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|It's here! At last! A new beginning (not that anyone ever saw my ratty old beginning - whew! :P) for the sweepingly majestic Adventures of Of.|
As you can see, I've taken a slightly different tack on the world - and Caius has gone either up or down in it, depending which way you look at it - so I'll probably *slightly* rewrite the others to fit a bit better with this. No major changes, though. The Acarthians are still Acarthians, Caius is still Caius and cows still abound. Moo.
Caius Chetienne sat at the bar with a glass in his hand, mistakenly believing that his life had hit rock-bottom.
The bar was not a proper adventurer’s dive. It didn’t smell like stale beer or sweat, and none of the patrons could be amusingly compared to rodents. It was called The Queen’s Rest. There were coasters and tablecloths. The air smelled pleasantly of the fresh pine wood-shavings strewn over the floor.
Technically speaking, Caius did not really belong in such an establishment. He was a mercenary – well, he’d been trying to be a mercenary, certainly for a couple of weeks now. He had a vague idea that this involved chainmail and a jaded outlook on society, both of which he did have. He knew that work was often obtained in Seedy Taverns, and had even bought a face-mask and gloves so he could enter a few. But there was no employment forthcoming. In fact, people tended to ask him if he wanted their services.
What a curse this face is, Caius thought disconsolately, staring into his glass for convenient narrative purposes. Modesty aside – as usual – he was an exceptionally handsome young man. Most of it was due to rigid personal upkeep rather than overwhelming natural blessings; he kept his golden-blond hair impeccably trimmed and his smooth-shaven chin completely devoid of unkempt whiskers. Everything about the cast of his face and the lordly blue glint of his eyes cried ‘I’m an aristocrat’.
Unfortunately, contrary to any onlooker’s guess – and the private beliefs he’d been desperately nursing for many years now – he wasn’t.
The barkeeper drifted over, a thin man in a nice, clean apron. “Top your glass, my lord?” he offered.
Yes, the entire world refused to believe Caius was not nobility. It did come in very handy for bar tabs.
“I’ve simply no idea what I’m to do,” he sighed, holding out his glass. “Where do mercenaries find their work in this town?”
“Perhaps you could send someone to find out for you,” suggested the barkeeper amiably.
“I keep telling you, I don’t have anyone to send out.”
“Oh, right, right.” He gave Caius a broad wink. “Well, my l-“
“Well, my sir, this is Colchar. If you can’t find trouble here, you’re a twenty-ton dragon with gas. Why don’t you go for a walk down the quays?”
“I want work, not a head wound.” Being eternally mistaken for an aristocrat was doubly dangerous when one actually had no money (and yet insisted on using ‘one’ as a pronoun).
“How about a good tavern?”
“I’m sitting in a good tavern.”
“How about a seedy tavern, then?”
“I’ve tried those. No use. And they reek.”
The barkeeper eyed Caius for a moment. “You know, my lord, it wouldn’t hurt to work a bit more on a disguise. How about letting your hair grow a bit? Or growing out a bit of a beard? Wearing a bit less cologne -?”
“I don’t see why a mercenary should have to stink,” interrupted Caius sharply. He said nothing about the facial hair issue. He’d tried, but the thought of all that stubble advancing across his skin had given him night sweats and horrible dreams about fungus. “And I don’t see why this should be so much to ask. I simply want employment!”
“You mean ‘I just want a job’,” said the innkeeper in a kind voice. “Listen, my lord, I reckon you’d be happier back home in the palace.” He paused. “Ah … after the tab’s settled, of course … not that I’m not certain you’ll see to it, of course …”
“I’ll have my people settle it,” Caius said nastily.
The barkeeper relaxed and smiled. “Of course, my lord.”
Caius sighed over his wine, shaking his head wearily, and then drank. It would certainly be nice to have a mansion to go home to. He’d always dreamed – he’d always known that he was different. Special. He deserved palaces and footmen. He was bound to marry a curvaceous princess in a diaphanous gown. How could a man who instinctively used the word ‘diaphanous’ not be bound for such things?
All his life, he’d been waiting for the Something More.
