“Waiting for the Talisman” by P.C. Hodgell
Every morning cook and housekeeper Cleppetania (“Call-me-Cleppetty”) scrubbed the kitchen floor of the Res aB’tyrr, then the tiles of the great hall, then the floor of the side room where those too drunk to leave the night before had been dragged. These latter she also rousted.
“Is it really safe to go out?” one old regular quavered, glancing in apprehension at the side windows through which, indeed, early sun light streamed.
“All safe, Gunter,” said Cleppetty, propelling him toward the front door. “Nothing will eat you on the way home.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, these days, but better you leave before your wife comes looking for you.”
Alarmed, he scurried out.
Every seventh day, Cleppetty did the laundry. Every third day, she baked. Today was the latter.
Consequently, water and salt were dumped into flour but not yeast which, of late, had proved unpredictable. Shortly thereafter the air blurred with powder as Cleppetty ruthlessly pummeled the dough, in the process making the kitchen table stagger and jump. A spell from her well-worn book of kitchen charms set the loaves to rise. Here memory made her smile: Once she had asked Jame to do this task. The bread had certainly risen—due, as it turned out, to the growth of rudimentary internal organs. Always good for a laugh, that girl, when she didn’t make one want to scream.
Leaving the charm to work, Cleppetty seized her shopping basket and left the inn, her angular, active figure bristling in all directions. Neighbors called out greetings to her as she passed but none dared to impede her. Here was the local market, one of many such set up in Tai-tastigon’s squares. The vendors were already in full cry:
“Fresh fruit, in just this morning from the countryside!”
“A haunch of mutton, madam? See, it barely twitches!”
“Vegetables, the best, the best . . .”
Cleppetty paused before a cart on which were piled leeks, cucumbers, eggplants, and much more beside in colorful heaps. She picked up a tomato and frowned at it. It was admirably red, but odd pustules garnished it and it seemed to pulse in her hand.
“Too ripe,” she said.
“No, no, madam, just right! Or here: look at these radishes.”
“Too soft,” said Cleppetty fingering one. “If I squeeze this, it will spurt in my face, or explode in the pot. And what about those cabbage heads you sold me last week, eh? D’you know what was inside them?”
The man winced.
“The potatoes were all right, weren’t they?” he almost pleaded.
“Oh yes, if you could bear to gouge out all of those reproachful, blinking eyes.”
“… last night,” a nearby matron was saying, “it came down the street, fumbling at the balconies, tearing some of them off. What did it look like? Oh, mostly transparent, I hear, but with lots of nasty tentacles, and its weight shattered the paving stones as it passed.”
“What do you suppose . . .”
“I don’t know! What are any of them? Dead gods? Demons? Worse? This only used to happen once a year, on the Feast of Dead Gods, and then we could shelter from them, families gathered together. It was almost like a holiday. Now . . . oh, what is our dear city coming to?”
“Something like that happens every night,” the merchant said to Cleppetty, his voice dropping to a murmur. “And that’s not the worst of it.”
“I know,” said Cleppetty. “I listen.
Someone toward the edge of the square shouted. Heads turned. Shoulders tensed.
“Here, here, here! Another harrowing of them!”
People gathered around a stairwell, some with stones, others drawn as if despite themselves. Shabby figures were routed from the shadows and came, shambling, blinking, into the morning sun. Their clothes hung about them in stinking rags. Their faces were slack, their eyes lit only with dumb fear and hunger.
“Oh no!” cried the matron, aghast. “That’s my grandson!”
Others turned on her.
“What did you do, to bring him to this?”
“Nothing, nothing! He slipped out one night to serve his god. They caught him in the streets. He came home without his shadow and . . . and died by morning. After that, we couldn’t restrain him!”
The merchant beside Cleppetty drew back an arm to throw a hefty rutabaga. She stopped him.
“Don’t. Just . . . don’t.”
The haunts scuttled off to another hiding place. Whatever they had been before, they were now creatures of the night, and this was the day.
“We never thought before about what separates life from death,” the vendor said, “or animate from inanimate.”
As Cleppetty turned away, he sadly tipped an entire tray of vegetables into the gutter where they split open on impact, disgorging watery blood and suspicious, fibrous bundles.
On her way back to the Res aB’tyrr, beside the remains of the Skyrrman, Cleppetty was stopped by Kithra.
“Has Uncle Tubain come out of his bedroom yet?” the former maid demanded.
“His wife Abernia was kidnapped by the Sirdan of the Thieves’ Guild,” said Cleppetty, perforce stopping. “Of course he’s upset.”
Kithra pouted. “I know, if I could talk to him, that he would let us come back to live in the Res aB’tyrr. Yes, it was kind of him to buy the Skyrrman for me and Rothan as a wedding gift, but it’s a ruin!”
“Yes, it is,” said Cleppetty with a sidelong glance at the moldering hulk beside them. “After all of this time, too. Is that Tubain’s fault?”
“Rothie does his best.”
“I’m sure that he does.”
