/ Language: English / Genre:sf_epic / Series: The Last Chronicle of the Dread Empire

A Path to Coldness of Heart

Glen Cook

At long last, the conclusion to Glen Cook''s Dread Empire saga has arrived! King Bragi Ragnarson is a prisoner, shamed, nameless, and held captive by Lord Shih-kaa and the Empress Mist at the heart of the Dread Empire. Far away in Kavelin, Bragia''s queen and what remains of his army seek to find and free their king, hampered by the loss or desertion of their best and brightest warriors. Kavelina''s spymaster, Michael Trebilcock, is missing in action, as is loyal soldier Aral Dantice. Meanwhile, Dane, Duke of Greyfells, seeks to seize the rule of Kavelin and place the kingdom in his pocket, beginning a new line of succession through Bragia''s queen, Dane''s cousin Inger. And in the highest peaks of the Dragona''s Teeth, in the ancient castle Fangdred, the sorcerer called Varthlokkur uses his arts to spy on the world at large, observing the puppet strings that control kings and empires alike, waiting... For the time of the wrath of kings is almost at hand, and vengeance lies along a path to coldness of heart.

GLEN COOK

A Path to Coldness of Heart

Chapter One:

Year 1016 AFE (After the Founding of the Empire of Ilkazar)

The Price of Hubris

The prisoner clamped his jaw on a shriek. He had moved too suddenly, turning. He did swear softly. He could not work his muscles, could not build the strength to escape if his wounds did not heal. And they would not if he kept trying before the meat was ready.

A clatter rose outside. This austere suite might be his entire world for the remainder of his existence: a reward for having befriended a woman and having saved the life of a man.

It was the middle of the night. Darkness with stars fil ed the single foot square window high in the east wal , wel beyond his reach. He should be sleeping.

He lay in bed, back to the doorway, feigning sleep, when the visitors arrived. Three, from the sounds of it: one large, one smal , one delicate. Female, if fragrance did not lie.

“He heals slowly,” one said. “The physician blames his despair.”

That voice belonged to Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i, commander of Shinsan’s Western Army. It was by Shih-ka’i’s grace that the prisoner lived.

A second familiar voice said, “The physician should look closer. He’s clever. He’l show you what you expect to see til you relax. Then you’l be dead.” The prisoner’s exact strategy. If only his body would heal!

Shih-ka’i said, “The physician says his wounds pierced his soul. He overreached—and it cost him everything.” Mist, Empress of the Dread Empire, considered before she replied. “It can’t be easy, living on after making so many bad decisions.”

The prisoner, who thought of himself only as “the prisoner” because of his shame, compel ed himself to relax, to breathe slow and deep. But he could not stop tears from leaking.

Thousands had died because of his decisions. A kingdom might be destroyed by civil war. His family would be fugitives already. The childwoman he had loved… Who knew? If Sherilee was clever she would insist that she had known him only as someone who visited her friend Kristen, widow of his son and mother of his grandchildren.

He thought about Inger, his wife and queen, seldom. When he did, though, it was with a grand ration of guilt. That love had died.

Inger came to mind when the pain was bad. They met the last time he lay just outside the Dark Gate, she a volunteer nurse helping heroes injured while holding the wolves of the Dread Empire at bay. In his loneliness he had asked her to become his wife.

He had lost another wife, Elana, and another lover, Fiana, before Inger.

Women who loved him did not fare wel .

“Were I in charge here,” said the woman who had been a friend, and a wife to his best friend’s wife’s brother, “and I was sure that he would recover, I would brick up the doorway.”

Lord Ssu-ma said, “I bear the man no love but that is excessive. He’s a cripple. He’l never recover ful y. And he’s nowhere where he can cause any grief.”

The prisoner had no idea where “here” was. Inside Dread Empire territory, certainly. Though Shinsan had suffered severely lately, not one inch of ground had been abandoned How were Shinsan’s wars coming? He had helped facilitate the conclusion of one and had been the loser in another. The Matayangan front must have turned favorable, too. Mist had time to visit.

She observed, “O Shing was a cripple.”

“As you say. Vigilance is required.”

The night visitors withdrew, to the prisoner’s frustration. He had hoped to hear something more heartening.

Despair led to self-flagel ation. Then, final y, feigned sleep segued into the real thing.

...

Inger watched her captains bicker over a map. They were getting nowhere. She was too tired to scold them. Too tired to ask what new disasters had them bickering.

Ethnical y, three were Nordmen from Kavelin’s old ruling class. Two were Wessons, freemen, descendants of long-ago immigrants from Itaskia. Inger was Itaskian-born, as was the sixth man, whom she had borrowed from her cousin Dane. Dane’s little army was wintering fifty miles west of Vorgreberg, too far away to provide quick support.

Regions nearer the capital were less friendly. Dane’s men suffered virulent guerril a attacks if they moved nearer to Vorgreberg. That forced them to cluster in stronger bands.

Those became a strain on local resources, which, in turn, left the locals more sympathetic to the rebels.

Inger refused to let Dane move into the city. She said she did not want to cede the countryside. In truth she did not want her uncontrol able cousin in position to control Kavelin by control ing her.

He would try, given the chance.

Power was his reason for having come to Kavelin.

Power was why she had wed Kavelin’s lonely king.

Inger sipped scalding tea.

She was a tal , handsome woman whose blond hair had begun to streak grey. Time was not the thief of her beauty.

Stress, fear, and lack of sleep were the demons responsible.

The hot tea wakened her ful y. “Silence! Thank you, gentlemen. Using the term loosely. Mr. Cleary, you talk.

Everyone else stay quiet.”

Cleary was the senior Wesson, a stout, sturdy man of thirty-three who had served King Bragi faithful y and remained loyal now that Bragi had fal en. Inger trusted him. The Nordmen and Nathan Wolf, borrowed from Dane of Greyfel s, she trusted not at al . In Wolf ’s case it was no secret that he was here to watch her because Dane no longer had faith in Josiah Gales.

“Ma’am. Your Majesty. The contention arose because General Liakopulos has gone missing. No one knows where, when, or how. He was pol ing units out west to see where they stand, now. Our discussion concerned possible hows and whys of his disappearance.”

Inger’s heart sank. This was bad news indeed, though not a surprise. Liakopulos had had little interest in supporting her. He had been Bragi’s man. He considered her incapable of, or uninterested in, pursuing Bragi’s reforms.

“What are the theories? Mr. Wolf?”

“He deserted. He didn’t want to be here anymore.”

“And the rest of you disagree?”

Two Nordmen, Sir Rengild and Sir Arnhelm, thought the truth more sinister: The Guild General had gone over to the Marena Dimura strongman, Credence Abaca. Sir Arnhelm insisted, “Those two were always cozy.” Which he found repugnant because, as a class, Nordmen considered Marena Dimura less than human woodland savages.

Colonel Abaca and his henchmen had developed massive pretensions during the reign of the lost king—a savage himself who would not distinguish between noble and ignoble.

The third Nordmen, Sir Quirre of Bolt, said nothing. With a slight sneer and shake of the head he expressed contempt for his fel ows. He believed in King Bragi’s vision.

Inger turned to the Wessons. Boyer disagreed completely with Cleary. Neither considered Liakopulos a vil ain. Cleary was sure the General just did not stop heading west when he saw a chance to leave. Boyer was sure that Liakopulos had been murdered. “And rebels didn’t do it. It wil be Greyfel s when the truth comes out. It’s a matter of who stands most to gain, Your Majesty.”

“Spoken like a true money-grubbing merchant,” Sir Arnhelm snarled. “Everything comes down to a balance sheet.”

“Yes, it does,” Inger said. There was no love for the General here. Liakopulos had kept these men in check, favoring no one, contemptuous of them al because he considered them adventurers and plunderers who cared nothing for Kavelin. Bragi, Queen Fiana, and her husband the Krief, who died when Fiana was a teen, had al stretched reason to breaking to create a nation in which al the peoples had a stake.

Inger covered her forehead with her left palm, rubbed, thumb and little finger massaging her temples. “Jokerst, find Colonel Gales. I want him here for a working breakfast tomorrow.”

Gales would replace Liakopulos. He had been understudying, with the General’s assistance. The move was expected. And might be what Dane wanted to see.

Was he behind Liakopulos’s disappearance? He was capable. But would he dare the hostility of the Mercenaries’

Guild?

Inability to predict consequences accurately was the bane of the Greyfel s line. Again and again they dropped stones on their own toes while trying to be clever.

“The rest of you. No more speculation. Get me facts. Find out what actual y happened.”

Several faces went pale. It was dangerous out there.

“One thing can’t be denied,” Sir Arnhelm said. “The break with the old regime. Liakopulos was the last.” Inger suspected that pleased the man no end. “Al of you, go away. I need rest before I go mad.”

They went. She sent for Dr. Wachtel, an overlooked holdover from the old regime. But Wachtel was a holdover from every regime. He was Castle Krief furniture. He had tended Kavelin’s rulers for sixty years, whoever they were.

The doctor provided a draught to make Inger sleep. The medication sometimes had a harsh side effect. It caused vivid, often prescient dreams, some of which would be nightmares.

Inger wakened less rested than she had hoped. She did not remember her dreams but met the new day afraid.

...

Credence Abaca’s Marena Dimura partisans kept their political prizes in comfort but there were limits to what could be managed in the wilds of the Kapenrung Mountains.

Kristen and her companions learned the cost of commitment to a cause, though the privations were social, intel ectual, and circumscription of movement rather than a dearth of food, warmth, or shelter.

The children, including young King Bragi I , did not mind.

They ran wild with the Marena Dimura urchins, getting every bit as filthy and bruised while having just as much fun in the ice, snow, and forests. Kristen tried to convince herself that this was good for a boy who would become king of al Kaveliner peoples, including the disenfranchised Marena Dimura.

Which was their own fault, Kristen believed. They would not leave the wilderness and become part of the nation, though some had done so while Bragi was king. Abaca had been one of the army’s top commanders.

Kristen and Dahl Haas shared a bench inside a cozy cabin equipped with the blatant luxury of a huge glass window. Kristen often wondered where the forest people had stolen it. Snow fel outside. Big chunks hit the window, melted, slid downward as they perished. “Winter here is harder than it is in Vorgreberg.”

“Think so? How about during the Great Eastern Wars?”

“That was one bad winter.” She frowned. It had been more than one winter and had been unimaginably worse than this. Hunger, danger, fear, and sickness had been constant companions.

Haas leaned close, no longer discomfited by his affection for the girl who had been the wife of his king’s son and who was the mother of Bragi’s legitimate heir. Kristen had abandoned reticence long ago. She knew her father-in-law approved.

She said, “Sitting here like this, I don’t think this is such a bad life.”

“How much better the world if everyone were equal y content.”

“You ought to be content. You’ve got me.”

“Somebody is getting a big head.”

Sherilee came for the fire and to watch the snow. The couple said nothing. Speaking to Sherilee gave her license to vent her unhappiness. She could be tiresome.

Sherilee was young, smal , beautiful, almost porcelain in her perfection. She looked years younger than she was, which was only Kristen’s age. In his absence she had become pathological y enamored of King Bragi, based upon a brief, furtive liaison with a man older than her own father. In her dramatic way she had reconstructed her life around what she thought she had lost when the King had fal en.

Sherilee sighed dramatical y.

Her performance drew no response. After further vain sal ies, the tragic dol declared, “There must be something we can do to rescue him.”

Sherilee was one of a tiny number of people who knew King Bragi was alive and a prisoner.

Kristen sighed herself, then plunged into the game.

“Michael Trebilcock and Aral Dantice got away with that once, when they rescued Nepanthe. It won’t work again.

He’s being held by the Tervola, not some dinkle-brain queen of Argon.”

She played loosely with history but facts did not matter here. What did was the undeniable futility of any effort to free the King. To start, no one knew where he was being held. Unless, maybe, Michael Trebilcock or Aral Dantice knew. But Michael was out of touch and Aral no longer haunted Kavelin. Trebilcock might be dead. He had not been seen for months.

But Michael was his own man. He went his own way. And that worried everyone.

Since coming to Kavelin Michael Trebilcock had created his own hidden realm of dedicated friends and al ies who disdained the smal minded politics of the Lesser Kingdoms. Those people believed in the welfare of the whole instead of that of the partisan.

Michael Trebilcock had remained faithful to Bragi while Bragi was king but Bragi was never ful y confident of Trebilcock.

Sherilee asked, “Do you think Aral is in touch with Michael?”

Those two had been friends since their school days in Hel in Daimiel. They had shared several fierce adventures in Kavelin and abroad. Dantice occasional y visited the Marena Dimura during more clement seasons. He lived in Ruderin nowadays but remained in the family business, being part trader, part smuggler, part gangster. Once upon a time, before the wars, his father had been a trader, too. A more legitimate trader.

Aral had one foot firmly in the shadows. Many of his associates over there had spied for Michael Trebilcock.

Dahl said, “Maybe. But Michael would come to him.

Michael lives in his own secret kingdom of loyal friends. I couldn’t guess their ideology, if they have one. Probably something like what Bragi’s was. They aren’t after power.

They col ect information, then dispense it where they think it’l do some good. And they hide each other when there’s a need.”

“He did support the King.”

“As far as we ever saw, he did. He took extreme risks on Bragi’s behalf but Bragi never trusted him completely. Inger is sure that Michael cleaned out the treasury.” Kristen caught something. “Dahl? You know something about that?”

“How could I? I was way far away.”

“Dahl. Talk to me. I’m your Queen Mother, remember?” Sherilee stalked in from the other side, looking ferocious.

“Talk, soldier boy! This is something you shouldn’t be hiding.”

“I’m not hiding anything. I don’t know anything. I just remember what contingency plans there were. It’s just a gut feeling.”

Kristen said, “Talk to me about your digestive troubles.”

“Michael might not be innocent, but that’s only because he was involved in the planning. Emptying the treasury was up to Cham Mundwil er and Derel Prataxis. A merchant prince and a Rebsamen don with an abiding interest in economics.”

Both women held their peace but glared in a way that demanded further commentary.

Dahl said, “Prataxis sometimes talked about how a lack of specie could inhibit economic growth. He believed in a money economy. Meaning he thought we’d al live better if there was a lot of trustworthy coinage circulating. You can’t build a state on the barter system. It always made sense when Derel talked about it. He always had examples.

Kingdoms like Itaskia, where a lot of money is always in motion, grow strong economical y and militarily. In the Lesser Kingdoms, where there isn’t much money, nothing good happens because nobody can pay for it. Kavelin has been an exception because it controls trade through the Savernake Gap.”

“We don’t have that trade anymore,” Kristen said.

“We don’t,” Dahl agreed.

“The theft of the treasury fits how?” Sherilee asked.

“Inger doesn’t have a copper to pay her soldiers. And soldiers don’t usual y want their pay in chickens or corn.”

“Ha-ha,” Kristen said. “That may be. But I haven’t heard of any regiments who declared for Inger fal ing apart because they haven’t gotten paid. And we can’t pay the men who stuck with us.”

“Troops on both sides are on partial pay donated by the wealthy. The Estates for Inger, the merchants of Sedlmayr and the west for us. Inger claims new money is coming from Itaskia. Our friends say Kavelin’s silver mines are pledged to us. Nobody has been asked to fight. Any showdown between men who fought side by side before wil probably cause mass desertions.”

Sherilee proved she was not just a gorgeous face and damned fine everything else. “We can’t mine, refine, and mint enough silver to support production and an army, too.”

“When you get down to it, neither side can afford to pay soldiers who aren’t fighting for what they believe in.” Kristen said, “So most of them wil go home, whether or not they loved Bragi. We should find the treasury money.” Haas said, “My love, the girl genius. One problem.

Everybody who knew anything about it died in the riots after the King’s fal .”

“Except Michael Trebilcock. And maybe General Liakopulos.”

“Remote and remoter.”

“Meaning?”

“Liakopulos is dead. Probably murdered by the Itaskians.

As for Michael, I don’t honestly believe he survived, either.

But if he did he isn’t going to help us.” Sherilee and Kristen glared. Haas thought that unfair. Such lovelies deserved to have nothing weightier than fashion on their minds.

Yet another way Kavelin distorted the natural order. Kavelin boasted strong women who made remarkable things happen.

...

Dane, Duke of Greyfel s, want-to-be lord of Kavelin, paced before a fireplace. His newly acquired headquarters was large, old, and draughty. It overlooked Damhorst, a key town on the east-west trade route through Kavelin. The castle was the ancestral home of the Breitbarth barons.

Claimants to that title had been eliminated.

Greyfel s had taken the castle by stealth. He and his adventurers now enjoyed shelter, warmth, and security but seldom dared go out in bands of fewer than a dozen.

The locals were mainly Wesson, ethnic cousins of the Itaskians. Political y, though, they favored the line of King Bragi through his first wife.

Greyfel s favored a succession through Ragnarson’s latest wife, his cousin Inger.

Dane of Greyfel s was not happy. He had come to Kavelin expecting to put the kingdom in his pocket before winter.

But winter was here, ferociously, and he was stil far from Vorgreberg, hurrying the family decline toward destitution.

His troops were melting away, mainly through desertion.

Replacements, when he could find any, were untrained, unskil ed, and belonged in cel s rather than under arms.

His personal attendant announced, “Gales is here, Lordship.”

“About damned time. He was due yesterday.”

“He had trouble getting through. He’s wounded. So are those of his escort who survived.”

Though in a foul temper Greyfel s did not yield to the unreason that, too often, left him unable to concede that events could, on occasion, disdain his wishes. He said only, “Clean him up, then bring him in.” He did not like dirty people. He loathed the sight of old blood.

“As you wil , Your Lordship.”

The family sorcerer showed up.

“Babeltausque?”

“May I join you, Your Lordship?”

Dane scowled. Fat people were another dislike. Greyfel s further disliked Babeltausque because he was expensive to maintain. He was the best paid of any Greyfel s retainer, and the least useful, lately.

The Duke was convinced that Babeltausque was a coward and that he knew things he would not share with his employer.

Greyfel s was incapable of understanding that he was what the sorcerer feared. Babeltausque withheld information he thought might spark the kind of rage that might lead to him getting hurt.

Greyfel s asked, “You have a reason?”

“To col ect information. I have trouble working in the dark.”

“You don’t work at al .”

“To work I must be given tasks. Plausible, possible tasks.

Not pie in the sky, wishful thinking tasks.” Babeltausque had found his courage today. “Bridge builders are constrained by the limits of their materials. A sorcerer is constrained by the limits of the Power.”

“Varthlokkur never seemed limited.”

“Only from outside. He was. He is. He makes what he does look easy because he’s ancient and far more talented than me.”

Greyfel s grumbled but did not send the sorcerer away.

Babeltausque found a shadow and settled. He resented the Duke’s attitude but understood it. He was just a house sorcerer, under contract. He lacked a grasp of the Power sufficient to make it as an independent. He could help heal scrapes and bruises. He could retard meat spoilage. He read the tarot imperfectly and the stars the same. His divinations were reliable out to about three hours. He did read character wel , usual y recognized lies, and could anticipate danger’s approach, particularly when that included him.

His most valuable talent was the ability to remain calm and bland of expression in the face of fear or provocation. He used that talent frequently. Greyfel s was an ambitious beast blessed with cunning and a complete lack of scruples

—typical of his line. He was neither the worst nor the best duke that Babeltausque had known. He was mediocre in most ways. He stood out because of his rages.

Those assured Dane’s early demise, probably as soon as someone believed he had a chance to get away with it.

Babeltausque’s most important chore was to protect the Duke from his own family, which was not that difficult out here.

The tradition of elevating oneself over the corpse of one’s father, brother, or uncle had not been much honored of late.

Only outsiders had laid the Greyfel s Dukes low with any verve the past three decades. But the possibility survived in Dane’s imagination.

If this Duke met an early end the House of Greyfel s might col apse. There were no relatives suited to replace him.

Enemies in Itaskia must be busy as worker ants trying to make that happen while Greyfel s was away. Returning deserters would tel encouraging tales of Dane’s incompetence, which explained why he grew ever more testy. Every day of triumph delayed out here was a day when the family lost ground at home.

Colonel Gales entered. He wore clean clothing that did not fit. His hair was stringy wet from an unwanted bath. His face was red from a rough shave. His right arm was in a sling.

He limped.

Greyfel s, of course, first noted that he needed a haircut.

The Colonel bowed.

The Duke said, “I hear you had some trouble.”

“We got ambushed by Marena Dimura. They knew who we were and had our itinerary.”

“But you fought through.” Stating the obvious.

“They didn’t press the matter. They hit us, hurt us, failed to kil me in the first rush, started getting hurt themselves, so they faded away. I didn’t chase them. We were al hurt and they would’ve led us into a secondary ambush.” Greyfel s grunted. He was not pleased but he understood.

That was everyday life in Kavelin.

Gales said, “Abaca is content to wear us down a man at a time.”

“Too true. Josiah, I’m starting to think I miscalculated when I decided to do this.”

“Don’t feel badly, Lordship. This kingdom ends up making everyone over into a pessimist, whether you love it or hate it.”

The man in shadow studied Duke and soldier. Gales enjoyed remarkable freedoms. He and Greyfel s had known each other since childhood. Stil , the Duke looked like he wanted to hurt somebody. He control ed the beast within.

“Tel me why I’m stil out here, Josiah. Why am I not enjoying a cozy fire inside Castle Krief?”

“I can put no kinder face on it than to tel you that Inger wants it this way. She doesn’t trust you. She’s determined not to let you in til she knows you won’t steal her throne.” The watcher thought that would waken the beast for sure.

The Duke did puff up and turn red but control ed himself again. He managed better with Gales than with anyone else. “I can see that from both the Kavelin disease and family familiarity angles. What she’s been through since we got her to marry Ragnarson has made her leery of everyone.”

Especial y family, the sorcerer reflected.

“There lies the matter’s heart, Lord. We talk frequently.

Lately, she has been concerned less with Wesson resistance or Colonel Abaca than about your intentions.

You mention the Kavelin disease. I think she’s caught it.

She believes it’s possible to come to terms with her local enemies. She has started hinting that she wants me to find a way to get you to go home.”

“Real y?” Surprised. Greyfel s could not imagine a female cousin defying him.

“Real y. She doesn’t know my true loyalties. She thinks I’l support her in anything because of an obligation between me and her father. She is inclined toward sentimental thinking.”

“I see.” Sounding less than convinced of Gales’s faith. But he had to be paranoid. People were out to get him.

Gales said, “Inger has no friends and few sympathizers.

She has no one to count on in the narrow passage. She’s alone except for Fulk.”

Greyfel s stopped pacing. He placed himself at parade rest, back to the fire. “It doesn’t matter a whit who controls her son, does it?”

“No, Lord. Fulk is King. Confirmed by the Thing and the Estates. I’ve been thinking…”

“I think I know, Josiah. My cousin is in grave danger. This kingdom is renown for its intrigues. Her family should put her under our protection for her own sake.”

“Exactly, Your Lordship!”

Babeltausque smel ed a king-size load of what, technical y, was cal ed bul shit. But which man had tipped the cart?

Gales stayed the evening and night, mostly heads together with the Duke.

Babeltausque suspected that success at gaining Vorgreberg and Castle Krief would mean less than Greyfel s hoped. His writ would extend no farther than he could see from the capital’s wal . And that might be problematic.

Other forces were at work.

Chapter Two:

1016–1017 AFE:

Mountains Far

Fangdred bestrode one of the highest peaks in the Dragon’s Teeth. Who built the castle was a mystery, as was how the engineering had been achieved. Fangdred had been there for countless centuries. Its current population was miniscule and included several mummies.

Many of the living would not, strictly appraised, easily pass for sane. The sorcerer had worn many names, including Empire Destroyer, but, commonly, was cal ed Varthlokkur. He employed his arts to spy on the wider world while he wrestled the demands of love, honor, and pride.

He observed careful y, painful y aware that mortals were subject to manipulation by puppet masters unseen and driven by imperatives that might not make sense even to them.

He spent hours every day looking for puppeteers, with little success. He was able to track factions in Kavelin, where everyone acted on best guesses while guessing wrong. His successes elsewhere were less clear. The lords of the Dread Empire were wary. Getting anywhere near the Empress was problematic. What he did see might be staged for his eyes.

He did manage one triumph beyond the Pil ars of Ivory. He stumbled across a man he had thought long dead, a fugitive who had escaped from Lioantung during its destruction by the Deliverer. That man was headed home, now.

The wizard did what he dared as the man’s guardian angel. Varthlokkur’s mad pride had done irreparable harm during the business of the Deliverer. He had yet to understand what had driven him to such stubborn excess.

His excuse had been his fear of losing his wife, but common sense saw that battle won wel beforehand.

On the other hand, that fool Ragnarson had been just as stubborn… “Damn it!” His blood was rising for no sane reason.

He could not back down. He could not admit that he had been wrong. Yet he had cost Kavelin dearly. Protecting Haroun during his long journey west was slight recompense but it might pay off in time to come.

Haroun carried his own guilt burden.

Varthlokkur’s wife let herself into his Wind Tower work chamber, unannounced and uninvited. She found him focused on his monstrous creation, Radeachar the Unborn, that he used to ferret out secrets and to terrify vil ains.

Nepanthe was pale of skin and dark of hair, brooding and shy. Sorcery kept her looking young, as it did her husband.

Varthlokkur appeared to be in his early thirties but was centuries older. He considered Nepanthe the most perfect woman ever to live. She was his great weakness and absolute blind spot. His love was fierce. That psychosis had so tormented him that he had let it shape today’s shattered world.

Nepanthe said nothing. She watched Varthlokkur spy here, send Radeachar there, then enter the blazing construct of the Winterstorm. His manipulation of bril iant floating symbols shaped changes far away. Snow might melt early and raise waters enough so an army patrol would not discover the fugitive from Lioantung. An icy gust might assail the camp of some of the Itaskians trying to take over in Kavelin, starting fires. An agent of Queen Inger might be about to stumble onto the loot from Kavelin’s treasury when something stirring in a sudden darkness so terrified him that he would never go near that pond again. An avalanche might block the route of an il -advised winter raid by Colonel Abaca’s Marena Dimura partisans. A bridge col apse beyond the northern frontier might abort an equal y il -

advised winter incursion from Volstokin.

He watched Hammad al Nakir less determinedly. There the daughter of the Disciple, Yasmid, pursued a sporadic, fratricidal civil war against her son Megelin while her father sank ever deeper into a permanent opium dream. There was a special need to watch the son. Megelin’s key al y was the dark sorcerer Magden Norath, who might be as powerful as the Empire Destroyer himself. No one knew what moved Norath. He created monsters that were almost impossible to destroy, for no more obvious reason than a lust for destruction.

Norath was weak now, though. He had become the principal target of El Murid’s suicide kil er cult, the Harish.

He thwarted every attack but only after it got close enough to hurt him. Damage was accumulating.

Varthlokkur turned to something of no interest. Nepanthe moved on to the shrunken stasis globe where once the Princes Thaumaturge of the Dread Empire had been trapped, then had murdered one another. Why had Varthlokkur kept that in this diminished form? Why had he not ground the princes to dust, then burnt the dust? Would that be impossible? Could be. It had taken the Star Rider’s power to capture them.

She had been there, but that was al she could remember clearly— other than that it had been a terrible night. She feared that she had done something she dared not remember.

She shied away. Those days were gone. Horrible times, they had been fol owed by more horrible times. It had taken many ugly seasons to bring her here, to a remote place and a life with a man she respected deeply but did not love, nursing her insane son by her first husband and raising an eerie daughter by the second.

Nepanthe drifted round the Winterstorm, as ever wonderstruck. Once Varthlokkur had fil ed her hair with those glowing symbols… Another memory she did not want to relive.

She turned to her husband. They had been at odds for months because he had been so determined to shield her from the pain of learning that her son Ethrian had become a monster. He had been that insecure.

Enough! She teetered at the brink of a slide into a hel that existed only in the bleak realms of What If? and Might Have Been. This was now. Now was here. They two had to act as one. Innumerable divinations were iron about that.

Varthlokkur left the Winterstorm. He was exhausted. He took a seat. Nepanthe moved in close, to support him with the warmth of her presence.

In a whisper, he said, “Every day I drive myself to the verge of col apse, trying to hold back the night. But I don’t do any good.”

“Let it go. Turn away. Focus on us and the children. The fire wil burn itself out without you.”

“Am I resisting the tide of destiny? Are my efforts pointless?”

“It may take everything you have just to raise Ethrian and Smyrena to be marginal y sane adults.”

Varthlokkur nodded. The children were in his thoughts always. Al four, not just Nepanthe’s babes. “I wish. But bad things happened. Some were my fault. I can’t help trying to make that right.”

Nepanthe did not argue. There was no changing his mind, be his choices good, evil, or just stubbornly unreasonable.

And it was true that he had unleashed some of the darkness stalking the world today.

She asked, “What’s the situation now?”

“They’ve moved Bragi to Throyes. He’l never break out, now, and even I couldn’t get him away from this place.”

“And Haroun?”

“One day at a time. Stil headed home. Stil sheltered by the fact that nobody knows he’s alive.”

“And you’re helping.”

“Not so he’l notice. He’s hard. He’s convinced that he can go anywhere any time because he’s a master shaghûn now.”

Today’s Haroun resembled Varthlokkur at a similar age.

Prolonged observation left the wizard feeling an eerie déjà vu.

Haroun had no boundaries. He could kil or be cruel without thought, remorse, or regret. He did terrible things to people who got in his way and lost not a minute of sleep. He would do the same on behalf of his friends. Or to his friends if they became silhouetted against his destination.

Varthlokkur did not sleep much anymore, not because of demands on his time. There were long stretches when his body felt no need. But there were other times, for a week or two, when he would sleep twelve hours a day. At present he needed only the occasional nap.

Of late, in his manic stretches, he had begun using Radeachar to probe the mysteries surrounding its creation.

The key points were known. In a mad, complex scheme involving the Captal of Savernake, Yo Hsi, the Demon Prince of the Dread Empire, had impregnated the barely old enough Queen Fiana with seed special y prepared in Shinsan. Though the truth had surfaced only recently, Old Meddler had had a hand in it, too. The scheme had col apsed. Fiana bore a daughter instead of the devil the conspirators wanted. So they switched that daughter for their own child, at the time unaware of the girl’s sex.

Years later, fol owing the death of her husband, the King, Fiana enjoyed a liaison with Bragi Ragnarson. She became pregnant. That had to be concealed for political reasons.

Fiana died in childbed, birthing the thing the conspirators had planted in her womb years before. Some twist in time had transposed her pregnancies. Varthlokkur suspected the Star Rider.

