Red, Maia’s emptied mind told him. Growth. Light.
The thoughts insinuated themselves so subtly that he hardly noticed the pattern until his first glimpse of the garden. He opened his eyes with a gasp onto the softly flickering candles of the Mich’othasmeire altar, the vision so clear before his eyes fading like the last vestiges of a dream, its stillness and peace rapidly draining from his mind. Thy relations’ madness has finally consumed thee, sounded the cold, clear voice of his constant companion, Edrehasivar VII.
This did not stop him from seeking the same place a second time. He was somehow unsurprised at the beauty of the night-shadowed garden that seemed to coalesce around him after perhaps half an hour of steady breathing and the refrain of hear me, see me, know me, even less surprised as it held its form as he stepped forward. By the light of the moon, stars, and occasional lamps that pushed gently back at the surrounding darkness, Maia could see carefully cultivated beds of foliage bordered by walkways and benches, their design and materials simpler than those of the Untheleian's gardens but beautifully made. A riotous growth of plants filled each carefully-laid bed, plants that Maia could not guess at the natures of with his pitiful grasp of the natural sciences. Every unfamiliar flower, every curving path laid under the strange stars like a stream of white light, seemed something far beyond mundane life, refracted like a prism into something more wondrous than Maia had ever imagined. For a moment he paused, closing his eyes briefly to inhale the scent of clear, cool night air perfumed with the scent of the thousand nameless flowers, wonder filling his breast like the flutter of wings.
To his left, a shimmer of light made him jerk his head toward the source. For a dizzying moment he fancied himself upside-down, stationary on a black void of what was surely lush, greenest grass by day. In a moment, it was clear: a pool, wide and dark and bordered with flagstones, mirroring the stars above. Stars reflected into something more—if not completely—familiar: the Serpent, the Eye, Osreian’s Gift, tilted at odd angles and grouped together where they ordinarily stood apart but still laid out in the colors and positions he had learned from Vedero, as well as long ago from his own longing for anything beyond the walls of Edonomee.
His occupation with the sight caused the hand on his shoulder to jerk him straight from the dream into the Mich’othasmeire. A frantic glance about revealed his Second Nohecharei standing near the door regarding him with concern. “Serenity?” Kiru asked.
“Did you...” Maia shook his head brusquely. “Forgive us. We should away.”
For the following three days through a Corazhas session, three interminable salons, and enough correspondence to wallpaper the Untheileian, it was all Maia could do to keep from fidgeting like the restless michen Setheris would once have struck for the same. No matter how he poured his attention into matters of state the night garden lingered in his mind, memories of its stark, starlit beauty waiting to rise to the forefront of his mind whenever the latest matter was finished. Efforts to find it on the edge of sleep only led him in confusing circles, subsiding into dreams of searching the Alcethmeret for something he could never find. As such, when Csevet (quietly observant as ever) suggested moving his usual evening to dine alone and retire early to the the following night, Maia’s gratitude was palpable.
This time the garden was there after only a few minutes. Upon his arrival the outsider was waiting for him near a lantern beside the same pool.
Somehow, Maia managed not to start out of the vision in surprise once again, even at the sight of the strange being before him. Though particularly adventurous outsiders had occasionally been known to visit the Ethuveraz, Maia had only ever heard of them in tales. Their strange-colored hair and inscrutable miens were common enough knowledge, but this dream of one was like nothing he might have pieced together from tales alone. His visage (or so Maia assumed from the broad planes of his face, the angularity of his body) was like stone, ears completely invisible beneath an aureole of fire-colored hair that emphasized the strange, hectic flush of his otherwise elf-pale skin. “Forgive us our trespass,” Maia blurted. “Is this your realm?”
The outsider shook his head, responding in a language like wind through mountain scrub, melodic and fluid with sharp vowels like the snap of pebbles together. He did not rise from the bench where he sat.
“Forgive us,” Maia repeated with an internal wince. He fought the urge to fall to his knees in a manner unbefitting an emperor even in a strange land. “We cannot understand you either.”
The outsider stared for a moment, then blinked several times, what was surely surprise writ large on even his near-unreadable features. “Thamuris,” he finally said, placing an open-palmed hand on his chest.
Maia echoed the gesture. “Maia,” he said, voice small as he felt under the strangely-set stars. Mind racing, he lifted a hand to gesture around the still pool, the strange trees, the night sky. “Where…?” he asked.
The outsider—Thamuris—raised a hand, fingers trembling as if the gesture were difficult. “Khloïdanikos,” he answered, imitating Maia’s gesture.
“Khloïdanikos.” The word was strange on his tongue, a new song to be sung until he knew the sound like breath. Every single question he had seemed likely to spill from his mouth— how came we to this place? Are we a mystic, or simply mad? Who are you, and how may we understand you? —all preempted by Thamuris rising unsteadily to his feet. With a few words in his mountain-breeze language, he stepped toward Maia, half-stumbling before Maia hastened forward to catch him on his arm.