“When is Aunt Abernia coming back?” Kithra cried after her as she pressed on to the Res aB’tyrr’s door where the cat Boo waited for her impatiently on the step. “When will Uncle Tubain leave his apartment? When will everything be normal again? Are you going to see the Council of Five again? Or the Sirdan? Oh, if you do, take me with you! He’s so divine!”
Cleppetty put the risen loaves in the oven and turned to the evening’s meal. Perhaps the inn depended most on its legendary cellar, but patrons also needed to be fed, and they would call for food earlier than in days gone by, wanting to be home by dark.
Soup today was lentil, barley, and bean favored with the bones of a joint left over from yesterday.
Dried vegetables were usually safe.
As for the joint, “Cook anything long enough,” Cleppetty would say with a snort to anyone who dared to ask, “and it gives in.”
The same went for the bustard and the roast currently turning on spits, although it made her culinary heart ache to half-ruin them.
As she turned to the makings of a sparse salad (lettuce couldn’t get up to much mischief on the worst of days), the new dancer flounced in. As usual, Na’bim wore barely more than a discontented expression. Her charms, thus revealed, were less than she supposed them to be.
“Is Master Tubain coming out tonight?” she asked, as she had every day for the past month. “How can he spread the word about how good I am if he hasn’t even seen me perform?”
Cleppetty had seen her. If Tubain ever did, the girl would be out on her ear.
“Honestly!” she pouted, plump fists jammed on plump hips. “Don’t tell me he didn’t promote your precious B’tyrr when she was here.”
“The B’tyrr didn’t need any such help,” said Cleppetty tartly.
Nor had she. When Jame danced, eager crowds had spilled out into the square. Tell them that they risked their souls thereby and they would only have laughed:
“Cheap at the price!”
“Tubain will come out when his wife returns home,” she said. “Now, unless you want to lend a hand here. . . .”
Na’bim turned up her nose and flounced out. Jame would have stayed, not that Cleppetty had ever let her near bread dough again.
Cleppetty put food on a tray—scraps from last night, a bowl of milk—and climbed the stairs. To the back of the inn on the second story was the apartment of Tubain and, in better days, his wife. The cat Boo went with her, meowing at her heels. She knocked, waited as if for an answer, and went in.
No one was there.
The rooms felt deserted and stale, but she didn’t dare open a window. Where had that nosy Na’bim gone? A glance back through the door reassured her: Not to the dancer’s nearby room, at least.
Cleppetty put the tray down on the floor and uncovered it. Boo, already obese, waddled over and proceeded to make a glutton of himself. While he gorged, making “yumm, yumm, yumm” noises, she opened a closet and regarded the garments hung on hooks within. To the right were a woman’s clothes; to the left, a man’s.
The entire apartment seemed as rigorously separated, down to fussy ornaments on one side and austere walls on the other. The mattress sported two parallel grooves. Two tables flanked the bed. On one rested a man’s comb, on the other a woman’s brush, both with short, graying hair wound around their prongs.
Still in the closet, Cleppetty fingered a pair of trousers, sighed, and took down instead a gown embroidered with blue flowers across the bodice.
Picking up the now empty tray, followed by Boo begging for more, she left.
Shortly thereafter she put on her own most respectable dress, packed more food—this time, the best at hand—and left the inn. Kithra saw her pass from an upstairs window of the Skyrrman and called for her to wait. She didn’t follow, however, as the housekeeper hurried on into the labyrinth of the city.
By now it was late afternoon with people hurrying through the streets to complete the day’s errands. Merchants hawked their wares, many aware that whatever they didn’t sell today would have to be thrown out tomorrow. Chanting in cadence, acolytes ran through the streets exhorting followers to gather in the Temple District to protect their gods against the threat of nightfall. Some doors were already shut, their cracks stuffed with strips of cloth. It might have been the Feast of Dead Gods come again, disastrously out of season.
The sky growled. Clouds banked there, their tops still sun-lit, their foundations already sunk in shadow. One might have thought that a host of windows and gables loomed over the city, limed with spectral light. The wind shifted, then shifted back, bringing a carrion stench on its breath.
Here was Ship Island, home of the Thieves’ Guild. The River Tone surged around its prow, icy water from the Ebonbane lapping the toes of its figurehead, a female holding aloft, one in each hand, the severed heads of two men. That was her, Jame had once said, according to that smiling monster Bane. He had also said that one of the heads was his own. The other belonged to the former Sirdan, Theocandi, whom the Guild believed Jame to have assassinated. The Guild was being idiotic.
Cleppetty stumped across the stone draw-bridge, across the foredeck, to the entrance of the palace proper.
“I’ve come to see the Sirdan Men-dalis,” she snarled at the guard whom she met there. “Better yet, one of his prisoners. Here is her dinner, also a fresh dress.”
The man blinked at her, then grinned.
“I was told to watch for you,” he said. “Leave your baggage here.”
He led her deeper into the palace, along a route that she had never taken before. Odd, that the Guild had chosen such a nautically themed headquarters, or perhaps not: here, they had an entire island to themselves in which to be virtually a law unto themselves. Moreover, it was close to the rich Gold Ringing District. Tai-tastigon’s thieves were nothing if not pretentious. Jame had really gotten under their skin when the legendary thief Penari had taken her on as an apprentice, and then she had chosen as the Talisman only to steal trinkets.
