See those two women glaring at each other, the one in the green, and the one in the blue? There's enough hatred there to heat a barn through a blizzard. You usually don't see both temples out in the open like this; if necromancers are in charge, worshipping Elethay will get you killed, and if Elethay is in charge, worshipping Jikadell will get you killed. Of course, when you realize that most of Jikadell's yellow girls are really just whorehouse slaves, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that most of them pray to Elethay every night for rescue. And both of those women know it, and both of them go to sleep every night thinking about it. The difference is that the one in blue laughs, and the one in green cries.
--Leod, the Storyteller of Freepost
Stragus summoned his servants from wherever they had been hiding, and the group carried Philo away. To me, Stragus would only say that I was to go to the temple, introduce myself, and say that I was a guest of Baron Braghia. He seemed envious of me; I was beginning to be envious of Philo.
I was tired, and sore, and feeling VERY alone; the idea of spending a night in the Warp Queen's whorehouse did not appeal to me at all. On the other hand, refusing was likely to offend Sojourner, and that was not something I wanted to deal with either. With luck, I would be able to plead my injuries, find a place to sleep, and bypass most of the problems.
When Elethay is presented in three phases, they are the Red Warrior, the Green Mother, and the Gray Sage. Jikadell's counterparts to these are the Yellow Harlot, the Blue Dominatrix, and the Black Sorceress. Not much contest, to my mind, but Jikadell offers the incentive of Warp Magic, and that makes the difference, sometimes. It did for the Haskalads, anyway. And this was a Haskalad city, and I was standing on the threshold of a Haskalad Temple.
The male door wardens passed me without comment; once inside, I introduced myself to a scantily clad female who cringed at every word I spoke. She led me into the temple, and moments later I was standing before a scaled and winged woman who might have been the sister of Sojourner's pet, except that this one had intelligence to match the malice in her eyes. I didn't think we were likely to be friends.
"You?" she hissed. "You're Braghia's new protégé? How... sad." We stared at each other for some moments. "I suppose I should introduce myself, but I really can't be bothered." She glared at one of her attendants. "Take him to the West Suite, and keep him out of my sight as he leaves." The indicated girl beckoned to me urgently; I shrugged and followed.
The first thing I saw when I entered the West Suite was the girl, and my eyes rebelled, so I took in the rest of the room. It was dominated by a large bed that looked comfortable, if you neglected the manacles; the walls were decorated with a wide assortment of minor torture devices. I closed my eyes and clenched my teeth.
I heard the door close behind me and steeled myself to look at the girl. She was a Farrilan elf, dressed in a minimal combination of sheer silks and brooches. She was sitting on her heels, and her hands clasped her ankles; her head was bowed, and she was trembling slightly. She said, "How my I serve my master?" without looking up.
I shook my head and bit back a laugh; this was not a situation I had expected. I knelt in front of the girl, lifted her chin to reveal an ethereally beautiful face, and said softly, "You can start by not being afraid, and by telling me your name."
"You're an orc! I thought you were going to be a warpspawn!" She seemed genuinely surprised, but then she realized what she had done. "I mean... My name is Chalice Autumnleaf, master."
I shook my head. "Quill, Chalice, not 'Master'. And all I want is a good night's sleep; I've been battered too much to care about anything else. So PLEASE stop being afraid."
She looked into my face. "Battered? By the Lady! Both of your eyes have been blackened! What happened?" She seemed genuinely concerned, and it distracted her from her fear.
"I won a fight I knew better than getting into. I'll heal."
"I can help," she said. "I can make a poultice, and there are spells..."
"No magic." I didn't quite bark it; Chalice recoiled as if I had hit her. "I have to accept the bed by the rules of hospitality, but I want nothing of Jikadell's magic. Understood?" I pulled off my boots and shirt, got into bed, and tried to sleep.
Chalice left the room briefly, and returned with some sort of paste that she applied to my face, and then she tied a bandage full of the stuff to my shoulder. She talked softly to herself as she worked; I didn't pay much attention. Then suddenly I felt SOMETHING...
