The Day of Decisions

In the far west, there is a sea called the Mirror Sea whose waters reflect the sky perfectly on nights when the moon is bright. Travelers who stop along its shores can catch their own reflections amid the tumult of the waves. It is whispered that on nights when the moon is at its fullest and sits low in the sky, anyone who looks into the waters will gaze upon their heart's most secret desire. The cooks in the village of craftsmen especially prize salt harvested from the mirror sea on such nights -- they claim that the flavor of food so seasoned effects a dreamlike euphoria on anyone who has so much as a taste. On the southern shore of the Mirror sea, where the wind's gentle sighings promote a constant silvery haze of mists lies the Village of the Gentle People, who value stories and songs and poems above all. Since time immemorial, the Gentle People have sung their sad songs and told their stories blanketed by the mists of the Mirror Sea.

The Gentle people construct their small, round houses out of silver-white reeds that grow along the southern shore of their mirror sea, these houses have no windows. Each house has a low, round opening for entering and leaving that is covered by a brightly colored cloth intricately embroidered by the Village's small group of Weavers, the cloth for each house is different, but none is more lovely than any other. There is also a small hole for the smoke from the cooking and warming fires to billow up through, on cold nights the smoke from the houses and the mists blend and become indistinguishable. The days of the Gentle People were spent in hard work and the nights in laughter and always the chill, argent mists seemed to be pierced by bright shards of song.

It is the custom of the Gentle People to send their children who have lived thirteen summers before the Keeper of Stories to decide where each might be best apprenticed to benefit the village. Although each in the village was considered equal and no one's job viewed as more important than another, the Keeper of Stories was the memory of the village and the dreamer of its future.

In the village there lived a boy who was called Adrian who had lived nearly thirteen summers. Adrian was a slender youth with the customary burnished bronze skin tone of the gentle people and large, dark eyes that often had a thoughtful, faraway look. The morning that Adrian was told to meet with the Keeper of Stories was unusually gray and cold, even for that village eternally blanketed by the salt-scented mists of the Mirror sea, and instead of spending the morning in quiet meditation as many of the youths of the village did on the Day of Decisions, Adrian wrapped his cloak against the chill and sat crosslegged on the sand whittling a recorder from one of the silver-white reeds and whistling a wild tune to himself.

At midday, when the youths who are called must present themselves before the Keeper, Adrian walked unhurriedly towards the house of the Keeper, recorder tucked under his arm, sand on the knees and seat of his rough-hewn trousers. Another youth of his age, Diamara, the eldest daughter of the glass artisan, looked at Adrian's disheveled state with a look of undisguised distaste. She had chosen to wear her mostly finely woven cloth and had adorned her hair with beads of amber and ivory. Diamara was waiting quietly before the entrance of the keeper, her haughty expression giving lie to her posture of humility. From inside the house, a female voice, cracked with age but still strong cried, "Diamara, Glassmaker's Daughter, come before me"

Diamara lowered her head and with a dangerous flash of wild joy in her eyes, pulled back the cloth covering the entrance and strode in. The voices from inside were low and serious, but despite the solemnity of the occasion, Adrian pulled his recorder from under his arm and began to play a soft, low melody while waiting outside. Adrian was lost in his reverie when Diamara emerged, a satisfied smirk on her face. She did not speak, nor did she look in Adrian's direction, she moved with purpose, towards whatever her destination was.

A moment later, Adrian heard that same voice and entered the home of the Keeper. The Keeper of Secrets was very old, her long hair was white and braided into plaits that flowed down her back onto the floor. Her brown face was wrinkled and wizened with years and her eyes were clouded over and rheumy. In one arthritic hand she held the scroll of memory, it was the Keeper's sacred duty to both remember the stories of the past and record the new stories for the future. Aldara, the Keeper of Stories beckoned to Adrian with her empty and bade him sit down. She smiled, her teeth strong and white despite her years and said evenly, "So, Adrian Fisherman's Son, you come before me in your everyday clothes with sand on your knees, not your finest. Your hair is unadorned and your sandals are muddy. Why?"

Adrian looked the keeper in the eye and without fear replied, "Keeper of Stories, your job is indeed important as you are the memory of the village. But we are told that we are equal and no one's job of higher value. I respect you for your age and your wisdom, but I appear before you no differently than I would my father".

Aldara smiled broadly, "A good answer. And a true one. The elders say you have the heart of a poet."

Aldara's look became more serious and she stared into the warming fire, absentmindedly rubbing the frayed edge of the scroll of memories. Her voice took on a sonorous tone as she asked, "Tell me, boy. What work do you think you are suited for?"

Adrian bowed his head in thought and after a moment's hesitation replied, "Although there are many singers in this village and I enjoy making both the music of the throat and the music of instruments, none have this as their occupation. I do not know what I am suited for, Keeper"

Aldara nodded her head gravely, "Diamara knew precisely what she thought she was suited for. And I shall tell you what I think. The stories of the ancestors tell of a time when there will be two candidates to apprentice under the Keeper of Stories, both born on the same day. I have no apprentice and fear that this may be that time. Always before has the Keeper been sure who should follow the footsteps of the old ones."

Adrian asked before thinking, "Why are you afraid? Is it not a good thing that there is more than one capable of taking up your mantle when you are gone?"

Aldara chuckled, "Yes, but I must choose correctly. For the stories say that one will lead our people to prosperity and fruitfulness and the other will spell the end of our people."

Adrian asked, "why tell me this?"

Aladara widened her milky eyes in surprise, "Have you not guessed? You and Diamara were born on the same day and both of you have qualities that could serve you well as the Keeper of Stories. Indeed, it is beyond my wisdom to choose between you. So, I must give you a task to complete."

Adrian nodded gravely, but said nothing.

