You know the old saying about how if you want to understand someone better, walk a mile in their shoes? I’m not sure if it really counts if they’ve been magically reshaped to fit you instead of the original owner, but after walking a couple miles in Sarah’s boots, I was sort of starting to understand her better.
Maybe it was just having some time alone with my thoughts, since she’d been uncharacteristically quiet and kept a respectful distance from me the whole time. So of course my mind was on the events of the previous day, but more than that, on Sarah in general. Anyone can think in terms of cause-and-effect, even infants learn that skill quickly enough. The tricky thing is realizing that the causes are effects too, of some earlier cause, and that meant that yesterday didn’t “just happen;” it had been a long time in coming. That doesn’t mean I was happy about what she had done to me yesterday, but when I realized that, it sort of put things into perspective. And made things more complicated.
Sarah may have come out of her mom a couple decades ago, but Sarah as I knew her had effectively been born just two years back. She had spent her formative years having not just her vivacious personality but also her magical nature suppressed by well-meaning parents, and then one day her entire world got turned upside-down. With her mother’s power broken, the seal April had placed upon Sarah’s magic shattered, suddenly throwing her in the deep end, as it were. Coincidentally, that was also the day she met me.
Just a few weeks later, she had lost her home, ended up in a fight for her life against a man she had always thought was a friend, and not known whether her mom was alive or dead until the next day, and again I’d been in the middle of all of it. Since then, her folks had loosened up a little, but she had still spent most of her time at home, alone with no one but her family and the servants, except when the occasional guest came by… like me.
Wait. Alone with nobody but… then how had April even known to…
“You’re not an only child, are you?” I asked as it dawned on me.
“Of course not. You really think Mom would want to be all alone for centuries and then suddenly change her mind?” She sighed a little. “I might as well have been one, though, for all I ever saw the rest of the family.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’m Dad’s only child, and the rest of them were grown up by the time they got together.” Too many thems and theys, but I thought I knew what she meant. “Apparently Mom took the death of her last husband pretty hard. They’d been together nearly sixty years. Took her a while to get over it.”
I nodded slowly. “So Patrick is your mom’s…”
“Fifth husband, and I’m her eleventh kid. Not all of them are still alive. A few of their grandkids aren’t even around anymore. Her children live longer, but not nearly as much as she does.”
Speaking of living longer, Patrick Hill looked to be in his late 30s, just barely old enough to have a kid Sarah’s age, but if he’d been that young when he married April, first, eww, and second, that’s not nearly enough time to become a Master Bard, and he’d have had to have some social standing roughly equivalent to hers or it would have been a supremely arrogant act, bordering on outright contempt, to keep his own surname instead of taking hers. (The customs about that around here are… complicated.) “So I have to ask, how old is your father?”
She giggled at the way I said that. “Would you believe a very youthful 40?”
I shook my head. “I’d believe an elf-blooded whole lot more than that.”
Sarah nodded. “One-quarter, and he tries to keep quiet about it. He turned 63 last month.”
“Why does he try to keep it quiet? Admittedly, geopolitics isn’t my strong point, but I thought the Faen realm and the human kingdoms were allies, and more importantly friends.”
She nodded. “Historically, yeah, but things have been getting a bit tense in the last few years. Nothing serious, but there’s a few things to resent on either side, you know?”
I nodded. “We’ve got something like that where I’m from. Across a big ocean is a land called Europe, home to a loosely unified alliance of nations, sort of like how Íludar is except they’re all human there too. And they’re nominally some of our closest friends, but there are cultural differences and tensions there too, and every once in a while some people try to stir up trouble for political or financial gain.”
“Exactly. And that’s sort of happening now, here.”
That made me wonder. “Have you ever heard of a Sameness?”
She waved her tail back and forth in what my feline instinct recognized as agitation. “Where did you hear that term?”
“The nymph who told me about the curse. She said I was in Ìludar, and wondered how I could have crossed a Sameness.”
Her ears lay flat against her head. “Near Amber Spring? That really shouldn’t be happening. It’s Fae magic, used for traveling long distances. Sort of like our teleports, but on very different principles. And if there’s one in Khorun Woods, that’s very worrisome. Maybe the agitators are onto something.”
“What do you mean?”
She looked over at me. “What do you think? Even if you’re friends, would you want just anyone from… Europe? …to be able to step directly into your nation, a scant few days, from the capital, unobserved? I’m sure your king would not approve!”
Well, we don’t have a king, and everywhere’s that close to the capital with modern transportation, but I understood what she meant. “Fair enough.
“So… that makes me wonder. Where’s the other side of it? You know about all this stuff; what’s Silonera? That’s where the nymph said we were.”
