They picked their way from rock to rock across the river. Sometimes Enzi had to stretch her legs as far as they could go to reach the next one. Ahead she heard a gasp and a splash. Mistress Beldaria had lost her footing and tumbled into the current.
Young Master Ylder threw himself into the water and drew her back from danger. He carried her to shore, dripping and laughing.
“What an adventure!” Mistress Beldaria exclaimed.
Enzi would not have minded being lifted from the water to be carried in Ylder’s strong arms. She would not have minded if Ylder gazed at her the way he gazed at her mistress. Not at all. When she reached the shore, Enzi helped her mistress, behind a screen of bushes, out of her sopping clothes and into something dry.
Two days ago when I fell into a river, Enzi thought, lacing the lady’s bodice, I’d slogged my way onward in soggy skirts. No rescue for me. Mertin sniggered and said I looked like a frog. Sardus harped at me for an hour about trying to look presentable.
She was covered in scabs and mosquito bites and would never again, not ever, complain about bath time. She would have given everything she owned—if she’d owned anything—for a hot bath and a soft bed.
At least the lady’s dunking had forced the party to stop for the day. Red lines furrowed Enzi’s palms from the handles of the bag she carried, her back bent under the weight of a pack. She was strong for her age, but she was still only thirteen.
The quest had sounded grand when the messenger came to the manse and announced Great-King Bardo’s search for the Chalice of Plenty, lost in his great-grandfather’s day when Great-King Donnil had demanded an end to superstition. Talismans and offerings to the spirits, anything once called magic, had been forbidden; he denounced such idolatry as foolish falderal. Over the years magical items once held dear in every household, from the smallest cottage to the grandest castle, went missing. Stowed away unused for so long, no one had noticed they were gone, not till now, when Great-King Bardo put two and two together and decided he needed to restore the most important one of all, the Chalice of Plenty.
The Wasting and the Waning had followed soon after the ban. The Wasting meant cows bearing fewer calves, mares failing to foal, crops yielding less and less. The Waning swept through every village and almost every home, making some folks weak, others sick, still more barren; some it claimed to a horrible vacantness.
Yes, Great-King Bardo said, the land needed the Chalice back, that would fix all (though he kept the ban on things the smallfolk once relied on). He requested every House to send its Master to seek it. Even House Dilvan, though the Master had died six years ago of the Quick-Wane—three days of twitching and vomiting and worse that Enzi had had to help clean up. The Mistress his wife had died two years later of the Slow-Wane—years of pale listlessness until she became her own ghost, first a walking one and then a bedded one and then naught but a body clothed in incense at the graveyard and a portrait on the wall. Beldaria, the Mistress that was now, only sixteen and with no brothers, should have passed the quest by. Few Houses had agreed to go. But Enzi’s Mistress had insisted.
“No woman beats me with bow and arrow, and many men are not my equal,” she’d boasted. “And a fairer horsewoman you’ll ne’er see.”
Fat lot of good that had done her. They’d had to set the horses loose before they hiked the first mountain, two days in. That is, the gentry had had horses. The servants hadn’t even had mules.
Of all the Eastfolk, only four Masters had come with them. They’d visited every village, demanded entrance to every manse—even the small-king’s castle. They searched libraries and cellars, hay lofts and treasure-stores. No trace of the chalice.
Enzi and the other servants sat near the riverbank, a distance from the campfire. They’d each had a chunk of bread and a wizened apple (the plumper ones had gone to the gentry). Now they waited for the lords and lady to finish their dinner; the servants would share what was left over. Ylder, Master Marrash, an older lord with a kingly manner, and Master Jivaine, who was youngish but too pocked and unpleasant for any girl to sigh after, had gone hunting. Master Marrash shot a partridge. Master Jivaine’s Chenton had made a stew out of it, seasoned with all kinds of things he’d plucked along the way—rough as he talked, the huge man turned out to be a magician at the cauldron. Its scent was a torture to those who hadn’t supped yet. While she waited, Enzi dug in the mud with a stick. She scooped up a few handfuls and began patting them into a shape.
That bit there looked like a muzzle. Doggish. So it was a dog. She molded the clump till it had four legs, a body, a tail. She narrowed the snout. It reminded her of Ranger, one of Beldaria’s hunting hounds, the friendliest one; Enzi often stole scraps for him. She scratched in two eyes. A doggish smile. A nose. Pulled up triangles to serve for pricked-up ears. She paused a moment to wave away a cloud of midges.
