(c) Nin Harris 2009 —
The Arbitrator is in a fuzzy, deep blue bathrobe today, his close-cropped red hair wet as if he has just come out of a bath. He invites me into his home in the South-Eastern Wing of Domus Exsulis, a sturdy retreat built of wood and set atop tall pillars of timber. If I move out of the leadlight adorned doors which open from ceiling to floor, I will be on the hexagonal deck which looks out across the fens to the south, the Mishgalaveri Mountains towards the west. I watch as his eyes widen at how I have changed. I am no longer the voluptuous, dusky-skinned Ferahian scribe and researcher who visited him on odd evenings.
“Yildie, what a pleasant surprise,” he says, a hint of doubt in his voice as he takes my clammy and webbed hands in his big, warm ones.
“More of a surprise than it is pleasant, I am sure,” I say to him, some bitterness and insecurity entering my voice. He laughs, and runs his fingers through my hair, which has grown silky and wild.
“You look like a watermaiden now, my dear, but still you. This is indeed quite amazing. Quite, quite amazing. I have not seen you since the incident with Conrad. Was that his name?”
I shiver and remove my hands from his warmth, my movements abrupt and jerky. I move towards the leadlight sliding doors and look at the grotesque panel-work on them. They make me feel sick tonight with the scenes of bestial debauchery. I push them apart, the disjointed and rusty protest of the sliding mechanism telling me that I have been too violent.
“Yes, do get some fresh air outside, love. I will be with you shortly. Must get decent for you, mustn’t I?”
Outdoors, the balmy breeze from Alta Exsilii caresses my merling cheeks. It is twilight; I lean my head back against the wood of the wall as I listen to the dragons rumbling overhead. They call still for their queen who is lost in the forest of dreaming. I suppose she would have lost her name as well. Names are a manner in which we lose ourselves, our identities. I say as much to The Arbitrator as he joins me with two full pewter goblets of pinot noir. I accept the proffered goblet, carved with ornate detail and studded with blood-red rubies as he sits down beside me, wearing faded corduroys and a thick black sweater, for it is getting cold. I watch his sharp features and his long, smooth-shaved jaw as his lips move.
“Names are one way in which we can have our selves defined and stolen. But I think what is far more important are the stories behind those names. And this is even more true of storytellers. Why, when you think of it, this entire isle is made up of stories. So, story-theft becomes something so deep, so hurtful that even magic suffers.”
“Story-theft? How is that even possible?”
The Arbitrator taps his nose, carefully and swirls the wine in his goblet.
“I have another ‘name’,” he says, as he lifts the goblet to his lips and drinks. I watch the movement of his throat as he drinks, and still wonder why he fascinates me so, when I know that part of what he does involves being merciless.
“Do I want to know this name?” I ask, not even feigning my apprehension, not even joking about it. He smiles at me a little.
“It is harmless enough. I am the Story Wizard, guardian of a rather arcane cult connected to the craft of storytelling.”
“Since when does storytelling require a Wizard?”
“It does when it is the sacred art of storytelling which goes hand in hand with ritual. There are many storytelling wizards, and then there are Story Wizards, who arbitrate.”
“Go slow, you’re confusing me.”
“One of the things a storyteller learns when he starts is that there are no new stories. And yet, there are new tellings, new variations. But because there are no new stories, proving that there is story-theft can be a difficult thing. This is where magic comes in. This is where I come in.”
The Arbitrator says this slowly as he finishes the last of his wine, I lean towards him, intrigued by what he’s telling me but also by the man himself.
“So a Story Wizard performs a form of magical arbitration?”
I wonder what Regya would think of that, remembering her struggles with both Finora’s and the Orphée’s stories. He smile at me, a questioning expression in his face as he says,
I shrug at him, knowing he wants to know what is on my mind, but unwilling to share.
Instead, I ask,
”And this goes back to the cost of arbitration that you’ve told me about?”
He smiles a little; I know he can tell that I am hiding things from him. It is not usually the case between us, but things have changed since I lost my hand. Things have changed in the main Manse as well, between Kieran and me. A particularly loud dragon roars a battle roar. The leadlight panes on The Arbitrator’s doors rattle a little.
“Most storytellers would suffer in silence rather than come to me for arbitration. It involves digging deep into the invisible latticework of stories, appropriation atop of appropriation. It may be that the numen called up to judge the stories may decide that our complainant is a story thief himself or herself. He or she could stand to lose not just their reputation, but their lives. Or worse, sometimes, even the ability to make stories.”
“That sounds rather harsh and unfair.”
He strokes my watermaiden hair and whispers in my ear,
“But nothing is ever fair. Didn’t we already establish this?”
Something about him makes me want to push him away today. And then I realize that this is the first time I’ve seen him since I was maimed by Conrad in the woods. Perhaps, something about him reminds me of Conrad. Or perhaps my watermaiden senses are now rendered nauseous by the warm, meaty smell of human male, even if he is several centuries old and magical to boot. I place the pewter goblet carefully on the polished, hardwood floor, and stand.
“I have to go,” I say. He stands up too, visibly displeased.
“Must you?” He takes my hand, and says,
“I have not told you yet about the storyteller who braved the odds because she felt aggrieved enough.”
“And what did you do to her?”
My sentence is taut with tension, the implication of power behind his stories had never troubled me before. But today, it does.
“What did I do to her? Why I was quite magnanimous, my dear. I let her go! I did not punish her for being so bold.”
“What do you mean, by that? Was there not a cost of arbitration?”
“There always is a cost. But we found that, like in Hamlet, sometimes there are other ways to trap the conscience of an errant king or storyteller.”
I am riveted, despite myself.
“Will you not say more?”
The Arbitrator smiles at me.
“What, can you not guess already?”
Despite myself I allow him to fill my goblet again with pinot noir.