Aldara lowered her head, "I am very old and I am no longer well. It is my duty to train my apprentice fully before passing into story and song, but I am afraid the span of my life is not sufficient. You and Diamara must seek to find a cure for my illness, but from different directions. When you return, I shall choose one of you as my apprentice, the other must leave the village forever."

Adrian bowed his head and waited for further instructions.

Aldara noticed his patience and a slow, wry smile crossed her ancient features, "Further, you must tell none of the people of this village the nature of your task."

Adrian nodded.

Aldara's voice dropped down to a conspiratorial whisper, "In many ways the direction I must send you in is much more dangerous than the direction I sent Diamara. But I would not choose thus unless I believed you were up to the task. There is but one Island on the Mirror Sea, and this Island lies in the very heart of it. On this Island there is a garden, and in the very heart of this garden dwells a witch woman, old beyond memory and powerful beyond understanding. She is both very wise and very wicked," Aldara paused to clear her throat and take a sip from a goblet resting near her right hand, "You must seek her counsel. She will not lie directly to you, but be wary, the truth can be a very slippery thing."

Adrian brushed a long curl out of his forehead, "I know that I must leave before the setting sun. Am I allowed to say farewell to my mother and my father?"

Aldara nodded, "You are allowed to say your goodbyes, although not even your parents may know the truth of the task you have been given. You are an honest boy, and I will not bid you lie, but you may not say more than you have undertaken a task for me should your parents ask."

Adrian nodded, biting his lower lip, "Then, Aldara Storykeeper, is the Deciding done? May I leave and begin my journey?"

Aldara smiled sadly, "If you have no other questions. And indeed there is little more I can tell you that would be of use to you."

Adrian replied, "I have no further questions."

Aldara rose slowly to her feet with a surprising grace. Unbowed by age, Aldara cut an impressive figure, she was one of the tallest of the Gentle People and her head nearly brushed the ceiling of her house. With great dignity, she walked forward and clutched Adrian's face with both of her hands. Her voice took on the sonorous tones of office as she began to speak, "Adrian Fisherman's Son and Weaverwoman's Child, you have reached your thirteenth summer and are now part of the Stories of our People," Aldara gently kissed his forehead, "it has been Decided. Go now, and fulfill your place with harmony and with joy," Aldara lifted his face with her strong hands and gazed into his eyes, "move with purpose and with grace. The Deciding is done".

Aldara released her grasp and struck Adrian once, lightly on the chest. Adrian bowed before the Keeper of Stories and responded, "I shall move towards the Decision with trust, faith and dedication." Adrian then kissed the hand of the Keeper, and as custom dictated, turned on his heel and walked out of her house without looking back once.

Adrian walked home through the mists in silence, his face screwed tight in thought. Aldara had been Keeper of Stories for longer than his parents had been alive. The fact that her health was failing her filled him with greater concern and trepidation than the possibility of exile should he fail his quest. Adrian felt that the world he knew was no longer a neat and orderly place.

His home was one of the nearest to the shore and through the swirling, argent mists he could see his father hunched over one of his many fishing nets, his nimble fingers patiently untangling knots and searching for tears to repair. Without looking up from his work he grunted acknowledgment of Adrian's approach, "Heylo son. Today was the Day of Decision for you. All went well?"

Adrian swallowed, "Father, Aldara has given me a task that I may say nothing of. I must leave here before the sun sets".

His father nodded his shaggy head as if this was expected and routine, "If you're going over the sea, the second boat is in good repair and loaded with casksof good spring water. Don't forget to kiss your mother goodbye."

Adrian's eyes widened in surprise as he realized that his parents must have suspected that he would be leaving and had prepared for that eventuality. He silently nodded his thanks and pulled back the scarlet, blue and green cloth that covered the entranceway to his house. His mother, a plumply efficient woman with his same slender hands was busy arranging thread for her loom. Although retired from the village weavers since Adrian's third summer, she still often labored on linen trousers for Adrian or woolen cowls for his father. His mother pushed back curls from her forehead and appraised her son with a shrewed look. Adrian lowered his gaze and said, "Mother, I must leave you to complete a task given to me by the Keeper of Stories, I may not say more."

His Mother's eyes clouded over with tears, but she responded in her typical brisk manner, "Will you stay for supper? There will be fresh bread and stewed fruits tonight as well as stew".

Adrian shook his head sadly, unable to meet his mother's gaze, "I must leave before the setting sun."

Adrian's mother sighed as if this, too, was expected and said, "I have prepared a satchel with dried fruits and nuts, loaves of bread, cheese and salted fish for you to eat. I was hoping for more time, my son, but perhaps it is better that you leave quickly than with slow goodbyes that would cloud the heart".

Adrian realized the wisdom of this and nodded.

"I have a gift for you, my son," Adrian's mother opened a basket and pulled out a beautifully embroidered cloak of the same blue, scarlet and green as the family door covering. The clasp was made of finely worked coral and the border was shot through with flecks of gold.

Adrian was speechless in wonder at such a gift. He knew his mother had been very skillful, but was awed at the time and care she had put into his cloak, knowing that this effort must have taken years. Adrian embraced his mother, pressing his finely boned face into her plump one. He was not surprised at the wetness he found on her cheek.

"Goodbye, my dearest and brightest. This will keep you warm nights".

Adrian cradled his cloak delicately as his mother bustled away to find his satchel of provisions. She thrust it brusquely into his hands and without looking at him said, "Go on, now. I still have dinner to make and your father's shirts to mend. Better you get started while the light is good and get out from underfoot."

Adrian smiled at his mother's brave attempt to appear as unruffled as always. Knowing that her mask of efficiency could not withstand another heartfelt goodbye, Adrian quickly squeezed her hand and left the house without saying anything further. Outside, he found his father had abandoned his nets and was carefully tending to the second boat that he had prepared for Adrian. He waved his son over, " Did you tell your mumma goodbye?"