“Here, girl, look at yourself,” Sardus chided. “You’re covered in muck. How’re you going to put the Mistress to bed with hands like those?”
“Almost done,” Enzi said. She put the little dog down in the mud beside her. Wished she could have told it, “Good Ranger,” but she knew they’d laugh at her. She went to the river to wash off her hands but had to step in the muddy shore to get there and back. Now clay caked her feet.
Sardus tsked when he saw her. Beldaria’s other servant made it his business to make sure Enzi didn’t shame House Dilvan.
“How’d you do that?” Mertin pointed at the figure of Ranger.
“Don’t know. I’m good with my hands.” Not to boast, but it was true. She wished maybe sometimes someone else would notice.
“Here now,” Chenton said. He scowled at the mud-hound as if he thought it would bite. “You shouldn’t be making those.”
“Why ever not?” Enzi said. “I make them all the time. Used to make my own dolls from twists of wool and scraps of cloth. I had no mam to make ‘em for me.” She didn’t expect any sympathy; the realm overflowed with orphans.
“That there’s against the law,” Chenton huffed, his face going red. “That there’s a clay-mare.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s not even a horse, it’s just a dog. It doesn’t do anything,” Enzi insisted.
“Tell her it’s forbidden.” Chenton poked Sardus in the shoulder. The thin man was pushed backwards. He righted himself and aimed a scowl at Enzi.
“He’s right, you shouldn’t. No matter that you don’t mean it to be a clay-mare.” Sardus stood up and stomped the figure under his boot. It was nothing now.
“Aw,” Mertin said. “You squashed the little dog. It were a clever thing.” That was the first time Mertin had ever said anything nice to Enzi. She flashed him a quick smile of gratitude.
“Chenton!” Master Jivaine called. “We’re done!”
The servants clambered to their feet. Enzi smoothed her skirts; after twelve days on the road in the same garb, its hem now muddy, this was a hopeless gesture. The servants strolled to the campsite, pretending they didn’t want to run and gulp down their long-awaited dinner.
Chenton ladled their bowls half-full of stew. He scraped the cauldron clean. They returned to their spot by the river to eat.
“Enzi, come braid my hair,” her mistress commanded.
She put down the spoon without even a taste and tried not to let disappointment, let alone annoyance, show.
Beldaria posed on a log by the fire. She had undone her wet hair and sat idly combing through it with her long, white fingers. The firelight danced through the chestnut curls, weaving them with red and gold light.
“It’s mostly dry now. Bind it loosely so it will be comfortable when I lie down.”
Enzi brought her lady’s comb and finished the job Beldaria had begun. Standing behind her mistress, she wondered, was she too haloed in golden firelight? She parted the lady’s hair into five sections and began weaving. She forgot Beldaria and the quest and her mosquito bites and gave herself up to the pattern the hair seemed to want to make, something that whispered of rivers and woods and firelight and cricket-song and rest. She tied off the ends with her lady’s ribbons.
“Enchanting,” Master Kassen husked.
Enzi had forgotten the men. They gawped and gaped at her Mistress as if they’d never seen so lovely a sight.
Beldaria had the grace to blush. “My girl has a talent for doing my hair just right. I could wear this to a ball and not feel under-coiffed and yet I can assure you, it will not hamper my sleeping.”
It was Enzi’s turn to blush, but the lords turned their attention to her for only an eye-blink.
“It is surely not the coiffure but the wearer that is beautiful,” Master Marrash said. Ylder nodded, his pink lips half-open in an “ooh.”
Enzi curtseyed to her Mistress and returned to her cold stew. It still tasted good. By the time she’d finished washing the cauldron and all the bowls and spoons, to the quiet sound of the others’ scattered conversations, night had fallen. She removed her lady’s bedroll from her pack and helped her onto it.
“Goodnight, Mistress.” She settled the blanket about Beldaria’s shoulders.
Enzi took less time preparing her own bed. She had no bedroll to stow beneath her, just a cloak to pull over herself as the evening chill came on. The bag, thinner now with naught but her mistress’ clothing in it, served as her pillow.
A few hours of walking next morning brought them to another mountain.
“Not in Eastrealm any longer,” Master Marrash said as they ascended. “Mount Dirrow marks our passage into the Midlands. Now we make our way to the capital and see if Westfolk and Northfolk have met with any success. Just a few more villages and Houses to go before we get there.”
