The Blight Returns, Chapter 53-54

Ayre looks for babies. Brother Covirus has doubts.

Chapter 53.
Hall Of The Cleansing.
The Abbot looked at the new map and was more or less pleased. The Brothers who would take part in the cleansing were at the hidden daughter houses or working the post roads as drovers already. They had not been able to find jobs as post riders as House Glynynore was only hiring young dragons or fae as post riders. Unfortunately House Qinvaris was only hiring veterans for the harvest and fewer of those than they generally did. There were rumors of great changes in how the harvest was going to be run and the abbot had sent Brother Covirus to investigate. He had not yet returned. Other than that, all that the cleansing was waiting for was the vials to be readied. That work was proceeding even as he looked at the map. Then the bolts would be shipped as part of the shipments of wine that the monks produced. This year was a fine vintage indeed.
Vilhaus, The Kingdom of Astaire.
Ayre watched the coach roll down the street. There was one fundamental problem with having a secret Order when babies were involved. If you wanted to keep them alive, babies required a lot of logistics to move. If the mother was not present, you needed wet nurses which the celibate orders would have to hire, since the nuns could not undertake that task themselves. Then there were diapers and all the rest that went with babies. A few discreet inquiries from the archbishop and some brothers transferred across the different kingdoms had led to some interesting items entered into the ledgers. That was bills for wet nurses, laundry and cradles at a winery near Vilhaus. So Ayre traveled to Vilhaus with his sons and nephews to do some quiet poking around. The coaches with the sisters were easy to spot as they made their way, all too frequently with crying babies through town like the coach that was driving down the street right now. A voice next to him said, “Ach, another one of the witches.”
Ayre turned to the waiter and said, “Witches?”
“Aye. They scan and take the babes. Then they tell them that they are serving penance for being born. They believe because they were told so their entire lives. Well my wife and I fixed that. Once a babe is passed, you can earn a pretty penny as the babe gets passed around. So the babes are kept out of the hands of the witches. If they grow up and go into the woods, there is no harm in that, is there?”
“Not as far as I can see. The nuns must catch some.”
“Aye, they do. Some families don’t think that their babes will fail, or can’t find a switcher fast enough. So the test fails. I have to wonder about what kind of the Good Mother allows such things.”
“I wouldn’t know. I am just a traveler, making my way.”
Versellen, Kingdom of Dolmon.
Jimmy looked at the broad valley between them and the Deephollow faery kingdom. The valley was fruitful and prosperous. It was also essentially free of easy places to hide and twenty miles wide. Jimmy had a suspicion that he didn’t really have much time to spare and while he hadn’t told Talissa yet, there was a bit of a deadline, not for them, but for the other side. She needed to be tested and aknowledged as heir of the faery kingdom so that the Justiciars had jurisdiction and could intervene in certain places. Otherwise those places were going to be destroyed. He went back to Talissa and said, “We won’t be able to hide for the next bit. I need to Jump and talk with somebody. I will be back by nightfall.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Talissa the landdragon who can’t Change will be seen as a monster unless certain people who know her, introduce her. Jimmy the landdragon is known all over as the friend of kids. I know where I can get some kids that know me.”
“Yes. Specifically, Lina d’Ambray.”
“The brat?”
“Yes, the brat. But she lives over there on the estate and should be home right now. I’m going to Jump over and see if she and some friends will come back. And then, you and I take care of some kids while the whole lot of us go on a holiday across the valley.”
Talissa giggled. “Lina will enjoy it, but we probably won’t. Especially when she knows that I look like this.”
“You look fine to me.” Jimmy licked Talissa on the muzzle.
“I know, but that’s because you are a landdragon right now.”
“So are you. If you could revert, then we would have a different set of problems.”
“What problems?”
“Naked princess problems.”
“We wouldn’t want those. So get a move on.”
Jimmy Jumped to the d’Ambray’s chateau since he could see it from the ridge he had just left. The guards were reacting to the sudden appearance of a landdragon on the lawn when a girl rushed out and grabbed his neck. “Jimmy!”
Lina was followed by her mother who said, “Jimmy, this is a surprise. Where’s Talissa?”
“Up in the hills since she can’t Jump yet and is sort of stuck. Could I borrow Lina, some friends and a picnic?”
“I think that something can be arranged. Why do you need it?”
“I think that I will let you discover the problem. Let’s just say that Talissa had an accident and I don’t want her scaring anybody.”
“Talissa isn’t scary,” Lina said. “You aren’t either.”
“I’m not scary to you, Lina, because you know me. Some other people might be scared of me.”
Astania laughed and amazingly had a wagon, kids and servants all set up and they were off, first to pick up Talissa, who Lina laughed at, and then parading through town to the river for lunch and still more kids, across the bridge, through town and in the late afternoon, Talissa and Jimmy waved goodbye and headed to the woods.
