THE scholar S. Mortimer Bookin laid aside the ancient manuscript he'd been translating—a love letter written, as near as he could tell, 623 years ago by a besotted human king to a secret mistress in prose so purple it was utterly horrid (“Darling, my love for you is like an enormous, ripe fruit, glistening with dew, hanging from a vine in the sun-kissed caresses of morning, desperate for the plucking. Will you not eat of it?”)—and went outside to his veranda overlooking the Meadowland River, which flowed past his dock and onward to parts unknown.
His small boat was tied up to one of the posts, and he gazed at it, as he often did, wondering what it would be like to get in that boat and let the current take him away on an adventure. He was too old now for the youthful fantasies he had once entertained—fighting fierce dragons and all of that—but still, to travel the lands, to see the other races and peoples, to see mountains and the vast expanses of the Great Durin Sea, to see yellow buttercups in a Feyborn’s garden or the quilts woven by the hands of a giant Yag… adventures weren’t always about fighting dragons and saving princesses, and surely most anything was preferable to the monotony and predictability of his life now that his thirtieth birthday was so quickly approaching.
Sighing, he settled himself into the comfortable chair by the door where he often sat, listening to the river and the frogs, swatting at mosquitoes. His maid, Della, an old woman, had left, as usual, a single apple with a paring knife on a small wooden plate on the low-set table next to the chair for his breakfast. Carefully, he picked up the plate and set it on his lap, using the paring knife to peel away thin strips of skin from the apple. He would have to cut his ritual short today, as he was expecting guests, a small party of scholars of some kind, as Mortimer understood it, coming to ask him for his expertise on some matter or another. Della had prepared a luncheon and left it on the shelves in the pantry, but the apple certainly wouldn’t diminish Mortimer’s appetite overmuch.
Out of the corner of his right eye he caught sight of a small craft on the river that appeared to be coming his way. Seated within it, if his brief glance had been correct, was a tall, powerful man with hair tied back in a ponytail, wearing nothing but a bulong, a piece of cloth tucked between the legs and secured about the waist with a wide, flat leather belt.
He kept his eyes down, terrified the man was coming to his house for reasons he couldn’t even begin to guess. More translations? The writing of a letter? The reading of a letter, for that matter, since few folks could read, much less write? Or would he be a palace official with a commission to write a royal history? Not likely. The fellow looked more like a barbarian than one of His Majesty’s servants. Or would it be simply some man who had gotten lost and needed directions?
He stole another quick glance and immediately went back to his apple. The man had not changed course.
He was breathing heavily. Why did men do that to him? Why did they leave him feeling all weak and silly, like a schoolboy in love with his teacher? But he knew the reason well enough: his blood was Contrary, and the sight of men drove him to distraction. They conjured up the most lurid thoughts in his brain, leaving him feverish and quite beside himself.
He risked another glance, cursing under his breath.
“Ahoy! Ahai!” the man called, standing up as his craft neared, a powerful arm and hand raised in greeting.
“Scholar S. Mortimer Bookin? Is that you?”
Mortimer looked up, pretending to notice the man for the first time. The craft slid smoothly through the water, right up alongside the dock.
“A fine morning!” the man exclaimed, tying up his craft and jumping onto the dock.
He was big, Mortimer saw, all muscles, arms, and legs, large white teeth flashing in a roguish sort of smile, generous lips beneath a finely formed nose, eyes that were dark, open, engaging, knowing. Mortimer felt his heart beating furiously in his chest. The man was wet with sweat.
“You look familiar to me,” the man said. “Are you sure we haven’t met before?”
“I-I s-say,” Mortimer managed to squeak, trying desperately to pretend that his apple was of utmost interest.
“S. Mortimer Bookin? Scholar Bookin?”
“That’s m-me,” Mortimer said quietly, paring away another peel on his apple and keeping his eyes averted.
“Well,” the man said, “you’re just the fellow I’m looking for. I would even go so far as to say you’re just the fellow I need, the one fellow in all of the Five Kingdoms who can do what must be done. You received my letter, surely? I should say a fine lunch was in order, wouldn’t you? Some cold water, too, as I’m completely raging with thirst—damn hot in these parts, I must say. So off you go, my fine fellow. A bit of cool water will be lovely. The others will be along.”
