Juno Books

An Excerpt From Nimuar's Loss

By Camille Gabor

[Information on Nimuar's Loss]

CHAPTER ONE: Vildecaz Castle

The west wall near the kitchen-garden needs repairing," Nimuar, Duz of Vildecaz announced as he sat down to the mid-day meal with his two daughters. "I've put a fixing spell on it, but it won't last more than a week. The men will have to get mortar and bricks out there soon." They were in the family dining room in the main part of Vildecaz Castle, and while smaller than the Great Hall by half, it was still intended for many more occupants than these three. He was in his scholar's long, deepblue doga over a tan hupslan, both of which showed the wear of long use, more due to his absent-mindedness than any lack of funds or poor manners. His appearance was a bit untidy, his silvery hair not quite combed, his short beard a little scruffy, his light-brown eyes slightly distracted, yet his manner toward his daughters was sincerely affectionate.

"I'll have Hoftstan Ruch get a crew to work on it this afternoon," said Ninianee, the older of the two. She had been out for most of the morning, supervising the fall pruning of the espaliered fruit trees all along the south and west walls of the castle, and was about to go to work on the standing orchard beyond the eastern wall. "Just as soon as the trees are all done. The magic should hold long enough for that." She had not had time to change out of her leather brikes and drugh-ox wool smock; her profusion of russet ringlets were haphazardly confined by a thin, golden doublecoronet and a Mozh-cloth scarf that was nearly a match for her clear, light-green eyes. With a glance at her sister--a year younger than she--Ninianee said, "You and Ver Mindicaz must have had a busy morning, what with the shipment of spices from Fah, the last of the harvest coming into the castle, and the new cheeses to store as well; knowing Ver, you're made lists of every pepper-corn and dried plum; she won't have relied on a magical tally."

At the mention of the major-cook, Erianthee nodded her lovely head, as graceful as a deer and as beguiling as a feysprite. Unlike her sister, she was properly dressed for dining in a gaunel of amber-colored tassel-cloth over a guin of fine Fahnine cotton; she might have entertained aunts, uncles, and cousins--if there were any willing to visit--in such clothing and bring no slight upon her father or their guests. Everything about her was charming, from the shape of her eyes to the turn of her ankles. "Yes. I think we have all the provisions for preserving fruits and stocking the ice-house arranged so they'll only need a little magic in the summer to keep them going until next year's harvest. We should have all our plans for the winter finished tomorrow."

By the standards of the Porzalk Empire, Erianthee was the prettier of the two, beautifully curved where Ninianee was lean, elegant where Ninianee was energetic, captivating where Ninianee was bewitching, having classic loveliness--softly waving honey-colored hair and dark-brown eyes in a pert, gorgeous face that lacked the suggestion of tempestuousness that turned Ninianee's reserve to something more compelling than what some thought was shyness.

"Now then," said their father as if he had been interrupted. He reached for a small saucer and put a pinch of salt in it and then added a few drops of wine from his goblet, then held it up on a tripod of the thumb and two fingers of his right hand. "May Agnith, The Preternatural, goddess of all things magical, of continents and seas, of ideas and talents, protect us and keep all our spells true." He stood, the saucer still balanced on his three fingers.

Ninianee did the same as Nimuar had done, rising and going about the ritual with the precision of habit. "May Hyneimoj, The Ineffable, goddess of mammals, hunting, games of chance, storms, and going to war, keep us from harm."

Erianthee had her salt-and-wine ready. "May Analahor, The Inspirational goddess of mortality, rebirth, agriculture, arts visible and invisible, intuition, and victory, uphold Vildecaz." She, too, rose, holding her saucer on her thumb and two fingers as her father and sister were doing.

The three little saucers were raised and set down on a single red-painted board hanging from the elaborate oil-lamp above the table, from which a forearm-long tubular bell depended; Nimuar struck this with his knife and its pure tone sounded, lingering on the air, pleasant and persistent as the promising aroma of their food, its footling tone making the whole occasion more amiable.

"A good omen," Nimuar announced, for once delighted at this formality; the omens were often much harder to interpret.