House Yllanan- Deephollow Faery kingdom.
A rather stuffy fae in trueform appeared and said, “The heir approaches, my queen.”
“Why so formal, Rainbow?”
“Queen Lazuli, I thought that a certain formality was appropriate considering your current location.”
“Is that a rebuke?”
“Not at all. I just felt that a high elf castle was not the place for levity.”
Lavidia and Esgalwathanar started to laugh as Lazuli said, “I could have you assigned here.”
Rainbow disappeared as Esgalwathanar continued to laugh. “I think he has a clue about us.”
Lazuli grinned. “Shall we go and greet our landdragons?”
“Why don’t we. Lavidia, we may not be back for a five day or so.”
“Enjoy yourselves. Of course befuddling Jimmy won’t be easy.”
“I know. Of course every day that we are befuddling Jimmy is another day that Stormwolf isn’t getting beaten up.”
“Not by Jimmy. On the other hand, Vesstan has taken the lot of them to hand and been teaching all the “culls.”
Esgalwathanar laughed as he and Lazuli Jumped to the heart of the Deephollow Faery kingdom. Lazuli’s former lovers and their bondeds were waiting as they emerged from Jump. Lazuli said, “If this formality doesn’t stop, the lot of you get reassigned to the House until the tendency to formality goes away.”
Adam Caradas said, “Your majesty, you don’t have to threaten us with that. We’ll be good, or bad as the case may be. So what should we do about our invading dragons?”
“Where are they?”
“Approaching the grade.”
“Good. I think that it’s time to clear some things up and maybe the kids can help. Esgalwathanar, I think that it’s time you heard about my bonded’s accident since you told me what happened to your bonded.”
“I haven’t asked you about that.”
“I know, but I want to tell the story to both you and Talissa while she is here. Why don’t we find Jimmy and Talissa?”
Jimmy looked around and said, “This ground has been worked on. It’s like a road.”
“I know where we are. It’s an old family story about my grandpa, my great uncle and somebody dieing.”
“What happened?”
“My great uncle likes to build railroads.”
“Like in the Fellowship?”
“Yes. He built some there. He was a second child like me and found railroads. He started to build this one and since we were next to the faery kingdom, the king liked to come to the cliff up there and watch. Well they were blasting parts of the cliff and one time the king came and Jumped right to where they were blasting.”
“He didn’t Jump out?”
“Nobody knows why he didn’t Jump out, but he was caught in it and died. According to daddy, grandfather was real mad at my great uncle and my great uncle blamed himself for what happened.”
Lazuli and Esgalwathanar appeared. Lazuli grinned and said, “I see that you had an accident, niece.”
Talissa rubbed her forepaw on her chest. “This? Jimmy, haven’t I always looked like this? Mother was always calling me a little monster.”
Jimmy replied, “If you looked like that, that would explain why they were so eager to get you out of the palace.”
“You don’t seem to have any trouble.”
“I don’t have a history of sheep stealing and rampaging.”
Lazuli frowned. “Did you rampage, Talissa?”
“I will admit that there were some sheep that may have gone missing. Rampage is more than a bit of an exaggeration.”
“That’s not what people told me, with busted up sheep sheds to prove it,” Jimmy said.
“I can’t help it if they locked up the sheep. How was I supposed to get at them if the sheds were locked?”
Esgalwathanar was laughing as Lazuli said, “That sounds too much like a rampage to me. I think that we better keep an eye on this dangerous menace to sheep, ‘thanar.”
“I think that you are right. Why don’t we escort them around the kingdom and someplace safe?”
“That sounds like a good idea. Niece, unless you can prove that you are not going to rampage through the kingdom, I cannot let you inside.”
“Ok, Jimmy, you do any necessary rampaging.”
“Why me?”
“Because the kids like it when you rampage.”
“I can’t help that. Anyway, this road goes up from here and we can use it to sneak past these two when they aren’t looking.”
“While you two use this road for your nefarious purposes, let me tell you the story of why it is like this,” Lazuli said
“I already told Jimmy what I knew,” Talissa said.
“Let me tell all of it. It is worth telling. A long time ago there were three princes. The eldest was going to become king when his father died, the second went on a journey and the third went on a hunt and found something magical, which was me. We joined and when my parents went into the woods, became the king and queen of the kingdom here.”
“Weren’t my uncles tested?”
