His ever present yellow fez with blue tassel made him visible from anywhere at the dance. Zurfina wore, or Zeah would have said ‘almost wore’, a black dress that was cut much like the togas worn by the ancient coastal cultures. It was loosely draped across her front, continuing to cover her breasts only through the use of magic or perhaps some kind of glue. Between her breasts, it fell to her naval and there were no sides at all above the waist. Below her waist, the dress went all the way to the floor, but there was a slit cut up one side that reached to her mid-thigh. It was the type of garment to be worn only by someone who had no care what other people thought. Zeah noticed that while many scandalized looks were aimed in the direction of the sorceress, almost no one at the dance mentioned her dress, or lack there-of. The story of her having turned a dressing maid to stone had lost nothing in the telling.
Goblins are nasty little blighters. They remind me of my cousin Gervil’s friend called Rupert. His name was Sally, which explains why he was called Rupert. But like goblins, he was short and had a big, round head. I don’t know why goblins have such large heads for their little bodies. Of course I don’t know why Rupert did either. There doesn’t seem to be much advantage in it. On the other hand, goblins have excellent night vision, making it very easy to sneak up on people in the dark. And they have abnormally large mouths with an abnormally large number of teeth in them. This was very unlike Rupert, that is to say Sally, who as I recall had only five or six teeth, though he made up for that by having an extra toe. In addition to which I don’t believe his night vision was all that it might have been, for once he kicked me in the head when he was on his way to the outhouse. Of course that could have been on purpose. Rupert was a bit of a nasty blighter too.
Hysteria clomped along slowly down the snow covered road for some time. The orphan was so quiet that for a while I thought he must have fallen asleep. But at last he stirred and shifted a bit in his seat, which is to say upon Hysteria’s flank. I myself had been quiet as I remembered the events of that horrible night.
“What are you thinking about?” asked the orphan.
“I’m thinking about that horrible night,” I replied.
“Did you never find your family?”
“No, though I searched for weeks. My mother was to make me a blueberry pie that night, and I not only have never seen my mother since, I did not get to eat that pie either.”
“I’m sorry I brought up such a painful memory,” he said, then paused. “Do you suppose that the purple drops on the floor could have been from your blueberry pie?”
I felt the heat rising up within me.
“Fiends!” said I. “To rob a man of his mother and his pie in the same night.”
“Perhaps it were best that we think on something else,” said he.
“Perhaps,” I agreed.
“If you are really such a great story-teller…”
“The greatest in the world.”
“And if the story of the Queen of Aerithraine is a great story…”
“Wonderful. Exciting. True. Profound.”
“Well, maybe you could tell me the story.”
“I get half a crown for that story in Illustria,” said I.
“I have a shiny penny,” said he.
“The story begins in Aerithraine, far to the west, along the coast of the great ocean sea. From storied Illustria, its capital, to Cor Cottage just outside Dewberry Hills in River County, Aerithraine has been a great and powerful country for some seven hundred years more or less. By more or less, I mean that it has been more or less seven hundred years that Aerithraine has been a country and that it has been more or less great and more or less powerful during those seven hundred years. But about fifty years ago, it was less. Then the old king died, and as is the way of kings, a new one was crowned. He was King Julian the Rectifier.
“He was called Julian the Rectifier because he was chiefly interested in rectifying. He spent most of his time rectifying. He rectified all over the place. And he was good at it. He rectified like nobody else.”
“It means setting things to right,” said the orphan.
“Of course it does and that is just what he did. Under his reign, the kingdom was prosperous and wealthy. And as he wasn’t so interested in warring as in rectifying, there was peace throughout the land. King Julian had only one son, and he passed to that son the strongest and wealthiest kingdom in all of Duaron, and if it had only remained so, Elleena would have become a minor princess perhaps or might not have been born at all.”
“Which would not have made a half-crown story,” pointed out the orphan.
“That is so.”
“Carry on then.”
“King Justin was the son of Julian. I hear tell that he was once called Justin the Good and Justin the Wise, though now when story-tellers refer to him, they usually call him Justin the Weak or Justin the Unready.”
“What do you call him?”
“I just call him King Justin,” said I. “Though I truly believe he may deserve the title Justin the Brave, that is not what the listeners want to hear.”
“King Justin married a princess from the faraway land of Goth. The Arch-Dukes of Goth, which is to say the rulers of that land, have for generations, maintained power through a tightly woven web of treaties with its mighty neighbors. Their chief barter in this endeavor is the marriage of the many female members of the family. I hear the current Arch-Duke has but four daughters at least as of yet, but his father who was Arch-Duke before him had seventeen, and his father nineteen.”
“That hurts just thinking about it.”
“Nothing. Go on.”
“It must have been quite a coup of diplomacy for the Arch-Duke of Goth to make a match with the King of Aerithraine, but he did, marrying to the King his daughter Beatrix. And though I hear that the women of that country wear too much make-up, she was known as a great beauty with pale white skin, raven hair, smoldering eyes, and a gold ring in her nose, as is the fashion in the east.
“King Justin and Queen Beatrix had four strong sons, the eldest of whom was Prince Jared. He was particularly beloved of the people. I saw him once when I was a child of four or five, sitting on my poor old father’s shoulders as the Purple Knights passed on their tall white steeds, that is to say, I was seated on my father’s shoulders and the Prince was not. I don’t remember why they were in River County. It was too long ago. He would have grown to be King upon his father’s death if it was not for…”
“Yes, that’s right. You didn’t say you had heard the story before, though I’ll warrant it wasn’t told as well…”
“No!” screamed the orphan. “Goblins! Right there!”
He pointed straight ahead, and sure enough, stepping out of the shadows and into the moonlight were a half dozen creepy little man-things. They were no more than three feet tall, their over-sized round heads, glowing eyes, and gaping maws giving away their identity. As they came closer those mouths widened into grins filled with jagged little teeth, looking far too much like the teeth on the blade of a cross-cut saw for my taste. They brandished what weapons they had, mostly things they had picked up from the ground—a stick, a length of cord with a knot in it. But a couple of them carried old, discarded straight razors.