Their Meal Rite complete, the three sat down once more and reached for the covered platter and raised the lid; a wonderful odor of apricots, sweet onions, and chicken filled the room.

Nimuar beamed, letting out a long, satisfied, "Aaaaah," before reaching for a serving spoon as he pulled the platter toward him. "Ver knows what I like, harvest or no harvest."

"There's four-colored rice, too," said Erianthee, opening the covered dish nearest her. "With new butter."

"The last ship from the Zjin-Fah brought the rice, didn't it?" asked Nimuar, whose memory was not what it used to be, and hadn't been for nearly two decades, when he had lost his magical battle with Yulko Bihn, and with it, the knowledge of Agnith's Treasure and all it had bestowed upon him.

"Yes, Papa," said Ninianee, reminding him gently, "We bought five sacks of it, and Ver stored them in the grain-closet in the pantry. There are another five on order for the spring."

"Oh, yes," said Nimuar a bit vaguely.

"Five sacks should last through fall and winter. Possibly until the next sacks come." Before either of his daughters could speak, he added, "I like real food so much better than magical food, don't you?"

"I certainly do," said Erianthee, entering into this frequent topic of conversation as if it were new and exciting. "Magical food is so tiring to create and its nourishment hardly lasts half a day."

"To say nothing of the complications it can create," said Ninianee. "Regular food is best, no doubt, especially when Ver Mindicaz cooks it." She picked up the covered basket of roasted yams and took one gingerly before handing the basket to her father, exchanging it for the chicken platter and serving herself. "There's pork ribs under the long cover," she added, moving that platter a little nearer.

"What are you going to do this afternoon?" Nimuar asked his daughters, looking from Erianthee to Ninianee and back again.

"I'm going to finish up the kitchen inventory with Ver, and then I'm going to have a good long soak," said Erianthee, taking the platter from Ninianee.

"I've got more work to do so we can complete the harvest. The fruit is in, and half the fields have been reaped, but there's a lot more to tend to before we're finished." Ninianee reached for the butter. "I'll want a soak myself, come nightfall."

"I'll tell Skoniz to keep the bath-house warm and the water ready," said Erianee. "Probably he should ready the servants' bath-house as well." She wrinkled her nose. "After a hard day in the field, they'll need it. The soldiers will undoubtedly want to bathe, too."

"Thanks for attending to that." Ninianee scooped a dollop of butter onto her plate and cut it in half, then passed the small tub to Erianthee. "I'll tell the harvest crew to stop by the bath-house before supper."

"You're both taken care of--that's good," said Nimuar with a hint of a sigh. "I'll go back to my library, then, and continue my research. You will be on your own, but you know how to manage." He was about to eat when something more occurred to him. "I have books coming from the library at Buin Joam; they should arrive shortly. They will be carried by an official library messenger."

This was news to his two daughters, but they took it in stride. "I'll have Hoftstan post someone to watch for it."

"Thank you," said Nimuar, and fell to eating in earnest, and for the rest of the meal only engaged in cursory conversation.

* * *

A carving of Womotomaj, The Fabricator, hung in the traditional location, over the main fireplace in the Great Hall, his hands filled with a jumble of little castles and towers and bridges, as suited the god of all things constructed; looking up at him with his face lit from the fire beneath casting unsteady shadows that changed his appearance with every flicker, Ninianee was reminded that the oldest son of Hyneimoj was also the god of lying and deceit.

She drew up a chair and sat down, letting the waning evening soak into her bones along with the warmth of the fire. It was late, and she had finally come in from her bath only to be told that Senkei, their best spell-hound, was hunting the upper floors for magical intrusions and spill-overs, a process that required the upper rooms be empty while the spell-hound did his work. Wiggling her bare feet toward the flames, she let herself enjoy this moment; had the chair been more comfortable she might have fallen asleep, but the sturdy frame nudged her through her downy, deep-brown jaem-cotton night-wrap from the Zaralk region to the southeast of Vildecaz. There was just enough discomfort from the chair keeping her awake enough to hear her sister's quiet approach. Without looking around, she said, "How's our father doing, Eri?"