“B-beg your pardon?” Mortimer asked, completely bewildered. “I don’t even k-know you!”
“Oh come now,” the man said, spreading his hands in a grand, expansive gesture. “You don’t know me? I thought everybody knew me. And you are S. Mortimer Bookin, the scholar?”
“Indeed,” Mortimer said, standing up and setting the apple aside.
“Well, then,” the man answered. “Surely you were expecting me. I did write, didn’t I? You know, you remind me of someone, but I just can’t put my finger on it. Damned odd, if you ask me.”
Comprehension began to dawn on Mortimer at last. Surely this wasn’t one of the scholars he was expecting for lunch? He certainly didn’t look like any scholar Mortimer had ever met. “I beg your pardon,” Mortimer said again with much trepidation. “Scholar Xaver, is it?”
“Scholar!” the man chuckled. “No, no, you mistake me. I am a man in search of a scholar. My name is Allender Xaver.”
Allender Xaver. The prince. Mortified, Mortimer stammered, “Of course, Your Highness. I hardly recognized you without your… robes. My maid has prepared a lunch for us. Perhaps I’ll just—cool water, certainly, just the thing, yes.” And he turned away and stole into his home.
A prince! On his dock! Mortimer sincerely hoped Della had outdone herself with this luncheon she’d prepared. Shaken, Mortimer slowly walked to his pantry, taking comfort as he went in the presence of sweet, familiar things: the long dining room table, his multitude of books and papers and jars and ancient coins and parchments. The beginnings of a butterfly collection occupied a corner of his desk—out of sheer boredom, and because it needed to be done, Mortimer had decided to write a treatise on the Meadowland’s butterfly species. Just visible through the open door to his bedroom was his small bed with the quilt that had been sewn by his former master’s mother—may they both rest in comfort of the One God—and the trunk that contained the few clothes and objects of interest in his possession.
“Hmmph!” he mumbled under his breath, poking his head into the pantry. The maid, bless her, had left a small basket of freshly made biscuits on one of the cleaner shelves. The smell of strawberries was strong. The shelf above that held lunch—two loaves of freshly baked bread with a jar of Della’s famous apricot preserves, a plate of cured ham, and a large bowl of lightly dressed potato salad.
Selecting the basket—after all, it was a bit early for lunch—Mortimer went back out on the veranda just in time to see a flash of naked flesh and then a splash—his guest had jumped into the river without a tad bit of clothing! Indeed, he looked down and saw the prince’s bulong and belt lying on his dock just as plain as day, as if folks in these parts had no proper manners and allowed their dirty clothes to be espied by anyone happening to pass by.
Mortimer, perplexed, set the basket of biscuits next to his uneaten apple and stared at the river. Allender surfaced, swirled around, and dove, clearly showing his backside, which flashed a pale white in the morning sunlight.
Mortimer trembled. A naked man—prince!—in the river in front of his house on a fine Monday morning, just as he was about to have a bite to eat and get back to translating that lurid love letter! What next?
The prince swam to the dock and climbed up with grace and ease. Water glistened on his skin, dripping to the bare boards.
“Your c-clothes,” Mortimer said meekly.
“No need!” Allender exclaimed, wiping the water from his body with strong hands. Muscles rippled on his chest and stomach as he did this. Mortimer stared and could not take his eyes away. His heart began to beat violently within his chest. What would it be like to…. But he couldn’t bring himself to even think about that.
“…that cool water,” Allender said. “I say, are you quite all right?”
“Am I w-what?” Mortimer asked, coming back to his senses.
The man gave him a knowing look, and it seemed to Mortimer that he turned on purpose to better expose his profile in the morning light, to let Mortimer see his back and behind, and the powerful legs that tapered to large, well-formed feet. His body was deeply tanned and lean, not a bit of fat or indulgence to be seen. Various scars presented themselves, some long and thin, like to those done by a blade, others a bit messier. Mortimer didn’t want to speculate as to what creatures he had run afoul of. As to age, he appeared to be somewhere between thirty and forty, although Mortimer could not be sure. The blush of youth was gone, but not that far.