Lips set in a hard, pale line, Thamuris raised his head, only to double over into a sudden coughing fit—wet, hacking spasms that left Maia paralyzed. Realizing his mouth had gaped open, he quickly shut it, helping Thamuris to stand. “Illness,” he said, reaching out to touch one burning cheek.
Thamuris seemed about to reply between gasps for breath as a bell tolled once, twice, the sound seeming to emanate from his lungs with sputum-choked breath as Maia’s eyes opened to behold the small altar at the front of the chapel. “No!” he cried.
“Serenity!” Telimezh was immediately at his left, Kiru at his right, worry writ large on their features. “Are you well?”
Maia schooled his features into the mask of Imperial serenity he had by now cultivated, focusing hard on the candles before him. “We must have fallen asleep. Forgive us for startling you.” He took a deep breath. “Telimezh, we ask that you step outside the chapel that we may confer with Kiru Athmaza.”
“Serenity,” Telimezh replied in surprise and not a little chagrin. He nonetheless drew back from the altar and out of the door, presumably to stand in the hall until recalled.
Maia, meanwhile, turned to Kiru, ears carefully leveled. “Kiru,” he began, voice as steady as he could make it, “in your work as a physician were you ever called upon to treat maladies of the mind?”
“At times,” Kiru replied. She looked as if she was about to say more but paused, waiting for Maia to continue.
“During the last handful of times we have meditated here...” Maia described the strange visions, the garden, the outsider, the reversed sky, his terror and wonder and sense of peace. “We can think of little other cause than madness,” he finished, only barely able to meet Kiru’s level gaze.
“What you have described seems like no form of madness we have ever encountered, save that so often conflated with the experiences of those touched by the gods.” Kiru hesitated for a moment before clasping his hands, a gesture so straightforward in its empathy that Maia might have wept. “We cannot truly say if you are blessed with a mystic’s gift, or if these visions might be the signs of a late-awakening mazeise talent, but their absence at any other time save during meditation does not suggest madness to us.”
“We imagine you know more of it than ourself,” Maia replied, nonetheless feeling his ears rise incrementally.
“We do not imagine that we do,” Kiru replied, “but if these visitations are as powerful as you say then we feel that they must merit investigation. As both a maza and your nohecharis we have a myriad ways of gathering information on both outsiders and dream-visions discreetly, and we would imagine that you have a great number of resources at your disposal as well, most plausibly deniable for an Emperor’s interest.”
Maia nodded, ears set with resolve. “We think we may know where to start.”
The Marquess Lanthevel, to Maia’s relief, was nothing less than receptive. Once plied with the tale of an encounter with a certain outsider word in an Edrethelemeise petition, the Marquess became sufficiently distracted from Maia’s pitiful attempts at dissembling as to provoke an internal sigh of relief. He listened with genuine interest as Lanthevel sorted through the texts in his private library while keeping up a running monologue on the subjects of phonology in outsider languages, diplomatically deflecting inquiries regarding the details onto going back and retrieving the fictitious manuscript to the refrain of “no, no, we swear we’ve seen the damned word somewhere, only let us...”
The invented details of a conflict worthy of an Emperor hearing an outsider’s petition immediately flew out of his head as Lanthevel produced a volume which appeared not to have seen use in years. “Although we have made a more in-depth study of the languages of this continent,” he said, laying the book out across a side table, “we did happen upon this text on the uses of the verbal maz in outsider magic during our studies at Ashedro. Your Khloïdanikos is to do with dreams, or visions, or some such thing in the language of the Traïese barbarians of Medus. We would happily give you our resources on their language if you would know more, but we imagine a translator would have to be sent for from the Barizheise ports to provide much of a grounding.”
“A matter of intellectual curiosity,” Maia replied, “and hardly enough to trouble yourself over. Though if we might inspect your book...”
It was easier to spend the following days focused on his true duties now that he had a goal, and days did pass until Kiru’s requisition of the old-fashioned vellum scroll from Ashedro was fulfilled. It took further days to grasp syntax and simple vocabulary, to cross-reference with the book on outsider magic to begin to understand what it was Maia truly sought, yet more days of ruling and politicking on which he could do neither. By the time Maia was able to once more return to the Othas’meire near a month later a weight lay in his chest with the memory of Thamuris’s cough. If he has died in this time then mayest at least abandon this foolishness, Edrehasivar hissed. Maia ignored the thought, sitting in a meditative pose to begin his breathing exercises.
For a long, disorienting moment he could see nothing, sense nothing but the chapel around him and the mantra in his mind, so preoccupied with his fears that he barely noticed where he stood until he felt his worship-bared feet touch the grass. With a gasp he opened his eyes. The garden was drenched in sunlight, its beauty so striking that Maia could do nothing for a moment but stand dumbstruck and staring. Lit by the sun, the lush green of the garden seemed more than he had seen in the most carefully-kept court garden or newly-bloomed meadow, the cloudless sky a shade of azure like hope, like eternity. In the daylight the trees and flowers revealed themselves as more familiar even to him: roses of every hue imaginable, sunflowers and poppies and dragonflowers and lilies, all surrounded by others he still had no names for their colors like gems, like stars, like the glow off the hair of the outsider who stood further along his path supported by a gnarled tree limb repurposed as a cane.