What excitement he’d felt, setting out from his home in the frigid countryside of Lest, eager to track down and meet the obviously royal parents who’d left him there. At the very least he’d hoped to avenge their death on some sort of wizard or vizier.
He remembered arriving in the big, bustling city of Colchar. That was a month ago.
He remembered tracking down a magician to scry out his royal blood. That was two weeks ago.
He remembered her looking at his face and eagerly performing the spell on noble credit.
Then she’d taken one little look into her crystal ball, burst out laughing and promptly demanded her fees up-front.
It was all wrong.
“Here, now, don’t get yourself too low,” encouraged the innkeeper, giving Caius’s shoulder what seemed to be a respectful pat. “So you’re not quite mercenary material. What’s it matter? You’ll feel much better about this when you’re back home being fed grapes and that. We all have our own place, eh?”
“Apparently so,” said Caius tonelessly.
And it was starting to look as though his place, far off in back-country Lest, would just have to be the thrilling family butchery left to him by his raving mad father. Not a prince after all, but a man who’d married a cow. Literally.
Cai-us the Cow-Boy, Cai-us the Cow-Boy …
Clamping down firmly on those unpleasant childhood memories, Caius tried to drown that persistent, nagging feeling of Something More with a bit more wine and a bit more misguided moping over the fact that life couldn’t possibly be worse.
It was at about that time the Acarthian came through the front window.
Glass and timber framing exploded inward, scattering across the front two tables and the people sitting at them. As the unlucky patrons leaped and hit the floor with various cuts and abrasions, the window-breaker picked himself off the floor somewhat reproachfully, sucking splinters out of his fingers.
“What are you –?” roared the barkeeper, swelling in fury until a few visual cues cut him off. The man was too lithe – well, skinny – to be human. His ears were too long and pointy. His face was too foxy. And his eyes were too Acarthian, which was to say they were big, green and far too bright.
This wasn’t brightness in an ageless arboreal sagey sort of way, either. It was a glitter that could almost talk – Whee! … Ha-ha-ha! … Ooh, was that your spine?
“Ooh, was that your window?” the Acarthian elf asked the barkeeper. It was a curious inquiry, not a contrite one.
The barkeeper mumbled something.
“Hang on,” the Acarthian said, grabbing an empty stool from the bar, and leaped out the broken window again to the general relief of the room.
Caius shared an edgy glance with the barkeeper. The Acarthians were the high-school dropouts of the elven world, generally disowned by the rest for their indifference to poetic meter and existential angst. Some also claimed that the innate Acarthian love of breaking things played a key role. It was quite rare to see them outside the kingdom of Acarthon – at least without siege catapults and big grins on their faces.
The Acarthian outside did not appear to be seeking a quiet road to peace away from his fellows. A very distinct sound like a stool cracking over someone’s back was now pealing through the window. Each crack was punctuated by a word: “Still – think – pumpkins – aren’t – fruit?”
Finally, there was silence.
“I’ll have … the fruit soup … please,” someone wheezed.
“Certainly, sir,” chirped the Acarthian’s chipper voice. “That will be four sestinas. You can collect your fruit soup at the barrow.”
The Queen’s Rest cringed collectively as the Acarthian stepped back in through the window, walking over to the bar again to replace the stool he’d borrowed.
“Sorry, it wobbles a bit now,” he said. “Got a nail on you? And a hammer? Even a club would do. How about that one you’re holding under the counter?”
“Ah, no,” mumbled the barkeeper. “That’s fine. Thank you, come again.”
“Oh, wait up, I can still see the nail sticking out there. It’s come loose, is all.”
The barkeeper and all patrons seated at the bar hit the deck as the elf slammed the stool against the polished counter-top a few times, sending glasses and wooden platters rattling away.
“There,” said the elf in satisfaction, replacing the stool again. “Good as … ooh, is that glass broken? Got any glue?”
“It was like that before! Really!” The barkeeper gathered up the shards protectively. “Thank you, come again!”
The Acarthian looked at the barkeeper’s trembling hands for a moment, then frowned and sniffed at the air. Given that his features were already quite vulpine (Caius scorned the word ‘foxlike’), the impression of a fox testing the air for hounds was very pronounced. Obviously nothing good was coming to these hounds, however.
