Dal hefted the tied buckets a little higher on his shoulder, watching as the small city woke up around him. Sleepy-eyed men and women swept the sidewalks as others either brought out their wares or rearranged merchandise.
This part of the country believed in a dual-component architecture-stone for the foundations and first full story, anything above made of wood. The roofs all gently sloped in four directions, in honor of the Gods, and their awnings were wide, providing shaded sidewalks and balconies.
They were a big difference from the adobe buildings he’d encountered to the far south or the cliff dwellings on the northern coasts, but these buildings were home.
As the morning traffic increased, he slowed his pace, observing everyone and everything. Passersby moved briskly, some in the viscount’s livery but most wearing the simple clothes of peasants or servants. On the surface, everything appeared as usual, but the keen observer could see signs of rising anxiety lying underneath. He would see a shopper or servant who would suddenly pause to glance up at the sky, eyes searching for the comet now hiding behind the sun’s growing light. Pieces of jewelry or patches of clothing would be touched or gazed upon, all of them representing one or all of the Four Gods, or the image of a lone eye.
The people were not the only ones showing signs. Windows and storefronts carried banners or pots in red, blue, yellow and green, the colors of the Four. To a foreigner, it might look as if the city was gearing up for a festival or holiday of some kind, but it was neither. Dal was sure more banners and colorful streamers would appear as the days moved on and the comet drew closer. The histories at the Mother House spoke of price increases, of people hoarding goods in case the unspeakable should happen, of tempers growing frayed, or people showing amazing acts of kindness, all brought forth by the impending Time of Trial.
The day would soon be here and though many did not believe, the time between trials being so long, the stories and legends kept the knowledge alive. With the Herald’s coming, many had started paying attention to them as never before.
He and his people were mandated long ago to make sure no one forgot, for in ignorance all might be lost. As he had often of late, Dal felt a surge of pride at being a part of it all, to have been fortunate enough to become an actual member of the Order. It was mostly through their continued efforts the knowledge of the Trial was kept alive.
Though the Order had remade itself many times over the eons, it had always been their dedication, their continued efforts which kept the people aware. The Order had found the Bearer cycle after cycle as well and kept them safe, helped them prepare for what would need to be endured, aided them in whatever way possible to promote the continuation of humanity.
Dal’s mood sobered.
Except for this one. This time they had been unable to find the Bearer, though they’d been searching for almost nineteen years, since the current cycle for the Trial began. There was no way to know if the Bearer was prepared, if he or she had heard the stories, if he knew what was to come and what he needed to do.
Dal didn’t understand how his father could just stay at the Motherhouse and do nothing, to let things happen around him while the Bearer was still missing.
Aside from fanciful dreams of being the one to find him, Dal knew his actual chances were none; but at least he was out here looking, doing his part, not just sitting around waiting.
He plastered himself against a wall, making sure not to splatter the well-dressed maid rushing by with a loaded basket nestled on the crook of her arm, looking distracted.
If only the Gods had seen fit to provide them a way to find the Bearer! Not once in the last nineteen years had they found a trace of his location. The other Motherhouses in the other kingdoms and empires had had no better luck. It was unprecedented and disturbing. The few feats of magic that could be coaxed from those in the know hadn’t found him. Aside from the relics left to the Order by the Four, magic was difficult, the knowledge rare, a lot of it lost during the massive wars in the previous cycle. Wasteful wars fought over who would have control over the Bearer, as if somehow the Bearer were capable of conveying powers or riches to anyone, when they actually only existed for one purpose and one purpose alone. Yet as soon as two
of the countries started fighting others had joined the fray until eventually all were affected. What if it happened again?
For a moment, the street currently filled with the bodies and shouting of sellers, the talking and swaying of shoppers, the clomping of passing horses, changed in his mind’s eye to one of angry soldiers, bloodied cobblestones, all surrounded by the cloying scent of death.
Dal shook his head, moving on, realizing he was more worried about the coming Trial than he’d thought. But there were some advantages to the current situation. Though the Order might not have found the Bearer, neither had anyone else-or if they had they were not advertising it. If someone were hiding him, as long as the Bearer had been taught what was expected of him, all would be well.
Traffic on the streets thinned as Dal came near the center of the city and the viscount’s walled compound. The troupe had been allowed space just outside the walls to set up their wagons
and make camp.
The compound’s walls were rather formidable, taller than those surrounding the city. They were manned as heavily-if not more so-than the city walls, which was unusual for something thought of as a last line of defense in a place that hadn’t seen war in generations. As if to excuse the excess, they were told the viscount relished his privacy and went to whatever means necessary to preserve it.
The large doors leading in were open, but guards blocked the open space, checking everyone wishing to go in or out. If you had no business with the viscount or his aides you wouldn’t be getting in. That, however, was one of the favors the troupe had received after a rather surprising invitation to perform there. They had the run of the place, at least as far as setting up for that evening’s performance was concerned.
Dal grinned, remembering Rostocha’s proud smile as the messenger intercepted them when they’d stopped to make camp at the appropriate place just outside the city. It had only dulled slightly a little later when they were told of the restrictions on what they could perform before the viscount, the nobles and other higher citizenry who would be their audience.
“Daltimoneous, taking your sweet time, were you?”
Dal grimaced, not liking his first name and liking even less that the leader of the troupe enjoyed using it. “Not especially.”
The big man grinned and took the buckets from him, hefting them with ease.
Dal shrugged. “More banners were flying this morning. People are looking more tense.” He fell in step with Rostocha as the latter led the way behind the first of the three wagons to where they’d tied up the horses.
Rostocha grunted. “I expect they’ll grow more so before it’s over.”
“Was the little scamp not with you? She was supposed to help Bentel cut vegetables this morning.”
Dal shook his head. Aya was better at avoiding chores than he was. “Haven’t seen her since breakfast.”
“That girl.” Rostocha slowly did the same, his eyes bright. “She’s got a talent for trouble, that one. I’m almost afraid to guess what she might be getting into now.”
Another thing Aya was better at.
“Keep an eye on her, if you can. All we need now is to get them annoyed at us. With all the rules about what we can and can’t play tonight, I’ve a feeling the viscount may not be the most forgiving of souls.”
“She’s not the easiest person to keep track of.”
“Too true, lad. But you’ve got the best chance of any of us.”
With a resounding smack to the back and a chuckle, Rostocha left him to his quest. Now all Dal had to do was figure out where Aya might have scampered off to. He gave a heartfelt sigh. Something a lot easier said than done.