“Yeah, maybe. Too many vowels rolling around. So where is that?”
Sarah giggled. “Never heard of it. It just makes better Elvish that way. The -roa suffix means a tree. And about a hundred other things.”
“Wait. Lots of meanings for -roa, or lots of words for tree?”
“Lots of tree words. I don’t know the rest of it, though. Elvish is tricky, and that’s one thing I didn’t inherit from Mom: her knack for languages.”
I had to laugh. She gave me a questioning look, and I explained. “She told me it took her decades to learn to read and write the local language, because something’s going on that translates everything we hear for us.”
She nodded slowly. “Yeah, that’s still kind of tricky to come to terms with, that Mom’s not really from around here.” Then her face brightened a little. “We’re here!”
And we were. There was a break in the trees just ahead, and beyond was our destination.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected the Treasury of Fate to look like. But whatever it was supposed to be almost certainly did not include “tourist attraction” in the description!
I just sorta suppose if I was some cosmic entity that had a major shrine to me somewhere, I would frown on someone building an inn out front with brightly-painted signs, tour guides, and merchandise. But these guys seemed to be doing well for themselves, which I’d imagine they wouldn’t be if they’d gotten on the Fates’ bad side. You know how they say “Fortune favors the bold”? Apparently the absolutely brazen were included in that, around here at least.
The Treasury itself was off in the background. I could see hints of a big stone roof. But from this angle at least, the view was obscured by the enormous inn, three stories high and plenty wide.
Sarah broke into a run, excited to finally be here. I struggled to keep up; I didn’t have nearly as much practice as she did in running with a big, long tail throwing off my balance, and the instincts that came with this form weren’t nearly as strong as the dragon ones. Plus I was carrying a big, bulky lute case. But I caught up to her as she slowed down, near the front door.
I’d just been talking about languages, and this was a great opportunity to practice my reading. The sign bore an image of a wooden roof over a big pile of gold, with bold black lettering beneath. I took a good look at the words, trying to decipher their meaning.
It wasn’t easy. Whoever designed the local script was apparently a huge fan of curves; there wasn’t a single straight line to be found anywhere in the alphabet, and all the swirls, spirals, curlicues and S-curves start to look alike after a while. But I could make out a few words.
“OK, help me out here,” I said. “That says ‘house,’ and that word looks like ‘ask,’ but there’s a kas stuck on the end so I have no idea what it means. And I don’t know that other word yet, or the connectors on it.” Glancing at the logo again, I tried to take a guess. “Does it mean gold, or money or something? Because that would make this place the most ostentatious almshouse of all time.”
She shook her head. “It says ‘lucky,’ and sticking kas on the end of a verb turns it into a noun. So, ‘House of the Lucky Supplicant’.”
“I see this place is run by practitioners as skilled in the fine art of subtlety as anyone else in this kingdom,” I remarked, which made her giggle.
The door opened, and out stepped a man in brightly-colored red and yellow clothing. He was heavyset and a bit on the tall side of average, with a plastic smile of enforced joviality all over his face. “Welcome, travelers,” he boomed out with gusto. Looking the two of us over, his eyes widened a little. “It would seem you have come a long way indeed, and suffered many hardships to reach this place! Have you come to pay your regards to the Spirits of Fate?”
Sarah jumped right in. Apparently she had already gotten her story straight. “Not so farrr as you might imagine, good sirrr. My brrrotherrr and I hail frrrom Keliarrr, and a currrse has befallen ourrr entirrre family, trrransforrrming us as you can see, to unnaturrral forrrms.”
Wow, she was really laying it on thick there, with the accent, rolling her Rs with a distinctive purring sound. She didn’t actually talk like that, but apparently she thought it would improve (imprrrove?) this particular character.
The man shook his head sadly. “Such a tragedy. And you come here seeking the favor of Fate to undo this curse?”
I nodded, stepping up and trying to imitate the silly voice Sarah had done. “Prrrecisely. I brrring this lute, an heirrrloom that has been in ourrr family forrr many generrrations, in the hopes that this gift will entice the Fates to rrregard us morrre favorrrably.”
“Ah, of course, of course! That sounds most unfortunate! Come, I will show you to the Treasury at once!”
Sarah smiled brightly. “Ah, thank you, good sirrr. Yourrr name?”
The man smiled back at her. “Donald Welch, m’lady.”
I fought back a snicker. For some reason, just being here, I couldn’t help but wonder if Donald had two brothers, Michael and Geoffrey. He led us to a path at the side of the inn, paved in flagstones, that went around the building, and when we got there… wow.
