Phoenix In Shadow – Chapter 23
Tobimar saw Kyri freeze, and her posture alone showed that Hiriista’s question had struck home. For his part, Tobimar was mystified. He hadn’t noticed anything to be wary of – although, to be fair, he hadn’t been looking hard this morning. They had been pretty sure that whatever they were looking for wasn’t in the immediate area.
A quick glance at Poplock, and the little Toad gave a whole-body shrug. He didn’t notice anything either.
Finally Kyri took a deep breath. “I suppose it would be useless to pretend I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
A faint hiss of amusement. “I am afraid that you are not terribly good at hiding your surprise, no. Perhaps you can dissemble well when prepared – I know several such – but without warning, no.” The hunting look was back. “So, Phoenix, will you answer my question?”
The embarrassed tone when she answered told Tobimar that even without the firelight Kyri’s already dark cheeks would have been touched with rose. “It was just a… stupid impression. Probably nothing.”
“Then it does not matter if you tell me.”
She looked around, then smiled sheepishly. “I suppose not. There really isn’t much more to it, to be honest. I just felt there was something … off about him.” She paused, lips pursed, and he could almost see her mind working.
“All his words and overt actions were exactly what I would have expected from my brief contact with him,” she said finally, “and my prior contacts – when we first arrived, and later at the party – didn’t have this funny feel to them. But this morning… it felt almost as though he was playing himself, an extremely good actor, but one who was really much more competent and controlled, not confused or innocent or overawed or any of those things.”
Hiriista let out a long, satisfied hiss and bobbed his head. “Precisely so. You have the instinct, young Phoenix; you just have no training that tells you why your instinct says what it does.” He glanced down to Poplock. “Do you comprehend what I am saying?”
Poplock closed one eye, wrinkling his face, and then the eye snapped open. “Ohhh. What we talked about before. The language of the body.”
“Correct. I have never met anyone else who noticed – or, to be more precise, who would admit to noticing this… anomaly; I believe that there are a few others who have, but they, like myself, have been afraid to speak of it, for it seems so impossible that there could be something wrong with these, our protectors. Yet I have seen it many times, a subtle – a terribly subtle – shift in posture, in facing, in the way an arm is held, a spine straightened, a head tilted, and suddenly one of the Colors seems not himself at all to me, even though not a single word or action is obviously out of place. And often this happens shortly before they go on a patrol or mission.”
“You said one of the Colors,” Tobimar said. Hiriista bared some of his teeth in a humorless grin as Tobimar went on, “but Danrall is a Shade. Are you implying…”
“I imply nothing. I have seen this behavior in Colors, Hues, and Shades. Not – so far – in the Lights, but in honesty I will say that my contact with the Lights other than Miri has been limited.”
Kyri looked more carefully at their companion. “Why do you bring this up? Why tell us, rather than Miri, for example?”
“Well, firstly,” the mazakh said with a note of grim relief in his voice, “because until now I had found no confirmation of my senses. I am, perhaps, by far the most sensitive person in Kaizatenzei to such things, but that meant I had no one to compare my impressions with – at least, no one who would dare speak to me of these impressions. You, as independent forces with no knowledge of anything here, were perfect subjects. The fact that you instantly picked up on the same anomaly… that is tremendously important.
“Secondly, the mystery appears to touch upon most of our guardian forces. If it has not affected the Lights, I cannot discount the possibility that it will affect them – whatever it is. Yet who could I possibly find that would be formidable enough to survive the investigation – if there indeed is something wrong – and not already a part of the potential problem? Few other people of such skill and power are found here in Kaizatenzei who are not part of these forces.” He gestured around the camp. “But you three… ahh, you are outsiders, unique, unknown, but – I now know from both my own observations and those of Lady Shae – of good heart and will. Thus I trust you, and hope you will trust me.”
“Not to be a complete cynic,” Poplock said, “but how do you know you can trust Lady Shae’s judgment?”
Hiriista looked momentarily offended, then laughed, a hiss that echoed through the forest. “I suppose I should consider even that possibility… but no. In this case her judgment merely affirmed my own, and she had no way of knowing what I was looking for. I have my own ways of judging people, as you know. If she herself is the source, or a victim, she was not subject to it at that moment, and so I trust her senses; you are not agents of destruction but protectors.”
Tobimar had been thinking while they spoke, and he didn’t like where his thoughts were taking him. “If you’ve seen this on three of the four levels of your…”
“… Tenzeitalacor, or Unity Guard,” Hiriista supplied helpfully.
“… Unity Guard, yes. If you’ve seen this on three of the four levels, is it your assumption that it affects most, if not all, of the people on those three levels – that is, most or all of the Colors, Hues, and Shades?”
