Tyla had been dreading this day. The delegation from Mierek City, the gnome capitol, would arrive in a few hours. Most everyone was eager for the officials to arrive, but Tyla felt certain nothing good would come of it.
Standing on the terrace where their former queen had spent most of her leisure hours, Tyla leaned against the balustrade and surveyed the fortress grounds, amazed at how much had changed. A flower garden with walkways and stone benches lay below, and everywhere she looked, the land was lush and green. How very different from the days when the only greenery at Elantoth was a garden of poisonous and carnivorous plants. Sheamathan—now simply called S since her defeat—had preferred ugliness to beauty and had turned the Amulet region into a diseased wasteland.
Three human gem masters had stripped S of her gem powers and turned her into a giant beetle—a fitting punishment, as far as Tyla was concerned, considering how many gnomes S had turned into rats, birds, and lizards. Then, after weeks of study and experimentation, they had helped to bring down the gem-power barrier that had isolated Amulet gnomes from the rest of Ahmonell for over two centuries.
Tyla gave a frustrated sigh. She would never understand why Mierek Fortress officials had forbidden further interaction between humans and gnomes when the few humans who had come here had done so much good and asked nothing in return.
Mierek had been outraged to learn that the gnomes’ liberators were temporarily running Elantoth Fortress, handing out supplies from S’s storehouses, and helping gnomes rebuild this region. They said humans shouldn’t influence gnome culture and ordered Gem Masters Elias and Jules out of Elantoth. A local gnome clan leader must take command or Mierek would send appointees from half a world away. Raenihel, head of Tyla’s clan, had reluctantly volunteered.
Of the six fortresses that ruled the gnome world, Mierek held the most power. Their officials were stubborn, unreasonable, and shortsighted, and Tyla wasn’t the only one who thought so. Officers from Aberell Fortress, often at odds with Mierek themselves, said the same thing. Commander Finnack had advised Tyla that a delegation from Mierek would come to Elantoth Fortress to set affairs in order and acquaint everyone with current laws and regulations. His tone had suggested it would be an ominous event, and she had worried about it ever since. Local clans had few laws, and the elders settled disputes. This system had worked well during S’s reign when gnomes had lived in hiding.
Tyla was looking forward to being part of Ahmonellian society, and she believed the benefits would outweigh the disadvantages. Still, she was sure their lives were about to change in ways she couldn’t imagine.
The sound of clattering hooves interrupted her thoughts. She leaned over the balustrade and looked to her left. A glossy black carriage pulled by four erum came into view. Wreaths of white flowers encircled the erum’s necks, and gleaming gold accents ornamented the carriage’s black paint. The door bore an elaborately stylized ‘M’ within the image of a huge, faceted opalescent gem. Early morning sun glinted off the gem as the carriage rumbled by in all its glossy splendor, headed toward the rear entry. Tyla sucked in her breath. Oh no! They were early!
She raced across the terrace and down the passageway. Had the carriage already been to the front entry? No one was on duty there, and the doors would be locked. She and Raenihel had planned to post guards there later this morning, but it couldn’t be more than seven, and the delegation wasn’t due until sometime between nine and noon.
Raenihel was here, but he would be at breakfast. Tyla realized with a mounting sense of dread that she would have to greet the delegation on her own. Her stomach churned. Good thing she hadn’t eaten. She had risen early, fed little Eemie, shared a quick cup of raaka with Lant, and then gone to the terrace to be alone.
By the time she neared the rear entry, panting with exertion, her tunic felt damp with perspiration, and strands of her waist-length black hair had come free of the leather tie and clung to her heart-shaped face.
Voices echoed down the passageway—familiar voices—guards, speaking in placating tones, and unfamiliar voices that sounded none too pleased. She made one last attempt to smooth her hair and slow her breathing, and then proceeded into the entryway with as much dignity as possible.
She stopped short and gasped.
Three gnomes in black robes stood frowning at her. One was fat and balding, with deep-set brown eyes and a short, pointed black beard that curled up at the end like a hook. The second was tall and thin, with gray hair and a long beard. The third was white-haired and quite frail, yet his blue eyes held hers with a frightening intensity.
