Nyra delivers her letter to the Archon.
The following day, Headmistress Halifax calls Tira to her office. There the young adept receives a sealed letter from the Archon bidding her to be at the Standing Stones that midnight. The letter further commands that she is to bring a companion. Tira searches for Hank but is unable to find the Manikin. So she instead chooses Gustav to accompany her.
At the Standing Stones, her letter gains her entrance, while the giant is detained at the gate. He is nervous, but she bids him to wait for her.
In the circle of the Stones, Tira is met by the Archon Ningan himself. He explains little to her, but says that he has a test for her that is vitally important to the well-being of the city. It will require unquestioning obedience from her as well as discretion. He says little more other than that she must attempt to read the Stones of Tallon, called the Dancers of Dawn. She agrees after following his instructions to tell Gustav to keep his place no matter what he hears. Under his guidance, she gradually loses all sense of the world around her, becoming totally absorbed by the stones. She perceives shadow figures which dispense the tenets of the Word and the Way to her. After several hours, she returns to her senses, shaken but stable. Gustav, who has stayed beyond the gate all this time escorts her back to the Hall of Art. They are to tell no one what has transpired.
The next day, Gustav convinces Char to follow him to the Hall of Healing, where he attempt to use his share of the sword-money to pay for adept healing for the young wolf. Char refuses, syaing that it will heal without throwing a lot of money at it. Healer Blaine consents to examine the wolf anyway, so that he can teach Tira to use her spirit sight to aid in doctoring wounds. In return, Tira uses her knowledge of healing gained in the wolf-packs of Ungava to educate the healer in return.
Hank in the meantime has been busy. The reason Tira could not find him is that his work and resourcefulness repairing the streets of the Beast Quarter have so impressed the Architect that Morphist Yale has decided to recommend him to Mistress Dakota, the city's premiere animist, and youngest Master.
Hank reports to her odd dwelling in the Old Circle and is taken up a long flight of stairs by a pair of litter-bearing golems. At the top he meets Mistress Dakota and is given a long interview and a series of tests. Though Hank believes he failed the tests, Dakota gives him a job anyway. He is to be a jack of all trades, a universal handyman and engineer. Dakota has limited time for her many projects and needs someone she can depend upon to finish a task, no matter what skills are called for. Her current project is to build a golem bird large enough to carry a human. Over the next month Hank is kept very busy, but not so busy that he is unable to respond to a summons from the Archon.
Indeed, all the characters are summoned to an audience. The Archon greets them in his drawing chamber, where they find Nyra of the Kabekki already waiting. The Archon tells them that Nyra has delivered to him a letter, which he reads:
|To the Noble and Learned Archon Ningan,
From Zachris the Scout
Unknown day of December Regnum 19
Archon, I am entrusting this letter to a Kabekki woman named Nyra. She claims to have visited the Jewel of Merikia in the past and has agreed to carry this letter to you. She is dark of skin and has blonde hair that is nearly white.
The mission has ended in failure. We have visited the ruins of Tronto and discovered a city indeed exists here. They have Standing Stones. The city is in fact a mighty fortress, a relic of the ancients. The people of Tronto are at war with another tribe I have not seen, but they claim they possess the power of flight. We had stolen our way in, but were captured. I was a slave there for three years, pulling the great chains that seal the citadel.
I escaped with the help of another prisoner, my fellow Scout Hadrian. We were returning to Tallon with logs and maps of our travels when we encountered Kabekki warriors engaged in violent battle. Once again I was taken prisoner, though Hadrian evaded the savages. I have toiled in the camps of the Kabekki for another year and a half. I do not know if Mranda still lives, but if she does, she still dwells in bondage in Tronto. The others of our party perished long before beyond the Great Kraken Lakes. I have included with this letter a rough map of the area.
Archon there is more that I can tell you, much of our travels and observations, but I languish here in chains. I beg of you, send the price of my release with this woman, who will liberate me from bondage. I have also told her that she could expect some reward from you for delivering this message. Please pardon my presumption. I await your benevolent response.
Your obed't servant,
Ningan's gaze lingers on Persia at the letter's mention of Mranda, for that is the name of the feline's lost mother. He promises to tell her more upon the morrow, but mentions that he has a sword that her mother entrusted to his keeping until Perisa was old enough and responsible enough to care for it.
He also tells Tira and Hank that he will have private audiences with them upon the morrow. Before releasing them however, he tells them that he wishes them to undertake the release of Zachris. It will be a trip of less than a month. It will entail personal danger of course, but they will have nearly a month to prepare. He tells them that this mission will lead to a later expedition to Tronto and asks if they accept. One by one they agree.
Persia arrives the next day. Ningan tells her that Mranda was a friend of his in her youth, but after the Night of Small Fires twenty years ago, she became distant. Nevertheless he maintained contact and when she came to him and told him that she had fought a duel with and killed the son of a powerful merchant he agreed to do what he could to help. He could not pardon her, because the political fallout would vastly undermine his authority. He instead appointed her a scout in his service and sent her away on an expedition to a place near Shakka-go. How she came to be in Tronto, he does not know. Nevertheless, Mranda had a pair of high quality swords that had been presented to her by a grateful merchant. One sword she took with her, the other she entrusted to Ningan for her daughter, when she came of age. Ningan has enhanced the sword's morphia and asks Persia if she will acept it now. Persia receives the sword, but asks for Ningan to hold it a while longer until she is ready to leave on the trip to the Kabekki lands.