I sat up with a lurch and clamped her wrist in my hand. "I said NO MAGIC." I forced her to her knees with pressure and torsion; her face contorted with pain.
"Witchcraft," she gasped, as tears started to flow. "Elethay's magic."
"You're a witch?" I let her go. "In a Jikadell temple?" She nodded; she was beginning to sob. I put my hands on her shoulders and pulled her into my arms. "I am sorry I hurt you. What happened? How did a witch end up as a Jikadell whore?" Her only answer was to bury her head against my chest and continue sobbing. I let her cry herself out; there didn't seem to be much other choice. Eventually she got control of herself and told me her story.
She had been an acolyte in an Elethay temple in a place called Arecha, which my mental maps told me was several hundred miles to the west. She had had a vision about the fate of a famous artifact, and had followed it to the Celestial Kingdom, and then into the Haskalad Empire, where she had been enslaved and made to serve Jikadell. She had changed hands several times before arriving in Lechmoor, and now her quest had come to a very different end than she had envisioned.
"Always before, I had been planning to escape, but now... they need me. Most of the other... women... here are Elethay worshippers at heart, and they look to me for healing, and for guidance. Clytemnestra thinks we are all disposable, and only cares about the Haskalads that are working as acolytes of the Yellow Harlot until they can become priestesses of the Blue Dominatrix. So even if I knew where to go next, I don't think I could leave without a clear sign from the Lady that it was her will..."
I held her tightly against my side and stroked her hair with my free hand. "And what is it that you have been chasing, Chalice? What is this precious artifact? And where do you think it is?"
"It's an Alicorn. Or it was... One of my ancestors was a unicorn, and died in that form... With his own consent, his horn was made into a dagger; it is tied to Scavian the Boatman, somehow."
"I begin to see why you have been chasing it." I paused for a moment, and summoned what I knew of the legends of the Boatman. "How is it tied to Scavian?"
"It can be used to summon him, sometimes even to places he would not normally go. I'm not sure how it works, I just know where it is. Or at least I have an idea."
"And what would that idea be?" I asked. "I have a great number of maps in my head, maybe I can help you." Chalice looked into my eyes, wondering if she could trust me. "I swear to you by the Lady we both serve that, if I should ever have this dagger in my hands, I will see that it is returned to you, or to your people in Arecha. Good enough?"
She smiled. "Good enough." She pulled herself closer to me, and talked into my shoulder. "The last person to have the alicorn dagger was a distant aunt of mine, the sister of my great, great grandmother, who was also named Chalice. In my dream, she is high on the side of a mountain; ahead of her is the mountain peak, and it looks... evil, somehow. And behind her there is a ridge of mountains, and at the far end there is a single mountain that seems to be glowing white.
"And then there is a rockslide," she continued. "Chalice is buried beneath it, and the Alicorn with her. She dies there. But then, over the years, a large tree grows up, and its roots find Chalice's body, and wrap themselves around her. And then there is a great storm, and the tree is uprooted, and Chalice's remains, and the alicorn dagger, are pulled back to the surface. And the very last thing in the dream is a view of Chalice's skeleton, and what remains of her clothing, and I can see the brooch she was using to hold her cloak closed. It is a vertical oval, with a black stone at the top, and a white stone in the center, with line or a connection between the two."
I thought about that, and my mind went back to Jasmine drawing in the flour on the countertop, and the things I had learned about Kanchaka geography since then. "Do you have any idea what it means, Chalice?"
"Not really." She rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling; her face was very sad in the dim light. "I went to the Celestial Kingdom to look at maps, but never found any that helped. And I have seen brooches like that; I even bought one. I found out that they came from the Kanchaka valley, but no one could explain what they meant. So I tried to come here, and, well, I guess I succeeded. But not very well. And I still don't know where the dagger is."
