Play the fiddle, wolf! Stamp your hooves, goat! Swish your tail, monkey! Flicker those whiskers, master rat! Make music and dance!
~ Tattle’s Blunt Adventures
Situated on the western coast of Tor Island, Actar experienced the excessive heat of the summer season.
With no major ranges to create cool air currents on the island, Actar was dry and windswept. In winter, when the rains arrived, it became a quagmire.
It was a large, sprawling place with broad roads and, like to Luan, there were palms everywhere. Despite weather extremes, Actar was an eventful, prosperous town all year.
Permanently populated by wealthy fisherman - the sea yielded rich bounty further west - and the inevitable tradesmen and women of every persuasion - also wealthy and eternally pleading poverty - Actar was continually frequented by large and raucous numbers of entertainment seekers.
There were more inns and taverns than residences, and anything could be bought at a price. Dancing halls and gaming clubs vied for space with brothels and massage parlours. Anything was permissible as long as one had coin in hand.
Due to the heat and wind by day, the town came to life at night when the pleasure seekers trod the broad thoroughfares in earnest search of something new. In winter it was busy all day.
A den of iniquity, really, but at night Actar was vibrant and filled with music and laughter. It was a place to conduct less-than-honest business, a place to lose oneself, a place where information could be bought, and yet it was well-behaved.
In Actar a man did not get his throat cut for not honouring a debt, as would be the case in Two Town; here word went out and he soon found himself legally ruined. The wealthy of both old and new money came to town, those with something to lose, and debts were therefore swiftly honoured.
The poor came too, having stowed away, to make their fortunes, each having something fresh to offer jaded pleasure seekers.
If they were unsuccessful, there was Mintor to the south on the eastern coast, and a terrible desert to traverse.
Kras brought word to the Dome that the humans escaped the storm unscathed, barring Aven’s situation, before returning to Valaris to lead them to the port town.
The interlude gifted the five Guardians more time in the Dome.
Three days later the Valarians reached Actar and Kras left them. They arrived without raising comment, having coincided with the night-time revelry. Actar was a blazing beacon of light that pulled them closer that last agonizing stretch.
Their arrival coincided with Averroes’ last night before she set out south to rejoin them. Bedraggled though they were, the crowds were intense and loud, and they went practically unnoticed.
One young man rudely asked which S&M parlour they visited, their clothes being torn and livid welts still subsiding. Rayne was equally rude in his reply.
Aven recovered that morning on the ocean and was able to walk through the bustling town, though he was silent in his grief.
Rayne led them through the town’s pleasure districts to the residential area off the main thoroughfares, to the home of a wealthy fisherman, a friend of his mother’s.
The man was once a friend to his father also, and helped his widow in her time of need, and Rayne suspected the man asked his mother to marry him in later years.
She would not leave Galilan. She could not cope beyond her safety zone. The man welcomed Rayne and his companions without questions.
Guilt was sometimes usable, Rayne thought, not liking himself, not really liking the fisherman, but without options.
The upper storey of the two-floor residence was where the guest quarters were located and he gave it over to Rayne freely and for as long as needed. Privacy was assured and, fortunately for the team, their host planned to catch ship for Mintor, which he hastened to do the next morning.
Business, he said with a twinkle in his eye, before disappearing with a friendly wave. Rayne he trusted to look after his home, knowing the younger man’s guilt over using his own was as advantageous. The next time they met, it would be on more equal footing.
Off-centre as it was, it was still busy. Here brothels were plentiful, making use of private residences in an effort to appear legitimate, and thus the streets were crowded, particularly with those with less money to spend.
Nobody complained of illegality, for Actar fiercely protected its right to conduct business as it saw fit.
No one had been murdered in Actar, which Galilan and Gasmoor certainly could not claim, and with wealth behind the town, it was left alone … and was therefore over-flowing.
The noise could be insanity at times, but that first night back on dry land there was nothing that could disturb the sleep of the utterly exhausted in the fisherman’s house.
A day later, awaiting the Guardians, they felt better.
McSee’s dislocated shoulder was a distant memory. Aven was stronger, although his spirit was absent. Kylan did what he could for bruises and welts.