The horror within Fiana was too large for her birth canal.

Her bel y had been opened. The monster passed into Varthlokkur’s control and became his terrible familiar, Radeachar.

Al that was known to a few survivors of al the war and wickedness since, including, possibly, the dark wight creeping westward through the Dread Empire, sometimes in stages of only yards a day.

Recently, while trying to winkle out anything more about how the Unborn had come to be, Varthlokkur had stumbled across an ugly truth. There had been a day when the King Without a Throne thought it necessary to dispose of a prince named Gaia-Lange, and then a little princess, convinced as he had been that they were instruments of the Dread Empire.

How Old Meddler must have laughed.

Haroun had made two cruel choices and both had been bad. To this day no one suspected. Especial y not Bragi Ragnarson.

Since then the King Without a Throne had done the unexpected several times by hurling his Royalists at the enemies of Kavelin’s King Bragi. No one could fathom why.

Some thought that was because several young Mercenary Guildsmen—Ragnarson, his brother, and friends— had saved Haroun repeatedly when he was a boy.

Haroun could not confess the greatest misjudgment of his life. He could not confess a sin that never stirred a feather of suspicion.

Varthlokkur had stumbled onto the truth and had been appal ed. He, who could justify his own foulest deeds, could not understand what had moved Haroun to murder those children.

The guilt that shaped what Haroun had done since was no mystery. Varthlokkur knew guilt wel . Guilt was a lifelong, intimate companion.

...

The fugitive’s life was narrow and smal . He was unique in his ability to focus on himself and his surroundings. He always saw the needful thing where survival was concerned. He had long-term goals, medium-term goals, and goals that did not go beyond the moment. Every moment negotiated led to another, then another. Enough conquered moments became a successful y completed short-term goal.

While no match for the Tervola of Shinsan, Haroun was a trained shaghûn, a military sorcerer, the best of recent times. That was not saying much, though. The Disciple had forbidden the practice amongst his fol owers. His enemies disdained shaghûnry as unmanly.

Haroun employed his skil s sparingly. Feral sorcery, if noticed, was suppressed quickly and lethal y inside the Dread Empire.

Haroun’s strengths were wil and patience. He had endured trials that would have crushed most men. And the miracle was not that he had come through but that he had come through every time. Even the heroes of the epics managed only once or twice.

He knew nothing else. Settling down with his wife to raise a crop of grandchildren was beyond his capacity to imagine.

He was obsessed. He was driven. He was the King Without a Throne. This was the life that his God had ordained.

There were few viable passes through the Pil ars of Heaven and Pil ars of Ivory, from Shinsan to the broad plains between that double range and the Mountains of M’Hand, the latter forming the shield wal of the west. He dared not be seen in those high, tight, narrowly watched passages.

He crossed the hard way, sometimes even avoiding the game trails favored by smugglers.

There came a day, though, when he relaxed in the shade of a giant cedar and congratulated himself on having crossed al of the Dread Empire without getting caught.

But… This was stil territory Shinsan ruled. The epic must continue, with the going a little easier. Hazards would be fewer and less determined.

While resting he indulged in thoughts of his wife, his son, and possible futures.

He shut al that down and resumed moving. He could not relax til he reached Hammad al Nakir, and then never til he found Yasmid.

The instant he relaxed his vigilance would be his final moment of freedom.

He was certain that of al the lonely people in his world he was the loneliest. And the most significant. He was a linchpin of history. He would, if he survived, definitely shape tomorrow.

He did not just have a powerful wil . He was not just driven.

He had an obsessive sense of destiny.

He did, perhaps, overvalue himself. There were lonely operators out there who made his mortal moment look like a lone spark of a lightning bug in springtime. Of those Old Meddler was the foremost and oldest.

Haroun gave the Star Rider a lot of thought when he did not have survival on his mind.

...

“Is that Haroun?” Nepanthe asked.

“Yes. He’s final y through the Pil ars of Heaven.”

“I thought he was dead.”

Varthlokkur frowned. Was she having memory problems again? “He

was a prisoner in Lioantung. Caught trying to rescue Mocker.” Her first husband, his son, now dead, slain in a failed attempt to murder Bragi Ragnarson.

Would this failure be permanent? Or would the memories return one more time? “He escaped in the confusion when the Deliverer came to Lioantung. He would’ve been home long since if we’d known that they had him.”

“He went to rescue Mocker? Al the way to Lioantung?

Why?” “He did. Because he was deceived by the Pracchia.”

“That’s so hard to believe.” Nepanthe had loathed Haroun forever.

His ambitions had had a brutal impact on her life.

Haroun had pul ed her first husband into one cruel saga after another. Again, “He went there to rescue Mocker?”

“Yes. Haroun bin Yousif is unique, darling. He abandoned his own dreams to save Bragi, too, because of a debt of honor.” Nepanthe knew nothing about the horrors Varthlokkur had discovered. She would not learn. He would keep that to himself forever.

He did fear that Old Meddler might know and would not hesitate to spread the news if that would stir the pot of action and hatred.

The Empire Destroyer spent a lot of time pondering how best to misdirect or tame that ancient wickedness.

“But…”

“Dear heart, this shouldn’t surprise you. These men have al done mad things on behalf of those they value. Michael Trebilcock and Aral Dantice twice trekked al the way to Argon to effect your rescue. Ragnarson risked an army to get you back. That nobility of purpose is who they are.” But they could be mislead.

“Al right. But… Varth, I don’t remember things so good anymore.”

True. Her twitchy memory left him impatient when she asked the same question over again. More frustrating was the fact that the problem was intermittent and unpredictable.

“You’re helping him get back, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Haroun may be the last hope of the west.”

“What?”

“The Dread Empire is approaching the end of its terrible trials. The threat from the east has been eliminated. The talismanic focus of defiance in the west, Bragi Ragnarson, has been swept from the game board. The war with Matayanga is winding down. Matayanga has exhausted its resources and wil . And, as always, Shinsan remains wil ing to fight for as long as it takes. Stability exists at the Imperial level. Mist has eliminated everyone wil ing to chal enge her.” Nepanthe wondered about her sister-in-law’s personal life.

What did Mist intend for the children Valther had fathered?

Varthlokkur said, “If bin Yousif gets home in time, and reclaims his place, there’l be a strongman who can resist the next onslaught.”

“Wil you be involved if that happens?” Nepanthe’s gaze was hard. She was unhappy with Varthlokkur these days, though she did not always remember why.

He had made choices, on her behalf, without consulting her.

Neither those choices nor their results pleased her, when she did remember.

“I wil play a part.”

That offered a chance to carp. She let it go.

She wanted desperately to stop fighting about things that could not be changed. She wanted to make him do the right thing from now on.

...

The Lady Yasmid stood atop the wal of a fortress her father had built as a boy, on deciding to establish himself here at the place cal ed Path of the Cross. War had not troubled Sebil el Selib after El Murid moved on to Al Rhemish. But time had seen him disestablished there. War was back.

War’s aftermath was back.

The survivors of the conflict with Throyes and Shinsan had assembled below. The fighting had been unkind to them but they considered themselves the victors. The invaders had gone away.

Yasmid knew the truth. The enemy had gone because of a shift of political wind inside the Dread Empire. Bragi of Kavelin had penetrated the Roë Basin, forcing the enemy to realign his assets. Shinsan’s Lord Hsung had been replaced by Tervola interested in concluding the wars Shinsan already had elsewhere.

But let the warriors believe. Let them be proud. Another enemy was coming. Her son, Megelin, was coming. That stupid boy, with Magden Norath skulking through the shadows, behind monsters sent to spread terror and destruction. Magden Norath, who was the maddest and possibly most powerful sorcerer in the west.

Megelin. Her son. The King of Hammad al Nakir.

What insane whim had driven Haroun to pass power to the boy? He had known that Megelin was unfit.

Three men shared Yasmid’s vantage. The nearest, physical y and emotional y, was old Habibul ah, who had been her bodyguard when she was a child and was her closest conspirator as an adult. He had helped purge the Faithful of the worst lapses of her father and his fel ow founders. Habibul ah’s clarity of vision had become the foundation of her rule. Without Habibul ah, she feared, she would be lost.

A second man was an enigma.

Elwas bin Farout al-Souki was a self-made champion. His mother had been a prostitute in the foreign quarter of Souk el Arba, beyond the Jebal, on the coast of the Sea of Kotsüm. Elwas had risen from recruit to commander of ten thousand by acclamation of the men with whom he rode. He won battles and brought his fol owers home. That overrode al else with the war fighters.

Yasmid knew little about Elwas. His rise had occurred while she was elsewhere. He was a solid Believer. His coloring and shape said that his father was a black man. Other characteristics suggested that his mother had been a refugee from over the Sea of Kotsüm. Those things mattered little in the forest of swords. They did matter at court, where men of old families felt slighted if an outsider received honors.

Yasmid refused to be distracted by pettiness, nor did she tolerate it.

The third man, able to stand only with assistance, unable to communicate rational y, was El Murid, the Disciple, Yasmid’s father, the salt trader’s son whose cal ing had set the west awash in blood. Whose inspiration, invoked, could send thousands to the slaughter even now.

El Murid was old before his time. He was crippled. He was partly blind. Incessant pain had led him to opiate addiction.

He was so enslaved by the drug he could no longer be drawn into the real world long enough to generate a useful thought. He had no say anymore but remained a powerful symbol. He could be shown and men would gal op to their deaths screaming his name.

That the Disciple was in bad health was no secret. But his appearances were staged to leave fanatic rank and file convinced that their prophet could not be overcome by mundane evils.

The warriors looking on today had not yet recuperated from the Throyen campaign. They had not had enough time with their families. They were tired of war but war was not tired of them. They were pul ing themselves together for one more campaign. If they did not, war would devour them and theirs.

The King, Megelin, son of Haroun, son of Yousif, would show his mother and grandfather no mercy. He would attack til he ended the long contest between Royalist and Believer.

Yasmid prayed that her son’s fol owers were more war-weary than her own.

In an introspective moment she wondered how much responsibility for the state of the world lay with her family. Of late, every people, every nation, every kingdom seemed to be at war al the time, indulging in civil strife when no other war was available.

Warfare had been much less common before El Murid began to preach.

Chapter Three:

Winter, 1017 AFE:

Scattered Views

Inger had schooled herself to be cruel when that was appropriate. Her attempt to produce a fierce face for her regime failed. Most supporters stil thought she was too soft toward her opponents and too entangled in her husband’s reforms.

Her enemies cal ed her a tyrant determined to eradicate al the good that Bragi had done.

She had support amongst the Wessons, regional y. That largest ethnic group had liberated themselves from feudal concepts in place since the Nordmen imposed themselves as the ruling class.

The Siluro were almost extinct. They played no significant political role anymore. The Marena Dimura had abandoned the cities after Bragi went down. They ruled the forests and mountains and made themselves obnoxious by supporting Bragi I . Inger’s advisors thought they would be nothing but a nuisance.

When it came to the day to day, only Wessons and Nordmen counted. Sadly, too many Wessons in the eastern and southern provinces al ied their ambitions with those of the Marena Dimura. Only the Nordmen Estates and Inger’s cousin backed Fulk. And the solidity of that might be more show than iron fact.

Rage seized Inger. This chaos existed only because one wild man had not been able to control his dick.

Heat fil ed Inger’s cheeks. She reddened further, recal ing a rumor that Bragi had found yet another lover when his lust for her cooled down. A brat barely old enough to bleed if the gossip was true. A girl younger than some of his children.

His dead children. The survivors were pre-adolescents. If they survived. Dane had tried to kil them.

Inger’s conniving Greyfel s blood considered starting a rumor that Bragi I had been sired by the King on his own son’s wife. She laughed. There was no chance that was true but it was the sort of canard that spread from border to border overnight. If she could produce one believable witness…

“Josiah, I can’t believe the ugly things I find inside my head.” Gales grunted, rol ed over. Only his eyes shone from beneath the covers. It was freezing. Servants did not visit the Queen’s bedchamber during the night.

He was not interested. He was being courteous because his lover was speaking. Al he wanted was to sleep. But that was impermissible. He could not be here when morning brought Inger’s dressers.

“Get up. You have to go.”

Grumpily, groggily, Gales dragged himself out, got halfway dressed. A peck of a kiss and he was gone, sliding out via one of the hidden passages that worm-holed Castle Krief and had played so large a role in the stronghold’s checkered history. Even the late Krief had not known them al .

Inger watched the panel shut, heard the catch click. She was not quite sure of Josiah. She did know he loved her.

He had since she was a maid. But she was a Greyfel s and the Greyfel s reality consisted of layered schemes, schemes within schemes, and conspiracies so convoluted the conspirators themselves lost track of what they hoped to accomplish.

Josiah said he was working for her. But he told Dane the same thing. He told each of them that he was setting the other up. He admitted that Dane was no longer confident of his loyalty.

But she was in no position not to rely on Gales.

Josiah was her best hope for maintaining herself and Fulk.

Inger was not religious. Few of her people were. The Greyfel s outlook was that God helped those who forced their way to the head of the line. But now she got down on her knees and prayed.

...

The Empress looked too young for the role. Her appearance did not deceive her associates. Her vanity was legendary. Her seventeen-seeming had aged only a year in centuries, though she had borne two children.

She was exhausted. She had not had a good night’s sleep in months. Neither had anyone else amongst the soldiers and lords of the Dread Empire. Top to bottom, frontier to frontier, wars and scrambles for power had imposed intolerable stresses. Only the hardy remained.

Beautiful even in distress, Mist asked, “They want a truce?” Lord Ssu-ma said, “They want to negotiate an armistice.” “That got lost in translation. Grant them twenty hours of peace. I’l pul rank and get some sleep. The rest of you should indulge yourselves, too.”

Lord Ssu-ma said, “An indulgence I mean to urge on everyone, Il ustrious. The Matayangans have no capacity to take advantage.”

“Can we get up and moving again if we lie down?”

“In a limited fashion. Local y. After further rest.” After a lot of rest, Mist suspected. Even the most hardened veterans had reached their limits. That Matayanga had begun to col apse was due entirely to the stubborn warrior culture of the legions. Matayanga had spent every treasure, every sorcery, every soul, trying to swarm and swamp its enemies before Shinsan, already battered and distressed, could steel itself on that frontier.

“I’m quitting now,” Mist murmured. She wanted to ask if she dared demand unconditional surrender. She wanted to ask if anyone had heard how her children were. She had not seen them in months. Most of al , she wanted to question the Tervola about the potential consequences of peace.

She did none of those things. She col apsed. Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i, the pig farmer’s son, placed her on a field cot.

...

Queen Inger’s liaison with the commander of her bodyguards was a deep secret, yet there were those in the know. The far sorcerer Varthlokkur knew via the Unborn.

Another who knew was the invisible Michael Trebilcock.

Michael had been out of sight so long he had been forgotten by most people. But he was not far away. People who knew him saw him al the time without recognizing him.He appeared to have aged considerably.

...

In far Itaskia interested men within the War Ministry noted that most rumors about the Greyfel s party were proving to be true. It was an excel ent time to squeeze that clutch of troublemakers. That wicked, traitorous family appeared unable to withstand sustained financial and political pressure with Duke Dane off on a mad, expensive adventure.

...

The missing Guild General Machens Liakopulos, having gone unseen for months, came to the attention of outsiders while crossing a courtyard at High Crag, the mother fortress of the Mercenaries’ Guild. He had just spoken to a council of the Guild’s old men.

The witness who recognized him and cared enough to ask questions learned that the General had retired in one of the grand apartments that had come available when High Crag cleansed itself of the Pracchia disease.

The General felt badly about abandoning Kavelin but he felt no compulsion to sacrifice himself on the altar of kingdom worship that had claimed so many old companions. The King was dead. His dream died with him.

Wicked Inger could fry in her own drippings. Machens Liakopulos was old. He was tired. And he was done with ungrateful Kavelin.

...

One-time Lord Kuo Wen-chin was weary of exile but only exile let him enjoy any life at al . Once he had been overlord of al Shinsan. Those who had displaced him would eliminate him instantly should they learn that he lived.

But the wishful heart wil so often not attend the practical mind.

Kuo’s world was a lifeless island off a desert coast far from civilization and farther stil from the heart of his homeland. It was a storied island but most of its tales were ancient beyond recol ection. Three living beings knew what part it played in the Nawami Crusades. A handful more had heard of the laboratories of Ehelebe. The most terrible horrors subsided into stil darkness after a few mil ennia.

Kuo amused himself by learning what he could from his surroundings. But months fled. Learning became tedious.

He had moments when he cursed Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i for having harkened to his appeal for sanctuary.

Kuo Wen-chin appreciated the honor his friend had done him. And Kuo was a patient man. But his patience was wearing.

He was too much alone. Food came unannounced and anonymously, arriving through a one-way portal. Nothing left the island.

Maybe Lord Ssu-ma had fal en fighting the Deliverer, or in the war with Matayanga. Or politics might have consumed him.

Yet someone kept sending supplies.

He shared the island with only one organism more complex than an insect or spider. Or the rare seabird that landed only perforce. Birds neither nested nor hunted here. They fled as soon as they had the power to go.

Wen-chin had found a crazy old man in a cel beneath the fortress that slithered along the spine of the island. The old man was little more than a ghost, physical y and mental y.

Wen-chin found some purpose in nursing the ancient, who had suffered a mind-shattering trauma. He did not know who he was nor how he had come to be here, yet he had crystal ine memories of things that had taken place thousands of years ago. He could describe forgotten storms of destruction in intimate detail, dropping the names of warlords and wizards whose empires and sorceries were less than an echo today.

The old man also had plenty to say about Old Meddler when Wen-chin questioned him patiently, and could shape his questions cleverly enough to elicit answers that made sense.

Wen-chin never realized who his companion must be. He did conclude that the halfwit might be valuable. And mining the ancient’s memories did pass the time.

...

The King of Hammad al Nakir, Megelin, son of Haroun, held his mount’s reins. Dismounted, he stood atop a barren rise, stared across a brown waste, uphil , at el Aswad, the mighty eastern fortress, now abandoned. Beloul and the other old men who lived there when they were young cal ed it the Fortress in Shadow because it had persisted defiantly in the shadow of the Disciple for years. El Aswad was where Megelin’s father had been born. The family had countless ghosts up there.

Haroun bin Yousif first walked into the fires that forged the King Without a Throne there.

Megelin was neither bright nor sentimental but emotion did move him now. He had brought his army far out of its way so he could see his father’s birthplace. Haroun had dedicated his being to destroying the insanity of a sun-stricken madman so audacious as to declare himself the mouth of God. A madman who became Megelin’s grandfather.

The Royalists passed behind their King, headed north.

Once the army reached Sebil el Selib it would exterminate the dregs of the madman’s fanatics. And Megelin would destroy his surviving relatives.

Those who disdain history eat the same dirt twice.

The trace from el Aswad to Sebil el Selib passed through country where salty lakes had lain in Imperial times. Today those were white pans sprawled at the feet of mountains where the marks of ancient shorelines could stil be discerned. Most of the flats were white as swaths of linen.

One, though, had discolorations flecking its face. Rust stains. No one in this army had seen the pan before. Rains, though rare, and wind had disguised the evidence of disaster.

That place was hot despite the season. The air was unpleasant. Dust stirred by the horses burned noses and throats. Megelin had a presentiment that the place was more portentous than it appeared.

Maybe he heard the screams of the ghosts.

The animals sensed more than the men. They were reluctant to go on.

The warriors of the Disciple materialized on the far side of the flat. They advanced slowly on a broad front. Their mockeries crossed the salt as though borne by the devils of the air. They numbered half as many as the Royalists men but their confidence was immense. God was at their back.

The King’s warriors needed no urging to go punish those fools.

When Megelin’s father was a boy stil awaiting his first whisker another Royalist army had faced another force of Believers across this same white sheet. Those Royalists had been devoured.

These Royalists reached that part of the lake where there was brine under the salt crust. Through they fel , struggling to avoid drowning and being turned into human pickles.

Riders kept piling into the trap from behind. Even Magden Norath’s monsters died in the heavy brine.

Times had changed. At the height of the Pracchia menace the only way to deal with Norath’s creatures had been to bury them alive in concrete. They had been possessed of a vitality that could not be defeated by weapons or sorcery.

But those beasts had been unable to stand daylight. These, though terrible enough, had given up much to endure under the eye of the sun.

In the earlier battle Royalist forces had pressed forward, taking the fight to the Faithful. This time they had no Guild infantry to stiffen their line. This time the fight lasted half as long.

Modern results matched the historical except that no ambushes had been set to further humiliate those who fled.

Only Varthlokkur, watching from Fangdred, ful y appreciated what Elwas al-Souki had accomplished.

Magden Norath saw only the destruction of his children, who could not be replaced. His laboratories were gone.

For survivors on both sides the results were sufficient.

There had been a winner, there had been a loser, and the loser had suffered badly. The loser would go away but the Faithful would take back nothing they had lost before. Both sides would hang up their swords for a while. Forever, if Yasmid could get her son to listen.

...

One creature somewhere would be frustrated. Wars everywhere were winding down. He would not be seen much, though, if he understood that a lot of people were thinking about him. His great strength, over the ages, had been that people did not take notice. But that was changing.

His hand had been too heavy lately.

...

The Royalist survivors scurried back to Al Rhemish.

They wasted a winter on recriminations. The old men, left behind when the “final campaign” launched, said much less than those who had ridden the salt. They had no need to say, “I told you so.”

Was there a chance they would be consulted next time Megelin had a wild hair?

Probably not.

...

Credence Abaca summoned Kristen. The order was couched as a gracious request but the mother of the king-who-would-be knew she had no choice. While she and her friends, and the children, were guests of the Marena Dimura they were beholden and at the mercy of the forest people. They dared not put on airs. The Marena Dimura might just stop fil ing the extra mouths. And this would be a hard winter.

Al winters were harsh after dislocations during the benign seasons. Kristen did not go alone. That would not have been proper. Dahl Haas joined her trek through the cold forest. He entered the Colonel’s family cabin behind her. He was not al owed near the war chief but neither was he deprived of his weapons. He waited where he could see Kristen al the time. He was made comfortable.

Credence Abaca was a smal , dark man, famous for his vitality and energy. These days, though, he was bent and wrinkled. He had a palsy in his left hand. Not good. He was left-handed.

“Sit with me,” Abaca said. His voice had changed subtly, too, and he had difficulty seating himself.

“Thank you, Colonel. You’ve had news?”

“News?” Puzzled. “No. No news.”

“Yet you asked me here.”

“Yes. Pardon me in advance if, on occasion, I become a little brusque. You wil understand why as we proceed.” Abaca’s tone worried Kristen.

“There is news, good and bad, but not of the sort you meant. From my point of view, our partisans have enjoyed considerable success against the Itaskians, who have gone to ground in Damhorst. They have to stick together in groups of a dozen or more. Also, the Nordmen who al ied themselves with the Itaskians are starting to reconsider.

Greyfel s seems unlikely to receive outside reinforcements.”

“That means we’ve won!”

“No, Kristen. It means we may be able to rid Kavelin of the Itaskians, in time. But Inger has distanced herself from her cousin already. She retains the loyalty of the strongest regiments. We have an unofficial truce with them, for now.

They don’t want to fight us. We don’t want to fight them. We stood shoulder to shoulder on the same battlefields too many times.” He stopped. His left hand shook badly.

Kristen said, “I hear a big ‘But!’ Is that the bad news?”

“After a fashion.”

Kristen strove hard to remain respectful y patient.

“Kristen, I am the glue that holds your support together. I am, in fact, guilty of pul ing you into my politics so I could put an acceptable figurehead out in front of my ambitions for my people.”

Kristen nodded, surprised by his bald honesty.

“I may have done you a severe disservice.”

“How so?”

Abaca was quiet for a time. His daughter brought tea that must have cost the tribesmen dear. Abaca Enigara was young and unattractive even by the standards of her own people. She seemed downright grim.

Abaca final y said, “The monster Radeachar was seen again three nights ago. Scouts report the Hastin Defile blocked by snow.”

“That’s weird. That’s the third time this winter.”

“It does happen. Once in a winter, one year out of ten. We haven’t gotten unusual amounts of snow.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning I’ve been slow catching on. But I get it, now.

Varthlokkur doesn’t want us raiding in the vicinity of Vorgreberg.”

“He’s taking Inger’s side?”

“No. He’s keeping me from doing something desperate.”

“Why would you?”

“Because I’m dying. Because I want so badly to see things settled before I go. Because I am the glue.” Kristen did not argue. Neither did she spout upbeat nonsense. This was grim news. “I see.”

“Again, I apologize for dragging you in when I couldn’t keep my promises. I wouldn’t have done it had I known then what I know now.”

“I do have to ask if you’re sure.”

“I am. This is in the blood. I deceived myself in thinking that it wouldn’t get me, I suppose. Putting a shine on it, I can say that I’ve gotten four years more than my father did.”

“Oh.”

“So what shal we do, girl? You don’t have to tel me now but you’l need to decide within ten days. I’l beat back the darkness as long as I can but that won’t be long. And once I go, everything else comes apart.”

Because he was the glue. And there was no one to replace him. “Credence, there may be a positive possibility yet.”

“I could use one. Please explain.”

“The interest shown by the sorcerer.”

“You think he knows about my problem?”

Had he not said so himself? “Nothing escapes him.”

“Perhaps.”

“As you say, you are the glue. Attract his attention. Show him that you know he’s interfering. He might make contact.

Then you can get his views on what you should be doing.” Abaca’s face darkened.

“I don’t mean ask him to give orders. Find out what’s going on in the rest of the world. He knows more than you do.

There might be a powerful strategic reason for avoiding hostilities. Maybe Inger’s regiments have begun to have a change of heart.”

Abaca grunted. “I’l think about that. You think about what’s best for you and yours. We can stil get you out of the country and back into hiding.”

Kristen and Dahl made the slow walk to their own cabin.

Dahl asked no questions while they were in the open.

...

The fugitive spent four days looking for a way to cross the Roë River without being noticed. There were no bridges this far south.

Something dramatic had happened upstream. The water was high, filthier than usual, clotted with debris and the occasional rotting carcass with feeding birds aboard.

The current was not swift but it was there. The flood was too wide to swim and dangerous in more than the obvious ways. There was a shark in the Sea of Kotsüm that did not mind the absence of salt in the river.

A boat was his only option. That was a problem. There was little westbound traffic. That was al military. He did not feel daring enough to ferry over with Shinsan’s couriers.

Hiring a rowboat might work. But with the river in flood no boatman would hazard a night crossing. He would be sighted by day. Someone would ask questions.

He could kil the oarsman on the other side but that would cause excitement, too.

He went back to the swimming option. Suppose he made a float, then crossed on a clear night, steering by the stars?

No. Sharks or no sharks, that was begging for disaster.

Almost despairing, he decided to take the long way. That might take weeks but he was not pressed for time. No one was waiting. He had been dead for a long time.

He headed north.

Eventual y there would be a city. It would boast a bridge.

There would be traffic and confusion. A foreigner would not be unusual. He could hire on with a caravan. And he could enjoy some real food for a change.

His fourth day headed north, working back eastward in search of a ford across a smal tributary, he stumbled onto a coracle hidden in the undergrowth. There was no one around. The coracle was neither booby-trapped nor cursed.

It was just a tool belonging to someone with a penchant for going unnoticed. A gift from God.

...

Nepanthe stepped back from behind Varthlokkur’s right shoulder. “That was cleverly done.”

“I thought so myself.”

“I’m going to go bake sweet cakes for the kids.” The wizard grunted. “You do that.” He wondered how indifferent a mother Mist could be. She had not yet, insofar as he could tel , made the least effort to find her children or to determine their welfare.

It was possible, of course, that she knew they were with their aunt and were, therefore, already as safe as they could be in this dark world.

Chapter Four:

1017 AFE:

Dread Realm

The Empress and two bodyguards left portals in the transfer staging chamber of a tower once owned by the Karkha family of Throyes. The duty section had received a warning only minutes

earlier. Men were stil scurrying around, trying to make the place more presentable. Officer in Charge, Candidate Lein She, was stil fumbling with his laces. He had had no time to don his mask.

Mist’s bodyguards made their disapproval obvious.

Mist had no such sentiments. It was unreasonable to expect the tower and garrison to be dril ground perfect at short notice.

She conversed briefly with a portal attendant while the Candidate pul ed himself together. “No visitors? Not even a random attempt to come through, or to make contact?” She examined the transfer log. Only Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i had visited since the tower became the place where special prisoners were held.

The Karkha no longer existed. Their tower, which rose without outer defenses, could be accessed only by a ladder that had to be lowered from a doorway two stories above the street. It was invulnerable to the normal city threats: riots, jealous rivals, and local politics. It was not designed to withstand military operations.

Lein She had himself together. The Empress said, “Good evening,Candidate. Your logs appear to be in order.”

“Thank you, O Celestial.”

Mist was taken aback. Was he making mock? No one had used that title since her father and his twin, the Princes Thaumaturge, had overcome their father. Celestial had been one of Tuan Hoa’s many titles. “I’m not my grandfather, Candidate. Relax. I’m just here to see the prisoner.”

“Uh… Which one… Great One?”

“You’re holding more than one?”

“Seven. Al politicals.”

“The westerner.”

“This way. I’l have refreshments brought.” She ignored a temptation to be malicious. “Tea and rice cakes. Then show these two to the kitchen. Feed them lots of meat.”

Legionary discipline triumphed al round. No one questioned her decision to see the prisoner alone. But, then, no one thought the Empress might need help.

...

Ragnarson believed he understood the caged tiger’s mood. In the main, it would be rage.

It had been a while since he had been instal ed here, wherever here might be. He had fal en asleep in a place where they had healed his war wounds. He had awakened here with no sense of time having passed. The few keepers he saw were strangers uninterested in chatting.

He was not uncomfortable. His cel was an oval room thirty feet on its long axis, twenty on that with the one flattened side. There were three tiny windows. Each overlooked an unfamiliar city. The windows faced north, south, and east. There was no window in the flat west wal .

Each window boasted thin bars and a vigorous sorcery that kept out al odor and noise. He thought he was about eighty feet above street level in an area that was sealed off.

Only once had he seen anyone down there, and that had been one of the Tervola.

The room was furnished sparsely but not cheaply. He had a bed, large and comfortable. He had a table for eating, chairs, several quality rugs, and another table where he could sit and read or write. That came equipped with several books, a stock of pens, paper, and ink in three colors. His captors al owed him a penknife.

There was a luxury garderobe. The waste went away when staff removed dirty dishes and cutlery. Meals were regular and adequate.