“The Church was more discreet in the use of those scanners until they could buy more of them and there were ways to mask purely physical markers and means of persuasion that encouraged the brothers to ensure that the families were not accused of being mages. In any case your uncles did not have issues with being scanned as members of the royal family. The pontiff at the time did not want to face a conflict with the royalty in the kingdoms. Let me get back to the story. Your uncle Edelmir and I were king and queen and your other uncle went to the Republic and found two things, an exile that he married and railroads. At the time, the railroads were little more than toys. Admatius took the machines clanking about colleries and made them into the great roads of the Republic. Then he came to the Fellowship, and here. This line was going to be his treasure, his gift to both kingdoms. Both his brothers visited the work, often. My bonded liked a point up there to watch the work. The line was going to go underneath it. There was going to be a tunnel and they used nitroglycerine to blast the tunnel. Nitroglycerine is a dangerous explosive and they scheduled the shots in the mornings. That last morning Edelmir was enjoying the dew, playing Jump tag with me and Jumped to the point, just as a charge was set off. That would have been fine, the charge was in the tunnel, but there was a weakness in the rock and the explosive set off more than they planned for the shot, so the whole point came down.”
“Why didn’t my great uncle Jump away?”
“We were playing Jump tag and he was looking for me to set up his next Jump. He wasn’t prepared to Jump, but since he was preparing to Jump his defenses were inactive and he fell. I felt him scanning for me and suddenly, he was gone. I rushed to the spot and the crew had seen him fall. Admatius came running and I yelled terrible things at him. When Gerald heard about what had happened, he tore into Admatius as well and we tore at each other so much that we just couldn’t even stand each other. Edelmir would have been rather upset with all of us. He was such a generous soul. I retreated to the forest and started to chase men, looking for what I had lost and Admatius returned to the Republic and his trains after vowing never to return. The problem now is that we need him and what he can do. We need the railroad and we need it sooner, rather than later.”
“You need it, aunt?”
“I have come to see parts of the Empire as my home as well as the woods here. If the Turmoils come again, the people that I have grown to love, my new family, will be at risk. Even worse, the monster behind the turmoils has his plans and I don’t think that he will stop at the Empire. I think that the thing on the other side wants all under his grasp.”
“That will be a very bad thing,” Jimmy said. “I’ve seen the Darkmage’s children, all of them, close up and they are all monsters, one way or another. You can ask all the culls about them. For that matter, you can ask all the creatures of the Pen. Talissa, you get tested and then you and I need to make a trip.”
“To see your great uncle. He may not want to come back, but we will be very persuasive. After all we are landdragons.”
Lazuli grinned. “You two better get a move on, because Esgalwathanar and I are not going to go easy on you two. The Deephollow faery kingdom has a high disregard for rampaging.”
Esgalwathanar and Lazuli disappeared and Jimmy said, “We better start rampaging, because if those two get setup, you won’t get tested.”
“So who is this, father, and where are mother and my sister,” Kaylessa said with a bit of a frown.
“This is Mage Wyrran. I brought him down to meet father. Your sister is working on something and your mother is working on something with Rebecca”
“What did you bring the mage here for? Being a mage doesn’t really work in the Republic.”
“He is a portal expert.”
“How did that happen?”
“Why don’t we get the luggage to the car as Wyrran and I tell you the story?”
The porters took the luggage, and Adiun encouraged Wyrran to tell his daughter about his days in the mage academy, his research into portals, the frustration at the lack of tools and information from the Portal Service, building his own portal, being recuited by Zanis Zylvyre and his days with the boys out in the empty lands.
Kaylessa brightened up as she said, “So you were looking into the second mage war.”
“Is that what they call it here?”
“I call it that, when I can convince most people that it even happened. For something as big as that was, it isn’t easy. I tried to do my masters in history on it and was stymied by the lack of real material. I found people that had been driven out and exiled, because they came here, but very little about the actual events.”
“It happened. I discovered it when I went looking for portals to repair after my working environment turned out not to be what I expected.”
“How so?”
“Zanis recruited me right out of the academy with the promise that I would have access to portal tools and be able to work on portals. I was, but Zanis neglected to mention certain Master Mages, who were essentially yes men for a monster, being placed under light compulsion so that I wouldn’t leave and said yes man not listening when I said that we would be caught eventually if we kept taking portals and moving them around. I was concerned that the Portal Service would see the use on the portal traffic board.”
“The portal traffic board?” Adiun asked. “I didn’t run into something like that at the Portal Service. I had to make a board that does most of that for my desk.”
“I was a bit surprised about that. If you read the things at the mage academy about the early portals, the board is mentioned, but where it was and what happened to it is a mystery. From what I saw, the board had its own secure office and staff. In any case, I knew that there were ways to trace portal use.”
“I’ll look into that when I get back.”
“So, to avoid your nasty bosses you went looking for portals and found something more,” Kaylessa purred.
“First of all detecting the portals was a bit surprising, especially in the middle of nowhere. Then I found towns that had been either ruined by what appeared to be magefire or other mage attacks. I started a journal about most of it.”
“I want to see that.”
“I brought it with me. Adiun asked me to, as well as my portal material. I’ve been taking some school kids from the Lower City and an Aerie through some of the places I found, since the portals still work. At least they work since I repaired them.”
