“I owe you for curing my sister’s lung rot,” said the big Gotlander as he clomped into the room. “I figure the least I can do is treat you to a good spread. Wife’s down there” he pointed down the stairs “working on a roast. Beef stuffed with vegetables and herbs, and covered in spicy sauce. Takes a while to fix, but it’s worth it.”
“I appreciate your offer-” began the slender woman with skin like dusky copper and gold hair standing before him. Her ears were slightly elongated, rising to blunted points.
“-but we’ll accept,” broke in her tall blond headed companion, wistfully eyeing a tall silver pitcher and matching cups on the table between them and Jot. “Lady Cora, aren’t you tired of roots and fish stew? A roast sounds downright heavenly right now.”
Cora protested. “But he was here, Sir Benedict – maybe even as recently as a week ago. Each moment we dally puts him that much further ahead of us.”
“My lady,” said the Gotlander “your esteemed companion is correct. Your trip here from Permia was exhausting, and healing my sister’s lungs must have nearly crippled you. You need rest. Moreover, you need knowledge. Come, sit, relax, eat, and I will tell you what I know of Lysander and where he may have gone.”
“He was here, then?”
“He was, indeed.”
“You saw him?”
“He has sat right at this table with me more than once.” An expression of concern appeared on his broad face, visible even beneath the colored beads worked into his brown beard. “Might I ask why you seek him so earnestly?”
“We wish to speak with him,” said Sir Benedict.
“It must be a pressing conversation indeed, to send people like you so far.”
“We have questions, he has answers,” said Lady Cora.
“Indeed?” The Gotlander’s eyebrows went up. “Polite questions between refined people or the sort of questions that involve hot irons and thumb screws?”
His two guests remained quiet. At length, Cora said “You know what I am – a Child of God, born on a night when his message is written across the sky for all to see. I heal, I protect, I seek, and I build. I cannot do otherwise. I leave maiming and torture to others.”
“Intending no offence lady Cora,” said the Gotlander, holding both arms before him, “but that is only one source of your power. Your mothers heritage brings with it power of another sort.”
“It is true an iota of my power comes from my grandmother, a Faerie Queen of the Marchlands between empire and elf,” Cora firmly and primly stated “but it is equally true that power is entirely subsumed by the power of the True God. I do not seek his death, only answers I believe he has. I cannot speak more plainly than that.”
“I see,” said their host, “Know this then - he has friends here.”
“Including you,” said Lady Cora. It wasn’t a question.
“I saw no true darkness in him.”
“You know where he is.”
“I know where he intended to go next. I do not know what his ultimate destination might be. No doubt it is somewhere along the shores of the Cauldron. Come; let us go over the lands about the oceans rim to puzzle out where he may go. I have sailed clear around the Cauldron twice, my lady. Not once, but twice.” He held up two pudgy fingers. “Twenty five thousand miles I sailed. Two years it took me to complete those voyages. Two! Very few other men, even here in Trondi, a city of great mariners can make that claim.”
She sat down in one of the chairs. “Very well then, Jot Mark the Keen. I accept your assistance.”
Sir Benedict settled into the chair next to hers.
A stout blond haired woman appeared long enough to silently fill each of them a cup before departing.
Jot paced to the window, cup in hand and stared out a moment before striding over to the mantelpiece where a large clock ticked away the time. “As it is circular in shape, it is best, perhaps, to envision the Cauldron as being like the face of this clock, with each hour corresponding to a nation or region along its shores.”
“A clock eight thousand miles across,” chuckled Sir Benedict “However would one check the time? And who would wind such a time piece?”
A frosty glare from lady Cora silenced the knight.
“Very well, then. As north is at the top of the map, and the hours begin at the top of the clock, I shall begin there – or rather here” he jabbed a finger at the topmost hour “as that is where we are, in the forests and fjords just below the eternal ice. We Gotlander’s are bold merchants, mighty warriors and the best mariners in the world! Our schooners cross the Cauldron as though it were a fishpond! Yet, we dwell here, in a space occupying but a single hour.”
Lady Cora raised an eyebrow.