There were pitchers and porcelain bowls at opposite ends of the room, with ladles. There was a metal tub that could be dragged out and, once a week, fil ed with warm water so he could bathe. A specialist servant would deal with fleas and lice. His captors had an aversion to parasites.

There was an area for dressing. He had a choice of apparel. Like dirty dishes, soiled clothing went away, then came back clean.

He could shave if he wanted. The tools were available.

Not a hard life. But he could not leave.

So mostly he paced, like the caged tiger, and he raged.

Hour after hour, day after day, back and forth, paying little heed to his surroundings, fantasizing about what the world would suffer once he escaped.

Little thought went toward actual y accomplishing that. That was work for the rational side of his mind. And the rational side had to operate in the realm of reality.

Rational y, it was obvious that there would be no leaving without outside contrivance.

Rational y, he could do nothing but wait.

The prisoner’s routine was rigid. Food arrived at predictable times, virtual y taunting him: construct an escape plan around this, fool! So when the door in the flat wal opened at an unorthodox hour Ragnarson was so surprised he actual y retreated.

He gawked. He failed to recognize Mist for several seconds. She was radiantly gorgeous. He had not been near any woman for so long that his response was instantaneous and embarrassing.

Then his mind clicked.

Mist, aged in spirit but not in that timelessly beautiful flesh.

He arranged himself so as to conceal his arousal.

She smiled. “Hel o. The war has eased up. I thought I’d see how you’re doing.”

Off guard, disturbed by his response, he was flustered.

Neither fight nor flight were options.

“Bragi! It’s me! Good gracious. You aren’t very good at being a noble prisoner, are you?”

Her tone, the amusement edging her voice, dispel ed the intel ectual murk. “I got it made,” he croaked. “Relatively speaking.”

They could have shoved him down an oubliette and fed him spoiled pig manure for the rest of a very short life.

He drew no cheer from the thought.

He glared at the achingly beautiful woman.

“I’m beginning to think you’re more than just a man, Bragi Ragnarson. You’re maybe an elemental who is no longer sane and stil headed downhil .”

Ragnarson said nothing. He did not disagree.

A face came to mind. Sherilee. That sweet child, younger than his oldest boy. Their liaison, brief as it had been, had reminded him that he was stil alive.

He shook like a dog fresh in from the rain. “I’m sane right now but it won’t last.”

“I’m pleased. You can’t imagine how frustrating it is trying to communicate with someone who can’t see that they’re caught in reality’s trap.”

“You have me for now. It may not last. Something shook me off my foundations.”

“We weren’t responsible.”

He got no sense that she was lying.

She said, “I came for several reasons. First, to see how you’re doing. We were friends. You helped me.” He kept his expression neutral.

“I tried to support you, too. I failed. Then you put yourself into a position where this was the best I could do.” He thought this was more the work of Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i.

“Cynical response noted.”

Ragnarson betrayed a smile.

“I’ve brought news from home. Which is hard to come by, these days.”

“I’ve known you a long time…”

She stopped him. She knew he never believed much that she said. “It would be more kind to leave you ignorant. The heart I found while I was in exile disagrees.” Ragnarson focused. Time to be careful. The Empress of Shinsan was going to give him something because she wanted something. “Do tel .”

“Last month your grandson Bragi seemed certain to become king of Kavelin, instead of Fulk. It was just a matter of time. The Itaskians were being neutralized. Inger was losing support fast. The Nordmen were distancing themselves from her and Greyfel s. Your cronies were dead or fled, but that wasn’t hampering Kristen.”

“But?” That required no genius to see.

“Credence Abaca died. And everything began to fal apart.” Ragnarson resumed pacing. “Abaca died? Real y?”

“He’d been il for some time, apparently. Once he went the tribes had no recognized chief of chiefs. With them out of it Kristen’s Wessons began to waver. There have been massive desertions. The men who haven’t yet left the regiments have no good reason to stay. They aren’t getting paid. They don’t want Inger but Kristen fled the kingdom once she no longer had the Marena Dimura to protect her.

Kavelin seems ready to fal apart.”

It looked like Shinsan had a fine opportunity—that Mist evidently did not view in that light.

Why give her ideas? She had plenty of her own. And Kavelin’s torment was his fault.

“I’m sorry. It’s a sad thing I caused. Aren’t there appropriate sayings about hubris?”

“In almost every language. It’s a popular pastime, smal men criticizing the stumbles of giants.” Ragnarson glanced out the nearest window. It would be time to eat, soon. What would it be? Outguessing the cooks was a favorite exercise.

Derel Prataxis said men grew introspective with age.

Ragnarson had tried it. He could not get interested in his own interior landscape, nor could he make himself care.

Mist broke the protracted silence. “You have no response?”

“Should I? It’s sad. My fault. I said that. It is what it is. I can’t do anything about it. Or is that why I’m honored with your presence?”

“In a sense. It was.”

“Sense me the sense, woman!”

“Don’t make me hurt you, old friend.” To remind him who was the guest.

“Sorry.” But he was not, and that was obvious.

“I hoped confinement would erode that attitude. That given time you would find your way back to the Bragi Ragnarson who won friends easily and inspired people. But he seems to have gone missing permanently.” He did not respond.

But he did pace.

“You haven’t tried to figure out how you came to this?”

“No figuring needed. I got too big for my britches, then I guessed wrong. My luck ran out.”

“So you’ve spent al this time, with no other demands on you, doing what? Pacing and being angry?” The appal ed way she said that tickled him. “Pretty much.”

“You are an animal.”

That did not please him. She seemed contemptuous now.

“I was considering sending you back but the Bragi Ragnarson I see here looks no better than Dane of Greyfel s, or take your pick of Nordmen.” She headed for the door, muttering, “How did he get from that to this in a year?”

...

That same night witnessed an event the tower’s denizens considered impossible. There was an attack. It was a complete surprise.

The raiders put a ladder up to the tower door. They broke through, spread out, and started kil ing. They would have succeeded completely had the Empress not been there, stealing a night’s rest.

It was a close thing, stil . Mist lost her bodyguards. Two of the kitchen crew survived only by hiding in the larder.

Lein She made it, too, but was wounded badly defending the transfer chamber.

He apologized for the disaster. “I should have anticipated an effort to free the prisoners.” The Empress touched the Candidate gently. “The fault was mine, Lein She. How many escaped?”

“I don’t know.” He went to sleep.

Mist studied her fingertips. Lein She might never waken if she could not summon a healing specialist. The portals were down.

She had not taken stock of the ful tragedy yet. There had been damage to the transfer portals despite Lein’s heroic stand. That may have been the thrust of the attack.

Nine attackers had died trying to ruin them.

The raid seemed too sophisticated for local malcontents.

Her mind made a grand leap. Somewhere amongst the Tervola was a man who wanted to bring her down.

Phsaw! Of course there was. But no Tervola would recruit, arm, and inform a band of guerril as. It would be beneath his dignity. Nor would any Tervola believe that cat’s-paws like these stood a chance against her.

Again, she was not supposed to have been here. The attack must have had another point.

She bul ied the surviving staff into securing the tower, starting with the ladder and door. A census of prisoners fol owed.

There had been no escapes. Evidently, liberation had not been the intent. Three prisoners were dead. Another prisoner had been mauled. Three remained undisturbed, including Ragnarson, who had remained unaware of the attack.

Mist focused on the transfer chamber.

Her paranoia did not fade because she was occupied. She considered the possibility that Varthlokkur was behind the assault.

Unlikely, though. Varthlokkur would be direct. He would send his familiar monster.

The raiders had had a close knowledge of the inside of the tower but had lacked real-time intel igence. They had not been ready for her.

She moved to the door of the staging chamber. “Bring the dead raiders to me here! Without damaging them!” None had gotten away and none had been taken alive. But the dead had not been dead for long. Some could stil bear witness.

First, though, she had to make contact with her headquarters.

...

Ragnarson heard a click. He faced the door, uneasy.

Neither breakfast nor lunch had come. Mist must be messing with him.

The Empress came in carrying a tray. He stifled a rude remark. She did not look healthy. “Are you al right?”

“No. I just spent three hours talking to the dead.”

“What happened?” That she was stil here and bringing him food told him it was something bad.

“Persons as yet unidentified may be aware of your survival.”

“What?” Was she frazzled enough to give something away?

“There was an attack on the tower. By local people. Those I could make talk hoped news that our portals were out would encourage a general uprising. But there were hints that they wanted to free the prisoners held here, too. They expected to suffer heavy casualties. Someone here must have been worth it.”

“Me?”

“Maybe. There were other prisoners. Some of those got kil ed.”

“You didn’t take any of the raiders alive.” Which explained her remark about talking to the dead.

“No. And I didn’t get to the dead fast enough to squeeze out everything I wanted. But I can’t help thinking some clever soul with a different agenda conned some malcontents. I don’t know that. It’s intuition. Maybe somebody wanted to get you out.”

Michael Trebilcock?

He did not say the name. But no one else they knew had the connections. Or the gal .

“Trebilcock does seem plausible,” she said. “Or maybe just someone who enjoys a good framing.”

“Old Meddler? Why would he sink to that low a level?”

“For the drama?”

“With al the grand drama in this world, he wants to stir up skirmishes?”

“The drama is fading. The war with Matayanga is guttering.

I intend to avoid war afterward. It wil take Shinsan a generation or two to recover. The Tervola see that.

Whatever their feelings toward me, they want to nurture the Empire first. Even dedicated old troublemakers want a healing time.”

“So you’re getting comfortable.”

“Never while I’m a woman trying to control cruel men awed by nothing but superior power. My point is, Shinsan is headed for a time of peace. The whole world is exhausted.

There was a battle in Hammad al Nakir recently. Yasmid routed Megelin. She could not fol ow up. Magden Norath is in Al Rhemish. He could become a tool of the Meddler again. Kavelin is chaotic and getting more so. If the Meddler was behind the raid here his intent might have been to inject you into that chaos to see the fur and blood fly.”

“You said you were thinking that way yourself.”

“I was. Because of my fondness for you and my fondness for Kavelin, which was my home for so long. And because it would be useful to me, as Empress, to have a stable, reliable, friendly monarch there.”

“You walked out.”

“I did. You’re no longer the Bragi Ragnarson who built Kavelin. You wouldn’t go back and make things right. You would work the Meddler’s mischief.”

Ragnarson started pacing. He said nothing. He did not trust himself to control his rage.

“As you wil .” Mist moved to the exit. “Do try to use this time more fruitful y. This has to be a life sentence only if you insist.”

Ragnarson’s lips pul ed back in a snarl.

...

Nepanthe, with Smyrena in her lap, leaned against her husband. “Why is Bragi that way?” The baby cooed and kicked. “What happened to him?”

Varthlokkur knew a broader question was being asked.

Identical stubbornness, on his part, had caused the breach with Ragnarson. That rift underlay al the evil that had befal en Kavelin since. “‘And the Wicked flee where none do pursue.’”

“What?”

“A not quite apposite quotation from a forgotten book. As to the question, I don’t know why Bragi changed. There’s always a temptation to think such shifts are sparked external y.”

“Somebody cast a spel .”

“Possibly. But it’s also possible that massive bad cess just twisted his mind.”

Smyrena needed burping. Nepanthe moved the infant to her shoulder. She gave Varthlokkur a hard look as she did.

He said, “When you’re the one behaving badly you blame outside forces. Unless you’re emotional y invested in being too strong-wil ed to be influenced.”

“You’d then have an adventure justifying yourself.”

“You would.” The wizard leaned in for a better view of what Ragnarson would do now that he was alone.

Nepanthe said, “Ethrian had a good day. I think he’s starting to get better.”

“Excel ent. Excel ent.”

“I wish we could resurrect that Sahmaman. He real y loved her.”

“I’m sure he did. Her behavior showed that she loved him, too. But we can’t ignore one iron truth. The real Sahmaman died thousands of years ago. We saw a memory given flesh by godlike power.” “I know. I’m wishful-thinking. I just want Ethrian to heal.”

“I understand.” The wizard would not dismay her by saying that the boy would never escape his raging insanity.

Chapter Five:

Year 1017 AFE:

Spring Threatening

The Queen’s liaison with the commander of her bodyguard was an open secret. Everyone inside Castle Krief knew. Everyone gossiped and almost everyone pretended complete ignorance

to outsiders. Unaware, Inger and Josiah Gales kept going through the motions of a strictly professional relationship.

Inger asked, “Is it time for Dane?”

Gales, never entirely committed to anyone, said, “He could give up and go home. Family interests have suffered.

Money is running short. Desertions and ambushes have his force down to three hundred.”

“I admire your desire to keep faith with Dane. He doesn’t deserve you. Tel his soldiers they could come here. I’d like more Itaskians around me.”

...

Dane of Greyfel s was not wel . He was pal id in the extreme. Any movement caused pain. Gales had been cautioned against taking notice. He expressed strong gratitude when offered a chair beside the Duke, in front of the fire.

“This is so much better than Castle Krief. Inger won’t waste fuel on heating.” Countless economies were under way.

The Crown had a very limited income.

“What news, Josiah? Is there any hope? If not, I should cut my losses. Go home with my tail tucked, to jeers and mockery. I cast the dice but they didn’t love me.”

“Lord, they don’t love anyone here. Kavelin keeps right on heading downhil , taking everyone with it.”

“So it seems. Answer my question. Any hope?”

“She asked me to pol the soldiers to see if any would come work for her. Her Wessons are walking away, mainly because she can’t pay them. Her Nordmen become less supportive by the day, too. She’l have lost al support outside Vorgreberg soon. Each town, each vil age, each lord, and each guild that deserts reduces her income further.”

“So the enterprise is doomed from both directions. And stil she won’t let me in.”

“She remains adamant, My Lord. She wil not trust you.” Greyfel s remained quiet. His frame went rigid momentarily.

Recovering, he asked, “Why, Josiah?” His voice had gone plaintive.

“She has a touch of the il ness that ruled Ragnarson, the Krief, and Fiana. She fears what you wil do to Kavelin if you get control.”

Greyfel s tittered, startling Gales. His normal laugh was an al -out, ful -bodied roar. Now the Duke ended up wracked by deep, sobbing coughs. Gales feared for the man’s life, briefly.

“Sorry you had to see that, Josiah. No. Never mind. I’l be al right. I’ve survived al this before. Go ahead. Pol the men.

Tel them I’l let them go if that’s what they want. Might as wel let her not pay them as not pay them myself.” He contrived a smal , control ed laugh. “Take her an honest answer.”

...

“About eighty men are wil ing to come over, Highness,” Gales reported. “That’s al ?”

“Some wouldn’t give a straight answer. They thought the Duke was testing them. Others said that since they wouldn’t get paid either place they’d as soon stay put and save the walk. Most everyone said they intend to head home after the weather turns and the rivers go down.”

“And you told Dane what?”

“I answered the questions he asked. I volunteered nothing.”

“What wil he do?”

“He talked about doing the same as his soldiers. About cutting his losses and heading home.”

“But?”

“He wil , likely, make one more try, doing what you expected. He’l come in disguise with soldiers who want to switch al egiance. They’l actual y be men wil ing to stick with him.”

“I see. Wil he expect me to expect him?”

“I couldn’t say. My mind can’t encompass so much complexity.”

Later, Inger asked, “Did you see Babeltausque out there?”

“No. Why?”

“He’s been keeping his head down. That’s curious. He could be useful here. He might be able to find my missing treasury.”

“He’s the Duke’s man.”

“You think he wants to be? I don’t. He’s been with the family through several Dukes, each one worse than the last. I can see him being loyal to the family but having an abiding distaste for its heads.”

“I’l talk to him.”

...

Kristen’s flight from Kavelin took seven weeks. The Royal party crept from one Aral Dantice acquaintance to another, often enduring cold nights in the forest between times of warmth and decent food. Dantice was determined to proceed with caution, concealing the identities of his companions.

Kristen considered his precautions a waste. The party was too big and too burdened with women and children to be anything but what it was. But she was seeing it from the inside.

Dantice told her, “Only folks I trust with my life see you. I tel them nothing because they might be questioned someday.”

“Where are we headed?”

“A safe place. If I don’t talk about it no one wil hear about it.”

“Aral, I appreciate everything. You’ve gone way out of your way. You’ve practical y given up your regular life. I don’t understand why.”

Dantice avoided a straight answer. “The travel wil be over soon. So wil the cold and the hunger. You’l be safe. No one wil know where you are. You’l be ready when Kavelin is ready.”

“What about my father-in-law? What about the true king?”

“He stil lives. We know that. We also know they’ve stashed him where he won’t be able to escape.”

Kristen noted his “we” but did not question it. Aral Dantice was much too useful to be chal enged.

He said, “This shouldn’t last long. Kavelin should be eager to proclaim Bragi by next fal . By then even the Marena Dimura and Nordmen should be sick of the chaos.”

“Al right. We’re in your hands. Be gentle.” The party reached an encampment deep in the mountains of southern Tamerice. It differed little from the one where Credence Abaca died. This one was not Marena Dimura, though. The forest people were scarce in Tamerice. The camp had been created by Royalist refugees from Hammad al Nakir as a base for raids across the Kapenrungs. Refugees had gathered there during the Great Eastern Wars.

Dantice told her, “You and the children should stay out of sight if strangers turn up. Let Dahl and Sherilee deal with them.”

Kristen thought Sherilee would attract any man who came within a mile.

Aral said, “I’l give you letters saying you belong here and are under my protection.”

...

“Aral is gone,” Sherilee said. The suffering of the journey had wakened her resilience. She was now the optimist of the band. “Next time we see him he’l tel us it’s time to head home to Vorgreberg.”

“I hope so,” Dahl said. “I wasn’t made for this life.” Kristen snapped, “No one is. It’s a life that comes looking for you.” Sherilee said, “This is a nice place. It must have belonged to one of the high muckety mucks.” The structure, partial y log, partial y stone, was large and had potential for being made comfortable. There were stores in the camp, tools, and even weapons. Dahl said,

“Let’s don’t touch anything we don’t need to. We don’t want any smugglers upset because we got into their stuff.”

“Smugglers?”

“Smugglers. It’s what Aral does. Remember? This is a way station on the route into the desert. We’l see plenty of travelers once the weather gets better.”

“Then we’d better get the kids educated about what to do when strangers come.”

That proved to be no problem. The first travelers were not inclined to socialize, either. Some never showed their faces.

That was both a comfort and discouraging. No discourse meant no news from outside.

...

There had been innumerable dislocations in city life the past ten years. No Vorgreberger knew al his neighbors anymore. The situation suited spies and criminals and anyone else who wanted to go unnoticed.

Espionage was a thriving industry. Crime was less lucrative, other than for smugglers. Smuggling was just commerce where the Crown failed to extort any taxes.

Gang crime had fal en on hard times. Some invisible force saved the body politic the added friction.

Dark tales circulated in the underworld. They insisted that dire forces were at work. Things came in the night to col ect those who preyed on their fel ows.

It was true: evil men did disappear.

Crimes of passion remained common. What could be done to curb those?

There was an apothecary shop in Old Registry Lane. It had been there for decades. An elderly fel ow had run it til recently. He had been a permanent grouch. When his son took over people noted that the younger chemist was less cranky.

He was about fifty. He may have been a soldier once. He had a bad right knee. He dragged that leg sometimes. He was slow with his customers but was tolerated because he dispensed good advice. He would help those who could not afford a physician. He was more of a talker and gossip and was curious about everything.

His most popular foible was that he sometimes extended credit.

Some said he was the official apothecary to the palace, provided old Wachtel with the specifics he used to keep the Royals hale and hearty— whoever they might be this year.

The popular jest was, Castle Krief had been built around Dr. Wachtel. The ancient physician was a national hero.

The apothecary would not discuss the connection. The favor of the doctor might be charity. A story that gained traction supposed that the chemist was Wachtel’s son by a married patient.

No one real y cared. The apothecary was not colorful. He was just there.

Strangers visited frequently. They brought medicinal ingredients from far places or wanted concoctions crafted for some distant consumer. None of this attracted any but the most minor notice. It was unremarkable.

...

“I think it’s time,” Queen Inger told Colonel Gales.

Gales blanched.

“I’m sorry, Josiah. I no longer have a choice. So I insist that you make

one of your own.”

“Your Majesty?”

“You know. You see the reports. You can add two and two. I won’t be able to hold on here without Dane’s men. In two months they’l be the only real soldiers left.” The old regiments were dissolving. Whom they had supported before no longer mattered. Kristen had vanished, the gods knew where. The intel igence system was fal ing apart faster than the army.

Inger continued, “Kristen’s friends can’t pay soldiers, either. And I won’t be able to pay the palace staff much longer.”

“I understand.” He had seen the estimates. The Queen’s friends had stopped making donatives.

“Before long Dane wil be able to ride in and take it al , Josiah. I won’t be able to stop him. I need to make a move or kiss it al goodbye.”

“You could reconcile with your cousin.”

“No.”

For Dane of Greyfel s reconciliation would mean him taking over.

Gales slumped. She was right.

“Josiah, I won’t let Fulk become my cousin’s puppet.”

“Yes, Majesty.”

“Any men wil ing should come now. Admit that I can’t pay them right away but that they wil eat wel .” Unlike her native soldiers, the Itaskians did not have families to support.

“And I want Babeltausque.”

“As you wish.” Gales did not doubt that the sorcerer would come. Greyfel s would insist.

His moment of choice was, indeed, approaching. It had been inevitable for some time. He could no longer delay the reckoning. Each pole of his loyalty expected him to betray the other. Neither real y trusted him. He saw no way to avoid making an enemy. Neither would the friendship of either be enduring.

He ought to desert them both. Let the snakes devour each other. He could not do that.

His betrayal, however he bestowed it, would not define the future. Neither would rule in Castle Krief by the end of the year.

Gales believed Kavelin’s northern neighbors could not resist temptation, however much they had suffered themselves during the Great Eastern Wars.

The horrors had begun to be forgotten the way a woman forgets childbirth’s pain.

Josiah Gales had mentioned the threat to Inger and the Duke. Neither wanted to listen.

“I have chores, Majesty, and things to do if I’m going to travel.” He was sick of travel. He wished he knew some other way of life. “I’l be back tonight.”

“I want you on the road to Damhorst tomorrow.” Gales sighed. “As you command.”

Gales was a frugal man. He had been paid wel back when soldiers received regular pay. He decided to spend some of his savings getting drunk.

...

The warlords of Anstokin and Volstokin were less tempted than Colonel Gales feared. Both kings did feel the urge. Kavelin lay sprawled like a naked virgin tied to a mattress of silver. But lurking in the shadows above those splayed enticements was a hideous guardian, a monstrous infant inside a transparent pinkish magical excuse for a placenta. A horror renowned for its evil deeds during the Great Eastern Wars.

The Unborn turned up whenever either king’s fantasies progressed to the assembling of troops. It needed do no more, so far.

Manifestation of the Unborn was not just a promise of terror. It was a clear announcement that a greater horror stil had an interest.

Thus was peace assured amongst the bel icose Lesser Kingdoms. And the absence of war inflicted prosperity.

...

Josiah Gales was out of practice with ardent spirits.

Handling large quantities was not a skil much admired in senior military men. Wine with dinner, smal beer with breakfast, the occasional brandywine of an evening whilst relaxing with his fel ows, those were his norms. Some children imbibed more in a day. His most recent fal ing-down-sick romance with alcohol happened the day they buried Dane’s assassinated granduncle.

People connected to Kavelin had been involved somehow. Gales was not sure why he ended up at the Twisted Wrench. Probably because the place was a haunt for garrison troops off duty. Even if he was recognized his presence ought not to be resented.

He staked out a shadowy corner and brushed off those who tried to socialize. By not talking he would not betray his accent. Without thinking about it, though, he slipped into a character he once played undercover.

He became the quirky Sergeant Gales. That meant a shift in the set of his shoulders, in the way he held his head, a more expansive set of gestures even while being sul enly unsocial, and a lower class accent when he did have to speak.

The tavern never became crowded. The owner longed for the time when Bragi was king and there were soldiers everywhere.

There was a lot of nostalgia in the Twisted Wrench. And a lot of resentment, too.

Inger had gotten her chance. She had wasted it.

The blame was not al hers, though. The other Itaskian gang enjoyed a fouler reputation. Some folks, in fact, believed the Queen would have done a decent job if her cousin had not been undercutting.

Kristen executed a bril iant strategic maneuver by sliding out of the light when she did. She had taken no blame, only sympathy, with her. The death of Credence Abaca, which had thril ed Inger so back when, now looked like a curse. It, too, conspired to make those stil visible look bad.

The Marena Dimura were no longer in a state of insurrection. They had become invisible. They could not now be blamed for al the il s of the kingdom.

Gales was wel up the early slope of alcohol consumption.

He was pleased to be learning so much. It might be too late to use the information to any advantage but he now had his finger on the pulse of the kingdom.

He should have made expeditions like this before. The knowledge could have kept Inger in much better odor.

It had not occurred to anyone to care what ordinary people thought. Their attitudes did not matter in Itaskia. But this was Kavelin. The monarchs here had been listening for decades. Inger might have, too. She had a mild case of the Kavelin fever.

Josiah Gales had a slight case of that disease himself. He signaled for a refil , then began to brood on that.

Then he began to worry about the time. He should have been back by now. Inger would give him bloody hel when he turned up drunk.

And now he could not leave.

Men he knew had come and gone, none paying him any heed because he timed his piss runs to avoid being noticed. The strategy had worked til an entire squad of archers stumbled in. The Wrench was not their first stop of the evening. Gales wondered how they could afford so much drink. Their pay was in arrears.

The archers settled where Gales would have to pass on his way to the jakes. And they would not move on.

The ache in the Colonel’s bladder reached a point where he had to make a decision. He chose to piss on the floor, sitting where he was, not a choice he would have made when sober.

He got urine al over himself. What made it to the floor drained through gaps in the floorboards. The odor did not stand out amongst the other stinks of the Wrench.

Then a shaggy mass of a man materialized. He headed a trio of thoroughly drenched gentlemen. In fluent drunkenese, he bel owed, “Holy fuckin’ shit! Wil ya lookit! Sarge Gales, you ole cocksucker! How da fuck are you? Hey! You look like shit, man. You been eatin’ right? You got pushed out too, huh? Guess you’re lookin’ good enough for dat. Hey!

Tel dese jack-offs ’bout dat time. You know. Durin’ da El Murid Wars when you got off a dat ship in Hel in Daimiel or wherever da fuck. Wit’ al da women. You guys gotta hear dis. Funniest fuckin’ story I ever heard.” Gales began to shake. He did not recognize the man blasting dense wine breath into his face. The story he wanted had been the signature bul shit story that Sergeant Gales of the Queen’s own bodyguard had retailed back in the day.

“Come on, man! Nine women in one day!”

The entire tavern had gone quiet, at least to Gales’s ears. It seemed everyone wanted to hear the great story. Including the archers, who looked like they were trying to recal where they had heard al this before.

Gales glanced round. If anyone had a bone to pick with Colonel Gales he was wel and truly screwed. “It was Libiannin. Yeah. And it was nine women. That’s no lie. I was a young man then and we was fourteen days on the transport. We hit the beach with our peckers poking us under our chins. I did nine women. In one day. You know what I mean. In twenty-four hours. Fourteen days on a transport, I never even seen a woman. Yeah. You don’t believe me. Nobody ever does. But it’s true. Nine women in one day.”

Gales did not go through the gestures and antics that had accompanied the tales of the old Sergeant Gales. He had no room and did not want his piss-soaked pants to be seen.

His unrecal ed acquaintance asked, “You al right? You don’t seem to got so much energy no more. You’re ’sposed ta tel it piece by piece, man.”

Gales raised his jack. “Too many of these. Yeah.” He looked at the other men. “It’s true. You ask him. Fourteen days at sea. I was ready. How many women you had in one day? I wasn’t showing off. I was working it. Yeah. I’l never forget that seventh one. Yeah. Moaning and clawing. She’s going, ‘Oh! Oh! Gales! Gales! I can’t take no more, Gales!

Oh! No! Don’t stop! Don’t stop!’ Yeah. It’s true. Every damn word. Nine women in one day. I was a young man then.” After a feigned bout of straining to keep everything down, he said, “I ain’t so young no more. I maybe better get outta here before somebody takes advantage of me. But one more won’t hurt.”

He pul ed up a smal purse. It proved to be empty. “Ah, shit.

Somebody done got me already.” He faced the man who had recognized him. “You see anybody ’round me back here? Somebody plucked me.”

“We just got here, Sarge.”

One of the companions asked, “You sure you didn’t spend it al already? You didn’t get that last jack for free.” Gales frowned as though making a grand effort to retrieve difficult memories. He decided this was the time to take advantage of the mess he had made in his lap.

Another feigned gag. He stood. “I got to go.” The moisture was blatantly obvious. Even the drunkest drunks saw it. He staggered badly. And congratulated himself on how he had disarmed even those who had to know who he real y was.

He felt awful, though. He did not have to pretend to be thoroughly soused.

He counted forty steps, leaned against a wal , looked back.

Nobody had come after him. He had left them sure that he was not worth robbing, or even worth beating up for being an officer.

He faced forward. He was going to be total y miserable later on. And he had to go to Damhorst tomorrow.

A dark shape blocked his path, a big man in a hooded cassock. He was accompanied by several identical y clad friends.

One stepped in behind and pul ed a sack over his head.

The others dressed him in another cassock. His struggles were ineffective. They had trouble mainly because he was now halfway limp.

Then he puked into the bag.

...

The sun was near the meridian. Inger wrestled a mix of panic and anger. Stil no sign of Josiah. His mounts remained stabled. His possessions were in his quarters, including weapons and travel gear. The men tasked to accompany him stil awaited his appearance.

Inger paced. She muttered. She cursed. She was certain fate had handed her another cause for despair.

Josiah was almost al she had left.

Not many months ago she had been ready to abandon Fulk’s claim to Kavelin’s crown. Then Bragi got himself kil ed. Most of the people who wanted rid of her then turned round to support her—except that witch Kristen, whose brat’s claim had no legal foundation.

Here she was again, abandoned by another man, ready to shriek, “To hel with it!” and leave Kavelin to anyone who wanted the heartache.

She watched Fulk nap, for once in rare good health. The boy seemed angelic, lying there in a splay of blond curls.

Neither she nor Bragi had curly hair but her mother said she had had curls as a toddler. One of her few remaining women came into the nursery. “Yes, Garyline?”

“That unpleasant Wolf person is here, Majesty. He says he has the information you wanted.”

Inger rol ed up her nose. She avoided Nathan Wolf as much as she could. But when Josiah dropped off the face of the earth she had nowhere else to turn.

“Send him in.” She had no choice.