“I do hope we’re the ones to find the Chalice,” Master Jivaine said, screwing up his long nose in displeasure. “It seems an awful lot of trouble to have gone through, traipsing about the wilderness, if we don’t.”
“Nor any recompense for our efforts,” grumbled Master Kassen. Skinny old penny-pincher, Enzi thought; bet he’d be the first to run from danger.
“Worse yet, we haven’t had to do any fighting,” Mistress Beldaria complained. “My sword languishes at the bottom of my pack” (the one strapped to Enzi’s back). “Where’s the glory in this quest?”
No glory came in the next few hours of trudging down the mountainside either. The mountain disgorged them into yet another forest. But soon the questors followed a path, which turned into a road. Thank the gods, Enzi thought, we’re heading somewhere. Somewheres have food, fresh food, not just stale bread and withered apples.
Sure enough, they spotted the encouraging sign of smoke.
They stumbled across a small collection of cottages, cheerfully painted in different colors. Some had designs painted on and around the doors, no two alike, vines and wheels and swirling stars and suns. The thatched roofs were more than orderly; each had its own intricate weaving. So pretty! For a brief instant, before she could call back the renegade thought, it came to Enzi how sweet it might be to live in such a place, with a cozy cottage of your own, your own field to work instead of chasing after folks—especially a headstrong mistress like Beldaria. Enzi pictured herself painting the designs of her own choosing on her very own door. Maybe a family… She shook away the silly notion.
But something felt odd. It took Enzi a moment to figure out what. There was no one in sight, not a soul crossing the road, tending a garden, gossiping over laundry. Not even a child. Could they all be working their fields or shut up inside their houses?
“Someone must be here,” Lord Marrash said, as if in answer to her thought; “they would not have left their fires burning.”
An odd feeling prickled the back of Enzi’s scalp. What if some mischief had been done in this village, the inhabitants all killed? Or what if some mischief was intended by the villagers against strangers?
At the next bend in the road, they came upon the village green. It was filled with people, all turned and facing the road on which the travelers walked. Master Ylder positioned himself in front of Beldaria, as if to shield her. The crowd burst into cheers.
“Welcome! Welcome to Aerdwen!” they cried.
Lord Marrash stepped forward a few paces. Enzi felt relief. The sight of his proud bearing, the gray hairs barely vanquishing the black in his well-groomed hair and beard, would certainly give ill-wishers pause. His hand went to the hilt of his sword; his muscled arm looked as if it well knew how to wield it.
A tall man pushed himself forward from the crowd. He had straight brown hair that fell to his shoulders in a womanly fashion and wore long robes, striped white and red. Eastfolk lords only wore robes for special occasions; this man looked like no lord and his robes were simple linen, not velvets.
He held out his oversized hands in a gesture of greeting. “Welcome, travelers!”
“We come in the name of Great-King Bardo,” Lord Marrash announced. “We are questors—”
“We know who you are,” the big man said. He smiled graciously. In every other manse and village, the Masters and the townsfolk became annoyed or affronted when the questors demanded they rifle through their homes and stores. Despite the fact that all would benefit from the recovery of the Chalice, no one had bid them welcome before. Midlanders were different from Eastfolk, Enzi reasoned, or else their small-King had a higher regard for Great-King Bardo.
“I am Vennidan.” The tall man swept very low in a graceful bow. “And this is Nella.” His arm swept outward in another perfect gesture.
The plump, dark-skinned woman had curly hair that tumbled down her shoulders. An Eastern woman would have bound it tight to tame it; Enzi liked it as it was. She too wore loose linen robes, a light purple color with turquoise leaves embroidered on the wide sleeves.
“In honor of your arrival, we will arrange a feast,” Nella said. Turquoise stones dangled from her ears, bobbling as she spoke.
Master Marrash removed his hand from his sword. His shoulders relaxed. “We would be most grateful,” he said. Enzi sighed with relief.
Nella ushered them forward. The crowd parted to admit them.
In the middle of the green stood two tables festooned with greens, benches pulled before them. Vennidan clapped his big hands and several villagers went scurrying off. The rest seated themselves on the grass, facing the questors.