Jot looked at her and shook his head. “No, my lady, eastern Gotland has been part of Cimmar for over a hundred years now, since Olaf the Red went on his spree of conquest. Now, eastern Gotland, the Archon cities, and the savages of the plains – all are subject to the iron hand of the Tsar in Kara. Even the elves and dwarves of Trollheim listen to him.” He shook his head again. “You Solarians all think Cimmar is Gotland writ large, but it is not.”
“What are you talking about? Ships and missionaries go from the Empire to Cimmar all the time,” said Lady Cora.
“Pah!” said Jot. “Gotlander ships sail from your Empire to Cimmar. Apart from the elves, none others have ships fit for the journey – not even the Cimmerians anymore. Nor is the True Faith is the same in Cimmar as it is in the Empire. Why, more than once I have taken priests from Corber Port to the harbor at Dacia with fire in their bellies on the way there and looking like they’d swallowed bricks on their return! There is much acrimony between east and west behind the grand proclamations!” He shook his head again. “Cimmar is not what you think it to be. Lysander learned that during his sojourn at the Black Stone in Trollheim.”
“We knew he’d gone to Cimmar,” mused Cora. “His father came from Gotland, he grew up speaking the tongue, I see no reason”-
“Lady Cora, you do not understand. As Gotlander’s became Cimmerian’s, so did the language. Lysander could make himself understood, but he was ever uncertain about what he was saying and what he was hearing, and this vexed him to no end.”
“Still, he might return there”-
“He might,” Jot agreed. “But he left because he chose to, because he’d found whatever it was he went there to find, not because he was thrown out. Likely, he will go elsewhere.”
Cora put her finger to her lips. “But, assuming that Lysander does not return to Cimmar, where else might he go?”
Jot took a moment to compose his thoughts “He could go south and east of Cimmar, across the Mountains of the Moon to the Hobgoblin Hegemony.”
Sir Benedict muttered something about “runty green skinned savages.”
Jot looked at him and shook his head. This time the tinkling of his ornaments sounded like a warning. “No, the hobgoblins of the Hegemony are not the ‘runty green skinned savages’ you know in the Empire. For one thing, they are man tall and red of hide, not green. They have vast cites”-
“Hives, not cities.” interjected Sir Benedict. “Hives of savages, each building a fortress scheming against every other, a hundred boys to every girl, continually contesting and murdering each other – not that they even count murder as a crime, mind you – that is not civilized behavior!”
“The Hegemony is different,” Jot insisted. “The Lords enforce order from their Black Halls, dictating organized competition and contests for mates rather than murder in the streets. Outsiders are safe in the Red Halls. And many will enter one or another of the monastic orders, which place the interests of the race as a whole above personal breeding rights.”
Cora pursed her lips. “Are there any centers of magic in the Hegemony which might attract Lysander?”
Jot pursed his lips “Sorcery is not the strong suit of the hobgoblins. They have many petty magicians but only their Lords possess true power – power they do not share.”
“Do other races dwell among the hobgoblins?”
“Oh yes,” said Jot, with a wave of his hand. “Rachasa and humans both dwell among the hobgoblins.”
“Rachasa,” said Sir Benedict, almost under his breath. “The cat-men are very tough. I remember during the war how they would leap clear over the walls of our fortifications and toss fully armored knights about as though they were children.” He shook his head. “We were very fortunate Traag coaxed only a small number to their cause.”
“I’ve never heard of Rachasa possessing much skill with magic,” said Cora.
“They are deficient in most civilized arts,” said Jot “including trading. Imagine that – a race without merchants.” He shook his head.
“What of the humans?” Cora asked. “Are they free or slave?”
Jot frowned. “Some are free, some are slaves. Some are pagans escaped out of Cimmar; others are descended from the nomads of the plains. The Hegemony being what it is, the women – even the slaves – have higher status than do the men. Most are weavers or potters or small merchants. I even met a few who bore arms for the Hegemony.”
“Humans, acting as soldiers for vilekin,” sputtered Sir Benedict, face turning red. “Were they willing, or pressed?”
“They said they were proud to serve the Hegemony.”
“I – I cannot – I refuse to believe such.”