All eyes in the tavern followed the elf, transfixed, as he slowly sniffed his way over to Caius.
“Gah,” the elf said. “Thought I smelled something.”
Caius prided himself on personal hygiene the same way some men took pride in their family name, and even an Acarthian wasn’t going to get away with that. “What, soap?” he suggested icily. “Unfamiliar, is it?”
“Heh, good one!” The elf laughed a cheery laugh, pulling up a stool uninvited. “Nah, but seriously, don’t say that again.”
The jovial way the elf said it puzzled Caius a little. There was no sinister malice in his voice, no villainously veiled threat in his green eyes; he was smiling like sunshine, seemingly perfectly content.
“Morgant Salluth,” the Acarthian declared warmly, extending a hand. “Soup salesman.”
“Dangerous job,” said Caius, still somewhat touchy.
“Nah, I don’t serve it all that hot any more –“
“I mean the fighting.”
“Oh, that. You know how people are with fruit and vegetables.”
Caius decided to nod.
“Bit surprised when he threw me through the window,” Morgant admitted, flicking a few wood-shavings out of his black hair. “But you can’t get lazy with the fruit versus vegetable issue in my business. Like I told him, there’s really no difference between calling his wife a pumpkin and calling her a lemon –“
“Haven’t you left your barrow unattended?” hinted Caius broadly.
“Nice of you to worry,” the elf replied, “but the man-trap usually does for thieves. Sometimes customers, too, though I do have the ‘Please Queue Here’ sign very clearly displayed.”
Morgant passed the nerve-wracked barkeeper four sestinas, perhaps those obtained from the fruit soup man, and asked for a drink. Evidently he had no intention of leaving yet.
“Well?” the elf said after a while.
“I’m sort of waiting for your name and job. It’s pretty rude to just sit there, you know.”
“I’m Caius Chetienne,” Caius replied, for the sake of the Queen’s Rest’s stools. “I’m … a mercenary.”
“What, really?” Morgant squinted at him. “How odd. I was thinking a Paladin. At least a hero-type. Are you one of those wisecracking antihero mercenaries, then?”
“No? That’s just bizarre. Really.”
Caius cast the Acarthian a forbidding blue glare, trying not to make it lordly. “I’m not an aristocrat, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“You sure? They’re pretty fond of those.” The Acarthian tapped his narrow chin. “Where you from?”
“From Lest. … What do you mean, ‘they’?”
“Hey, that far off? Yeah, tall and blond … pretty obvious Lestite now that I look at you, eh? Don’t know why you’d come to a dungheap like Colchar.”
“Well, good on you for not living off your dad’s name. I guess. Is that for Mum’s sake, then?”
That made Caius blink. Apparently it was true what they said about conversations with Acarthians – you really did end up with an aching head, one way or another. “My only ‘mother’ was a dairy cow,” he said with acid bitterness. “Look, could we –“
“Ah, sorry to hear it,” replied Morgant sympathetically. “They do that sometimes, gods. Strange lot.”
The elf sipped from his glass as the barkeeper passed it to him.
“Take Astam the Dawnlord,” he said. “Turns every crush into a coconut tree. Makes really lewd jokes about it, too, I’ve heard. And they made him god of the sun.”
Caius didn’t answer. All his thoughts and dreams had suddenly coalesced into one large, red exclamation mark.
“And how about the Silver Songstress, turning all her beaus into percussion instruments? I tell you, there are some –“
“Are you suggesting to me,” Caius interrupted at last, “that I’m of divine descent?”
“Yeah, well, don’t know about divine,” said Morgant sagely. “Don’t know how divine it could’ve been if your mother was already a cow when she gave birth – brr. But yeah, I reckon you’re a god’s son, all right. You absolutely reek like it. We smell these things, you know.”
While Caius had no problems at all with self-esteem, even his most megalomaniacal instincts were hesitant to jump to his conclusion – particularly when it was suggested by a grinning Acarthian who sold soup. “You smell godliness.”
