2 chapters left, with 4000 words available. If I go over a little, I'm planning to go through and really cut down on any extra words. (Normally, I'm adding when I rewrite.)
I purposely set out to write a Novella, and it's been a nice exercise.
16.) The Pilgrim without a Bell.
Pernitius stood with his back to the wall, blending in. It wasn’t just a matter of not calling attention to himself, but somehow finding the rhythm of the room, moving in the same beat, becoming part of the flow even as he was still.
But he couldn’t help himself. He stared up at the dais, drinking in Lysandra’s loveliness. She looked the same as when he first met her, even down to the simple but elegant gown. Her dark red hair was up, tied in a ribbon, the same color ribbon that had held up her hair at the Pilgrim’s Ball.
Not just any Pilgrim’s Ball, but one held in my honor.
He remembered the awkward yet graceful girl dancing in Prince Quin’s arms. He’d thought her an innocent, who was unaware that she was yet another trophy, no more important than the medals on the Prince’s chest. He’d stepped forward to save her from such a fate.
I thought I was a man of the world. I didn’t realize what a fool I was. I didn’t know that I was in even more danger than Lysandra. I couldn’t protect myself…much less protect her.
She seemed to sense his gaze, for she turned her head his way. He quickly averted his eyes, just in time to see the Toad King moving toward him with his strange hopping stride. Alarmed, the Thief hid behind a servant girl laden with a tray with dirty dishes stacked two feet over her head. But when the girl moved aside, there stood Horense with his wide-mouthed grin. Before Pernitius could stop him, the squat little man was embracing him, squeezing with surprising strength.
“How are you, old friend!” the Toad King cried, finally letting Pernitius go.
Pernitius looked around to see if anyone had noticed, but it appeared that no one thought the hug remarkable.
“Oh, quit worrying, Pernitius. Those who know who we are don’t care…and those who care don’t know who we are.”
“If they knew who you really were, they’d be running for the doors,” the Thief acknowledged. It was hard to believe that the Toad King could so easily blend with the crowd.
I have seen his true shape.
Even now, Pernitius didn’t see a jovial rotund man, but instead a creature that could be mistaken for human only in the darkest of nights, after several jugs of wine. “I should have known you’d be here at the end of all things.”
“Surely not the end of all things,” Horense croaked. “The Mirror God must have someone to reflect, otherwise His existence has no purpose. Someone will have to survive to start over.”
“You, for instance?”
“I am immune to the Mirror God,” the Toad King proclaimed. “We come from the same place, you know.”
“Truly?” Pernitius blurted before he could stop himself.
Horense laughed, as if delighted that the Thief would ask such a question, not so much because Pernitius had been credulous, but because he hadn’t been incredulous.
“Never mind,” Pernitius said, sighing. “It has been far too long since I met someone who lies more than I do.”
“You were always a quick study,” Horense said. “You were my best student. Why, I was starting to get jealous. People were beginning to speak more of the great Thief than they were of the Toad King!”
“I’m sure that it is a terrible thing to have all the attention taken off you,” Pernitius said. And with that, the familiar habits of his old and rather peculiar friendship with the Trickster fell over him like a warm and comfortable cloak.
Believe the opposite of whatever the Toad King says, he reminded himself, and it will be closer to the truth.
He glanced again at Lysandra. She knew who and what he was, and yet talking to the Toad King in her presence made him uncomfortable.
“I’m not talking to you here,” he muttered. “Come with me.”
The Toad King laughed. “What are you worried about? No one believes the Toad King really exists.”
“No one used to believe that the Mirror God existed either.”
He led the Trickster out onto the battlements. Horense complained about the cold breeze, but still followed. They found shelter behind a guard tower.
“All right, Horense,” Pernitius said. “What do you want of me?”
“I merely wanted to greet an old friend!” Horense said. “We had wonderful times together.”
Wonderful times? Pernitius thought. Is that what the Toad King thinks?
Horense had saved him at his lowest point (as often happened with the Toad King) so there was that.
But there was no coming back from what Pernitius had allowed the Toad King to turn him into. The Blue Pilgrim was gone and in his place was the Thief, banished forever from the Thirteenth Principality.
Pernitius sat shivering on the banks of the Danjar River, staring into the black waters, trying to catch a glimpse of the shimmering gold. It seemed to him that the golden bell had floated for a time, which was impossible, of course. He meant to throw himself into the current immediately after the bell, but decided it was fitting he should suffer a few more minutes, if only to appease the Mirror God.
He’d never believed in the Mirror God and apparently, the Mirror God had never believed in him. The farther he traveled, the less the people seemed to believe in the Covenant.
Or the less they pretend to believe, he corrected himself, for it was clear to him now that the first four Principalities had believed only in the pomp and ceremonies that legitimized the rule of Princes.
He’d been robbed before he left the Fourth Principality, beaten in the Fifth Principality, ignored in the Sixth Principality. Here in the seventh Principality had come the final indignity. As he wandered down a country road, he’d been struck from behind, and even his blue garments were taken, leaving him with only the golden bell
Devout thieves, apparently, or at least superstitious ones, for it was said that anyone who took a golden bell from a Servant of the Watchers would face the Mirror God and see all that was evil in His reflection.
Pernitius hadn’t eaten in days.
He’d lost his way hours ago, when—unable to slake his thirst from the muddy puddles--he’d strayed from the road at the sound of running water. The cascading sounds of the river had teased him for most of the day before he’d finally won his way to their banks.
There, instead of drinking the water, he sat down, overcome by despair. He’d failed in his pilgrimage; he had nothing to offer the Mirror God. He was naked and ashamed.