But it wasn’t the gnomes who frightened her. It was the figures behind them. Woodspirits! The same male and female who had spoken to her from Mierek’s communications room. They looked like humans, but their features were too perfect and their skin bore a greenish cast. Both wore their dark brown hair in a long braid, and their brown eyes seemed to hold ancient knowledge. They were at least six feet tall and towered over the gnomes, who were the typical height of about three-and-a-half feet. These woodspirits might not be evil, but they were woodspirits like Sheamathan who was the embodiment of evil and cruelty. Tyla trembled with fear and revulsion. It was all she could do not to back away.
“Who are you?” the fat gnome demanded in an irritating, nasal voice. “We were expecting the head of the Anen clan or one of the elders.”
“The front doors are locked!” cried the skinny, gray-haired gnome. “What kind of a reception is that for visitors?”
Tyla wasn’t sure whether to bow, kneel, or offer her hand in greeting, and she desperately wished she could run away. “I’m sorry. We weren’t expecting you till later this morning.” She glanced at the guards who looked frightened and confused. “Go get Raenihel, please. He’s at breakfast. I’ll take our guests to the library.”
One of them could have retrieved Raenihel, but both hurried off, nearly knocking her down in their haste to escape.
“Again, I apologize. I’m Tyla,” she said in her most gracious tone. Her smile felt more like a grimace.
“I am Gem Master Frinkk—of the famous Frinkk family—spelled with two k’s,” said the fat gnome, stroking his beard and making the tip curl into a sharper point. He gestured at the skinny, gray-haired gnome beside him. “This is Gem Master Klemmet. Two m’s one t—a member of one of our more prominent families and current head of the Department of Gem Powers. This is Gem Master Ertz.” Frinkk waved a careless hand toward the frail, elderly gnome as if he were of little importance. “Noted scholar and lecturer.”
Before he could introduce the woodspirits, the female said coldly, “I am Anatta and this is Varkandian. We are members of the Ahmonellian Joint High Council.”
Frinkk smiled stiffly at Tyla. “They wished to accompany us, and while nothing has been decided yet, we thought there could be no harm in allowing—”
Anatta spoke over him. “I wish to see my sister.” Her tone defied argument.
Tyla’s jaw dropped, fear slicing through her. “Your sister?” she repeated in a barely audible voice.
“Yes. You will take us to Sheamathan now.”
It had never occurred to Tyla that S had a sister. And Anatta was a member of the Joint High Council.
“Come with me, please,” said Tyla calmly. But she was anything but calm as she led the delegation to the library. This was terrible. What should she do? She couldn’t take Anatta to S.
Tyla took them to the library’s seating area. “Please have a seat and I’ll bring S to you myself.”
“S?” asked Anatta sharply.
Tyla gulped. “Um, that’s what we call her now.” She fled from the room.
They had stashed the caged beetle in a broom closet near the Ministry of Breghlin Affairs. Before Gem Master Elias had returned to his cave home in Strathweed, he had secured the closet with a mirkstone lock, imprinting the gem with a password known only to Tyla, Raenihel, and Arenia who all took care of S. Tyla could only imagine what Anatta would say if she knew they kept her sister in a broom closet.
Tyla gave the mental password command and opened the door. Fair Lands gems twinkled from the cage’s iron scrollwork, and the entire cage had a frosty luster from gem particles in the iron. As usual, the hideous, sentient beetle was sitting near the center of the cage. Gems from the human world burned evil beings, so S kept her distance.
Now what? Tyla asked herself. She couldn’t carry the huge cage by herself. She had been so anxious to escape the library she hadn’t stopped to think how she would move it.
A deep, gravelly voice said, “Whatcha doin’? Didn’t ya already feed her?”
Tyla looked around and saw the breghlin, Wally, standing outside the Ministry of Breghlin Affairs office. Like all breghlin, his skin was lumpy and his features were deformed. He had an enormous nose, thick, protruding lips, and a lump of scar tissue along his jawline that looked like a worm stuck to his face.
“I have to—” she began, and then broke off, her shoulders drooping with misery. “I have to take S to the library. The delegation from Mierek is here, and—”
“An’ they wanna poke her with sticks?” he asked hopefully, “an’ make her run aroun’ her cage, cursin’ and shriekin’?” Wally’s lips stretched in a malicious grin.
“No,” Tyla said gloomily. “I’m afraid it’s nothing like that. Two woodspirits came with the gnome delegation, and one of them is S’s sister.”