“ I greet you, Thamuris,” Maia said, accenting each Traïese word with care. “ I thank you for your greeting.”
Thamuris, who had been about to speak himself, abruptly closed his mouth, then reopened it.
“ Forgive me that I am here,” Maia continued, still not bending a knee but reaching out his hands in supplication. “ I ought not to be in this place but ...” He trailed off, suddenly at a loss for the words he had carefully studied for over a month now, only to start back slightly as Thamuris stepped toward him. Taking one of Maia’s hands, setting aside his cane to take the other, he reached forward and Maia could feel something within his mind, pressing, searching, opening—
“Do you understand me now?” Thamuris said in clear Ethuverazeise.
Maia nearly dropped Thamuris’s hands in surprise. “Yes! Yes, I… we… what have you done? Who are you?”
“I am Thamuris of the House Pandionis, Celebrant Celestial of the Euryganeic Covenant,” Thamuris replied, “and I have drawn upon the Khloïdanikos itself—whatever connection you have forged with it—to touch your mind where mine alone could not. I cannot maintain it for long without great strain, but whatever power of the Garden has brought you here is more able to draw our minds together than my power alone.” He looked Maia up and down. “It is this last part that astounds me. You are without magic, and you are no Troian, certainly no ghost who would haunt this place—how is it that you have come to the Dream of the Garden?”
“We… I had hoped that you might tell me. Please, might we sit?”
Thamuris nodded and led Maia to one of the stone benches, its marble white with streaks of blue like veins in the daylight. “If I knew how a visitant from the goblin lands had come to be here,” he said, laboriously lowering himself onto it with the aid of Maia’s hand, “I would consider my life worth having lived. Do you sleep and dream now, in your country?”
“No. I found my way here by invoking Cstheio Cairezhasan, the lady of stars.” Maia described his experiences of the past months, the peace and the wonder side-by-side with the terror of madness. “I had hoped to learn your language to better understand, if understanding you can provide,” he ended with a small twist of his mouth, “though I see your mazeise talent has rendered it a moot point.”
“As I said, this working is not something I may maintain for any great length of time,” Thamuris said, and already Maia could see that his face seemed paler around the flush of his cheeks and brow, “so your initiative in learning the language is both commendable and seems preferable if indeed I live long enough to converse with you in Troian.”
“Is it consumption?” Maia asked quietly. Thamuris paused, then nodded, and Maia added, “My mother was taken from me by the same when I was young. The sound of your cough made me remember.”
“The Khloïdanikos grants me health I do not possess in the waking world,” Thamuris said, “but I must always return, and I do not know how much time remains to me. It has begun to bleed into my time here as well, as you saw when we met last.”
“Then surely you ought not to strain yourself on my own account,” Maia replied.
Thamuris shook his head. “I am a scholar, and you would have me abandon such a mystery to briefly prolong a life that I know is ending?” he demanded, the vehemence of his words belying his seeming composure. “I have never met one of the goblin lands, least of all in the sanctuary of the Garden where only Troians have ever walked since our empire’s fall. If I destroy myself in understanding...” He coughed, less racking and horrible than the previous time, though still hard enough to leave him doubled over.
"In the past, I have been... ruthless in my pursuit of knowledge," he finally continued. "I have disregarded the safety and even the autonomy of others, and I have since come to understand the wrongness of such actions. Where I might be free with my own well-being, I will only do as you will in pursuit of understanding whatever blessing your goddess has visited upon you." His deep-set, goblin-gold eyes met Maia's, voice full of regret, longing, and hope in equal measure. "If you desire to understand, I will do my best to see that you do. That we both do. But only with your consent.”
At even this, Maia faltered. Perhaps he truly was mad, chasing the cloud-fancy of a place wherein he might cast off the roles and duties of an emperor. Perhaps he would eventually be found out and judged once again a moonwitted simpleton by his people, consumed by visions of a place he could not possibly occupy. Yet the questions posed by this, those his maza-nohecharei might eventually answer, those a chaplain might one day explain, and beyond even these, the opportunity to travel far and meet and understand those so far from elf and goblin lands...
“I fear I am no scholar to devote large portions of my time to understanding what the Lady—what has been ordained for me. Would that I were,” Maia began with a half smile. “I will do my best to come to you when I may, but I cannot promise it will be often, as I have many responsibilities in my own land. Still, for your hospitality and for my own understanding, I will do whatever I may to come here when I meditate.”
“Then,” Thamuris said, “in the few more minutes I may maintain this working, tell me of yourself and whence you come.”
And Maia told him.