The Drabbits stared. "You're either a spy or a traitor," spat Friggins.
"I make no defense, I've seen many things I should not have," returned the Jester with his nose in his lady's hair. She giggled. "Regarding my allegiance, I have served but one side faithfully. Your lofty selves, however are not above suspicion." He loosed a smile on them that Friggins would have liked to chop in half. "I hear the sea can be a lonely place, and bigger men than you have jumped ship." The elves laughed, and the men whistled.
Froderick turned red. The Jester laughed. "Come, boys, come, I but jest."
"You don't wear your motley here," groused Milling.
"No," agreed the jester, slipping a hand lithely down his lady's blouse, "my foolery here is purely amateur. I confess, I grow weary of mocking the cocks and cunnies of the royal court. I much prefer to emulate their respected personages." He seemed to notice their diminished number for the first time. "Where's the smart one?"
Milling pulled Stodgen from the bag. The Jester, the elf Queen, and all of the court recoiled in horror. Friggins, at least, took some satisfaction in the guilt that was plain on his face.
"Who has done such a terrible thing?" gasped the Queen, finding her tongue at last.
"Your funny-boy's guards," said Froderick. "On the docks, not two seconds after returning from doing the Wizardmaster's dirty work."
The Jester displaced the Queen gently, and rose. "The assassination is done, then?" he asked, stepping down the steps toward them.
"Aye, but not by our hand," said Friggins. "It was Jackson Stillermop, the man."
"And it's the dwarves who're taking the blame," added Milling.
The Jester clicked his mouth, all merriment gone from his eyes. "Our scouts have told us true, then. War is come."
"War is come to Highcliffe," corrected Froderick. "Only hungry and sober Drabbits are come to the valley of the the Elves."
"It is so!" said the Queen, rising from her throne to join her man. "Forgive me my lack of manners, poor Drabbits, I am but exhausted and a little dehydrated. Sit, eat, drink, take of us what you will. The elves weep for your loss, and will make what mean recompense is in our power."
"Thanking your majesty," bowed Milling, and his mates in suit, "but we will."
They sat and ate, elvish women curling their arms around their little chests and whispering laments into their ears. The three ate only enough to curb their bellies, for they were not truly hungry, and even the sweet voices of the elves could not lift their spirits.
The Queen watched, and once they were done, she stood. "There is a rite performed by my people when we have lost one of our own," she announced. "Mayhaps it will comfort you in your hour of sorrow."
"Begging your pardon, my Queen," said Froderick as he pushed a half-eaten plate away, "but I believe I speak for my mates when I say we would much rather have some more of your dalon."
The Queen smiled through unwept tears, and Friggins remembered she had lived since near the beginning of time. She had seen wars, famines, murders-how many of her own people had she buried? What did the life of Stodgen Davies mean to her who had seen such loss, and would see long after their short lives were gone? It was Friggins' only consolation that she would outlive the bastard Jester.
"The Rite of Sorrow is but one leaf of a many-splendored plant," she said. "Come."
They wiped off their hands and followed, the Queen's closest attendants in tow. She lead them through a passage they had never gone before, then up a grand spiral of stairs, through two heavy doors-and Friggins realized they were standing in her personal rooms. Bloody hell, he thought to himself glumly, just my luck I get to roger the Queen when I'll least enjoy it. But she took them instead to her balcony, a spacious vista overlooking the entire valley. There was an overhang above their heads, the same criss-crossed roof as in the hall, with a kind of gossamer fabric between the beams. Dalon grew from mosaic pots, and statues of elven maidens danced besides pools and fountains.
Four attendants carried in a great steel brazier, while two others drew closed a long gossamer curtain-the same material as the roof above. It was like being in a tent, but they could see through the roof and curtain to the valley, sky, and mountains beyond. The queen sat them down in low comfortable chairs while her handmaidens placed warm red coals in the brazier.
"This is the ritual we perform when one who is loved by us departs," she said in low, sad, tones. "Your loss is a hard one, dear Drabbits, but I hope you can find consolation in this rite as we have through the years." An attendant, beautiful and somber as her queen, took one of the curtain's pull chords in hand and brought it forward. It glided with her, as if moving along through its own separate track, and she presented it to them with great levity. "When the time comes, you need only pull on this chord," continued the Queen.
"What time?" asked Friggins, curious despite himself.
"And how will we know when it comes?" added Milling.
"And will your majesty be present when it does?" asked Froderick, most curious of all.
"You will know, dear Drabbits. How much Dalon have you taken at once, pray tell?"
The Drabbits showed her with finger and thumb. Friggins and Froderick held theirs a finger joint apart, Milling grinned sheepishly and held his two apart.
The Queen nodded. "I see," she said, and her attendants entered and dumped armful and armful of Dalon onto the brazier. Whole spears the length of a forearm tumbled into the hot coals. The smoke they loved so well came almost instantly, thicker than they had ever seen or smelled, as thick as burning wet hardwood after a rain. The Queen and her maidens slipped back into her chambers, leaving them to boggle at the brazier before them.