Master Marrash led the way to the first table, extending his arm for Mistress Beldaria to take, as if they attended a dance at a great house. Beldaria gave him a tiny curtsy and the crowd an indulgent smile. But, Enzi noticed, she held her outside arm away from her side, so the sunlight would glint off the dagger at her hip. Master Ylder quickly fell into step behind them, making sure he would sit beside the lady. Enzi scowled as Master Kassen rushed to be next. Of course he would not wish to find himself relegated to a lesser place. The remaining masters seated themselves at the second table. Enzi stood and waited, like the other servants.
“The feast is for all the questors,” Nella said.
The gentry made no objections, though Master Jivaine emitted a small grunt of disapproval. Ah, but it felt good to sit! Enzi placed the pack between her legs, the bag behind her. She rolled her neck and shoulders to ease her tired muscles.
Villagers appeared, bearing bowls laden with fruit, cheese and breads. Other servers came by with pear-wood goblets and pitchers of water and wine. Enzi gulped her water down at once. The goblet felt satin-smooth; her hand enjoyed tracing the whorls of color on the round bowl. She popped several grapes into her mouth; she’d never seen any so fat and purple, glistening with dew. The questors went quiet, busy at their meal. The people of Aerdwen chatted amongst themselves, sitting at leisure as if at a picnic, though they did not eat. Servers returned bearing platters of chicken and vegetables roasted in herbs.
Eventually even Chenton licked his fingers and splayed his greasy hands across his expanded belly as if to congratulate it on its spectacular feat of consumption.
“We’d like to provide some entertainment for you.” Vennidan smiled broadly. “It’s the custom in Aerdwen for guests to become part of that entertainment—it will unfold especially for you.” He clapped his hands, signaling for some of the villagers to run off again. These were all children, Enzi noted, all of them a few years younger than she.
Master Marrash sat up straighter, knowing all eyes were on their party. Beldaria leaned forward on her elbows, her eyes bright with amusement. Only Master Kassen scowled, his bushy white eyebrows peaking up. The old skinflint’s probably worried they’re going to ask him for payment, Enzi thought.
The children returned carrying cloth-covered baskets. They stood in an admirably straight line. At Vennidan’s command, they lifted the cloths.
Inside the basket were toys!
“I will ask each of you to select the carved figure you like the most and tell us why. It does not matter if one of your companions selects the one you would have picked—or even if you all pick the same one. Just pick the object you favor most. Our subsequent entertainment will rely on your choice.”
Mistress Beldaria clapped her hands. “What a lovely game!” she declared. Enzi thought so, too.
“We will go from left to right, if that pleases your lordships? My lady?” Vennidan asked.
The gentry nodded their accord.
Master Marrash rose from the table. “May I?” He gestured towards the baskets, taking one step closer.
“By all means,” Nella said. “You may touch them, if you like; even pick them up.”
The lord strolled down the line. There were twelve baskets. He paused a while at one but examined them all. He picked up the lion but soon put it down, returning to his original favorite. It was a bear, standing on its hind legs. It suits him, Enzi thought; muscular, with an intelligent face. The master held the bear aloft.
“Excellent!” Nella exclaimed. “And your reason?”
“The bear is a noble animal,” Master Marrash answered, “and strong.”
Vennidan set the bear on the table before Master Marrash’s place.
“Mistress?” Rella invited Enzi’s lady.
“I recognize mine at once,” Beldaria said. She jumped from her bench and brought a figurine to her table. It was a cat licking its paw. “It’s the most charming.”
“How so?” Vennidan elicited.
“She has dainty features. And how sweetly intent she is at her task.”
Vennidan nodded to Master Ylder.
Like Master Marrash, he walked down the line of basket-holders deliberating. He took a moment to tousle the head of the littlest girl, who blushed and gave him a shy smile. He came back to the next but last figure: a dog. Enzi did not care much for it. She thought it even more crudely made than her poor little mud-Ranger.
Ylder held the white and brown spotted hound delicately between two fingers, and set it beside the lady’s cat, as if it were chasing it. “I choose the hound. Renowned for its faithfulness.” He turned to Beldaria, as if the comment were meant just for her. Such fa-di-la gentry gallantry, Enzi thought.
