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Rumors were rampant in the Honey Spear. No sooner had Narahan Myal pushed open the door and stepped into the tavern than she heard at least five different reasons why the Tower was locked down. She had to duck a little to get through the doorway without feeling like she was going to smack her head on the lintel, but she was used to doing that. She couldn’t duck the noise of all that speculation, though.
A huge chunk of rooms had swapped entrances and frozen up, with no access in or out. A special team of adventurers was making a run for some sort of fantastic treasure. A small army of would-be thieves had managed to infiltrate the structure to steal the various treasures meant for honest, hard-working adventurers. An extremely wealthy patron wanted a private adventuring run. An extremely wealthy and perverted patron wanted an erotic adventuring run with scantily clad males and females competing for…things that made her ears burn.
Thankfully, the men and women joking about that one carried it clearly to the point of absurdity, and the game broke up in ribald laughter and deep sighs of denial. Myal had heard of certain rooms in the Tower of a very adult nature, and that such things were traps, but those rooms were almost never run. When they were included, it was announced to all, and any adventurer who chose that particular scenario had to sign additional waivers. Not to mention they had to prove they were at least twenty years in age, and wore contraceptive amulets. The local age of consent was sixteen, but the rules of the Tower decreed an adventurer had to have a bit of experience in such matters to be able to handle them maturely. Or at least had enough time to give the consequences some decent thought.
A variation on the “erotic adventuring” rumor made its way around again shortly after Myal had snagged one of the servers and requested whatever was hot and ready for her supper. She’d heard the one about someone betting the Master of the Tower to run the tricks and traps himself on her walk from her three-room tenement to this place, but this version had the Master of the Tower running the gauntlets stark naked.
She blushed, just thinking about that. She, like many other adventuring favorites, had dealt directly with the Master of the Tower from time to time. Most of those “meetings” had been mirror-based. The administrators in the Adventuring Hall would call for specific players during special events requested by patrons when they wanted to see their favorites perform, or had a particular form of gauntlet in mind, but sometimes the Master would make those requests or outline those runs himself.
He was rather handsome, with his exotic curly brown hair, lightly suntanned skin, and those nice gray eyes…but it wasn’t right to think of the man naked. He worked very hard to make the Tower entertaining, exciting, and even fun despite its many dangers. Myal didn’t think it was respectful to…to think of him as a sex-object instead of a man. Everything she had learned since coming here had only increased her admiration of the hard-working Guardian and his equally hard-working staff.
Five years ago, she had arrived on the eastern shore of Aiar as part of a Mendhite merchant ship’s crew. As they had made their way up the coast, offering Mendhite spices and seeking out exotic local versions to take back, word of the Tower and its adventurers had reached her ears. Being who and what she was, Myal had felt an itch of curiosity about the place. Wanting to test herself, she had parted from the crew at the nearest port, found work as a caravan guard headed west, and wound up here in Penambrion, the Tower Village.
She wasn’t the only Painted Warrior at the Tower, but at the moment there were only three, herself and two men, and she was the best of them. There were always more male adventurers than females, particularly among the non-Mendhites; if one wasn’t a mage, capable of shielding and augmenting one’s abilities, then an adventurer had to rely on strength and stamina as well as skill. In just about every land she had visited by sea, women were expected to be more interested in more peaceful pursuits, such as raising children, administering a government, or making a house into a home. Such things didn’t leave much time for adventuring and life-risking, after all.
Myal wasn’t tied to a job, a hearth, or a cradle, though. She wasn’t interested in amassing vast amounts of prestige or money, either, though she had purchased expensive enchantments for her boiled leather armor and her weapons. She had also bought a few comforts for her tenement, like the custom-sized bed to fit her Mendhite-sized body, and she made a habit of eating someone else’s cooking on a regular basis. Little things, though, nothing big.
No, she was here for the challenge and the fun. She could afford to spend her excess money on finding and buying copies of various Aian books to be shipped all the way back to the Great Library. She could also donate to various local charities, such as the disaster fund for the local farmers of the broad Penambrion valley-basin, whose crops were occasionally ruined and homes flooded by heavy rainfall. It had been a very wet spring, and the communities for miles around had been deeply grateful for the support from the adventurers who chose to live here permanently.
“Ah! Myal the Mendhite!” The hearty baritone voice was more than familiar; it belonged to Nafiel, self-styled Aian barbarian, and the single most popular adventurer, period, of the entire Tower. He raised his mug of ale to her. “So what do you think is the real reason for the Tower being locked down?”