Adrian nodded.

"I hope she didn't get all soppy. I know you'll have sense enough to come back t'us safe and whole."

"You have taught me to read the waters and the winds well, father. I'll have a safe trip".

His Father's dour face cracked into a smile at this, "Always thought your mother was the only one of with any sense. But maybe you're right. Maybe your old man knows a tad that's good, here and there".

Adrian roughly embraced his father, not voicing his admiration because this would embarrass them both. His father looked away and in a low growl said, "Get aboard and I'll launch you. It's better you leave before your mother has a chance to come out, weeping and carrying on".

Adrian climbed aboard the small vessel and sat crosslegged beneath the boat's one thin mast. Although the boat was hardly bigger than a river canoe, and could only comfortably carry one person, it was fast and quiet. It was also very stable, enabling his father to sail out farther and pull in better hauls than the village's other fishermen, in their heavier, more awkward boats. His father was too thick tongued to tell stories well and tone deaf , so music was beyond him. But he knew the sea well and had bequeathed some of his special genius to his only son.

Adrian wrapped his new, brilliant cloak around him and looked northwards at the vastness of water that lay before him. He did not look back to see the corded muscles on his father's arm stand out with exertion as he began to push the little boat away from shore. The lapping of the waves was gentle and the sea spray clung to the curls of his hair. The sun broke through the mist and illuminated his face with sudden, fierce warmth. Adrian looked back suddenly to see his father standing on the shore and the village beyond already receding into mist and memory.

The Water Sorceress

Although he had been out on the waters many times with his father, Adrian was still dazzled by the brightness of the sun and the cool, clarity of the waters. The winds were good and the waves were mild. At times Adrian would stare into the waters and laugh at his reflection, rippling and distorted, smiling back at him. Sometimes schools of rainbow colored fish would swim alongside his craft, leaping and gliding through the wake. Once he caught glimpse of a golden porpoise, a legendary and revered creature among his people, swimming after some tasty morsel caught unaware. At night, he pulled sail, wrapped his cloak tight around him and slept, careful not to look into the waters of the sea, having been warned since memory against the temptations that beckon from its waves on certain nights. He ate and drank prudently, enough to avoid illness but sparingly enough to stretch his stores. On the third day, he caught sight of an island. At first it was no more than a speck, and he was uncertain that it was a land mass, but slowly and inexorably it grew in his vision until he could see a small, white mountain with lush green lying before it. By Midday, he was close enough to see that there were trees and a white, sandy beach. Adrian pulled his sail and rowed towards shore, beaching his little boat and diligently tying it to a tree after. There were many fruit trees and strange flowers at irregular intervals along the shore and Adrian broke his fast on fresh pears and citrus fruits instead of his own stores. After eating his fill for the first time in days, he began to wander farther inland. The trees grew closer together and he had to pick his way between ancient oaks and beeches as well as fruit trees of varying shapes and sizes. At times he heard the startled scampering of rabbits and mice, unused to having their homes disturbed by anything as heavy and clumsy as human feet.

Presently, Adrian caught sight of a great white wall, broken in many spots with flowers growing between its stones and ivy obscuring much of it. He followed the line of the wall until he came upon a massive iron gate, rusted and broken, one half fallen from its hinges and lying aslant and unused. Beyond the gate was a path, paved with the same white stones that the wall was built with, although overgrown and choked with weeds and wildflowers, its direction was clear. Adrian followed the path, squinting in the sunlight that suddenly broke through the overarching lattice of tree branches. Here and there he caught a glimpse of statues, some fallen from their pedestals, others still standing but overgrown with moss or their faces indistinct and worn from weather. On either side of the path hedges, wildflowers and orchids grew with abundant profusion, obscuring his vision and becoming tangled beneath ancient trees. It was not long before he heard the sound of water in the distance and he moved along the path towards its source. A fallen oak blocked the way ahead, and beyond it grew saplings that had taken root between the stones of the path and had grown into an impassable tangle, barring the direct route. Adrian was forced to push through hedges taller than his head. He startled several brightly colored birds who had made their nests in dense greenery for generations. Adrian fell forward and tumbled down a gentle, grassy slope. Before him he could see the white mountain that the garden was built beneath and a slow and gentle cascade that fell from its height towards a deep, marble pool that was surrounded by eight lofty marble columns that jutted against the sky, and a ninth that lay cracked and fallen against the base of the mountain. He could also see a cave hollowed into the side of the mountain behind the waterfall and felt a sudden chill despite the warmth of the afternoon sun.

Steadily Adrian made his way down to the pool and walked carefully around its lip, underneath the pillars that seemed impossibly tall. He noticed that no birds sang here, and no animals drank from the pool. The only noise was the rush of the waterfall and the lapping of the pool against its sides. The sudden quiet made him cautious, but with his task in mind he made his towards the waterfall and its cave beyond. He noticed that the edge of the pool was inscribed with weathered symbols from some ancient language, but he could not decipher them. At last, he stood before the cascade and the shadowed darkness behind it. Through the delicate roar of the eternally falling water he could hear a woman's voice singing a wordless tune. At his approach it stopped and he heard a mellifluous and airy voice from the cave, "It has been long since I have had a visitor. What brings you before my fount?"

Dimly, through the clear waters, he could make out the indistinct shape of a woman, largely cloaked by shadows and distorted by the falling water. Adrian swallowed involuntarily, "Great lady, I have been sent on a quest to aid my village, and must ask your help."

He heard a high, girlish laugh, "Great Lady. It has been long since I have been called that. Your dark skin and bright eyes mark you as one of the Gentle People. I am pleased that your people have not forgotten manners. I see you have a recorder with you. It has been very long since I have heard music other than of my own making. Will you play me a song?"