The smile slid from Wally’s face, and his mouth went slack. “Sister?”
Tyla nodded unhappily. “We know S isn’t the last of her kind as she claimed, but I never thought about her having close family members.”
“I s’pose it make sense—her bein’ a few hun’erd years old, an’ woodspirits livin’ almos’ forever.” He frowned. “You won’t be handin’ her over, will ya?”
“They just want to see her. I don’t think they plan to take her anywhere.”
For a moment, she and Wally stood staring at one another. She honestly didn’t know what the delegation had in mind. Frinkk had been saying something about nothing being decided yet when Anatta cut him off, demanding to see her sister. Weeks ago, when Anatta had spoken to Tyla from Mierek Fortress, she had apologized on behalf of all woodspirits for S’s crimes. But were the woodspirits truly sorry?
“Can’t help ya ‘cause of the gems,” Wally said.
“I know. I’m hoping one of the guards comes by.”
Many breghlin, Wally included, had turned from evil, but they would never be able to touch the cage. They were a corrupt variant of the gnome race, and Fair Lands gems would always burn them.
It suddenly occurred to Tyla that S hadn’t said a word. “S, your sister Anatta is here.”
The beetle remained silent and motionless.
“Want that I should poke her with a stick? See if she be dead?”
Tyla smiled. “She’s not dead. Maybe she doesn’t want her sister to see her. I suppose it’s embarrassing.”
Footsteps echoed in the passageway, and Tyla looked behind her. Raenihel came toward them, red-faced and puffing. His white hair and beard were neatly trimmed, and he wore a dark green tunic and pants today, probably his best clothing.
“Here you are,” he said, looking worried. “They said you were getting S.”
“You left the delegation alone?” At first Tyla was horrified, then it struck her funny. They were probably appalled at such disorganization.
“Are you sure we should let them see her like this?” Raenihel asked.
“Do we really have a choice?”
Raenihel sighed. “No, I suppose not.”
News of S’s transformation had spread throughout Ahmonell, but it was still shocking to see her, even when you knew what to expect.
Tyla drew Raenihel and Wally a little way down the passageway so S wouldn’t overhear. “Do you think she’ll speak to them?”
“I hope so,” Raenihel said quietly. “It wouldn’t be the first time someone questioned whether it was really her.”
“These gnomes are highly respected gem masters, so they must have discernment powers.”
“True. They’re celebrated personalities back home. Frinkk—that’s Frinkk with two k’s,” Raenihel amended dryly, “is an important official at Mierek, and Klemmet—two m’s one t, is from one of the better families in Mierek City, and he’s some kind of official, too.”
“Head of the Department of Gem Powers. I see you got the same speech,” she said, laughing. “I wish you had been there when they arrived. They weren’t very impressed with me.”
“I’d say they’re easily offended and not easily impressed. I did manage to impress them for a moment. They were surprised to hear we have a Ministry of Gnome Affairs.”
“Which was started by a human,” Tyla said, smiling at the irony.
“Naturally, I didn’t tell them that.”
Raenihel’s worshipful regard for Mierek officials had begun to crumble lately. He was finally seeing them for the pompous officials they were.
“Will ya be bringin’ ’em by our office?” Wally asked.
“That wouldn’t be a good idea,” Tyla said, knowing the delegates would be disgusted by breghlin’s appearances and crude behavior.
“You’re right,” Raenihel agreed. “I’m a clan leader and they looked down their noses at me. They must have been expecting someone in fine robes like theirs. I invited them to sit, but they eyed me with disapproving looks and continued to stand where they were.”
“Maybe they didn’t want to sit on S’s creepy animal-bone furniture,” Tyla said.
“Could be. Well, I suppose we shouldn’t keep them waiting. I’ll help you carry the cage.”
Tyla took a deep breath. “We’re about to find out what Anatta thinks of her sister’s new look.”
Tyla and Raenihel set S’s cage on the beautifully carved table in the library and moved out of the way as the delegation hurried over with Anatta in the lead. Anatta stopped a few feet short of the cage, looking repulsed by the giant beetle, and Varkandian stopped too, his look of dismay almost comical.
Showing no sympathy for Anatta’s feelings, much less the beetle’s, the gnome delegates went right up to the cage and examined S with morbid fascination, discussing her hideous form as if she couldn’t hear or understand them.
