At first a fearful sensation, like that of drowning, welled up in the Fencer as he fell under the enchantment of the emerald lady. But she was gone now; a sea of green grass welcomed his feet, and comfort, and warmth. Father, his great facial tattoos speaking of ferocity, paddled by in his canoe, hunting narwhals. But his other father was here too, way off in the distance, red hair streaming. Other figures presented themselves, drifting in and out of the non-narrative. Many had the marks of magic and his dark haired mother cried because that meant more drownings when the sound cleared enough during the sun time.
Eventually these disjointed forms dissolved into a greater ocean of unresolved nouns even as massive emotional structures arose from the green waters. Forms of Joy coalesced. Understanding flapped like a single, elusive butterfly. The word for such a creature became known to him, as did those other memories he had eaten back in the forbidden place beyond the Wonder Mountains.
Green spoke of envy and desire. Where there was green there was life, though the Fencer had never seen such gardens as those which sprung up. The Stranger had been surrounded by them as he practiced the sword with the tall pale man and his animating blade. He had nothing to do but smile and smile in the bloom.
The eighth bell rang as the Trumpeter cleaned his namesake.
“That’s a fine oddity you have there,” said Firo the treasure hunter as the two contemplated the comforts of civilization for the first time in weeks. The murmur of the inn’s clientele thawed their moods.
“It is a wonder and a sacred charge,” responded the Trumpeter with reverence.
“From what material is it wrought?”
“It looks the part. Tell me, has it ever been damaged?”
“I have brained a few lemur-men and ruffians with it and found small notice on the metal.”
“May I see it?”
“Indeed but I believe it needs a proper introduction,” grinned the Trumpeter who finished the shine and stood up on his seat. “I will let it speak for itself.”
For once the Trumpeter didn’t blast with his instrument of station. A controlled beauty rolled out, tall and distant, towards the far off cold night beyond the steam clouds of Nock.
The men of the inn looked up from their ale and isolation to this sound, a koan of mystery and space.
The sound was far receded into the dark when the shouts and turmoil reached them. Sorcery! Theft! Murder! The Fencer was brought in and with him a lady of Summer.
“Now would be a good time to use your reason,” recommended a familiar voice as the Fencer’s dream-haze turned bright in the light of stark morning.
He emerged from something similar to sleep. Eight sounds chimed in the distance. Inn voices and city murmurs came to him as the lady’s enchantment fell away. Then he remembered.
The three of them, the Trumpeter, Firo and the Emerald Lady, sat or stood or reclined in the wooden box which the Fencer had come to understand as an Inn room. She, that witch, was very close and the details of her troublesome looks showed clearly in the light spilling in from the open window.
The lady was ageless in a way the Fencer found hard to describe. He had no context for much beauty; the hardships of Winter weathered away such things. Her face was fine and unblemished, her eyes the same color as her hair, which was decadent and sculpted around her features. She had changed from the heavy traveling robe and cloak she wore the previous night and now had on some green dress which his upbringing would deem improper but was still more substantial than that worn by the many prostitutes he had seen in Ahgren and Nock. Jade ribbons crawled up and down her arms.
The Fencer began searching for his sword.
“I see you have met Clea,” began Firo. “She is one of my clients, the rest of whom I am meeting this afternoon.”
“Where’s my sword?”
“Somewhere nearby but out of reach. Your companion has mentioned certain customs to which you treat those born with marks of the gift. Let me be the first of what is left of civilization to inform you that such is not a universal sentiment.”
“Oh I’m sure,” glowered the Fencer as he sat up blinking into all that was happening. They had bathed him and cleaned his seal skins which lay folded on the window seat; this was a vulnerable sensation. “That’s why I see so many green haired thieves wandering these cities.”
Clea smiled. The Fencer noticed a scent he had somehow missed before, as if his nose had been overwhelmed by something previous. It was a complex perfume, heady, strange; he would call it a mix of sharp fear and golden bliss. She smelled of trouble.
“Firo had stated that none of the buyers would be allowed to view the object before the sale. I wasn’t willing to wait and see what I was going to spend so much gold on.” Her voice was clipped and well practiced.
“It’s not like I could stop her if she wanted to steal the thing, so I don’t blame you for your bit of activism, Fencer. Anyhow it’s all over and cleared up. You couldn’t do her any real harm. There’s some silver on the table; I’ll be needing yours, and the Trumpeter’s, services for another day or so.”
“Negotiations for my Heart start in three hours.”
This is indeed how that afternoon went. The Fencer felt strangely refreshed by the sorcery with which Clea had subdued him the night before. Fatigue from the long trek and the wounds he’d suffered from Yogo’s blades, both of these lessened, and a powerful energy agitated him through the process of negotiation, something he had no patience for.
There was Clea, and a merchant from far away named Corinze, and an armored woman representing Lord Vael. They all wanted the thing and promised certain qualities and quantities of metals and other lumps and sums which the Trumpeter and the Fencer couldn’t care less about.
The merchant had arrived that morning and filled the Inn with his bodyguards, of which there were many, glaring. Behind all these men, Corinze himself hid, aging and little fat. He reeked of fear. Quite the opposite with Vael’s representative.
The two travelers had never seen such armor, formed so well; she seemed of steel. Illem was her name and she wore her hair tightly wound in an array of tribal braids. Her eyes had the look that those who have stared out across the blinding white expanses of snow and ice often gained. Not so with Clea.
Gulfs of difference lay between the emerald lady and all others in the room. At least in the Fencer’s mind.