“It was quite a shock to me as well, I assure you.”
“I cannot give credence to that.”
“Are you calling me a liar in my own house?” A hard edge lurked beneath his polite tone.
Cora attempted to smooth things over. “Sir Benedict spent too many years battling goblins during the Traag War to see them as anything but savages.”
“I can see that,” agreed Jot. “However, I remember seeing many goblins on the streets of Corber Port in your own Empire.”
“Menials,” snorted Sir Benedict, face still flushed. “Street sweepers and refuse pickers and common hands in the fields if needed. Never more – and may be too lenient.” He sat back glowering in his seat.
“It seems doubtful Lysander would seek refuge in the Hegemony,” said Cora, attempting to change the subject “But there is another civilized realm south and west of the Hegemony he might find very interesting indeed.”
Jot beamed and nodded his great head amidst a clattering of ornaments. “Ah, yes a very civilized region! I have done much business with those sallow skinned devils in their garishly painted shops! We call those lands the ‘Yellow Kingdoms, but they call themselves”-
“The Nations of Heaven,” said Cora. “Chou and Shang-Lo near the coast, with Chin being well inland.” She spoke a few hesitant words in a musical tongue.
Jot made a surprised face, and uttered a much smoother musical phrase of his own.
Cora looked quizzical and hesitant for a moment, before attempting a trilling word of her own which caused Jot to laugh aloud.
“My lady Cora, I am impressed – very few westerners can speak any of the Chou tongue – even Lysander speaks not a word of it.” He wagged a finger at her. “However, your pronunciation is atrocious – I do not believe you said what you actually intended.”
“Not unless you intend for me to break my marriage vows, at any rate.”
“Oh!” Cora’s face colored momentarily. “I was told that was a formal greeting.”
“It is – when pronounced correctly. What you said was much more…informal.”
“I see. But”-
“The language is tonal – surely your instructor told you the pitch of one’s voice was as important as the sounds themselves?
“She did, but I had no idea it was so sensitive.”
“It is - She? - Your instructor was a woman?”
“Yes, my instructor was Sun-Sing of Win-Po. She was expelled from Chou after converting to the True Faith.”
“Ah – I’ve seen the pogroms the Servants of Heaven launch against those who abandon the Thousand Gods. They see it as the worst sort of dishonor – and to those people honor is worth more than life itself.”
“A thousand Gods,” Sir Benedict interjected with a sardonic tone and a sneer on his face. “That could make spiritual affairs complicated. It seems it would be hard to avoid offending one or another each day.”
“Yet the True Church has its two hundred saints, does it not, and they coexist with other,” said Jot.
“That’s different. That’s Truth.”
“At any rate,” Jot went on, “apart from Win-Po, the only Chou port foreigners are allowed to call at is Hun-Po. They have the heads off any foreigners caught outside either city without the proper papers.”
“Would Lysander be able to obtain papers to leave the ports?”
“I doubt it. Such permission is granted only rarely, and then mostly to envoys and merchants of long standing.” An odd expression appeared on Jots face. “Once, though, on my first trip there, my father secured us permits to venture up the Hap River to Fen-Hang on the Lake of Heaven.” He looked directly at Cora. “Your uncle Palo accompanied us on that expedition.”
Cora’s mouth fell open. “I – I - you knew my uncle back then?”
“Yes,” said Jot. “We foreigners – there were scores of us, all representing different interests – were all thrust together on the same barge, which was towed up the Hap by plodding, smelly droath on the river banks.” Jot waved his hand in front of his nose. “Stinking beasts,” he said, “but very strong. Anyhow, the beasts pulled us past endless half flooded fields of rice worked by multitudes of peasants in tan robes and conical straw hats, and once through a huge forest of bamboo taller than the masts of my father’s ship. Several times we passed by camps where lines of soldiers wearing bamboo breastplates and wooden shields – it is too hot to wear metal down there – drilled with staff, spear, and bow under samurai knights.
