All the greatest intellects are infected by a touch of madness.
— YPSE, TO LEON
Ypse opened the sliding door of the stable far enough to see out. A light sprinkle of rain fell on Hjörtur from a cloudless sky pregnant with the rays of an orange orb. The wings of a giant White Crane whirled above, and the bird’s rider, Leon, laughed as he pulled it out of its dive. Howling gusts full with the stench of animal excrement rocked the stable, and tiny droplets stung Ypse’s face, cold as hail. If the mountain wind cooled any further, there would be snow. He shivered and touched the frigid slave collar at his neck; he would be pleased when the time came to be free of it.
The flagstones of the stable-yard and nearby roofs glistened wetly, and though the rain had yet to turn into a full downpour, few but the Punishers arrayed in front of him dared brave it. Súla, a short woman with a paper umbrella, decorated with fluffy clouds and soaring landscapes, was one such. She approached the soldiers with slow, careful steps; her cloak and its long hood flapping in the breeze. He motioned to the soldiers, and they let her pass without comment.
Súla joined him at the doorway, and they gazed up at the sky while the drizzle soaked their faces, so absorbed in Leon’s aerial acrobatics that for a time neither one of them spoke. Her elaborately curled hair dripped at the side of her small face, but she did not seem to care. This might have been the longest either one had been in the same room since she had first come to him three months ago.
“An auspicious sigh. Sunshowers,” she said.
A pair of wet dogs chased after the bird, barking and snarling at the heavens. Ypse nodded, but he did not put much stock in portents. Those who did mystified him. “Forgive me, but I did not know where else to summon you.” He bowed his head apologetically, causing the droplets dangling on the end of his beard to fly. “The reek of this place takes some time to get used to.”
Her fingers stilled their plucking at the side of her dark skirts, and she spoke slowly, as though reciting a poem. “The world is a corpse. What right do we, the maggots, have to complain about the smell?” She leaned close to his ear. “Shut the door.”
“The soldiers will talk if I do.”
“Let them.” Súla snorted. “Better that than they overhear what we must speak of.”
Her eyes were dark holes, holes into religious fanaticism, but as always, he found her logic impeccable. A stumble now could ruin everything. She stepped deeper into the stable, closing her beautiful umbrella. He shut the door.
Súla took in her surroundings, moving from stall to stall. She stopped, peering down at a White Crane. “This one is larger than the others. Is it pregnant?”
“Yes.” He exhaled, forcing himself to unknot his hand. There were dangerously close to a topic he would rather leave untouched. “How much do you know of what I plan?”
“Enough. I know enough,” she muttered. “The Poet touches my dreams as she does yours.”
Ypse scrubbed the last droplets from his beard. The Poet, the Dreamer. . . . The Cult of Night had many names for the one they worshiped, but until three months ago he had not known they were all monikers for the Dark One. They never called Her that in public or private, yet that was whom they served.
“You question our motives for helping you,” she said. A statement, not a query.
“A drowning man doesn’t question the thing he uses to keep himself afloat.” Ypse favored her with a thin smile. “Not in the midst of a storm.”
“Yet you do.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but Súla went on, calm yet unyielding. “I had the same questions I see swirling in your yellow eyes after I first gave my oath to the Poet. Like you, Ypse, I’ve known suffering—other than our oath, that’s the thing that binds us to her. The Poet’s goal is our goal: an end to the pain, an end to the torment. To wake from the nightmare that shackles us to this sphere.”
“And my freedom moves her nearer to this goal how?”
Súla strode closer to him, her eyes alight with the unique esprit of religious furor. “Each member of the Cult of Night sees but a small sliver of the mosaic. Only the Poet perceives the whole of it, yet her end is our end. You must have faith in that.”
Ypse nodded. I’ve chained myself to a pack of rabid dogs. They will turn on me as surely as night follows day. “Faith has never come easily to me. I’ve always had to depend on my own abilities.” He smoothed his coat with a hand, finding comfort in the feel of the glabrous fabric against his skin.
“As have I,” she said. “But with time you will learn to put you your trust in the Poet as have I.” She brushed a wayward curl back from her eye and after the slightest of inhales went on. “Now how may I be of service?”
“Tell Hanna I’ve discovered some new information about her husband she needs to hear.”
Súla frowned and tapped her nose with a moist finger. “What would that achieve? She would never invite you to her apartment. That would be unseemly.”
“Tomorrow the Viscount is hosting a party at dusk, is he not?” Ypse paused for her nod. “The perfect place for us to meet, I think.”
“I see.” She laughed, a sad laugh. “Tomorrow is the day then?”
He studied her for a moment. The fire in her eyes looked a little less lively. “Second thoughts?”
Súla shook her head. “No. Never that. I merely grieve for the necessary suffering yet to come. Many people will die.”
“Do you have somewhere safe—”
She chuckled, a sound lacking even the hint of melancholy. “Worry not about me, Sorcerer. I knew this moment was coming since you swore your oath and I gave you the book.” She walked past him and stopped with her hand on the door. “Farewell. May we meet again when the Dreamer wakes.” Then she was gone.
