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Cold Moonlight Fire

Part III


Zio took Cord into what looked like a pleasant, airy sitting-room such as could be found in the houses of most well-to-do in habitants of Motavia.

"Please, be seated, and I shall try to convince Lukas that it would be worthwhile to speak to you. If you would care for some refreshment, you may help yourself as you please." He gestured at the palmwood sideboard, which was well-stocked with bottles and glasses. Cord declined, though, and accepted only the first invitation, seating himself in one of the low, bowl-shaped chairs as the cult leader left.

He wasn't sure what to make of the dark-haired man. Zio had proven himself to be extremely intelligent; the stunt with deducing Cord's profession had established that. Caution, though, was not in his nature, or else he'd never have made the display in the first place. It was the act of an man who felt he had the edge, an act of brazen confidence. The act of a showman, a performer. In fact, the entire conversation, even down to showing up and dismissing the guard, had gone that way, a series of deliberately calculated effects meant to put Cord off his guard and impress him with Zio's fairness and sound reason, and of the cult's benign nature.

One thing only had impressed the hunter as being genuine, and that had been Zio's anger when he described Lukas's life as the child of Elaine Grant. That had been no put-up job. Cord would have sword that the cult leader's fury was real. The question of why, though, bothered him. It made Cord look at things in a new light.

Was Zio, after all, sincere in his desire to help the boy? Just because a man had a showman's style didn't make him evil. If so, every actor, illusionist, and minstrel would be in jail. He might be genuine.

Then again, it was also clear that Elaine Grant, whatever mistakes she had made as a parent in the past, deeply regretted those mistakes. And, after all, she was Lukas's mother. Not to mention Cord's client.

Recognizing that he simply didn't have enough information to accurately assess what was going on, Cord forced himself to relax and wait for Zio to return with Lukas. It took a few minutes, perhaps because the boy needed convincing--or perhaps because he had to be coached in what to say.

"Jason," Zio said upon his return, "I have persuaded Lukas to speak with you. Come in, Lukas, and have a seat."

A young man entered, crossing to a chair opposite the hunter. He fit the description given by his mother, though certain details appeared to have been viewed through a fond parent's eyes. He was slightly overweight and lacked muscle tone, but the bronzed shade of his face and hands indicated that he had been getting out in the sun. His hair was a pale yellow, and he'd apparently inherited the pale violet color of his eyes from his father. A surprisingly thin and long-fingered hand rested on the back of the chair, and he turned nervously to Zio.

"You won't go, will you?"

Zio shook his head.

"I shall remain here if there is a need--though I'm sure there won't be. Jason seems to be a reasonable man, not at all like the hunters who cause trouble and give the Guild a bad name."

Clever, Cord thought. Compliment him and at the same time undermine it. He could almost admire it. Almost.

"Lukas, I guess Zio's already told you that I work for your mother?"

"You've come to take me back to her." He sat down.

"Basically, that's the truth. How hard I try is up to you."

Lukas looked at the hunter curiously.

"I don't understand."

"Well, if you were locked up in a cell for the good of your soul or some such rot, then out comes my axe and we bust you out of here by force. On the other hand, if you have no desire to leave and don't show any signs of ill treatment, then all we do is talk."

The boy pouted sullenly and gave Cord a suspicious glance.

"You work for her. She's paying you to do what she wants, just like she tries to buy everything."

Cord shrugged.

"I'm a hunter. Rescuing a boy from a pack of unstable lizard-worshippers--" That got a dark look from Zio. "--is my kind of work. On the other hand, resolving a family quarrel between a young man and his mother doesn't seem to be the caliber of work for a hunter."

That seemed to thaw Lukas out a little, so he pressed on in that vein.

"Look, I'd never met you or her until today, so I'm an outsider here. Why don't you tell me about it, see where we wind up?"

Lukas turned to Zio, who smiled laconically.

"Why not? You have nothing to hide?"

Lukas looked a little surprised at the answer, but shrugged and turned back to Cord.

"Yeah, why not? She's the one who's making trouble here, not me," Lukas told the hunter petulantly. "All she cares about is money. I bet she didn't even notice when my dad died except for paying the funeral bill. I don't know how many times I've heard the Big Success Story--how she came here with nothing but the clothes on her back and created the trading house through her wits and sense? Well, that's all the wit she had--the wit to make money! Money is all she ever wanted, and she thinks it solves all of life's problems to have it. Well, she's wrong!"