Finally, Anatta came closer and demanded in a cold, imperious voice, “How is this possible? How did the humans do this to you?”
S ignored her.
The gnomes walked around the cage, studying S from various angles and shaking their heads. They were clearly enjoying this.
Anatta waved them away. “You’ve gawked long enough.”
Frinkk looked offended, but he and the others retreated.
Anatta laid her hands on the cage and leaned so close her face almost touched the scrollwork.
Tyla tensed, and Raenihel drew in a sharp breath, both of them instinctively expecting Anatta to snatch her hands away, burned by the Fair Land gems. But Anatta showed no reaction whatsoever, which proved that despite being haughty and rude she wasn’t evil like her sister. Tyla knew it wasn’t fair to judge all woodspirits by S, but since S was the only woodspirit they knew, it was hard not to. It hadn’t occurred to Tyla to warn the delegation that the cage incorporated Fair Lands gems, and now she was glad since it had served as a valuable test.
“They say you can speak,” Anatta snapped. “Why won’t you answer me?”
S moved to the other side of the cage in a vain effort to escape her sister. The gnome dignitaries cast amused glances at one another, and Tyla and Raenihel edged closer for a better view of the unfolding drama.
Varkandian addressed the beetle gruffly, “Your sister and I are members of the Joint High Council. After what you did, it took one hundred and thirty-two years to restore gnome-woodspirit relations, and now that everyone has heard you’re still alive, tensions are growing again.”
The wings over S’s rear segment twitched. She turned to face Varkandian and said in a scathing tone, “Anatta on the Council? Anatta who always hated politics?”
Anatta stiffened. “I felt obligated. The others have served multiple terms.”
“A woodspirit without gem powers could take the position.”
“You know that’s now allowed,” Anatta retorted. “The Council relies too much on discernment and foresight.”
S chittered in her strange approximation of laughter. “What good did those abilities do them in the past?”
Anatta’s jaw clenched. “The Council never expected one of their own to betray them, and furthermore, your dark powers gave you an edge.”
“An edge any of you could have had, if you were not foolish and weak.”
Anatta glared at the beetle, rigid with tension. “You always craved power and influence, but no one suspected you of such treachery.”
“You won’t be so quick to call the Council fools when you return in a cage,” Varkandian added, folding his arms.
“Return? Now wait just a minute,” the fat gnome, Frinkk cut in, his chest swelling in indignation. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. She’s not going anywhere until all the arrangements are settled.”
“We’re well aware of that,” Varkandian said in a tight voice. “But it won’t be long. I expect the matter will be settled in a few weeks.”
“Don’t we get a say in what happens to her?” Raenihel asked, startling Tyla.
Everyone turned to look at him, their expressions ranging from mild annoyance to outright hostility, but he didn’t back down. “She forced generations of Amulet gnomes into hiding or slavery and made the Amulet all but uninhabitable. If it weren’t for our human allies, we still wouldn’t know the outside world existed. Thanks to them, we learned that the Amulet is a special region designed to limit outsiders’ access to our world, and an accident sealed us inside its borders. I realize the accident wasn’t directly Sheamathan’s fault, but the events leading up to it were. We’ve suffered more than the rest of you. Why can’t she stay here? We’ll make sure she gets the punishment she deserves.”
“Woodspirits have a number of secure facilities for punishment and rehabilitation,” Varkandian said as though that settled the matter. “It would be safer to keep her there.”
“Safer for her or for us?” Raenihel asked with a cynical laugh. “In beetle form she can’t regain her powers, so she’s no threat to anyone.”
“That was certainly a creative solution,” Anatta said in a frigid tone.
“The Joint High Council may decide to give her into gnome custody,” Klemmet told Raenihel, and then turned back to the woodspirits. “We have a number of suitable facilities, far better than yours.”
“Gnome custody!” Anatta cried, throwing up her hands in disgust. “Gnomes couldn’t be trusted to keep Sheamathan safe, much less rehabilitate her.”
“We discussed this at the last meeting when you weren’t there,” Varkandian said. “Don’t worry; any proposal must be ratified by the standard seventy percent majority.
“Rehabilitate her,” Raenihel muttered to Tyla, his face flushing with anger. “As if such a thing were possible.”
“They don’t know her as well as we do,” Tyla whispered back.