They weren’t being remotely scryed. That was the deal with the villagers, to protect the privacy of their daily lives; no scrying was allowed anywhere but within certain chambers in the Adventuring Hall, and of course in the Tower itself. That rule also protected everyone’s privacy in their off-hours, including hers. Nafiel wasn’t being hearty for the mirrors and their patrons; he was simply that way all the time, public or private.
Accepting the plate of sliced beef, mashed roots, steaming buttered vegetables and a mug of chilled Aian tea brought by the server, Myal considered his question. Nafiel, having adventured with her multiple times, hushed a few of the more impatient patrons of the Honey Spear, and waited for her to speak.
“I think…given the age of the Tower,” she allowed, “that it is quite possible several of the rooms have ‘locked up’ like joints seized with inflammation. Some of the rumors from those watching the current adventure groups did say that the rooms and corridors have realigned themselves unexpectedly. And it has been said that the Master appeared in the Adventuring Hall personally, so the situation must be quite grave to involve him on the outside.”
“Nah, s’not the real reason,” another man dismissed, sipping from a glass of wine. He had dyed his shaggy hair in stripes of white and black, and had dyed and stitched his leathers to match, making him look like a zevra from back home. He wasn’t Mendhite, but he had heard about the wild horses from one of the others within the first few days of his arrival, and had decided to create an outlandish outfit to catch the eyes of the scrycast viewers, and the name to go with it.
“It makes the most sense,” Myal stated. “The Tower is old. Even with the Fountain powering it, spells do eventually wear out. Or so I understand; I’m no mage.”
“No, but you’re the next best thing to it,” Nafiel chuckled, lifting his mug in salute before drinking. Unlike Zevra, he wasn’t in his working clothes, which were nothing more than furred boots, a furred loincloth, and a plethora of enchanted armbands, necklaces, rings, and even earrings to make up for all the lack of armor. His gimmick was leaving his rather large and very well-muscled chest, arms, and legs as bare as possible; the Tower had a lot of lady mages paying right and left to watch him as he worked his way through each gauntlet. Rumor also had it he paid mages to remove his chest and armpit hairs by spell, so that no woman viewer would be distracted from all those flexing muscles.
“Nah, nah, meant th’ Master bein’ on the outside,” Zevra corrected, waggling his spread hand as if to erase the misunderstanding. He sipped his wine, then grimaced. “Nah, I heard he’d gone off to th’ city on a trip. Things went rump-up while he was gone, an’ he got locked out.”
His suggestion was met with far more catcalls and derisive noises than mutterings of agreement. It wasn’t just loyalty on the part of the locals and the regulars. Every once in a while—about two, three times a year—some idiot-mage came by, demanding to have an Arcane Duel with the Guardian of the Tower. Master Kerric allowed it only after the would-be challenger paid a hefty fee…and then usually drove the challenger to his or her knees within minutes. Sometimes one-handed. Those, too, were broadcast for a fee.
Zevra quickly held off the worst of the grumblings. “Just sayin’, must be pretty bad f’ the Master t’ get locked out, s’all. Or just back luck ‘n bad timing crawlin’ into bed together.”
And just that easily, they were back to the sexual speculations and accompanying innuendos. Myal rolled her eyes and focused on her meal. Not that she had anything against sex; it could be enjoyable enough with a good partner. But it wasn’t her favorite leisure-time activity. For her, that was writing up text versions of the various adventures she had in the Tower, trying to find just the right phrase to describe what she had done in a way that conveyed what had really happened.
It wasn’t easy, and she couldn’t claim to be the best at it, but she enjoyed it all the same. Most Mendhites wrote, but then their religion centered around She Who Records, the Goddess Menda, Scribe of Heaven and Creator of the Written Word. Every land Myal had ever visited knew that writing had begun in Mendhi, and most knew of the Great Library in Mendham.
With translation spells and pendants and even potions available, reading was an activity that could be enjoyed by a traveler wherever she might go, and writing a good way to share that traveler’s observations on other lands and cultures. And with Painted Warriors, well, those who didn’t stay in Mendhi often took up a life of wandering and non-Tower adventuring, and many of them sent back written tales of what they had seen and done in their travels. It was as much Myal’s religious and civic duty to write down her Tower-based adventures as it was her pleasure.