The treasury was about a hundred yards off, an immense stone temple-style building with a bunch of pillars holding up a stone roof, Parthenon-style. But that wasn’t what made my jaw drop; it was the sparkle. With the early morning sun still low on the horizon, the whole interior of the building shone with the glint of gold and gems. It was like the freaking Cave of Wonders or something.
Sarah was all wide-eyed too. Donald just smiled. “Magnificent, isn’t it? And just a little bit fearsome, the way it can all simply be left here like this, under neither lock nor guard, and there’s still not a thief in the land who would dare plunder it!”
I couldn’t keep from shivering just a little at that. Donald just smiled reassuringly. “It’s really nothing to worry about, not for such upstanding folk as yourselves. Just be sure that nothing accidentally comes out with you that didn’t go in with you, and you’ll be fine.”
Sarah nodded to him. “So, how is this done? Is therrre some prrrotocol to it?”
He shook his head. “You walk in, find someplace to leave your gift, and walk back out again. And then you stay for the night at the House of the Lucky Supplicant and continue on your way in the morning.”
I rolled my eyes. “Somehow I doubt that last parrrt is trrruly crrrucial,” I objected with that ridiculous fake speech impediment.
Sarah shook her head. “You haven’t hearrrd?” When I shook my head, she continued. “It is trrraditional to sleep forrr the night in the envirrrons of the trrreasurrry when one leaves an offerrring. Those who find favorrr will awaken with some trrreasurrre of some kind, that they arrre frrree to take with them.”
Donald nodded. “And our fine accommodations ensure that you will sleep in comfort and safety, undisturbed by the night or any of its less wholesome inhabitants. Which, if I might venture a guess, you have already had a run-in with?” He looked pointedly at my bare chest and Sarah’s bare feet.
I nodded. “Highwaymen. They took almost everrrything. Only left me the lute because I told them it was stolen from the trrreasurrry, and they would not want to get the currrse on them.”
He looked sympathetic. “Was it the Blind Bandit? I’ve heard that he’s been operating nearby recently, but we’ve had no trouble here.”
“They didn’t look blind to me. How would a blind man rrrob someone?”
Donald’s eyes widened. “You haven’t heard of the Blind Bandit, Kyle Rogers? The most feared outlaw in the kingdom?”
I couldn’t help it. “I thought that was Paul Twisterrr.”
Donald scoffed. “He’s just a legend, a silly song dreamed up by some bard. The Blind Bandit is real. They say he traded his sight to a demon for power. Uses magic to see by and goes around robbing people.”
I glanced over at Sarah and saw that she was just barely keeping a straight face. Besides his misconceptions about Paul Twister, people getting power from a demon was incredibly rare; most demons were feral beasts with little thought for anything beyond feeding, and any wizard powerful enough to deal with greater demons–the sentient ones–wouldn’t need to waste time and effort at banditry to support himself. It would be roughly equivalent to a multimillionaire working in fast food: sure, it could theoretically happen, but why would someone with his resources ever want to?
Plus, the name. I couldn’t resist. “Verrry well, we’ll make surrre to watch out forrr this drrread bandit Rogerrrs. But forrr now…” I stepped forward, towards the building. I slowly climbed the stone steps, then headed inside.
Wealth. Everywhere. It was a bit overwhelming. Piles of gold and silver coins and sparkling cut stones strewn about, piles of all sizes, a few of them even taller than me. But most of them were kept reasonably small so people could see over them. And I do mean “kept”; as messy as all this was, it was definitely being maintained by someone; the walkways in between the piles were neat and clean, as if all the stray coins and gems were being swept up into the piles on a regular basis.
And that was just the entryway. I made my way in around all the casually-discarded money, and to the door at the far end of the room. Inside was more of the same, in a massive central gallery. It was a little bit mindblowing: if there was so much gold here, how could it still be common enough outside to be in widespread use as currency? There was enough in this room alone to distort the economy of the kingdom–and all its neighbors!–beyond recognition if it were to be released, but the fact that so much of it was in the form of coins, of standardized sizes and engraved with official imagery, meant it had, at some point, come out of that very economy!
A thought came to me, as I wandered around and looked for the place where they stored the stuff that wasn’t money. Something I’d seen online once, about a group of royals from… somewhere, either Africa or the Middle East, I couldn’t remember, making a journey to visit some European royalty almost a thousand years ago. They had gold, a lot of it, as it was more common where they came from than in Europe, and along their way they spent it lavishly, not knowing its value and getting outrageously ripped off by the merchants they dealt with. All that gold ended up distorting European economies for decades to come, and–according to what I had read, at least–it eventually became the principal source of capital to finance the Crusades.
That made me wonder. Ryell liked to take credit, on behalf of the dragons, for imposing a state of world peace, but how much of it was a true pax draconica, and how much was due to the Fates pulling a trick like this and making sure no kingdom could afford to raise a massive army? Was that even part of their plan?
