Chapter Nine: Phoenix Rose
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
For the rest of the ride, glimpses of what appeared to be buildings could be spotted through the trees. Then, quite suddenly, the two travelers were in what appeared to be a market place. There were, indeed, buildings made of stone and other materials that could blend in with the environment though an occasional slab of marble offset this affect. It was a rather pleasant style, actually, especially after the strict functionalism of Atu and the highly technological, metallic streets of Star City. Shops ran the length the street, their doors open, though one could not really tell it was actually a city or just a large town. Shoel guessed city, however, when they passed a delicate looking banner of a long-tailed bird with a rose in its claws, overshadowed with writing in a language Shoel couldn't read, that was quite likely some kind of emblem for the ruler or the place.
There weren't many people about, not compared to Star City, but enough to create a comfortable amount of background noise. Well, "people". They were most like dragons, but with some form of hair, antennae, and insectoid-like webbing in their wings. She'd seen so many alien species and sentient dragons at Star City that it wasn't too surprising that humans weren't the dominant species here, and honestly, she didn't really care, because they were all very much alive. Still, she found herself instinctively looking for at least one humanoid amidst the plethora of dragonoids. All she saw, however, was that her companion was earning quite a few dirty looks. A few of the dragons, the ones decked out in armor, openly glared at him, and the rest simply gave him a wide berth-- and herself, by extension, riding behind him and looking around like an obvious foreigner.
"I gather you're not very popular here," she commented to Hemlock, the first words she'd spoken since the bridge.
Hemlock was silent for a few moments, but then he heaved a sigh. "They don't really have much reason to like me." His voice was soft, with a tone to it Shoel had never heard him use before. "I'm really surprised their king allows me to come and go still."
"Why?" she asked carefully, curious but not wanting to make him yell at her again.
"Heh, I raised his deceased father as one of the undead for a previous-- employer of mine." Beyond the obvious distaste that Hemlock had raised the dead in such a manner at all-- not like she hadn't expected him to, given what he was-- Shoel noted that he sounded oddly... regretful. She watched his back with a small frown.
"I suppose I can understand why you wouldn't be popular, then," she answered slowly.
"If it weren't for Drakonus, these guards would probably hack me to pieces. And this race is really not militant" Apparently either it didn't bother him too much, or Hemlock was hiding it, for his tone had gone bored again. Given how quickly he'd changed, Shoel was betting on the latter.
"If it bothers you so much," she suggested, "why don't you lay him to rest again?"
Hemlock twitched strangely, ducking his head and hunching his shoulders; it took Shoel a moment to realize he was laughing-- a strange, disturbing sort of laugh. "What do you take me for, girl?" he chuckled darkly. "The person, if he can be called that, I was working for wanted a commander, not a minion under me. I specialize in bone spells, poisons, and curses; on the rare occasions I do reanimate something not to be a mindless slave, there has to be quite a bit left for me to work with, even then a sentient being won't truly be sentient anymore."
"A Greater Dead, then," she whispered, mostly to herself, and shivered a bit. She'd only encountered those on a handful of times, the first two with the Abhorsen's aid; they were, indeed, difficult to banish. But... it could still be done. Did Hemlock simply not have the power?
"It took the power of myself and another necromancer, more powerful than I could ever hope to be, to raise King Galarin as he wished," Hemlock continued in a hoarse whisper, only just audible, as if to himself. "In life, Galarin was a powerful paladin. In death... a malady, carrying the disease he died from to those he deems. Or perhaps a worse form, I don't think anyone has ever figured out what exactly the disease was."
It sounded terrible. Like Hemlock and his partner necromancer had raised a truly evil creature, something that really did belong in Death. For the first time in days-- and with a guilty sort of twinge, given how disturbed the event made Hemlock-- she felt on stable ground. This... this was Death that she could do something about. If she didn't get herself killed in the process. "What happened to him?"
"Happened to who?" The question was abrupt, as was Hemlock's movement accompanying it, jerking his head up again.
"The undead creature you raised here," Shoel clarified patiently, though she was starting to get a little wary of all these mood changes. Either the event disturbed Hemlock even more than she imagined, or he wasn't entirely stable. Or both.
"I don't really know," Hemlock muttered in response. "Every once in a while you'll hear about a small band of undead doing who-knows-what with a mounted figure that fits his description, but other than that I can say I honestly don't know. I haven't been in his master's service for thirty-some years now."
"Thirty?" Shoel repeated, blinking. He didn't look anything over than fifty, but that meant he had to have been an established necromancer-- or Free Mage, at least, given his admittance that his specialty wasn't raising the dead-- by twenty and before. Unless he had extended his lifespan, and so was no longer truly human... she'd seen a necromancer like that once, and it made her watch him with a little more mistrust.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Hemlock groaned.
"How old are you?" she returned warily.
"I'll be three thousand, two hundred, and forty-nine this year."
"Three thous...." She stared in very obvious shock-- and a little fear-- voice trailing off into nothing. Not even elves lived that long!
"Is something wrong?" The necromancer-- or whatever he really was, with an age like that!-- simply looked curious, so indifferent to his unnatural lifespan that he couldn't be lying. Why would he be lying? Just to watch her flounder with the shock? But even then, he would be hiding a smirk, not looking at her with such bland curiosity.
"But-- how did you-- I mean-- that's not natural!" she exclaimed. "Not even the most determined necromancer could hold onto life that long!"
"Well, I admit that my race usually meets an untimely end sooner rather than later," Hemlock said with an innocent little blink; she hadn't known he could look innocent, but he managed it. "But there are a few-- very few, mind you-- who manage to live for millennia, even eons."
Well, that solved it. He simply wasn't human. Or elven. Come to think of it, Firelancer Jasien had called him a shape-shifter, hadn't he? Shoel relaxed considerably. "And you, obviously, are one of the very few."