She wasn’t Master Kerric, whose skill with the language was a pleasure to read, but she wasn’t bad. Her short stories, hand-bound and copied by a local mage, were enjoyable enough that her fellow adventurers and some of the villagers always asked when the next one was due to be distributed. I should get back to writing about rescuing Prince Samel from the Demon-Summoners, she decided. I have notes for three more beyond that; I’ve been falling behind on my writing. If the Tower is really as locked-up as everyone thinks it is, I could easily have two, three days for writing that are free and clear of any patron requests for my presence on the next few runs.
Mind made up, she ordered a pocket-pie to take with her for her dessert, adding a couple extra coins as a tip. The fruit-filled pastry the server brought was hot enough that it stung her fingers. Shifting her right hand in a scooping, swirling motion, Myal focused on the tattoo inked around her littlest finger, activating it. Immediately, the heat from the pie ceased bothering her. It was still very hot, fresh from the oven, but the writhing, flame-like lines protected her from being burned.
Having them inked into her skin had burned, too, if in a different way. The hands, feet, and face were the most sensitive parts of the body for tattooing. There were spells to dull the pain and make the process of being inked bearable, but Painted Warriors did not, and could not, take the easy way. The pain was part of the process, part of bonding the spell-tattoos to body and will.
Her littlest right finger controlled variations in heat when she activated it. Her littlest left controlled and grounded shocks. The subtle pale brown tattoo around her left eye, which blended into her deeply tanned skin, permitted her to see through the simpler sorts of illusions, and the one that stretched from her throat to her right ear and her right eye in pale blue gave her the ability to understand languages both written and spoken.
The bottom of her left foot had a sigil that would allow her to walk on a delicate surface, such as thin ice, dried leaves, or even water without breaking through, provided she concentrated. The right one had a marking that would allow her to walk on and cling to any surface, whether or not it was horizontal, though the rest of her body was still subject to the effects of gravity. Her spine had a twining vine-like design that would heal most injuries in minutes—though it took its toll on her in other ways—and her biceps were circled with bands that gave her extra strength and extra speed. And those were just a handful among the dozens pricked into her skin.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a tattoo inked anywhere in the world which would make her stories write themselves. Or make her tell them better, or get her noticed by a printer, or…or allow her to write them while soaking in a nice cool bath. She didn’t know of any tattoos that would allow her to dictate to a quill and page located a safe, dry distance away.
Nor did she have any tattoos that would get her home any faster, though the heat of the day looked like it was finally beginning to cool down. Five years of a wandering seafarer’s life followed by five years in this temperate climate had robbed her of the ability to tolerate extremes of humidity and heat; Mendhi was much closer to the Sun’s Belt than the valley around the Tower. Not that today had been especially warm or muggy, but a cool bath did sound good.
She wasn’t the only one seeking her tenement. A man in a brown outfit stood at the door to Shalia’s quarters, knocking on the stout wooden panel. Made of red brick and pink mortar, the building had a row of doors on the ground floor, and a set of stairs leading up to a balcony with more doors, and a third one above that as well. Her place was on the second floor, a bit warm in the summer, but quite comfortable in the winter, what with the fireplaces from the other residents’ rooms lending their heat to the building as a whole.
Shalia finally answered the knocking just as Myal came within a few lengths of the curly-haired visitor. Opening the door, the muscular blonde leaned her head out, her body clearly wrapped in a sheet for clothing. Myal blushed. Shalia did not.
“…Yes?” she drawled.
Before the man in brown could say anything, a taller man, bare-chested and bare-legged, appeared behind the blonde. He kissed her shoulder and wrapped an arm around her waist, making the adventurer giggle. Myal knew his face, but couldn’t for the life of her place a name to it. Not with such a big, leering, smirking grin in the way.
“Uhh…never mind,” the shorter man, the visitor, stated. Belatedly, Myal recognized him by his voice and his brown curls, though she hadn’t seen his face yet. Master Kerric Vo Mos cleared his throat, cheeks slightly pink, and dipped his head. “I see you’re busy, so I’ll not bother you. Have a good night—both of you.”
Turning, he started to stride away, and almost smacked into Myal. Shalia looked like she wanted to linger and listen; like Myal, she had dealt with the Master of the Tower before. The man in her quarters had other ideas. Still kissing her shoulder, he tugged her backward and firmly shut the door. That left Myal face to…well, breast to face with the Guardian. She had met him far more often by mirror than in person, and each time in person it was a bit of a shock to realize how short he was, even for an Aian. Handsome, confident, with a mind both fair and strong, but shorter than any Mendhite man.
