"Aer lilies," said Elucifur, when the source of the glow ahead came into view. He spoke quietly, or as quietly as his voice would allow, but the rumble of it filled the widening cavern, as deep as the overture to a flood. He led on toward the pool, placing his great taloned feet on the path among the lilies so as to crush none of their stems. "They grow here and nowhere else. They live on aer, as my kind do, and need neither water nor the light of the sun."
The blossoms were like white stars. They swayed in a faint current of air--of aer--that seemed to flow and ebb as if the source of it were slowly breathing. The aer krene itself was lucid green, ringed with the deeper green leaves of the lilies. Bubbles of pale light rose from its surface only to dissipate before they could float to the curved ceiling of the cave. They were the same color as fireflies at dusk in the fields around Halure.
Even a man of many words would lose them here. Duke reached in reverence toward one of the lilies, not to pluck, only to run his fingers along the petals, to see whether their glow would cling to his skin, but he caught himself and drew back with a fierce start at his presumption. He had no assurance that the touch of a human would not injure them or him. He looked up in time to see the corner of Elucifur's mouth curl.
"The flowers are safe for you," said Elucifur, "but not the spring."
Then he went wading into the pool. At its center he stood belly-deep and lowered his head to drink until his throat rippled. When he raised his head liquid aer dripped from his chin like water from the muzzle of an ordinary beast.
On the bank Duke went to his knees. He found that the lilies neither closed in outrage at his touch nor transferred their luminescence to him. Their petals felt like those of any other flowers. The moneyed residents of Zaphias would pay huge sums to set them in gilt ewers in their salons, their dining rooms, their gazebos. The thought made him want to reach for his sword.
"Elucifur," he asked, "do others know of this place? Other humans."
Shedding aer in droplets, Elucifur moved toward the bank. His eyelids drooped over the brightness of his eyes. "You are not the first or only one to set foot here, but you are one of few. We have protected this spring."
Duke bowed his head. "You honor me."
"Hm. It is a place to quiet the heart. Your heart has wanted quieting in recent days."
There was reason enough for disquiet, but here the white bells of the lilies rang so peaceably around his arms. There was a fragrance, too, released by the flowers or by the aer itself. It filled him as he breathed in, leaving no room for dread of war.
"And the aer is sweet. I had a thirst for it."
It seemed a strange thing to say of aer--to call it sweet--until he remembered that men often said the same of wine or water, which the Entelexeia never drank. Strange, too, that the aer around the spring should seem to thicken now, after Elucifur had drunk of it. The fragrance was growing headier instead of waning. A momentary fluctuation, it must be. If it grew too severe Elucifur would tend to it. Duke braced a hand on the patch of soft moss below him. He was not a child, to be fainting at an aer krene, however potent. The dizziness would pass.
"And I must be growing more like Belius in my old age," Elucifur continued, "because I thought you would look very fine, sitting there among the flowers."
Duke stared up at him. Then he blinked down at himself and the confusion of lilies, trying to see what could possibly be so fine about his imposition there. His intrusion. The white stars swayed to match the swimming of his head.
Elucifur's laugh made long ripples on the surface of the pool.