"You know he gets edgy when the spell-hounds are patrolling. He's like you in that. Hardly surprising, given how things are. I left him in his study working on a guardian spell to reinforce the removal of snooping spells, something not too complicated. He can manage that, and it does him good to practice. Who knows? it may prove helpful--it certainly can't harm us." Erianthee pulled another chair up to the fire and sat down; she, too, was dressed for bed, her night-wrap of Mozh-cloth, soft and luminous as a morning cloud. "I worry about him. He never seems to get any better." "But he's not worse, either, and that is not a bad thing," said Ninianee. She shaded her eyes and turned toward Erianthee, taking note of the shine of the fire on Erianthee's dark-gold hair.

"No," Erianthee allowed. "Do you think we should contact Poyneilum Zhanf again? Do you think he could--"

At the mention of their father's old teacher, Ninianee frowned. "What more could he--or any of the Priests of Mirvex-Doz--do that he hasn't tried already?" She felt her lovely lethargy begin to slip away.

"I don't know," Erianthee answered. "But Nin, if I have to leave for Court soon, I wish I could feel a little better about leaving him. You take fine care of him, but you can't be everywhere all the time. Particularly not--" She stopped.

"You've said this for the last three years. Every time you are summoned to the Imperial Court, you fret about Papa." Ninianee smiled to reassure her. "You mustn't worry about him. I'll be here, and I'll let you know if anything happens. I'm not so incapacitated that I can't handle such a duty."

Erianthee sighed. "I wish you could come with me." Ninianee sat up slowly.

"That's...impractical." "I know, and I understand why you can't come," said Erianthee, her voice dropping.

"But it would be so much nicer, having you with me."

"Oh, no." Ninianee shook her head. "You're far more suited to Court life than I am. You get on with people better than I do: you're charming, you're pretty, and your magic is entertaining, unlike mine. Mine would be inconvenient at Court. Bontaj! It's inconvenient here." She made no apology for swearing. "At least here my ability to communicate with fur-bearing animals is a useful talent, and, as for the other part of it, here at Vildecaz I can prepare for the three nights without apprehension, no matter what happens." "But you've turned twenty-three, Nin, and you haven't--"

"Chosen an official suitor or two? Someone to serve as an escort and bed-partner, if not a husband? And where would I find a man who wouldn't mind accommodating my...variations in the capital?" Ninianee suggested sardonically. "You know why I haven't. Nor have you, and you're almost twenty-two."

"Not an official one, no. But I do have possibilities." She blushed as if she were ten years younger.

"If I could stand Maeshar of Otsinmohr, I could have an official suitor tomorrow. And he would use his suitorship to make claims on Vildecaz that would make this Duzky a part of the Porzalk Empire, which would be the end of our autonomy. He would marry me and our separate authority would be gone, and so, I suspect, would he. I couldn't be party to that, even if I loved Maeshar." She made a face. "If only his land didn't share such a long border with ours, it would be easier to avoid him, and I wouldn't have to be so blunt in my refusals."

"But he wouldn't be such a terrible official suitor," Erianthee protested.

Ninianee shook her head in disgust. "If you think so well of him, you make him your official suitor."

Erianthee shook her head. "It's different for me."

"It certainly is. You have all the men at Court to choose from, and they know what kind of magic they're getting with you." There was no jealousy, no rancor in this remark, only a kind of ruefulness.

"But I don't like to think of you being lonely, Nin," said Erianthee. "It's bad enough that you can't come to Court with me, but for you to have to remain alone--"

Ninianne got up and put another cut branch on the fire. "I'm used to it. And luckily there is more than Maesham to beguile me."

"How can you be used to it?" Erianthee asked. "When you never know until the first night of the full moon what--"

She stopped and glanced around, as if recalling that they might be overheard.

"That's why it wouldn't be wise to go to Court," said Ninianee drily, and sat on the arm of the chair she had occupied.

"Don't worry, Eri, I'll be fine, and so will Papa. He's still gathering information on Agnith's Treasure, and that will occupy him for some time." Erianthee allowed herself to be distracted. "Do you think it really exists--Agnith's Treasure?"

