Cold Moonlight Fire
Cord's first instinct was to rush out and confront the cult leader, Zio, to meet his opponent on the man's own ground and size him up face-to-face. He was a direct man and direct methods were how he worked. In this matter, however, he believed a certain amount of reconaissance was in order.
Mitchell DeVan, Aiedo Cityguard sergeant, was in his traditional pose when Cord paid a call: boots up on his desk, chair tilted back, hat tipped over his eyes, hands folded across his belly.
"Hello, Jason," he grunted, moving nothing but his lips.
"You talking in your sleep?"
"Who can sleep with you clumping around like that?"
"I do not clump!"
"Yeah, you do. It's kind of a sneaky clump, 'cause you've got that hunter thing going, prowling around behind monsters, but it's still a clump. Guys who go one-ninety have to clump."
"One-eighty, Mitch. We're not all ex-hunters getting fat and happy."
"One-ninety. You're armed."
Sighing heavily, Cord dropped into the chair on the other side of the desk. It creaked, but held--this time. The Cityguard budget wasn't going to spring for a replacement until it actually broke. Cord had considered lending his friend an axe in that area, but nothing ever came of the offer.
"Do you always have to be right?"
"Lemme see. I've spent my youth, lost my looks, and work for the government. Yeah, I've gotta be right. It's the one thing I've still got on pups like you." He chuckled, then said, "Now, you didn't come here to match wits with a guy who's got a quarter-century edge on you. What's the score?"
"I've got a new case."
The retired-hunter-turned-lawman chuckled again.
"Well, I figured that part out. If you just want to chew the fat you meet me at the bar."
"I thought we were done with the battle of wits?"
"Ouch. There's one for your side. Go on."
"What do you know about a guy named Zio and a cult called the Children of the Amber Eye?"
DeVan's lips tightened.
"That's an odd one. We like to keep an eye on some of the bigger cults, or if we get a complaint. Freedom of religion's one thing, but sometimes their religion turns out to be everyone else's crime."
"Kidnapping, murder, that kind of thing."
"Right. I know we're not actively investigating Zio's pals for anything, so we probably don't know much. Let me think..."
His lips curved into a reflective frown, and he went so far as to unfold his hands so he could drum his fingers on one leg. DeVan had been a fairly good hunter, with middling combat skills, but first-rate in jobs requiring more brainwork than bladework. He had an encyclopedic memory for facts, names, faces, and details, one reason why he was a key member of the Cityguard's criminal investigation office, even slowed by age and congenital laziness.
"Yeah, okay, now I remember," he said after searching his mental files for a couple of minutes. "They're your basic cult. Membership of around forty, most of them teenagers. Zio's older, mid-twenties, kind of a big-brother figure instead of a dad. Been around for about six, seven months, had a couple of complaints about soaking money off rich kids but nothing we could prove. It's not a crime to give meseta to a bunch of nuts, and there's no evidence of extortion or other nastiness to get that money."
"What about kidnapping?"
This actually got DeVan to tilt his hat up and look directly at Cord.
"You mean, for ransom? Or what Mommy and Daddy call it when their kid tells them to blow because he's running off to join the circus?"
It was a perceptive question.
"Why not both? The kid thinks it's the one and the parent the other? Only, it's the kid's mind as well as body that's being held."
"Good thinking. There's been nothing like that, though. Most of the cult lives at home and attends meetings. No reports of anyone being held by force or being used as little breeding machines for the glory of the Great Dragon or the Big Newt or whatever it is they worship."
"So basically, you're saying that they aren't criminals," Cord concluded.
"Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that. Let's just say that the Cityguard had no evidence of wrongdoing on their part. Nothing says that Zio isn't just a con man getting rich by peddling phony religion."
DeVan tugged his hat back into place and refolded his hands.
"I'll tell you what, Jason. You go size Zio up, and then if you still have questions you go talk to Mysta over at the Sands of Time bookstore. She should be able to set you right about these people."
"A bookshop owner? How can she--"
A low, rumbling snore emanating from beneath the hat told Cord that he'd just have to find that out for himself in his own good time. Still, DeVan's suggestion was a good one. It was time to beard the beast in his lair.
Cord had gotten the address of the Children of the Amber Eye's in-town temple from his client. It turned out to be an ordinary-looking if large building on the east side of town. The walls had been freshly whitewashed and a small sign was mounted next to the door bearing only a single word: Zio. A chime rang as Cord entered.
The entryway had been decorated by the kind of mind that takes "theatrical and overdone" as a compliment. Red, orange, and of course amber were the predominant colors; gauzy draperies and hangings seemed when swayed by the breeze to be living flames. The centerpiece sat on a stone pedestal in the middle of the foyer, a sculpture or idol of a lapis dragon rising sinuously out of leaping bronze flames. Between its eyes, an amber orb was set in its forehead like a third eye. That followed, he supposed. He wondered if the dragon was supposed to have seen anything through the eye and if so, what?
The far side of the foyer had two archways leading off from it, blocked only by streamers of golden cloth. A man emerged from one, probably in response to the chime.