“The craft is all,” she had said, with that lop-sided smile of hers. “That, and friendship.”
Such an unusual thief. Such a loyal friend.
The hall in which Cleppetty found herself was high and elegantly attired—too much so, for her tastes. Men-dalis lived like a prince but one newly come to power and overly proud of it. How long had it been? Five-some years? What did he still have to prove?
Jame had been gone that long too, driven out by the Guild. Where was she now? What was she doing? Her people lived west of the Ebonbane, she had said, in some place called the Riverland. She had gone to join them. Had they found her as unnerving as Tai-tastigon had?
Perfume invaded the air, a heady, evocative scent, and the light shifted. Cleppetty knew without turning that Men-Dalis had entered the hall. Kithra had called him divine. He was, at least, the son of a New Pantheon sun god, and infamous in his own right for his charming manner. All the less reason to bend to him, Cleppetty thought, her straight back becoming even more stiff. Arrogant, self-righteous pup.
Oh, but that scent. . . .
It reminded her of her first courtship, so many years ago. She had thought then that love was forever. Well, so it was, but so were her new vows.
Ah, Sart, on guard duty tonight. You support me when you can and I am no longer a widow. Otherwise, always, I support myself and those whom I love.
“You come bearing gifts to your mistress Abernia. Your master Tubain only has to present himself to reclaim her.”
Oh, that smug, laughing voice. Did he know the truth? Abernia had been his prisoner for months. He must.
“Some people are naturally fragile.” Now he was playing with her. “Or perhaps unnaturally.”
“That doesn’t apply to Mistress Abernia,” she said sharply.
Was that a note of irritation in his voice? Tubain was, in many ways, a coward. Abernia was not. That was why they complemented each other so well, and why Men-dalis was now finding the latter such a tough nut to crack.
“My master is a good man,” she said, glowering, defiant. “And my mistress is a good woman.”
Men-dalis could be heard to pout, although he stood behind her. “Is it enough to be good, though? My brother Dallen . . .”
She interrupted. Why should the sound of that name in his mouth offend her? “Dally was a sweet boy. An honorable boy. A friend. What of him?”
“Nothing. Nothing. Was he so good, though? After all, he betrayed me to that strumpet Talisman.”
“He did not!”
“A-ha, ha, ha. Then he fooled you too. Did she as well?”
“She was and still is a Kencyr. They never lie.”
“So people say. They also say that the dead are coming back.”
Was that hesitancy in his voice, even sudden fear? Of what was he afraid? Everyone said that Bane had killed Dally, flayed him alive on the Mercy Seat the same night that Jame had supposedly killed Theocandi. But what if he hadn’t any more than she had?
Cleppetty shivered. “What shadow walks behind you?” she demanded, still not turning, now almost scared to.
“What? Where?” He had turned quickly; she heard it in his voice, also in his dread. “Nothing. I have sent for the Talisman, in this place called the Riverland. If she doesn’t return to sort out this mess, I have promised to burn your precious inn to the ground and slay you all on its threshold. Tell me: will she come? Is she that loyal?”
“To her friends, yes.”
The memory came to her of those silver-gray eyes, that flickering, deadly smile.
And to her enemies, implacable, she thought. Be careful what you wish for, guild lord.
Cleppetty took a deep breath. “If she does, will you release my mistress?”
He laughed, light hearted again. “We will see.”
Then he was gone.
Cleppetty found her own way out. In the entry hall, the guard was finishing the food that she had brought for Abernia. “Very tasty,” he said, smiling at her. “My wife will appreciate the dress.”
Cleppetty snarled at him and departed, worried anew about Abernia. The palace’s dungeon, known as the Brig, was said to be a dank, often flooded place, hard on middle-aged bones. Moreover, did everyone here know the truth about its current inmate?
The sun had set behind the Ebonbane and shadows stretched long fingers across the streets. People were hurrying home, clutching last minute purchases, the ways nearly empty. In the distance, something boomed, and someone screamed. Nearer at hand, shapes stirred in stairwells, in doorways, restless, eager.
Overhead, the impression of a monstrous house had grown. The fretful wind tipped it so that one felt dizzy looking up. It appeared about to spill darkness out of its doors and windows on the city beneath, and thunder grumbled in its depths.
Cleppetty pulled her hood down over her head and picked up her pace. Although every noise made her heart pound, she couldn’t help but smile.
Jame was coming back. At last.
Copyright © 2019 P.C. Hodgell
This story is set within the world of P.C. Hodgell’s Kencyrath Saga, with latest entry in the series By Demons Possessed out in May, 2019. P.C. Hodgell earned her doctorate at the University of Minnesota with a dissertation on Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, and is a graduate of both the Clarion and the Milford Writers Workshops. Now retired, she was a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in modern British literature and composition, and taught an on-line course on science fiction and fantasy for the University of Minnesota. Hodgell lives in her family’s ancestral nineteenth-century wood-framed house in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.