Next, Tira arrives. The aged master tells her that he was particularly interested in her when she was first presented to him upon her arrival in Tallon. He perceived in her certain qualities that he needed for his long term plans for the city. Tira is a sensitive, more particularly a Psychometrist. That is to say that she has a particularly high aptitude for reading psychic impressions.
He tells her that in his youth, he visited all the Standing Stones of the Merrikian League and gleaned from them a great deal of knowledge. Each of them is different in its teachings. He believes he has the most advanced understanding of the teachings of any living Archon.
He further tells her that the world is a savage place, and that he has done what little he could as Archon to soften the brutality of the city, but it is not enough. With more power, he could do so much more to relieve the human condition.
But he is too old to travel. That is where Tira comes in. She is young, has experience in the Wilds and has aptitude in the qualities needed to read the stones. He asks her if she will undertake this task for him. Nervously, she agrees.
The third interview is with Hank. This is a particularly painful one for the Archon. He tells the manikin that he will relate to him a story and then ask him a question. The story begins when he confesses that he knows more of Hank's origins than he has admitted. Hank Builder was a man born over one hundred and thirty-eight years ago. He was an extremely talented architect, mason and carpenter. He was in fact, one of the most prized citizens of then-Archon, Turik the Builder. Hank had been working building a farm dwelling for a kinship of rabbits when an earthquake caused their burrow to collapse upon him. His body was crushed and the rabbits called upon the nearest adept for help. Ningan, young apprentice to the Master Farmer decided to try and move Hank's fading spirit into a nearby scarecrow rather than to send for a healer from the city. Hank might have died before a healer returned, but Ningan believed in youthful pride, that he was equal to this task. He failed, and he believed Hank's spirit to have been forever lost. In his shame, he ordered the body buried and the scarecrow disposed of. It is a secret he has carried for eighty-seven years.
As for the rest of the history, he supposes that what Hank has been told is true, that the Rat warlord Black Fang took the head as a totem and that wherever Hank's spirit was, Tira recalled it when she first beheld him three years ago. He asks Hank's forgiveness. Hank is reluctant to forgive until he has had a chance to fully understand what this means.
Ningan, finished with his story, then asks the question. Hank Builder had family. A living descendent still dwells in Tallon, and he knows the name. He will reveal it if Hank asks. Hank considers and then begs that the name continue to be secret. He will ask it when he is ready.
The audiences are finished.
During the month that the characters are given to prepare, several things happen. The first is that Persia and Hank discover the barbarian who was fleeing from the vampire the night it was slain. The man's name is Kamlak of the Shattered Isles, and he is freely spending the wealth presumably stolen from the creature. Realizing that the money rightfully belongs to Gamina's father, they concoct a plan to have Haiku pose as the vampire and relie upon the barbarian's fear of it to cause him to relinquish the treasure. Although Kamlak is not nearly as frightened as he appeared the night of the fight, he nevertheless is plainly rattled. He agrees to give them some money if they will just go away. He manages to do this while still retaining enough composure to keep face in front of the crowd of admirers he has attracted. He is handsome and spends a lot of money, a combination sure to collect friends. He rather noticeably retains a portion of the treasure, though.
Afterwards, the party agrees to return the gems regained to Gamina's father, a merchant named Yon. Persia spends a frustrating day attempting to have a bank hold a line of credit for her. No one will accept a beast it seems. Finally, towards nightfall, a banker has a sudden and inexplicable change of heart and agrees to set up a joint account between her and Hank Woodman, also an unprecedented customer. Hank comes in with Persia a few days later, once Tira has found Yon's name and address from the Headmistress, to retrieve the stones and finish some paperwork. Toegether, the three walk to the Merchant Quarter and though faced with some initial distrust, convince Merchant Yon and his wife Kaza of the fate of their daughter. Yon reveals that Gamina stole a family heirloom upon which many letters of credit have been drawn. Should those letters be called, Yon could be ruined. He promises to reward them should they recover it. The heirloom is a fabulous ruby, identifiable by a flaw shaped like an eye. He asks that they provide a description of Kamlak to Judge Grimm.
Persia scours the city for Kamlak and eventually learns that he has purchased a horse and left Tallon for parts unknown.
Tira receives special training during this time. She is learning to read psychic impressions. She begins with simple tiems that have strong impressions attached to them and works up to a special exercise conducted by another judge, a hard-nosed harridan named Grayle. Grayle takes her to Shannon's Island. First she leads her to the north end, where a wedding service is being performed. She has them examine the wedding party discreetly, trying to read their emotions. The people have no idea that they are being observed in such a way. Tira scans the bride's mother and senses mainly happiness, but also a prevailing worry. Tira elaborates that the mother is worried about the cost of the wedding, but Judge Grayle snaps that Tira is clouding her reading with her own concerns. How to pay for her education is a central source of anxiety for the young adept. Judge Grayle guides her more carefully in her reading of the bride, cautioning her to separate her own emotions from those she is reading. Here Tira is on the money, discerning a vapid happiness. She is unable to read the groom. Judge Grayle says this is not surprising since the groom is feeling no particular strong love, but only a dull background greed. She has Tira note that the guests of the groom are uniformly less well dressed than the bride's kin. Obviously, she notes, the groom is marrying for money, not for love. She gives Tira an earful of her cynical view of human nature before leaving for the other end of the island.