“I’ll just wash my bulong here, if that’s all right,” the prince said.
Mortimer nodded. “But of course.” After all, who was he to preach manners to a prince? He remained rooted to the spot, watching the tall man retrieve a traveling pack from his boat, along with a huge sword. He got down on his knees, rinsing his bulong in the river water, his body stretching with the effort, water dripping on the dock, running down his back, off his sides, collecting between his shoulder blades, dripping down his back.
Blushing, Mortimer turned away and hurried back inside the house, trying to catch his breath.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
There was someone at the front door, knocking quite roughly—with a stick, from the sound of it. The rest of Allender’s party, perhaps? But why hadn’t they arrived together?
“By the hell-worlds!” Mortimer exclaimed, stifling a small scream. “I’m coming. You needn’t tear down the door, you know!”
He hurried through his small house, past the dining room table, the sitting room with its couches and comfortable chairs and fireplace, down a small hallway lined with shoes and umbrellas, opening the door without giving it a second thought. “Indeed!” he exclaimed. “Hello!” He looked at his door but could see no trace of a mark.
When he turned back to his guests, he was greeted by the sight of two young men, one human, the other obviously Feyborn. They smiled at him sheepishly.
“S. Mortimer Bookin?” the human inquired.
Mortimer nodded. The youths wore bulongs, too, like the prince, and they had traveling packs on their shoulders. They were both well formed, youthful, their feet shod in leather moccasins, their bulongs tucked snugly in their belts, revealing their thighs and bellies. They had that look—that beauty and vitality—that made Mortimer rather weak at the knees. If they were there to sell him the Meadowland River itself, he would buy it, just because they asked.
“Well, here we are!” the young human said. He was carrying a staff, and his head was shaved but for a topknot, which hung down his back and was tied in a braid. He had small lips and a small nose. “I expect lunch has yet to be served, but something to drink would be right lovely.”
His eyes were a mesmerizing green.
“Indeed,” his Feyborn companion said, his own eyes dark and twinkling with merriment.
Feyborns were peculiar indeed, though they were shaped like humans. Mortimer had studied much about them, but he had never seen one up close before. They originated in the city of Rampadalladurienmahaturraatnakorn—Rampada for short—on the western seacoast, said to be one of the loveliest cities ever known among the races. This particular Feyborn had dark hair, dark skin, the rather wide eyes and clam-shaped ears that Feyborns were famed for (and which helped them see and hear exceptionally well), extremely thin limbs, and, Mortimer saw with astonishment, the oo-loke opening on the lower abdomen, which was about half concealed by the Feyborn’s white bulong. It was the oo-loke opening by which Feyborns bonded, a topic in and of itself that Mortimer would dearly have loved to know more about. The creature was also rather shorter than his human companion, the top of his head barely reaching the other youth’s shoulder, and there were seven digits on each hand. This was to say nothing of the chameleon-like ability that allowed Feyborns to change the color of their skin.
“A Feyborn,” he said wonderingly. “Why, I never!”
His guests smiled.
“Oh dear,” Mortimer said, covering his mouth with his hands. “I don’t mean to be rude. It’s just that I’ve never seen a F-Feyborn before.”
“We’ll just settle in, then,” the human youth said. “But first, to introduce ourselves. My name is Mar, and I am from the royal city of Nepalla—may the One God bless His Majesty the King now and forever, amen! And if He chooses not to, I shall certainly understand! My Feyborn companion’s name is Jorn, from the city of Rampada in the Westland. And we both offer you our utmost gratitude and service. If there is ever anything we can do for you, you will not hesitate to let us know.”
“Indeed,” Mortimer said with a frown, wondering exactly what kind of trouble he had invited by agreeing to this visit.
