Title: The Weapon of the Wood (Prologue)
Characters: Mocker ♂, Noctis ♂, Artemesia ♀
Rating: G- (L1 N0 S0 V0 D1)
Warnings: Foul language, dark deeds, and gin.
Notes: The Unspoken, who numbered several tens, at the start of the War of Dominion, which lasted close to seven hundred years, were nearly obliterated during the war. Five worth speaking of survived it, and one of them died a hundred years later. Two were divided over her death, and one of those two has just discovered another of their number, presumed dead for centuries, may yet live. This is not actually the commission! This is the prologue to the commission, which I had to write, in order to screw my head on to do the commission. Consider it an introduction to some of the background, if you haven’t read enough Magelight to know Mocker, his troubles, and his bizarre sense of humour.
Friar Barnaby untied the tiny scroll from the leg of the falcon sitting in the window of his small, stone room. It had been waiting for him, but he wasn’t expecting much. Seven years he’d searched for Minkah. Seven hundred years he’d thought she was dead. Another day in the friary, another reply from a distant port.
What will you trade for the creature?
He read it twice, then once more, to be certain.
This wasn’t a guarantee. It could be just another confidence game. Another collector looking for someone else to do the hard work for them. What would he trade? Someone else’s sister? Someone else’s son? Maybe. But, something rare and dangerous. Something that wasn’t in the condition his sister had been in, when she had been captured. Something that, just maybe, he wouldn’t give full disclosure with. That thought pleased him, and he stretched, the flesh broadening and flattening as it sprawled away from his bones. In another few weeks, maybe he’d have another face. Friar Barnaby would be no more — a strange disappearance, from a quiet friary.
Just maybe, if he brought one of their sisters home, his brother could forgive him. Just maybe, he might finally forgive himself.
It took him a day to decide. Nothing common would do — nothing even a collector would see and properly understand. No basilisks, no crocotta, no djinn. Finally, he sent a reply. He would be willing, he said, to trade a dryad of the deep wood. Such spirits rarely surfaced from their trees, and it was rarer still to see them apart from their floral halves. But, he would not deliver a dryad, which would not live without its tree. He would deliver a sylvestre, which would use any plant it could reach to further its escape and the destruction of whatever held it. He would have to choose a tree that would make the journey. Something that would grow fairly swiftly from a cutting. But, that was a choice to be made later. Now, it was time to see if this collector would rise to the bait.
The friar was not disappointed, and nine weeks later, he took his leave, returning to the place he once called home, for the first time in centuries. He wore a face none would know as he collected his belongings — just the necessities of this journey — clothing, books, maps, the armour he once wore as a hero, all of which he packed into a trunk and loaded onto the cart behind his new horse. He needed one more thing, though. And that thing would be the hardest to acquire. He would need to take back his name and his face, to pay a visit to his younger brother — barely younger, not even a hundred years between them. Minkah, he reminded himself. Do it for Minkah.
Travel by gate was the sanest method of passage, so he rode, first, to the capital — the city of snow and white stone that sat in the cradle of the highest mountain peaks. It was a shorter trip than the one he would take, the other way. He drove the cart along the blinding white streets, until he reached his brother’s luxurious offices.
Artemisia waited at her desk, in reception, her red hair up in a tight bun as she answered his brother’s correspondence. He was certain the room had become even more lush, since the last time he had been in it, and unquestionably, the same could be said of Artemisia. Still, he showed no sign he knew her, his face still not his own.
"I am here to see His Excellency, on urgent business. I am aware that he is not in the office, and I seek to use the gate." He paused, a smile tickling the corners of his mouth. "Are the olives still as good as they were, forty years ago? He was on his way to yet another legend in his name."
"The olives are just as good as always! But, I’ll have to check with him about the gate." She didn’t recognise him, and he took that as an encouraging sign, as the tart nasality of her accent struck him. "Who shall I say is calling?"
"Athrú. Athrú mac Garbh of Midhe." The name was meaningless to Artemisia, as intended, but it would raise the envoy from his opiated nightmares. It was a name with many memories attached, but also a name he had never used, for all that it was his. His brother would know him — and if he was fortunate, his brother would not turn him away.
"Mac Garbh?" Artemisia asked, a hint of confusion touching her brow. It was an extremely unusual name, for a variety of reasons, not least that it had never been used, until this day. It followed the naming conventions of the Royal House of Winter, though, which made the form of it relatively common, but the name itself was nearly unknown — at least, as a name.
Artemisia wrote swiftly on a small slip of paper. She took a tiny bird from a cage by the grand window behind her desk, fastened the paper to it, and let it out through one of the panes. "It’s an urgent request, so I’m sure he’ll send word within the hour. Please sit. Can I get you a drink? There are some ginger sweets and tea sandwiches on the table there. Help yourself."
He had barely finished the first square of bread and rich olive paste — he’d have to congratulate his brother on making it even better — when the door to the office on the right opened, and a tall, slender figure, dressed in deep blue robes and a matching veil, stepped out, with just a hint of a clatter from the fantastic beaded and bejewelled ornaments in its long, black hair.
"Hello, Mockingbird." The low baritone rolled across the reception room, like a wave.
"Your Excellency." Athrú rose and bowed, gracefully. His face rippled gently, along the side Artemisia could not see. "The basket is no longer empty."
