Dinner was a flurry of uninteresting conversation interspersed with stupid questions and asinine declarations about my person and my lands. “Those long fingers must make you an expert piano player!” “Are you concerned at all that Pileaus might push to incorporate your nation into his Empire?” “Surely there’s a Lady Thistelonious! Is her head as big as yours?” I answered politely to keep Lancois happy, silently cursing them all.
After dinner the party relocated to an adjourning room where a twelve-piece band awaited us under a canopy of sparkling streamers. My heart fluttered at the sight of the musicians. I’d heard tell of my kind’s affinity for music, but I’d never experienced it for myself. This is more common than it might sound; we Fae make no music of our own, and so we are dependent on mortals for song, but Duine living in the Dreaming Lands are all but unheard of.
The first haunting strains of a low horn lifted my spirits like a warm, sunny day, literally pulling me up onto my tiptoes. My heartbeat shifted to match the slow thump-thump-tha-thump of the bass drum that joined in next. The rest of the instruments came to life in a joyous crash that washed over and through me, setting every nerve in my body on fire. I couldn’t fight it; I gave in to the music, letting it pull me forward with a force as irresistible as gravity, drawing my rudely through the crowd. Lancois stood at the front, bowing low to gallantly invite a pretty young woman to dance. I grabbed her around the waist and pulled her along with me, finally whipping her into a tight twirl that I pulled back into a deep dip. She looked up at me with wide brown eyes, exhilarated and surprised and a little bit frightened, and then I whirled us back into time with the omnipotent rhythm.
Lancois, I was told by one of the servants the next morning, laughed heartily, grabbed the two nearest women, and hurried out to join me.
I didn’t stop until the music ended. I couldn’t have even if I’d wanted to. My body, mind, and soul existed at the whim of the cellist, at the pleasure of the harpsichord. Sometimes I danced alone, a dervish storming through the crowd. Sometimes I was joined by a partner, a momentary soul mate to whom I felt myself joined completely. I felt like I could live forever. I felt like I could die without regret.
The last few notes felt like organs slowly being dragged from my body. I would’ve collapsed if the twins hadn’t caught me. Words can’t really frame the loss I felt, the emptiness that cried out to be filled in every cell of my body. I wanted to shout at the band, to demand that they continue even if Lancois and the rest wished to retire, but I hadn’t the strength.
Lancois threw my limp arm around his broad shoulders and helped me to the entrance so we could bid his guests a good evening. The best I could offer was a weak wave or a subtle nod to each departing group or individual.
“Excellent work tonight,” Lancois slurred drunkenly after everyone had gone. “If Pap could see you now, he’d shit himself!”
Two servants had to help me up the stairs to my chamber, one at my head and the other at my feet. They dropped me angrily on the hard pallet and locked the door behind them. Normally I would’ve fought sleep for a few hours, staring longingly at the hard stone ceiling and pondering just what I’d done to deserve my fate, but sleep came for me quickly that night. My dreams of the music were sweet; sweeter still were my dreams of a particular spot on the road from where Boruin had disappeared and where I might hope to do the same.
I woke the next morning to a throbbing headache and a body on the verge of mutiny. Climbing out of the bed took a concerted force of will I didn’t know I could muster. I swayed back and forth as the servants straightened my Lord Thistelonious outfit and replaced the jewelry I’d shrugged off during the night. They helped me down the stairs, one of them taking each arm.
Lancois was waiting for me at the head of the long table in the dining room. One of his concubines held a poultice to the back of his head as he cut greedily into the hunk of pork on the plate before him.
“You really think there’s something to Hoctor’s story?” he asked slowly, as if every syllable were a mountain to climb.
“I do,” I replied just as slowly. Every word sent waves of pain echoing through my skull. “I’d stake my prefecture on it.”
We departed at noon, when we both felt somewhat better, borne in a metal and wood contraption pulled by a pair of habback. A man with a whip kept the burly beasts moving in the right direction. I still don’t understand why Lancois insisted we travel inside a portable room when we could’ve been out in the open, enjoying the sunshine and the breeze. It seems to me that the Duine are deathly afraid of that which is beyond their control, of forces of good and evil alike. Perhaps that’s why so many insist on surrounding themselves with barriers of stone and wood nature can’t penetrate.