He couldn’t go on without offerings, nor could he return home like this. Not to his family and friends. But most of all--not to Lysandra. In the beginning, the thought of Lysandra waiting for him had sped him in his journey. Now he felt only shame.
He could not finish the journey. He was done.
In his frustration, he pulled the golden bell from his neck and heaved it into the river. Impossibly, the golden bell floated for a second, and then plopped from view. In that single impulsive moment, his life changed forever.
A sick dread filled him, like the slow dripping of a poison.
What does it matter? he asked himself.
He was just waiting for the right moment to dive into the frigid waters, whether to find the golden bell or to join it, he himself wasn’t sure.
The smell of roasted meat brought him to his feet. He slipped down the muddy bank toward the waters, but to his surprise, he saved himself. He scrambled back up the bank and into the dark woods.
A campfire flickered like the eyes of an animal through the tangle of branches.
As he approached, rain was falling so hard that it was like walking through curtains of fine beads, yet as he poked his head around a tree, the campground appeared clean and dry. A huge canopy stretched between the trees. Colorful carpets covered the ground, surrounding a fire with a halo of steam over it. Branches suspended a large black iron cauldron above the fire.
To one side was a small wagon, with a mule contentedly munching from a pail of oats.
A man with a wide belly sat with his back to a tree, covered in a blanket, munching on a hank of meat, holding papers up to the light of the fire and reading.
Pernitius saw a black cloak hanging from the end of the wagon, and he circled around to it quietly. The smell of food had drawn him, but now the cloak looked more tempting.
Food won’t matter if I freeze to death.
He snatched the cloak and ran. Something whooshed overhead, crashing through the dark branches. As he stared upward, the roots of a tree sent him sprawling. He scrambled to his feet, but a creature stood blocking his way.
For a moment, Pernitius saw the true shape of the Toad King; squat, with two beady eyes and a wide mouth, legs bent in an odd direction, webbed fingers and toes.
Then the vision vanished and he saw the man from the campground.
“How…” he sputtered. “Who…”
“Put the cloak on,” the man said. “I can’t understand what you’re saying if you’re going to chatter.”
Pernitius stood beside the fire, the warmth reviving him. His hands and feet tingled. For the first time, he realized he was going to survive.
But the poisonous dread returned, the vision of the sinking bell disappearing just as surely as his old life.
The man introduced himself as Horense. Rooting around in the back of the wagon, he found wooden crate and brought it over for Pernitius to sit on. He dipped into the cooking pot and fished out a bone covered in meat.
It is said that the Toad King eats his victims, came the thought.
Pernitius looked down at the meat and took another bite. His body wanted to survive and he had no willpower to overrule it.
He looked up at his host, who was hovering over him as if contemplating his next meal.
“Why are you helping me?” Pernitius asked. It had been so long since anyone had been generous or friendly that he’d forgotten what it felt like.
“That is a good question,” Horense said. “But I have to say…you are the first human in a very long time that I haven’t been inclined to rob. Probably because you are the first person in a long time who doesn’t have a thing to steal!” He let out a guttural sound, the Toad King’s laugh. “But if you wish to repay me, I would be satisfied with your story.”
So Pernitius told him his story, from the beginning of his journey to now. The Toad King interrupted only once—when Pernitius told of throwing the golden bell into the river.
“Then you are cursed,” Horense said. “As cursed as I am.”
“Then what I saw was true…you are the Toad King,” Pernitius said.
“I thought so!” Horense exclaimed, sounding delighted. “You saw through the glamour! That makes you special…special and cursed. But you are a terrible thief. I think, dear boy, if you are going to survive in this world, you need to learn a skill.”
“Are you offering to teach me?”
“To apprentice a Servant of the Watchers would be my pleasure. I never much liked the Mirror God. He’s a little too self-righteous to me.”
Once, Pernitius would have been horrified by the sacrilege. Now it had the ring of truth.
He fell asleep under the tree, listening to the patter of rain on the canopy. Something woke him late, and he saw the Toad King by the fire, dripping with water.
“Did you find it?” Pernitius asked.
“The current is too strong,” Horense said, unsurprised by the question. “It’s probably washed down to the Cormat Sea by now.”
“I thought toads didn’t swim,” Pernitius said.
“They don’t,” Horense said. “But the Toad King does. Now go back to sleep.”
They were constant companions for the next few years, until one day the Toad King turned to him and said, “I have nothing more to teach you, my boy. Why…at the rate you’re picking this up you will be better than me in a few years.”
“Surely not,” Pernitius said. If the Toad King said it, it probably wasn’t true.
“Well…I’d advise you to earn as much as you can while still young. Someday you’ll be old, but the Toad King will still be wandering the Principalities, hustling humans.”
Pernitius turned to reply, but Horense was nowhere to be seen. He sighed and looked upward. A brief shadow passed across the sun, and then the Toad King was gone.
“Why are you here?” Pernitius asked his mentor in the shelter of the tower. Over the years, they’d seen each other from afar, but by unspoken agreement had not tried to scam the same Principalities at the same time.
“There is nowhere else to go,” Horense said. “Besides…I have something to give you.”
Every golden bell has its own sound, and Pernitius recognized his immediately even before the Toad King completely removed it from his pocket. He reached out with shaking hands to take it.
“Why…why did you hide it?” he asked.
“Because you didn’t value it then,” the Toad King said. “You didn’t understand the importance. I’ve watched you over the years wandering the realms, trying to atone to the Mirror God even as you fleeced his worshippers. It is time.”
“It is too late,” Pernitius said.
“Oh, no doubt,” the Toad King agreed. “Far too late.”
The Toad King lied about everything, so if he was agreeing that meant…The eighth stanza of the Mirror God’s Curse came to Pernitius: “They who are most mistrusted, shall be believed.”