Unlike gnomes, woodspirits seldom had gem powers, but when they did, their powers were unimaginably strong. S had used Dark gems and wielded the worst of them without remorse. As far as Tyla was concerned, S was inherently evil, and trying to rehabilitate her would be a waste of time.
“Woodspirits are minority Council members,” Anatta protested. “Gnomes will carry the vote and get custody.”
Frinkk scowled at her. “Not necessarily. Some will vote to let you woodspirits deal with her.”
S began circling her cage, waving her feelers and chittering, probably laughing at all the turmoil.
“I find that highly unlikely,” Anatta said, her voice rising, “and I intend to—”
“Perhaps you’d like to tour Elantoth now,” Tyla cut in, trying to head off further arguments. The delegates were making no effort to present a united front, and at the rate they were going, they wouldn’t be speaking to one another by the time they left. “You mentioned you’d like to see the Ministry of Gnome Affairs. If you like, we can start there.”
“You go ahead,” Anatta said, waving a dismissive hand. “We’ll stay here and spend more time with Sheamathan.”
“Perhaps that would be best,” said the frail gem master, Ertz. He walked away, and Frinkk and Klemmet grudgingly followed.
When Tyla looked toward the library door, she spotted three female breghlin faces that promptly disappeared. The sound of furtive footsteps marked their retreat.
Tyla and Raenihel left the library with the gnome delegates.
Two guards making their rounds were coming down the passageway. Tyla drew them aside and said quietly, “Stay in the library with S. Keep an eye on her and her visitors.”
But really, she thought as she walked away, what good would guards do against Anatta and Varkandian, either of whom was probably more powerful than Frinkk, Klemmet, and Ertz combined.
Trying not to worry, she led the group to the Ministry office. Terrilem rose from his desk and greeted the dignitaries without the slightest sign of nervousness. Tyla envied his poise. He was a well-respected gnome in his early thirties, and taller than most, with a broad blocky face and a thick black beard.
The officials approached the counter, looking critically around the room, no doubt taking in the mismatched desks and chairs, the battered wooden filing cabinets, and the simple wooden crates full of books.
“We’re still getting organized,” Terrilem said apologetically, reading the disapproval on their faces. “But at least we’re open.”
Gem Master Frinkk cleared his throat and curled the hook-like tip of his beard into a sharper point. “How many gnomes work here?”
“Three. We take turns.”
There was a long pause, and Tyla could tell the officials were not happy with that answer.
“That will never do,” Klemmet said, turning to Frinkk. “They’ll need a minimum of six—two on duty at a time.”
“Definitely,” Frinkk agreed.
“Why two?” Raenihel asked.
“One explains regulations and answers questions, and the other processes paperwork and collects fees,” Klemmet said.
“Fees?” Raenihel asked with a blank look.
“Payments, taxes, and fees for services you’ll be providing here,” Klemmet said. “What is your current mode of payment?”
Raenihel didn’t answer, so Tyla stepped in. “We exchange goods and labor. Is that you mean?”
“You operate solely on barter?” Klemmet asked, aghast.
“Well, yes,” Tyla said uncertainly. “What else would we use?”
The gray-haired gnome shook his head as if he could hardly believe his ears, reached into his robe, and pulled out an embroidered fabric pouch with a silver clasp. He emptied its contents onto the counter and sorted the rectangular gems by color, ending up with six piles of gems that descended in size. Taking one from the pile of the largest gems, he said, “The mierek is the highest denomination of our monetary system. It bears an intaglio of the Mierek coat of arms.” It was an opaque green stone about the size of Tyla’s thumb.
“Intaglio,” she repeated. She had never heard the word.
“The incised image in its surface,” Klemmet explained. “Each denomination has a different design. He indicated each pile in turn. “Waymare, pantirek, aberell, elantoth, and ominem. Named after our six fortresses and marked with their coat of arms. You don’t have any monetary gems?”
Tyla shook her head. “I’ve never seen anything like these.” Gem Masters Elias and Jules might have found caches of intaglio gems and hadn’t realized their significance, but she wasn’t about to say so.
Klemmet and Frinkk looked disappointed.
Klemmet drew papers from his pocket and set them on the counter. “Everyone who works in this office must be able to explain and enforce these regulations.”