Lancois drew the shades as we entered the slums. “Some day,” he said wistfully, “I will turn all this filth into a great series of parks like those in the mah’saiid cities of old, where people can come from far and wide to see the ancient wonders I’ve rescued from the wilderness.”
“I don’t understand this fascination with the mah’saiid,” I replied. “In my lands, the name of their fallen empire is anathema.”
“Then the thinkers of the Dreaming Lands are surely small-minded and foolish,” he snapped. “The empire of the ancients was the greatest civilization to ever grace our land! Its secrets are all around us, hidden in these very jungles, just waiting for us to find them!”
“Have you ever considered why their empire is gone in the first place?”
“Who cares? What they can’t use, we will!”
I let the matter rest. There no use arguing with someone who can’t see past the tip of his own nose. One day Lancois would purchase something he’d regret. Perhaps, I thought proudly, he already has.
Hoctor met us just outside the city, where the slums abruptly became lush jungles. He rode a white charger with red tassels braided into its long mane.
“Good morrow, my lords,” he said after Lancois snapped the shades back open. I’d forgotten that I was still supposed to be Thistelonious, Prefect of Maeda Cricao. I returned his greeting with a regal nod.
“Hoctor, my friend!” Lancois boomed. “Lead on to riches and glory!”
I stifled a snort. If my suspicious were correct, Hoctor was guiding us to a wild place of untamed power, a crossroads that cared nothing for the profits of man. It had always been there and it always would be, a rare confluence in space and time where the Dying and the Dreaming were as close as lovers under the sheets.
We rode on. I didn’t need anyone to tell me we were getting close to our destination; I could feel it, as one can feel hot or cold on one’s skin. The Aiemer thickened as we traveled, a miasma clinging to the land and the air and the very carriage in which we rode. There wasn’t a lot of it, not like there is in the Dreaming Lands, but just that small touch affirmed my suspicions. Truth be told, it made me a bit homesick.
Hoctor called for a stop and Lancois and I clambered out of the carriage. We’d stopped on a rather non-descript piece of road, flanked to the left by a dense swamp and to the right by a thick jungle. To the naked eye, there was absolutely nothing special about it, but to someone with my senses it was very interesting indeed.
Hoctor dismounted. “Just through that stand of trees there’s a small hollow. Boruin disappeared somewhere in there.”
I lead the way, pushing through the thick brush abutting the road. It was as Hoctor had described: a small bowl dipping down into the earth, surrounded by vegetation. I strolled down into its center, letting the Aiemer guide my steps.
“This is useless,” Lancois growled. “All we’re going to get out here is a damn rash from the flies. I’ll be taking a piss if you need me.” He trundled off to the side of the bowl and began to untie the front of his breeches.
I closed my eyes and focused on the Aiemer. There wasn’t a gate here like I’d expected; rather, the two lands were just close enough to have built a miniature realm between them, a sort of intermediary that was more Dreaming than Dying. The Aiemer flowed into the hollow from between two trees to my right, swirled around a bit, and then exited through another pair of trees to my left.
And Lancois was practically pissing on the exit.
A plan began to take shape in my mind. The one problem was Hoctor; the man was watching me like a hawk. If I made a move on Lancois, he’d surely stop me. Unless…
I took the crown from my head and offered it to Hoctor. His eyes lit up. “Go silently back the way you came and don’t come back.”
His eyes bulged out of his head, and then he nodded and accepted my offer. He was gone without a word.
I ran, not away from Lancois but right for him, throwing all of my weight into his broad back. The man stumbled forward and through the two trees in front of him, shouting something that was immediately cut off as he disappeared into the paths between realms.
I turned and ran the other way, a smile creeping onto my face as I leapt between the two oaks. The transition was shockingly cold and painful, and then I was through. I was in a different jungle, one awash with reds and purples and pinks rather than greens and browns. The air was heavy and humid and it reeked of Aiemer. I looked up and saw the Dreaming Lands in the far distance, the wild talamhs strung out around the glittering city of Maeda Cricao in the center.
I laughed heartily. Never in my life had I been so happy. I was free. And I was going to Ouillaine, to track down this Boruin and his companions and to find something of value to report to Old Bramble.