“Why did they let you repair portals?”
“Because if I repaired the portals, especially near the Fellowship, it was easier than stealing them from the Lower City.”
“Father, I think that I will be returning to the Empire with you and Mage Wyrran here. There are some old sticks at the university who need a bit of a lesson.”
Adiun grinned as the car headed to the house. This was working out even better than he had hoped.
Deephollow Faery kingdom.
Jimmy looked at the rocks as they were climbing up the pile. “This is where it happened, isn’t it?”
“Do you think so?”
“There is this big pile of rocks. Something doesn’t feel right, though. I think that your great aunt should talk to the Grand Master and have a mage come and look at this with Justiciar Dawkins.”
“Because it feels like a mage did something to the rock.”
“You don’t think that it was an accident?”
“I lived with the people in the empty lands for over three years. The Master liked convenient accidents. I don’t know about the Darkmage because he never came while I was in the Pen, but there have been a lot of convenient “accidents”all over the place.”
The two dragons were suddenly attacked by a flock of birds and Talissa said, “I think that they have started.” She charged up to the top with Jimmy following, keeping her eyes down to protect them and ignoring the rest. They reached the top of the cliff and were suddenly wrapped in deep fog. The birds were still able to find them and Jimmy said, “I will be right back.”
He Jumped away and shortly thereafter returned with a bird net. He tossed it and caught a bunch of the birds. He said, “These will make a nice snack.”
The birds all disappeared. Talissa laughed and said, “How did you know?”
“The birds could have been protecting their nests, but it is too late in the year for that and there weren’t any nests in the rocks. Also they should have known that I was tested and could tell a fae being a bird from a glamor bird. Which way is your grove?”
Talissa felt a pull to the south and east. “I feel a pull that way.”
“Ok, you go that way and be obvious.”
“What are you going to be doing?”
Jimmy tied a collar to Talissa. “Not be obvious. This has a glamor with me in it. So we are heading right to the grove. In the meantime, I have my little pack of trouble.”
“A pack of trouble?”
“I’ve been playing tag and beating up Stormwolf and the lady’s other monsters for the last two moons. Yes, trouble.”
Esgalwathanar was looking at the pair of landdragons as they pushed closer and then looked again. “Where’s Jimmy?”
“Right there, isn’t he?” Lazuli frowned. “He is sticking very close to Talissa. I would have thought that he would have been less obvious.”
“I think that that is a glamor tied to Talissa. Vesstan would do things like that and Jimmy has been taking lessons.”
“It will be hard to hide from the fae here for very long.”
“I should have my family come down here and play some games. According to Lavidia and Teiran, even the family that were not fae had no problem coming up with mischief in the woods. For that matter, the fae all learned the same sorts of lessons and my family has been teaching Jimmy what they know for moons. Then there are the Beinans.”
“You didn’t mention Gander and the other Justiciars. Jimmy has been involved with them too.”
“I don’t think that they are as sneaky as the rest, but that is a good point. In any case, I’m going to scout around a bit.”
Esgalwathanar Jumped through the woods, but Jimmy was either being very careful or the glamor was Jimmy. He wasn’t sure until the giant bear started to rampage inside the shields around the kingdom’s center. That was followed by random launches of fireworks, animals set loose and brief encounters by the various fae with a landdragon who would conduct acts of rampage and disappear again. Suddenly there was not one Talissa, but five, including one with Jimmy. Esgalwathanar returned to Lazuli and said, “Jimmy is a very good student.”
“Yes he is. I better get to the grove.”
Lazuli Jumped to the grove and in amongst the chaos, Talissa appeared. Lazuli called out, “Welcome, niece. You have made it to the grove, with some assistance from Jimmy.”
“He didn’t tell me what he was going to do. All those jokes about rampaging and then he did all those things. I feel funny.”
“The test has started.”
Lazuli could almost feel the eagerness of the grove and the entire kingdom as they welcomed the new queen. The death of Lazuli’s bonded had been a tragedy for the entire kingdom and Lazuli had never quite been able to heal the wounds until Talissa had been born. Diona had done a very good job of preparing Talissa for this moment and Lazuli was filled with joy as the landdragon was replaced by Talissa in trueform. She looked at herself and said, “Why am I like this?”
“This is your heritage and your trueself. Here is Jimmy. I will leave him to you.” Lazuli Jumped out of the grove as it raised the shields. Esgalwathanar joined her and said, “They are young for that.”
“Once they were both here, the kingdom was not going to wait any longer. So we can prepare the party.”
“We will want to have another and a grove at the House.”
“A joint grove between two kingdoms now. We can train Talissa and Jimmy for their roles.”
The grove glowed intensely for three twentieths as the kingdom gathered and celebrated. Finally Talissa and Jimmy emerged to a cheering crowd and joined the dance and celebration that was already ongoing.