“Yep. Divinity and magic – whoof.” The elf waved a hand in front of his nose. “Don’t believe me?”
“Yes,” said Caius.
“Hang on, was that ‘yes, you’re right there’, or ‘yes, I believe you’?”
“You might consider using full sentences. Then you’d know.”
The grinning Acarthian kicked him in the shin. It hurt quite a lot.
“Tell me about your childhood,” he said benevolently.
Caius sighed at the word alone. Childhood had been incredibly rough. ‘Mad as a butcher’s axe’ wasn’t a popular simile in Caius’s hometown. They had a much simpler version: mad as that butcher. And Caius had been the son of that kind, loving, so very, very mad butcher.
Caius’s grandparents (yes, he’d had them, though they’d never dissuaded him from his Secret Royal Orphan theory) had sadly told him about the day Daddy cracked. Apparently his mother had disappeared soon after his birth; local nasty gossip was still undecided to this day whether she’d run off with Gordey the Meat Deliveryman, or whether Caius’s father had just done her in with his very mad axe.
But Caius’s dad had always insisted she’d turned into a cow. And he’d singled out the cow, and bought it dresses (which it ate), and fed it champagne, and firmly insisted that he and the cow were married.
The other children of the town, armed with the bullying equivalent of a siege engine, had made Caius’s life the misery one might expect. And he’d gone home crying every day, seeing his dad sitting happily out in the field reading love poetry to the cow, while Caius and his preternaturally perfect diction hid inside and dreamed about the Something More …
“No, see, there’s no point just reliving your childhood,” said Morgant a little impatiently. “If you want people to hear these things, you have to speak.”
“Suppose my mother was turned into a cow,” said Caius slowly. “Just … supposing for one moment, I mean. My grandparents actually paid a magician to find out whether or not Dad’s cow really had a spell on it – I mean, her.”
“Pfft, what’s one of those foul-smelling magicians know?” Morgant snorted. “Magic’s one thing, godly stuff’s another. When gods do something, they want it to stay done, see?”
Caius thought back to all the times his dad had coaxed him outside, as a younger and happier boy, to come play with Mum. They’d fed her grass, he’d sat on her bony cow’s back, she’d chased him around the field … and come to think of it, she’d always been remarkably good at hide-and-seek, for a cow …
“You’re doing it again,” said Morgant.
“I’m … confused,” the Lestite answered, uneasy. “I mean … I don’t know. Maybe my father was only half as mad as everyone thought.”
“Nah, not your real dad, though,” replied Morgant, slurping his drink.
“Your solicitude is very touching,” Caius said caustically. “I had no idea soup salesmen could be so deep.”
“Seriously, now,” the Acarthian said, smilingly cracking him in the shin again, “do you want to find out who your dad is? Because I’ll tell you what, a career as a demigod would crap all over the mercenary trade. Besides, it’s heredity. A son of a god won’t find work as a warehouse watcher. The Law doesn’t like it.”
“A demigod,” Caius murmured, feeling the old Something More sit up and brush dust off its shoulders.
“You’ve got the stink, you’ve got the looks, you’ve got all the hoityness in your eyes and your el-o-cu-tion.” The elf rounded each syllable off in a crisp imitation. “Plus turning girls into cows just screams Thunder Lord at me. Him and his unhealthy obsession with livestock.”
“The Thunder Lord?” Even Caius struggled to revise his expectations up another notch. “Son of the king of the gods?”
Morgant shrugged. “That’s my money. Then again, it’s pretty easy money on that old tailchaser, eh? Am I right?”
“Suppose you are,” said Caius thoughtfully. “On all counts. Where would I go to … find out?”
Morgant sat back on his stool for a moment, scratching the side of his narrow nose. “Well. Some sort of oracle, I guess. I know a place downtown, though it’s a bugger to push the barrow that far.”
“You really don’t have to come.”
“’Course I do. This is Fate, or something.”
“No, it’s not. It’s Nosey Curiosity.”
“Yeah,” said Morgant contentedly, delivering a third crippling kick. “We’re pretty famous for it.”
“Soup-sellers. Yeah, and Acarthians, I suppose.” The elf stood up. “Let’s go.”
