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Cold Moonlight Fire

Part V


Waiting was not one of Cord's favorite activities, but when one was sending messages by letter transmission and expecting replies, it was inevitable. Luckily for those around him, he had other work to do to fill in the intermediate stages.

The first thing he needed to accomplish was to establish where the Children of the Amber Eye held their rituals. If it was in the cellar of Zio's building he was out of luck, but for some reason people rarely indulged in large-scale shady activities inside the walls of Aiedo. If the well-armed Cityguard and the towering bulk of the prison didn't encourage them otherwise, then the swarms of trained hunters usually did.

Besides, Aiedo was the mercantile center of Motavia, and that many traders and dealers easily used up any town's allotment of underhanded activity.

Zio and his cult were no exception to the general rule. Rather than tempt fate any more than they already were, it seemed that they held their meetings outside of town. A brisk round of questioning cityguards and the owners of outlying buildings pinpointed the location as being southeast of the town. Firing off his last letter transmission just before dusk, Cord decided that he had better see for himself.

Sandy desert is possibly the universe's worst ground for tracking. One good wind and waves of sand obliterate every track for miles around. Rocky desert, on the other hand, was a much better proposition, if the tracks were fresh enough or well-worn enough. The Children had existed for six months and, if the witnesses were to be believed, held rituals outside the town at the full, dark, and quarter moons. By the time the sun fell, it was just a matter of walking until Cord got there, which was an hour-long hike. Being a Child of the Amber Eye evidently encouraged physical fitness. Eventually, though, Cord crested a rise and looked down into a small valley at the base of the foothills.

A guarded valley.

Just in the nick of time, he dropped down onto his belly, lying prone, and hooded his dark-lantern. In the dark, he was almost impossible to see, his silhouette blending with the dunes instead of standing out against the stars as it would if here were upright.

In the starlight, Cord couldn't be sure of colors, but the three people in the clearing below looked to be wearing the same style of vest, trousers, and headcloth as the Child from Zio's door. Guards, no doubt, to keep outsiders from trespassing on the cult's "sacred ground."

At the center of the clearing was a long, rectangular burnt outline which Cord recognized as a kind of firepit. At the far end was a stone dais built or carved right up against the cliff wall. A large wooden seat was on the dais, no doubt a throne for Zio to occupy while he reigned over the ceremonies.

At the other end of the long firebed was a second, much smaller, circular bonfire pit. Apparently, the Children liked flames. This one was different, though; it was ringed by stones and there was a platform built in its center, supported by a framework of metal struts, with steps leading up to it. Cord could imagine an idol resting on the platform while flames danced around it.

The other pit, the long one, bothered him. It was twenty feet long and five feet wide. That wouldn't be a bonfire, it would be a borderline inferno. Yet, if not for flames, why was it a dark stain on the desert, ringed with stone to keep from spreading?

Then he had another idea. It wasn't a fire pit at all; it was a coal pit. He'd once seen a Motavia Academy professor in Piata amaze his students by walking barefoot across hot coals--then explain it away as a lesson in heat transference. The science had been well over Cord's head, but he'd come away with the basic knowledge that if you did it right it wasn't as dangerous as it looked.

"Not a bad trick, actually, if you want to convince people you're the priest of a god with mastery over fire," he muttered under his breath.

It might just have been the purest speculation, just guesswork, but then again, maybe not. The idea got Cord's mind working again in a very specific direction.

More letter transmissions, he thought grimly, then slithered backwards down the rise. There was no point in investigating that site; if he got past the guards they would just tell Zio about their experiences and the cult would likely just change their plans. There wasn't much point in solving a riddle if the riddler just went and changed the problem before one could collect the prize.

Especially given what Cord believed the prize to be.

When he got back to Aiedo, Cord went to bed and fell into a troubled sleep. Dreams plagues him, one after another, dreams in which families tore themselves apart with cutting words and poisoned tongues. These dreams were interposed by ones of more simple meaning, dreams in which a giant blue dragon with an amber jewel in its forehead opened its huge jaws and bathed the hunter in flames. Cord awoke, as usual, at daybreak, and found it a relief.

Unlike some people, though, the hunter easily shook off the nightmares and rose quickly. There were far too many things for him to do in the real world to be caught up in fancies.

"In other words," he grumbled as he tugged on his clothes, "more letters!"

The letter transmissions, however, quickly bore fruit, especially when Cord started invoking the name of the Hunter's Guild. By midafternoon, he was back in Elaine Grant's office once again. The merchant princess was wearing blue, and looked up at the hunter with a dreadful hope in her eyes.

"Jason, do you have any news of my son?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact I do. Both of them, as it happens."

Elaine stared at him blankly.

"What are you talking about?"

"Your sons. You have two of them, after all. Now, I'm not a woman, but I always believed that pregnancy and childbirth were the sort of experiences that one didn't forget."

The trader scowled, a tiny line appearing between her delicate brows.

"I do not find you amusing, Mr. Cord," she said frostily.

"I wasn't intending to be," Cord replied. "I was speaking literally and plainly. You have two sons, not one. You lied to me about that, but I don't hold it against you. After all, you've lied to everyone else in Aiedo about it, possibly but not necessarily including your late husband."

Elaine all but snarled at the hunter and leapt up out of her chair.