The next morning Jimmy and Talissa found Esgalwathanar and Lazuli and Jimmy said, “Aunt Lazuli, could you show us where the rocks collapsed?”
“You climbed in through there.”
“I thought that we might have, but I wasn’t sure. We should have the Grand Master send a mage and have Gander come down and look at it.”
“Because I felt the residue that mage effects leave in the rocks.”
“How do you know what that was?”
“Because I’ve been shot by mage fire so many times as part of my trainging at the Pen. We four landdragons were supposed to stomp all over mages. So they had mages shoot magefire at us, so that we could get used to it. We also learned to sense the effects.”
“Where are the other landdragons?” Esgalwathanar asked.
“Vinny came out with the rest when Mrs. Beinan collected most of the culls. I think that the other two are part of the group that was guarding something. They were older than Vinny and I when they were taken and stronger, so they weren’t bullied.”
“So you think that a mage caused my bonded’s death,” Lazuli said.
“You said that nobody thought that the rock would collapse like that and there was that taint in the rocks. If I were trying to cause chaos and trouble in Dolmon, killing a member of the royal family and arrnanging that a mage did it would be a good way to do it and if the Empire had the railroad connection, the Empire would be stronger. You all were so sure that it was the nitroglycerine that you didn’t even look for a mage.”
Esgalwathanar frowned. “The Master would expend a mage for that?”
“Considering what he would get when his plan worked, yes. Especially if he could compel a mage that was just on assignment. Anyway, Talissa and I are going to meet my parents.”
“Like that?” Lazuli said with a grin.
“Yes. Both my mom and dad have seen the landdragon, so this will not be that different.”
Esgalwathanar laughed as the pair disappeared.
Vilhaus, The Kingdom of Astaire.
Ayre and Maldin were paying visit to the winery, like all the wineries of the Church, dedicated to Brohulla, Goddess of Spririts, with her grape symbol over the gate of the rather large compound. The abbot was seemingly open and friend;y and took them around to see the presses, the aging and the careful transfer of the unique bubbling wine to bottles and corking before being placed in the cellar to ferment and create the bubbles. After the tour and a case, Ayre and Maldin left with a commitment to place orders along with a list where the wine could be purchased in the Empire. As they rode the coach away from the winery, one of the coaches of the sisters passed in the other direction. Ayre quietly said, “Pick that place clean. When we return to the inn, I need to tell Elred and Darfin to look out for this wine.”
“That wine is big in the Cloud City.”
“I know. That was probably how they smuggled the bolts.”
“Do we smash the place?”
“Not until we get what they know and where their people went. There were a lot of spaces there that had no people, a lot of spaces on the other side of that wall.”
“The wall you carefully did not ask about.”
“The wall and gate I ignored, yes.”
The Lower City.
Ayluin Nerixisys was taking his probable brother in law to meet with his wife, his mistress and Donia at Olivia’s home in the Lower City since Olivia was bit nervous about Jimmy returning home and not finding anybody there. Aestaeros said,“Jimmy said that your wife and Olivia didn’t get along.”
“There was some of that. A lot of it was that we couldn’t make certain things obvious with the kids involved. Eliyen felt that she had to be rather distant where Jimmy and Susan were concerned for society reasons. If it was obvious that Olivia and Eliyen were friends, then the harpies would go after Olivia. Then there were the clowns prowling around the Lower City and we were concerned about the kids being taken as leverage.”
“That sounds rather paranoid.”
“It was, but that was the swamp in the Regency. When you have a business here in the Empire, you have to be aware of certain families and their proclivities. Of course Jimmy was taken and we all grew closer together.”
“Jimmy doesn’t seem to be aware of that.”
“He’s been rather busy, which is a good thing, considering what they did to him and the other kids.”
“Why didn’t you train him?”
“He was small for his age, because I was small. It goes back to my fae grandmother and the fact that she came out of the woods. My armsmaster wanted to wait a bit until Jimmy was more developed. Then he was taken. I would have taken him to hand, but Esgalwathanar has that former assassin that he spars with and they dived in and took over the training for that sort of thing. I settled for teaching Jimmy the business.”
“If things work out between him and Talissa, he will not be able to do that.”
Ayluin grinned. “I suspect that he won’t, at least not for very long.”
A pair of fae in trueform appeared, both looked at them and said, “Dad, what are you doing here?!”
Aestaeros looked at the pair and said, “That answers that question. Apparently you two did something rather inappropriate.”
“The grove wouldn’t let us out,” Talissa said. “Not until we did what it wanted.”
“I think that you both will have to explain things to your mothers,” Ayluin said. “All of them.”
“What?” Jimmy said. “Not both at the same time. Tallissa, I knew that they were sneaking things behind my back.”
Talissa frowned. “I thought they hated each other. That’s what you said.”