Master Kassen didn’t wait for an invitation. He dwelt a long time on one figure, then stared an equally long time at another. He paced between the two, deciding. The first was a buffalo, the largest of the carvings—a good two feet tall and at least four times larger than Beldaria’s cat. It was a rough block, with childish slashings to indicate fur, barely incised at all; the horns stuck out unevenly. Why on earth would anyone choose that? Enzi wondered. His second choice was an elephant. It bore an empty howdah on its back, bright blue spangled with yellow stars. Red and green blankets spilled down its back. But Enzi didn’t care for this one either; the legs were unshaped rectangles, without indentations or even paint to indicate the toenails. Ah, Enzi thought; he’s trying to determine the costliest one and can’t decide between the biggest or the gaudiest. She wrinkled her nose.
Kassen held up the buffalo. “There.”
“And your reason?” Nella prompted.
“It’s—”. Of course he couldn’t say it was because he thought it worth the most. “Uh—what exceeds a buffalo in power, I ask you?” He sat down, banging the buffalo onto the table with a challenging glare.
Master Jivaine strolled between the children, fingering his stubbly chin. He looked behind him at the animals arranged on the table. “We may select an animal that’s already been chosen?” he asked.
“Certainly,” Vennidan said.
Jivaine sauntered up to Master Marrash. He stretched out his hand—withdrew it quickly—then snatched up the bear. “The bear is a fiercesome beast.” He returned to his place, positioning the bear before him. “There we have it.” Master Jivaine smacked his hands together.
“But the others haven’t chosen,” Nella said.
“The others?” Jivaine glanced down his nose at the third table. “They are only servants.”
“True,” Vennidan said, “the quest was not their choice. Even so, they are a part of it. Its dangers are theirs as well as yours; its rewards will be theirs too.”
Master Kassen hmphed. Enzi peered forward to see her lady’s reaction. Beldaria only smiled, as if amused at the servants’ inclusion.
Sardus rose, straightening his tunic with a quick, efficient gesture. Head held high, as if this game were something important and his part in it essential, he looked into the baskets, hands folded behind his back. The color rising in his cheeks, he peered at each of the figures chosen by the gentry. He did not meet the masters’ eyes, nor the lady’s. He took his time perusing the figures. He came back at last to the baskets. With a wry smile he picked the goat. Enzi had liked that one, too. It had a neat beard nicely carved, and a sense of dignity that belied its goatishness.
“And why?” Nella asked.
“There’s nothing foolish about it,” he answered. “It looks like it’d know how to get things done.”
“We can choose one that’s already been picked?” Chenton bellowed, not waiting to be asked. Enzi knew he meant, were the servants allowed to take away a figure already picked by the gentry. It seemed a cheeky thing to do.
“Aye,” Vennidan answered.
Chenton lumbered up to Master Kassen and snatched away the buffalo. He set it in front of his place, folding his hands as if daring someone to take it away. “A beast you can rely on. He won’t take any nonsense.”
Mertin took the longest. He circled from basket to basket, then glanced nervously at the table of the gentry, then circled the baskets again.
“Come, boy, we don’t have till the end of time,” Master Jivaine chided.
Mertin paused before Chenton’s buffalo, but lost his nerve. The boy chose the elephant. “All the others are plain; this one’s got nice colors,” he said. A greasy sweat broke out over his pimpled face.
Enzi’s turn at last. Amongst those the others had picked, the bear and the goat were the only ones worth considering. But no. She examined the baskets. A lark with outspread wings caught her interest. It had an exuberant shape that felt right. It would have been pretty tied on a bit of string and hung somewhere. But when she tested it on a table, it wobbled on its round breast. The lion had a suitably menacing expression but its mane looked too staid. In the end she picked the one she’d liked best all along: the zebra. She brought it back to her place.
“Why did you pick that one?” Vennidan asked.
“It was the best,” she answered simply. Surely no one wished to hear her opinion.
“Best how?” Nella prompted.
“It seems twitchy, like it just took a minute to rest before it gallops off. The face looks full of mischief. The stripes aren’t straight lines, but flow and—I don’t know, kind of dance.”
Vennidan and Nella smiled broadly.
“We must make our entertainment ready,” the tall man said. “We will return soon. Rest, or speak with some of our villagers; the people of Aerdwen are eager to meet you.”
If only Beldaria would nap. But no, the Mistress rose and spoke to some of the women, fingering their hair. It was tempting to curl up in the shade of the nearest tree but Enzi kept a watchful eye, in case she was needed. Master Kassen and Master Jivaine stretched themselves out in a shady spot, quietly talking. Master Ylder joined the lady. Soon the pair was leading a group of children in a dance, holding hands with them and going round and round in a boisterous ring. Did Beldaria never tire?