"Very, very few," Hemlock replied with a snort. "Come to think, I can only think of one other. And I don't know if he's still alive or not."
Shoel shrugged, no longer panicked, but rather wondering just how far into this town-- city, by now, towns were never this big-- they had to go before they found somewhere to spend the night. Actually.... "Where are we staying, by the way? The sun is setting, and you did warn against wraiths."
"They don't come into the city limits," Hemlock answered, a bit distractedly. "Just past the bridge, but not around so many people. Especially not so many paladins." The necromancer was looking around now, himself, but with more purpose, obviously reading the street signs. "I know it's here somewhere," he grumbled to himself, "I just haven't been here in forever."
"What's here somewhere?"
"The inn, of course." Hemlock rolled his eyes. "Isn't that rather obvious?" Shoel refrained from commenting, not wanting to get into another argument.
After a moment of somewhat awkward silence, Hemlock suddenly turned his horse down a narrow side-street. "Here it is." He pulled up, stopping beneath a sign of a winged and horned horse. Shoel reined Vesper in gently, looking up at the building curiously.
"I hope it isn't too expensive," she commented with a small frown.
"Actually, these are the stables," Hemlock said with a little smirk, and Shoel shot him a dark look. "The inn's a little more down that way." He pointed a long finger at a sign much like the banner as they entered the city. "Excellent bar, too, best white wine on the planet."
"I'll take your word for it," she said, and dismounted fluidly. A couple hours in the saddle wasn't, she noted with relief, enough to make her stiff or sore. She followed him inside with Vesper, and turned him over to the stablehand with a smile and "thank you" for the dragon and a final rub to the faithful stallion's nose. Once she had some idea of the currency value and part of town, she'd tip him appropriately. As it was, she had no idea how much this was going to cost her, and had to be careful.
As if sensing what she was thinking, as he lead her to the inn, Hemlock said, "The currency is pretty standard, for at least the most prominent planets in this dimension. I hope you will be able to pay for your own room, unless you want to share one with an ancient, insane necromancer."
"Charter forbid," she shuddered. Even if she had to wash dishes to afford it, there was no way she was sharing a room with Hemlock. No way at all.
"Ladies first." Smiling slyly, he stepped to one side, motioning for her to precede him through the inn's doorway. Giving him a distinctly superior look-- appropriate for a "lady", if not an annoyed Charter mage-- she slipped in past him.
"You seem to not like the idea of sharing a room with me," Hemlock said, his voice falsely hurt. He stepped in behind her, taking a sniff of her hair before ducking away to avoid the obviously expected swat. "It's really been a while since I've had the luxury of sharing a room with a lady."
"And it will be quite a while longer," she replied coldly. "Even if I didn't want you dead, Hemlock, you're not only old enough to be my father, you're old enough to be my ancestor."
"A shame, really." He looked at her balefully, voice dripping with injury. "After all, I'm not your ancestor seeing as you're human. Though I suppose some people just can't get over my age."
"Is there an innkeeper around here we could talk to?" she asked impatiently, looking around, not at all interested in bantering with him, especially not about sharing rooms.
As she finally took a good look at her surroundings, she was again fairly impressed. The lobby, at least, was a large room, decidedly rustic in style but not unrefined. A dragonoid man looked up from where he'd been studying a book, his starry black eyes focusing on the woman. "Oh, yes, that would be me, miss. Pardon, I was distracted." Then he noticed Hemlock, and immediately those same eyes went wide with surprise, and fear. "Er, um, hello General Bleedingheart."
"Not General anymore," Hemlock grunted hoarsely. "You're fully aware I've done more than enough to not only lose my title, but completely destroy my reputation."
Despite curiosity at whatever else Hemlock might have done, Shoel didn't want to disturb the poor man further, so she broke in kindly, "We were looking for rooms. Do you have any available?"
After a bit of rifling through the pages of the book, the dragon nodded his head. "Yes, actually. Nice, cozy single rooms on the second floor. Seven silvers a night."
Running a quick calculation in her head-- glad that she'd had her currency changed before coming on-world-- Shoel realized she could afford to stay almost two weeks, and still have some money left over for food. Smiling at him with relief, she nodded, "That sounds fine, thank you. We can pay in advance for a few nights." Since she doesn't know how long she's staying, not fronting the money for all two weeks she can afford seems wise. For all she knew, Hemlock had other plans, or that clutch-- was it really an "undead" clutch, like Hemlock had mentioned earlier?-- might hatch tomorrow.
"Same for me, I suppose," Hemlock drawled, giving her a look that was might have been saying "don't presume to speak for me", but that was just a guess. He set a small pouch of silver on the dragon's desk, and Shoel busied herself counting out enough coin for the next three nights.
"There," she said, setting down the last. "Second floor, you said?"
The dragon nodded his sleek head, the lights in his eyes sparkling. "I can show you if you want, my lady." Hemlock just snorted, leaning back against one wall and folding his arms over his chest-- generally looking cold and disinterested, or maybe just sulky.
"That would be very kind of you," Shoel said. "Thank you."
The dragon spent a moment putting his desk back in order-- putting his quill pen in the book and closing it lightly-- then retrieved a lit candle from a small rack. He turned, beckoning both to follow before leading the way up a fairly short staircase. Shoel fell into step behind him, one hand absently resting on the pommel of her sword, and she could hear Hemlock following, as well. The dragon turned down one corridor, moved a few more paces, then swung open a door handing the candle to Shoel, who accepted it graciously. "Here you are, my lady."
"Many thanks, good sir," she said, gracing him with a respectful half-bow and another smile, before hefting her bags and moving inside for some well-deserved rest.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.