Adrian heard the command in the request and without hesitation began to play a melancholy air for the woman. As he played, she drew closer, although she was still maddeningly obscured. When he stopped playing she responded in a honeyed voice, "You must never again play that song, it belongs to me. And what brings you here for my aid, boy?"

Adrian gazed at her indistinct form and replied, "The Keeper of Stories in my village is ill. She has sent me before you to ask if there is a cure her sickness and if you would aid us."

He heard mocking laughter that resounded and echoed. The woman drew closer still until finally thrusting herself from beyond the waterfall. Adrian's eyes widened in wonder and horror as she stepped out onto the pool's surface. Her garments were flowed gently around her, changing shape and color at the whim of the breeze. Her eyes were the color of winter ice, her skin the color and softness of snow. Her hair was the green of the ocean, and it flowed ceaselessly, white crests framing her face. She was a creature made of water and ice. She touched his face with an icy finger, but he did not turn away. She smiled, although whether from cruelty or kindness, he was unable to guess, "So, you do not cower before me. Good, I have little use for weaklings. I may be able to help your Keeper of Stories, but first you must complete two tasks for me."

Adrian made his face stony, remembering the warnings he was given, "What are these tasks?"

Again she smiled inscrutably, "In order to help your Keeper, I must first be able to diagnose her illness. Although I have many powers both great and terrible, the sight is not one of my gifts. Therefore, you must bring me back The Mirror of Vision from the Cloister of Secrets".

Adrian's eyes narrowed, "I will not steal, nor will I gain anything by deception. But if this can be done honestly, I will do it. Where is this Cloister?"

"Far to the north, it lies in the center of a great desert. Between you and it lies a mountain range that is impassable to you. It would take you many months to journey around it on foot, and in that time, your precious Keeper may very well die. Perhaps you can find aid in the city of Gordia that lies on the North shore of this sea that the base of those mountains. Beware, however, that the King of that city is a great glutton and lover of pleasure and will not aid you unless you find a way to be of amusement to him."

A suspicious look crossed Adrian's face and he said, "You say you do not have the sight, but you know a great deal about the world beyond for someone who has not had visitors nor left her island in a good many years."

She scowled, "You are impertinent and forget your place. And there are many ways for me to discover things without seeing them, my foolish child."

Adrian lowered his eyes slightly, careful not to offend the woman and said, "I am foolish and young, forgive me. May I ask what the second task is?"

Her smile returned, "That will be determined should you successfully complete the first task".

Adrian nodded, unsatisfied but aware that this meeting was concluded except for formalities, "Then, may I take my leave of you Great Lady?"

The woman smiled, then her form lost color and texture until she remained a mere suggestion of a female form, crafted out of water. There was a gentle splashing sound as even that form collapsed, leaving no trace of the figure before. From everywhere and nowhere, the boy heard a voice that commanded, "You may leave".

Glad that his audience was concluded, the boy quickly and quietly made his way away from the pool, back through the garden and towards the shore. Although it would have made sense to camp on the island for the night, because the sun was already low on the horizon by the time he made it back to the boat, he pushed off from the island and did not lower his sails until the moon was high in the sky and the island was once more a distant speck.

The Glutton King

It was two more days journey before he again saw land. In the distance he saw blackness looming into the sky that at first he took for rain clouds, but later realized that this was the mountain range the Witch Woman had spoken of. As the day lengthened, he could make out bright colors set against the black and realized that the city must lie there. He saw brilliant reds and golds and strained his ears to hear if there was music from over the water. Much later he could discern a beautiful palace, with golden spires and multi-colored pennants waving out towards the water. As the sun began to set, the city and the palace suddenly became aglow with many different colored lights that sparkled towards the water and illuminated the palace's brilliant red and gilt towers. Many of the houses were built right over the water on pilings or on boats and they were all brightly painted every color imaginable. As Adrian sailed closer he could see that the many colored lights were thousands of paper lanterns, each a different shade or pattern. There was a small crowd waiting at the foot of a dock, and Adrian sailed over to them, hoping to find welcome.

As he drew close, he heard a hearty cheer, and three strong men pulled in his boot and moored it to the dock. Another two grabbed his arms and gently plucked him onto the pier. Before he could register thanks or an objection, two women kissed his cheeks and children blanketed his necks with fragrant smelling garlands of flowers. And elderly man with a long white beard, dark eyes and what appeared to be the customary yellowed ivory skin tone of people in this land stepped forward and said, "Welcome stranger, to Gordia. Our seers predicted your arrival this evening and we have been chosen to greet you. Our King, The Pearl of the World, the Shadow of Heaven, the Blessing of the Ages, Manto IV, May he Reign forever, bids you dine with him this evening in the royal palace".

Adrian murmured thanks and assent and was whisked away by the cheering crowd through the narrow streets of the city. People watched from their windows and threw flowers down upon him as the entourage passed. He sometimes caught a whiff of the native cooking and his stomach rumbled, it had been nearly a week since he had a cooked meal. Peacocks and flamingos wandered freely down the streets, sometimes squawking noisily as people passed. Most of the houses had flower boxes beneath the brightly colored shutters that covered their windows, and Adrian saw strange and exotic blossoms, some that opened beneath the moon and perfumed the air with dense fragrances.