Terrilem’s polite smile dissolved into a worried frown as picked up the first paper and began to read. He looked up. “I don’t have gem powers, and these gem-related regulations look confusing.” He handed the paper to Tyla, and she and Raenihel read silently.
Having already become acquainted with some of Mierek’s nonsensical regulations, Tyla thought nothing could surprise her, but item seven caught her up short. She read aloud. “It is unlawful to transfer infused gem powers to a gnome without powers unless Form GP-112 is submitted along with the requisite fee and permission is granted by the Department of Gem Powers. See Table 1-A for a list of gem powers and corresponding fees.”
Not long ago, during a crisis in the Barrier Zone, she had transferred strength and stamina to the beast that pulled their cart. That was probably illegal, too. On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t. Animals couldn’t pay fees.
She looked up. “How can you enforce a law like that? How would anyone know gem powers were transferred?”
Frinkk smiled unpleasantly. “We have ways to check whether No-Powers, known as Nopes, have unauthorized powers. No doubt some folks circumvent the law, but it’s risky. Better to go through proper channels.”
“How do you know who’s a Nope and who isn’t?” Raenihel asked.
Frinkk, Klemmet, and Ertz held out their right arms, underside up, and each had on his wrist a red, faceted gem symbol like the one on Mierek’s carriage doors.
“Nopes don’t have this mark,” Frinkk said.
Raenihel said, “Gnomes with powers have to wear a mark?”
“Have to? They’re proud to wear this symbol,” Klemmet retorted. “Few gnomes have powers—somewhere around one in twenty.”
“Here in the Amulet it’s about one in five,” Tyla said.
“So we’ve heard. There’s a reason for that. Do you know what it is?” When they didn’t answer, Klemmet explained. “During the war, when S brought mercenary forces through the portal, most residents fled this area. Militia members remained, many of whom had gem powers, and more gem masters came to help. When they destroyed the portal during the Battle of Last Hope they were sealed inside the Amulet.”
“And since we’re their descendants, we inherited their powers,” Tyla said.
“Exactly. The Department of Gem Powers will visit every clan and register everyone with powers,” Klemmet told them. “Do either of you have gem powers?”
She and Raenihel nodded.
“You will receive the mark.”
Terrilem didn’t look disturbed by the idea that he’d be missing out. He picked up the next page. He hadn’t gotten far before he exploded, “Gem users can get permission to use a Dark gem if they pay a fee?”
Tyla and Raenihel exchanged disbelieving glances. Few Dark gems had any legitimate uses, and a fee wouldn’t make them less dangerous.
Klemmet laughed good-naturedly, but his eyes held no trace of humor. “No more than two instances per year are permitted, and the terms of the Mitigating Circumstances Clause must be met.”
“Don’t worry. It’s very hard to qualify,” Ertz assured them, “and the fees are prohibitively expensive.”
Raenihel, reading Tyla’s paper, asked, “What’s this about a witness tax?”
“You needn’t worry about that,” Frinkk said hastily. “You don’t have any lumps or deformities, do you?”
“Of course not!” Raenihel said.
“Well, there you are, then. It’s no concern.”
“The Witness Tax is levied against each inhabitant after a thorough examination of his body,” Klemmet explained, trying to make it sound like the most natural thing in the world but not quite succeeding.
“The idea is that wrongdoers should reimburse society for the consequences of their deeds,” Ertz said.
Tyla had to admit that there was a certain logic to that, but she shuddered at the thought of a thorough examination. Her mind strayed to Raenihel’s nephew, Kaff, who had developed his first witnesses—two lumps on his forearm—after stealing Dark gems from Elias’s cave and then kidnapping S, expecting her to teach him dark powers. Sentenced to ten years in the dungeon, he had tried to turn himself into a bird and escape, but it had gone horribly wrong. How much would he owe after turning himself into a giant, deformed gnome-bird? Fortunately, he would never find out since Elias had restored him.
And what about the breghlin, she asked herself with a heavy heart. Their taxes would be crushing since they all had countless lumps and deformities, some of which were their own fault, but S was to blame for most. After the war, she had given her gnome supporters genetic mutations and turned them into her servant race, the breghlin.
“Don’t gnomes try to hide or remove their witnesses to avoid the tax?” Tyla asked.