The slightest breath of wind would feed the coals, and a fresh gust of smoke would rise swirling in their little tented veranda. The Drabbits raised their eyes from the brazier and looked at each other, a kind of here we go look they might have shared before going into the Cave of Skittering Madness had they been sound of mind. Sound of mind was fading fast, Friggins realized as he looked at the smoke rising around him. He could sense he was already further into it than he had ever been before, but the full force had yet to hit him. And every breath draws me further still he realized, and his mind gave a jolt. Even as he thought the words, he had been breathing, and after those breaths he had breathed again. And would continue to, until the stuff killed him, and he tried to think back to what they had said about dalon being lethal, but he couldn't remember whether it was or not. He wondered why the elf Queen was trying to kill them, and why she had been so sweet and how she had managed to act so sad while secretly trying to kill them. He should get up. He should get up and leave, just walk out of the smoky tent that he had been breathing in this whole time, but he was stuck to his chair. He thought about his seat then, and remembered he had a back and an ass and legs that were sitting on the chair. He had feet too, which he kicked a little to make sure they were still there, but where was the rest of him? Like reading a book with a magnifying lends, he turned his inner eye to every part of his body in turn: feet, kicking, shins and knees and thighs and legs, not quite sitting right, ass, quite stuck, balls and dick, still there but never any bloody use, stomach that had started grumbling but that was alright, chest that kept breathing in more of the smoke, arms lying by his sides, neck, tongue feeling giant in his mouth, eyes that darted around, hair. He went back down again, and each part of him sprang to life and was forgotten again as soon as he moved on to the next. He swallowed, but his throat was catching. His eyes itched. He blinked, and dimly through the smoke, he saw the trees of the valley before him. Far away, but still there in the tent with him. They were only dim shapes, and he couldn't see further beyond that. The coals in the brazier burned on, and the smell was everywhere on him.
Milling was sobbing, and Friggins remembered he had friends, and he remembered Stodgen was dead. He was dead, and Friggins was back at the quay watching him having his head chopped off, and the body fell so piteously to the ground, and the blood spurted onto the steps, and the head rolled with a surprised look on it. And then he died again, and again, and Friggins knew he would always be either dying or dead. There was no other way for Stodgen to be, and he could never be anything else. What of his life? Friggins tried to remember the waking moments he had had with him, and realized with a start that he could barely remember any of them. For years they had been friends, yet how much could he actually remember? There were moments here and there-meeting for the first time while working on the new Wizard tower, but they had spent days together and he only remembered isolated things. Then they had started cooking potion together, and a few things stood out, but that was it. And so on, and so forth, how many words and jokes had they shared that would be gone forever? He had heard someone say once that the dead lived on only through the memories of the living, but if that were true then Friggins' memory was a terrible urn to keep his friend's ashes in. Leaky as a sieve, only a puddle remained-less than that, a damp spot where an ocean had once stood. Now his eyes were wet, but he couldn't cry, only take in great heaving breaths. Breathing again, in and out, in and out, he was painfully aware of each one. Gone, gone, breathing in and out.
It didn't seem fair that Friggins should get to sit there breathing while Stodgen's head sat in some sack. Or had it-had they given it to the elf queen? It had been in Milling's sack, had he given it to someone else or left it behind? An anxiety filled Friggins, as deep as the smoke in his lungs, had they left Stodgen somewhere? Suppose someone should find it and throw him out, and he would molder in some trash heap forever, but he were still alive and would be forever as long as his skull was in one piece, rotting in some trash heap. Friggins tried again to rise, and got about halfway up before the air seemed to leave his head and the muscles squished from his joints and he sank back down into the chair. And with the chair came the realization that he had a back, and an ass, and legs, and he turned the eye-lens back on himself again to make sure he was all still there.
When he was doing his eyes again, he noticed the forms of the dancing statue elves. He stared at them, still as a stone himself. If they could stand in half-spin or mid-twirl forever, so too could Milling's head sit in some trash heap. Unblinking, he watched the dancing statue elves, until he realized they were all just one elf maiden in different parts of the dance. And behind them, he noticed for the maybe the first time, the dalon plants, growing and healthy and green, but not possibly the same as their charred brothers in the brazier. The dancing elves, the dalon plants, and the brazier. And him. It was too much, he put his head back and his eyes closed themselves. Inside himself, his body was gone unless he put the eye-lens on it, but he didn't like that so he laie still. He drifted off, until even his heartbeat began to fade. This is it he thought. This is dying. And on cue, he felt something in him, in one of his veins-it was moving, slowly but surely, moving toward his heart. And when it gets there, it will stop my heart and kill me. It was true-Stodgen had once told them a story of a man who could see through walls. He used it for evil, looking through the walls of the womans' latrine, until one day he tried looking through a mirror and saw through himself instead. There he was, all guts and bones and blood tied up in his skin, and in one of his veins was a small black stone. Each pump of his heart pushed it a little further along, and when it got to his heart it got stuck and he died. Stodgen had said it and now it was coming true, just like everything Stodgen had ever said. So Friggins let his head lie and closed his eyes and waited to die.