“Actually I said that my stepmother kept dad on a short leash and wouldn’t annul the marriage, which she won’t. That doesn’t mean that mom won’t loan me to her for chores. See, there they all are.”
There, the smiling crowd was. Olivia said, “You two were doing something you shouldn’t, weren’t you. Now we don’t want you two parading around like that, so transform to landdragons so we can see you both that way. I understand that you two did some rampaging.”
The pair transformed and Jimmy’s older brother showed up with a crystal and took their picture. Jimmy said, “I didn’t do any rampaging. Talissa, on the other hand, did take some sheep.”
“You did, Talissa?” Aestaeros growled. “That was rather inappropriate behavior for a princess, even a princess landdragon.”
“I was a hungry princess landdragon and you never took me hunting for big game. Do you know how much a landdragon eats?”
“I think that when I get home, I will be discovering that. Jimmy just how many sheep are we talking about?”
“I’m not sure, exactly because I wasn’t with her at first and afterwards we ate bears, wild hogs and deer.”
“So, poaching in the forests as well. Young lady, you are going to have to bring quite a treasure home to pay for all of that.”
“Jimmy isn’t enough?”
“Bringing home a landdragon is not a treasure, but a disaster. Jimmy was already part of the household anyway, so he doesn’t count.”
“Jimmy, did you hear that? You don’t count for my adventure.”
“I knew that it wasn’t going to be that easy. Once you hit the grove, I knew that our parents were all going to be conspiring against us.”
“What, us?” Olivia said with a grin. “Why would we do such a thing?”
“To get us out of the house. You all were saying how much landdragons ate and if we were home all the time, only Lord Qinvaris could afford it. So you pushed Talissa out and then sent me to chase her.”
“She wasn’t a landdragon when she left,” Donia said. “Of course she went right up to Upper Timbercreek to fix that.”
“Did you find that spy,” Talissa asked. “I think that he sent those characters after me.”
“Yes we did. He committed suicide like the rest of them.”
“What happened to Kavrala? I’m a bit worried that she was hurt.”
“She was,” Donia said. “She sort of disappeared with a young elf from the Qinvaris after checking with me and asking for some time for herself.”
“So she found somebody?”
“Apparently. I didn’t ask too many questions. I expect that she and Aien will surface at some point. There will be some rather disappointed family if they don’t.”
Talissa laughed. “At least they are both in the same line of work.”
“That was apparent. Kavrala was much happier when she knew that Jimmy had been sent after you.”
“So were a bunch of sheep farmers,” Jimmy said.
Brother Covirus looked at the book in front of him. It was one thing to talk about pollution and cleansing in the abstract. Since leaving Nytfnas he had been reading the report that Lord Qinvaris had prepared. At first, he had seen the report as something that could not be real. Over twenty million starved to death? Millions more from other causes. The turmoils across the Empire, the desperate fights to save what people could save, the desperate fights for survival. The maps showing the path of the Blight, the pictures of empty estates and estates full of barely surviving emaciated people, most of whom were not elves. Then there were the tests of the bolts from the cleansing that had not been launched and the money that Lord Qinavris was spending. Not just the huge machines, but all the things that he thought that he would need, ships, harbors, roads and whole towns, just to hopefully prevent a catastrophe. The final thing that stirred doubt the brother’s heart had been the diary of a young elf girl, barely twenty, caught up in the storm, fighting and sacrficing to save something and giving everything, including in the end, herself. If the brother was serving penance for his pollution, what penance had that young girl been serving that she gave so much that others would live, simply because the previous Brothers had been to determined to cleanse themselves with other’s lives. Lives that were, in the end, innocent. The Brother had never had any doubts about the righteousness of the actions of the Order until he had seen the report. He would take the report to the abbot and see if the abbot had answers, because the Brother had none.

Chapter 54.
The Hidden City.
General Ironaxe looked at the ten men in front of him. All of them had been former Ravathyra slaves, all of them had volunteered and Major Steelaxe had made it clear that there was as very good chance that they would not be coming back. He looked as them and said, “This is your last chance. Once I start the briefing, you are committed. As of now, you will be invading the territory of the Empire. There will be no support and the only possible friendly territory is about a hundred miles away. On the other hand, if you succeed, you could save as many as fifty million lives. I know that none of you hold the Empire in the greatest of esteem. Indeed, I share that point of view. But if we can prevent another bout of the Turmoils we can stop the actions of the Ravathrya, probably forever.”
“Sir, we were dead men the minute we were made what we are. We didn’t join the marines for easy duty, but to poke the bastards that did this to us back in the eye. We’ve trained for this and we’ve been provided with the best equipment that is available. We’re not quitters.”