Sometimes she felt sorry for Wolf. The man was never anything but what he ought to be. He never did anything wrong. But he radiated something that made everyone wary and distrustful. Only Dane actual y liked him. Inger suspected that Wolf did not like himself much. What others thought reflected back and made him think he deserved the negative responses.

Wolf ’s manners were perfect. Inger did not face him. She did not want him to see the revulsion his presence sparked.

“You found something?” She stroked Fulk’s hair, praying his good health would last.

“Colonel Gales spent the evening at a tavern, the Twisted Wrench, which is frequented by the garrison. He drank so much he wet himself. The last anyone saw him, he was going out the door.”

“That’s it? That’s al ?”

“It is, Majesty. And I would like to point out that the men and I have done almost miraculous work, coming up with that so fast.”

True. Inger reined in her emotions. Wolf had developed that information so fast she wondered if he had not been involved somehow. “You’re right, Nathan. That was good work. Can you even guess where he is now?”

“No, Majesty. But these things usual y end with a corpse. Or an embarrassed soldier who has been rol ed by a prostitute.”

Josiah would not have taken up with a prostitute.

Wolf stepped to the door. “I can keep on squeezing the men who were there, but…”

“Almost certainly a waste of time. Nathan, you’l have to do what Colonel Gales was supposed to do today.”

“I am at Your Majesty’s command.”

Exactly the answer she wanted from every man in her service, but from Wolf it seemed somehow both sinister and darkly suggestive.

Poor Nathan could not talk about the weather without making people think he was an oily, wicked pervert.

Inger gave Wolf his instructions, which were exactly those she had given Gales. Though her stomach tightened, she al owed a hint of a suggestion that a substitute who handled the Colonel’s work wel might expect some of the Colonel’s perks.

She felt filthy when Wolf left.

She did wonder why the man seemed so slimy, creepy, and repulsive. He did nothing to validate that.

...

Nathan Wolf, wounded, reached the Breitbarth castle two days later than he should have without having run into trouble. He was afoot. He was the second member of his band to get through, and the last. He arrived to find that the cavalryman who had preceded him had expired before he could explain what had happened.

The Duke himself came to see Wolf. The sorcerer Babeltausque was dressing his wounds. “What the hel happened, Nathan? The other guy thought he was the only survivor.”

“An ambush, Your Grace. I didn’t get a good look.

Marena Dimura bandits, I guess.”

Babeltausque said, “He’l be fine if there’s no sepsis. Gister Saxton told the same story.”

“The Marena Dimura haven’t done anything since Abaca died. Why change now?”

Wolf mumbled, “I don’t know, Your Grace.” He tried to explain why he had come instead of Gales.

“Ah. Possibilities suggest themselves. Gales either stepped out of the equation deliberately, was ordered out by Inger, or was removed by someone else. That seems most likely. So. Why? To get rid of Gales? Or to move Nathan up a notch?”

The sorcerer said, “That is a pathetical y long stretch.”

“Meaning?”

“I believe in the malicious mischief theory of providence. My hypothesis? Gales went out drinking and got mugged, or kil ed, by somebody who didn’t know who he was.”

“A twist on ‘It’s not conspiracy if it can be explained by stupidity’?”

“Exactly.”

Greyfel s stared at Wolf. “Nathan has done wel , Babeltausque. Remove the curse.”

Wolf frowned, confused, as he slid away into sleep.

The sorcerer frowned, too, but his scowl was born of irritation.

Nathan Wolf had offended Babeltausque years ago, without knowing it. He never did figure out why the whole world suddenly found him repugnant.

The sorcerer was not happy but he carried out his Duke’s wil . He had too grand an idea of his own worth. He would not have survived with the Greyfel s family if they had been able to attract a man with more talent and a better character.

Babeltausque schemed, but only in smal -minded, personal ways. He did not put his employer at risk.

Dane of Greyfel s appreciated that. “Babeltausque, you’ve served my family long and wel . We should show our appreciation more ful y. Do you have secret aspirations that we could make come true?”

The sorcerer was startled. He squinted at the Duke. Was he being set up for torment? The man was capable of amusing himself by baiting a dog.

Yet he could not keep from blurting, “I do, Lord. But I dare not state it. Punishment would be swift and harsh.”

“Come, now.” The Duke assumed his sorcerer had a secret vice. The breed had that reputation. And Dane of Greyfel s had vices he dared indulge only rarely. “Go on. I guarantee your safety. And no one else wil know.”

“Lord, I was obsessed with your half-sister Mayenne before we left Itaskia.” He cringed, anticipating a blow.

“Wel . You can surprise me. I expected something darker.

She’s a little young, though, isn’t she?”

“She’s almost fourteen.” Too old for the sorcerer’s taste, now, but so delectable…

Mayenne was one of a dozen children the previous Duke had fathered on the far side of the blanket. He had been fond enough of this one’s mother to acknowledge her and her sisters.

The Duke was amused. “Babeltausque, I’m glad you spoke up. This can be arranged.” Sudden cruelty edged his voice.

“The little bitch needs to learn her place.” She had resisted his own advances more than once. She deserved to be thrown to a beast like Babeltausque.

The sorcerer continued to look amazed.

How his fortunes had turned!

...

Nathan Wolf, on crutches, made the rounds of the Duke’s soldiers, tel ing them what Inger wanted them to hear—with the Duke’s blessing. A band of three were al owed to slip away. Two days later an eight-man group moved out. Both groups consisted of genuine deserters.

A third band, twenty-six strong, were not the real thing.

They included the Duke disguised as an archer and the sorcerer as a muleteer. The archer’s guise suited the Duke.

He was skil ed with the longbow.

Six miles east of Breitbarth an outrider discovered human remains as vultures and ravens made a getaway.

Flies were dense despite the season. There had been several days of warm weather. Maggots were at work. The ravens did not go far. They clustered in nearby trees and cursed.

The remains could stil be recognized. They were the men who had deserted first. They had been attacked by archers.

“Bandits?” Greyfel s asked the air.

“Hard to tel , Your Grace,” a soldier replied. “The broken arrows are the Marena Dimura type.”

Babeltausque, unhappy about being in the field, said, “It hardly matters now.”

“True enough,” the Duke admitted. “Sorcerer, here is where you earn your sweet cunny. Make sure it doesn’t happen to us.”

Babeltausque soon had his chance. “We’re being stalked.

Four men. In the woods to our left. A dozen more are hiding up ahead, in the brush around that lone chestnut.” Greyfel s had been looking forward to this. His troops were al afoot. Each carried a strung bow with an arrow laid across. “The finer you determine where they are the happier I’l be.”

“Keep moving like you’re ready for trouble but don’t real y expect it. I’l give you my best.” He would. He had a reason to live.

Greyfel s halted at the extreme range of the short bow favored by the Marena Dimura. He laid flights of arrows into the ambush area. Shrieks and curses responded.

The frustrated ambushers rose to loose their own shafts.

That made the Itaskians’ work easier.

Those ambushers stil able to do so ran.

The Itaskians found eight wounded men. They recovered their arrows, left seven dead to their more fortunate brothers. They took one youth along for questioning. His wound was not life-threatening. He was not nearly as tough as he imagined.

Watching Babeltausque booby-trap corpses, Greyfel s said, “Sorcerer, I’m developing a whole new appreciation of you. I may give you al of my bastard sisters.”

“Mayenne wil be sufficient, Your Grace.” Then greed reared up. “Though Jondel e would make Mayenne a fine companion.”

Greyfel s laughed. “Wicked man. But be cautious with Jondel e. She is insane.”

The party smashed three more ambushes. Babeltausque’s stock soared. Years of maltreatment and disdain went by the wayside. Soldiers tended to give respect to those who saved their asses.

Babeltausque was no empire destroyer but he was handy on the kil ing ground. That carried plenty of weight with the sloggers.

The prisoner was worthless. He had no idea why the forest people were active again. He did what his father told him.

The Itaskians left him alive but in horrible pain. Whoever tried to help would regret his empathy. Babeltausque included a nasty booby trap.

...

Twelve days. Stil no sign of Josiah. And no word from Wolf. Things were fal ing apart. Gales’s disappearance had shaken the garrison. He had been more important than Inger had imagined. Once they suspected that the Colonel was not coming back the native garrison began to evaporate. Changes for the worse were evident daily.

Those regiments that had remained loyal soon became paper tigers.

The vanishing soldiers were not shifting al egiance.

They were just leaving.

Inger had no reliable intel igence about what was going on outside Vorgreberg. It did seem that the pretender’s soldiers were deserting, too.

The nobility began abandoning Vorgreberg, finding excuses to return to their holdings. They did not want to get crushed in the coming col apse.

Inger knew she needed to make a show of strength. But she had none to show. Her enemies had brought her to the brink by walking away or by ignoring her.

Then came the six deserters from Damhorst, four of them injured. They had lost one on the way. They had hurt the bandits back.

Bandits. There had been no banditry when Bragi was king.

The lead sergeant informed Inger that, “The Duke and a bigger band are behind us. He means to disguise himself as an archer. The sorcerer wil be with him.”

“Whitcomb Innsman, isn’t it?”

“Your Majesty’s memory is excel ent. It’s been years.”

“It is good. This time, though, I was told before you came in.

I need to know my cousin’s real situation. What did he leave behind? Can he count on help if I ambush him?” That startled the soldier. Evidently no one had considered the possibility that she would try to turn things around herself.

Excel ent.

“Innsman, your situation won’t improve much here.”

“It’l be better than it was.” He described increasingly erratic and ugly behavior by the Duke. Nothing was ever his fault.

He was not wel , and had become a monster toward those Kaveliners within his power. He abused their younger teen daughters.

“Surely you exaggerate.”

She knew that was true, though. It was no secret inside the family.

“Believe what you please, Majesty.”

“Forget it. Find yourselves places in the barracks. And ask Dr. Wachtel to treat your injuries. He has plenty of time.” Inger rested her head in her hands. It just got worse. She was doomed. She had only a handful of men, too few to succeed here and not enough to manage an escape. While Dane kept on making sure that Itaskians were hated as much as possible.

This kingdom was insane. It turned good people bad and bad people worse. It ate them al . Then it sucked in more.

General Liakopulos may have demonstrated a burst of genius by escaping. If he was not lying in a shal ow grave somewhere.

This was al Michael Trebilcock’s fault.

She had no evidence. Not so much as a rumor. But she was ready to bet her soul that Trebilcock was out there tugging strings.

There was some comfort in being able to blame an invisible external devil for al one’s woes.

...

A blunted arrow struck Dane of Greyfel s’ helmet as his purported deserters entered Castle Krief. The soldiers laid down their arms before their Duke finished col apsing. They had no skin in the game.

Babeltausque revealed himself immediately. He had failed to detect the ambush. Inger’s men had not given it away. There would be no sweet Mayenne cunny now.

There might be no getting back home at al .

Babeltausque did not need to indulge in the formal, scientific astrology necessary to predict the future. With Greyfel s imprisoned, the man’s fol owing would disappear.

His fever dream was dead. Once this news escaped Kavelin the Greyfel s family would cease to matter in political equations.

Babeltausque, hands bound, feared there would be no live Itaskians in Kavelin come New Years.

Chaos would take complete charge.

...

Inger intercepted the sorcerer before he could be shoved into a cel . “Remove his gag, please.”

The soldiers were her last Wesson loyalists. They knew what Babeltausque was. They thought Inger touched for not having him kil ed right away. But they fol owed instructions.

Inger looked Babeltausque in the eye. “You know how grim my situation is. Our situation, if you include Dane.” The sorcerer nodded.

“Can you abandon him? Can you come over to me?” Babeltausque nodded repeatedly.

“Unless you’re better than I think we’re likely to get run out of Kavelin. If we’re lucky. If they let us go. You’d have to explain yourself back home.”

“As would you.”

“I no longer care. I’m not ready to run yet, though. I have a little fight left. I’d have more than a little if I had your help.” The sorcerer nodded some more.

“I’l work you harder than Dane ever did. You’l be a lot more than a pet astrologer.”

Babeltausque went slightly grey. “At last. An opportunity to make use of my talents.”

The soldiers snickered.

Inger said, “Turn him loose.”

They did so with obvious reluctance.

She told them, “If he becomes a problem you can say you told me so while you’re roasting him. Sorcerer. Come along. I’l show you where to work.” Which would be in the suite Varthlokkur used when he resided in Castle Krief.

“You’l get one servant. There’l be no touching.

Understand?”

“I gather that fierce temptation wil be set so as to test me.”

“You don’t want to fail.”

The sorcerer adopted his most blank expression.

“Let me know when you’re ready to start.”

“How soon do you need me?”

“Today, if you can.”

The sorcerer sighed and strove to keep up.

Chapter Six:

Year 1017 AFE:

King Without A Throne

The fugitive walked the plain alone, striding purposeful y. The caravan job had not lasted. Despite peace looming there was little trade. No caravans were headed this way.

He glanced to his right. The riders stil paced him.

Occupying his

attention while others closed in? The plains tribes were not populous but were the reason caravans needed guards.

They would steal anything from anyone. Nobody was too poor not to be robbed.

He sensed no other presence, though. They must be keeping track til they could summon help.

There were two of them. They were cautious. They did not like the odds.

They must suspect that he was more dangerous than he looked.

He strode on, sling in hand in case he kicked up a hare or game bird. If those two tried nothing sooner he would visit them after dark.

He could use a good plains pony.

A grouse flushed. He did not react fast enough. His bul et fel short. He produced another stone and walked on. His homeland was only days away. He should decide where to go first.

He had to arrive as a wanderer, not as himself. He would go where rootless men gathered. There he could discover what he needed to know to cope with today’s kingdom.

The land grew more arid, the grass shorter and scruffier, soon revealing patches of dun earth. The grass sea was about to give way to mild desert. Not far ahead, though not yet visible, lay mountains which masked the heart of Hammad al Nakir.

The riders had to make a decision soon. Tomorrow he would reach country where they would not be welcome—

though they were not likely to be noticed. He considered what he would do in their position.

He would move in the middle of the night.

He moved as soon as it was dark. There was no moon.

Pitfal s seemed to multiply.

Despite al , he found the other camp before the riders left to find him. And rediscovered the quality of mercy.

They were boys, probably brothers, the eldest no more than fifteen. They were trying to work up their courage. Neither real y wanted to do anything but neither wanted the other to think he was a coward.

Haroun could not fol ow their dialect wel but did figure out that their main motive was a need to please their father, who was a hetman and wanted them to come home with proof that they had done something brave.

Haroun’s own people were nomadic in the main. They enjoyed similar traditions.

The boys final y worked themselves up. They didn’t have to take foolish chances. They could tel the truth when the old men asked about their efforts to count coup. For that was what this was. Not real y robbery but boys wanting to mark their transition into manhood.

Had an experienced warrior fol owed them? Probably not.

A guardian angel would stand out on the plain.

The essence of the rite of passage was that the candidates had to do for themselves.

He gave them ten minutes, then entered their camp. They were not fastidious. He placed a gold coin in each of their leather jacks, then readied their horses. One gentle spel kept the ponies quiet. He led them to the trace that passed as a road headed into the desert kingdom.

The vil ain who had given up those coins would not object to them passing on to boys who needed something good to happen.

Haroun wished he could be a fly buzzing round when they, absent their ponies, returned to their people carrying gold enough to buy a herd.

 ...

Varthlokkur had restrained his darker nature in order to spend an afternoon with the four strange children who constituted his makeshift family. Only Smyrena was his own get. Ethrian was his grandson.

Even to him it seemed odd to have a grandson so much older than his daughter. But it was a bizarre world. He had added a few bricks of strange himself.

Ethrian was a thin, dark youth. In his best moments he had haunted eyes. Madness was his relief from memories of being the Deliverer, a monster managed by a revenant evil that considered itself a god. The Deliverer used its armies of the dead to punish the wrong people for injuries he imagined had been done to him. The revenant had misled him.

Escaping had cost Ethrian love and sanity, a price not yet ful y paid. Some days he did nothing but lie curled in a bal . Others he sat and rocked, eyes vacant, an age and countless miles away. His mind held mil ennia of memories not his own. He was never sure what was then and what was now.

The wizard did what he could to keep the boy anchored.

He had no faith in the boy’s chances for recovery, yet did his best for Nepanthe’s sake. She would not concede any chance that Ethrian could not be saved

Smyrena could be a spooky little beast, normal one moment, possessed the next. She did not cry. She seemed too alert and attentive for an infant. She enjoyed the presence of the Unborn. Varthlokkur found that dreadful y unnatural. Radeachar was an instrument. It ought not to have friends.

He told himself that Smyrena would grow out of it.

Mist’s brats were disturbingly normal. Fathered by Nepanthe’s brother Valther back when Mist had entertained no hope of becoming Empress again, they were exotic hybrids, scary in their beauty. The girl was older. The boy was growing faster. Right now they looked like twins. They worked hard to maintain that pretense, though there was no need. There was no survival imperative here.

They did know who they were. Varthlokkur showed them their mother occasional y. He meant the look at their heritage as a caution, not a kindness. He wanted them to know that they could be in danger for no greater cause than being the children of that woman, however much they remained separated from the Dread Empire.

He lied to them, too. He told them their mother had left them with their aunt for their protection. He told them Mist had been dragged into Dread Empire politics unwil ingly and had been terrified of the risks to them.

Insofar as he recal ed, Mist had left them as hostages she was not concerned about losing.

His cynicism ran deep.

Seldom did he encounter anything that rendered him more sanguine.

Nepanthe joined him. She was cheerful. She went directly to Ethrian, petted and fussed. Varthlokkur and Smyrena both watched with a touch of jealousy.

...

The fugitive entered his homeland. He did not relax. He was a stranger even here. The people of Hammad al Nakir, of whatever political or religious persuasion, distrusted strangers.

He moved slowly, avoiding tribal camps, til he reached the oasis cal ed al-Habor. It was more developed than when he had visited as a boy. More permanent structures had been added and new orchards had been planted, but then disaster had found the town. Most of it had fal en apart since. Today it was dying.

And provided proof that some men did not care about issues that had tormented their people for two generations.

Al-Habor had become a haven for rootless men. The forgotten King Without a Throne could begin gathering the strings of his life here.

Haroun was not there when the sun set. When it rose he was seated against an adobe wal , snoring, one of a half-dozen probable miscreants. ...

Yasmid, with Habibul ah behind her, an intimidating shade, considered the foreigners Elwas al-Souki had invited to Sebil el Selib. The tal , fat one was a Matayangan swami eager to put distance between himself and his blasted homeland. He was the color of pale mahogany.

His companion, a smal er man of low caste, was darker and less healthy. Nervously, he translated for the bigger man.

Elwas repeated himself. “Swami Phogedatvitsu specializes in overcoming addictions.” He wilted under Yasmid’s disapproval.

She was angry down to her toenails. The presumption of the man! But she could not just run him off. Not with Habibul ah watching. Not after the miracle he had wrought at the salt lake.

Al-Souki’s success irked Yasmid. The history of the Faith was speckled with military geniuses who became liabilities after they won their reputations. That started with her uncle Nassef, who had been with her father from the beginning.

Nassef, as the Scourge of God, helped build a wide, wild religious empire. And had been a thorough-going bandit when the Disciple was not looking. He had been ambitious, too, systematical y eliminating anyone who stood between him and succession to the Peacock Throne. He had wanted Yasmid as his child bride so he could unite Royalists and Faithful under his rule.

Fate had delivered Yasmid to Haroun bin Yousif instead.

The Faithful never lacked bril iant commanders but few were moved more by faith than by ambition and greed.

Yasmid was not ready to believe that Elwas bin Farout al-Souki was something new.

She made a “Get on with it!” gesture.

Al-Souki said, “Phogedatvitsu can conquer an addiction as deep as your father’s. I beg you, al ow him to try.” She had mixed feelings. And a sense of shame.

She was not sure she wanted her father freed. If he recovered, his daughter would become a simple ornament to his glory. A saint at best.

How shameful. How dare she put herself ahead of God’s Chosen Disciple?

Despite al , including her long love for the King Without a Throne, she believed in her father’s message. He had a unique relationship with God. Much as she reveled in being God’s stand-in hand and voice, directing the Faithful, she did not have that direct relationship herself.

She was a custodian, nothing more.

“Elwas, I wil give you the chance you want. The foreigner can try to rescue my father. I wil make him wealthy if he succeeds.”

“You won’t be disappointed, Shining One,” the prostitute’s son promised. “It may take a year but the world wil gain its soul back. El Murid wil be a golden beacon once more.” After al-Souki left, Yasmid asked Habibul ah, “Is he for real?”

“Total y. And he’s not unique. He just doesn’t mind letting the world know.”

Yasmid looked like she had bitten into something sour.

Habibul ah began to frown. Did he wonder what her problem was? Elwas bin Farout al-Souki had offered her a chance to spark new life into the flames of the Faith.

Habibul ah was her slave emotional y but he was, as wel , one of the oldest of the Believers. He coughed gently to remind her that the One was watching. This might be His mercy at work.

“Cal him back.”

Habibul ah was not gone long.

Yasmid looked al-Souki in the eyes, hard. He was not accustomed to that from a woman. His gaze dropped. She said, “You have one hundred days to show me real progress. If Phogedatvitsu is a con artist his corpse wil join the hundred thousand already fertilizing Sebil el Selib. No more talk. Habibul ah, arrange to house and feed those men.”

Giving Habibul ah that task was meant to put both men in their place. She felt petty doing so.

...

Al-Habor was the wel to which social gravity drew the lost souls of the desert. Even the flies and parasites had yielded to despair. Soul-shattered veterans of decades of war haunted al-Habor, shaking, muttering, afraid, or just staring at something only one man could see. They did not talk much. They survived on the charity of Sheyik Hanba al-Medi al-Habor, the local tribal chief. Hanba bore the marks of the wars himself. They had cost him a hand, an eye, and three sons. He could not afford the charity he provided. The wars had seen to that, too.

Stil , he did provide.

Al-Habor once was a major crossroads. It was of minor importance stil . Trade remained limited because fighting could return any time. The oasis was sweet and reliable and strategical y valuable.

Half the mud-brick buildings were abandoned. The best preserved were infested by squatters.

Haroun settled in unremarked. Few would have cared had he announced himself. Al-Habor was the end of the road.

No roads led to a future elsewhere. Al-Habor clung to the souls it col ected. Haroun found it bleak enough to dampen a bril iant spring day at high noon.

Nobody cared about one more bum fal en into the cauldron.

He did not learn much. Lack of care meant a lack of information. Only travelers had any real news. Few of those would waste time on a soul-shattered tramp whose real goal must be to mooch or steal something.

Insidious tendrils of despair shadowed Haroun’s own heart.

He should move on before he became lost himself.

There were those who preyed on the lost. The most virulent was a big, stupid man cal ed the Bul . The Bul ran with a timid kil er known as the Beetle.

It was unusual y cold. Haroun had formed an unspoken al iance with two others. Between them they had found enough fuel for a smal fire. They sat round that, no man meeting another’s gaze.

The Beetle and the Bul appeared. The Bul rumbled, “The Bul is hungry.”

Nobody responded. Only Haroun had anything edible. He did not intend to share.

The Bul kicked the little fire apart. “I said…” Haroun slipped a knife into the back of the Bul ’s right calf.

He sliced down, then sideways. At first the Bul did not feel pain enough to understand. He tried to turn. His leg did not cooperate. Haroun leaned out of the path of his col apse.

The Bul roared, tried to get up. Haroun’s blade entered his right eye. “Breathe without leave and I’l take the other, too.

Your old friends wil have great sport with a blind Bul .” The Beetle tried something stupid. Haroun disarmed him.

He settled beside the Bul , nursing partial y severed fingers.

“Would you like to spend your remaining days dependent on the good wil of the Beetle?” The Bul abused his partner with only slightly less vigor than he did everyone else. “No?

You’re less stupid than I thought. I’l leave you one eye, then.

I’l take it first time you do something to offend me, though.” The Bul looked into Haroun’s eyes. He saw no mercy there.

He did see a dark future for those who angered the man.

He eased back, rose slowly, let the Beetle help him limp away.

One of the others said, “I remember you.” He said nothing more. He lowered his head, went to sleep.

The second man acknowledged events with a nod and a shudder. He placed curds of dried camel dung on the resurrected fire, then lay down on his left side.

Haroun noticed changes next morning. Word had spread.

His presence was acknowledged subtly everywhere. Had his fireside companion truly recognized him? If so, it was definitely time to leave. Most of the walking dead here had fol owed El Murid.

Did he dare reclaim his animals and gear? Would the stable keeper even deal with him now that he could not be distinguished from the sort of man he pretended to be?

Nothing developed, though, except the exchange of whispers amongst the lost. Haroun got the news himself three times. No one named a revenant champion from days gone by. The man from the fire had changed his mind or had not been believed. Either was convenient.

...

Haroun wakened suddenly. Someone had come too close. He sensed no malice, however. He feigned sleep, let the situation develop. He was seated against an adobe wal in a pool of shadow. Moonlight il uminated what could be seen through cracked eyelids. A breeze tumbled the skeleton of a brushy weed.

Someone settled to his right. The man smel ed familiar.

He would be the companion who never spoke.

Haroun waited.

A long time passed before the man whispered, “A courier came from Al Rhemish.” The man had trouble talking. He stammered. “He told the Sheyik’s night boy to gather fodder for twenty horses for four days.” Someone would be coming out from the capital. Haroun could not be the reason. Megelin’s few incompetent shaghûns would waste no time spying on no-account towns awash in human flotsam. It likely meant only that a Royalist band would pass through on its way somewhere to make someone miserable.

Haroun did not respond. His companion did nothing to suggest that a response was necessary.

Next morning the Sheyik’s men came looking for day labor.

Haroun joined the volunteers. Some went looking for fodder. Haroun was in the group set to cleaning the Sheyik’s stable and corral. He did not see the point, nor did he learn anything useful.

His companions cared not at al . Shifting horse manure or no, it was al the same. The slower they worked the longer they would be employed.

Haroun wandered off, vacant-eyed, as often as he dared.

The Sheyik’s men would find him and bring him back to the corral. He learned nothing about the layout inside the adobe wal screening the Sheyik’s residence, which was a minor fortress built of mud brick.

Back behind his pitchfork, Haroun wondered why he felt compel ed to study the place. Because someone had a notion that important things were about to happen? Or because of some unconscious premonition of his own?

He had those infrequently. He had learned to pay attention.

But they were not universal y trustworthy. A premonition had made him murder an innocent prince and princess.

Someone was coming. Someone with an escort. Who it would be was secret but it had to be someone firmly convinced of his own importance.

Come sundown Haroun’s work party scattered into al-Habor after being fed. Like the others, bin Yousif stuffed himself til his stomach ached and carried away whatever he could hide about his person.

He fel asleep against the same wal behind another tiny fire. The same men shared the warmth. Both had been part of the work party. They were rich tonight, as al-Habor’s lost understood that state.

Haroun drifted off wondering if they three would not now offer too much temptation to the Bul s of al-Habor.

Chapter Seven:

Year 1017 AFE:

Eastern Empire

The Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i, Commander, Western Army, second in the Dread Empire, took some time off work.

Shih-ka’i used a portal known only to himself. He stepped out on an island unimaginably far to the east.

Ehelebe might once have been its name. He was not sure.

Ehelebe was obscure and might have been something else.

He was not looking forward but he was a man who had attained his station by meticulous attention to detail, to duty, by genius, by an unsul ied reputation for being apolitical, and because he once enjoyed some favor from politicals who used him as a showpiece.

Shih-ka’i believed that his character made him uniquely suited to pul Shinsan together fol owing its late, suicidal internal conflicts. The daughter of the Demon Prince was now the fountainhead of empire but Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i, the pig farmer’s son, was the symbol, device, and guarantor of the new era. And what he wanted to do now, in service to that guarantee, was make sure that a man he had exiled would be reintegrated into Tervola society. Kuo Wen-chin could be of incalculable value if he would stifle his ambition.

Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i owed Kuo. Wen-chin had plucked him from obscurity, as commander of a training legion, and had loosed him on the revenant god of the east. From that triumph he had gone on to glory in the west.

There was no sign of Kuo. The fortress round the old laboratories was deserted. It was morning but little sunlight reached Shih-ka’i. There was no artificial lighting. Dust lay heavy. It fil ed the air when he moved. He removed his boar mask so he could sneeze.

He did not cal out. Even an apolitical Tervola dared not go round shouting the name of a condemned man he had saved. Who knew who might hear you impeach yourself?

Had Kuo escaped?

Not likely, though the man was a genius. And there was a precedent. The Deliverer had escaped by swimming to the mainland. Then he

had walked on west, al ied with forces ancient and terrible. That route was closed, now. No one would survive it again. Portals were the only way out.

The dust in the staging chamber made it clear that Lord Kuo had not gotten out that way.

The kitchen was the place to start. Kuo had to eat.

Miniature portals delivered foodstuffs there, from sources calculated to raise no questions.

Shih-ka’i strained to remember his way. He had visited only briefly a few times, most recently to stash Kuo. It took a while.

The kitchen did show signs of regular use by someone with few skil s and no dedication to order.

A remote clatter caught Ssu-ma’s attention.

He found his man down where past tenants had housed their prisoners and monsters. Wen-chin was spoon-feeding a drooling old man.

Shih-ka’i’s advent startled Wen-chin, who, nevertheless, continued feeding the invalid. Kuo said, “I didn’t expect you so soon. Are you here to end the threat?”

“No. I wanted to make sure of your welfare. Who is this?”

“I don’t know. Presumably someone important to the previous regime. I can’t imagine how he survived. He hasn’t much mind left. He is a project fil ed with chal enges, the biggest being to overcome his fears so I can draw him back to the world.”

“Oh?”

“I would’ve gone mad without him.”

“Then him being here was piece of good fortune.” And a grim harbinger, perhaps.

“So. You’re not here to kil me. Then tel me what’s happened out there.”

Shih-ka’i brought him up to date.

Kuo sighed. “The Empire has fared wel .”

“Better than we had any right to expect, given the foibles of our class.”

“I hoped, of course. I’m sad that there’s no place for me. But I was resigned to that when I came to you.” Lord Ssu-ma nodded. “It hasn’t been a long time but it has been busy. A lot changed. Most importantly, the wars are over. Successful y, thanks to your foresight. But the exhaustion of the state and the legions are such that the surviving Tervola have put aside personal ambitions.”

“On the surface, perhaps.”

“No doubt temptation wil sway some who can’t see past the Empress’s sex, however sound her leadership and thorough her discipline.”

“What do you want from me, Lord Ssu-ma?”