The south end has a narrow bridge to a large and dreadful-looking Iron Tower. Here is where prisoners are kept who are too politically inexpedient to execute or banish. Also, some debtors are kept here as well. The gloom about the place has a texture and weight to Tira's spirit senses. Covering themselves with cloaks, they enter the tower. Here Tira is shown a variety of prisoners in various states of distress. She is unable to read any emotion from them however, and Judge Grayle eventually gives up in disgust. She tells Tira that it is unlikely that she will ever become a judge if she shies away from negative emotions and only dwells upon the pleasant ones. Tira meekly agrees, but privately is relieved to be considered not judge material.
Gustav in the meantime, has been contacted by Quick, whom he has not seen since the fight in the market circle, months ago. Quick tells him that the crowd that chased him from the circle has hired assassins to kill him. He says that it is Mahler's fault and that the giant can make it up to him by smashing the hit men. Mahler reluctantly agrees to dissuade them and is blissfully unaware that Quick's story has more holes in it that a wheel of cheese.
Sanyo tries to dissuade him from going to the place where the assassins are to ambush Quick, but it is an argument they have had many times before and his pleas fall upon deaf ears.
Gustav goes to the Wyvern's roost, where Quick has been hiding out. Quick lets a rope down for him, but Mahler easily reaches up and climbs into the second story window. Quick hides him under the bed, throwing a blanket over his feet, which protrude nearly three feet beyond the headboard. The con man then leaves by the same window, promising the giant that he will be nearby. Gustav dutifully remains under the bed for over an hour before becoming so drowsy and uncomfortable that he climbs on top of the musty mattress and curls up to sleep.
He awakens with a sword against his throat. Two assassins have crept in while he slumbered and have the drop on him. They immediately realize that the man on the cot is too large to be Quick, but do not realize the giant's true size. They question him about Quick's whereabouts. Mahler tells them he has no idea what they are talking about, but his lies are pretty unconvincing. Finally, after searching the room and finding no money, they decide to just cut Mahler's throat and leave. Sensing his life about to end, the giant snaps his head back suddenly, cracking the headboard, but saving his life. The sword cuts him deeply, but misses the artery. Enraged he stand suddenly and grabs his attacker in a mighty bear hug. Bones snap inside the hapless man. The other one immediately shouts out Mahler's name in recognition and dives through the window. Mahler lets the unconscious man down by the same route as gently as possible. Clutching his bleeding throat, he exits to the street, where he spends a few anxious minutes calling for Quick. His former keeper appears and chides him for falling asleep. Quick tells him that if he had followed the plan, he wouldn't have gotten hurt. Mahler apologizes and lets Quick clean up the wound with water from a nearby trough.
Sanyo is angry when Gustav returns, telling him that he nearly got himself killed for someone who would give a copper penny for his life. Gustav continues to apologize for Quick, though with less conviction than before.
Several days later, Mahler receives a visit from a man who tells him that he thought that Mahler and Harker had an understanding. That they would not interfere with each other's business. Gustav asks what he means and learns that Quick actually owed a lot of money to Harker and that the men at the Roost were there to collect. Mahler says he didn't know and asks if he can buy out Quick's contract. The man agrees to talk to Harker.
Soon afterward the man meets Mahler in the common room of the Kraken's head. He turns out to be Beef, an enforcer of Harker's whom Gustav has met before. He is not particulary mad that Gustav threw him into the harbor, since that altercation eventually led to his replacing Scorch as Harker's right-hand man. He says that Gustav can buy out Quick's contract for 45 gold Eagles. Mahler doesn't have that kind of money and does some quick thinking. He asks if he can buy Quick's banishment. Beef agrees, telling him that he will accept that for half the named sum (though Beef rounds up the fractional gold coin.) If Either of them see Quick again, the hustler gets one warning. He must leave the city. If he fails to do so, then both Quick's life and the balance of the contract are forfeit.
Mahler pays out the amount, leaving barely enough for Sanyo to stay at the Kraken while he is gone.
Before they know it the month is at an end. The Archon tells them that the will be leaving aboard the Columbia in the morning. Crockett tells them that they will be stopping briefly at Karkul and Orodon before proceeding to James Bay, where they will be allowed to disembark. From there, Nyra will be their guide to a camp of the Kabekki called Abitibi. It should be a journey of ten days upon a raised roadway of the Ancients. The Columbia will return to James Bay in twenty days and wait one week. If they do not return by that time, they will have to walk back. They will be supplied with equipment and provisions.
They board the Columbia in the morning and depart Tallon Harbor. They travel eastward along the coast without incident until they reach Karkul.