The Feyborn nudged his companion meaningfully, and the young man said, “Oh! Of course,” and unslung his pack from his back, setting it on the ground and removing a small wooden chest, which he thrust into Mortimer’s hands. “A gift of tea from the Feyborn capital. The finest in the Five Kingdoms, if you like that sort of thing!” Then he and the young Feyborn bowed deeply, their young muscles and bare skin a delight to look upon, and pushed past Mortimer into the house, laying their travel packs and weapons—a bow for Mar, a short sword for Jorn—down in the entryway next to Mortimer’s collection of shoes.
“Ah,” Mar said, “Papa is here already! Papa! Papa!”
And with that, the two creatures ran outside onto the veranda.
“I say!” Mortimer exclaimed, wondering how exactly it was that a human prince had Feyborn offspring.
He followed them into the house, popping his head out the window to look after them. Allender greeted them most curiously—he grabbed them up in his powerful arms, laughing, twirling them both around before setting them down and then hugging them tightly to his powerful body, giving them each a kiss.
Mortimer hurried about his chores, thoroughly out of sorts. There were crumbs in the butter, of course, and that wouldn’t do, not with guests. Why hadn’t he thought of that earlier? Would it be rude to serve young Mar and Jorn their own gift of tea? And was it so very difficult to leave one’s weapons out of doors? Really, the behavior of strangers these days was most appalling. What next? A bit of lovemaking on his veranda, perhaps?
“Not that I would mind,” he said out loud. Then he put his hand to his lips and looked around to see if anyone had heard. He sighed, a deep, long, dreadful sigh, a sigh full of age and care and, well, sheer boredom. Why couldn’t he be young again, and handsome, with youthful muscles, grabbed up in the arms of a strong man? But it just wasn’t proper for a man of his position, was it? And what would the neighbors think? And what would happen to him if word got around about it? And anyway, everyone knew the priests of the One God looked down upon Contraries, and it was dangerous to be too forthright about such a matter.
“Mortimer, Mortimer,” he said, shaking his head.
On the stove went both kettles—they would be needed, it seemed—and into a large glass pitcher went some cool water. He carried this, together with cups and glasses, outside, spreading the dishes out on the table and laying his uneaten apple in one corner, intending to get to it when he had a spare moment.
To his horror, he saw that the two youths had disrobed and, dropping their dirty bulongs on the dock, had also taken themselves for a swim. He had to admit that the flash of their skin in the sunlight was most pleasing to see. They were youthful, strong, playing about in the water like otters, as though they had been born to it. As he watched them, his hand drifted absently to his throat, where something seemed to have gotten caught. A lump of sorts.
Mortimer shuffled back into the house, face positively red from blushing. He’d not felt such stirrings since the days when he’d been a young man himself, but so much time had now passed… so much time! And ever since his master’s death, that was what it seemed like, time going by as he accomplished nothing, the time leaving him older, removed, somehow, from all the things he had hoped for and wanted to be.
You’re not even thirty! Goodness, you’re not in the grave yet!
There was another knock on the door.
More visitors? How large was Prince Allender’s party, exactly? Mortimer hoped the lunch Della had prepared would be sufficient, but he was beginning to wonder.
He opened his front door again. Two young humans stood there, dressed in forest-green cloaks. Their skin had been browned by the sun. One was blond-headed and freckled, the other dark-haired and stocky.
“S. Mortimer Bookin, I presume?” the stocky one said. “It’s so very nice to present my services to you. My name is Zurkin, and my friend’s name is Unon. We are from the Timberlands. We would like to offer you this bit of cheese. You’ll find none tastier in the Five Kingdoms, I can assure you!”
The youth offered Mortimer a large bundle that had been carefully wrapped in cloth. It wasn’t just a bit of cheese; it was enough for several weeks of nibbling.
“Most obliged,” Mortimer said.
The young men bowed respectfully. “Where should we put our things?” Zurkin inquired.
“It’s all the same to me,” Mortimer replied.
Zurkin had a wide, flat belt upon which hung any number of knives. He removed both belt and knives, laying them in a heap on the floor. His dark, curly hair fell about his eyes.
More weapons! Mortimer frowned.
Unon, the blond-haired youth, carried a long, sturdy bow that he now propped up against the wall beside a quiver of arrows.