The crowd turned onto a broad, tree-lined avenue, and Adrian caught his first good glimpse of the Royal Palace. A low, flat golden dome capped its center, and innumerable jewels caught the light and shone from its surface. The walls were covered in red tile that was polished and shone. The tall towers were worked with golden filigree in intricate and delicate designs that wound their way up. There was a grand mosaic covering the front wall with scenes of battle and glory displayed in inhuman proportions. The front gate was open and its door were as tall as four men, it was made of precious ebony and carved with great elegance. As Adrian approached, six men in red and silver livery trooped out, each carrying a long horn made of ivory. Just as he set foot beneath the massive gate, they blew a complicated fanfare and the crowd let out a long and wild cheer. Before him stood a tall, thin man with a silky black mustache that trailed down the sides of his face and underneath his chin. He was wearing silken robes the color of cream, and these robes were studded all over with topazes that winked and sparkled in the ambient light. The man bowed and Adrian bowed in return. He smiled and caressed his long mustaches with thin, beringed fingers that each ended in sharply manicured fingernails that immediately reminded Adrian of talons. The man's voice was unfailingly courteous, "Welcome, Honored Guest. I am Shao, First Steward to His Most Munificent and Glorious Royal Majesty, the Jewel of Gordia, King Manto IV, may he reign forever. I have been bidden to accompany you before The Imperial Delight. Pardon my woeful and consuming ignorance, Brave Traveler, but may I be so bold as to ask you for your name so that I may present you properly before His Most August Magnificence?"

Adrian, somewhat confused by so florid a speech, replied quietly, "My name is Adrian. I am of the Gentle People".

Shao allowed the slightest amount of distaste to cross his impassive face before bowing and sweeping around quickly in a flurry of robes, "If you will follow me, Lord Adrian."

The walked down winding corridors wide enough for six men to stand abreast, each ornamented with paintings, statues and delicate porcelain. Finally they came before a door nearly as tall as the grand gate in the entrance, this time gilt and carved with royal faces long dead. Shao stood before the doors and clapped his hands. At this, both doors swung open revealing a massive chamber large enough to comfortable fit most of Adrian's village. Despite Seven bonfires burning at strategic places around the room, the far recesses were lost in shadow. Adrian looked up and realized that this chamber was was beneath the golden dome. The floor was white marble studded with precious gemstones. Brightly colored silken curtains hung between golden pillars that supported the dome far above. Peacocks with diamond collars strolled around languidly beneath hanging bouquets of orchids. At one end of the room, lay a griffin, the feathers on his head were the color of midday sky, the feathers on the edge of his wings a dark blue, his hindquarters were white and around one talon was a manacle attached to a chain whose links were wider than Adrian's wrist. At the room's center was a low, massive oaken table as long as ten men laid end to end and as wide as three, but only knee high to Adrian. The table's surface was completely covered with innumerable dishes of varying sizes and descriptions. There were tureens of soup, steaming and bubbling, there were plates of noodles, and plates of spiced mushrooms, there were plates of delicate dumplings, their contents showing through translucent skins, there were cakes and puddings and confections sweet and savory, there were pickled pheasants and broiled geese, there were huge red lobsters in butter sauce, there was a roasted piglet, decked with tropical fruits and stuffed with shrimp and scallops. A score of servants bustled around the table, taking away some dishes and bringing others, refilling pitchers of wine and mead. There was only one person sitting at the table, but somehow, in all the splendor of the room, he seemed the most noteworthy. Sitting crosslegged on green velvet cushions was a massive man, shaved bald and naked to the waist, Adrian guessed that if he stood, he would easily be a head taller than Aldara. He was enormously fat with great rolls of flesh that hung over the top of his red, silken pants. His tiny eyes peeked out dispassionately from beneath beneath heavy lids. His small mouth had a displeased cast to it and was framed by mustaches as long and luxurious as Shao's. He looked up at his First Steward and guest with a bored air. Shao bowed elaborately, touching his forehead to the ground before announcing, "O Most Glorious Lord of Gordia, Benevolent Prince of All Graces, I am not worthy to stand in your presence but humbly beg to present, Lord Adrian of the Gentle People, an Envoy to Your magnificent realm."

Adrian bowed, but in the manner of his people, not in the ornate fashion displayed by Shao. The King smiled and dismissed Shao with one meaty ham-sized hand, jewels twinkling from every sausage-like finger. The King paused to take a sip from a golden goblet before speaking, "Welcome child. Come close where I can see you better."

Obediently, Adrian approached the table, eyes cast downward. King Manto IV noisily slurped noodles from a steaming bowl of soup, then crammed an entire sweet bun into his mouth. Another sip from the goblet and then, "So. You are from the Gentle People. I hear they are good at stories and songs. I am bored. My entertainers provide me with nothing new. Show me something new."

Adrian pulled out his recorder and played for the King. It was a song of memory and of things lost. It was for his mother and for his village. It was mournful and slow, but ended with a bright, high burst of notes that reminded him of hope. When he was finished he slowly lowered his recorder and bowed his head. The King began to clap and thumped his goblet on the table. The servants in the room followed his lead and applauded noisily. When the cheering subsided, the King removed and emerald ring from his pinky and threw it at Adrian's feet.

"Bravo boy! That was beautiful. How would you like to become my minstrel, rest on cushions and eat at my table, playing airs for me when I am restless? Few in the land would have as high an honor as you."

Slowly and carefully Adrian responded, "Your Most Gracious Majesty, it is true that this would indeed be a high honor, and I am amazed that one of such poor talents as I am being offered such accolades. But I am bound by duty to complete a task that is vital to the survival of my people, and deeply regret that I cannot accept."

There was a slow murmur in the chamber and the servants fearfully scurried away into the shadows. The King smiled widely while picking the meat from the ribs of a boar, but his eyes took on a cruel cast. He stared the boy in the eye and said, "If I chose it, I could chain you into my service as a slave and force you to wear a diamond collar like one of the palace peacocks and have you beaten should you refuse to play for me."

"Your Majesty, I know you could do these things. But there would be no joy in my playing or in my heart and you would quickly grow tired of me."

The King stroked his mustaches thoughtfully, "There is truth to that. Tell me of your quest. Perhaps in helping you complete it I can compel you to come back to me."