"I did not hire you to make accusations to my face!" she exploded, trembling with emotion. "You are supposed to go save Lukas from the Children of the Amber Eye and their leader, this Zio!"

"Exactly. Zio happens to be your elder son."

She stared at him incredulously.

"It's the eyes that set me on the right track. You both have the most unusual eyes, a true black in color and bright like jewels, not dull. Add that to the fact that of all the things Zio said the one that rang true was that he despised you and your abilities as a mother. Not uncommon feelings for a child towards a mother who abandoned him to an orphanage at birth without so much as naming his father or even giving the child himself a name of his own."

"You built this fantasy on the fact that our eye color is similar?"

"No, Elaine, I built it all on hard evidence!" Cord reached into his pocket and withdrew several folded pages of letter transmissions, which he slapped onto the desk with a sharp crack. "Orphanage records from Piata, which I had all kinds of trouble negotiating their bureaucracy to look up. They clearly state the arrival of a male child born to one Elaine Dahlgren, a child whom the orphanage directors gave the name Zio."

His eyes bored into hers, trapping her gaze so that she could not look away.

"I...I..."

"So now your elder son is here, and instead of telling you about it and arranging a family reunion, he instead gets his half-brother into his power. Is any of this starting to sound the least bit ominous to you?"

"I didn't know! I didn't know any of it!"

Cord shook his head.

"I didn't say that you did. Presumably, you haven't seen Zio since he was a few weeks old. You'd hardly know him on sight, particularly after spending so much energy on denying his existence."

Anger and defiance seemed to crumble, and Elaine sagged back into her chair.

"I didn't have any choice," she pleaded. "I was just a girl. I wasn't married, I had no job, I had no family! I couldn't keep my child! I gave him up so that he could have a chance at a real life!"

"And when you could support him, when you were rich and powerful, did you check to see if he might still need you? Or if you could offer support? No, of course you didn't. If you had, you'd at least have known his name. The fact is, you didn't check. You were too afraid of losing your power and social position. An old scandal like an illegitimate child abandoned to an orphanage would have hurt your business interests and public confidence." His voice was like a lash, striking out at her again and again.

Despite Elaine's initial shock and confusion, though, she soon recovered. Her back stiffened and she looked up at Cord.

"All right," she said. "It's true. In my mind this child was a youthful mistake. I never so much as gave him a name in my mind, because I believed it would only cause me regrets in the future if I did. He wasn't my child, anyway; he would be the child of his adoptive family. What right did I have to force anything upon him, even a name?"

Cord shrugged.

"Maybe none. And certainly, it can be painful for an adopted child to have his birth mother try to come back into his life when he has a happy home of his own. Nor am I in any place to judge if you did the right thing in turning Zio over to the orphanage. There were certainly far less humane things you could have done at the time."

"Then why come here and attack me over it?" she asked frostily. Another woman might have broken down sobbing by that point, but not Elaine. Cord shouldn't have expected her to; the woman who had built up the Grant trading house from nothing was hardly one who would back down from a confrontation, however personal it might be.

"I didn't like being lied to, to my face. I had to break down that wall you've put up for the benefit of business clients and social contacts over the years." And, a small part of Cord had to admit, he's wanted to lash out. Elaine had given up her first child and never looked back, and while she had lavished the good things in life on her second child, in the areas that were most important--love, time spent, support, caring--she'd abandoned Lukas almost as fully as she had Zio. Did she regret any of it? He thought perhaps she did, remembering a slip during their first interview when she'd almost said that she couldn't face losing a child again. That didn't change his opinion of her as a mother, though.

"Let's leave that aside and get back to Zio and the present, though," he moved on. "As you can see from these records, he wasn't adopted by anyone. At the age of ten, he ran away from the orphanage." He took out another document, one he'd gotten by taking Sergeant Mitchell DeVan's name in vain. "Age twelve, convicted of petty larceny. He was part of a child pickpocketing ring. Age fifteen, convicted of taking money under false pretenses. Age nineteen, arrested on the same charge but the jury verdict came back 'not proven'--interesting system they have in Piata. Zio is a criminal and a confidence artist."

In passing, Cord wondered what DeVan would have made of this information if he'd really known of it. Motavia had too many separate little fiefdoms, too little coordination between authorities. It was one reason why hunters thrived, though, so he supposed he shouldn't complain too loudly.

"Do you mean that this is all some kind of ploy to get money from me?"

Cord shook his head grimly.

"Ordinarily, that's exactly what I'd suspect from someone with Zio's background, but not when you mix in the personal connection to Lukas and to you. I think he's playing for bigger stakes than just the meseta."

"Then what do you suggest?"

The hunter looked at her, his gaze set, and he said firmly, "I think I have a way you can wake up tomorrow morning with Lukas as your son again, but it's going to cost you. There's a very big risk the whole story about Zio will come out and be public knowledge. Is the cost worth it to you?"

Elaine smiled wryly.

"I recognize a test when I hear it." The smile vanished. "Your answer is yes. What happened to Lukas was enough on its own to make me reevaluate my priorities. Zio's history only confirms my belief. It's about time that I realized that being a parent means I have to take personal responsibility, not just have the child taken care of by whomever I can afford."

The hunter smiled.

"In that case, I think we have a plan."

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