"Speak carefully. You are aware of what you say?" His Excellency did not so much as lift an eyebrow, his voice crisp and dry, as always.
"I am extremely aware of what I say. I can do with or without your assistance, Excellency, but I believe you would prefer I did not undertake this alone." Athrú chose his words as a good archer chooses arrows.
"Step into my office, that we may discuss this properly." The envoy stepped aside, gesturing through the door, as his heavy robes wound about him, slow and thick.
The door closed behind them. "No one else can know. Not yet," Athrú breathed.
"None will know but you and I. Not here. Not in this place." The envoy reached up with one slender, gloved hand and removed his veil, tossing it onto his desk. "Are you completely certain? I believed they had all been killed, in the war."
"I cannot be certain, until I see her. Until I purchase her. Noctis, it’s Minkah. There’s a rumour Minkah still lives." Athrú let go of his flesh, and it slowly formed into the shape he’d kept all those centuries, underground — that doll-faced shape of not quite a man. "The evidence is strong. I want to bring her home."
"What havoc, Mockingbird?" This time, a smile reached the corners of Noctis’s eyes. "And what of Giena and Alcibah?"
"You know me so well, brother. We will be as we were before. I will trade him a sylvestre, if you can help me catch one." His smile nearly wrapped around his head, and he made no effort to contain it. "But, I have not heard of the others. Only her."
"A sylvestre? Won’t he—"
"Not if I tell him it’s a deep dryad. Does walnut travel well? I believe it does. And it grows so very quickly."
"An abundance of havoc. Have you considered the wisdom of this?" Noctis filled two glasses with gin and anisette, offering one to his brother.
"She is our sister. He has held her since the start of the war. The war which is now two centuries past." Athrú sipped the gin and anisette thoughtfully. "You have the worst taste in liqueur, my brother. You always have. You must get it from your father’s family, because it’s surely not the family we share."
"He has her now. We do not know who took her. We do not know if he has lived as long as we have. What damage might be done to a family that may decide to declare war, for their troubles?" A small vial appeared in Noctis’s hand, as he gesticulated, while he spoke, and a few drops of the strong-scented brownish liquid from it went into his drink. "And if you recall my taste in liqueur, how is it I am always able to get you to drink it?"
"I keep hoping you’ve developed a sense of taste," Athrú drawled, drawing it out before he addressed the issues between them. "On whom would they declare a war? I am no one. I do not exist. Nameless and faceless. And even if Minkah said a word about who she was, who we are, who would presume the trade between two collectors would lead back to the House, or even to the kingdom? I have that lovely suit of lacquered armour you bought me, when I was to pose as the Marquess of… wherever it was you and Paddy made up. And speaking of him, who is Paddy, these days?"
"He has returned to his byname, as I have. He and our cousin still maintain that den of debauchery, near the Corvid border." The glass of liqueur, made nothing short of rank by the addition to it, was growing swiftly less full, as they spoke. "You intend to become the Marquess, again? That will light some truly fascinating fires across the East. I anticipate an enjoyable disinformation campaign, in your wake."
"You mean to assist, then?" Athrú held out his glass to his brother, as his brother’s glass became empty.
Noctis took the second glass, setting the first on his desk, with a solid clack. "I do. Tell me what you need."
Athrú described his intent, to disable the sylvestre in an easily-reversible manner. A manner so simple that undoing it would be a terribly easy mistake to make. For hours, Noctis brewed and Athrú paged through his brother’s books, composing a guide to caring for a ‘deep dryad’ — a list that would not seem strange for a dryad, but would not harm a sylvestre. The two seemed fairly similar, in some respects, and the environmental considerations for one would serve the other just as well. A greenhouse, he had warned the collector, before he set out, you must have a greenhouse prepared. The collector had replied that he had a greenhouse, because he already had a dryad. Now he wanted a male, so he could breed them. And there, Athrú saw the perfect opening.
A tall bottle of blue gel clacked onto the surface of the desk, and Athrú looked up to find his brother leaning over it. "For my wife."
"For our sisters," Athrú replied, standing and gathering what documents had dried.
"Non-porous, you understand?" Noctis put the bottle in his brother’s hand.
"I hear you." After a few moments of glancing wildly about, Athrú laid eyes on an empty document case and put his guide into it, tucking it under his arm.
An awkward pause hung between them.
"Stay the night. In the morning, you will be rested and closer, than if you try to take the Seal’s Gate or the Midhe Gate, tonight." Noctis slid off one of his gloves and held out his bare hand to his brother. "Amor vincit omnia, frater."
Athrú turned and threw his free arm across his brother’s shoulders, landing the apparently friendly gesture with the weight of a twenty stone breakdancer. "Blow it out your skinny arse, old man."
"And you a hundred years my elder. Shame, shame! What does that make you?" Noctis staggered and jabbed a sharp finger into Athrú’s ribs.
"I don’t exist, remember?"
They exited the back way, and Athrú held the gate as Noctis went to retrieve the horse and cart. They would spend the night in Avernus, for the first time in decades. It would be like it once was, and then, once again, Athrú, nameless and faceless, would sneak into enemy lands to kill and steal, leaving his brother behind to worry over the poisons and potions for the next venture. Just like old times, but centuries of time all at once.