“Right now, truly, only to see that you’re wel . Later, maybe something more. Assuming your own ambitions are now manageable.”

“They were never unmanageable. I did what I did for the Empire.”

“A good thing to know.” Every fal en Tervola would claim the same. Most would believe themselves. “I’l be back.

Probably sooner than this time. Time is less pressing.” Kuo said, “Lord, I wil make any adjustment necessary to get out of here.” Happily, he was not yet desperate enough to do something stupid.

The attempt would have been fatal.

Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i held a low and cynical opinion of his fel ow Tervola. He viewed al they did through the lens of that cynicism and his own low birth. But he could and did grant kudos to those who rose above their nature. Kuo was one such man.

...

The routine in the prison tower remained unchanged.

Only the faces of those who brought the meals were different. They talked no more than had their predecessors.

Ragnarson was tempted to attack somebody to force an interaction.

He did not. The beast inside was cunning enough to understand that he would regret that sort of defiance quickly, deeply.

Mist’s remarks during her visit had begun to shape his thinking. He now spent too much time trying to figure himself out. It was embarrassing. He was glad that his beloved dead could not see him so enfeebled. Haaken, Reskird, Elana, and so many others would never have understood.

He came to fear that his ghosts would understand more and better than he did.

His own philosophy of life had shrunk to a smash-and-grab level.

Once the introspection vice set in nothing was safe from repeated review. Trivial incidents stuck in his head like musical refrains, cycling over and over.

Time flew, then. In sane moments he wondered if this was not just a way to escape the monotony of imprisonment.

Then he would recol ect an incident or decision that constituted another early brick in his edifice of despair.

Mostly he dwelt on mind-warps that had led him to rush through the Mountains of M’Hand and attack an invincible enemy already determined to exterminate him.

He could not identify the moment when confidence in his own talent and luck had become an irrational conviction that he could never be deprived of good fortune and victory.

He knew the seeds lay in the head butting with Varthlokkur over whether or not to tel Nepanthe what Ethrian was doing in the east.

He concluded, after numerous rehashes, that Varthlokkur was more culpable than he. That old man’s stubbornness, in the face of al evidence, had caused Kavelin’s downfal .

Insofar as Ragnarson knew there had been no softening of the wizard’s attitude. He would not admit that he was wrong.

Ragnarson could do that. Privately. To himself. He did not know if he could confess the failing publicly.

Days fled. Mist did not return. Ragnarson received no news. He could only imagine what was happening at home.

Imaging, he could only picture the worst. The worst he pictured was too optimistic.

He lost track of time. Days became weeks. Weeks became seasons.

It seemed like summer out there.

...

Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i was nervous. He had been cal ed to the Imperial presence. The summons had been there waiting, like an unhappy promise, when he returned from the island in the east.

Reason said it would be Imperial business. Emotion feared that the woman knew what he had done.

And she was scarcely a hundred yards away, now, here in his own army headquarters.

He sent word that he was available and awaiting her convenience.

His messenger brought word that he was to attend her immediately.

Shih-ka’i got no sense of danger but remained uncomfortable.

The guilty flee where none doth pursue.

Shih-ka’i knew the aphorism had a similar form in most al older cultures. It had figured grandly in events leading to the destruction of Ilkazar. The Empire Destroyer had employed that exact formula to frighten the lords men of the old Empire.

The Empress was exhausted and gaunt despite the improvement in Shinsan’s fortunes. She beckoned him.

She seemed distracted, not angry.

This might not be about Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i after al .

She said, “I know you’re no expert but I trust your wisdom.”

“To what conundrum shal I bend my wise lack of expertise?”

“I have a secret.”

“As do we al . I would like to discuss mine with you someday when you’re feeling particularly generous.”

“I have two things troubling me,” the Empress said. “First, how do I guarantee the safety of my children?” She met his gaze straight on.

Did she imagine him to be a threat? “I may have missed an intermediate step in your thinking. I was only vaguely aware that you have children. Now that you mention them, where are they?”

“That would be the meat of my problem.”

Shih-ka’i tried to seem interested. He was seriously off balance. “I don’t understand.”

“When I returned from exile, during the events that displaced Lord Kuo…” She paused, suddenly remote.

Shih-ka’i took the opportunity to remark, “A good man, at least to me. He al owed me to prove myself against the Deliverer. He was a considerable resource to the Empire.” The Empress looked puzzled. “Everyone tel s me you have no interest in politics.”

“That would be true most of the time. The politics of the moment have to be acknowledged sometimes because they shape everything else. Kuo Wen-chin was my mentor, friend, and the man who let me grow into what I became.

The politics around him meant nothing to me except when they interfered with me trying to do my job. But you want to talk about your children.”

She gave him another odd look. “Yes. I do. I have two.

Ekaterina and her brother Scalza. Their father gave them those names. No doubt they’re comfortable with them and would rather not assume those secretly preferred by their mother. The girl is the oldest.”

Lord Ssu-ma smiled. “And you intend to stay vague because you’re afraid politics might overtake them.”

“I am. I left them behind because I knew they would be safer where they were. They were with people I trusted.” Shih-ka’i enjoyed an intuitive moment. “They weren’t people who trusted you.”

“So the results would suggest.”

“So they’re real y hostages to fortune. And you have been too busy to do anything about it. But now you have enough free time to feel guilty.”

The Empress gave him yet another look. “Pretty much, yes.”

“And the pig man fits how?”

“He tel s me what he thinks after I admit that I can’t figure out where they are.”

“The people you trusted?”

“Kavelin has col apsed. People have scattered. Some are dead. The kingdom was stable when I left. But Bragi did what he did and everything came apart.”

Lord Ssu-ma held his tongue. He waited.

“The children disappeared early.”

Shih-ka’i wondered how near the wind of fact she was sailing. Certainly she was not being one hundred percent forthright—though she herself might head up the file of those she was deceiving.

“Actual y, I do have an idea where they are, but I don’t know.

I’m not even sure that they’re stil alive. If they’re where I fear, there’l be no way to reach them.” Shih-ka’i needed no more clues. “You’re afraid the Empire Destroyer has them.”

“Yes.” She said no more. He knew that Varthlokkur’s wife was the sister of the man she had been unable to deny.

“Would he try to use them to make you to do something against the interests of the Empire?”

“The fear lurks behind my concern for their welfare. He slipped into a bizarre mental state just before Kavelin began to fal apart.”

Frankly puzzled, Shih-ka’i again asked, “And I fit how?”

“You are a marvelous sounding board.”

“Real y?” Startled.

“Absolutely. Thanks to you, I now know exactly what I’l do.” Shih-ka’i was too lost to say anything, good, bad, indifferent, or wisecrack. “Pleased to be of service. There was something else?”

She frowned, then admitted, “Yes. About the prisoner, Ragnarson. We need to get some use out of him.” That or kil him, in Shih-ka’i’s estimation. But he did face the problem of owing Ragnarson a life.

“Be aware that my peasant background marked me with a tendency to rigid views of right, wrong, and the nature of one’s honorable obligations.”

The Empress looked him directly in the eye. “I know he saved your life at Lioantung. You repaid him after you defeated him.”

“I’m not comfortably sure of that. There are no definitive rules of obligation. Was mine discharged when I salvaged him and had the healers put him back together? He saved me by brushing a bal ista shaft aside—the consequences of which stretch out into time unknown. So must I be his protector forever? How deep is my obligation to others who have done me kindnesses?”

The Empress did not respond right away. Her upbringing had encouraged more flexible attitudes. Then she had spent years amongst westerners whose ideals about honor far surpassed what even Shih-ka’i considered rational.

“Are you suffering some crisis of conscience? It seems you’re thinking about more than our guest in the Karkha Tower.”

“I cannot hide from your matchless eye, Empress. A crisis of conscience indeed, not concerning the erstwhile king of Kavelin. If you insist that I have discharged my obligation to Ragnarson I’l defer to your judgment. My present moral conundrum is more perilous. For me.”

Silent seconds stretched. The Empress stared but showed no abiding interest in his prattle.

Ice crept up Shih-ka’i’s spine. Enough! “Pardon me, Empress. My peasant side waxed a little strong for a moment.”

“That’s worth considering sometime when we’re not distracted.”

“What?”

“You’ve been around a long time. You were among the last students taken from outside the senior castes. But in my grandfather’s time only talent and merit counted.”

“Dedication helped, as did a capacity to remain placid in the face of provocation. But you are correct. The ideals that boosted the early empire have been subverted. The get of Tervola grow up with a sense of entitlement.”

“I mean to give that some thought once I’m no longer obsessing about my children.”

“Make a big sign.”

“What?”

“A joke. The underlying assumption being that Varthlokkur keeps an eye on you. To let him know you’re thinking about him and your children. I meant it as sil iness but a sign might actual y be a way to let him know you’d like to have a conversation.”

“That’s insanity on the hoof—and might work. It would for sure let me know if the old bastard is looking over my shoulder.”

“Yes.” Lord Ssu-ma thought this might be a good time to go away. He could niggle around Wen-chin again later.

The Empress said, “Go back to work. I’l do some thinking when there aren’t any distractions.”

Shih-ka’i bowed himself out, thoughts chaotic. No lifeguards had been present just now. Did that speak to Mist’s confidence or to her paranoia?

He stutter-stepped. He had no bodyguards of his own these days. He had not had a friend or close companion since Pan ku died at Lioantung. He had acquaintances. People with whom he worked.

His one shadow of a friend was hiding on an island outside the Empire, his very existence a death sentence for Ssuma Shih-ka’i.

...

Varthlokkur spent too much time being Haroun’s guardian angel, real y. Bin Yousif seldom needed help.

When the wizard was not a ghost behind that man’s shoulder he tried to keep watch on key players in the Lesser Kingdoms. Sometimes he checked on Bragi Ragnarson or went sneaking around some major personality in today’s Dread Empire.

Too often he wasted time trying to scry the future.

Once he had been a master of divination. The future was able to elude him only through ambiguity. He could look ahead for generations. Now he had trouble with days.

Weeks were impossible.

He was sure he knew why.

He devoted an hour a day considering how to gain an advantage on the Star Rider.

That had been accomplished a few times but never for long and never with a net positive result.

He let Nepanthe help with some of his less dangerous applications, especial y through the Winterstorm. That was simplicity itself. She needed only manipulate a few symbols.

“Varth. You need to see this.”

Her tone brought the wizard quickly. “Wel . Damn! Isn’t that interesting?”

“And clever.”

They looked at a blackboard centered inside a transparent globe. Chalked on that board in big block characters, in Kaveliner Wesson, was: Varthlokkur, where are my babies?

Board and globe were in Mist’s private office. She passed by once while they watched. “Passive message,” the wizard mused. “She assumes that I watch her.”

“Clever.”

“What?”

“She’s right.”

Varthlokkur grunted, then began to brood on the nature of the magic Mist was using. “Must be a bubble outside the local reality so visitors don’t notice. Maybe an offset in time.”

“She might just not let people in.”

“There’s that. But it’s so prosaic. That bubble…”

“Foo on the bubble. What are we going to do?”

“About what?”

“About letting Mist know that her children are al right.” He did not get it. Honestly.

“Her children,” Nepanthe said, slowly and loudly. “She’s concerned about Ekaterina and Scalza.”

“Oh. Yes. I don’t know if I actual y believe that, but…” “Varth!

Stop!”

He stopped. She used that tone frugal y, when focused on a single matter. When she was determined to make the universe conform to simple arithmetic terms.

“What do you want to do, darling?”

“Just let her know they’re fine. How hard is that to figure?”

“There’s a high degree of difficulty. It isn’t the sort of thing I do.”

“You’re the ace sorcerer of al time. Make the answer appear on her blackboard.”

He chuckled. “I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because she wouldn’t let me. If I could get in there and do that, that simply, then any Tervola old enough to walk could sneak in and do bad things.”

“Al right. I understand. But you’l find a way. Hel , invite her to come see them.”

That suggestion so flabbergasted Varthlokkur that he was left speechless. But thoughtful.

Chapter Eight:

Year 1017 AFE:

The Desert Kingdom

There was no wakening touch but Haroun knew one of his companions wanted his attention. A glance at the angle of the moonlight told him it was just after midnight. He heard harness creaks and horses’ hooves. There was no need to whisper, “They’re here.” Traveling by night.

Interesting.

Might be worth investigating.

Probably not worth the risk of exposure, though.

Haroun moved just enough to let it be known that he had heard. He was curious.

He did nothing for several minutes. The sounds made by the travelers grew louder. They would reach the Sheyik’s stronghold without coming near here.

Haroun had a premonition: It would not be wise to go look.

He rose, glided through the moonlight forty yards, slid into a shadow where his companions could not watch. He squatted, careful y extended his shaghûn senses.

The sounds of movement ceased.

Bin Yousif withdrew, cursing softly. Slight as his use of the power had been, it had been detected. A powerful someone accompanied the nightriders.

Up. Stride briskly back to his seat behind the tiny fire.

Settle. Relax. Hope his companions did not ask uncomfortable questions.

Both were awake and nervous.

Shouting and order-giving began over yonder. Haroun concentrated on control ing his breathing.

A half-dozen men trotted past. One paused to consider the derelicts. He wasted only a few seconds before moving on.

Haroun caressed the hilt of his favorite knife, gently, and wondered about the sorcerer who had detected his careful probe.

Another group of men rushed Haroun’s former shadow from another direction.

Incomprehensible cal s indicated that more men were coming.

Silhouettes glided into sight, fol owing the half-dozen who had passed by earlier, three in a loose wedge fol owed by a man who was nearly a giant.

Haroun did not think. He responded without calculation, lightning striking. He leapt onto the devil’s back, left hand seizing his chin and pul ing, right hand yanking his knife across the man’s throat, slicing deep enough to cut the windpipe before the sorcerer could utter the first syl able of a protective spel . The slash cut al the way to the spine.

Carotid and jugular spewed.

Bin Yousif threw himself clear, drove his knife into the bel y of Magden Norath’s nearest companion, who shrieked as he went down. He slashed another man’s raised left arm.

The third turned to run. He died from a thrust into his back.

Haroun ran the other direction after taking a moment to drive his knife into the sorcerer’s left temple. He considered taking the head away, to destroy it a fragment at a time, but Norath’s men had begun to react.

He became another shadow moving through shadows.

He was calm the whole time, from the moment he felt his knife slice Norath’s esophagus. This was his life. This was what he had been born to do, til the day he made his lethal mistake. Cut, slash, stab, and walk away before anyone could respond.

Once out of sight he had serious advantages.

Norath’s men could not know who they were hunting. He knew that anyone searching must be an enemy.

Magden Norath, though! How could that be? In his way, in his time, Norath had been as terrible as the Empire Destroyer. How could he have fal en so easily?

Norath had gotten sloppy. He had failed to protect himself because he had seen no need. Death had been on him before he knew he was in danger. It was the story of every mouse ever taken by an owl, fox, or snake.

Death was always one inattentive moment away.

Things began to prowl the night, hunting, things created by Magden Norath. Though hardly the savan dalage the sorcerer had loosed during the Great Eastern Wars, they were formidable. They were confused. Haroun ambushed one that came within striking distance. It died. He was amazed.

The threat faded.

Norath was dead. The hunt for his murderer went on hiatus while the sorcerer’s men surrounded another member of their party. Him they hurried to safety inside the Sheyik’s compound.

Amazing, Haroun thought. The course of history might have been changed.

He had to get out of al-Habor. There would be a big, serious hunt once those men got themselves together. They would loose Norath’s monsters—unless they just kil ed the beasts rather than try to manage them without the sorcerer’s help.

Haroun sneaked back to his fire. That had been kil ed and scattered. There was no sign that three men had slept there. The dead had been taken away.

Haroun ripped a strip from the edge of his cloak. He took a packet from a pocket inside his inner shirt, tucked the scrap inside. The herb in the packet had come most of the way from Lioantung. He rubbed it into the cloth, then worked the scrap into a crack in the wal where he had sat to sleep. It should look like something that had gotten caught there.

Al set. Time to go.

There was no one in the stable when Haroun arrived. Odd, but his shaghûn senses discovered nothing else unusual.

Maybe the night boy was shirking.

Haroun was preparing his animals when a long, hate-fil ed howl rol ed across al-Habor. It was joined by another.

His cloth scrap had been found.

How many monsters had Magden Norath brought?

Bin Yousif thought of them as hel hounds but they better resembled large, stocky cats with hound-like heads.

As Haroun eased into the light of the setting moon he concluded that their number did not matter.

Men screamed. Monsters growled and shrieked in a fight fit for entertaining the gods. Haroun searched the sky, halfway expecting to see a winged horse against the starscape.

Stil no stable boy. Surely the uproar should have brought him back. The master was bound to come, to make sure the animals were safe.

Haroun left a generous tip.

The sun would rise before long. Norath’s hounds should have to hide from the light. They could be rooted out and destroyed during the day.

If they did not destroy one another. If someone did not delude himself into thinking he could use them the way Norath had.

Haroun hoped his fireside brethren had gotten a good head start. They did not deserve to suffer for his crimes.

...

Megelin’s bodyguards were the best surviving Royalist warriors. They moved as quietly as they could, which was not especial y so. The horses and camels were nervous.

The deathcats had closed in too tight.

Megelin had told the damned sorcerer to leave the deathcats behind. Norath did not listen wel . He had brought four monsters anyway.

Someday Norath would cease to be useful. After he made Megelin’s enemies die. Then he could join his victims in hel .

Pray this meeting went wel . Norath’s mystery al y might hasten the opportunity.

Norath’s massive bulk rol ed in the moonlight just yards ahead. The sorcerer had a distinctive walk because of injuries suffered during the Great Eastern Wars. He was badly bowlegged and had trouble changing course quickly.

Megelin’s loathing grew. He was downwind. The man stank.

Norath could stop suddenly, though. Megelin banged into him. “What the hel …?”

Norath ignored him. In a growling whisper, he said.

“Someone is trying to spy on us using the Power. We may have been betrayed. We have to catch him. We need to ask why he is here, waiting.” The sorcerer husked orders to the men, then to his beasts. Two parties of six men each moved out. Those who stayed began stringing horses and camels together so they could be managed more easily.

Megelin was livid. Not one of his lifeguards had looked to him for approval of the sorcerer’s orders.

That reckoning might come soon.

What had happened, anyway? Norath seemed stricken sick. He almost danced in his nervousness.

The sorcerer could not restrain himself. “You. You. Attaq.

Come with me. The rest of you stay with the King. Keep the animals together.” He said something else in another language. The deathcats rumbled unhappily.

Norath moved off into the moonlight at his best speed.

The deathcats arrayed themselves defensively on Megelin’s side of the herd. The remaining lifeguards stationed themselves among the animals, to steady them up. They were one fright short of a stampede.

There were thirty-two horses and four camels. The King of Hammad al Nakir had to help control them as though he was a common soldier. Another mark against Magden Norath.

Megelin tried to talk to the men across the herd. The lifeguards had nothing to say. One unidentifiable voice told him to shut up. They had troubles enough already.

A shriek ripped the night. Megelin jumped. The cry stirred a deep, unreasoning dread.

Expectant silence fol owed. It lasted only seconds.

Shadows scurried past. Megelin first thought they were his lifeguards fleeing. Then one ragamuffin passed close enough to be recognized as a derelict.

The lifeguards swarmed out of the darkness seconds later.

Some grabbed Megelin and hustled him forward. Others helped move the animals.

Magden Norath was not among them.

After Megelin had been herded more than a hundred yards, the nearest lifeguard panted, “The sorcerer is dead. His head was almost al the way off. We need to get you safe.” Norath? Slain? Magden Norath? How could that be?

As the band streamed into the Sheyik’s compound Megelin heard the distant shriek of an injured deathcat.

Suddenly, Megelin was alone except for three lifeguards.

Those three barely restrained their rage. They wanted to go hunt the monster who had murdered their god.

The Sheyik’s men took the animals. Others kept pushing Megelin toward safety. They took him to the Sheyik himself, an older, heavily bearded man Megelin knew and did not like. Hanba al-Medi had served both sides: the Disciple when the Faith was in ful flood, then the Royalist cause after El Murid began to fade.

The old man was trembling, confused. He kept asking what the excitement was about and got no answers.

At that point there were no answers. The second in command of the lifeguards told Hanba, “There was an ambush. Someone knew we were coming. Four men are dead—including Magden Norath.”

The old chief blanched. He faced his king. “That can’t be possible. Magden Norath?”

“His head was cut almost al the way off. The men with him were kil ed, too.”

Despite being inside, Megelin heard the shrieks of the deathcats and the screams of men who were too close when they went mad.

Al-Medi was terrified, yet outraged. “I learned of al this two days ago. What it’s about was never explained. I could betray nothing if I wanted. What have you brought down on me?”

No doubt he spoke the truth. Norath had arranged to be here. Norath was careful. Only he had known the story. It could be argued that, logical y, only he could be the traitor.

Megelin thought his head was going to burst.

Reports came in. They were not good. Two deathcats had gone mad. They had attacked one another and anything living til the bodyguards put them down. Another six men were dead. Four were badly injured. A half-dozen derelicts had been kil ed as wel .

Megelin screamed, “Old man, what am I doing here?”

“You were brought to see me.”

Megelin turned. And was surprised. That strong young voice had come from the oldest man he had ever seen, a bent, shuffling creature thin as starvation itself. But the power round him was so potent Megelin could taste it.

A bony, crooked finger indicted Megelin. “Come with me, boy.”

Time stopped. Everyone became rigidly motionless.

Rage at the ancient’s lack of respect boiled inside Megelin

—the more so when he found that he could not resist the command. In a moment he and the living antiquity were inside a smal , isolated room, absent al witnesses.

Megelin could not control his flesh but his mind remained independent. He recognized a level of distress in his companion that bordered on terror. The old man was total y rattled—maybe because he understood just how amazing Norath’s fal had been.

The King final y realized who the ancient had to be: that most fabulous of fabulous beings, the Star Rider.

Megelin wished he had the strength and quickness to leave the old devil a sack of dead bones alongside Magden Norath.

The old man’s sneer revealed his confidence of knowing every treacherous thought whisking through Megelin’s brain.

...

Varthlokkur was playing with the children when the unexpected burst. Smyrena lay on his lap, wriggling and giggling, trying to catch a glowing butterfly that kept sneaking past her chubby-fingered grasp to perch for a moment on her pug button nose. Ekaterina and Scalza cheerful y blasted each other in a tag game involving harmless bal s of light. And Ethrian…

Ethrian was looking outward tonight. He remained silent, did not interact, did not respond to direct address, but was connected and alert.

Varthlokkur was pleased to see even that much progress.

Nepanthe was thril ed beyond description.

She was downstairs cobbling together refreshments, no doubt including something that had been an especial favorite of Ethrian’s as a child.

The boy did not move much, and then only slowly, mainly just turning his head. He was intrigued by everything, as though seeing it al for the first time. And he was, real y, for the first time with any curiosity. His cousins, his sister, the Winterstorm, it al stirred mild expressions of wonder.

The baby was just as intrigued by her brother—when she was not preoccupied with her butterfly.

Nepanthe arrived accompanied by burdened servants. “I decided to bring a whole meal since we didn’t have a proper supper.”

“Good thinking,” Varthlokkur said. “Considering the energy those two goblins are burning off.”

Nepanthe started to ask if he had found a way to communicate with Mist but he was not listening.

Ethrian had stiffened. As Varthlokkur turned his way the boy stunned everyone. He pointed at the Winterstorm, said,

“Grandfather.”

“Nepanthe, take the baby. Now!”

The Winterstorm was stirring but what had triggered Ethrian was not obvious there. That was clear only in a mercury pan seldom used but eye-catchingly alive right now. It had been spel ed to trigger only under a few unlikely circumstances.

One would be the sorcerer Magden Norath coming within a mile of the Star Rider’s winged horse.

A thousand hours, spanning the years since the Great Eastern Wars, had gone into the mathematics needed to build the spel suite that tripped the alarm. The task had proven intractable til Varthlokkur decided to try tracing the winged horse instead of the Star Rider himself.

After Nepanthe took Smyrena, Varthlokkur told her,

“Darling, clear everyone out. The children first.” Which meant something big and possibly dangerously bad was happening. Vaguely, Varthlokkur was aware of Nepanthe fussing over Ethrian as she drove everyone out of the chamber.

In moments the wizard was assessing the situation in al-Habor.

Oh, what an opportunity delivered by Chance! A nudge here, another there, hardly powerful enough to disturb an ant’s slumber, and the world changed forever. His part would remain forever unknown to any but he.

Once the nudges had been dealt he settled to observe.

He wished he had the Unborn close enough to do more.

It might be worth revealing himself if he could get the winged horse while the Star Rider was preoccupied.

With any luck he might even have stripped the Star Rider of his principal source of power, the Windmjirnerhorn.

“Let’s not get greedy,” he muttered, on finding himself searching for the horse using Norath’s only surviving deathcat.

It had been a long day before the alarm. Exhaustion took hold. Sweet as harming Old Meddler would be, disaster was certain if he lost control because he was too tired to concentrate. Released, the deathcat would be after Haroun in a heartbeat.

He drove the beast to the Sheyik’s compound, over the adobe wal , into the house proper, then released it.

There was a chance it might get the Star Rider.

Varthlokkur let himself col apse, pleased with his day.

...

Life had turned simple. Yasmid was getting plenty of sleep. Too much, she feared sometimes. Was she hiding from her obligations by clinging to her bed? Stil , there was little to do but arbitrate personal disputes.

There were no foreign threats. Megelin was back in Al Rhemish, licking his wounds and blaming his failures on everyone but himself. Eventual y, he would hatch some new abomination.

The fields of the Faithful promised the richest bounty in years. Flocks and herds were particularly fecund. Mares would foal at a wondrous rate. And because the Faithful need not live off the land, game would make a comeback, too. She had ordered hunts restricted to taking predators.

There would be more game when the future turned evil again. It would. It always did.

No one was more optimistic than she. Her advisers wanted to work everyone like they were under siege, building new granaries and creating new fields that could be used to raise more grain.

Good soil was not plentiful. It had to be created. But water was in bountiful supply. Snow melt came down from the Jebal. A score of springs, al reliable, lay within a day’s walk. Al had been cleansed of poisons put in over the years. Al had been sanctified anew.

Water that did not get used or did not evaporate eventual y found its way to the salt pans. Yasmid thought it sinful that any water got that far—though twice, now, she had had to thank God that it did.

She was half awake, fantasizing ways to bring more water to the desert, when a servant announced, “Habibul ah wishes to see you, Mistress.”

She felt irritated, then recal ed that she had sent for the man. “Al right. Let him in.”

Social circumstance had compel ed Yasmid to create a pseudoaudience in a mess room where she could pretend she was not a woman and it was not necessary to maintain eunuchs, slave women, and cloth screens to conceal her from male visitors. She loathed that kind of formality. She had evaded it most of her life. But success had its price.

Since Megelin’s defeat the older imams had grown loud demanding observation of fundamental rules. People listened because they saw no more need to be flexible.

If peace persisted those old men would keep isolating her til she lost contact with the world.

She asked herself, “What would Haroun do?” Haroun would bury them. There were not many of them, they were just loud.

Habibul ah joined her. He did not speak. He stil limped because of a wound taken in the battle with Megelin.

She let that be. “Do you have anything to report?”

“You have something in mind?”

“What progress is my father making?”

“There is progress. You’d see it if you’d visit. But it isn’t as dramatic as Elwas hoped.”

“His time is flying away.”

“I’d say that he’s shown true progress.”

“Real y?”

“Truly. But I’m not sure that the swami can finish up. Your father would have to do his part.”

“He isn’t trying?”

“Not much.”

Yasmid sighed. “We’l give them more time. Merim. Come here. You’re dancing like a child with a desperate need to pee. What is it?”

“Elwas al-Souki is in the kitchen. He begs the chance to bring you news. There is a man with him who needs a bath badly.”

“Leave the smel y man there. Bring Elwas. Habibul ah, stand as my witness.” She could not become comfortable with al-Souki. It was not a sexual tension thing, either. It was a creepiness thing. There was something wrong about that man, though no one else could see it.

Elwas al-Souki presented himself with his usual rectitude.

His pursuit of form and manners only made Yasmid more uncomfortable.

Her mood shone through when she said, “If you’re here to describe the Disciple’s progress Habibul ah beat you to it.” The ghost of a puzzled frown, then an even fainter, more fleeting touch of hurt, crossed al-Souki’s face. “That is something else, Blessed One. There has been a dramatic development amongst the Royalists. The news just came.

The man nearly kil ed himself getting it here fast.” Blessed One? “Yes?”

“The sorcerer Magden Norath is dead. He was kil ed in a town cal ed al-Habor, in an attack so sudden that he had no chance to defend himself.”

“I know al-Habor. But, Magden Norath? Dead?”

“Yes, Sacred Voice. Our spy was an eyewitness.” Not possible. Could not be. Magden Norath had attained near demigod status during the Great Eastern Wars.

“Dead,” she said again, dumbfounded. “But… That’s not…

There’s more. Isn’t there?”

“Much more. The rest is not so joyful.”

“No. After that I suppose there would have to be something awful to balance the scale. What is it?”

“The witness believes the assassin was a ghost. Or some revenant, undead thing. He swears the kil er was Haroun bin Yousif.”

Her body turned to water. For an instant she got caught up in the ridiculous question of whether or not Elwas knew about her and Haroun. Of course he did. That had been no secret for a long time.

“Impossible!”

Equal y stunned, Habibul ah said, “We never real y knew that, did we? I never heard tel of anyone actual y seeing a body. He just stopped being seen alive.”

“But…”

“Chances are a mil ion to one against it. This spy just wants to see ghosts.”

Al-Souki said, “He doesn’t want to believe it, either. He desperately wants the assassin to be something supernatural instead.”

Yasmid buried her head in her hands. “This wil get exaggerated into total insanity.”

Al-Souki said, “I may have overstepped, Lamp of God, but I did move to make sure the mul ahs don’t whip up the fanatics.”

Yasmid stared, astonished.

“Have I overstepped?”

“No. This news could spark a new round of wars. Tribal warlords won’t be scared of a Megelin without Magden Norath behind him.”

Elwas coughed, looked reluctant, but went on after a pause.

“Megelin may have acquired a more powerful protector.” This would be the real y bad news, saved for last.

“Light of the Ages, the Faithful have numerous friends in al-Habor. The water remains sweet and reliable. The crossroads needs to be watched. Royalists on secret missions often pass through.”

“I’ve been there. Get to the point.”

“Norath and Megelin went there to meet someone.”

“Megelin, too?”