“No. Should they be caught—and it’s likely they would be—they would be sentenced to ten years in a confinement,” Ertz said. “Removing witnesses manually always leaves unnatural color scars, and altering one’s appearance with gem powers requires valuable gems and a great deal of skill.”
“It would be cheaper to pay the tax,” said Klemmet, chuckling.
“Furthermore, it’s impossible to maintain an altered appearance for more than a few hours,” Ertz said.
Raenihel caught Tyla’s eye and gave her a worried frown. She set the paper on the counter. S had kept generations of gnomes from learning that some gnomes had latent gem powers, but Gem Masters Elias and Jules had uncovered the truth, discovered how to activate gnomes’ powers, and started training sessions. Unfortunately, Mierek had quickly put a stop to that, saying gnomes must teach gnomes. Probably because humans would disregard Mierek’s rules and regulations, and Mierek wouldn’t be able to collect any fees.
“If no one in the Amulet has monetary gems, how will we pay taxes and fees?” Tyla asked.
Frinkk smiled. “Once you become part of Ahmonellian society, you’ll find it easy to earn money and pay taxes. This region has vast, untapped resources.”
Tyla had an uncomfortable feeling that she and the others who lived here were part of those untapped resources.
Tyla took her guests to the cellar to see the communications room. Her friend Parcune, an outspoken gnome in his fifties with gray hair and a long bushy beard, was on duty. He was still fuming over Mierek’s edict against human involvement, so she hoped he’d be civil.
The conversation immediately got off on a wrong foot when Gem Master Frinkk told Parcune, “The other fortresses called their communications room “the pedestal room.”
“Is that so,” Parcune said, frowning at Frinkk. “We wouldn’t even know what these pedestals were for if it weren’t for Gem Master Elias. He identified the gems on top as communications gems and said they must link us to the other fortresses.”
“Ah yes, the human gem master,” Frinkk said, his upper lip curling in distaste. “The one with the breghlin-like deformities.”
Parcune said defensively, “His disfigurement happened long ago. He doesn’t use dark powers these days.”
“Wasn’t it he who turned Sheamathan into a beetle? That requires dark powers,” Frinkk replied in a tone that said he had gotten the better of Parcune.
“Well, yes, that’s true, but Elias made an exception that time. Turning her into something detestable was fitting justice, don’t you think?”
“What we think doesn’t matter,” Frinkk said coldly. “Her punishment should be decided by a court of law.”
“We should have killed her when we had the chance. We wouldn’t be arguing over her now,” Parcune muttered darkly.
Frinkk said, “That isn’t the gnome way.”
Parcune’s eyes bored into his. “In some cases, maybe it should be.”
“You’re welcome to you opinions,” Frinkk said, his tone indicating quite the opposite. “Now you must excuse me. I promised to give Mierek a brief report.” He went to the Mierek pedestal, laid his hand on the rizumen gem, and communicated with the gnome on duty there. When he finished, he stalked from the room, and Klemmet and Ertz followed.
Tyla and Raenihel took them to see the libations room in the cellar. It held kegs of wine, beer, and the popular gnome drink, fialazza, which produced a calming effect while heightening all of one’s senses.
“We’d like to see S’s private suite,” Klemmet announced as they climbed the stairs to the first floor.
Tyla’s heart sank. S’s most valuable books, maps, and documents were there, and these officials might decide to appropriate some before Amulet clans had a chance to study them. She wished she could think of a legitimate reason to deny their request, but nothing came to mind. “Very well. We’ll take you there next.”
Raenihel gave a sigh of resignation.
As they walked down the torch-lit passageway that led to S’s suite, Raenihel laid a hand on Tyla’s arm and opened his mouth to say something, but she gave him a quelling glance. A twinkle of amusement shone in his eyes and he nodded, agreeing not to warn their guests.
Just then, a two-headed bat sailed over their heads. An instant later, dozens were swooping and diving, and the air was thick with them. The delegates let out startled cries, and Tyla glanced over her shoulder to see Klemmet duck, covering his head.
Frinkk was the first to recover his wits. “Begone!” he shouted, and bolts of light that crackled with power erupted behind Tyla. She shielded her eyes as the bolts attacked the swooping bats, and it was all she could do to keep from laughing as the bolts passed harmlessly through.
“What are they?” Frinkk cried, dismayed that his attack was ineffective. “I—”