“Palo and I fell together early on – he was much younger than most of the others, far more likable than they, and he always had time for me. So, when we reached Fen-Hang to find his hostel burned down, it seemed only right for him to join my father and me at our host’s house atop the hill overlooking the lake and city both. What a view that was! The blue waters of the lake with water dragons sporting amidst the boats! When I gazed long enough across the water, I could just discern the outlines of the Isle of Tranquility where the Emperor kept his adobe. And below, Fen-Hang spread out along the shore like brightly colored children’s blocks.”
Jot drained his cup. “My father’s negotiations kept him closeted with our host most days, but I kept myself occupied: I sparred with the guards, drank myself silly on tiny glasses of fiery liquor more than once, and toured various shops and stalls where the vendors would converge on me like wolves taking down prey. And more often than not, it seemed, your uncle would be right by my side, gaping and drinking and gaming right along with me. Ah, it was a grand old time. Then”- his face fell.
“Then what?” asked Cora.
When he spoke again, Jots tone was grim. “Then your uncle went and did something very foolish. He disappeared – I thought on a commercial negotiation – for all of one day and well into the next night, when he came stumbling into our shared room clenching his side and bleeding from a long cut down his arm. He refused explanation and bade me say nothing, except he’d fallen while out, and would need to recover. I agreed, though I knew weapon wounds when I saw them. Maybe if I’d pressed”- he stopped speaking for a moment. “Well, with Palo laid up like that, Fen-Hang lost its charm; the days dragged by one by one until my father concluded his negotiations. It was a relief to be going down the Hap to Hun-Po, floating with the current this time. Palo recovered swiftly enough, but a certain distance had come between us. Immediately after our return – with barely even time for a farewell drink – he clambered aboard a Free Port galleon and was gone. I went to bed that night feeling alone, and woke up the next morning to find my father’s entire household under arrest.
“My father and I spent weeks fielding questions from what seemed to be every last priest and servant of heaven in the city. Twice, the Shogun himself questioned my father and I; the second time he pulled his sword and I thought for certain he was going to have my head off.” Jot shuddered at the memory.
“What happened?” asked Cora.
“He stared at me for a long moment, with absolutely no expression, and then said something about ‘fools and friends’ – the phrase he used simply does not translate well at all – and told us to leave the city, right then and there. So we did.”
“Palo ruined my father’s prospects in Chou,” said Jot, “so afterwards we did our commerce across the Hap at Chang-Kop, the principle port of Shang-Lo.” He refilled his mug and took a sip. “We were able to do that only because Chou and Shang-Lo have utterly ignored each other since the Challenge of Quo split one realm into two.”
“That must have been some challenge,” the knight remarked. “Was it some sort of tourney? Petty domains in the empire have changed hands on the course of those.”
“I am not entirely certain what Quo’s Challenge was – but I do know the division changed Shang-Lo for the worse. I tell you it is now a den of almost unrivaled iniquity! Every official pretends to honor but has both hands out for bribes and the place is simply thick with ordinary thieves and cut-throats – so many we were forced to set triple watches and go ashore only in groups armed with knives and belaying pins.”
He looked at Cora. “Lysander could bribe a travel permit in Chang-Kop easily enough, but he would spend all his time afterwards looking over both shoulders.”
Sir Benedict took a drink from his cup. “If these two realms ignore each other to such an extent and Shang-Lo is weakened by rot, then why have they not been overrun by the nomads of the southern plains? They vex the Empire often enough; this Shang-Lo would surely be a tempting morsel.”
“It is a tempting morsel for the southern hordes,” agreed Jot. “Only the eastward reaching inlet termed the Dragon Sea prevents the nomads from overrunning Shang-Lo.”
“Sun-Sing said the City of Magicians is set along the Dragon Sea, near the confluence of Chou and Chin and Shang-Lo,” said Cora. She took a tiny sip from her cup. “If there is any place Lysander would go in the Nations of Heaven, it would be there, I think.”
“That is certainly possible.” Jot said. “The magicians lack the xenophobia of the rest of the populace. However, their city sits close to a region of longstanding strife, and I doubt Lysander would care to pass so close to somebody else’s war.”
“Plus, while the magic might fascinate him, he won’t be able to understand a word the magicians casting the spells are saying,” said Sir Benedict.