It neared dusk and they were hungry again. McSee and Samson were about to go scavenging when Belun arrived in their midst.
He commenced the transformation from Centuar to humanoid at once. Llettynn and Glint appeared next in the empty spaces. The atmosphere lightened considerably with the three’s coming, particularly when they joked about sea monsters and pretty maidens.
Flagging spirits were bolstered. By the time Taranis appeared, he sensed optimism, and was pleased. Only Aven would not partake, but that was understandable. Taranis smiled a general greeting and went to the grieving man.
Kneeling there, he said, “Aven, she is alive, I promise.”
Aven lifted a pale face and said nothing. He did not need platitudes, and empty promises even less.
“I sensed her on Tor Island,” Taranis said, taking cold hands into his warm ones. “Healthy and strong, and on her way to Actar.”
Aven’s eyes blazed with hope, seeing only truth and sincerity before him. He beamed; a brilliant, beautiful gesture that snatched at the heart strings and caused many to catch their breaths. Aven was on the mend.
Everyone clapped and laughed, although Kisha burst into noisy tears against Kylan’s chest … who did not mind in the least. He minded not at all that Kisha fell into his arms for comfort … no, not at all.
Happy to be the bearer of good news, Taranis rose. Glancing around, he said, “Infinity will be shocked if she knows how well you cope.” He paused. “Hungry? Then, before further ado, I’ll go out and rustle up food …”
He was back in five minutes with steaming platters from the house next door.
“Hell’s bells,” McSee exclaimed. “How did you manage that?”
Taranis laughed. He quickly discovered it was a brothel. “You have a dirty mind, my friend! At least they feed their clients well.”
“Probably need it after …”
“McSee!” Kisha and Cristi shouted out as one.
He gave a sheepish grin and tackled the food.
Rayne started eating, tasting nothing. Taranis barely looked his way, which meant he was recently the topic of conversation, and where was Saska? If he asked, they would realise how much it mattered.
“Where’s Saska?” Kisha asked, to his great relief.
Taranis did not get the chance to reply, for she arrived then. She was dishevelled … and livid.
“It has been thirty minutes since we left the Dome!” Taranis shouted at her.
“Don’t you DARE shout at me! You should have come after two, moron! Or you, Belun! This whole crazy quest thing! is too important! to risk! anyone!” At the sight of their guilty faces, especially Belun’s, she relented, and paused to take deep breaths. “Forgive and forget. And I’m not angry at you idiots.”
Rayne was and barely controlled his temper.
“What happened?” Taranis asked.
“Infinity!” she blurted. “She laughed at me, at us, the stupid witch! Look at me … did her whirly wind trick …” Abruptly she sat in the nearest chair. Samson pushed a glass of stout at her - part of the platter from next door - and she grabbed it, swallowing half down before coming up for air.
“I am sorry, Saska,” Taranis said. Belun stood protectively behind her, and she shook her head in exasperation over that as Taranis added, “What did Infinity want?”
“She waited for me in the ether and interfered with my transport. One-on-one, she said, woman-to-woman. She’s following our progress, wanted to know if we enjoyed her storm.”
“Ha! I knew it!” McSee crowed.
“Well, you were right,” Saska said equably, and went on. “The dara-witch wanted to know why we were offworld. While she applauded our swift solution to Pyllanthos, she reminded me we have yet to uncover something tangible, and why are we wasting time? She reminded me Pyllanthos was an altered reality, and that we have to finish it to reach start, for only then will it be complete … the rest of her talk was blather and I told her so, and that’s when she went whirly on me! I wish I could do it to her, it would give me endless pleasure!”
Belun chuckled behind her, but Taranis remained serious. “Calm down, Saska; she will get what’s due her.” He paused. “She actually said ‘altered reality’?”
“She knows, then,” Llettynn murmured.
“Meaning?” Kylan asked.
“Meaning we need to talk,” Taranis said, “but you are still exhausted. We need not hurry this. A few more hours rest first.”
“And us,” Glint muttered. “Talk, talk in the Dome, but no sleep.”
Belun grinned. “And I thought you had the stamina of an ox!”
Glint cast a belligerent glance his way. “Even oxen sleep.”
“Glint’s right,” Taranis said. “Fresh minds will serve us more.”