"Your Majesty, I must cross the mountains to the north and seek out the Cloister of Secrets deep in the desert."

The King laughed, his flesh wobbling and shaking, "The mountains to the north are obsidian and as slippery as glass. There is no pass through them and it fruitless to try to climb them. It would take you many months to travel around them. There is no way beyond them unless you can fly," inadvertently the King's gaze turned to the Griffin chained against the wall.

The boy suppressed a laugh of joy and said, "Gracious King, lend me your Griffin, so that I may pass the mountains to the north. I will be honor bound to return such a great favor."

The king shook his head, "My Griffin is too rare and noble a beast to risk on such an undertaking. There is no guarantee either of you will return alive. I cannot see how such a bargain would benefit me."

Adrian sat in thought for a while and said, "I have heard of people who place wagers on contests of skill or strength. It is said to increase the amusement of the contest."

The King belched heartily, "Indeed! A wager can provide much amusement. Tell me then, what is your wager, boy."

"If I should lose this contest, I will stay in your palace and play for your amusement for as long as you wish without requiring payment, lodging, food or drink. Should I win the contest, you will allow me to continue on my quest with the griffin to assist me."

The King chortled, "High wagers. But since you are at a disadvantage against me, I shall accept your terms. Shall we have a contest of strength?"

The boy shook his head, "O King, how could I hope to compare with your might? May I suggest a contest of wits or skill that does not require strength of arm? I still have little chance of victory, but surely you would not savor a win that comes too easily."

The King thoughtfully stroked his mustaches and said, "Very well. But we shall not have a contest of songs or of stories, I know your people excel in these. We shall have a contest of riddles. The first to answer incorrectly will lose the contest."

The boy nodded, "Very well, your Majesty. Would it be forward of me to suggest that you posit the first riddle?"

The King smiled at this and boomed:

"I thrive without breath
Am colder than death
I am never thirsty
but I forever drink.
I'm clad in chain mail
but never clink."

Adrian scratched his forehead and stood awhile in thought before answering, "A fish."

The King frowned, but then chortled, "Good job boy. Perhaps this will be a contest, after all. Your turn!"

Adrian cleared his throat and recited one of his favorite childhood riddle:

"Twelve pear hanging high
Twelve pear hanging low
Twelve king riding by
Each, he took a pear
How many pear left hanging there?"

The King smiled, as if in victory and replied too quickly, "Clever. But your word play will not aid you. Obviously I am meant to think each King took one pear when he actually took a pair of pears. So, the answer is none!"

Adrian shook his head, "I'm afraid that answer is incorrect. The correct answer is twenty-three."

The King's face clouded over with rage, "Preposterous! How can that be correct?"

Adrian smiled, "There were twenty-four pears to begin with. The twelve kings did ride by, but that is all. A boy named Each took a pear, leaving twenty-three left."

The King's eyes grew narrow and dangerous, between tight lips he replied, "You have won by the rules of this contest. You may take the Griffin and take your leave. But beware, should you enter my domain again, I will not look upon your presence fondly."

King Manto IV thumped his goblet soundly down upon the table and bellowed, "Guards! Release the Griffin, see that thing and this boy out of my Palace. Should the Griffin eat the boy, you are not to intervene!"

Men in red and silver livery bustled out, each carrying halberds. One unceremoniously unlocked the manacle around the griffon's talon and the boy and beast were ushered quickly out of the palace.

Adrian looked at the griffin with watchful, curious eyes. He had heard that griffins were uncommonly intelligent and was not at all surprised when he heard the creature speak in a low, gruff voice, "You have freed me from that terrible Palace. I know that you needed only a mount to carry you beyond the black mountains, but if by my life or by my death I can repay this debt, I shall, master"

Adrian gingerly held out a hand before the griffon's beast and said, "Please. I am no one's master, perhaps not even my own. If you are willing to carry me, I will be thankful, but do not think of this as servitude, but rather as friendship. My name is Adrian, may I ask yours?"

The Griffin made a low, rumbling sound that Adrian would later learn was its laughter and replied, "None of your kind have asked my name before, and indeed the name I was given in my tongue would be difficult for you to pronounce. If you have need of addressing me, call me Tyrus, that is your name for the land where I was born."

Adrian bowed solemnly, "I am pleased to make your acquaintance Tyrus, and am glad of your friendship."

The Griffin lowered himself so that Adrian could mount and said, "Well, friend Adrian, if you would mount, we should take flight before the King reconsiders and sends soldiers to capture us."

Adrian climbed onto the beast's back and was amazed by the power of the animal beneath him, he felt muscle ripple and flex beneath the fur and feathers. Without another word, Tyrus began to run swiftly, and Adrian pressed his face into his feathers and wrapped his arms tight around the creature's chest, fearful of losing his balance. Tyrus tensed, jumped and there was the beat of powerful wings as he took flight, swiftly and elegantly. Adrian quickly forgot his fear and cried with jubilation at the joy of leaving the ground far below, the impressive red palace shrinking to the size of a child's toy.

"Onward, Tyrus," Adrian cried, and the pair of them soared up into the cool night air.

The Cloister of Secrets

The two of them had been flying over the seemingly endless sands of the Northern Desert for two days and nights, stopping only for rest, water and whatever meager food they could hunt. Both of them were tired, and Tyrus' flanks shone with sweat. They had seen no sign yet of any human occupation. Adrian wished bitterly for the casks of water he left with his little boat, it had been nearly a day since they last found an oasis and he was worried for Tyrus. He was about to suggest that they land and take a rest break when Tyrus half-screeched, half-roared, "There, ahead! There's some sort of stone edifice. Perhaps this is that place you are looking for."