“He was not harmed. His bodyguards kept him safe. They moved him into the local Sheyik’s stronghold.” Megelin and Norath had gone to al-Habor for a secret meeting? Were the Tervola eying the west again?

Elwas said, “The Faithful in al-Habor say that Megelin came to meet the Star Rider.”

Much worse than a visit with Tervola, then.

Yasmid released a long sigh. Somewhere in scripture there was an appropriate verse that ran something like, “And the thing we dread befal s us.”

“Stop. Habibul ah, clear everyone out. You and Elwas stay.” Habibul ah did as he was told, as ever, without understanding. He shut doors then came close so she need not speak loud and be overheard by eavesdroppers.

She asked, “Elwas, how strong is your faith today?”

“Shaken, Shining One. Badly shaken.”

“Stop giving me titles. Habibul ah? How about you?”

“I am no fanatic but I am a Believer. My faith today is the same as it was yesterday. Why should it change?”

“Elwas. How widely known…”

“Only a handful know now. In a month the world wil know.” Habibul ah said, “I’m confused. Why is the death of Magden Norath a tragedy for the Faith?”

“It isn’t. Him and Megelin having a secret meeting with the Star Rider is.”

Habibul ah looked no less confused.

“Old Meddler, Habibul ah. Behind half the evils of history.

He was the angel who saved and educated my father. He wasn’t an emissary of God. My father did God’s work but he was set on that path by a devil who wanted a world fil ed with warfare and chaos.”

What Yasmid said was nothing new. El Murid’s enemies had made those claims for years. She watched Habibul ah perform the mental acrobatics needed to avoid angry denial. He converted to sublime acceptance quickly. “God, in His Wisdom, used His Enemy to instigate the Disciple’s Great Work.”

“Exactly. And that wil be dogma from now on. Elwas?”

“The logic is irrefutable. God has Written everything already.”

“Good. I want the imams and mul ahs gathered for evening prayers with me. I’l also want the Invincibles available to deal with those old men if they give me any grief. We’l establish an official position before the rumors get crazy.

Elwas, can I trot my father out?”

“Go see him. Make that judgment yourself.”

...

Yasmid was alone, except for Habibul ah, whose proximity she seldom shook. Habibul ah waited for her to face the most troubling aspect of the news.

Final y, softly, she asked, “Is there a chance that Norath’s kil er real y was…?”

She could not say the name.

“It must have been. It would have to be. Who else?

Dramatic unity.”

“Excuse me?”

“That would be God having a chuckle at our expense. For even more drama He should’ve brought the assassin face to face with the King.”

“Oh. My.” Yes. If that was Haroun he must have come within yards of their son, with neither knowing.

“Habibul ah, I feel too old and too tired. Find me a place to leave the world behind.”

“I feel that way myself, quite often. Then I remind myself that the only one who ever managed that is your father.” Yasmid wanted to bark and snarl. But what point?

Whatever she said, Habibul ah would have an answer. And it would make much too much sense.

Chapter Nine:

Spring, Year 1017 AFE:

The Lesser Kingdoms

Inger stalked into the room where Babeltausque waited. Only a day had passed since his conversion.

Already he insisted on seeing her. She hoped a quick response did not make her seem desperate. “You’re ready to go to work?”

“Majesty, first, I want to say that last night I enjoyed my best night of sleep since I came to this wretched kingdom.

This morning I enjoyed my finest breakfast since we left Itaskia. I’m in an excel ent mood. I’m eager to start work. So let’s review what you want me to do.”

“I want you to root through shadows. To turn out hidden secrets. To find things. To find people. Can you do al that?”

“Maybe. Tel me what you’re looking for.”

“Al right. First and most critical: find Colonel Gales. Dead or alive. See Nathan Wolf. He’s done al the looking so far.”

“What else?”

“The treasury money. I’l give you ten percent.”

“Most every minute I bless anew the fate that brought me to you.”

“Let’s hope you feel that way a year from now. Others I want found: General Liakopulos, Michael Trebilcock, and that bitch Kristen Gjerdrumsdottir.”

“The Duke had her kil ed.”

“He tried. He might think he was successful. But she’s stil alive and scheming to make her brat king.” Babeltausque did not argue. Dane of Greyfel s had become the tenant of a dungeon cel because of his ineffable ability to believe anything he wanted to be true.

Inger said, “The money is the most important thing. Then Josiah Gales and any looming threats. Especial y threats to you. You’l become a target for folks who don’t like me. The rest you can deal with when you find time.” Babeltausque said, “As you want it, so shal it be.”

“Sweet talk, sorcerer. But these are desperate times.

Talk won’t help make us the people doing the grinning at the other end.”

“You’ve changed.”

“I have. You won’t find this Inger nearly as nice as the one you remember. This Inger can be quite bloodthirsty. What do you need to make what I want happen?” The sorcerer opened and closed his mouth several times.

Nothing came out.

“Tel me, Babeltausque.” Her tone suggested pain on the way if he did not buckle down now.

...

Dane, Duke of Greyfel s, had a concussion. Its effects were exacerbated by his inability to accept his situation. He was Greyfel s, the Duke, senior member of a noble family that, by God, deserved, by God, to rule Itaskia and several neighboring states. Only continuous, relentless evil conspiracy by lesser men kept the Greyfel s line from claiming its rights.

He was not one to note what had been done to ease his confinement. He had a cot, topped by a mattress. Fresh straw covered the muck on the floor. He was not chained.

He had a stool with a bucket underneath to manage his eliminations. But al he saw was an iron wal with welded straps and rivets that made escape hopeless.

Meals came regularly, through a slot three inches high and sixteen wide. The slops bucket left via its own little door, too smal to pass a man.

Reality took days to dawn. He was completely at Inger’s mercy, and her mercy would be slight at its most generous.

Those who brought food and removed his wastes would not talk. Maybe they did not understand Itaskian. Maybe they were deaf. It was beyond his capacity to understand that most people hated him. Inger’s people thought she was being too soft.

He did see that if he was not heard, if no one listened, if no one understood, he would go nowhere ever again, but while he remained alive the Greyfel s fortunes would remain out in the wind.

More than ever he cursed the idiot he had been when he decided that he could steal a crown for his family.

...

Josiah Gales strove ferociously to pul himself together.

He could not begin to guess how long he had been like this.

He wanted to assess his situation but his head would not clear.

Clever bastards. They did not feed him wel . Teetering at the edge of starvation, he attacked whatever food they brought. Which was drugged. Always.

No one interrogated him. No one cared what he knew.

No one explained why he was a captive.

He had been removed from the equation by a means less harsh than murder. He no longer signified. He might be turned loose later, or maybe retained as a bargaining chip.

Gales saw few of his captors. They did not talk. They did not acknowledge his existence, except that they fed him.

Drugged, it took Gales a while to fathom the rules of his new life.

If he said nothing and did nothing life proceeded with no inconvenience beyond being imprisoned and drugged. It went smoothest when he just quietly contemplated the stupidity that had brought him to this.

His captors evidently bore him no malice. They just wanted him out of the way.

...

An old man entered the apothecary shop in Old Registry Lane. He seemed almost too frail to manage the door.

A girl of fourteen was minding the shop. She was surprised to see him. He smiled a smile ful of fine white teeth, shuffled forward. His body, like his teeth, was in excel ent shape. Apparent infirmity was part of his disguise.

“You’re looking especial y nice this morning, Haida. You make me wish I was ten years younger.”

Haida flushed, flattered, flustered, but not offended. “I’l see if Chames is in back.”

“You don’t know?”

“Not always. He comes and goes without tel ing me. I’m just the help.”

The girl was more than that, though not the plaything some suspected. She was the little sister of someone who had been kil ed, a friend of the man cal ed Chames Marks today.

The old man watched her swish through the hangings in a doorless doorway. He thought Haida would be more than just help if Chames would let her. There was a sparkle in her eye when she said his name.

The old man smiled, turned the sign on the street door to say the chemist was out, then latched the latch.

The wait stretched, five minutes, ten, fifteen. The old man amused himself by studying the pots and jars on the scores of shelves covering al four wal s. Large glass jars contained questionable items in liquids of unusual hue.

Stage dressing, those, mostly. He was interested in the smal phials of imported rarities. Sometimes he paused, nodded. Once he murmured, “Wel !”

The hangings in the back doorway stirred. Haida returned.

Her gaze flicked round, checking for spaces where something had gone missing. “Turn the sign back. People wil wonder. We’re always open during the day. Then come with me.”

The old man complied. Compliance had been his first layer of camouflage for decades.

The room beyond the doorway was larger than the one out front. It was dry and dusty. It smel ed of spices and mystery.

The real work of the chemist took place here.

“Wait here. Touch nothing.” Haida returned to the front. The bel on the door had announced an arrival. A male voice asked a question the old man could not make out.

Minutes passed. A man came through a narrow door that was disguised as a rack of dusty shelves. The old man held fingers to his lips, pointed behind him. The newcomer nodded, whispered pointless questions about the old man being sure he had not been fol owed. That did not matter, unlikely though it was. “What brings you out, then?”

“The Queen has recruited the sorcerer Babeltausque. She means to take immediate advantage.”

“Real y? The Duke never bothered.”

“And he’s in a cel .”

“True enough.”

“She has assigned the sorcerer five immediate tasks. Find the missing treasury money. Find Josiah Gales. Find Michael Trebilcock. Find General Liakopulos. Find Kristen and her children.”

“Can he accomplish any of that?”

“The Queen thinks so. I trust her judgment. She’s known him a long time.”

The younger man sighed. “Complications. But it’s never easy, is it? We wil cope. You’d better get back. Haida wil have your order ready when you go out.” He gestured toward the front of the shop.

The old man nodded. He began to move. “The sorcerer’s most important mission wil be to find the money.”

“Maybe we should let him succeed.”

“You haven’t found it, either?”

“No. Those two did a hel of a job of leaving no clues.” The doorbel rang as Haida’s customer left.

The old man said, “I’m going now.” He had to get back to the castle. He tarried only moments acquiring a package from Haida.

The younger man began to consider how best to respond to the news.

Respond he must, before the sorcerer became a threat.

The matter of the treasury, though. Working that made sense.

Why had those two hidden the money somewhere other than where they were supposed to have?

...

No one chal enged Wachtel when he shuffled into Castle Krief. He went straight to the Queen’s quarters. He told the maid, “Inform Her Majesty that I’ve final y gotten the medicine for Prince Fulk.”

“That’s good news. She’l be thril ed.”

Inger appeared while Wachtel was preparing his philter.

“You found blue asparagus seed?”

“I did. Everyone watch how this is done. You’l have to do it yourself in an emergency.”

“Including the grinding?”

“Including that. The seed needs to remain whole til you have to use it. The oils evaporate.”

“How did you find the seed?”

“I went to the chemist myself.” His tone was harsh. “I’m getting a little frail for that.”

Inger was flustered. “I’m sorry. There just isn’t money…”

“Never mind. The deed is done. I got enough to keep you going for three months. And so my fortune grows as feeble as my flesh.”

“I’m sorry, Doctor. Truly I am. You’l be the first one rewarded when our fortunes shift.”

Wachtel’s skeptical expression told Inger al she needed to know about his faith in her promises.

“You’l see.”

She had made a too-grand emotional investment in her new wizard.

...

The wizard sat with head in hands, sweating. He was overheated despite the breeze flowing through the open windows. He had made promises. Those had seemed reasonable in the heat of the moment.

Now he had to execute them.

He did not know how to start. There were no threads to pick up. Everyone knew that those who had executed the treasury raid had died in the riots. Michael Trebilcock had fal en off the edge of the world and was presumed dead, too.

But, wait! Finding Gales would be a coup! Gales had left some threads. The night of his disappearance was wel -

documented.

That would be the scab to pick, if only to prove that he was on the job. Whatever he stirred up would lead to something else.

It seemed reasonable to think that those who had taken Gales might be associated with the treasury raiders. And al those people had been associated with Michael Trebilcock.

It could al be connected.

Gales it was, bal s to the wal .

Babeltausque grinned, drenched in cool relief. “Toby, I need you.” He had been assigned one servant, a boy of twelve, total y reliable according to Inger. Babeltausque was not prepared to bet his life on the boy, whether or not he was a descendant of the apolitical Dr. Wachtel.

“Sir?”

“You know Mr. Wolf?”

“Nathan Wolf, sir? The new Colonel?”

“Yes. Go tel him I need to see him as soon as possible.” Would Wolf respond? He might fear a restoration of that curse. Toby was waiting for something more.

“Go, boy! Tel him it’s important.”

“Yes sir.” Toby went, fast.

Babeltausque brooded about having the boy underfoot. But Inger would not like it if he ran Toby off. And Toby’s family would be offended.

Better to be careful than to make enemies needlessly.

Toby returned with stunning quickness. “Mr. Wolf wil be here in a few minutes, sir.”

“You found him that fast?”

“I ran into him on my way to the guardroom to ask where to look for him.”

“Al right. Prepare whatever refreshments we can manage.

After you’ve done that you’re free til suppertime.”

“Thank you, sir!”

Toby did love his free time.

Wolf arrived as Toby set out weak tea and a few overage biscuits. The soldier was uneasy.

The wizard said, “Forget the past. I have. Thanks for coming so quickly. Speed may be essential. Go on now, Toby. Have fun.”

The boy bowed himself out.

Nervously, Wolf asked, “What’s going on?”

“I want to pick your brain about Gales’s disappearance.”

“I’l do my best. I did my best. I’m sure he was kil ed right away.”

“I expect you’re right. Unfortunately. Evidently he was a great buttress for Her Majesty.”

Wolf leered slightly.

Later, Babeltausque asked, “Anything else questionable happen around this Twisted Wrench?”

“Nothing obvious. But everybody is careful around my people. And now you’re wondering how they know which men are mine.”

“I am.”

“Only men I trust visit the place anymore.” The Twisted Wrench had fal en on hard times.

“Mr. Wolf, why don’t you and I visit this place?”

“That could be dangerous.”

“Yes. It was for Colonel Gales. A visit could stir up al kinds of excitement. We’l do it tonight. We’l take two men to watch our backs. Don’t tel them we’re up to something.”

“They wouldn’t need to be told.”

No doubt. Wolf was not a companionable sort even with the curse off. And nobody went drinking with the court wizard.

“Which men frequent the place regularly?”

“I put it off limits after Gales disappeared. Only my agents go there. They scare off the regulars. It’l stay off limits til Gales turns up.”

“That’s good.” Easier to grind away at the purses of those who depended on the tavern for a living. “That wil have them thinking about how to get the old clientele back.”

“Tonight for sure?”

“Yes. The Queen is starved for results.”

“I’l be in the forecourt come sundown.” Wolf departed looking thoughtful.

Babeltausque had not felt this excited in years.

...

Young Bragi said it for everyone when he observed, “This camp is the most boringest place in the world.” Dahl Haas, seated beside Kristen, holding her right hand, said, “Look at that. The boy is healthy enough to complain about stil being alive.”

Bragi was too young to understand death in any personal sense.

Kristen worried. Even the adults had begun to share the boy’s disdain for danger from Vorgreberg. They were wishful thinking, confident that Inger’s regime would col apse soon. It might have done so already. It took ages for news to get here from that far away.

The others thought Inger’s triumph over her cousin only made her own fal more certain.

Dahl and Sherilee remained committed to the plan, with the latter not so quietly beginning to waver.

Kristen knew she needed only to cling to her strategy. Inger would build her own funeral pyre. The Estates had abandoned her completely, now. No Nordmen remained in Vorgreberg. It was every man for himself with them now.

Nor did even a cadre of most of her army units remain. Not that pro-Bragi regiments had weathered recent months any better.

Kristen was convinced that soon Kavelin’s people would beg the grandson of their greatest king to ascend the throne of the blessed Kriefs.

Dahl told her, “Your Bragi makes me uncomfortable, love.

He’s not ready.”

“I know, Dahl. I promise, it wil be a long regency. You’l get to show him how to be a man.”

Dahl was the kind of man Kristen wanted her son to become.

The shockwave of the news about Magden Norath slammed through the smugglers’ pass, astounding the Unbeliever, the Faithful, and the Royalists of Hammad al Nakir alike.

Kristen col ected her refugees. “The news about Norath is huge. But does it real y mean anything to us?” Dahl said, “He was in the wickedness with Greyfel s.”

“Also out of the picture, now.”

The others had nothing to say. The children’s attitudes made it clear that they did not care. Politics meant little to them.

Sherilee was indifferent, too. She was interested in nothing but the lover who waxed ever more fantastical in her imagination.

Kristen scowled at her. The dim blonde was making the elder Bragi over into a god, raising her dirty old man a notch higher every day. Even the kids thought Auntie Sherilee was a loony.

Nothing came of Kristen’s gathering. The consensus, though, was that they were too isolated to understand the ful impact of Norath’s death.

Dahl Haas had the last word. “We’l go on sitting tight and stewing til we hear from Aral.”

Kristen scowled. She had hoped Dahl would be more optimistic.

She did not enjoy their situation more than any of the others. This camp was the last way station before you stepped off the edge of the world.

She did understand the need to sit stil .

...

The man was Louis Strass this time. He was forty-three years old and a veteran of numerous wars. He had begun service as a longbow archer two days before his sixteenth birthday. Today he was a master of the arbalest as wel as the long, short, and saddle bows. He could teach the manufacture and operations of bow-based bal istae for use as light artil ery.

He was a master. He was a survivor. Twenty-seven years had devoured and turned to shit al il usions of honor or right and wrong that had blinded him as a recruit. He was his world. He was his universe. Nothing else was real.

Nothing else had any enduring value.

He had serious doubts about himself.

He entered a camp in the Tamerice Kapenrungs afoot, leading two mules, pursuing the il usion that he could win a new life by executing one simple mission.

He was too cynical to sel himself that for long.

Nothing good could come of this. There was no guarantee that asshole Greyfel s would come across with the bounty.

So why go on? Because he did not know what else to do?

Because he was no longer just the hunter, he was the hunt as wel ?

He had been out of touch for months, searching. Now, another sketchy mountain camp. He might learn something here but did not plan to hold his breath. He had come up with nothing at half a dozen others.

He arrived early on a day when the weather was fine and traffic was substantial. He was not welcomed but he was accepted. No one cared who he was. He had money. He bought drink and a meal, then a bath. Some thought him overly chatty but did not find his queries obvious or offensive. Some people just stored it up while they were out there alone.

The smuggling season was in ful swing. Caravans were moving through the pass. Those who lived off the men in motion were active, too, operating taverns and brothels in tents.

The traveler found what he wanted among the parasites.

But first he discovered that the world had tipped over while he was out of touch.

The death of Magden Norath inspired awe but was of no personal import. The capture of the Duke of Greyfel s was critical, though. That bastard was now the habitué of Inger’s dungeon. He would pay no debts contracted before disaster swal owed him.

What to do about the changed situation? It was an iron-bound certainty that Inger would welcome the results that Greyfel s had wanted, but…

Do it on spec?

It was a conundrum. He had faced few hard choices in a lifetime spent as a life taker. There was no in-between in a choice where he would give death or withhold it.

Ah! Of course. Offer a sample. Kil the mother of the pretender, then visit Vorgreberg. Direct travel would not take long. Greyfel s could be exhumed to provide a reference.

He had a course. Now he had to pursue it or abort it.

He relaxed. He drank and ate and recuperated.

Visitors who made extended stays at the camp noticed one another. They were a nervous breed.

Questions began to be asked about Louis Strass.

He made natural y nervous people more nervous. His eyes were like the mouths of graves.

He would have liked more time to recuperate but needs must ever rules.

He and his mules departed, fol owing the uphil trace. He slipped into the forest and doubled back as soon as he could do so without being seen.

He positioned himself between granite boulders overlooking the place where his targets stayed. Al preparations had been made. He needed only watch and wait. 

He saw several men with the look of professional soldiers.

At least one was out prowling al the time. They were more alert than seemed reasonable.

Maybe these were that special breed of men who smel ed danger coming.

That changed nothing. He had the requisite skil s.

The boulders were as close as he could get without having to sneak. The range was easy for the longbow—if his target did not move after he revealed himself by standing to draw.

The crossbow would be more difficult to operate but he could take that shot without having to show himself.

The crossbow it would be. Going unseen meant a better chance at a good head start. And he could fal back without having to hurry. There would be time for an ambush.

So. Al choices had been made. Only execution remained.

He slipped away to his hidden camp, assembled his chosen tool, returned to his blind. The wait began.

He could take that for as long as necessary. Al impatience had deserted him long ago.

There was no opportunity that day. The occasional child came out but never the right woman. As night fel he withdrew to his camp. It would not do to begin snoring down there.

He prepared food once he was sure the breeze would push smoke up the slope instead of down. He kil ed the fire as soon as he was done. The air would soon chil and begin to drift back downhil .

He settled to sleep. The ground was not comfortable. He could not drift off. Vaguely, he was aware of the moon rising. A near ful moon.

A mule snorted. It must have heard something. He listened.

The laughter of children tinkled on the edge of hearing, way down the mountain.

Could it be? Withdrawal by night would be even better.

They might never see anything. And they had no dogs.

The moon was his friend. His lover. Connected with the goddess of the hunt somewhere, was it not?

He was excited but he was cautious. He was too old to take anything for granted, too old to be anything but careful. He was stil alive.

A shadow drifting through shadow, he reached and settled into his chosen blind. There were, indeed, children at play below, frisking by the light of lanterns and the moon.

It was someone’s birthday. Not one of the children, although they were harvesting the joy of the day.

He spanned his weapon quietly, rested it atop the shorter of the two boulders. There was no need to crouch or lie prone.

Darkness cloaked al but his face. With his hat pul ed forward that would not be recognized for what it was.

The children raced around a smal , rocky field that might once have been an attempt to create a garden. Their energy kept distracting him.

A woman. There were several choices.

There. That had to be her. No one but Kristen Gjerdrumsdottir would wear her hair in a single fat braid down the center of her back. No one but Kristen Gjerdrumsdottir would have so many children swarm around her, then rush away again.

He took aim careful y, as ever he did. His finger squeezed the trigger.

Someone tapped him on the right shoulder a split instant before the release. He jerked. His aim depressed slightly and drifted right.

His bolt flew.

Never so swift as the sound of his bowstring snapping. The soldier men began to turn while the quarrel was in the air.

That struck the side of a granite post masking the target’s left leg. Sparks flashed. The ricochet smashed through the breastbone of a smal , beautiful dol of a woman.

The archer was in motion already. He did not see the horrified astonishment on the woman’s face.

Blades fil ed the archer’s hands almost magical y. But he found no one behind him.

“Oh, shit. It can’t be.”

He could not muster strength enough to be emphatic.

The thing known as the Unborn hovered over his escape route. The monster infant’s eyes fixed on his. And that was Louis Strass’s last memory for a very long time.

He did understand who had disturbed his aim. Only Old Meddler had longer fingers than the Empire Destroyer.

...

Dahl and two men stormed the mountainside. They found nothing but an abandoned crossbow and, a few yards on, damp pine needles that smel ed of piss.

Below, everyone crowded around Sherilee. Kristen shouted, “Al of you, get away from her! Get the children inside!” She dropped to her knees, lifted the blonde’s head into her lap. “Hang in there, Sherry. Hang in. We’l get that out and you’l be fine. A couple of weeks of rest and you’l be fine.”

It did not occur to her to worry about the sniper, or about Dahl charging into an ambush. Only later would she wonder why the assassin had not taken advantage. That would come after a baffled Dahl wondered aloud why the kil er had abandoned two mules and al his gear when he made his getaway.

Tears dribbled from the corners of Sherilee’s eyes. She husked, “Tel him I’m sorry. I couldn’t… Kristen, I just loved him so much.”

Kristen could barely see through her own tears as the light left Sherilee’s eyes.

Oblivious to the chance of lethal danger, Kristen held her lifelong friend and wept.

This was Kavelin’s fault. No matter who sent the sniper.

Kavelin was the reason. Kavelin was the excuse. She screamed, “Kavelin, you cesspit!”

A hundred angry accusations roared through her mind. She articulated none of them. Her throat was too tight. And even in her mad rage she understood that Kavelin was a geographical entity before it was anything else. An artificial feature, colored on a map. What real y enraged her was the Kavelin that existed in the minds and hearts of tens of thousands of people who had attachments to an emotional entity. 

Kristen wept a long time. No one tried to stop her. Dahl and her children did what they could to comfort her.

She smothered herself in sorrow rather than endless rage and a hunger for revenge.

Vaguely, she hoped she was setting an example for her son, who would be king one day.

Chapter Ten:

Summer, 1017 AFE:

In The East

Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i, just back from a surreptitious visit to the island in the east, was the first Tervola to hear of the violent demise of the last master of Ehelebe, Magden Norath. He did not

shed a tear.

What could it mean?

Initial reports, as always, were confused. Divinations into the past were not instructive. Hours of hard work only left him exhausted and depressed.

The Star Rider was becoming meddlesome again and Norath’s kil er could only be a man who should have died a long time ago, in prison in Lioantung.

He must have escaped during the final showdown with the Deliverer. Old Meddler must have had a hand in that.

Ah, there was the vil ain himself. But…! He was not shaping the plot!

He was just another piece on the board where the blood was flying. Though it was not a critical interest, Shih-ka’i did try to put a tag onto the distracted Star Rider so his movements could be fol owed.

...

Mist passed the blackboard twice without noticing the added characters below Varthlokkur: where are my babies? As always, she was preoccupied. At the moment that was because of the death of Magden Norath. That could shake the foundations of the world.

The third time past her mind registered the message of the new characters: Mother, we are well, with Aunt Nepanthe. We watch when we can.

Mist froze, transfixed by the multiple levels of meaning.

Her children were wel and evidently happy.

They—and, by extension, Varthlokkur—could look in on her whenever they chose.

Varthlokkur had found a way of reaching into her powerful y protected private quarters to chalk a message on her blackboard.

She had to be afraid.

Not even the Star Rider ought to have that much power.

She col ected herself, erased both messages, took up the chalk and, in elegant cal igraphy, wrote: I love you, Scalza and Ekaterina. And felt just awful when she laid the chalk back down.

She could not be a normal mother while she was Empress of the Dread Empire. It seemed sinful to think she had any real claim on those kids.

She drifted into dark reveries about the horror show that had been her own childhood. She had not had the protection that Scalza and Ekaterina did. It was a miracle that she had survived to become an adult.

A racket drew her to the entrance to her quarters.

Two bodyguards awaited her there. One said, “Lord Ssuma has sent a message saying you should join him in the Karkha Tower. He says it’s urgent.” The other presented a card beautiful y cal igraphed with that message and Shih-ka’i’s sigil.

“Very wel . You wil accompany me. You have ten minutes to prepare yourselves. Meet me in the transfer chamber.”

...

Bragi Ragnarson was sick to the verge of puking of Bragi Ragnarson. Mist should be burned at the stake for wakening this Wild Hunt of introspection.

But there was nothing else to do.

The more he considered the Bragi Ragnarson of recent years the less he liked the man—despite having been the man. Today’s Bragi had serious difficulty understanding choices made by yesterday’s Bragi.

Back in what seemed antediluvian times Derel Prataxis had observed that power could warp and damage the most soundly grounded mind. Power was worse than opium. It twisted the mind and soul even more.

A morning spent contemplating his self-debasement, while watching an orange and blood-red sunrise, fel apart around him. Mist appeared.

He had not expected to see her again. Certainly not so soon, though the soon was an emotional age. It would be just a month or two in objective time

He had not kept track. Counting the hours only sparked a dismal melancholy. What he could see from his windows suggested springtime.

Lord Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i fol owed Mist, then came two behemoths wearing badges identifying them as Imperial lifeguards.

The visitors so startled Ragnarson that, at first, he retreated like a threatened animal. Then, final y, “Mist?”

“Bragi.”

He eyed Shih-ka’i and the bodyguards. The general wore his boar mask. Nothing could be read from his body language.

“What’s going on? I thought I’d be in solitary forever.”

“That was the plan. But things keep happening. I found myself unable to be so cruel as to deny you the news.” Something in Lord Ssu-ma’s stance suggested that he thought leaving the prisoner in ignorance would be the kinder cut.

“Tel me what you think I need to know.” The natural observer inside marveled at his pretended calm.

He had not looked into the eyes of another in so long. His heart pounded. His breathing grew heavier.

The lifeguards moved up beside their mistress.

Not a good sign. Why so much muscle? He was one out-of-shape, middle-aged man.

The circumstances guaranteed that the news would be terrible.

Mist said, “Kavelin has fal en further into chaos. Ingrid has imprisoned her cousin, the Duke. In Itaskia vultures are feeding on the Greyfel s family corpse. Meantime, Inger has been abandoned by most of her Kaveliner supporters. They haven’t turned on her, they’ve just gone home. If she tried to cal up an army it’s unlikely that anyone would show.” He did not care. The man who had loved Kavelin had been a fool who lived in an elder age.

“Your daughter-in-law has lost most of her support, too, because she hasn’t done anything to help those who stood by her. By autumn it wil be every man for himself. There won’t be a pretense of authority outside Vorgreberg.”

“There is no way you can make me feel any worse or any more responsible. And I’m sure that isn’t the news you’ve brought to torment me. A col apse into a lawless Kavelin has been inevitable since I was dim enough to butt heads with Lord Ssu-ma.”

“That was the political update. The real news is that Magden Norath is dead. The man who kil ed him seems to have been your friend Haroun.”

“Haroun is dead.”

“Quite probably true. But an eyewitness insists that the man wielding the knife was bin Yousif.”

“That is a piece of news. If it’s true. It wil rattle the world. But it’s insane. Where has Haroun been? Why? Why show himself now?”

Ragnarson noted a slight adjustment in Lord Ssu-ma’s stance. The Tervola knew something. He would volunteer nothing, though.

Mist said, “He didn’t announce himself. He was recognized.

Maybe. He was one of several dozen derelicts living rough in a remote town. Megelin and Norath went there to meet the Star Rider. Haroun, if it was him, attacked so quickly and violently that the sorcerer had no chance to defend himself.”

Ragnarson gaped. This was unbelievable. There had to be some error, most likely by the witness. Maybe he was the kil er. Passing the blame to Haroun bin Yousif would make a great distraction. But Haroun was dead.

“That feels like old news. In your world. There’s more, isn’t there? Something more personal and dark. Right?” He gestured. Four of them. Proof of his contention.

“You’re right.”

“Out with it, then.”

“An assassin employed by Dane of Greyfel s found your daughter-inlaw’s band in the Tamerice Kapenrungs.” The floor seemed to go out from under Ragnarson.

He could not speak. Too much emotion rose up after so many months of nothing but mild disappointments over his meals.

“How bad was it?”

“There was one casualty.”

