Pinborton collects the group of four (Septimus, Marina, Trink and Yachak) at the appointed time at Romerto’s, and slips them into a private carriage. The ride takes about 20 minutes before they pass through the gates of the Grinborian estate, where guards check the lawyer’s identity before letting them pass. Septimus’ emotions are mixed as they approach the mansion that he had fled so many years before, but there seems nothing threatening about it now. After years of neglect, it appears that Countess has made a sincere effort to restore the property to its former glory.
Inside, they are ushered into a sitting room where other guards inform them they must relinquish their weapons before entering the presence of the Countess. Such security is not always observed at the great estates, where decorative rapiers and jeweled daggers are often considered de rigueur on formal occasions, but given Matreya’s foreign origins and the party’s own assortment of unknown quantities, this precaution does not strike Septimus as unreasonably cautious under the circumstances. The guards efficiently locate every last blade and blunt implement the guests are carrying, including Yachak’s staff and Trink’s collection of kusari weights. Only the silken rope dart itself, wrapped demurely around her waist, escapes their notice as the deadly weapon it is.
Yachak is pensive as they are led into the waiting room outside the Countess’s office. His oracle had been relatively chatty that morning, doling out its typical string of inscrutable hints with more snap and verve than normally filter through its disinterested drone: “Be careful what you wish for. Today is heavy with portent, ripe for the achievement of goals. But some goals, once attained, yield more questions than answers. Choose your loyalties with care; your decisions this day will have great impact.” Yachak has no more idea what this means in a specific sense than usual, but the warnings have made him quietly watchful all day, and it is in this opulent residence that the events of the day seem to be coming to some kind of head. He stays at the back of the group, and tries to observe every detail.
As Pinborton leads them into the lavishly furnished room, the Countess is seated behind a huge, ornate desk, bent over some documents. She is dressed elegantly in a ruffled silk blouse and a brimmed hat with a bit of veiling coming down over the front obscuring her eyes. She is still talking to a young man standing in front of the desk.
“…not what I asked for, but it’s a start. They’re not nearly detailed enough. I want the yield projections broken down by crop with a margin of error that takes weather and pest cycles into account. I’ve already explained to them how to do that. And this expense report. I’m not going to accept a miscellaneous expense figure that’s 40% of the total. Tell Migram that if he doesn’t know how it was spent, make his best guess for this report and keep better records next month. I guess that’s all for now. I have another meeting. I’ll keep making notes and give them to you this afternoon.”
The secretary nods and hustles himself out. Pinborton steps closer to the desk and motions for the others to follow, but he makes no effort to introduce the guests until she speaks to him first, which she eventually does without yet having looked up from the papers. “A minute, Pin.” While they are waiting, two of the guards from the hallway brush past and take up positions a few feet away from her on either side of the desk. She goes on reading and making notes with a quill for a few moments more, then pushes all the papers together and shoves them aside, looking at her lawyer for the first time.
Attentive to his cue, he steps forward. “Countess, allow me to present—“
“The Karradevelia group, yes I know.” Looking past him she favors them with a glance. “I thought there were more of you.”
Septimus steps forward, bows, and says, “Yes indeed, m’lady, but this is all of the group that could be mustered on short notice.”
“I see. Well please have a seat.” She gestures to some armchairs in the center. “Pin, be so kind as to give us the room, will you?” The lawyer bows and hastens out, and the Countess addresses Septimus, having picked him out of the crowd as the obvious spokesman. “Pin tells me the Lady Vastavika has been taken to a secure location. Are you confident that she is safe from this manhunt that seems to be rampant at the moment?”
“I am indeed, as secure as we can be under the circumstances given the lack of precedent to the upheavals in the normal order of things.”
“Good. Had I known her plight, I would of course have offered her the sanctuary of my estate. Consider it an open invitation should her present circumstances require adjustment. I can guarantee you that she would receive the best possible care under my protection.”
“That is most gracious, and I will convey to her your invitation.”
“You’re the magician. You’ve been missed on the social circuit these past few days. Your lady admirers are wondering why you haven’t yet made your big splash performance to launch the season.”
“As I’m sure you’re well aware, other events have overtaken us. But obviously I regret not being able to meet the expectations of my, um, fandom.”
For the first time she flashes him a small grin. “Oh sir, surely the preponderance of regret falls on their empty heads.” Scanning the rest of the group, she adds, “And who else have we here?”