His complaints had all the petulance of a spoiled child refused something he wanted, but there was more to it than that. The thing he wanted was something more precious than meseta or jewels or even laconia: acceptance and love.

"She never had any time for me when I was home," Lukas continued his lament. "She couldn't be bothered to be my mother. Oh, she gave me gifts, plenty of them, paid for nurses to watch me as a little kid, tutors to teach me when I got older, toys, books, whatever items I might want. If it could be bought, then I had it, but would she spend her time?" He gave a bitter, mocking laugh. "Look at you, hunter! She wanted to get me back under her roof, like I was some kind of lost prize or stolen treasure, so she went out and bought you! She did what she always does--spends meseta to solve her problems."

"You know that isn't true, not this time," Cord couldn't help but point out.

"What, are you working for free, then?"

"No, and that isn't the point. What is the point is that she tried to deal with this by herself. She came here to see you, talk to you on her on her own. I'm only here because you ordered her away."

"And why shouldn't I? She had her chance. She had her chance for fourteen years! By all that's holy, she couldn't even go so far as to start teaching me about her precious business, let alone tear herself away from it long enough to be a mother!"

Cord spared a glance for Zio, to see how the cult leader was taking it all. He still had that wry smile present, undoubtedly at the boy's implied insults of Cord, but it did not reach his eyes. They were hard and set, and in them were the glimmerings of a black emotion which the hunter could not fathom. It wouldn't have been so obvious if it hadn't been so at odds with the larger-than-life personality Zio put forward when he maintained control over himself. Something about Elaine Grant and her treatment of her son moved Zio deeply.

Unless, Cord mused, he was a very good performer indeed, layering his deceptions so that when one got deep enough it would appear to be sincerity.

"Look--Jason, Zio said your name was?--Jason, I don't want to sound like a spoiled brat, but my mother has had her opportunity. She's had fourteen years to be my mother, but she didn't want the job. As a result, I grew up into a scared little boy who couldn't do anything for myself. Zio has changed all that. I've found the faith in myself and in the Great Dragon to cross the flames and be initiated into the Children of the Amber Eye. Now, I'm going to make my own way in the world, and I know that I can. Tomorrow night I will receive the Blessing of Fire, and the morning after I leave Aiedo and my past forever." His voice was firm and resolute--rightly or wrongly, he had at least made up his mind and was intent on following through with his plan.

"What's the Blessing of Fire?" Cord asked.

"A sacred rite of the Children of the Amber Eye," Zio cut in, "and one which is not paraded before outsiders."

"I see," Cord noted dryly.

"Do you? I think not. The religious mysteries of the Children are dedicated to the adoration and worship of the Great Dragon. The presence of scornful unbelievers profanes the rite and destroys the attitude of devotion necessary to fulfill our obligations. Just because you are not of our faith does not give you the right to mock our sincere beliefs."

Cord's first reaction was, that's not what I was mocking, but he figured it wouldn't get him anywhere so he didn't voice it aloud.

"Your religious beliefs are your business, Zio. I'm only concerned with Lukas's welfare. Anything beyond that isn't my problem."

Zio smiled once more.

"That is my concern as well, as it is of all the Children."

"Then we shouldn't have to punch each other out, should we?"

Cord turned back to Lukas.

"One last question. You might get angry, but it had to be asked, and if you think about it I'm sure you can see why. Have you given Zio or any of the Children any money?"

"No!"

"Have they asked for any?"

"No, they haven't! They've asked for nothing but the same loyalty and friendship they've shown to me--and I really don't see why you did have to ask! Unless what Mother is really worried about is that I'll give away her precious meseta, and not about what happens to me at all. That wouldn't be a surprise."

Zio, surprisingly, shook his head.

"I don't believe that is a fair assessment. Jason is, no doubt, concerned that we would prey upon a wealthy young man's need to be treated with respect in order to wring funds from you by undue influence." He treated Cord to his arrogant, sardonic smile again. "As you heard, Jason, that is not the case."

Cord pushed himself back to his feet.

"And having heard it, it's now time for me to go."

"You're leaving?" Lukas said incredulously. "Just like that?"

"Do you want me to take you home?"

"This is my home now!"

Cord shrugged.

"Then what's the point in me staying? I said that I wasn't going to take you by force."

And, he knew, if he was going to convince Lukas to leave, it would take better arguments than he had at hand just then.

"Do not consider yourself unwelcome," Zio bade him farewell, dark eyes alight with black humor. "The Great Dragon offers his protection to those of all walks of life...even hunters."

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