“Are the others here?” Unon called. “Ah! I see Papa! Zurkin, come on! Let’s go swimming!”
They threw off their cloaks, which landed in a heap on the floor, and off they went.
Mortimer scratched his head. There were now five guests for lunch—whatever would he do? There wasn’t possibly enough food for the lot of them, at least not judging by their youth. Mortimer remembered how he had eaten at that age. He fussed about again in the larder. To be truthful, there were a few more strawberry cakes that he had been intending to save for after dinner. And there was a handsome plate of dried beef strips, several dried fishes, a plate of nuts. And then, of course, there were apples aplenty, not to mention the jugs of ale on the floor. Along with the lunch Della had prepared and the huge bit of cheese the youths had just given him, there was plenty.
Where was the maid, anyway? He cursed silently. She had left that morning to see to her sick daughter in the next village and wouldn’t be back until the morrow. How could she have picked such an inconvenient time?
“Well,” he said, straightening his shoulders and trying to get hold of himself. “Lunch. Yes. Well, well, and well.”
He carried provisions from the larder to the table. Foodstuffs, certainly, but crockery too: plates, spoons—big ones and small ones—and forks and knives, and serving dishes, and linen napkins. What a mess it would all be by the time they were finished! Six settings! It had been a long time since so many diners had taken to his table.
Just as his nerves had begun to calm, there was another knock on the door. Even before he reached it, the door opened to admit two more young men. They might well have been twins: dark hair, fine and straight, that fell perfectly about their heads; dark eyes, full lips, engaging smiles; their skin not quite brown, not quite black, and not quite like any color Mortimer had ever seen.
“I see we’re not the first,” one of the youths said. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Prince Yenoh from the Tai kingdom in the south. I am the fifth son of my father’s twenty-seventh wife, which means that it is not likely that I will ever sit on the throne. And just in case you sniff at my mother being the twenty-seventh wife of the king, he has forty-eight altogether, so I’m not that far down the line. Ha! And how do you do, S. Mortimer Bookin? Of course, I accept your services, and I’m so pleased that you have offered them.”
With that, the youth bowed curtly.
Mortimer opened his mouth and stood gaping like a fish at the young men. Was more royalty now to cross his doorstep? Denizens of the Tai kingdom in the south? He did not want to think of how many weeks it would have required to travel from such a distance—the Tai kingdom might as well be on one of the two moons, as far as that was concerned! It was certainly a long way from the Kingdom of Dereham.
The other youth offered a hesitant smile. “My name is Ryn, and I am pleased to meet you.” He, too, bowed.
“And how many others are we expecting?” Mortimer asked rather prissily.
“Many rather than more, I should think,” the young Tai prince answered with an easy smile.
Many rather than more?
The youths placed their belongings neatly among the other articles that had already been deposited in Mortimer’s doorway and hurried away.
Mortimer went back to work. Each time he passed by a window, he stole a glance out on his veranda, which was now, by all accounts, a haunt of handsome youths, laughing and swimming and helping themselves to his cool water and biscuits, not even bothering to wait for the tea. There was all manner of back-slapping, hand-holding, pushing, arm-wrestling, leg-wrestling, little-finger-wrestling, dives off his dock, handstands and other acrobatics, washing of bulongs all the while, bare skin soaking up the sun, smiles full of teeth, eyes flashing with merriment. It was simply awful, and he could not think what to make of it, or, more importantly, what his neighbors would make of it.
The teakettles began to whistle in unison. Mortimer hurried to turn them off, then carried saucers and napkins and tea-makers outside.
With so many young men about, it would only be right that someone should help him, but no, they were too busy playing—laughing, giggling, whispering, jumping off his dock, cooling themselves in the river water or sitting idly about jabbering. Too busy to help Mortimer, that was for sure!
“Well, I never,” he muttered under his breath.
What would his neighbors think if they got an eyeful of all those boys on his dock? They would think Scholar Mortimer had gone mad. It would be a right scandal. The tongues at the Hay Seed Inn would be wagging for years to come.