Septimus starts with the meticulously hooded Trink, who casts her eyes down as her name is spoken and merely mumbles, “My Lady.” Realizing how little information he has of her origins with which to embellish Marina’s introduction, he simply refers to her as an envoy from the north, which Marina acknowledges with a nod. He gestures finally towards Yachak, but before he can say the name, the Countess gasps loudly, and interrupts with a breathless statement in a strange language.* Yachak’s jaw drops, and he involuntarily blurts out a single word:
The stunned silence extends for several moments as Yachak’s friends absorb the fact that he has replied to her in Nimmo’s language. Matreya is attempting to stare more closely at her son, but finds herself hindered by the lace falling from the brim of her hat, and she finally just flicks it from her head, letting it sail to the floor behind her. The others now fully behold her striking face for the first time, with almond eyes and delicately chiseled features, whose beauty is scarcely marred by the years implied by the possession of an adult son. There is one other member of the group besides Yachak, however, for whom that face triggers no sudden spark of admiration, but rather the cold shock of recognition. Trink abruptly breaks her gaze and looks sideways.
“Well, then…” says Matreya quietly, realizing from their expressions that everyone has understood what Yachak blurted. She appears confused, and the air of command has gone out of her voice. “So you know…” Then she rallies her thoughts and continues in Timble-tainian. “I’m sorry, but you have me at a bit of a disadvantage here. Would you all be willing to excuse me for a moment while I have a word with my son? I find myself somewhat speechless at this development.”
Septimus says “Of course” and rises to lead the others out of the room. As he approaches the exit, Trink catches up to him and has an urgent, whispered exchange which the others do not hear. Before they can get all the way out the door, however, Yachak recognizes what’s happening and, remembering what the oracle had said that morning about momentous decisions, speaks out in the one tongue they all hold in common, the one which everyone in the party except he himself learned from Nimmo. “Guys, you don’t have to go. Mother, these are my friends. I trust them. What you have to say to me, you can say to all of us.”
Anger clouds Matreya’s exquisite face. “This is your decision? You’ve cast your lot with them?”
“Yes. We have been travelling and working together with a common goal, and I have no reason not to trust them.”
She takes a few moments to process the situation, and forces her features back into composure. “Very well, I suppose, then…everyone have a seat. I must apologize for the unexpected drama here, but as you have now surmised, I am indeed related to one of your number. Yachak is my son. Do you all understand what I’m saying in this language?” They assure her they do. “I had expected to enter upon this subject more delicately, but here we are. Apparently you are all acquaintances with this gentleman, the one Vastavika knows, I believe, as ‘Nimmo’?”
“He is our good friend,” says Marina.
“May I inquire as to the nature of your relationship with him?”
Septimus says “Well, for my part, he has been friend and mentor to me for some number of years now. I count him as a close friend whom I don’t see but one season a year, but close nevertheless.”
“Here in this city?”
“For how long, exactly?”
“It would be the better part of a decade now.”
She shakes her head at that information, and mutters, as if to herself, “He’s been here that long, all this time, virtually under our noses.” Nodding at Marina, she says, “How about you?”
“For my part, I come from a land far to the north. I didn’t see him often or for long periods, but he was a great source of knowledge and counsel for me personally and, through me, for my people.”
Matreya takes this in without remark. Trying to meet Trink’s gaze, she says “What about you, girl? What’s your story?”
Still avoiding direct eye contact, Trink responds, “I’m nobody, Ma’am.”
This causes Matreya to look more closely at Trink, until recognition begins to dawn in her face. “I know who you are. I remember now, I know where I’ve seen you…. So you DID get away. I wondered what happened to you. You caused quite a stir down in Surregaard.”
Matreya tries to keep her voice soft and sympathetic, but can’t resist pressing the interrogation. “So you knew him at that time. How long?”
“It was several years by then, since the time I discovered him.”
“What I told you then, I still stand by, you know.”
Finally looking her in the eyes, Trink responds, “And I still don’t believe you.”
Matreya stares at her for a few moments and says evenly, “Well, as long as we both know where we stand.” When no one else says anything, she gathers her thoughts and begins addressing them as a group. “Since my son has seen fit to include you all in our personal story, I will reveal what I can. Yachak, you know I never told you much about my life before I met your father. I’m afraid I still am not at liberty to explain myself fully. But suffice it to say that there were obligations I had incurred before you were born which came back to haunt me, and I was called away against every fiber of my being. At first I hoped the absence would be brief, but it has not turned out that way. My…objectives, shall we say, have proved more elusive than I could have imagined.”
“But you were a doctor,” protests Yachak. “You helped a lot of people.”