"You're not dying," someone said. Friggins' eyes snapped open and he tried turning his head, as much as he could, but he couldn't. Who said that he asked, and waited. There was only him and silence, and silence sounded so close to his question that he wasn't even sure he had spoken aloud. The voice he had heard had been real though. He was just about to drift off, and it had broken through and woken him up. But who was it? It could have been his own, and because he hadn't really asked his own question, he didn't know what his own voice sounded like. He should ask another question to see if they were the same, but what should he ask? He deliberated for another hour, and finally decided to say his own name. But something was in his throat, a big ball of phlegm, so he hacked and coughed until his throat was clear. What to do with it he asked as he rolled the ball of sludge in his mouth. He couldn't spit onto the floor, the elf Queen would know he had spat onto her floor and she would be cross. Neither could he spit in the dalon plants, the brazier, the fountains, or over the edge of the balcony because he was still stuck in his chair, so he just swallowed it again. "Look at you now, swallowing your own phlegm like a dirty dwarf," his father's voice said. You're a drunk said Friggins in his mind, all you do is drink and pass out on yourself, "So look at yourself now," his father's voice retorted, and Friggins realized he hadn't turned out so different after all, and that's how he would die as well. "You're not dying," said the voice again, and Stodgen popped into his head, so the voice was Stodgen's.
But you are, thought Friggins, and if you're dead and I can hear you it means I must be dead too, or near enough. "You might, if you keep not breathing like that. Breathe deep, for the both of us, soak it in lad!" It was the kind of thing Stodgen was like to say, because he had taken a shine to dalon, so Friggins breathed in deep, so thoroughly stewed in it that he could scarce feel his chest again. The stone in his veins was gone now, too, so maybe he wouldn't die after all. He thought again of Stodgen being killed, and he opened his eyes and looked cross-wise over to his mates, and their limp bodies reminded him of Stodgen after he had been killed. He hoped they wouldn't die also, and he wondered what Stodgen was telling them. "Breathe in more, more!" urged Stodgen, so Friggins opened his mouth and took huge gulping breaths, sucking in the singed air. "What are you, a sheep? A child? Breathe in more, go, keep breathing! Breath, breath, breath, breath!" Friggins did, until he was huffing, and then he was rasping and coughing. Then it was all coughing and no breathing, all out and no in. His stomach came back to him, his muscles clenching together until they hurt, his chest burning, his eyes watering, and he almost tipped over sideways. His mates were doing the same, hacking and gagging in the stuffy hot little tent room. "It's the rope!" Stodgen's voice said again, as vivid as when he had first spoke, and Friggins put his hand out and felt the long silken rope hanging from the ceiling. His hand and fingers clutched around it, squeezing tight until the silk turned rough in his hand, and he clung like he had the day he had thrown himself from the ship. "Pull it!" Stodgen urged, so he did. The silk curtains pulled back with a sharp swish, and the silk canopied roof pulled back as well. The cold air of the night came flooding back in, and Friggins could breathe again.
He coughed a few more times to clear his head, and the winds came in and carried the smoke away. It puffed out in clouds, and as it did Friggins could see the trees and the lanterns of the valley, and he remembered that there was a world outside the balcony. His mates had settled back down into their chars as well, and Milling gurgled something. He coughed and hacked, and said it again: "Stars." Friggins looked up through the cross-beamed roof, and a thousand million stars twinkled down on him. His breath left him, and he was lost among the points of light. Shapes emerged, the heroes and beasts of the old constellations, and he saw each one as vividly as if he were seeing the thing itself. He gave in, and closed his eyes, and slept.
His body awoke, slowly, and he felt that he had been cold in the night only because he felt cold now. Then his eyes awoke, and there was light behind his eyelids, and when he opened his eyes-the pinks and reds of dawn, rising from the steely blacks and blues and grays of night. There were no stars, but there were clouds of living color. And when he lifted his head and looked across the valley-light was creeping from the tips of the mountains on the far edge to the base, revealing every crag and every windswept tree. Then it crept down into the valley itself, lighting up the trees and the fields, cows and pigs and chickens coming awake, the elves slipping from the trees to the morning work. There was not a sound, until one bird called, lonely at first, and then he was joined by his fellows. A peace fell over Friggins, or maybe it had always been there, and every single tiny part of the wide wide world fit every other piece and the whole thing made sense.
Then he remembered that his friend was dead, and he remembered that he would never see him again, and he went back to feeling like shit.
The elf Queen sat with them for their breakfast, which the Drabbits devoured despite themselves. He told her about how peaceful everything had been in the dawn, and then how terrible it had all turned. She only nodded with that wise look he had seen the night before, ages and ages ago, and he remembered for the second time that for all her youthful looks she was almost as old as the world itself. Something tugged in his loins, why now of all times he couldn't for the life of him say, but there it was all the same.
"I know it is hard," she told him with that old old hand closing over his own. "But tomorrow you will forget your grief a little more, and the day after a little more, and that's what healing is."