“Down here!” one of the youths called. What was his name again? Mortimer could hardly recall. “I’ll take my tea here, thank you. And bring some more biscuits, if you please. I’m right hungry.”
Mortimer put his foot down. Was he to be ordered about in his own home by a youth many summers his junior?
“I’ll have mine on the dock too,” another youth called.
“As will I.”
“And some water.”
“Must we wait for lunch?”
“Is there a napkin about, I wonder?”
“I’d like some soap to wash me bulong.”
“A glass would be just perfect.”
“A pipe of your finest, Master Mortimer, would be especially nice. You do smoke in these parts, don’t you? I’ve heard Derehamian tobacco is simply the finest.”
Mortimer stood, listening to this babble, uncomprehending. But then, as politeness dictated, he ran to and fro, offering tea, biscuits, a napkin here, a bar of soap there, a glass of cool water to another, a towel for one, a washcloth for another, and before he knew it, lunchtime was upon them, and they were calling for food.
“You really must get dressed,” he said at last, standing in the midst of them, trying not to look at their bare bodies, their flat bellies and strong backs and strong arms and their open, disarming smiles. Two of the youths, he saw, sat near the edge of the dock, one with his arm around the other, hand straying down the other’s back. They were sniffing each other affectionately and talking in whispers. “Papa” Allender was seen sitting on the dock, his feet dangling in the water, one of his “boys” in the water in front of him, talking quietly and animatedly. The youth looked up to the big man with such affection, such, well, love, that Mortimer could only shudder. It was most improper. Most irregular.
“Yes, I say, you really must get dressed,” he said firmly. “This has gone on long enough, I must say!”
The one known as Mar stood up. The youth’s topknot was now slung over his right shoulder. He was slender and yet strong of build, his body perfectly smooth. His green eyes were playful. “But Master Mortimer,” the youth said, “we are all brothers here, and we are relaxing. Many of us have traveled from a long ways off to get here. We are just having a bit of fun.”
“Master Mortimer, in your stuffy scholar’s robe, aren’t you quite hot and bothered? Why don’t you take it off and join us? It’s a beautiful summer’s day. Surely you could do with a good swim? Come now, join the fun! Here, let me help you.”
Mortimer, flushed with embarrassment, fled back into the comfort of his house. But when he returned, they had all gotten themselves dressed in their now-dry bulongs and were making their way into his home. They took places at the table, Prince Allender at the head, the youths lining themselves up on the sides, three to a side, leaving Mortimer the opposite end.
“I dare say,” he said quietly. “Will someone tell me what is going on? I was led to believe you required my assistance with a piece of research.”
“Food first,” Allender said. “I could eat a bear.”
“You have eaten a bear,” one of the youths said, and they all laughed. Then on it went again, the laughing and whispering and shouting, the jokes and jests, the “since we left you in the mountains” and “that Grimmord was certainly angry” and “we barely escaped with our lives” and “what did his majesty say about that?” and “gave you a good scar for your trouble, didn’t he?” Mortimer shuddered to hear such talk and did not at all wish to know what it meant. He sat by himself, nibbling a piece of cheese, hoping this day would end, that these people would offer their thanks and best wishes and then move on.
By the time lunch was finished, his larder was quite finished too: every last jug of ale was gone through; every bit of dried meat, every plate of nuts, every apple, every boiled egg, every sniff of potato salad, every last bit of it—all was consumed. Even the cheese he’d just been given by the youths from the Timberlands. All of it was gone.
The youths began to yawn and stretch, and some lay down on the floor or the couches, falling fast asleep, some lying together and cuddling, others alone. The Feyborn went out onto the veranda and stretched out there; another perched himself on the edge of the table—the boy simply put his head down where he was and fell asleep.
“Don’t let my babies disturb you, Master Mortimer,” Allender said when they were finally left to sit alone at the table. “They are rambunctious, but their hearts are made of gold. You put out a fine meal. How could we ever thank you?”
“Hmmph!” Mortimer said, now really quite beside himself. “You could start by telling me what it is you want. That would be a mighty fine beginning, let me tell you.”