She sighs. “Yes, that was a simple but fulfilling life. I assumed I had made a clean break with the past, and I was intent on living out my remaining days as a wife and mother, and performing those services for the countryfolk at your father’s side. But fate has commanded otherwise. My greatest regret, and my deepest apologies, my son, are for my unforgivable abandonment. I simply had no choice. I fervently wish that events will allow me to make things right with you in the few years I have left, but the future has yet to be written. May I ask, how were things with your father when you left him?”
“After you left, he seemed to lose interest in life. Within a few months, he started descending into the Madness. I tried to cover for him for a while, but he became so angry and unpredictable that I had to keep him away from people. Finally, some of his old patients in Parufa kindly offered to take him in, and care for him until the end. There wasn’t anything else I could do for him. He wouldn’t even talk to me, as if he blamed me for you going away. I decided the only thing for me to do was to go out and try to find you, maybe get you to come back and do for him what you’ve done for others at the end. You know, that way you have of comforting them, calming them down before they die. I headed west out of our territory. But instead of finding you, I found Nimmo and Marina, and she needed my help. So I stayed with her, became friends with her and with James, and I followed them here. I never knew Nimmo the way these other did, but I feel like I’m connected with him somehow. It’s important that I find him. And anyway, looking for him has brought me back together with you. But as for father, well, it’s been too long. I don’t see how he can possibly still be alive.”
There are tears now in Matreya’s eyes, and she looks lost and vulnerable. “I’m so sorry to hear that. It breaks my heart that I had to do that to you, and I wish I could have been there to nurse him through his final days, as I had always intended. But making it necessary for me to leave you both is just one more little crime that I must lay at the feet of the man you all profess to love so much. We will get to the bottom of this, and I will call him to account if it’s the last thing I do, which as it looks, may not be very far off. I’m younger than your father was, as you know, but not by all that much.”
“Am I going to have this madness too?” Yachak asks her.
“As far as I know, no cure for it exists,” she says with sudden sharpness, “although generations of healers have spent their lives searching for one. Over time, their toils and sacrifices have succeeded in pushing the disease off a few more years, and we have gained the power ease the suffering to some degree. But I only know of one man in this world who has lived beyond this short stretch of time we are given. And that man is the elephant in this room, the overarching topic which we keep avoiding. As Trink here is no doubt eager to tell you, I have a different opinion of this man you call Nimmo. However, I must admit that I am apparently at a disadvantage to each of you in the sense that I have never had the opportunity to meet him in person.”
“Perhaps that would explain the difference of opinion.” puts in Marina.
“No doubt. For the time being, and for the sake of civil discussion, I shall attempt to suspend judgment. But make no mistake, I will not be easily seduced. I am not the only one here whose information is incomplete. His reputation was forged long before any of you were born. I was taught as a child to fear and curse his name.”
Marina answers, “I agree that there’s a lot I don’t know about him, so I will not attempt to persuade you one way or the other. I appreciate your willingness to be neutral in the discussion.”
“Very well, I will restrain my prejudice as well as I can. But it brings up an important question: Just how much of his past did he in fact reveal to you? Has he told you of his childhood, of his early career?” She fixes each of them with her gaze in turn.”
“No,” murmurs Marina. “I hardly knew anything about him.”
“Then how do you know you can trust him?”
Trink rises to the defense. “No! But the judge of a person’s character isn’t from knowing what their childhood was.”
“Just so,” acknowledges Matreya. “But a person can portray any character he wishes when his acquaintances are new. If I’m not mistaken, you were all at a rather impressionable age when he, shall we say, took you under his wing. Would that be a fair statement?”
“Well he helped me escape from captivity,” rejoins Trink. “What do YOU know about him?”
Matreya seems about to snap something back at that, but hesitates. She looks down at the desk for a few moments and carefully thinks out her response. “I’m afraid I am forced to demure on that question for the time being. I am on uncertain ground here. There is a great deal that I am not at liberty to disclose. On that basis, I will withdraw my challenge to your loyalty, and acknowledge your right in turn to reveal only what you wish me to know about your past experiences.”
Marina says, “I know that I don’t want to disclose too much about my dealings with him either, but I will say that with his help, many lives were protected and saved under dangerous circumstances. And that being the case, if he had some sort of dark secret, I would have to weigh both of those things evenly. He’s been a great help.”
Matreya acknowledges this and turns to Septimus. “Am I misinformed, sir, that the Lady Vastavika recently denounced her consort publicly and professes to have been betrayed by him?”