Ragnarson reddened. “Tel me!”

The bodyguards stepped forward. The nearest looked eager. Bragi calmed himself. Explosive emotionalism had gotten him into this fix.

These two would pluck him like a dead chicken.

Mist said, “The assassin was supposed to wipe out the whole party.”

Ragnarson’s vision began to go red. He growled. He leaned toward Mist.

The blow came quicker than a blink. He sprawled against the side of a divan, head spinning. His left shoulder was dislocated. That side of his face felt as though it had been branded.

Mist observed, “You are a slow study, Bragi. Let me explain this one more time. You prisoner. Me owner of prison.” Ragnarson groaned, worked himself into a sitting position.

His head began to hurt. “I’m beginning to catch on. Please tel me what happened to my people.”

“The assassin loosed one crossbow bolt, then vanished.

We know that thanks to Varthlokkur. He informed us, presumably counting on us to pass it along.” Ragnarson barely suppressed the urge to demand that she tel him, now!

“The initial target was your daughter-in-law but the bolt hit your leman instead.”

“Sherilee?”

“Yes. We won’t be able to bring her here after al .”

“Sherilee.” In a hol ow, lost child voice.

The lifeguards readied themselves to deal with more bad behavior. But Ragnarson just melted. The concept of Sherilee with no life, going on ahead of him, was so alien that, though long experience had hardened him to the loss of comrades and loved ones, this touched him more deeply than had any but the deaths of his brother Haaken and his lover, Queen Fiana. He had visited Fiana’s grave frequently, up til the day he dragged Kavelin’s best off to their doom.

After a dozen seconds of silence, Lord Ssu-ma suggested,

“Perhaps we should step out for a moment.”

“You go,” Mist told him. “You three. I’l stay.” Nobody moved.

Mist said, “I want you three up in the parapet. Varthlokkur is going to deliver that assassin here. Only the Darkness knows why. I’m at no risk here. This is a broken man.” No one moved.

“Do execute your instructions before I become angry. And notify me when the captive arrives.”

The edge on her voice convinced al three. As they went, though, Mist noted, Shih-ka’i dropped a tiny scrol behind a decorative vase on the smal table a step to the right of the doorway. That would be a passive alarm meant to warn him if emotions grew overheated.

Secretly, Mist was pleased.

Bragi did not weep. He just sat there staring into infinity.

Had he begun to think he was the philosopher’s stone of death for those who got too near him? That those who had died around him had done so only because they were near him? A solipsist conceit impossible to refute logical y.

Mist and Lord Ssu-ma had arrived soon after Ragnarson’s breakfast. The day was fading when the Tervola reported the arrival of the assassin. He found Mist settled on her knees two yards from Ragnarson, apparently watching the westerner sleep but probably meditating. Ragnarson lay on the divan.

“The prisoner has arrived, Il ustrious.”

“Lord Ssu-ma? Was it the Unborn? Did it unsettle you that much?”

“It was. It did. And that despite the horrors of the war with the Deliverer.”

Mist said, “You do recal that the Deliverer was the grandson of the man who created the Unborn?”

“I do.”

Maybe he wished that he did not.

Maybe Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i had begun to wish that he had not al owed himself to be seduced away from his quiet life as commander of the Demonstration Legion.

“You would. You’re thorough. So, Lord Ssu-ma. What shal we do with this gift? What do you suppose the Deliverer’s grandfather had in mind?”

“I couldn’t guess his motives, Il ustrious. Surely the kil er wil know nothing useful, and I doubt that the Empire Destroyer would expect us to use his skil s.”

“Could we be expected to turn him over to Ragnarson?” “I doubt that.”

“Then put him into an empty cel . But let me have a look at him first. Maybe I’m supposed to recognize him.” She did not.

The captive was a gaunt, leathery man of advancing years who did not seem noteworthy at al . He was empty and maybe a little mad after his long flight from Tamerice.

Mist directed that he be cleaned up. She did not want parasites colonizing her tower.

...

In moments when he surfaced from grief Ragnarson realized that something was happening elsewhere in the tower. He heard what sounded like construction racket.

He passed several days in communion with despair. He dwelt, to the point of obsession, on what a different world it would be had he just not led his army through the Savernake Gap.

How many lives lost or ruined because of one fit of pride? And the ful tol had yet to be paid. Sherilee was just the latest charge.

“How are you feeling?”

Bragi started. He had not heard Mist come in.

“Better than before. How long have I been feeling sorry for myself?”

“Five days.”

“You’ve been hanging around that long?”

“No. I’ve been attending my duties outside. Other duties brought me back. I thought I’d look in. You seem changed.” In a voice edged with wonder, Ragnarson said, “I think you’re right. I feel different. I’m not al boiling inside. It’s confusing, but I seem to have been stricken by clarity.”

“Interesting.”

“It’s almost like waking up after a long fever.” Mist considered him critical y. “I hope so. You haven’t been you for a long time.”

Ragnarson paced. This was not his caged animal in a rage pacing. This was slow and thoughtful. “I’m probably not myself now, either. Do people get struck sane by tragedy?”

“Worthy thought. We’l watch for a relapse. But do try to cling to the state you’re in now.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Unfortunately, you aren’t the reason for my being here. I just stopped to say hel o.”

“Wel , thank you for that.”

...

Mist went to the room that Shih-ka’i had remodeled.

She looked around. “It looks good. Is that window big enough?”

Shih-ka’i replied, “It is. You aren’t a large woman.” She snorted. A statement of fact, yes, but she was vain enough to

take offense. She knew, though, that the pig farmer’s son would not

understand even if she did explain.

She asked, “Do you suppose he’s watching?”

“I would be if I had dropped that man here and right away you started remodeling.”

Mist heard an odd inflection there. “You have something on your mind?”

“I do. But it’s not germane. We have this project on the table. Shal we begin?”

Mist made another circuit of the room, which resembled Ragnarson’s, several levels below. It now had a larger window. She saw nothing to discourage her. “Have we unraveled the mystery of the attack on the tower yet?”

“No. Al paths lead to dead ends.”

“Michael Trebilcock, then.”

“Every prisoner here was high value and most had friends a lot closer than Kavelin.”

“Could there be another raid while I’m involved in this?” “I don’t know about that. I do know that an assault wil not succeed.” Mist stared at the expanded window. Was she ready emotional y? “My father and his brother made transfers without a receiving unit.

Do you have any idea how they did that?” The inquiry took Shih-ka’i by surprise. “Il ustrious? Is that true? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“I don’t know why it came to mind. I’ve never heard anything like that, either. But I just realized, both of them got into Varthlokkur’s

fortress in the Dragon’s Teeth, then got themselves trapped and kil ed.

How did they get there?”

“Is that true?”

Mist paused. Was it true? She had the story from several sources, none quite agreeing. Some claimed to have been there.

None told her what real y happened back when.

“I suppose I’l have to ask. Bring out the board.”

...

Varthlokkur chuckled. So. The woman had been playing him with al the hustle and bustle. Though, of course, that had been in support of this.

“Nepanthe. Come look.”

Smyrena on her shoulder, Nepanthe came. She peered into the globe Varthlokkur was using. She saw Mist beside a large blackboard, smiling. Mist was dressed in masculine travel clothes. The board proclaimed, I am ready to come see my children in bold chalk lettering.

Nepanthe asked, “Are you going to let her?”

“What do you think? Can we trust her not to do something unpleasant?”

Nepanthe considered. “She’l behave as long as the children are with us.”

“I imagine you’re right. So. Start getting ready but don’t tel them. She could change her mind. I don’t want their hearts broken.”

Nepanthe put her arms around him, from behind, and kissed him on the right cheek.

He blushed. She did not notice.

He had longed for that sort of spontaneous affection across the ages.

Nepanthe went away.

Varthlokkur summoned the Unborn.

...

Ragnarson wakened needing to use the garderobe. He did that more frequently lately. But that was a problem for old men. He was not old. Not yet. No.

There was a moon out tonight. He lined it up so he could see it. It was living proof that there was a reality beyond his prison.

Something the color of freshly watered blood occluded the moon. Ragnarson started. What the hel ?

That?

Eyes old in evil stared for several seconds. Then the Unborn left.

Ragnarson’s heart hammered. That had been a shock.

What did it mean? Was a rescue under way?

Nothing came of it. It was just something to haunt his thoughts. When he wakened next morning he was no longer sure the monster had not been a nightmare.

...

The Unborn could do nothing but execute its orders.

Varthlokkur had made sure of that when he bound the monster. But the evil in the beast would express itself.

It tried tormenting the Empress, traveling to Fangdred, by dropping her, then catching her after a thousand feet of freefal . But she was no fun. She did not scream after the first surprise.

Radeachar never felt the magic being woven. It discovered the truth the third time it tried a drop. The woman plunged in silence. There was no pleasure in that.

There was pain aplenty, though. The farther she fel the worse that became.

Radeachar was not capable of complex thought. It did possess a strong drive toward self-preservation. That kicked in fast. Thereafter it concentrated on completing its task as quick as could be.

...

Fangdred boasted a smal courtyard behind its gate. In the lowlands the world was easing into summer but winter hung on doggedly in the Dragon’s Teeth. Ice rimed Fangdred’s grey wal s, inside and out. Black ice patched the grey pavements of the court. Mist slipped almost as soon as the Unborn set her down. She cursed. That inelegance was not flattering.

She grumbled about the cold, too. She had not anticipated the difference in weather, nor the impact of the increased altitude.

Varthlokkur, Nepanthe, Scalza, and Ekaterina came out to meet her. The children stared as though she was some fabulous beast. They did not run to her. In fact, Ekaterina retreated behind Nepanthe, peeked around with one eye, as though she was a shy four.

Loss shoved a talon into the gut of the most powerful woman in the world. It ripped.

She could quash an empire of a hundred mil ion souls but could not hold the love of her children.

Heading their way, stepping careful y, she reminded herself that she had not been much of a mother before she went back to the Empire. Not by the standards of workaday folk on whose backs businesses, nations, and empires were built.

The four withdrew into the warmth as Mist joined them.

Scalza was the perfect soldier. He bowed deeply and said,

“We bid you welcome, Mother.” There was no affection in his voice.

Ekaterina stammered something, then hid behind Nepanthe again. Nepanthe and Varthlokkur both seemed surprised, which suggested that Ekaterina was, usual y, much more bold.

Nepanthe said, “Dinner is being set. If you need to refresh yourself first…”

“I do.”

A servant showed Mist the way to quarters already prepared. The woman pretended to have no languages in common with the Dread Empress.

Nepanthe’s own children were with their mother when Mist arrived for dinner. The infant sprawled on her mother’s left shoulder, asleep. Ethrian sat to Nepanthe’s right. His eyes were vacant.

Hard to believe that he had threatened the existence of the Empire.

Uncomfortably conscious of Varthlokkur, Mist focused on Nepanthe. Her sister-in-law. Valther’s little sister. Nepanthe signified most in this domestic drama.

Varthlokkur would be the referee.

Servants brought simple fare, as was to be expected in a dreary castle in the most remote of mountains. Dining proceeded lugubriously, silence broken mainly by Nepanthe as she delivered gentle instruction to Ethrian.

“Eat your turnips, Ethrian. They’l help you get better. Good boy, Ethrian. Take your finger out of your nose, Ethrian.” And so on, with the boy always mechanical y responsive.

He was little more than a skeleton. He showed a fine appetite, yet remained as gaunt as he had been on emerging from the eastern desert.

At one point he met Mist’s gaze. He asked a quick question. She did not understand.

Scalza said, “He asked where Sahmaman went. He asks al the time.”

Ekaterina, in a voice like a mouse, chirped, “He’s getting better, Mother. He can talk now.”

Scalza added, “But it’s only the same three or four things.” Ethrian asked his question again. This time Mist recognized “Sahmaman” and “go.” His inflexion was not appropriate to a question.

“Who is he asking about?”

They al seemed surprised. Varthlokkur replied, “The woman who was in the desert with him.”

“The ghost?”

“Yes. But she was more than that. She was a true revenant for a while. She had flesh.”

The fine hairs on Mist’s forearms began to tingle.

Nepanthe said, “They were lovers. Not physical y. I don’t think. She sacrificed herself so that Ethrian could live.” Nepanthe stared down at her dinner. Even so, Mist could see the moisture on her cheeks.

Again, Ethrian asked, “Where Sahmaman go?” And Nepanthe told him, “She had to go away, Ethrian. She had to go for a long time.”

Mist realized that her children were staring, expecting her to say something.

She could not imagine what.

These were not the children she had come to see. She had hoped for sweetlings. But Scalza had become old and cold.

Ekaterina appeared to be convinced that she was always just one step from having the world strike her another cruel blow, with cause and effect irrelevant.

How could that be? Varthlokkur was no grand choice as a father figure but Nepanthe was a good mother substitute.

Varthlokkur said, “There are extreme abandonment issues.

But things were improving.”

Meaning her visit might sabotage the good work Nepanthe had done?

Everything we do, she thought, impacts others, often in ways we do not foresee.

“This is a finer meal than I expected, considering your isolation.”

“Thank you,” Nepanthe said. “Cook wil be pleased.” After that everyone seemed to wait to hear from Mist, except Ethrian, who asked after Sahmaman again, and then said, “On Great One go boom.”

...

Silence stretched. Mist became uncomfortable. Her children showed no inclination to interact with her. She did not know what to do. Her own childhood had offered no examples of good parenting.

She asked, “Could I see my father while I’m here?” Varthlokkur shifted slightly, suddenly wary.

“I know my father and uncle died here, in a trap set by you or the Old Man.”

“Actual y, by someone a step further up the food chain.

They’re in the Wind Tower. We don’t go there much. But, al right. The risk is minimal. I’d say nonexistent but I did see Sahmaman come back, in al her power.” The wizard rose.

Mist did the same. She glanced at Scalza. The boy said,

“I’l help clean up. I don’t like those creepy old mummies.” Leaving the common room, Varthlokkur said, “It’s a long climb.Another reason we don’t go up there much. Plus, the Wind Tower contains a lot of bad memories.” Mist finished the climb fighting for breath. “I’m not…used to this… altitude.”

“You never get al the way there.” He was breathing hard himself, but not fighting for breath the way she was.

Mist looked around at a large chamber that had been cleared out, then vigorously cleaned, quite recently. For her sake?

“Scalza doesn’t like me much, does he?”

“Scalza knows his family history, on both sides. He has an exaggerated ideal of what his mother ought to be. The woman inside his head isn’t you. And you won’t be here long enough to evict her.”

“I could take him back with me.” Only later did she realize that Ekaterina had not been mentioned. Which was disturbing. Mist herself had survived childhood mainly because she had had a knack for going overlooked.

Ekaterina seemed to have that same capability.

The wizard wasted no breath on the absurdity of her suggestion. “Al right. Wishful thinking. The worst of us want to be thought wel of by our children. Where are the Princes? I don’t see them.” “Here.” The wizard drew aside a curtain identical to those that masked Fangdred’s interior wal s, keeping the cold at bay and the warmth confined.

Moving this curtain showed that the room was bigger than it seemed.

“That’s where it al happened?”

“It is. The Old Man should be on the higher seat in the center. I don’t know what became of him.” That seat was empty, of course. The remains of the Princes Thaumaturge occupied lower chairs to either hand.

Varthlokkur removed the dust sheets covering them.

Mist stared, in silence, for more than a minute.

“Is something wrong?”

“I can’t tel which one is which.”

Varthlokkur confessed, “That would be beyond me, too.

This is where they were when the Star Rider left the Wind Tower. They’ve been moved several times since.”

“How did you get in?”

The question surprised the wizard. “What do you mean?”

“Nepanthe told Valther that the Wind Tower was sealed off after that night and that the sealing was proof against your power.”

“Not forever. I chipped at the spel s for years.”

“Chipped at them. And when you got in the Old Man was gone.”

“Yes. Though I’m not sure that the Star Rider didn’t take him, back then.”

“Yes. You are. You think him coming back for the Old Man was the break you needed to get through.”

“You’re right. It’s probable. With the Old Man gone there might’ve been no reason to keep the Wind Tower sealed.”

“This one was my father. He has a scar on his neck. He took the wound the night he and Nu Li Hsi murdered Tuan Hoa.” “Somewhere, in some hel , your grandfather had a good laugh the night they died.”

“I’m sure. You were here.”

“I was here.”

“That must have been a terrible night.”

“More than you can imagine, in ways more dire than you’l ever know.”

Mist nodded. Only two living beings knew the ful story: this man and Nepanthe. Nepanthe was less likely to share than was Varthlokkur. Mist asked, “How did they get here?” Varthlokkur responded with a blank look.

“Transfers are how we humble distance in Shinsan. But a transfer needs a sending and a receiving portal. Two sets for two princes. What I know about what happened is mostly hearsay. I never heard how the Princes got here in the first place.”

“I don’t remember. There is a lot about that night that no one remembers. We were al dead for a while.”

“Some more permanently than others, it seems.”

“It was not a pleasant evening. I avoid thinking and talking about it.”

“As you wil .”

She considered her father and his brother. “There is no way that they can be brought back?”

“No.”

“Ethrian’s situation put the thought into my head. You’re sure?”

“No one in this…” He paused.

Mist faced him. “The Star Rider did this to them, didn’t he?”

“No. I did. He put the remains on the seats.”

“Can he resurrect them?”

“I don’t know. I’m sure he didn’t plan to when he sealed the Wind Tower. But he is a clever devil.”

“Exactly. Considering the example of the Nawami revenants in the eastern desert.”

“You’re right. Sahmaman was barely a ghost. I’l make sure he finds nothing to work with here.”

“The Star Rider needs to be rendered permanently redundant.” “Have a care with what you say.”

“You disagree?”

“Not at al . I’l cheerful y entertain suggestions as to how to arrange that. But thousands before us have shared that ambition. Most likely thousands more wil do so after we’re gone.”

Mist stared at her father. “It wil take a bigger, faster, deadlier rat trap.” Then, “Let’s go back down. This is too depressing. Al I real y came for was to connect with my children.”

“As you wish.”

She could tel that he considered her prospects doomed.

...

Mist had gone. Neither Scalza nor Ekaterina ever warmed to her. Varthlokkur settled into that room in the Wind Tower, the curtain back and the dust covers off the dead. He reviewed the terrible memories and tried to deal with questions that Mist had raised.

How did the Princes get into Fangdred without having portals waiting?

He had the entire fortress searched, years after the fact.

The search turned up exactly what he expected: nothing.

They could have ridden winged demons. In fact, that seemed likely. But those things made a lot of noise.

The weather that night had been terrible… Previously dissociated elements clicked into place. Of course. That weather had not been natural.

Nepanthe’s brothers must have been involved.

Knowing what to look for let him probe the past and discover that the Storm Kings, and Mist herself, had affected events that night.

Insanity. Mist, and many others, had known that the Princes Thaumaturge would be engaged. Everyone had an interest and each thumbed the situation somewhere, trying to shape the outcome subtly. But there was nothing anywhere to clarify the essential question: How had the brothers gotten into the Wind Tower without receiving portals in place?

There was no choice but to believe either the winged demon hypothesis or that portals, since removed, had been placed for them, in secret, beforehand.

It could be that Old Meddler had made it al happen.

And Varthlokkur was no more comfortable about some other questions Mist had raised.

He had to do something with the dead sorcerers. There was no choice about that.

Nepanthe brought tea. She sat with him, her back to the site of the worst night of a life where most every major memory was a bad one. “Ethrian is having a good day. You should spend more time with him. I think that would help.”

“Yes. Certainly. It would be time better spent than sitting here, despairing of yesterday and tomorrow.” Nepanthe leaned forward. She rested a hand on his. “Let’s just concern ourselves with what we can do today.” There was a tear in the corner of his left eye when he said,

“That should be the way we live.” They rose. He slipped an arm around her waist as they walked toward the doorway.

He glanced back at the dead, just once, as he waited for her to step out.

That once gave him an idea.

Chapter Eleven:

Summer, Year 1017 AFE:

Legendary Confusion

Hammad al Nakir simmered with rumors. Everyone wanted to believe that the King Without a Throne had returned.

His very first action had been to kil Magden Norath, ending the terror underpinning bad king Megelin’s throne!

The desert awaited anxiously what would happen next.

The man who had caused the ferment had no idea what that should be. Taking Norath down, alerting the world to his survival, had not figured in the fantasies he had indulged during his long trek west.

People would start looking for him. Some would just want to know if it was real y him. Others would be frightened. Old Meddler would be upset because his intrigue had been aborted before it could be hatched.

Yasmid and Megelin would want to capture him. The Dread Empire and Varthlokkur had to be considered, too.

He could not hide Haroun bin Yousif from those powers. He had to become someone distinctly not Haroun.

He began immediately. He sold his horses. He bought strange clothing. He acquired a donkey and three goats.

He left the desert for the east coast. There he bought a cart for his goats to pul . This and that went into the cart, including al his obvious weapons.

The shore of the Sea of Kotsüm was a region where the people fol owed the Disciple. Bandits and robbers were few.

He came to al-Asadra wearing gaudy apparel and shaved.

He had a red demon tattoo on his left cheek and a big blue teardrop fal ing from the outside corner of his right eye. His own family would not have recognized him.

He had trouble recognizing him, so thoroughly had he dropped into this new character.

He had no long-term plan.

He was an entertainer, now, a role so alien that no one ought ever to look his way with Haroun bin Yousif in mind.

He did puppet shows. He used sleight of hand tricks which, due to his lack of skil , compel ed him to employ some true sorcery. Careful y. Everyone enjoyed a magic show—so long as they could be sure they were just seeing conjure tricks. And, final y, he told fortunes using a greasy, worn deck found in pawn in the souk where he put on his first show. Their shabbiness lent them credibility.

Divination in any form was il egal but the authorities turned a blind eye so long as the fortunetel er claimed to be an entertainer only.

Cynics would observe that fortunetel ers had been around for mil ennia before El Murid and they would exist stil long after El Murid had been forgotten by even the most esoteric historians. People wanted a glimpse of the future, often desperately. 

God had written their fates on their foreheads at birth but that was hard to read in a mirror. It was easy to delude oneself into believing that a mummer might, indeed, reveal the divine plan. And the more so when the future one saw oneself was entirely ugly.

“Hai, peoples. Come see.” He performed a conjuring trick that attracted a few urchins. He did the one where he found a dirty green coin behind a six-year-old’s ear. The kid sprinted off to turn his riches into food. The news brought a raucous crowd of children.

His confidence did not improve. He was not accustomed to children. He was not social at al . He wrestled ferocious doubts as he strove to hide from the world by borrowing a persona from a man long dead.

...

“Al this ferment because of one unreliable witness,” Yasmid said. “I don’t understand.”

“They want it to be true,” Habibul ah replied. “They’re sick of Megelin. He’s a weakling tyrant who spawns disasters. But they’re equal y sick of being preached at.

They’re hungry for a savior. They are making themselves one out of wishful thinking. The King Without a Throne. The strongman who wil bring peace and unity. They forget the facts of the man that was.”

Yasmid knew that. She did not like it. 

She disliked its religious implications. She disliked its social implications. Selfishly, she disliked it because it suggested that she could lose her privileged life.

“I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to do anything about it. I don’t want to be seen as concerned about it. Let the fever run its course.”

Habibul ah was astonished. “But…”

“We’re going to try a new strategy, old friend. This time, instead of roaring around kil ing people and screaming about God, we’re just going to ignore it. We’l leave the world alone so long as the world extends us the same courtesy.”

She watched the old soldier begin to marshal his arguments, then lay them down again before he spoke.

He was tired of the struggle, too.

She asked, “Is it time to go see my father?”

“Yes. Elwas wants us to dine with him and the foreigner.” His disapproval of that Unbeliever never relented.

“Then let us tend to our garden.”

Habibul ah frowned, puzzled.

“A sutra from the Book of Reconciliation.” Which was not a book at al but a long letter El Murid had written to persecuted converts when he was stil young and visionary.

It was included in the greater col ection of the Disciple’s Inspired Writings—cynical y assembled by Yasmid to help guide and shape the Faith.

“Oh. Yes. Where he tel s us to endure our trials. If we live our lives righteously and tend to our gardens, God wil tend to us.” 

“Very good.”

“My father was there, in that camp, when he wrote that letter.”

Tangled lives, Yasmid thought, with some entanglements going back decades and generations.

She had her women ready her for the public passage across the mile to her father’s tent. Though the hard line imams had been tamed for now she did not want to provoke them. Publicly, she would conform to the standards expected of an important woman.

Those were the unwritten terms of a tacit truce.

It was another in a long parade of fine days. The sky was a brighter blue than in most years. There were clouds up there, stately cumulus caravels like immense, gnarly snowbal s edged with silver, numerous enough to be worthy of note. They were uncommon in most summers.

The fakir from Matayanga claimed that the unusual and favorable weather was a consequence of the great war between his homeland and Shinsan.

Yasmid cared only that the weather brought more moisture than usual.

“It’s almost cool today.”

Habibul ah misinterpreted. “Getting cold feet?”

“No. I started thinking about Haroun.”

Habibul ah sighed.

“I’m sorry. The Evil One has that hold on me. I can’t get the man out of my head.” She took four steps. “I never could.” Several more steps. “He would be away for years. And I would spend most of that time watching the door, waiting for him to come through.” She managed another ten steps.

“Habibul ah, I could have come home any time I wanted.

There was no one to stop me. There was just one old woman with me. But I stayed and watched the door.” Habibul ah faced the mountains behind them. He thought he might shed a tear. He did not want his goddess to see that.

As they approached El Murid’s tent Yasmid halted yet again. “I’m watching the door again. God, have mercy on your weak child.”

“He’s dead, Yasmid. Accept that. The rumors al result from one fevered imagination.”

“I can’t accept that.”

...

Elwas al-Souki met the Lady Yasmid at the entrance to the Disciple’s tent—that being a sprawl of canvas and poles covering several acres.

El Murid had a philosophical resistance to residing in structures built of timber or stone. He would live in tents whenever he could.

This sprawl was a ghost of the canvas palaces he had occupied in his glory days.

Al-Souki said, “Lady, you are punctual. Sadly, we have not been your equal. We have run late al day, getting farther behind by the hour.”

“What are you up to, Elwas?”

The man did not dissemble. “I hoped to show you how your father is progressing while we wait.”

“Why?” She did not want to be here. Whatever prolonged her torment was sure to irk her.

“Because you need to know. Because your wretch of a father is also the Disciple, a shining star to mil ions. You need to see what we’ve done to resurrect the visionary from the ashes of the man.”

Habibul ah averred, “That’s interesting talk, Elwas. Now make it mean something.”

Elwas flashed a happy face and beckoned them to fol ow.

They reached an open area fifty feet by a hundred with the canvas twenty feet above, supported by an orchard of poles. There were few furnishings. The floor was sawdust and wood chips mixed with strained sand and shredded clay in a groomed flat, soft surface. Thin, creamy light coming through the canvas revealed several men engaged in calisthenics. Swami Phogedatvitsu and his smarmy interpreter walked around them. The swami occasional y swatted one with a switch. No one wore anything but a loincloth. None of those bodies were worthy of flaunting.

Yasmid did not recognize her father.

When Habibul ah brought her home—subjective ages ago

—Micah al Rhami had been a fat slug, half blind, barely aware that he was alive. His caretakers kept him fat, drugged, and out of sight so he would not interfere in what they did in his name.

Most of those parasites abided with the Evil One now. The Invincibles and Harish had helped clean them out.

“Lady? Are you al right?” Elwas asked. He sounded genuinely concerned.

“I’m fine. I was remembering my return from exile, when I first saw what had become of my father. It was beyond belief.”

“I have heard tel .”

Yasmid glanced his way, unhappy. He was not feeling generous toward her, perhaps because of her profound disgust. That never won favor among men who considered her father the Right Hand of God, however far he had fal en.

Elwas told her, “He is free of the poppy. Heavy exercise is one of Swami Phogedatvitsu’s sharpest tools.”

“Wouldn’t that just aggravate his pain?”

“That is emotion expressed as pain, not actual pain. He feels the loss of your mother physical y instead of emotional y.”

Yasmid nodded. An odd way of thinking but it did sound plausible.

“The swami also teaches skil s for managing both the need for the poppy and the pain that excuses the need.” Yasmid sucked in a deep breath, released it in a long sigh.

Her father had suffered chronic pain forever. He had sustained severe injuries during his early ministry. Some never healed right. The pain, and the opium he used to control it, clouded his judgment later. Countless needless deaths resulted.

“I do hope that he conquers the poppy, Elwas. I pray for that regularly. But he has beaten it before, only to backslide when life disappointed him.”

“This time wil be different. I hope you wil let the swami manage your father’s health permanently.” Habibul ah snorted in disdain but did control his tongue.

Yasmid understood. It would be outrageous to hand the Disciple’s health and spiritual wel -being over to a heathen mystic. The most coveted treasure a vil ain could win would be control of the Disciple’s person.

Elwas bin Farout al-Souki, though young, was cunning and had grown up in circumstances that made reading people a useful survival skil . “Lady, I have no interest in control ing your father. I am involved because my other duties make slight claim upon my time. We have no wars. We have no threats of war. Only a few young, green men want to train for the next war.”

Elwas had more to say. He did not get the chance. Swami Phogedatvitsu finished and sent his patients on to whatever they would do next. He donned a wrap of orange that concealed his flab, approached the observers wearing an agile, gleaming, sweat-shiny smile.

He appeared to be pleased with himself.

That was fine with Yasmid. “I am impressed. You have my father more active than I can ever remember.” Phogedatvitsu’s smile turned condescending. “Thank you, Lady.” He was making excel ent progress with the language. He inclined his head just enough.

Elwas said, “The meal isn’t ready. Swami, can you show the lady how you help our lord cope with pain?” Phogedatvitsu turned to his interpreter. The smal man rattled something in a language with odd rhythms. Yasmid believed the swami was buying time to think. 

Phogedatvitsu said something. His interpreter then said,

“Very wel . Please fol ow.”

The swami set a brisk pace for a short distance, along what would have been a hal way in a normal house, then entered an empty, clothwal ed room six feet by ten.

The interpreter said, “These conditions must be met: you wil say nothing and do nothing. You wil not reveal your presence. Is this clear?”

Yasmid agreed because her father had been engaged in physical exercise.

Phogedatvitsu pul ed a cloth wal aside. That exposed three men in loincloths lying face down on padded tables. Al three were old and wrinkled and scarred and had not been eating wel . Men of Phogedatvitsu’s race massaged and stretched the old bodies, asked soft questions, used a smal brush to make ink dots on skin.