“Thank you, thank you all, gentlemen. Now to business.” The general uncovered a bulletin board with a map and pictures. He point to a spot on the map. “There is the compound here. The fae have managed to get somebody close enough to get some pictures and we believe that it is one of the factories used to make the Blight. We also believe that there are more. The fae that managed to get in was discovered and security was tightened. The security is transformed lost children, most of who have been more or less consumed by the monsters that they have transformed into. Getting in with a better equipped crew of fae and support from the ground has proven to be impossible without being detected. So, you are to airdrop in, collect every piece of information that you can find and send it back out either by balloon or the small portal that you are going to be supplied with and then evacuate.”
“What about the people there?”
“If they resist, kill them. If they don’t, push them away or take them with you. You can tell them that staying around is not going to be healthy. As soon as you have evacuated, you will launch a flare. Fellowship planes are going to have a bombing range accident, level the place and hit it with incendiaries. In any case, the important thing is to get everything about that place that you can find. The major has the full brief. Again, thank you all.”
The general left as the brief started.
House Qinvaris Office, Exchange Street, City in The Clouds.
Taenaran looked at the pair in front of him. “I’m afraid that the House is not renewing the contract with you.”
“What?! You can’t do that!”
“The orders came down from Lord Qinvaris himself about you and several others that were not to have their contracts renewed.”
“We can still buy grain on a contingency basis.”
“That may depend. If grain should be short, from disease say, your House, House Ravathyra and some others have been cut off. I would plan to buy grain elsewhere milords.”
“May we talk to Lord Qinvaris about this?”
“I doubt that you would change his mind after the matter with his daughters and the others. We planted new fields this year and harvested early, so we will probably have enough to make commitments even if there are shortages, but the Lord feels that some customers deserve better than others. So we made a contingency list that goes active. For your sakes, I would hope for a bumper crop.”
“The Regency Council will hear about this!”
“That is your privilege gentlemen. The House is not obligated to sell to those who have done ill to the House and its allies, however. Since the same people who have gone after the Lord’s daughters have also gone after the children of House Beinan, again, we have to assume that you and your allies hold the House in ill will. That is all, gentlemen.”
The pair left as Taenaran started to laugh. The whole thing was rather predictable and yet, Taenaran looked at the pictures of the Empty lands on his desk, the other side had taken no steps to plant anything more than what they typically did in spite of the events of the last year.
The Qinvaris Estate.
Richard drove the little sports car past the convoy of trucks carrying combines. The trucks were heading to one of the six ready spots for the crews. The forty combines in the original order had been joined by twenty more when Richard could get them. He drove past the long row of trucks, combines, tractors, trailers, fuel truck, chuck wagon and a repair truck that made up the convoy. The crew and the drivers waved as he drove past and he waved back. So far all the pieces were falling into place. The problem now was tracking down the crossbow bolts. Ayre and his son had picked the order clean, scanning every piece of paper they could find, but it was impossible to determine which shipments of the wine carried the bolts and there had been a lot of the shipments. He turned the car up the drive of the estate that he had come to visit and Ailas Keaynore came out as he parked the car. “Hi Richard! Breaking the Proscriptions?”
“Why not? If your brother is here, by the time he can file a report, the car will have disappeared again. As far as that goes, what’s coming up the road will be hard to miss. If the Inquisition wants to prosecute me, my brother is at the House. Of course Kulgha is right next door.”
Ailas laughed. “So what brings you here?”
“I wanted to thank your great uncle for putting his memories about the Blight in a report and getting his friends to do that as well. Tarranth said that he would want to see the show and the show is coming up the road, so I thought that I would take him for a spin and show him around.”
“Come on in and I will get him.”
Richard went in and Ailas went into the bowels of the house and returned with an aging elf. Ailas said, “Uncle Lutahais, this is Lord Qinvaris.”
The elf put his hand out and said, “I have heard very great things about you, milord.”
“Have you been talking with my wife or my children? It’s Richard, by the way, to my friends. I save the milords for my enemies.”
“I have spoken with Tarranth and Renna, yes. They make such a wonderful couple. That is not the only reason that I said that. I have seen what you have done and now you are facing the catastrophe with courage and deterimination. You have done so much and must be very busy to see an old fallen elf like myself.”
“I wanted to thank you for that report. We have been struggling to fill in the pieces on the Blight and it has been a long time since the last one.”
“I was happy to when I heard that post riders with crossbows were probably responsible for spreading the Blight. I want them stopped the next time.”
“So do I. Not just because I benefit, but because of the death and horror inflected on the Empire. My wife was a victim as were so many others.”
“Many Houses fell and many folk were lost.”
“Since I have a car, why don’t I take you for a short drive and show you part of what I am doing.”
“That vehicle you arrived in? Isn’t that committing heresy?”
“I won’t say anything if you don’t and as far as your nephew goes, he’s on my bad side already.”
Ricahrd took Lutahais out to the car and they were off. As they were approaching the convoy Richard said, “Watch yourself. The trucks and the machinery have lot of steel in them.”