“No, milady. In fact, she did that on my advice and only under the duress of the threat of interrogation by Inspector Crimner.”
“Ah yes, Crimner. We haven’t even spoken about him yet, even though he was the original purpose for this meeting. Well, I hope you will forgive me for having found her declaration to be entirely plausible when I first heard it. But again, I will attempt to remain civil here. So how is it that you have run afoul of this Crimner character?”
Septimus launches into a dramatic account of the persecutions Vastavika has suffered, with special attention to the underhanded nature of her abduction and incarceration by the Inspector.
“But do you know what motivated this?” asks Matreya. “What did he have against her.?”
“He was in fact trying to learn more of Nimmo.”
“Ah,” she says, getting a faraway look. “I might have known…. He’s one of THEM.” Focusing back on Septimus, she continues, “ Very well. It seems that his interference has been a fortuitous development for me. I will in fact assist you in this matter to the extent I hold any sway with the Council, and I hope my good faith in this matter will contribute to a dialog among us.”
“Well, milady, you seem very reasonable. It presents us all with a difficult situation as you may well appreciate, because it’s very hard to reconcile what you’re presenting to us with what we all know of our dealings with Nimmo. We’ve never seen any side of this inhuman monster that you apparently paint him to be.”
“Just so. Perhaps you will be able to paint a better picture of him for me. I will certainly be interested to hear what you have to say. Has he explained anything to you about his motives, what he does, where he goes, outside of the time he has spent with you? For that matter, how is that you have all known him over the same space of time?”
“I don’t know,” says Trink.
With her compulsion for honesty, Marina offers, “Since he was only around for short periods of time, I understood that he travelled extensively and collected both information and artifacts.”
“Artifacts?” prompts the Countess. “I can imagine that. Did he tell you what his interest in these artifacts was?”
“All in the name of knowledge and their usefulness was my understanding. He only ever shared with me what was useful in my circumstances.”
“I see. So it sounds like he did not teach you about ancient history, or offer much of a historical perspective on the items he was seeking. Would that be fair to say?”
“No, he didn’t, and I admit I didn’t press him at the time because I had more urgent things to deal with.”
“Fair enough. So you were under attack?”
“Indeed. My people are the survivors of a series of invasions from Ragrameer.”
“I am aware of the city.”
“Are you aware of the man in charge there?”
“Yes, I have had dealings with Warlord Gravak. You have my sympathies. He was pursuing you to the south?” When Marina nods, she adds, “You were fleeing to the ruins of Mihahk?”
“Yes, that’s where we took refuge. Jeruman, I mean Nimmo, led us there because he knew it would be defensible.”
“When were you last there?”
“About seven months ago. It was a long journey. I traveled with Yachak.”
“Then I can offer you some news of your people, perhaps 2 months old. They were doing very well.”
“News!” cries Marina. “How did you come by this news?”
“I have…friends in the area. I travel a fair amount, and I hear reports. The peace has held so far, and the Warlord has been behaving himself. For a while there was some danger of incursions from Asterhelm, but those seem to have subsided at last report.”
“Asterhelm!? Then no more of my people have been taken there?”
“Had this occurred? I wasn’t aware.”
“Yes, my closest friends were abducted by the knights, the soldiers.”
“I’m afraid I can’t provide any information about your friends, but Asterhelm has been under somewhat of a strain lately. Like Ragrameer to the west, it has not been in a position to make trouble for its neighbors for some months now. It might be that I could inquire of some sources and see what I can find out about them.”
“I would be in your debt.”
“Was the metal monster destroyed?” pipes up Yachak.
Matreya gives him a level look. “You are disconcertingly well informed of events in the area, son. What have you heard of such a…phenomenon?”
“I was attacked by this creature!” exclaims Marina, “or…whatever it is.”
“Hmm. This borders on topics I am not able to discuss. But what you speak of was indeed destroyed. You were not told?”
“I – ” Marina struggles with some of her most difficult memories. “I was not entirely aware. I was close to it when there was a great calamity and I lost consciousness. Yachak was able to look after me, with the help of Nimmo.”
“Dear me. So Nimmo was there at that time?” Matreya interest is sparked.
Marina is flustered as she realizes she may be saying too much, but she can’t help herself. “I’m not sure if I saw him there, exactly, but I think he…might have rescued me. We didn’t see him again until later, near Asterhelm…” she trails off at an alarmed look from Septimus.
“Well,” says Matreya when it’s clear Marina has stopped talking. “this would at least help to explain your devotion to the man.”