Glint said, “Already another day goes. It’s getting dark. Well, then, it won’t feel odd to go to bed, but tired as I am, before I lay my head down, I aim to scout the town. Shall we do the talking in the morning?”
Taranis nodded, drawn to Mordan in a corner; the old man nodding off. He noticed Cristi lethargic on a nearby couch, with Samson, curious as ever, valiantly fighting drooping eyelids. The meal sent them back into the need for rest; yes, morning was soon enough.
“Get some sleep, everyone,” he murmured. He inclined his head at Belun, and the Centuar, with infinite gentleness, lifted Mordan into his strong arms and carried him off to bed.
Aven followed with a lighter step; he would sleep soundly. Belun did not return. The others disappeared, with Glint making good on his mission of heading into town. McSee, after some indecision, decided to walk Actar’s streets also. The big man seemed unhappy.
Only Saska, Taranis and Llettynn remained.
Taranis glanced around for Rayne. Perhaps he slipped out to accompany McSee, or even Glint; whatever, he and Saska were apart. He hated the coil of jealousy. “I think fresh air will suit me also,” he said to Saska and Llettynn. “Join me?”
“Thanks, but I am in no mood for crowds,” Saska returned.
“Are you all right? After Infinity?”
“She wasn’t trying to hurt, and it was my ego that suffered. Go, I’m fine.”
Taranis glanced at Llettynn, who shook his head. “I shall remain on watch here.”
Taranis headed to the door, paused. Outside, the sun had set, and dusk brought with it the rising noise of revellers. Inside, most everyone slept. He wanted to say to her to stay away from Rayne, to watch herself until she knew more, but Llettynn’s presence prevented that. He left.
After watching Taranis leave, Llettynn met Saska’s eyes. “Rayne is on the balcony.”
She gazed at him. “I know.”
“He could be a vital link.”
“You’re asking me to spy, to play him?”
“No, I am suggesting you tread lightly,” Llettynn said. “I do not respect double-dealing, you know that.”
She flushed. “I’m sorry.”
Llettynn managed a smile, although he wanted to shake sense into her. “You mistrusted him first, yet now he warps your judgement … and I understand why. Be careful.”
She nodded. “Are you going to bed?”
“Do not worry, I shall not listen,” Llettynn said, and moved …
He stopped, and said, “I will not tell Taranis.” Then he ambled off into the sleeping area.
Gritting her teeth, for the Siric leader had a way of seeing through everything, Saska stepped out onto the small balcony.
Taranis did not see Rayne slip out, but she had and so did the Siric. Pity, but Llettynn would keep his word, and what was there to fear? She was not hiding an assignation … was she?
Why did Rayne slip out secretly?
He watched merrymakers crowd the streets. Most were so drunk already, it was a miracle they could find their way about. Instinct, she guessed, for a brothel was a brothel, a gaming table was a …
Her mind was in disarray. Perhaps she should go out and get drunk herself.
She waited in the shadows until she saw Taranis turn a corner below; mercifully, he did not look up. Perhaps this was a tryst, after all.
Rayne turned, his expression lost to the shadows on his face, but she had a feeling it would reveal nothing. He watched her wait … and knew the reason why. It told him more than she liked him to know.
Why was she doing this? When the storm began, all she could think of was Rayne’s safety. Now it was different, because she had cared.
“You are disappointed.”
He looked away. “Why should I be?”
“And you are angry.”
He did not answer.
“Rayne, I didn’t dare acknowledge you. In the Dome …” She fell silent, having said too much.
“They do not trust me.”
“They are concerned. You will understand why tomorrow.”
“Do you trust me?”
She could lie, but she did not know how. “I don’t who you are yet. I want to trust you.”
“Let it be. I am not offended.”
She looked at him in silence. Go inside, her sane mind said. Let this dissipate. Her mind, however, was not wholly in control.
Her heart and her body took over, both becoming traitors to intellect. She could not lead him on, though, for intimacy was about the mind also.
Llettynn knew that.
Saska whispered into the lengthening silence, “We would be a big mistake, can you not see that?”
He looked at her. “I admit I expected a better excuse.”
“In this instance,” she said tartly, “it’s the real truth.”