From time to time, various villagers slipped away. Presumably they were part of the mysterious entertainment.
Somewhere a horn sounded. Vennidan rode into sight driving a green caravan, its interior concealed by bright blue curtains. A pair of ponies led it, their blue bridles spangled with shining brasses.
“Once upon a time.” Vennidan jumped to the ground. “There was a bear.”
Out from behind the curtains came a masked man. The questors laughed. The man lumbered down the steps just like a bear, for all he still wore his blacksmith’s apron. The mask looked familiar; it was a leather counterpart to the carved bear Master Marrash had chosen.
A story unfolded, with different masked characters emerging from the wagon, bearing masks of the animals chosen by the questors. The qualities of the toys were mimicked in the masks, but exaggerated. The buffalo mask was a truly ugly thing. Its actor played an ugly role in the little drama, poking other animals with its horns until they dropped. A lithe-limbed man wore the goat-mask, its beard a mannerly fringe of yarn that hung down his chin. The man managed to be sprightly yet dignified, the beard barely wiggling with his energetic movements. The story was a silly mess, not like a proper tale. But the longer Enzi watched, the more she liked it. It made sense, even though it made no sense.
What did that mean? she wondered.
The sense wasn’t in the words. It was in—what? In the way the words fit together, that was it. The words felt right with each other, even when they were meaningless. The actors said their rhymes like they were speaking songs without the tunes. Even the way they moved felt right. They were making patterns. That’s a diamond. That’s a rosette, the word bubbled up in Enzi’s mind. The goat approached the cat; the bear crossed to the elephant. Each player grasped a partner’s outstretched hands and walked in circles while they spoke. Enzi thought of spinning wheels; their hands were the hubs. She felt a kind of song rising up in her ribcage, though she couldn’t really hear it, could form neither words nor melody. Not an actual song but a counter-current. It didn’t make sense but she felt a sense of satisfaction in the feeling. Did the other questors feel it too? No. Their expressions hadn’t changed. They smiled with mild amusement—not the excitement she felt surging. This under-song, these patterns of words, rhythm, steps, meant something. Something important. Why were they deaf to it?
The zebra will come next, Enzi thought, even before the curtains stirred. The last actor to emerge from behind the curtains sported the zebra mask. The zebra’s buxom body wore Nella’s lavender skirts; her turquoise earrings bounced as she bounded down the steps and became the elephant’s partner.
The ousted bear positioned himself at the center of the moving figures. He was the hub of all the wheels that made a greater wheel, Enzi saw; the stillness at the center of movement. “Who will weave for the rose and the oak?” he asked. “Who will braid for the ant and the dove?”
Enzi scooted to the edge of her seat. She knew the answer to the question, this question that made no sense! And she knew it was the part of the zebra to answer.
“I will weave for the rose and the oak,” the zebra said, joining the bear. “I will braid for the ant and the dove. I will build for masters and folk. I will build with light and love.”
The zebra circled the others, stopping before the questors. Her hands stretched forth, palms outward. “I will shape the waves and the breeze.”
Enzi’s lips moved with hers.
“I will shape the stars in the night.”
The zebra held out her hands to Enzi in invitation. Enzi rose. She spoke the words she knew followed.
“I will shape the fields and the seas,” they said together. Enzi took Nella’s hands. They moved into the center of the grassy stage, became the hub of the wheel. “I will shape the morning light.”
The other players formed new patterns around Enzi and Nella. They clapped a rhythm with their hands, no longer speaking. Enzi’s feet knew the rhythm, moved in pace with it, back and forth in place, as Nella removed the zebra mask and tied it onto Enzi’s face. When the ribbons were tied, flowing down Enzi’s back like a black and white braided zebra tail, the clapping stopped.
Enzi alone spoke the rest. “I will play what must be played; I will sing the needed song. I will make what must be made; I will build to right what’s wrong.”
The players froze in their patterns.
Enzi felt like a broken clock that’d been repaired, its gears stopping now but just in the rest between one second and the next.
On Aerdwen Green, a hush possessed the audience. The villagers did not clap, though clearly the show was done. Mistress Beldaria frowned. Master Marrash placed his hand once more on the hilt of his sword, though he did not stand or speak.
Enzi removed the zebra mask. She handed it apologetically to Nella.
Vennidan stepped forward. “Masters, Mistress. This girl belongs here.”