Very conscious of the entire tavern’s eyes following him, Caius also rose and limped out of the Queen’s Rest after Morgant (though unlike the elf, he used the door) into the street.
“Oh, bloody hell,” said Morgant with some annoyance, looking down at a writhing man clutching at his ankle beside what had to be the soup barrow. “Doesn’t anyone read the sign before they queue?”
* * * * *
It was difficult to decide – as Caius set out with his Acarthian acquaintance on what was definitely a First Quest – what to think of everything at the moment. He settled instead on watching his companion’s salesmanship at work.
In some respects, Morgant was a very good salesman. Most rational people, approached in the street by a beaming Acarthian holding a steaming hot bowl of soup, were only too happy to pay a mere four sestinas to escape. In other respects, however, Morgant was not the ideal vendor. He spent quite a lot of time away from his barrow, examining other people’s goods with great interest. He had a habit of riding the barrow down hills, all prospective buyers forgotten. He also ate quite a lot of his own soup, or poured it on people’s gardens, pets and children to see what would happen.
“Morgant,” Caius remarked about halfway through their erratic journey, watching the elf polishing his boots with the last of his soup, “this is just idle curiosity, but what brought you to the soup trade? It doesn’t quite seem to be your … calling.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty boring,” the elf agreed ruefully. “Soup?”
“Ah … no. Thank you. You just keep polishing.”
“I did the same as you when I came to town – tried to set up as a mercenary. I mean, I’m pretty damn good at that sort of thing. I smack down bandits and loot villages like you wouldn’t believe. Thing is, though, it was pretty hard to find people to employ me. So I just make soup. It’s been hard this year, too … people have started putting big fences around their fruit patches.”
“A pumpkin’s not a vegetable,” said the elf in a warning tone. “It has seeds.”
“Right, right, sorry. So why don’t you go back to Acarthon and do … ah … whatever it is you do?”
Morgant looked shifty. It was interesting to see, given his other guilt-free criminal recitations thus far. “Can’t.”
“I’m a deserter, if you must know,” the Acarthian said tetchily. “I ditched His Or Her Majesty’s Elite Aggro Forces about five years ago. So.”
“I see,” said Caius, deadpan. “You decided the violence had to stop.”
“No, there was an Adverse Event,” Morgant replied. “Much like the one that will happen to you if you bring it up again.”
Caius shrugged, and didn’t.
At last, after a lengthy tour of the cluttered streets of Colchar, they reached the premises of one Crazy Oraculous Orlanda. A small cave had been chiselled into a huge boulder, carved with the eponymous sign and the notice: With Prices Like These, the Gods MUST Have Driven Her Mad!
Caius ducked through the narrow entrance behind Morgant, hunching his way through the antechamber, trying to defend his blond locks from spider-webs. At last they reached the main chamber, a cramped, dome-shaped space empty of anything but a candlelit altar in the centre.
A diminutive elderly woman sat at the altar in grey robes, which someone appeared to have taken to with scissors. She looked profoundly bored. When she saw Caius and Morgant approaching she sighed, stood up and said: “Argh. Yah. Gah. The dog ate my left ventricle. You want a double reading or just the one?”
“How much for a double?” asked Morgant.
“Argh. Argh. Watching me, all of them. Seven sestinas.”
“Double, then. These things are fun.”
Oracular Orlanda nodded. “Oog. Ooo. Ooo ooo oog. The fat one broke my window. Have a seat, please.”
“Ah, Morgant …” Caius began.
“Shh, Caius. You’ll spoil the mood.”
Caius pulled a stool up to the altar, sitting down slowly as the tiny old lady produced a deck of gilt cards and dealt them both two each. Then she sat back, waiting.
Morgant picked his up and stared at them for a moment.
“Hit me,” he said.
The old oracle dealt him another card.
“Ah, hell, I’m bust.” The elf looked expectantly at Caius. “What are you waiting for? Any luck?”
“I hope these are your sestinas we’re spending,” Caius said tightly. “I’m trying to answer the delicate question of my father’s identity, Morgant, not win the horse and carriage!”