“Well,” the big man said, chuckling, “there you are. I have need of your services.”
“My services!” Mortimer repeated. “And no doubt you require the services of your ‘babies’ too.”
“Well, I never!” Mortimer exclaimed.
“You’ve never what?” the prince asked, rather too knowingly.
Flustered, Mortimer tore his eyes away. The man seemed to be mocking him with his gaze.
“So, is it a deal, then?”
“A deal?” Mortimer asked, flabbergasted.
“Yes. Will you go with us?”
“Go with you?”
“Of course. To Zu-Kai Isle.”
“Zu-Kai Isle? That’s outrageous!” Was that what Allender wanted from him? But Mortimer was a scholar!
“No, a walk in the woods, that’s all.”
“That would be leagues and leagues—hundreds of leagues to the east, if the stories are to be believed—through harsh terrain and who knows what horrors while out at sea, if the place exists at all. That’s not to mention dragons and who knows what other creatures that might be lurking out there, like those dreadful Grimmords and those vicious Bird Rider tribes. I can’t believe this!”
“Oh, come now, scholar. You’re overstating the matter a bit.”
“Out of the question,” Mortimer said firmly. “Utterly, irrefutably, unquestioningly, out of the question. You don’t mean to tell me you’ve come all the way here and put me to such trouble clearing out my larder just to ask me something foolish like going to Zu-Kai Isle?”
The big man stood, came round the table, and seated himself next to Mortimer so that they could talk more quietly.
“I don’t think you understand,” Allender said.
“I’m not going,” Mortimer replied.
“Why don’t you let me explain?”
“It will make no difference, I can assure you.”
“Or perhaps,” the man said, “it shall. Let me explain where we are going, and then you can think about it. You needn’t answer today. Tomorrow morning will be soon enough.”
Mortimer was so flustered he couldn’t speak.
Tomorrow morning will be soon enough?
“Zu-Kai Isle, as you know, being a scholar and all, is the home of the Zu-Kai Brotherhood of warriors, wielders of the power of Kai.”
“The power of Kai? Walking on water, scampering up tree trunks and all of that nonsense?”
The man nodded.
“Do you expect me to believe that foolishness?” Mortimer demanded.
“Are you quite finished? For a scholar, you’re remarkably close-minded.”
“Good. Now, as I was saying, my boys and I are going to Zu-Kai Isle. We wish to present ourselves to the overlord and seek his permission to begin our own brotherhood—a brotherhood of Contraries. I have been training my boys in the power of Kai for quite some time now, but they need to move beyond, to the next step. They must take the vows and form themselves into a brotherhood, and they must do that to ensure they will use their power only for good. To become true Zu-Kai warriors, my boys must be tested, and if they are found worthy, they must receive the blessing of the Kai Overlord.”
“And this has precisely what to do with me?” Mortimer asked.
“It has much to do with you. My boys need a proper teacher. They are ignorant. Some can’t even read or write their own names. They need learning, Mortimer, because with learning will come, eventually, wisdom. This aspect of their training has been lacking, and I thought since you were… an interested party… you might consider joining us, helping me with their training. After all, if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?”
“Whatever do you mean by we?” Mortimer asked.
“I think you know,” the man said gently.
Mortimer, flushed with embarrassment, looked away. Of course, he knew exactly what the prince meant. “I have my reputation to think about,” he said defensively. “What will people say if I go off with a bunch of Contraries? You know that we’re looked down upon. Contraries are not permitted to be scholars, not permitted to be employed in His Majesty’s service, not permitted to join His Majesty’s army, not permitted to be priests at the temples of the One God—you know how it is. And the priests are quite clear about how unnatural we are.”
“And quite wrong,” Allender added.
“Wrong?” Mortimer repeated in disbelief.
“Oh, yes,” Allender said, “about that and a great many other things. And we’re not looked down upon by everyone. There are those among the Feyborn, for example, who consider Contraries a blessing—given the harshness of their lives and the difficulty of caring for their young, they’re quite happy when one of their youths is Contrary, with no interest in producing more offspring, someone who can devote himself to the good of the tribe.”