"Welcome to the House of the Dragon," he said and bowed. He was less of a man than a boy, Cord realized on second thought, no older than eighteen. He wore a sleeveless vest and pants under a white cloak and headcloth. Around his neck he wore an amulet of twisted brass. Probably the young man served as some kind of guard, Cord assumed, but the only weapon he carried was a belt knife such as any Motavian traveler would have. "May I ask as to your reason for calling?"
"I'm here to see Zio."
The young man surveyed Cord with a glance and apparently didn't like what he saw. Too old, too fit, too confident: trouble.
"What is the nature of your business with Master Zio?" he asked belligerently.
"I need to speak with him."
"What about?" the guard snapped back, losing a bit of his elocution.
"That's between myself and Zio," Cord said, stubbornly calm. It was a quirk of his personality that while he could respect even the villanous for their intellect and ambition, he had little patience for bootlicking lackeys on any side of the law. Since cult members in his experience all tended towards that category, it was no surprise that his encounter with the guard had quickly turned hostile.
As he should have known (and subconsciously probably did), his lack of cooperation only enraged the cultist.
"Master Zio is not to be bothered with the likes of you!"
"I'd have to disagree with that."
His face reddening, the guard's hand dropped to his knife-hilt, and it seemed as if violence was about to erupt, when a smooth, cultured voice cut the scene short.
"Is there a problem here?"
The man emerged from the second archway; at once he commanded Cord's attention. He was tall and slender, though his leanness was disguised in part by the loose cut of his vest and the white shirt that he wore beneath. A scarlet, gold-edged cloak fell from his shoulders and was brushed by his long, straight, black hair. His face was handsome, but more than that he carried himself with confidence and projected an almost tangible force of personality. This was no lackey.
"Master Zio, this man demands to see you but will not say why."
"Now that I am here, perhaps that will change. For your part, remember that the fire of the Great Dragon is the purifying flame of righteousness, not the false spark of temper. I shall speak to our guest from the Hunter's Guild while you meditate on this."
The door guard took the rebuke poorly but slunk off without protest. Zio, Cord decided, kept a firm control over his followers, which may have been good or bad.
"How did you know I was a hunter?" he asked.
"Is it not obvious? Your build, your garb all suggest a fighter, which is confirmed by your calloused hands. You could have been a soldier or a Cityguard, but you lack that distinctive air of officialdom that comes with having authority at your back. Shall I tell you the subject of your business?"
"If you can, why not?"
He smiled thinly and a bit arrogantly.
"No guess at all. His mother, I think, is not the sort of woman who is often thwarted in her aims. She is sufficiently intelligent to realize that brute force would merely drive her son away from her as well as generate legal trouble."
"Interesting choice of phrase. I'd have thought it was you who was driving a wedge between them."
Zio shook his head regretfully.
"You wrong us, Mr.--"
"Jason, then. The way of the Great Dragon is to teach each person the power of the self, to allow them to fulfill their potential in life. It is not to tear a person away from friends and family."
"But Lukas is living here now."
"That is so. The situation at his house is such that it causes him great suffering to remain there, so we have offered him shelter. The Children of the Amber Eye do not turn their backs upon each other when we are in need. Would your turn your back on a brother or sister?"
"You talk a good game," Cord said. "The fact is, Lukas is a boy and his mother is worried."
"He is fourteen," Zio replied. "Were he not born into wealth and privilege, pampered and catered to, he would be apprenticed to a trade and living with his master. Only because his mother seeks to keep him a child forever is Lukas just entering now into manhood. She has denied him affection as a child and maturity as an adolescent. He has chosen his path now, chosen to make something of himself, to sieze control of his own life! What right does she have to take that from him?"
The cult leader's midnight eyes flared and flashed with genuine rage. If he didn't know better, Cord would have thought that Zio actually cared about the boy's welfare. He almost began to doubt that he did know better.
"You're wrong about one thing," the hunter said. "Lukas has been apprenticed to a profession. He is the sole heir to the Grant trading house."
Zio shook his head.
"Heir, yes, but not apprentice. Elaine Grant has done nothing to bring Lukas into the business. He should have been trained in mathematics and finance, in the arts of bargaining, allowed to meet his mother's contacts and to accompany caravans on their travels. No, that should have been what she did, but it has not been so."
This was not good, Cord realized. He was starting to sympathize more with the cultists than with his own client.
"And you fit in how?"
"We give Lukas home and family, the things his blood family denied him. We give him the chance to grow into manhood, to set his feet on the path of the future, a future lit by the Great Dragon's holy flame rather than the cold glare of meseta! If your client wants her son to return she will have to approach him as one person to another, granting him the respect he deserves."
"Speaking of which, I'd like to speak to Lukas."
"Of course, if he consents. I will try to convince him that he should, though. I believe you are interested in the truth of this matter, rather than in blindly doing your client's bidding, and openness can only aid that." He smiled thinly and added, "Of course, I will accompany you. I may be misjudging you, and hunters have, in the past, been known to take drastic action on their client's behalf."
It made Cord wonder, if a battle did break out over Lukas, which side would be the abductors?