Cool air wiped his face. “When the Dreamer wakes,” he whispered, stopping in the middle of the doorway.
Aware of the approaching ground, Leon tugged on Pen’s reins, and the White Crane pulled out of its dive, gliding above the roof of the stable. The air wailed around him, whipping his face with ice-cold droplets. Yet despite his drenched clothes and his numb his fingers, his heart soared with the joy of flight. Nothing compared to the thrill of riding atop of Pen’s back. The terror and the delight of it reduced his earthly concerns to pinpricks. Up here there was no Viscounts or nobles. No shame or defilement. Up here it was just him and his bird.
Leon drove Pen upward, and rain streamed off the bird’s ivory-colored plumage with every beat of his tired wings. Buildings grew smaller the higher they climbed. But he did not let his elation stop him from scanning the sky for danger. Rocs and Giant Eagles had been known to hunt above Hjörtur, and he and Pen made tempting targets. Usually, he would have his friends up here with him to keep a lookout, but Ypse had sent them home.
Pen struggled to keep rising higher, flogged by howling gusts. His panted breath rattled his massive frame, and the heat from the bird’s body rose through the saddle into Leon’s thighs.
Unshed tears sprang to his eyes. “Just a little longer, boy, and we can go down.”
Leon recognized he was pushing Pen too hard, but he needed more time away from the problems that awaited him on the ground. He loosened his grip on the reins, and Pen to drifted in a long loop above the inner and outer wall.
He scowled down at the ground. Sentries stuck at their posts, stared up him, shivering in their glistening plate-and-mail armor. Most of them would likely catch a cold if they stood out much longer in the rain. Then again so would he. There was no difference between them and him, not that he could see.
We’re all bound by duty. Them to their Lord and me to my friends.
It was a reflection much too grand for his ten years of age, and, the Eternal Father help him, it was something he would never have considered if the Sorcerer had never come to the fortress. The man’s manner of thought and speech had influenced his own. He shook his head. Whatever fate yet held in store, his and Ypse’s fortunes were linked.
Pen plunged downward once again, and the air roared in Leon’s ears. His heart pounded in his chest, and the wind stung his eyes. For an instant, confusion clouded his mind. He had not given Pen the command to dive. There was only one person who could force Pen down against Leon’s will: Ypse.
The earth rose to meet them, and Leon clung to the saddle, fighting to keep himself from being thrown off. If that was to happen, he was certain he would not like the result. A fall from such a height would leave him a cripple or worse.
Pen flapped his wings, and Leon fought back a scream. They drifted above the heads of the Punishers, sent men whirling and stumbling as they landed on the wet flagstones. Soldiers shot them glares through narrowed eyes.
“Sorry!” Leon jumped off Pen and led the animal toward stable, turning a deaf ear to the muttered curses that rose behind him. He quickened his steps. The soldiers looked in the mood to give him a good beating.
Ypse watched him approach from within the building, tugging on the end of his red and black beard as was his habit. He wore a turquoise colored coat, bright enough that it would not be out of place at a village fair, but, as always, what held Leon’s attention was the man’s eyes. Eyes that gleamed yellow within the dim lamplight of the stable.
“I apologize for keeping you waiting, Leon, especially in this weather,” Ypse said warmly. Despite his tone, he seemed anything but. His eyes held no sympathy, not that Leon could discern. More than anything, the Sorcerer appeared distracted.
“It was just a little rain.” Leon slid the stable door close behind Pen.
Ypse ran a hand long Pen’s long neck. “Still I’m sorry.”
Leon simply nodded. There was nothing much else he could do, and he indeed had not mined the rain. Wet clothes were a small price to pay for soaring through the heavens.
Together, he and Ypse removed Pen’s bridles and unstrapped his saddle. That was something Leon admired about the Sorcerer. Unlike so many adults, he would never ask you to do something he was not willing to do himself.
When the White Crane was freed from his tack and safely locked away in his stall, Ypse turned to Leon. “If all goes as plan, tomorrow is the day we will have our freedom.”
Leon’s eyes widened in alarm and his hands froze on saddle he was putting away. He could not understand his own terror. He had expected as much, had hoped for it even.
“I know I’m asking a lot of you, Leon,” Ypse said. “And that’s not fair—life’s not fair. But it should be. If you think you can’t do this, you don’t have to. I won’t force you.”
Leon frowned. “But I thought everything depends on me.”
“It does, but I will find another way. “You’re a child, you—”
“No!” Leon dropped the saddle, and it clattered to the floor. “The Viscount can’t keep getting away with this.” Warm tears ran down his cheeks. “I won’t let him. I won’t.”
Ypse nodded and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a small, glass vial filled with green liquid that seemed to glow as it caught the light.
“What’s that?” Leon asked.
Ypse twisted his lips into a downcast smile. “Salvation.”