“It is. I have seen it frequently enough that if I make some basic assumptions – drawn from my experiences – about how often the situations occur that cause this shift, then at least eighty percent of the Tenzeitalacor below the Lights are affected.”
Tobimar nodded slowly. “I guess the next question is… do you have any reason to believe this is actually a problem?”
Hiriista opened his mouth to reply, and then stopped, his mouth still hanging open for several seconds before he slowly closed it, hissed, and then bobbed his head in a rocking motion before finally speaking. “I… confess that I do not, in fact, have any evidence that this is a problem. It feels wrong. I have no explanation for this that makes sense and is innocuous. Yet… no, I do not have any actual reason to believe that this anomaly is a problem, save only my own instincts.” He hissed again, a whistling chuckle, and his own posture was turned inward, embarrassed. “I find myself most discomfited by this realization.”
“You’ve never confronted any of them when you felt this… difference.” It was a statement, not a question, and Kyri’s voice was deadly serious.
“No… no, I have not. Both uncertainty and caution stayed me from that course of action.”
“Instinct isn’t something to be disregarded,” Tobimar said. “If Phoenix sensed the same thing, and it made her uncomfortable too…?”
“It did,” Kyri said emphatically. “I felt almost as though someone … or, even, something… much, much more aware and intelligent was watching me through Danrall.” She frowned. “It was … familiar, almost. Balance, I can almost get it, but it’s dancing just out of reach.”
Hiriista cocked his head, more alert. “What? You have had this feeling before?”
“I think so. I think so.” Kyri rapped her forehead as though to loosen something stuck there.
“It’ll come to you,” Tobimar said. “As I was saying – if she felt the same thing, and it worried her, then I think you’re right to be cautious. We knew something was wrong in this place when we came here. I’d hoped it was something in the forest outside –”
“No,” Hiriista said decisively. “No, I do not think so. Lady Shae believes so, but – in honesty – she almost has to believe that. She watches for threats outside; I think she does not believe, nor want to believe, that within Kaizatenzei itself there could be true evil. I myself do not want to believe it, but even the rather … edited version of events you have told us implies that your adversary Thornfalcon had an actual contact here, one who could supply him with the monsters you fought. No such organized power has ever been sensed, or even suspected, outside our walls. The only organization we know of… is here.”
“Then seems to me that we have to assume the weirdness in your Unity Guards is probably linked to what we’re looking for,” Poplock said. “And that it’s not a good thing. So, if you’ve got that far, you must have some suspicion. It’s either something working its way up through the ranks, bottom up, and nearing the top, or something sitting at the top running things. Which, I hate to say it, puts Lady Shae and Light Miri right at the top of my suspect list.”
“I think you are only half right,” Hiriista said, obviously restraining himself from further outrage on behalf of his ruler. “My suspicions are of something much worse, in a sense. Although having our most trusted ruler –”
“THAT’S IT!” Kyri shouted.
“Trusted ruler, that’s what. I used to feel exactly this kind of thing around one other person. I even told you about it, remember?”
A chill went down Tobimar’s spine. “The Watchland.”
“The Watchland. Watchland Jeridan Relion, the ruler of Evanwyl, most trusted man in the realm, a man I trusted almost without reservation… except on the days that I didn’t feel I could trust him at all.”
“Fascinating,” Hiriista said. “The same feeling?”
“Almost identical, I would say.” She shuddered suddenly, and Tobimar touched her arm in support. “Every so often I would feel that he was saying the same words, offering the same help, the same advice, and yet there was nothing true or real behind those words, just something else, cold and watching.”
“And your Thornfalcon had a portal that led somewhere to here, from which came monsters. A definite connection between the countries.” Hiriista looked out into the darkness, and despite his inhuman face Tobimar could plainly read his discomfort and fear.
“Master Wieran,” Tobimar said.
Hiriista nodded with another hiss. “The aloof power neither above nor below. The creator of our Servants. The one – it is said – who helped devise the training of our Unity Guards. That is who I suspect – the one I must suspect – of whatever has been done to our people. He is in the perfect position, with the perfect knowledge, to tamper with people in such a fashion, and…”
Poplock tilted his body. “… and…?”
Hiriista looked down, then up. “And I have met him, twice. Both times he seemed reasonably courteous and attentive… but his body language radiated impatience, a complete lack of interest in the political and social interactions about him. It was very much as though he was given a script – or, more likely, had given himself a script – to appear the wise elder statesman, but had no more understanding of what such a person would really be like than would a nalloshoth.”
He said no more immediately, and he didn’t have to. If the ancient genius whose works were spread throughout Kaizatenzei – whose Servants performed half the work of the cities or more, whose training guided its defenders, whose other works commanded the respect of its rulers – was actually a monster who would work with Thornfalcon…
… then it wasn’t just Kyri and Tobimar who were in danger. Not just Evanwyl.
It was all of Kaizatenzei, too.