As haphazard as the treasure scattered around was, there was a certain sense of organization to it. Branching off from the main room were several smaller rooms, and each held their own chaotic collection of items. One was devoted to artwork, another to tools, weapons and armors of every description, a third to clothing, and so on. There was one room dedicated almost entirely to a swimming pool-sized basin of water, about halfway full. Who would donate water? I wondered. But the crazy thing was, all that water looked clean and pure, and heaven only knows how long it had been sitting there. That creeped me out a little; all those nasty things that happen to standing water are processes of life; if they weren’t happening here, I wasn’t sure I wanted to hang around.
After that, I was a bit surprised to not find a room full of food. I had seen expensive platters, fine silverware and goblets of precious metals, but nothing to eat off of any of it. Go figure.
The last room seemed to be filled with stuff of no obvious value, but when I looked closely, I saw the common theme: things whose value was personal. Chairs and furniture, handkerchiefs, dolls, lovingly carved and polished boxes, mirrors, trinkets of all kinds; these things had all been dear to someone’s heart, and giving them up had been a true sacrifice in a way that money would never be.
I was headed back to the room with all the tools–it seemed the most appropriate place for the lute–when a thought struck me. One thing that really should be here, that had to be here, was notable by its absence. And once I got the idea in my head, I couldn’t let it go. I found a spot and set the lute in the room, then started looking around. And sure enough, behind one of the larger piles of cash in the central room was a stairway heading downward.
In the basement of the shrine, I found what I had been looking for: knowledge. Books, scrolls, tablets, even a few tally-sticks, as bizarre as it would be to leave them here. There was an entire library down here, as disorganized as anything else in the Treasury, lighted by balls of magelight stuck to the ceiling at random intervals.
I headed back out. “Sarah!” I called out.
She smiled at me. “Yes, brrrotherrr?” She was emphasizing those Rs a little, and I realized I’d forgotten them.
“Come look at this!”
She laughed. “I’ve hearrrd the tales, brrrotherrr, and I’m not so easily swayed by the sight of gold as you.”
I shook my head. “No, not the gold. Just… come!” I turned and headed back inside, and it didn’t take long until Sarah was there too.
“What is it?” she asked.
I led her to the basement, and she immediately ooooooed at the sight. I grinned. “I know this is a horribly unfair and overwhelming question,” I said, “but… what’s down here? Can you at least get a general sense of it?”
She took a few minutes to look around, then shook her head. “There’s no pattern here. Every language I’ve ever heard of, and a few I don’t even recognize!” Something caught her eye, and she opened a book and gasped. “This… Paul, this looks like your language, Mom’s secret script!”
I hustled over and looked at the book, and… blargh. It appeared to be written in Latin, of all things, and I had no clue what it might say. “I can’t read it,” I said. “That’s my script, but a very different language, one that no culture or nation has spoken for centuries. We borrowed their letters, but not their words or their grammar.”
She looked disappointed by that. I was overwhelmed and perplexed more than anything. This book didn’t look anywhere near the ten-thousand-plus years old that it would have to be, to be here!
“From what I can read,” Sarah said, “these are mostly personal writings, journals and the like. Plus a number of instructional books, treatises on various matters, and so on. No spells, though.” She looked disappointed at that.
“Hmm… you’re right. For all the wealth here, I don’t think I saw a single enchanted item, or at least not anything that was obvious about it.”
“Well,” she said, “there’s really not too much to see here, especially since you can’t take any of it. It would just be like standing outside a busy kitchen while you’re hungry.”
I sighed. “Yeah… you’re right. Let’s go.”
Something strange happened as I stepped out. It might have been a coincidence, it might have been things just running their course, or it might have been an actual sudden improvement in my luck, but I felt the Twist flare within me. I got all dizzy all of a sudden and had to sit down as my body reverted back to full human, that obnoxious tail finally shrinking back down to nothingness, my head getting its proper ears back.
Donald was still standing nearby, and he beamed as I stood up again and walked out. “It would seem your luck is improving already!” he observed enthusiastically. “I can only hope your sister’s improves as well, very soon.” He looked over at her. “Perhaps you have something of your own to donate?”
She shook her head. “I will simply trrrust in fate,” she said. I chuckled a little. It would take a lot more than a bit of luck to change her back!
I was mostly just relieved it was over. The lute was finally back home, and the curse gone from me. Now all I needed was a way to get in and see the king.
Well, I’d always been pretty good at making my own luck. Without this curse hanging like a lead weight around my neck, I was sure I’d be able to make it work.
If only I had known how wrong I was…