“Fweep-fweep-fweep,” said Orlanda, watching Caius coolly. “Look at your cards, young man.”
“If I wanted to play blackjack, I –“
“Topiary in my bedroom. Life is blackjack.”
For a moment Caius paused, waiting for her to come out with her slightly more lucid comment at the end. Then he realised that she’d apparently given it. “What?”
“Just take the cheese and run. Wah. Life is blackjack. You look at what you already have, and you weigh up whether it’s enough. Or you take another card.”
“I always do,” Morgant put in cheerfully.
Caius looked down at his cards. “Thrilling. Well, I have the Seven of Cups …”
“It’s no use firing the orange one. Stay grounded. Concentrate on what you can achieve. Do not be distracted by attractive dreams.”
“… and the Eight of Wands.”
“Purple manatee. That’ll teach them not to gargle. Great change offers great opportunity and great danger. No path is safe. Success and disaster are both at hand.”
“Yes, yes, good. So my total is fifteen.”
Orlanda continued to stare evenly at him, drumming thin old fingers on the altar.
“I don’t understand,” Caius said. “If I’m playing blackjack, whose hand am I supposed to beat?”
“Take the lobster shopping. No way, no way.” The old oracle grinned for the first time, her face feathering and folding into a life-map of wrinkles. “There’s no competition. Some people are happy with fifteen. Others want the full twenty-one.”
“Go on!” Morgant urged, but the oracle frowned and shook her old head.
“Three out of four prefer colic. Weezle, weezle. No, Acarthian, this is his choice.”
Caius gave an irritable shrug. Dramatic mysticism annoyed him. “Fine, give me another card.”
“You have to say ‘hit me’,” Morgant said.
“Fine, hit me- agh!”
“Ha-hah! … Sorry, sorry. Never gets old, that one.”
“Bip-pip-a-dip,” intoned Orlanda as Caius nursed his blackening eye. “Make sure you understand, first. There are cards you can choose that will give you your twenty-one … and there are cards that will make you go bust.”
“Yes, I know how the game works,” Caius retorted. “Hi- … give me another card.”
The oracle dealt another card, laying it flat on the table.
“They’re in the ceiling, in the ceiling, I know they are. The Ace of Swords,” said the old woman. “Treasure your intellect and all that it tells you. Only clear thinking will save you from misfortune. Now, Caius Chetienne, how do you feel about a hand of sixteen?”
“Just give me another card. This is silly.”
“Prosperity and parsley. I think it might be, yes,” said Orlanda. “Ah, well … it’s your choice …”
She laid down another card.
“A throw-rug tells no lies. Grah. The Knight of Swords.” The oracle gave a grim nod. “The trials ahead of you are immense. Do not necessarily anticipate success. Plan for every contingency.”
“Twenty-six! A bust!” crowed Morgant.
Caius heaved a weary sigh and stood up from his stool. “Oh, well, game over, many thanks for the diverting –“
“Your father is Ostaron the Thunder Lord, Stormbringer of the Pantheon,” Orlanda said. “If you wish to claim your divine birthright, you must go to the Pantheon and speak with him. Take my pegasus, it’s out the back.”
“Beg pardon?” Caius echoed, turning back and staring at her in surprise, but the old woman just stared back flintily.
“Foozle foozle, help me find the refreshments,” she replied.
“Thanks, goodbye!” Morgant called, taking Caius by the arm and accelerating at the mention of ‘pegasus’. Caius had little choice but to be dragged, watching the candlelit altar and the diminutive old oracle disappear around the corner. “Wow, nice of her to tell you all that even after you’d gone bust! Wonder where this pegasus is ..?”
“Did you pay the sestinas, Morgant?”
“Shh. Keep moving.”
Something about the parting glint in old Orlanda’s dark eyes made Caius wish he’d taken all the silliness perhaps just a bit more seriously. He endured the feeling in silence for a while, emerging into Colchar’s pale daylight with a squint through his good eye.
“What’s it mean when you go bust, Morgant?” he asked suddenly as they walked around the side of the massive boulder, stepping over the ‘Mad Employees Only’ pickets.