“Master Kerric,” she murmured politely.
He looked up, blinked, and gave her a bright smile. “Mistress Myal! Just the woman I wanted to see. At least, you were next on my list, since Shalia is obviously occupied,” he added, gesturing vaguely over his shoulder. “Could we perhaps have a little discussion in your quarters?”
“Of course,” she agreed quickly, gesturing at the stairs. “It’s the second floor, middle tenement.”
“I know,” he agreed, nipping up the stairs with the quick tread of someone used to going up and down all over the many, many levels of the Tower. “I made sure to check the address at the Adventuring Hall.”
“Is this about the Tower, then?” she asked, following him up the steps. He didn’t answer her. At his silence, it occurred to her that if the Master was here, looking up the residences of adventurers but not wanting to talk openly about it, then there was something going on which he didn’t want anyone else to know. Quickly changing the subject, she asked, “So how was your trip to, uh, Seldane?”
“Sendale,” he corrected lightly. “And aside from being cut short just as I hit the marketplace, not bad. The worst was finding a first edition Elgin Ves Troth just as I was called to come back. I didn’t have a chance to buy it.”
“Elgin Ves Troth?” she asked, moving ahead of him so she could fetch out her key from the pouch on her belt and unlock her tenement door. “Who is he?”
“A pre-Shattering authority on the Old Gods of Aiar,” Kerric stated. She gestured him to enter first, he bowed politely, and preceded her into her sitting hall. “Not all of the regional Gods and Goddesses are the same ones that were worshipped prior to the Shattering of the last Convocation of Gods and Man, you know. It’s fascinating to read about the old ones, and compare and contrast that with the new beliefs that have sprung up—most of the Gods and Goddesses around the fringes of the Empire have remained the same, and in a few scattered spots through the interior, but a good half of them are completely new.”
Nodding, she closed the door and twisted the upper knob, locking out any would-be spies. The locking mechanism had been etched with various runes by the landowner, giving each resident privacy as well as security. “There. We’re shielded from scryers and eavesdroppers. Please, sit. Can I get you anything to drink? Water? Tea? I don’t keep anything fermented on hand.”
“Water will suffice, thank you,” Kerric replied, glad the tall foreigner was willing to be discreet. He watched her set the pastry in her other hand on the low table in the room as she crossed to the far door, and followed the sway of her hips, subtle but graceful, as she left to find him his drink. Shalia was a lovely enough woman, but blondes were fairly common around the Tower, particularly the further north one went. He’d seen scores pass through the Adventuring Hall over the last decade.
Myal the Mendhite was not a blonde, and not common. He admired her tall, strong figure as he always had, covertly from under his lashes, and hoped his proposal wouldn’t offend her. He’d take any woman along who agreed to his codicils, but it definitely wouldn’t hurt to take one of the few he was actively attracted to, and not just found attractive. He could make love to the latter, but if luck was on his side, he could make love with the former. If she didn’t find him repugnant.
Once she was out of sight, he looked around the front room, taking in the different things she had used to decorate it. Mostly the wooden-paneled walls were hung with scrolls painted with Mendhite characters and ink-washed images in subtle shades of pastels and grays, but there were a few trinkets from her adventurings. Having drunk a very expensive translation potion early on in his apprenticeship to the previous Guardian, Kerric felt his eyes twitching as they tried to adapt to the foreign runes at a single glance. Phrases about honor, vigilance, respect…insights into the values his hostess found important.
Dragging his gaze away, he looked at the other decorations. He recognized a bright gold and scarlet shield from among a shipment purchased three years ago for gauntlet prizes, and a feathered mask that had been worn by a fellow adventurer during a contest that had pitted group against group. The winners had each “counted coup” by claiming one item from the losers in that gauntlet game, so that must have been her claim.
The rest of the color in the room came from a worn Sundaran carpet on the floor, a plethora of bright cushions on the low divan, and the warm glow of the setting sun through the glazed windows behind the divan. Maneuvering around the low table in front of it, he shifted a few cushions and settled himself on the padded platform while she disappeared through one of the other doors.
He had a glimpse of a room with a writing desk and a stack of booklets before she came back with a pitcher and two mugs. Setting them on the low table, she poured water into both, then gestured for him to take his choice while she sat down next to him. Selecting one, Kerric sipped from it, enjoying the cool liquid. It was refreshing after a warm, hectic afternoon. It also reminded him that he had eaten recently, but he didn’t know about her.