"I don't know. It may. Or they may--who knows if it is a single thing or many? But it might not be real. Whatever it is--or they are--there is so much said about it that I can't imagine anyone would know it if they stumbled across the real thing." She laughed a little, to hide her skepticism. "It's strange, isn't it, to think Papa was once a powerful-enough magician to do all those spells, to summon Agnith herself?"

"Do you think he ever did?" Erianthee asked. "Summon Agnith?"

Ninianee shrugged. "I think what matters is that the old Emperor believed it, twenty years ago; you could probably find out if Riast believes as his great-uncle did, while you're at Court." "

No." Erianthee spoke with unusual firmness. "I'd have to deal with Riast's heir, and Prince Bozidar is a trying young man; he acts as if he were already Emperor Bozidar VIII."

"Zlatz! He wants to be your official suitor, does he?" Ninianee lifted one eyebrow. Erianthee locked her hands together. "No. He wants to be my unofficial suitor." In spite of her concern, Ninianee could not suppress an impish smile.

"How very awkward."

"It is," Erianthee said. "You don't know what he's like."

"Have you mentioned it to Dowager Empress Godrienee?" Ninianee asked. "If you haven't, you shou--" "She mentioned it to me, shortly before I left last time I was at Court. It was mortifying." Erianthee put her hand to her mouth as if to restrain herself from saying anything further. "The Dowager was so very understanding, and warned me that Prince Bozidar is not very trustworthy, and that he was known to be sportive with women."

"Perhaps it's a family trait: I have met his father, and Emperor Riast is no one I would want to have to depend upon," Ninianee stared into the fire, as if reading the omens there.

"Don't say that." Erianthee put her finger to her lips. "You don't know if he has spies in the household."

"He probably does, and spells, too, until Senkei is through hunting them down," said Ninianee. "Surely we're not the only people in the Empire to have doubts about Riast II." She stood up and stretched. "In fact, I wonder why he bothers with us. What kind of foes are we? Most of our relatives will have nothing to do with us, and I can't imagine either of our neighbors--Maeshar or Hircaj Chogrun--would be part of a conspiracy against the Emperor, and even if they were, that we would be included in it. Our talents cannot determine events. You and I have no fortunes beyond our share of Vildecaz, and Papa left the Court so long ago, his influence--what little he had left--is gone. You have more power at Court than he does, now."

"But not the way you mean," said Erianthee. "And if Papa is really so powerless, why does Yulko Bihn come here? He defeated Papa in their magical duel. He was the one who blasted Papa's mind, so he must know how little Papa retains of his former pow--"

"He comes here to gloat," said Ninianee firmly. "He has a deep desire to reassure himself that Papa is still . . . as he is, so he can continue to relish his triumph. He won their duel by guile, and that makes him uneasy, as well it should. Papa lost, but Yulko Bihn did not truly win, and he knows it. So he has to remind himself that Papa is still unable to challenge him again." She looked up to the gallery as Lomcoz Terichovee, the master of the mews, came to the high railing. "Is everything taken care of?"

"Yes. Senkei hunted out four minor spells; nothing to be concerned about. Heijot Merinex removed them." Lomcoz motioned to the castle-magician, a fairly ordinary fellow in a magician's long gaihups secured with a sash of the Dyskeleoc School.

"The castle is clear. We may all go safely to bed," Heijot Merinex announced as he patted Senkei's head.

"Good," said Erianthee. "I'm worn out."

"I am, too," said Ninianee. "I could sleep all day and all night." She reached out to give Erianthee a good-night hug, and was surprised when her sister clung to her. "Bontaj. What's the matter?"

Erianthee let go of Ninianee. "Nothing really. Just pre-journey nerves. I wish I knew what provisions have been made for my travel."

"That'll come soon enough, Eri," said Ninianee, and stepped back. "See you tomorrow, probably not until noon."

"You have more work to do in the wall-orchards?" Erianthee asked.

"No; the vineyards, on the lower terrace," said Ninianee, and made her way out of the Great Hall, glad that the first night of the full moon was still four days away.

* * *

[Information on Nimuar's Loss]
copyright ©2007 Camille Gabor, All Rights Reserved

Juno Books
copyright ©2007