Trink says, “Well, I don’t know anything about his background or how he found me or what his motives might have been. I owe him my life. He was instrumental in my escape from my oppressed lifestyle, and I expected that I would be able to find him. I hoped he would be able to teach me more, but of course, since finding his other friends in this group, I have found my path to learning about the world beyond the one I was raised in. I would like to learn more about him.”
“That’s all very touching,” says Matreya. “So do I understand correctly that you do not at present know his whereabouts?”
“We think we know SOMETHING about his whereabouts…” begins Trink.
“Well,” interrupts Septimus, “Only in that we think he’s been captured. He failed to show up this season as he has done for the past decade.”
“When did that customarily occur in this town?”
“Just this past week. He generally timed his arrival at the start of the festival season.”
Matreya nods thoughtfully. “So my recent appearance on the scene and the pressure I put on Vastavika may have been more sensitively timed than I had any idea. Well, I feel like you’ve been very honest with me, so I will attempt to tell you what I can. I am of course in pursuit of this man, and it is my primary mission to find him for purposes of my own. My reason for coming to this city was in response to certain clues we received that he might have some ties to this area. Before I got established here and was able to do some digging, we had no idea how much time he had spent here, or that he had made it one of his bases of operation. I bought this estate in order to insinuate myself into local society in the hopes of picking up his trail, which I have now succeeded in doing beyond my expectations. My sole interest in Karadevelia, once I had heard of Vastavika and the story of her liaison with the mysterious white-haired man, was to gain unrestricted access to the place where he lived, in order to assess whatever clues might be hidden there. Obviously, through your interventions, that scene has now been compromised, more or less, though I would still like to secure it for the sake of whatever evidence it may yet conceal. I wish to reiterate, however, that I have no wish to harm Vastavika or turn her out of her house. If some arrangement could be made to guarantee her comfort at whichever location she prefers in exchange for the unfettered right to examine the Chateau, I would readily pledge my resources to the provision of whatever needs she may have. So,” she adds at the end of her speech, “where does that leave us now?”
Trink says, “Well I still haven’t learned what you think is so harmful in his background.”
“And,” chimes in Septimus, “I have to add to that that we don’t really know anything of who you represent, milady. It’s clear that you don’t operate alone, and I am sensitive to the need for some discretion, but you’re somewhat of an unknown quantity to us in terms of your motives. It sounds almost like you’re a detective, or that you’re law enforcement of some sort.”
Matreya thinks for a moment. “The question that you touch upon is precisely the topic upon which I am least authorized to enlighten you, at least without further instructions from my superiors. But I will tell you that there is an authority that I answer to. I am a field agent for this authority, and under strict obligation to carry out this mission. It is true that I am empowered to exercise some degree of discretion in the pursuit of my objectives, but I can assure you I am already stretching that discretion to the limit in cooperating with you to the extent I am proposing. Whether I am doing this in deference to my son, I’m not quite sure. But I think I can safely say that I am by far the most sympathetic representative of my command structure that you could hope to be dealing with. If it were up to me, I would personally have chosen to retain the life I had won and to have spent the rest of my days looking after my family. I will continue to think about this situation, specifically the extent to which my instructions will allow me work in tandem with you and provide information. There is strong policy in play here which I am already perilously close to violating as we speak. But I will say this: ends are more important than means, and if your judgment of my quarry has any merit, there may well be some justification to my bending the rules.”
“I fully appreciate the candor you’ve expressed so far,” Septimus tells her, “and your need to stay within the strictures of your order.”
“Understand I can make no promises, but I will try to keep an open mind as far as I can. It certainly appears that our cooperation may bring us both closer to our goals, although those goals may not turn out to be compatible in the end.”
Marina has been watching and listening to this exchange very carefully, and her acute intuition about the sincerity of others gives her the strong impression that Matreya, while picking her words very carefully, is essentially telling the truth. Yachak is also getting a clear impression of her forthrightness, although he is conscious that in this case, he may be biased towards trusting her.
Matreya tries to probe a little further into the question of how the group could have trusted someone who was so secretive about his past, and they reiterate how short their time with him was, and how much more important was the good that he was doing. It does come out, however that he was known to each of them by a different name, at which Matreya expresses some amusement. Marina points out that if the name he went by was an alias, that would not have been uncommon or a cause for suspicion where she lived.
“Point taken,” says Matreya. “Perhaps I can offer this much. Would you like to know his real name?” They are of course interested. “He was born ‘Geronimo Kittikov.”