“Have you had supper yet, Mistress Myal?” he asked politely.
“Yes, I just came back from the Honey Spear. I usually eat there,” she confessed. Then gave him a sidelong look and added, “There were a lot of wild rumors going around the tavern, tonight. About the Tower being locked down.”
Kerric grimaced, cradling the mug in both hands. “I was hoping to quell those.”
“I presume you’re here because you wish to discuss my, er, participation in the…maintenance issue?” she asked delicately.
He blushed. She blinked at him. Clearing his throat, Kerric dug into his own pouch, fishing out a bracelet. He lifted it between them. “This is a mild geas Artifact. It will keep you from repeating in the presence of anyone else whatever is discussed for the duration that you wear it. Would you be willing to put it on for a little bit? And hold a Truth Stone?”
Myal eyed the curved, rune-chased scrap of silver, unsure of his intent. “I suppose so.” Holding out her hand, she accepted the bracelet and fitted it onto her left wrist. It was a bit tight, but not uncomfortably so. “Where’s the Truth Stone?”
He pulled that out as well, clutching and testing the white marble disc first. “I am covered in blue fur.” Uncurling his fingers, he revealed black marks wherever his skin had touched the palm-sized bit of stone. Clutching it again as the marks faded, he stated, “I am Kerric Vo Mos.”
The Stone was unblemished, pure white. Catching her hand, he turned it palm-up and placed the Truth Stone in her palm. “Ready?”
Myal clutched it and nodded.
“Topside Control believes someone in the distant city of Menomon broke into Guardian Sheren’s Fountain Hall and tried to use it to take over the Tower Fountain,” he stated bluntly. He gave her a moment to recover as her eyes widened, then continued. “The Tower is designed to lock down all forms of access and communication in the event of any change of Guardianship. This prevents it from being subverted remotely, because once that lockdown occurs, the only way to regain control is to either be on hand in the heart of the Tower, or to run the gauntlets in person, from the ground floor all the way to the heart of the Tower. When I took over, the lockdown took only a few minutes of time, because I was there in the Fountain Hall with my predecessor. This time, however, because I was in Sendale on the one day away I’ve had in a year, I couldn’t stop it from happening at the heart of the matter.
“If I am to regain control of the Tower and its now very lethal traps…I need to run those gauntlets myself,” Kerric confessed grimly. “And I need to do it before any other high-powered mage wakes up to the fact that the Tower is vulnerable to a change in Guardianship. I don’t know how you feel about the way I’ve run things,” he added in an aside, “but I do know most of the locals say I’m doing a good job, so I’m not inclined to just hand it over to whoever gets there ahead of me. Which means I need to get in there first.”
“Oh, no,” Myal quickly agreed, clutching the Stone. “You’re doing a great job! All the adventurers agree, too. Tonight, when someone dared to suggest you weren’t on top of things at the Honey Spear, he was shouted down by three-quarters of the inn, and even he agreed it was unlikely. You’re well-loved by almost everyone here in Penambrion.”
He blushed again, and the corner of his mouth curved up on one side. It revealed a dimple in his cheek, a sight she found fascinating.
“Well, thank you.” He then made a show of craning his neck to look at the Stone in her hands, and she uncurled her fingers, showing the lack of even a trace of gray on the unblemished stone. That earned her a chuckle. “Thank you, indeed. But there’s still a chance someone with too much ambition and not enough understanding of the way things work could get his or her hands on the Fountain…so I’ve come to you…after trying a few others…to see if you’d be willing to help.”
Myal considered his words, frowning softly. She gave him a wary look. “What’s the catch? If I’m not the first adventurer you’ve approached, and the others have turned you down…what’s the catch?”
He blushed again. Rubbing at the back of his neck, Kerric cleared his throat, sipped at his water, and didn’t quite meet her gaze. “There is more than one path…at least initially…to get to the Fountain Hall. The path I’d prefer to take, the one with the least lethal hazards…has a particular hazard that…ah… Well, it is a bit…”
She waited patiently while he fumbled to a stop, frowned a bit, then sighed heavily and muttered something under his breath. He sipped again. Myal wanted to be patient, but her curiosity was also rising. Master Kerric had never struck her as a man prone to blushing, yet here he had done it four or more times in nearly as many minutes. “Go ahead and say it. Whatever the hazard is, just speaking of it will not give offense.”
Nodding, he dragged in a deep breath, faced her, and asked bluntly, “Would you be willing to make love with me?”