“Yes, but the Feyborn are non-believers,” Mortimer said with a scowl.
“Why are you laughing?”
“Oh, Mortimer! I did not expect such foolishness from you. Surely your master did not teach you such things.”
“’Tis true enough,” Mortimer admitted. “He had no patience for the priests of the One God.”
“And they punished him, didn’t they, keeping him far from the palace? As they punish everyone who threatens their power. If you knew the priests as I do, as the king’s son, you would perhaps be a bit shocked at their behavior. They are certainly full of advice as to what the rest of the world should do, but among themselves they are most scandalous. And if you are such an ardent defender of the One God, why is it you don’t present yourself in the temple for morning prayers?”
“How do you know what I do or don’t do?”
“I know a great deal about you.”
Mortimer bit his lip and did not reply. Where, precisely, was this interview going?
Allender took a long drink from his glass of water, setting the glass carefully on the table, letting the moments pass, as if collecting his thoughts. “Scholar Mortimer,” he said at length, “we are getting off on the wrong foot, and I apologize. I tend to forget sometimes that others don’t necessarily see the world as I do. So let me start again.”
He cleared his throat, giving Mortimer a long, steady gaze.
“I’m a Contrary man, Mortimer,” he said gravely. “Always have been. I’ve known it since my youth. I have never been ashamed of it, and neither have I tried to hide it. When my father passed over me and named my younger brother as crown prince and heir to the throne, I let it be. Of course, no one wants a Contrary sitting on my father’s throne. I accept that. That is the reality of the Five Kingdoms at this time—among us humans, to be Contrary is unacceptable. But much of this sentiment stems from the teachings of the priests of the One God, and not everyone agrees. At any rate, because of my honesty, it became known among the Five Kingdoms that I was Contrary, and thus, not surprisingly, my boys began to show up on my doorstep, wanting to be in my service, wanting to be taught, wanting to be with others who were like to themselves. And so I find my life has been decided for me: not to sit on a throne, despite being firstborn, and instead to serve as a focal point for young Contraries wanting to escape the loneliness and isolation of their lives. So I began to teach these youths in the only way I know—the power of Kai. I am a Kai warrior, and I spent many years training on Zu-Kai Isle. Because of my royal blood, I was never allowed to take the vows and become part of their brotherhood—my loyalty would always be elsewhere, and this the Kai Overlord would not permit. And I see now he was quite correct. My loyalty does lie elsewhere. Now it lies with my ‘babies’, and I intend to spend my life fighting for them. And that is why I am here.
“These young fellows—and we will be joined by others shortly, mind you, not all of them male—have trained diligently to become Kai warriors, and they wish to form themselves into a brotherhood with the blessings of the overlord—a brotherhood of Contraries. There is an ancient, abandoned palace in my father’s lands, in the north, which we intend to reclaim and use as our base: Fuva Palace, a gift from the Sky Folk in the far north. It is there that we intend to establish a school for Contrary youths, a shelter for those who wish to join us. But of course we need a scholar. There are practical matters, yes, reading and writing, Common Speech, and all of that, but there is much more for you to do, if you are so inclined. That is because, unlike the humans of the Five Kingdoms, we will not isolate ourselves. We will open our doors to all—humans, yes, but also Feyborns and Yags and all the other races—and we will need to learn to speak their tongues and become familiar with their histories and their ways. We will have to prove ourselves, and we will do that by discipline and learning, making ourselves a force to be reckoned with.
“So you see, there is much to do, and I have need of a man such as yourself.”
Mortimer considered this in silence for many long, anxious moments. He was flabbergasted, intrigued, terrified; he could see the possibilities—and the terrible risk involved. But he was not a man who could make decisions easily, and he did not see any way at all to simply pick up and leave, just like that, off on some venture that could end very badly indeed.
“Well, well, and well,” he said at length. “Now that you’ve put it that way, I’m not quite sure what to say. I will have to think.”
“I quite understand,” Allender said. “But don’t think too long. It is summer now, and we need to be on our way before the weather changes.”