“Don’t know. Never got the game,” said the Acarthian, untroubled. “Seems to me that twenty-six is five better than twenty-one. …Ah, here’s the little beggar.”
The little beggar was a magnificent grey horse with a cloudy white pair of translucent wings, fluttering around in dizzy, happy circles with one leg tethered to a big rock.
Caius stood for a moment and watched the pegasus joyfully orbiting at the rope’s end.
“Might have to throw something,” observed Morgant.
“No, I think we need more drastic measures,” the Lestite replied acridly. “How about we try calling it, or whistling?”
“Oh, great, you mean like ‘here, boy! here, fluffy horse!’ There’s a – gah!”
Morgant and Caius both hit the deck as the pegasus abruptly swooped, dropping to earth and skittering around excitedly on the spot. When they failed to get up, it flapped off a little way across its enclosure, then came flapping back with a fluffy toy in its mouth, dropping it next to Morgant’s head.
“Maybe I should hate pegasuses,” said the Acarthian contemplatively.
“Pegasi,” said Caius. “Ah, there’s a good boy! What a good boy! You want to go for a wa- a fly?”
The pegasus swooshed straight up in the air, then down again, prancing eagerly around Caius as the Lestite strode over to untether it. After taking a moment to untie his ankles from all its excited loopings, he drew up a stepladder the oracle seemed to have left for the purpose, climbed up and settled down uneasily on the happy creature’s back.
Just out of curiosity, he reached down to try to touch one of the pegasus’s cloudy, eagerly trembling wings, but his outstretched fingers passed right through.
“That can’t be altogether safe,” observed Morgant brightly, vaulting up through the translucent wings to land behind Caius. “All right, horse, mush! Giddy-up! Hyah!”
“Just wait a –“ snapped Caius, but in the rush of air and wings that followed, there was no time for anything as torpid as a moment.
As a boy, sitting happily on Mum’s splotchy black-and-white back, Caius had often enjoyed having Dad read to them both from Bleakk’s Big Book of Stories. Like most old-school children’s books, it had contained more violence than a continental invasion, and Caius had loved it.
In one of the stories, the hero had been forced to foot-race a foe who actually turned out to be Thought. Naturally, the hero had been beaten by the speed of Thought. And then he had been beaten to death, as was usually the case in Bleakk’s stories.
What the hero had clearly needed was a pegasus.
‘Speed’ wasn’t the word for this sort of movement. Even directions couldn’t catch it up. There may well have been an amazing view of the world below (or above, or to the right), but at this point, both sight and the world just didn’t seem to be around any more. Caius’s vision swam with colours and lights, though he knew for a fact that his eyes were tightly shut; everything around him, even his body, felt like water. He couldn’t feel the pegasus he was supposedly clinging to – very distressing, that – and couldn’t feel Morgant’s arms around his waist, which was less distressing.
“ ” said Morgant from somewhere in the liquid, timeless world.
Perhaps the pegasus wouldn’t have been a match for Thought after all. There was certainly enough time to think about how air disappeared when you climbed too high, how even water became like a slab of granite to land on …
Caius shooed those thoughts away quickly, but they were replaced by others. The more he mulled over this whole situation – gods, oracles, Acarthians – the stranger it began to feel. It wasn’t that he doubted the reality of it terribly much; it was more the implications of things being so.
‘My father is a god.’ It would be very easy to stop the thought there and start counting one’s palaces. But Caius was good at letting thoughts run their full course. If his father was a god, his mother had been that pleasant-tempered heifer in the paddocks. His other dad … well, had still been fairly mad, but not in the sense everyone had always believed.
This was going to be a strange sort of family reunion. And Caius had no idea what he was going to say. ‘Dad, why’d you turn Mum into a cow?’ just didn’t seem to cut it.
The more he thought it over, the more it really, really bothered him …
“-moment,” said Caius.
Time, the world and vision all hurried back to their posts. The pegasus was now on a deceptively gentle glide down towards a gleaming silver landing strip, gently cushioned in puffy cauliflowers of clouds.
They had arrived at the Pantheon.
The Queen's Man
Of Vampires and Steaks
|Fire-Heart: The Siege Begins|