Adrian squinted off into the distance, but did not see anything more than the boundless dunes of sand that shifted softly in the burning desert wind. He wondered fearfully if the sun and lack of water had driven his poor companion mad, and once more considered asking his companion to rest, when in the far distance, he caught a glimpse of something gleaming and bright. It was many minutes before he was able to make out that the gleam was coming from some sort of massive building, made out of limestone and mentally chastised himself for doubting Tyrus.

It was close to sunset when they landed before the building. It was a towering edifice capped in limestone and surrounded by numerous columns, obelisks and strange statues. There were no visible windows and only one entrance that they could discern. Stone stairs led up to a forbidding looking iron doorway. Adrian dismounted and gave Tyrus the last of his dried fruit. Adrian stoked the feathers of his companion and dried off his sweating flanks. Smiling at his exhausted friend he said, "Rest. I will be back soon with help."

As Tyrus sighed and lay down, Adrian walked forward and began the climb up the steep stair. He had nearly reached the iron door when a voice from the shadows shouted, "Stop! None may enter the Cloister of Secrets unless he has proven himself worthy!"

Adrian sighed and said, "Please. We have been traveling for many days with little food or rest. I had hoped to speak with someone here about a task I must perform and find aid and respite from our arduous travels."

"You must perform a task for us before being allowed to enter!"

Adrian sighed again, "If there is honest work I can do, I will gladly do it. But the hour is late and the light is poor. Is there any way we can find shelter for the night?"

A slim, black cloaked figure slinked out of the shadows and stood before Adrian. A cowl was pulled tightly over the person's face and its sex was indeterminate. The figure sighed and relented, "We will bring food and water for you and your beast. You may sleep in the courtyard. Tomorrow we will give you the task that you must perform to prove yourself worthy. Step away from the doors."

Adrian began the walk down the stair when he head a clang and a thud. Too tired to look back, he was glad to see other black figures hurry past him with a jug containing some sloshing liquid and a basket piled high with bread. He rejoined Tyrus and the two of them ate and drank quietly and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The burning sun was already overhead when Adrian awoke to see a black robed figure standing above him. He groaned and stretched wearily before greeting, "Good morning."

The figure nodded and said brusquely, "Should you seek entrance to the Cloister, you must first investigate the disappearance of a member of our order. This novitiate was gifted with a key to the cloister, something we do not wish to see lost. At our last meeting, the novice had asked permission to investigate rumors of a hidden cache of ancient scrolls in a cave to the northwest. Permission was granted and the novice was expected to return to us within one cycle of the moon. Three cycles of the moon have passed. We are concerned, for the fate of the novice and also for the fate of our order should the key fall into careless hands. If you return to us with news of the novice and also proof, you shall be granted entry into the order. Should you return the key, you shall also be granted an audience with the Master of Lores. This is a very rare event."

Before Adrian could reply, the figure slipped away behind a pillar and vanished into the shadows. Adrian shrugged and asked Tyrus, "Should we perform this task? I fear there may be much that they are not telling us."

Tyrus scraped on talon thoughtfully in the sand and said, "We must gain entry to the Cloister to complete your quest. We have no choice."

Adrian nodded sadly and mounted Tyrus again. There was the beating of mighty wings again and the two were once again aloft. It was not long before Tyrus spied their destination and cried, "There!"

Adrian saw nothing, but trusted in his friend's superior eyesight. And indeed, it was not long before he saw a small mountain, little more than a large rock, jutting up out of the desert sand. At its base was a large cave. They landed and Adrian was about to dismount when Tyrus hissed, "Caution. I smell something strange."

A few moments later, they saw a reddish serpentine form crawling in the cave's cool darkness towards its mouth. Spying intruders, the cave's inhabitant reared up and they clearly saw the creature, it was a young wyrm, a dangerous and clever type of dragon. The wyrm was red-gold and nearly twenty feet long. It moved with snakelike quickness but also had short, strong legs that ended in vicious claws, a pair of wings that were not quite mature for flying and a row of serrated spines along its back. The wyrm sniffed the air disdainfully and said in a surprisingly melodious voice, "I so rarely get visitors. What happy circumstance has given me the honor of such august company?"

Tyrus growled low at the mocking tone in the wyrm's voice but Adrian replied in all seriousness, "Please, sir. We did not come to disturb your rest. We are only seeking news of a lost human who may have wandered near your cave."

"Oh yes. That was most likely dinner from two months ago. She was a toothsome morsel. All that screaming really does help to keep the meat tender. She left a lovely bauble."

Adrian sighed sadly, distressed to hear that the novice had come to such an end, but persisted, "May we have the personal effects that she left behind. Surely, they are of no use to you."

The wyrm slithered closer to the pair, his impassive yellow eyes staring at Adrian, his forked tongue darting between his very sharp, white teeth. Adrian could feel the warmth of the wyrm's breath and willed himself not to run. The wyrm's nostrils widened as he said, "I don't like parting with presents my visitors bring me. And you are very presumptuous to think that you will be leaving ... before dinner."

Tyrus puffed out his chest and flapped out his wings threateningly. In a low tone, the Griffin said, "Wyrm, we will not be your supper."

The wyrm bared its fangs, whether in a smile or in a threat, Adrian could not say and said in that same maddeningly polite tone, "Perhaps the best way to settle our dispute is like gentlemen. You should carry your pet off someplace and we can settle this with strength of arm. Should you win, I'll allow you to have the bones and the little jewel of my last dinner guest. Fair?"

