Leaves of newborn spring adorned the trees. The sun was visible now and again amongst low lying cloud banks. The manorhouse was just visible, half a mile away. Marquart was off supervising the building of the Citadel; Tidac had gone with Conger to a small complex of corrals and sheds where the kakais were enjoying their spring pasture, and gaining back the weight they had lost during the lean days of winter.
Grooms were cleaning and currying in the shed; the air was filled with the sweet, pungent scent of kakais. Tidac sat on top of the rail fence, intensely silent.
Small, quick and gray, grizzled and bent, Conger reminded Tidac of a mouse, wary from many encounters with cats. At the siege of Port Cantor, he had been old for a warrior; now he was just old.
Conger moved about a proud and lovely kakai, sweeping the tight pelt with brushes from her pointed nose and flaring ears, which the animal lowered for grooming, across her high shoulders and down her flanks. The kakai’s brush tail whipped in pleasure; her brown and cream stripes glowed with vitality. She was Encaritremanta, the Cloud Lady, named for the Comanyi goddess who had become the Blossom of the Flower of the Waning Day.
“How goes the morning, Lordling?” the old man asked. Tidac turned his impassive gaze on Conger. He said nothing. This habit was disconcerting to many and led them to think him stupid. Conger was neither disconcerted not misled. Whistling tunelessly, he turned back to the Lady, rebraiding her mane into a complex macramé net. Sunshine and the smell of dung impinged upon Tidac as if from a great distance and he sat statue still, his mind wandering far from his body.
The soft clip-clop of hooves sounded from the forest nearby as a mount and rider came into view. Working his way from tree to tree he approached, keeping cover between him and the manorhouse, but not sneaking so blatantly as to appear suspicious. The rider was a big, hard man with shaggy hair and beard. His eyes moved incessantly, missing nothing. There was the look of a fugitive about him, yet mixed with a certain confidence. Obviously, he was an old hand at going unseen in the midst of his enemies. Even Tidac seemed to be interested. Then he came out of the shadows at the edge of the forest and sunlight fell full on his face.
“Good morrow, Conger.” His pleasant voice carried no further than the corrals. “How lies your world?”
Tidac studied man and mount. The kakai’s brown and cream stripes were smudged with dust and sweat to a ground color of uniform tan. The mane was sheared off close in the manner of a dray beast and the saddle was much worn. Whatever gay paint had originally covered it was long since abraded away. Worn, unpainted leather boots housed the man’s feet to the knees and then, surprisingly, instead of leggings of wool he wore short leather trousers which covered only from waist to crotch, leaving his hairy thighs bare. His tunic was dark green, sweatstained, and on his head he wore a bowl shaped cap sewn of multiple layers of leather. A sword hung at his leg and a bow and quiver were strapped to the saddle. Nowhere about his person was there any hint of shiny metal or bright color.
All this told Tidac it was Melcer, but he would have known him disguised as a priest. To the boy’s eyes and to his ai, he was a twin of his father.
“What would you have me say?” Conger was furious. “You know I have to report seeing you. Why are you here? Some thought you dead, and all hoped we would not see you again, even when we hoped you lived. Why? There can be no profit in your returning. All you can do is overturn hopes of peace.”
“That is why I have come.”
Melcer’s eyes speared Conger. “Does a servant demand explanation from his master?” more Monday