Enzi’s lady rose. She did not yet protest. Master Ylder rose beside her.
“This girl belongs to Mistress Beldaria,” he said.
“Are there slaves now in Remalee?” Nella said sharply. “One person cannot own another.”
“She is free to go,” Beldaria said, flipping her hand out nonchalantly. But she grimaced at the betrayal.
“Mistress, here is where I wish to stay,” Enzi said. “My work is here.”
“How on earth can you make such a claim?” Master Jivaine argued, his mustache twitching. “After nothing more than a—a—I cannot even call it a play, as it made absolutely no sense! A silly game to amuse children.”
“No mere game,” Vennidan said, removing his mask. The hound’s face dangled from its string as he talked. He perched on Mistress Beldaria’s bench, facing the questors. “We are what’s left of the Makers. Only Making can undo the Waste and the Wane. The Chalice was a great Making, and its return will help. But it’s not merely the banned objects themselves that have power—it’s the creating of them.”
“There have been Makers all along,” Nella said, “some in whom the power for Making is strong, as in this girl, and others in whom the power exists but in a weaker state. It was always thus but now so few remember what it means and what to do with it. You, sir,” she turned to Sardus, “and you,” she addressed Lord Marrash, “have slight traces of the power. This girl has the knack for Making; she knew the best-wrought figure from the rest, she knew the Maker’s rhyme without prompting. She can help repair the realm. She must stay here with us.”
To Enzi’s shock, Mertin stumbled to his feet. “She made a little dog. I saw ‘er. It were a right pretty thing. She should go if she wants to.” His face red as a rose, he collapsed back to his seat, not making eye contact with anyone, least of all his master.
“I do want to!” Enzi said. “I—feel—it’s right. I know it.” She hit her chest on the word “know.” Could she make them understand, now that she understood? “And I know this, too.” She gulped. How to make them believe her? Before today she had been like a music box, an inert thing; the players on Aerdwen Green had turned the key. “You will find the Chalice. Master Marrash and Sardus will make it happen, and you too, my lady, for there’s a glimmer of Making in you as well.”
Beldaria lost the twist to her mouth.
“Your abilities with sword and bow and horse—your Makings are of a different nature. Even Chenton has traces, him with his herbs and his way with the stewpot.”
“But these magics are against the law!” Chenton shouted. “We should drag you—all of you!—before Great-King Bardo. See you imprisoned!”
Vennidan leaned forward till he was eye-to-eye with Master Marrash. “You must not let that be,” he said quietly. “You must tell the king to let the Makings come back. The clay-mares and the dawn-rhymes and the hearth shrines. The corn dollies offered to the Lady of the Fields and the whisper-braids. Tell him. For the good of all. Folk who have forgot the ways of Making must come here, to Aerdwen, to learn.”
The questors always heeded Master Marrash. They turned to him now, expecting him to know the right thing to do. Honorable, responsible, capable Master Marrash would never go along with nonsense, let alone treason. Enzi wondered if that was a different kind of Making—the ability to lead.
“I—do not know why I should trust you, but I feel I should,” the Master said. “Enzi, did you know these rhymes before today? Answer truthfully, girl.”
“Then how could you speak them at the same time as these villagers?”
“I do not know, sir.” Enzi hoped he could detect her honesty. “I only know I knew the words. Just as I knew the zebra was the best-made toy. I have a way with making things that no one ever taught me. I’d like to believe it’s usefuller than prettying a lady’s hair—begging pardon, Mistress. I know it’s so, just like I know sun rises east and sets west. The sun knows his part in the dance, and we must help the realm remember hers.”
Master Marrash nodded his head. “So,” he declared.
The questors, minus Enzi, would do as they had planned before, look for the Chalice and head for the court. Only now they would also speak to the king about restoring the Makers.
The travelers would leave at first light. They were assigned rooms in the homes of different hosts. Enzi would stay with Nella, for the first time not at her mistress’ side. But before the night wore out, a knock came at Beldaria’s door.
“Mistress, may I braid your hair this one last time?” Enzi asked. She hoped Beldaria would not refuse her touch.
The lady leaned forward on her elbows, her loosened hair flowing about her pillow in a river of curls. She had already combed it herself.
“Please, Enzi,” she requested softly.
Enzi parted the hair into six sections. This time she knew she worked a Making. The pattern spoke of a good night’s sleep, an easy journey and enough charm to persuade a king.