Previous: Chapter 4: The Last Meal
Wild beast, huge man, and he’s coming for me by name? That narrowed down the possibilities somewhat, but I wasn’t liking any of the ones that were left. I knew a lot of huge men connected to wild beasts, but the problem was that none of them should be here. They shouldn’t know or care I was here. I mean, some knew and cared, but they had strict orders to keep away so I could start over with a clean slate. Clearly, something had not gone to plan.
Miss Agnastes was hurrying to the front door, so I calmly got out of my seat and caught up to her, trying to think through possible scenarios and how I’d handle them. I mean, the servant had survived her encounter with the huge man and wild beast uninjured. So, it probably wouldn’t turn into a violent altercation of some sort. But “everything is going according to plan” and “no one died” were not the same thing. I was uncomfortably aware of just how many scenarios could fit between them.
I made sure to post myself in front of the door when Miss Agnastes opened it, just in case the man or beast had became somewhat more violent than they had been earlier. Miss Agnastes gave me a cool look when she realized what I had done. She was no dummy. I was seeing a polite expulsion and refund in my future. So when she opened the door, I was the first one to see my brother on the other side, with his mount curled up along the street in front. I went through the door and quickly closed it behind me.
“Nob!” I seethed, “You can’t bring Old Grandfather Snake into town! What in the nine hells were you thinking? Holy Huitzolte, how did he even fit in here – the street can’t have clearance for his wings!” I scanned the buildings along the lane in both direction, trying to remember whether the broken bits and stains I saw had been there the day before. No people though, and that wasn’t normal for this time of day. What a mess he must have made. A very public mess, likely involving property damage and loss of revenue for any merchants who had hoped to have customers.
What decent person wanted to shop when there was a monster of a coatl lounging in the streets? And I mean, he was all curled up and basking now, but he’s a block long and with a wingspan easily wider than the block and has a body width at least five feet thick. And that’s before he yawned. His fangs were almost bigger than me! Normal people did not want to enliven their errands with a side order of “maybe being swallowed whole”.
Nob pretended to look sheepish, but I wasn’t fooled. He loved attention and had probably jumped on whatever flimsy excuse he was about to trot out as a justified pretext for ruining my life with this stunt.
“Look, Scathach, it’s…”
Behind me I heard the door open. I turned to shut it but saw the outer wall of the school out of the corner of my eye. It was punctuated with windows, and now just about all were filled with the heads of the students and servants watching the drama about to unfold. I had forgotten that. There was not way to hide this. Miss Agnastes came through the door, and I watched her eyes make the same Nob-Coatle-street path mine had just finished.
“Miss Agnastes, I’m so sorry about all this. My brother knows he isn’t supposed to visit, so I’ll just sort this out and make sure he’s on his way. Ma’am.” Although, looking on the bright side, at least she now knew I wasn’t making up my brothers or my reasons to be reluctant to expose her school to them.
Miss Agnastes blinked a few times before saying, “My dear…”
But then Ralph and Lupe slipped out behind her. Ralph did the Nob-Coatl-street path with his eyes and then put his hand on his mother’s arm, getting her attention. “I’ll see what I can do here if you’ll start talking to the neighbors.”
I used to seeing Ralph and Miss Agnastes work together in class, but this was the first time I’d seen it outside of class or had seen Ralph take control. Not that he’d need to keep control, because I was going to be the one in control here. But it was nice to see his that his confidence was intact after the yesterday’s debacle. His hands were shaking a tiny bit though, so I don’t think he was as calm as he was trying to act.
Mis Agnastes blinked at us all and then gave a firm nod, starting down the street to deal with whatever hidden chaos was getting ready to erupt.
Lupe, meanwhile, smiled an unusually radiant smile and said “Hi, Nob!” in an excessively cheerful way, which distracted me. I mean, I know she hung out at the Drowning Fish with whichever of my relatives was in town to play nursemaid for me, but I had always figured that wanting to soak up the tavern atmosphere with the (admittedly goodhearted) uncouth louts that populated my family tree was one of those inexplicable quirks that some people just have. As I friend, I accepted her as she was even if I secretly thought she could have chosen better hobbies. And I knew Nob never shut up about her, but she had that effect on a lot of people. It wasn’t worth noting. Although he hadn’t talked about her lately, so I thought that was wearing off. But I hadn’t realized he was even on her radar.
That was some smile she was giving him.
Then Ralph stared at Nob and spoke slowly, pointed to his fingers, like he was checking items off a checklist, “Your nickname is Nob. You wear a bard’s braids. And you ride a giant, mythic coatl. And have a magical little sister. Who ran afoul of troll raids and pirates?”
“No!” I said in horror, guessing what he was leading to.