Because one party had seen the giant’s heart the other two demanded satisfaction, in the spirit of fairness. So they all marched out to the staging grounds and with many a gawking local and curious artisan looking on Firo loosened the tarp.
The rock was nominally heart shaped, but the Trumpeter loudly declared he had seen many boulders of the exact same kind before. It was strange thing though. A sense of weight, of gravity increased whenever one was near it. Firo demonstrated by dropping a falcon feather a few meters away from the stone and indeed the plume drifted unnaturally through the air, landing against the faintly reddish object. Sorcery.
Negotiations ended without a clear winner and Firo declared he needed a day, twenty-four knocks of Nock, to cogitate and allow for bribes. Then the Trumpeter and owner of the Heart began wasting time with their idle exchange of trivia. The other parties wandered off to plot and here the Fencer made his move.
“Tell me,” he demanded when he caught Clea’s at the door to her room back at the Inn, “of Summer.”
A flicker of fear in her eyes warmed to an insufferable smile. The Fencer flinched.
“You are from there, are you not? I must know,” he continued intensely.
“Yes, I suppose.”
“Either you are or you aren’t.”
“I’m guessing you want to know more about it.”
“You’ve read my mind then.”
The Fencer’s eyes were all cold tumult as he looked into hers, searching for the answer to a riddle.
“Summer is difficult to describe; even if you live there you aren’t really a part of a community in same way the Icebound have their tribes and villages, even cities like Nock don’t compare to the Floating World.”
They were outside walking. The steam clouds had returned, making the afternoon grey and warm. The knocking of the clock grew steadily with each footstep. Clea was back in her thick robe and hooded cloak. It would seem that the status of magicians was tenuous even in the more civilized places. She walked with poise, like it was an art.
“Not difficult to describe; impossible.” She even spoke like it was an art and the Fencer frowned on the dance of words with which she was leading him. “Why so curious about Summer?”
“There are things I must know and a man, if it is a man, whom I must meet there. Perhaps you know of him.”
“He has blue hair and he made a mountain turn to silver light. I believe he is insane from being a tree for many, many years and has a twin brother, who is now dead. I am certain he has the answer to Winter’s Riddle, even though he claimed he did not.”
The words tumbled out fast and strange. Clea remained calm, thoughtful, as they found the broad open square at the base of the crag which housed Vael’s keep. Here the clock knocked away the day.
Set into the diorite cliff, the clock was a mechanism of chains and weights and metal tubes made to funnel the heat of the energies deep below into running the contraption. Standing about a dozen meters tall the clock’s platinum face broadly spoke some system of symbols that the wise could doubtless understand. It seemed to stare at the Fencer but he was more eager for the lady’s response than the mindless tellings of time. A man watched them.
“Blue is a common enough color for those with the talent as it represent’s power. Do you know what green represents?” Again she turned the conversation around. “Secrets.”
The Fencer’s face hardened.
“Why do you want that rock so badly?” asked the Fencer, trying to play her game of words.
“Oh, it’s my calling. After Sol brought the gods low and Uplifted the mages and seers, there were still powerful and dangerous mysteries lying hidden under the ice of Winter. I make deals to bring such artifacts to Summer, where they can no longer menace those unfit to defend themselves,” she stated easily, as if she had said the same thing many times before.
“So you have ways to travel to Summer?” he burst out excitedly.
“There are secret ways that I know,” she said, losing something of her smile, which was good; the Fencer found it insufferable.
Fantastic and impossible the thing developed within him. Summer. It didn’t matter that her story of the Uplifting differed greatly from the one he knew or that it featured no red demon. It didn’t matter that she spoke at oblique angles without facing his queries head on, taking him further into some labyrinthine construct without a string to guide him back. Hope stirred.
“What exactly are you after?” she asked and the Fencer didn’t see the way she tried to read meaning in his grey eyes. Didn’t see the desperation that went slightly unveiled.
“Clea, whatever it takes, whatever you desire, I’d grant you those things. If we were back home and I had my lance I’d hunt as many seals, albino narwhals, and ice tigers as it took to pay your bride price. Here, I’d happily lop the heads off as many local bravos as you require or steal as many Hearts as it took. If civilization demands some obscure task or ceremony completed I am prepared.”
For just a moment her mask of balance cracked but quickly she adapted to this sudden turn in what had become a negotiation. She laughed, quite loudly against the knocking of the clock.
“Let’s finish our walk and see where that takes us.”
They lounged together into the evening. All mixed up inside the Fencer watched Clea closely. Everything she did had purpose; from how she laid aside her clothes to how she arranged the strange little cylinders of glass she pulled from hidden recesses in her robe. Everything she did seemed practiced, but upon close scrutiny he couldn’t find anything vastly different about Clea compared to other women he had known.
“What are these?” he said, plucking a little blue vial off the desk and holding it up to the candlelight. Inside liquid sapphire filled the glass.
“Magic,” she whispered. “My magic. One will make you strong and one will make you weak. Another cures the pox and still another grants it. I have one which will let you live forever, somewhere around here.”
“Which ones?” he asked, looking over the kaleidoscope of potions before him.
She didn’t answer and he turned back to see her smiling and playing with an emerald curl of hair.
“I told you; my magic.”
His old demon self heated at the thoughts of still more secrets, and the color of secrets, but he had no time to boil as that quiet sound of many bodies moving carefully up the stairs brought his mind back up to present things. The Fencer finished dressing by the time a cry of murder brought the whole Inn to chaos.