“What metal is the car made of? You didn’t say anything about that.”
“This car is made with an Aluminum body for elves. I didn’t need to worry about that, but my children and wife do. Also the Aluminum is lighter.”
“Are all these machines yours?”
“There’s one that isn’t. Byddri, were you looking for me?”
“Hello Mr. Harper. Actuallly, I was taking pictures of this. I was going to talk with you about this, but I made an appointment.”
“Where did the GP come from?”
“The press pool in the Fellowship. Since you have gas stations, I can use it and at this point, the Inquisition isn’t going to squawk if there’s another GP on the road. If they do, I just wave my passport and press credentials around and the Inquisition, Delion excepted, goes away.”
Richard laughed. He turned to Lutahais and said, “Lutahais, this young dragon with the GP that he probably shouldn’t be driving is Byrddri Flamefire. He is the Press Service correspondent for the Empire. I suspect that his wife is having tea with mine as we speak. Byddri, this is Lutahais Keaynore.”
Lutahais grinned. “So what does a correspondent do, other than drive inappropriate vehicles, young dragon?”
“I write news stories and longer articles, interview people and chase pictures. Right now I’m chasing the potential next Blight.”
“Do you know something that I don’t, Byddri?” Richard asked with a frown.
“I’m not sure, because I don’t know everything you do. I do know that there is a group of people that were trying to hire on as post riders and failing.”
“Why were they failing?” Lutahais asked.
“They were failing because House Glynynore is pickier about who they hire for post riders these days.”
“How so?”
“I think that I started it when I rode post. Over the last few years, Folwin Glynynore started to recruit his post riders from young dragons in the Aeries and the younger fae looking for a bit of adventure. All of whom start at about age fourteen, so they are not very big, but as fae or dragons, they can handle bandits and other hazards. So riding the post is something that young dragons and fae do and Folwin looks very carefully at potential hires if they are not a dragon or fae boy, unless they come from the families that have traditionally been part of the service and are looking to start their careers.”
“Have you talked with Folwin about this?” Richard asked.
“I talked with him about the post riders and a bunch of other things. Since I had been a rider of some note myself, Folwin was easy to talk to and I certainly knew about the hiring policies, since I had been partially responsible for them. In any case, there were some young mortal men, just a bit too old to be a post rider trying to hire on. They were not happy when Folwin’s people told them that they would not be hired.”
“So they will not be riding post if they come.”
“Not as a post rider. They can hire a horse, but that will be trickier all too soon.”
“Folwin was at that thing in the south and rode the bus. A bit later, he made a trip to the Fellowship and bought some busses. On the busier routes, it’s going to be busses from now on, now that he can.”
What about gas?”
“He’s probably talked with your people about that or is making his own arrangements.”
Lutahais was grinning through the chat and said, “Richard, I think that you and I should take this young dragon to lunch. I don’t quite know what a correspondent does, but he seems to have interesting stories to tell.”
“Lutahais I am sure about that. That was how he got his job in the first place.”

Hall Of The Cleansing, Vilhaus, The Kingdom of Astaire.
Brother Covirus had finally returned from his exploration of the southern Empire. He entered the hall and handed the Abbot a rather large set of maps and the report. “Lord Qinvaris has tossed the Proscriptions aside and is using large machines to harvest the grain.”
“How large?”
“The size of a small cottage. The machines harvest and thresh the grain in one step.”
“Will the Inquisition take steps?”
“Apparently not. In any case, Lord Qinvaris has gone ahead with what he was planning. It is apparent that he is fully aware that the Blight will be launched.”
“We must continue in any case. There have been other setbacks. We have not been able to infiltrate the post riders as we had previously.”
“Why not?”
“The Brothers said that it was because they were too old and not dragons or fae. Apparently the Post Service hires new riders from the Aeries and faery kingdoms.”
“Perhaps we should give this up?”
“This is our penance and our great task. This is something that we must do. The Empire must be cleansed and purified.”
“At what cost? The last Blight had over forty million dead. Most of those were not mages nor even elves, but mortals. What was their penance?”
“Do you doubt the holiness of the cleansing?”
“I can’t say. Read the report and judge for yourself. I just rode through a land that was fruitful and prosperous and I saw no pollution that needed to be cleansed. There were no armies of mages preparing to kill the mortals. The mages that I did see were humble men and women cheerfully giving of themselves for others. The one case that that was not so was roundly condemned by the Grand Master himself who pledged justice and reparation.”
“That is the insidiousness of the pollution. Go to your cell, say the rosary and remember what we are. Your contact with the pollution has led you astray slightly. Now that you have returned, you can be freed of the taint.”
The brother left and the Abbot made a note that Brother Covirus should be watched and potentially cleansed. Constant vigilance was required to prevent the spread of the taint.

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