I chuckled. "Then again..." I propped my head on my left hand, and reached across Chalice's body with my right. I touched her side above her left hip with my right finger. "This is the pass into the Haskalad Empire." I ran my finger up to her ribs, then around the base of her ribcage, down to her right hip, and and back across to the left. "Mountains." I indicated her navel. "A pristine mountain called Goldentooth." I ran my finger up the shallow furrow to the base of her breastbone. "Blighted ridge. And here..." I tapped the base of her breastbone. "Is a highly warped mountain called Blackwater. And I am willing to bet there is an uprooted tree somewhere on its south face."
Chalice propped herself on her elbows and stared at the invisible map I had drawn. "And where are we?" she asked; her voice trembled.
I indicated a point just below her ribs and left of the center. "About here. Less than a hundred miles, I think."
Chalice continued to stare, and started to shake her head. "So close. But... Quill, what should I do? What CAN I do?"
"Can you stand to stay here a while longer?" I asked; she nodded. "Then let me get it, and bring it to you. And in the meantime perhaps the Lady will tell you if she wants you to stay here." There was a long silence as she continued to stare at her abdomen, then she pounced on me and hugged me fiercely enough to make my injured shoulder twinge.
After a moment, I said, "Can I please get some sleep now?" Chalice pulled away and looked at me with curiousity; I could only shake my head. "This is a temple to Jikadell. I do not want to do ANYTHING that could be taken as an act of worship to her. You should understand that." Chalice nodded and started to get up; I took her hand. "But you're welcome to share the bed, if you would like. I am only concerned about what the goddesses know; I don't care about appearances." Chalice smiled at that, and relaxed. I kissed her hand, and fell asleep.
Sometime later I found myself awake, watching Chalice sleep with an uncomfortable combination of affection and raw lust. I saw a human male materialize out of the stone wall and quietly scoop up most of the contents of the food platter Chalice and I hadn't touched. I realized that he had his eye on the pile of my belongings, and I clicked my tongue. He was startled for a moment, then looked right at me and smiled. He bowed, made a rude gesture, and dissolved back into the wall.
In the morning, I asked Chalice about our visitor while I was dressing to leave. She was aware of him, but didn't know much more about him than I did.
"We call him the Hungry Ghost, or just Ghost," she said. "No one knows where he comes from, though we think it must be somewhere inside the temple grounds. Sometimes he even talks to some of the girls, but only to ask them questions. "
I arrived at the ferry pier in the false dawn, and watched 'Bacco arrive at the pier across the river and prepare the ferry for its first crossing, then cross to me. I jumped on before the ferry touched the pier, and 'Bacco switched directions to take me home. I leaned heavily against the south rail of the ferry as I watched him. We were in the middle of the river when the sun's first rays hit us, and they turned the entire river to gold. I felt the sun on my face, and closed my eyes.
"Long night?" 'Bacco asked.
"Tobacco, my friend," I answered, "The Lady Elethay is occasionally cruel, and can have a wicked sense of humor." He didn't answer that, and I continued. "I spent the night in the arms of a beautiful woman, in a brothel no less, and the result is that I am frustrated beyond imagining. And for the sake of the Lady, and my own conscience, I cannot even WISH that things were any different." I shook my head and shrugged.
'Bacco giggled, and then I giggled, and then 'Bacco snorted, and eventually 'Bacco was stretched full length on the deck of the ferry, pounding the planks with his fists, while I attempted to operate the windlass. 'Bacco's blows echoed across the river in the morning quiet. His hat fell off, and I used it to drench him in river water, which calmed him down a bit. He left me to turn the windlass until we were close enough for me to jump, though. He was still giggling as he pulled back across the river to take up his morning's station on the east shore.
I had opened the smithy and stoked the forge before I noticed the bundle on the floor; there was a note attached to it that read, "A smart gambler always tips the winner. -Perrin." I opened the bundle to find a greatsword that was fitted with gilga claws to match the dagger Perrin had given me earlier. I unwrapped it carefully and swung it through a few flourishes; it was as beautiful to handle as it was to look at.
I turned to see Perrin leaning against the doorway smiling at me. "You earned it, boy," he said, and there was a note of genuine affection in his voice. "Now put it away and get back here; you've still got yesterday's work to do."