“Do you? Do you know how terrible it is to watch someone you care about grow old, while you do not?”
“Do you? Have you loved a mortal before? Hasn’t it always been Taranis?”
She drew breath. He hit a nerve. Releasing her breath, she said, “Taranis and I are only friends.”
“He doesn’t think so.”
“It’s still a truth.”
“You are lying.”
“Rayne …” and she bit back the involuntary retort about not lying, ever. “Fine, truth. Taranis carries guilt over someone in his past and hasn’t let her go. He has not permitted himself to grow close to another, but I believe he loves me. Whether he will admit to it, I cannot predict. I loved him from afar for centuries, but there is never been more than platonic friendship between us.”
“If you love him,” Rayne murmured, “you shouldn’t screw it up by being here.”
“I thought I did, and I thought it would never change and maybe I still do, love him, I mean, but right now I don’t know how to feel, for there is you.”
She heard his indrawn breath and saw something akin to yearning in his eyes. Taranis never looked at her like that.
Rayne faced the street, hands clenched on the railing. “I shall make it easier. We barely know each other and, while these are indeed times serving to hasten and highlight emotions, you should trust your instincts. As you say, a mortal-immortal relationship cannot work. Please go now.”
She did not leave. “You are right … I am right … so why am I thinking to the netherworld with what is right?”
“Do not play games with me.”
“Games? Is it games when I want to lose myself with you, in your mystery, that I seek it even when trust doesn’t exist?”
His knuckles whitened on the railing. “Go away.”
“Have you heard me?”
“You are gambling with your future, and it’s not worth it!”
“How can you say that?”
He whipped around. “When this is over, you will leave. Taranis will be there. Do you want to betray that with infatuation? Will sating this … fire … dear gods …” He twisted back to the street, and drew a sharp breath. “Taranis returns. Now will you go?”
“No.” She shook when she laid her hands on his back. He winced and she wondered whether it was at her touch or due to his injuries.
His muscles were taut with strain, his skin burning through the thin material. Taranis was down there, and all Taranis had to do was look up, and she found that spurred her on, as if time was of the essence, as if there would never be another chance to grab at life.
Never had she felt this way. Another’s presence had never moved her in this manner, nor drawn her completely, and every consequence could take an ether leap.
Rayne did not move.
She pressed her hands hard into him, ran them downward … he twisted around, gripping her wrists, stilling her, staring into her eyes. The shadows had deepened and they could barely see each other. They did not need to see.
They stood that way for long seconds before he pulled her into his arms. When their bodies met, fire erupted. She tilted her head back, inviting him, daring him, begging him, and Rayne lowered his mouth to hers, claiming her lips.
Catcalls from the street forced them apart.
Neither checked whether Taranis looked up.
Breathless, alive, she again bridged the gap, not caring who bore witness and, tangling her hands in his fair hair, pulled his head roughly down. His arms enfolded her and his lips moved from her mouth to trace a path down her neck. More catcalls sounded from the street …
The interior door. Taranis.
They froze, and broke apart, aware, guilty. It was a telling guilt.
“Go,” he urged. “We cannot cross this line with him here, Saska.” He breathed hard, his voice barely audible.
With a regretful smile, she slipped inside and encountered Taranis. She could not meet his eyes and walked away.
“I’m off to bed then.” She marvelled at her steady tone. “Goodnight.”
“’Night, Saska,” Taranis returned, surprised. He thought her a-bed already.
Somewhere inside a door closed, and Taranis glanced towards the balcony, seeing the drapes move on an open door.
And saw Rayne.
When he came out it was to see Rayne looking up at the millions upon millions of stars in the night sky; the blue disc waning, its light having less effect in the starry heavens.
He noticed Rayne attempt to unobtrusively control his breathing, and he noticed how tense the man’s hands were on the balcony rail.
For a long time he was silent, different thoughts chasing through his mind, none of which deserved to be aired, and Rayne said nothing, nor did he move, although it was clear he was aware of Taranis behind him.
“Rayne, you are going to get hurt.”
It was a simple statement, one that attempted to say much.
The time approached when these two men would confront each other, when many would get hurt, yet Taranis’ words on the balcony would prove the most prophetic.