Tyrus lowered his wings as if considering the offer when the wyrm struck out, teeth and claws bared, for Adrian. Tyrus quickly rolled over, knocking Adrian off of his back and momentarily out of the reach of the wyrm and screeched bloodthirstily, his talons raking into the treacherous serpent. The wyrm extended his vestigial wings and hissed, intending to bite down on the griffon's throat, but missed. The two beasts roared and charged each other, and Adrian lost them in a blue and red tussle of feathers, scales sand and fur. Adrian heard a wearied and painful roar and for a moment feared the worst, but then saw Tyrus standing, bloodied and wearied but triumphant over the wyrm's prone form. The wyrm hissed, "You have defeat.. defeated me griffin. and I will die.. but you did not.." the wyrm was unable to finish his sentence as his heart stopped its beating and his lifeblood gushed upon the sand.

Adrian ran over to Tyrus who was bleeding from clawmarks on his flanks and had bite marks above his right talon. Tyrus shook his head impatiently and said, "I am fine. Get the key from the cave and let's get back to the cloister, I need rest."

Trusting in his friend as always, Adrian hurried into the gloom of the cave and found a shredded black robe made of a cloth similar to the mysterious persons who had greeted him from the shadows and bundled it up. Nearby, he found a fist-sized piece of limestone inscribed with arcane sigils. Racing back to his friend, Adrian quickly made bandages out of the cloth, despite Tyrus' weak protestations. With the bleeding stopped, the griffin bade him resume his familiar mount, and the two flew low over the sand towards the Cloister.

Tyrus' flight and breathing were both labored and Adrian feared for his friend's life, but at long last, they made it before the steps of the Cloister. Tyrus unceremoniously dumped Adrian into the soft sand and collapsed in a heap, consciousness leaving him. Adrian ran up the stairs yelling for help. One of the black robed guardians intercepted him and said, "You must complete your task."

Adrian fumbled in his shirt and pulled out the fist sized stone and shouted, "Is this your key? Is it worth the lifeblood of my friend? Help!"

The Guardian shouted something, and the iron door opened, four other black figures silently and swiftly ran down to the prone griffin, carrying bandages and an evil smelling salve. The Guardian spoke more gently to Adrian, "Come inside and rest. If medicine can help your friend, he will be healed. There is nothing more you can do now."

Still shaking with anger, Adrian followed the guardian inside the cloister and heard the iron door shut with a clang behind him. In contrast to the heat and brightness of the desert outside, the interior of the cloister was cool and dark. It took Adrian's eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. The cavernous interior appeared to be all one room, with shelf after shelf of scrolls of papyrus and parchment, books, stone tablets and tapestries. His anger was replaced at awe at what must be the largest collection of stories and songs in the world. His guide removed her hood, it was a woman of middle years with silvered hair and a handsome, businesslike face.

She smiled at him, "In this place we hold more of the knowledge of man than exists anywhere else. There are those who wish to destroy this place and all it holds and we stand as guardians, so that what was once known is not lost."

Adrian's anger ebbed away and he said, "I understand your need for rigorous testing. But why did you not tell us that a wyrm inhabited that cave? We would have been better prepared!"

The woman bowed her head sadly and said, "Truly, we did not know what had become of Vrendi. We had feared she had planned to use her knowledge of this place for own benefit. There was a dark current that always ran beneath her surface. We would not have knowingly placed you or your friend in such danger."

Adrian sighed and said, "I have returned your key. May I speak with your master of lores?"

The woman nodded and said, "You have that right. But will you not eat and rest first? Your ordeal must have been exhausting."

Adrian shook his head, "There will be time for that later. But first I must speak with the master of lores. I have questions."

The woman smiled, "Then seek no further, I am Tyvori, the Mistress of Lores."

Adrian was unsurprised at this and asked, "I have been sent to retrieve the Mirror of Visions. I must ask you for this."

Tyvori frowned, "We do not use magic here. It is strictly forbidden because there are many scrolls and secrets of magic that are sensitive to those powers and it may bring down a catastrophe that we are unable to forestall. The Mirror of Visions is a powerful and ancient magical artifact, but it is of no use to us. However, in the wrong hands it could be a great tool of destruction. It is written that it will show the truth to whomever can speak its true name."

"What is its true name?"

Tyvori smiled wryly, "We do not know. That name has been lost to antiquity, perhaps forever. That does not mean that we are not still fearful of such an object falling into the wrong hands. However, as you have proven yourself worthy, I am willing to part with it.. for a price."

Adrian's eyes narrowed at this, "What is this price?"

"Simple. You are of the Gentle People? We know your people value story and song and all the children of your village learn the art of writing. We do not have much from your people and are much desirous of having a record of your stories. And there is always restoration work, because you can write you would be valuable in helping us re-record information on scrolls that are decaying or fading."

Adrian nodded solemnly, "I agree to do my best."

Adrian worked diligently at recording all the stories and songs of his people as well as reading and restoring many of the Cloister's aging texts. He faithfully tended to Tyrus' wounds, and on the third day, Tyrus awoke, weakened and hungry, but alive. After a fortnight, Adrian had written down all the stories and songs that he could think of, read and re-written many texts on subjects too various to name and Tyrus' wounds had scarred over and the griffin seemed nearly returned to his former strength. He was teaching a young acolyte how to play the recorder when he Tyvori's long shadow loomed over him.

The woman smiled, "You have more than fulfilled your part of the bargain Adrian. Now it is time for the Cloister to pay its dues."

She handed over a small flat object wrapped in black cloth. Adrian unwrapped it and saw an unremarkable bronze disk with a scratched surface that reflected his own image at him, slightly distorted.

"This is the Mirror of Visions. Like many powerful magical artifacts, completely unimpressive to the eye. Remember what I have told you. Go now, with our blessing. We hope one day you will return to us."

Adrian, suddenly seized by emotion clasped Tyvori to her and embraced her. She smiled at him fondly. Then he turned away and walked out of the great iron doors to rejoin Tyrus.

Tyrus purred at his approach and said, "I feel that I am ready again for a great journey."

Adrian whooped happily and mounted Tyrus and the two of them soared into the air with joyous cries.

The Conclusion

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