“Yes!” my brother said, preening in delight and no doubt guessing what he was leading to. “You’ve heard my ballads!”
“Your ballads? Heard of them?” Ralph continued, picking up speed as he started to put connect the dots, “I submitted a monograph just two months ago to the University of Solendo’s Society for Folkloric Studies on the oral history underpinnings of the those ballads. Oh no! I started with the assumption that the ballads were clearly apocryphal!” We stared at him blankly, which caused him to explode in some sort of scholarly fit.
“I mean that the ballad cycle was the extension of a long-established oral history tradition among the Gauciega tribesmen. That they were a bunch of tall tales. That they weren’t REAL. I didn’t think there was an actual larger-than-life Nob gaucho-bard with a real magical little sister going on real adventures. Oh Father of Justice and Scholars, I’m going to have to withdraw the whole thing and then start over from scratch. Unless maybe I can follow it up with a counterargument that incorporates a description of the original events and traces the process of incorporating current events into the oral tradition. Hey, Nob, can I interview you for…”
“No, Ralph! You were right the first time.” I hurriedly interjected, “It’s a very tall tale. He makes up stories all the time. He’s a bard, that’s what they do.” But Ralph was clearly immune to my attempts guide his thinking. He gave me a dirty look and stepped closer to Nob, who started to examine the skinny little more scholar more carefully.
“What’s your name, scholar?” My brother asked, “And how do you know Lupe and Scathach?” He was still smiling, but the smile had a bit of an edge, and grandfather coatl turned his head to look at Ralph. Ralph must have noticed, because fine drops of sweat suddenly broke out along his hairline.
“I’m Ranoulf Agnasteson.” Ralph said slightly shakily, “I help out with the classes. With all the students equally.”
The man who had spoken up at the breakfast table yelled from one of the windows, “We all call him Ralph, and Jeanette thinks he’s going to be a Shorned One, but I think that’s a stretch. Hummingbird knight if anything.”
The squealing girl interjected, “He saved Scathach yesterday from attack by a mob of villains!”
Nob lost his intimidation look and started to look worried instead, his eyes carefully looking for injuries of some sort and skipping over to assess Ralph.
I didn’t mind Nob being overprotective, but this…this mixing of my worlds was not really acceptable to me. But I wasn’t sure how to cut it off in a way that wouldn’t cause more problems. I put my hands on my head to hold my headdress, and tipped up my face to look at the sky. The permanence and beauty of it always helped me deal with anxiety.
Except this time, the peaceful blue was punctuated by an undulating herd of coatls, the likes of which I was amazed I hadn’t noticed before.
“Nob.” I interrupted faintly, but he was talking to Ralph, asking him quiet questions, and he didn’t hear me. “Nob. Why is the herd above the city. Isn’t that…isn’t that strictly forbidden and a really bad idea?” I felt a chill settle in my belly and try to claw its way up my throat. Nob was enough of a strutting stag that he would bring his own mount into the city, but he couldn’t bring the herd by himself. You need outriders to control the herd.
The coatls were staying high enough to preserve the town’s airspace, but they were maintaining their location rather than going in a direction. That meant that there was a team up there keeping them under control. Nob wasn’t just pulling some stunt by himself, the rest of the riders were with him on this, and this time of year, that included non-idiots like Tias Celia and Arabella. What could be so urgent that the Tias would bring the herd to town?
“Scathach,” he said soberly, “That’s what I needed to tell you. Mama’s missing. We think it was her people from across the veil, taking her back.”
What?” I said blankly. I could see him talk, but I just couldn’t process them yet.
“She’s missing. Mama’s missing.” I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to see him say the words, at least for a second or two. I forced myself to calm down and listen past the roaring in my ears. He continued, “Vistia Zavana asked the spirits – Mama’s not on this plane anymore, and the veil’s been torn wide open near home. Not just a lone changeling crossing over, but a big tear.”
And just like that, I was absolutely furious at him, because I knew exactly what he hadn’t said yet. So I opened my eyes and dared him. “So then say it. Say it. Ask what you came to ask!”
He winced and then wrapped me in a hug and bent low to speak in my ear. “Baby girl,” he said, “I know you want to stay here safe in town, but you need to come with us to get her back. You’re the only one who can get us across the veil. And the only one whose connection they’ll respect once we’re there.”
I could feel myself shaking in his arms, but I wasn’t sure if it was in anger or fear or just the cold from my stomach freezing the rest of me. But after a moment, the heat of his embrace started to seep through. My fit passed, and I felt the shaking stop and my muscles relax. I whispered, “I don’t know if I can go back there again, Nobbin Cobobbin. I’m pretty broken still.”
And he just held me for a while and whispered back, “I know baby girl. I know.”