The swami again made signs abjuring speech, then joined the others. Yasmid drew breath to ask why foreigners were here in her father’s tent.

Habibul ah grasped her left arm. Elwas moved in front of her. He wore a ferocious “What do you think you’re doing?” look.

She could shout and carry on later. Right now she had to stand stil and keep quiet.

She shook her left arm. Habibul ah’s grip was too tight.

She opened her mouth again.

Elwas was in front of her again, this time so close their noses bumped. He turned her around. He made her march.

Habibul ah did not interfere. 

Back down the cloth corridor, voice low but intensely angry, al-Souki demanded, “What is the matter with you? Lady.” As an afterthought. “You swore you would…”

“That was before I saw…”

“You had to know you were going to see something unusual. Why would he take so much trouble to strive for silence, otherwise?”

“He was sticking needles into him, Elwas! What did you expect me to do?”

“To be silent and observe. As you promised.”

“But he was sticking needles in…”

Al-Souki told Habibul ah, “She was right when she chose to stay away. We should not have risked that. She isn’t ready.” Habibul ah nodded, said, “Perhaps,” and stared at the earthen floor.

Yasmid demanded, “Does this mean you’re part of some…”

Elwas made an obvious effort to control serious exasperation. “Lady, the swami is using eastern methods to free your father from his opium addiction. Do you know more about that specialized work than you do about building construction? I note that you never inject yourself into the work of carpenters or masons. You wil , on occasion, ask why something is being done in a certain way.”

Each word arrived under rigid control, reeking of truth. She hated him for that.

Then she started. She might have had an epiphany. A sudden grasp of the mind of the man whose special madness had led to generations of warfare and despair.

“Elwas, take us to where we wil sit down with my father. We wil wait there. And you wil regale me with tales of sticking old men with needles.”

...

The meal with the Disciple was not exciting. Yasmid’s father went through the motions in a lugubrious, mechanical fashion, like a mildly autistic child. He did not make eye contact. He did not speak. He brightened some at mentions of his wife and daughter but failed to recognize Yasmid as the latter.

Yasmid conceded that Phogedatvitsu had worked a miracle by reclaiming El Murid this much. Perhaps now the Disciple would learn to navigate the quotidian world and begin interacting with people.

But this man was not Papa.

What Yasmid wanted desperately was the man she had known when she was little.

Earthly, practical Yasmid bint Micah knew that the Papa she remembered never real y existed outside her head.

The swami thanked her repeatedly for being interested in his efforts but, otherwise, said only, “There is much work to be done yet.”

...

Varthlokkur, with a comet tail of youngsters, entered his restored workroom. He was careful to conceal the unlocking gestures. Scalza might be tempted to sneak in.

Lately, the boy had shown an inordinate interest in the room. He fol owed Varthlokkur al over, hoping to learn by watching. Ekaterina tagged along because she was interested in everything that interested Little Brother.

Then Ethrian began fol owing his grandfather. Why?

Something had changed. Ethrian was intrigued by the world outside Ethrian now. And his mother was thril ed.

“What are we going to do today, Uncle?” Scalza asked.

“Spy on our mother again?”

“That part of ‘we’ constituted by you wil remain out of the way and quiet while the part that is me performs some excruciatingly dul maintenance on the Winterstorm.”

“Oh, good! When are you going to start teaching us?”

“Never, and a day.”

Scalza primed himself for an argument. Before he started Nepanthe arrived. Smyrena was awake and cooing. The youngsters lost interest in anything but her.

That left Ethrian as a puzzled human island. After brief indecision he drifted toward his mother.

Varthlokkur watched in amazement. Nepanthe had a bottomless store of warmth and love for the children. He never got over that. How did she do it?

The children did not bother him again. Nepanthe was that good a kid wrangler.

It did not hurt that the baby seemed interested in learning to crawl. Everyone found that immensely entertaining. 

In time, Nepanthe left Smyrena to the youngsters and came to look over Varthlokkur’s shoulder.

He said, “I’ve been looking for Haroun. I can’t find a trace.

He must be somewhere on the foreshore east of the Mountains of the Thousand Sorcerers.”

“What does he want to do? His whole life changed when he kil ed Magden Norath. I’m sure he didn’t plan to go round stabbing famous sorcerers.”

“I hope not. I don’t want him headed our way.” He grinned.

“If he is on the coast he’s not interested in what’s going on in Al Rhemish.”

“Exactly. Before al-Habor he was heading that way by stages. After al-Habor he headed southeast, for as long as I was able to track him.”

“So he has a new interest. What could that possibly be, Mr.

Wizard?”

He chuckled. “You’re probably right. If he isn’t after his throne he must be after the woman he loves.”

“Let’s hope he doesn’t poison himself.”

“Haroun bin Yousif won’t let old love drag him into mortal peril.”

“You take the romance out.”

“I try.”

“I never liked him much. He was always drama and trouble.

But he was one of Mocker’s best friends.” That name brought on the silence. Varthlokkur refocused on finding bin Yousif. Nepanthe returned to the children. That nerve was stil tender.

Varthlokkur gave up looking. Bin Yousif would surface eventual y. He shifted his attention to the west.

It was the time of year for armies to march.

The Lesser Kingdoms were a-simmer with vigorous political disinterest. The weather was the best in a generation. People whose lives revolved round agriculture were taking advantage. Even in chaotic Kavelin most every til able acre had gotten plowed. The retired soldiers were al at work in forest or field.

The Crown spent no money because it had none and lacked any means of col ecting revenue. The Nordmen barons were in little better shape. But commoner Wesson entrepreneurs were digging into their secret caches. They were building things. Varthlokkur discovered new grinding mil s and granaries, new sawmil s and stone cutting mil s.

Smal caravans moved through the Savernake Gap, both directions. The Marena Dimura, though disinclined to participate in the broader community, had missions out looking for engineers to help reopen mines hidden in the deeps of the Kapenrungs.

“So,” the wizard mused. “People inside Kavelin wil be too close to this and not understand that things are getting better. But there it is. If the political situation doesn’t explode.”

As ever, what Kavelin needed most was freedom from the ambitions of those convinced that they ought to be in charge.

“Varth?”

He did not acknowledge her. Nepanthe touched his shoulder lightly. He started. “What?” 

“You’ve been staring into that for two hours. It’s time to eat.”

“Oh.”

“You didn’t find Haroun?”

“I gave up. I went looking at Kavelin.” He needed help getting up. He had remained seated too long. “Good things are starting to happen in the Lesser Kingdoms. How good wil depend on Inger and Kristen. They could ruin everything with a civil war.”

There was another potential source of despair. Michael Trebilcock.

Varthlokkur had had no success finding Michael, either.

Most people thought Trebilcock was dead. Varthlokkur was not convinced. He thought Michael had pul ed his hole in on himself but was out there somewhere, watching and waiting.

Trebilcock was no sorcerer but had a personal magic unique to himself. He might be the most important man in the Lesser Kingdoms now. If he was alive.

Varthlokkur wished he knew how to get in touch.

He could find Michael. He could find Haroun. By a means as subtle as a thunderstorm. By sending Radeachar to look. The Unborn could be stealthy when the target was fixed and known but in a search it tended to attract attention.

Varthlokkur wanted to remain forgotten.

Nepanthe asked, “Why is that? Have Radeachar tow a banner across the sky warning Michael.” She had a soft spot for Trebilcock. He had spent months of his life, risking a cruel death, in order to effect her rescue, once upon a time. “Or whoever took over for Michael if he’s dead.”

“Aral Dantice.” The response was instantaneous. “Dantice is protecting Kristen and her children. That’s worth a closer look.” Then he asked, “What do you think about my putting risers under the legs of my chairs so I don’t have to work so hard to get up?”

...

The conjure man moved to Souk el Arba but did not stay there long. He established his existence in a few hundred memories. He did not render himself notorious. He seemed too honest to succeed.

Soon he began to drift westward, spending a few days in each foothil town, moving ever deeper into the mountains. He came to al-Khafra. That vil age marked the limit where the law prevailed. It would not be reasonable to proceed into the higher mountains alone.

Rootless men waited around al-Khafra, hoping for work as drovers or guards on caravans crossing the mountains.

Master caravaneers did their hiring there so they did not have to pay men not needed in the peaceful country farther east.

Haroun found the youngest fel ow he could, one Muma al-Iki, hired him to look out for his goats and donkey. Then he shed his tattoos and got himself work as a caravan guard. The master was happy to acquire what looked to be a skil ed sword arm. He was escorting someone or something of high value. Haroun made a point of showing no curiosity.

He made himself accepted amongst the guards and drovers through his entertainment value instead of his skil s with sharp steel. He had no opportunity to demonstrate those. No wickedness rol ed down out of a shadowed side canyon intent on taking plunder and slaves.

The caravan master bemoaned his wasted protection expenses.

An Invincible cal ed al-Souki had been teaching harsh lessons to the little tribes scrabbling for survival in the high range.

The traveler recal ed having seen a few high-range people when he was a boy. They were smal and wiry and darker than the peoples of the desert and the coast. Their languages, related to one another, were linked to none outside the mountains—unless, remotely, to those of the Marena Dimura in the Kapenrung Mountains.

The conjurer’s first view of Sebil el Selib, from a crotch between tal , round-backed foothil s stil a day away, struck him dumb.

A camel drover asked, “First time here?”

“No. I came once when I was a boy,” he lied. “It was different then.” There had been no sprawl of farmland, no eye-searing green miles of pasture. No flocks so vast they looked like gul s on their nesting islands. In those days there had been little more than a couple of ugly stone fortresses that he had not seen with his own eyes. He had been too young to join in the raids.

“It’s changed a lot in my lifetime. And I’m way younger than you.”

“I’m not older than you, I’m just married.” Which made the drover laugh so hard his comrades came to investigate.

“He said it so deadpan!” The others were amused but nothing more. “I guess you had to be there.”

“It’s al about the timing,” the traveler said. “And the unexpected. I caught Isak by surprise. You al came to find out what was so funny. You had expectations.” Isak was impressed. “Man, you got some kind of brain in your head.”

“When you have a wife like mine you get a lot of time to think.”

Someone asked, “If you’re married what’re you doing out here?”

“Taking time off to do some thinking.”

That amused the drovers. One observed, “I know. You married your cousin. Now you can’t get out.” A reasonable explanation. The desert peoples typical y married closely.

But none of these men real y believed that. They knew about his sketchy career before he joined the caravan.

Muma liked to talk.

No one cared.

The traveler might be a rogue but he was a rogue who did his share. He had undertaken dangerous assignments without quibble. He had helped the injured when the hazards of travel overtook someone. He had a way with animals. Horses, in particular, were nervous in the thin, electric air of the high Jebal but they calmed down when he was around.

Oddly, not once did he hear anyone wonder if he was a spy.

That would have been his own first suspicion of someone like himself.

Maybe that was because, in some way he did not recognize, he made it clear that he was something else.

“We need to get back to work,” one of the drovers said.

“The Pig has noticed us lol ygagging.”

The Pig was the lead drover, a partner in the enterprise. He was neither a bad man nor a harsh boss but he did have expectations. And was cursed with a face reminiscent of a porker.

Haroun looked for his own boss, the partner in charge of defense. He did not see the man. In any case, guards were free to wander and dil ydal y so long as they did not col ect in one place.

Stil , it was time to start doing things in a way that would leave no outstanding memories once the caravan broke up.

The enterprise would reform in a new shape, leaving some behind and gathering others, before it moved on into the desert. Haroun told some folks he meant to stay at Sebil el Selib. Others he told he would move on after he visited the holy places.

He hoped for confusion—or that no one would care.

There was no reason anyone should. He was just another traveler.

Muma accepted the balance of his pay. “What wil you do now, Aza?” Aza being the name Haroun had worn while crossing the mountains.

“I don’t know. Al I ever thought about, til now, was how to get here. This is the place where things begin. This is God’s home. This is the goal. I never thought about what to do next.”

The boy was surprised. “I always thought you knew exactly what you were doing. You seem like you’re more than just you.”

“That makes me a good actor, I guess. What about you?”

“I’l stay with the caravan. Pig liked how I handled animals and stuff.”

“Good luck, then. I need to find a place to camp. I have some money, now. I can lay around a few days.” Tel ing fortunes and sel ing charms might not work here. Hardliners took literal y El Murid’s declaration that such things were the handiwork of the Evil One.

Muma said, “The field below the New Castle is where pilgrims camp. Just ask for directions. And good luck, Aza.” The boy left with a parting wave.

They had been close for weeks but Haroun had learned nothing about Muma, other than that he was dishonest about himself, too.

No matter. He was no threat.

Haroun found the ground reserved for pilgrims. The field was vast. Thousands had camped there in the past. Today there were only a few hundred. There was grazing for animals, water, and little of the stench common when too many people crowded into too smal an area. 

He got his tent up, used sticks from his cart to make a pen for his animals, then got busy making himself into a new man.

Travel had left him looking too much like the fel ow who had murdered a wizard in al-Habor.

He discovered that he lacked sufficient firewood to build a cook fire.

Then the Invincibles arrived.

There were two. They were old. One lacked part of his right hand. The other had had the left side of his face ruined by a sword or ax. He was absent an ear and an eye. An island of bone shone where his left cheek ought to be. No doubt he and pain were long time brothers.

There was a specific form of address due these veterans but Haroun could not remember it. When they asked what he was doing here, he tapped his ears and shook his head.

He pressed his tongue against the roof of his mouth and did not move it when he said, “I am a children entertainer. I came here hoping to see the Disciple for his blessing.

Maybe God wil see me here and restore my hearing.” The Invincibles had him repeat himself several times. His story sparked neither commentary nor sympathy. They heard its like too often. They were going through the motions, bothering at al only because they were bored.

One of them probed Haroun’s possessions with little interest. The cards did not trouble him, nor did the dicing paraphernalia. He was apologetic. This was the only work he was fit for anymore. Haroun found nothing to offend him.

The Invincible shrugged and turned away. The other man gestured at the empty fire pit.

“The wood sel er is down where the banners are. He’s reasonable. If you want to col ect your own he’l tel you where that’s permitted.”

Haroun bowed and slurred, “A thousand thanks, Gracious One.”

The man frowned, then. “You look familiar. From a long time ago. Were you at Wadi el Kuf?”

Haroun could honestly answer, “No. But my father was.”

“Maybe that’s it.”

“Possibly. He’s gone now.” Thinking the man must have been a boy at the time if he was a survivor of that disaster.

The Invincible was inclined to visit further. His companion was not, though. He waved the ruined hand and strode away.

There was daylight left when Haroun got back from seeing the wood sel er. His situation intimidated him. He would have to deal with a lot of people here. His time on the eastern littoral had not been preparation enough. He had spent too much of his life alone.

He would meet the chal enge.

He would befriend other pilgrims, visit the shrines and the former monasteries now housing religious offices, and even go see the Malachite Throne.

His father had seen the Malachite Throne once. He had come within moments of kil ing the Disciple in front of it.

He would ask questions, as a pilgrim might, hoping to run into people who could not help showing off how much they knew.

He took a last look round in the twilight.

The only woman he ever loved was just half a mile away.

He wrestled the temptation to use the Power to spy. He knew better. Someone would be watching for a wakening of the Power where it was curst and condemned.

He had no need to hurry. He was safe. He was in the last place where anyone would expect to find the King Without a Throne.

Chapter Twelve:

Year 1017 AFE:

Kavelin Shadow Dancing

Nathan Wolf and two Wesson men-at-arms awaited Babeltausque. Wolf introduced the soldiers as Erik and Purlef. Neither appeared to be especial y bright. They would execute their assignments without wasted soul-searching.

Any man smart enough to look ahead had left the soldiering trade already.

They pushed into the Twisted Wrench. The place was moribund. It boasted three customers where sixty could crowd in. One had passed out at a table in back, amidst a copse of pitchers. The other two occupied a table for six between the bar and the doorway. They were awake but beyond being understood by one another or anyone sober.

There was no wait staff. The publican, a man about fifty, who had no outstanding physical characteristics, eyed the newcomers with both hunger and trepidation. He was desperate for business but recognized Nathan Wolf.

“What can I get you gents?”

“On me tonight,” Babeltausque told his companions. “Order up.”

Erik and Purlef were not slow to respond. Wolf was scarcely a beat behind. 

“And for you, sir?”

“Tel me my choices while you draw for them.” The others had asked for dark ale.

“We’re not so fancy here as you’re probably accustomed to, sir. Especial y in these times. We have the dark ale, smal beer for the kiddies, and a piss pale barley beer mostly drunk by the women. We don’t get many of them or the kiddies. They mostly cal theirs out.” As though to underscore his statement a girl, maybe a young fourteen, shoved through the street door carrying a tin pail.

She frowned as she looked around.

Babeltausque laid a crown on the bar. “I’l try the barley beer.” He was not much of a drinker, which he found surprising himself, considering how he had been treated over the years. “Keep my friends topped up.” He watched the girl. She was smal . He imagined the sweet nubbins beneath her rags, wondered if she had given it up yet.

She handed her pail to the barkeep along with some coins.

The barkeep handed Babeltausque his tankard, then fil ed the pail with dark ale.

Babeltausque turned for a better look. The girl flinched away. She was frightened now. She took the pail and left as fast as she could go without spil ing precious cargo.

Wolf set his mug down. “That was strange.” The publican said, “That girl ain’t never been right.” Erik said, “I figure she’l be fine, she ripens up.” Babeltausque faced the bartender. “Show me your hands.”

“Sir?” The man wanted to argue but recognized the sudden intensity of Babeltausque’s companions.

“Customer is always right.” Babeltausque considered the hands, saw nothing to suggest that the man was anything but a publican. “Reach over here. Both hands.” The wizard took hold. Startled, the barkeep tried to pul away. He could not. Babeltausque smiled an ugly little smile. “Tel me about Colonel Gales.”

The publican’s gaze darted, possibly looking for help that would not come.

Wolf surveyed the bar. He said, “Erik, take the front door.

Don’t let anybody in. Purlef, you make sure we get no surprises from the back.” Babeltausque said, “Excel ent, Mr. Wolf. Should there be an actual

rescue attempt, take one vil ain for questioning. Barkeep.

You must know more about the disappearance of the Queen’s man Gales than you admitted to Mr. Wolf earlier. I want to hear the rest now.” The publican kept shaking his head, never making clear what he was denying. But Babeltausque did reach a disappointed conclusion. The man truly knew nothing useful and lacked interesting suspicions as wel .

Babeltausque let go. “That first crown is for your trouble and discomfort.” He produced another. “The drinks wil be on this. Top us al off. Mr. Wolf, I was wrong. This gentleman knows less than we do.” “Shit!”

“Include me in that sentiment.”

“Stil a dead end.”

“Perhaps.” Babeltausque turned back to the bartender, who had fil ed al the mugs and now stood there shaking. “You recal the night in question? The drunk put on a show.”

“He pissed himself.”

“He did. Were any of your current clientele in here that night?” The bartender started to shrug, flexed the fingers of his right hand, thought better of playing dumb. “The one in the back, there, I don’t think I ever seen before tonight. He was drowned drunk when he got here. His whole crew was.

They ordered up al them pitchers and was working them hard when, al of a sudden, like a flock of pigeons, they up and swooped out. I guess they couldn’t get him woke up to go.” Babeltausque had a feeling. “That would have been when?” “Maybe ten minutes before you showed.” About the time they exited Castle Krief. Interesting. “I see.

How many were there?”

The barkeep looked back at the sleeping man’s table. “I see six pitchers.

Each one ordered one. So five of them left.”

“How about these two?”

“They was probably here that night. They’re here every night. I don’t know where they get the money.”

“Mr. Wolf, please investigate the gentleman back there. I’l talk to these two. Erik, Purlef, please remain alert. I’m sure we’re being watched.

Someone else would have tried to come buy a drink by now, otherwise.” Babeltausque had just planted himself with the drunks when Wolf said, “Sorcerer, I need you here.” Though irked, Babeltausque got up and went. “What?” Wolf got a fist ful of hair, tilted the drunk’s head back. “I see.”

“Looks like death on a stick.” 

“Let me ask a few more questions.”

Babeltausque returned to the publican. “Did you recognize any of the men who came in with that fel ow?” Headshake. “I’m pretty sure they was from out of town.

Maybe from Sedlmayr, out that way, the way they rol ed their Rs.”

“I see. Thank you. Fil me up, please. This is actual y rather a pleasant brew. You add just a pinch of ground rail bark, yes? Mr. Wolf? Erik? Purlef? Do you need topped up? No?

And I thought I would be the lightweight. Sir. Tel me. Did yon fel ow’s friends do any drinking themselves?”

“Like they wanted to float their kidneys. Like they wanted to get every pitcher empty in record time.”

“Excel ent. You have been most helpful. Another crown for your trouble.”

As he settled down with the drunks Babeltausque realized he was enjoying himself. He could not recal the last time life was just plain fun.

He col ected himself, grasped the near hand of the man to his right.

The drunk started as though shocked. His eyes opened. He sat up straight. He gulped air, took a long drink, began muttering a prayer.

He had been present the night of the kidnapping. He remembered the show. He was unaware that anything had happened to the drunk after he left the Twisted Wrench, nor did he know that Gales was anything but what he had pretended.

He had to labor through a half minute of grueling thought before he could name the current monarch—and then fel short by one. The second man was the brother-in-law of the first. His wife had forced him to take that night off. He knew nothing at al . The sorcerer announced, “We won’t get anything more here. Lead the way home, Mr. Wolf. Purlef, you and Erik support our new friend, there. I’l fol ow along with a few spel s readied.”

He watched Wolf calculate and conclude that those instructions made sense for a passage through potential y hostile territory. Babeltausque turned to the publican. “In a few minutes someone wil come in asking about us.” He produced a bronze medal with turquoise inlays. It weighed a good six ounces. “Give this to the man who appears to be in charge. And this paper should go to a companion who seems dim and doesn’t say much. And this crown is me buying them drinks, however much they want.” He rubbed the crown over the medal ion and paper. “Don’t touch these again except to hand them over.” Wolf asked, “You’re going to pul their noses?”

“I am going to grab hold and yank til they squeal.” He told the publican, “Expect the men of the garrison to come back, soon. Mr. Wolf. After you.”

The bartender watched them go, unsure if he should be pleased or terrified.

It was not every day that a wizard tramped through an ordinary man’s life. When one did excitement usual y fol owed.

...

Flustered,hastily dressed,Inger rushed into Babeltausque’s quarters. She found Dr. Wachtel examining Josiah Gales. The wizard and Nathan Wolf watched, murmuring. The old doctor had been dragged out of bed.

He was sleepwalking through his task.

Wolf told her, “They left him at the place where they kidnapped him. That makes no sense to me but I’m sure they had a reason.”

Babeltausque said, “I hope this doesn’t sound self-important, Majesty, but I believe that reason was me. They thought I might trace Gales, even if they kil ed him, so they just gave him up. I expect they had no more use for him, anyway.”

“Could you have traced him?”

“I could have. I had his belongings to give me a scent.”

“Doctor, what’s his situation?”

“He’s dirty, dried out, and weak from lack of exercise. He wasn’t tortured or starved, though good nutrition was neglected. I see no reason why he shouldn’t recover completely, physical y. Mental y, we’l have to wait and see.”

“Could there be problems?”

“I don’t know. At the moment he is drunk and drugged. He tries to talk but makes no sense. He may be hal ucinating.” Inger stared at Gales. He was filthy but did not look bad otherwise. “Nathan, Babeltausque, thank you. You’ve made an excel ent start. Come with me. Let’s talk about what comes next. Doctor, my apologies for your having been dragged out of bed.” 

“It comes with the cal ing, dear.” He did not look up from cleansing a wrist abrasion.

Inger went to a smal room no longer in use. She looked for eavesdroppers, checking the passageway behind one wal .

“There must be more to this than you said.” Babeltausque responded, “They knew we were coming.

They knew who was coming. That should be instructive.

They know what we’re going to do as soon as we decide to do it.”

“Nathan?”

“I’m impressed with the wizard now that he’s out of the shadow of your cousin. There’s a lot more to him than I imagined.”

Babeltausque puffed up a little. “Thank you, Mr. Wolf. Your Majesty, I left those people with messages of my own. I’m hoping they’re stupid. If you wil indulge me, then, I need to get back to work.”

“Doing?”

“Fol owing up. This isn’t over because we recovered Colonel Gales. Unless you want those people free to go on about their mischief.”

“No! Get on with it. And I’l pray that your luck continues.”

...

Chames Marks dipped a cup into the pail of beer. The girl fol owed suit. He said, “You’re too young for that, Haida.”

“I need it. The way that man looked at me! Wearing that sweet smile…” “There might be a monster behind the merry eyes?”

“I real y wanted to bring him here so Arnulf could work on him.” They were in the back of a butcher shop. Arnulf Black was the proprietor. Haida was under the mistaken notion that Black disposed of people Chames did not like.

“I’l see to it that you don’t run into him again.”

“I don’t think he was looking at me. I think he saw a fantasy girl.” “Probably true. Get the chessboard. We’l play while we wait for Brom.” Chames smiled. It was not hard to distract Haida if he engaged her intel ect.

She played him tough. He could not shut his mind down.

The back door rattled suddenly, frantical y. Chames rose.

“Something’s gone wrong. Slide out the other way. Go to the shop. Wait there. No lights.”

Rattle again, accompanied by hoarse, worried whispers.

Marks opened the door. Three men tumbled in, one bleeding from wounds on his face and hands. “Shut that, Edam. Al of you, take a deep breath. Calm down. Then somebody tel me where Madden is and what went wrong.” Edam locked the door. “It went just like you said til we went inside the Wrench. We never got a chance to ask questions. The barkeep saw us and said, ‘You would be the ones.’ He started fil ing mugs. ‘On the gents that just left,’ he says.”

“I see. Wel . I didn’t expect them to taunt me back. Go on.

Then what?”

“So we drinks our beers. Minter says how Hartaway was gonna be browned off on account of he was fol owing them others and gonna miss out. So then the barkeep asks do we want to top up, the guy from the castle paid for plenty.

We says, yes sir, thank you very much, sir, since it’s on somebody else. The barkeep tops us up, then he hands Madden this big-ass bronze medal with some kind of blue stones set in it. Then he gives Minter a folded piece of paper. Madden goes, ‘What’s al this, then?’ The bartender goes, ‘I don’t know. The guy running that bunch said give it to the guy running your bunch. He said give the note to the guy that looked the stupidest.’”

“And?”

“So Madden is looking at that medal and we’re looking over each other’s shoulders. The barkeep is on the other side of the bar, trying to see, too. Madden touches one of them blue stones. And, Bang! The medal ion explodes.”

“It tore him al up,” said the man who was bleeding. “Took both of his eyes, blew off the hand he was holding it in, and ripped out the side of his throat. He had it in his left hand, like this, maybe a foot from his face. I had to pick pieces of his fingers off’n me.”

Edam said, “The blast got the barkeep, too. His face was messed up.” “I get the picture.” Better than did they. The barkeep was not part of the plot. “You stil have that note, Minter?”

“I sure do, boss. I never even looked at it.” Where would be the point? The man could not read. “Lucky you.” Minter went pale behind his shrapnel wounds. “You think…?” “Unless that note is just a bit of mockery we may have only minutes to live. Give it here. And hope some 

‘Neener neener!’ is al it is.” Marks took the note. “Al right.

Everybody out. Find Hartaway, then get out of town. Right now if they didn’t shut the gates tonight.” The gates did get left open more often than not, depending on how far the guards’ pay was in arrears.

“What about my face and hands?” Minter asked.

“The wounds aren’t dangerous. Clean them up once you’re twenty miles out of town.”

“Oh. Yeah. Shit. Let’s get the flock out of here, troops.” Marks shut the door behind the three. It was a shame about Madden.

But he could do nothing about that, now.

Madden being the victim might actual y have been good luck. The others were good men, but stupid. Madden would have carried nothing to connect him with anyone else.

He pushed the folded paper over beside the chess set, stared at it. He felt no obvious danger but had little feel for sorcery. He used his belt knife to prod the paper.

Nothing happened.

He sniffed.

Nothing.

He used two butcher knives to unfold the sheet. How long did he have? A while, probably. With Gales in hand those men would report to the Queen first. After that they would try to track the tracer spel sure to be attached to the note.

Clever, evil bastards. Kil the only man smart enough to be in charge and the stupid ones would run straight to their control carrying a tracker spel .

Never touching the paper with his fingers, Chames spread the note.

Which was blank. Presumably the tracer was inscribed in invisible ink. He held the sheet with one knife and smoothed it out with the back of the other. The note convulsed suddenly and said, “Boo!” Time to go.

...

“I doubt that we’l catch anyone,” said Babeltausque, watching soldiers load the dead man into a cart. Poor old Wachtel would have to get out of bed again.

“We need to try,” Wolf replied.

“Of course we do. For our own sakes as wel as the Queen’s. If we fail her we fail ourselves.” Wolf grunted, unhappy with that truth.

Rumor had an angry Kristen ready to come out of hiding, hel -bent on revenge for the murders of her best-loved companions.

The sorcerer told the soldiers managing the corpse,

“Take him to my workroom after Wachtel says he’s real y dead. I’l see what he can tel me.”

The soldiers looked uncomfortable.

Let them think he could conjure the shades of the dead. Let that notion gain currency. There were spies in Castle Krief.

Fear might make them reveal themselves.

Wolf asked, “Can you stil detect that charm?”

“I can. It’s down that way, probably less than three blocks.”

“Think they figured out what it is?”

“I hope so.” 

Wolf said, “You puzzle me, man. Maybe even scare me a little.”

Babeltausque whispered, “I’m starting to scare myself.” Wolf laughed but only from nerves.

Babeltausque said, “Let’s go find our operative.” Five minutes later he, Wolf, and a half-dozen Itaskian soldiers arrived outside a butcher shop. Babeltausque said, “There’s no one in there now but this is where the tracer ended up.”

“Should we go in?” the Itaskian noncom asked.

“Sure. Front and back, with someone watching the windows. Be careful. Something clever may be going on.” The sorcerer was confident that he would not find anything useful. The butcher himself would, surely, be clueless. Stil , the effort had to be made. There was no excuse for not seeing if the vil ains had not left some trivial clue that might lead to their downfal .

Babeltausque asked Wolf, “What do you know about the night the treasury monies vanished?”

“Nothing new. The movements of the principals are common knowledge, subject to hearsay distortion.” Babeltausque grumbled, “Common knowledge. They were supposed to hide the treasure in a preplanned place but didn’t because events got in the way. Then they died in the riots.”

“Al apparently true. Prataxis and Mundwil er showed up for their own funerals.”

“Nathan. A joke. How unlike you. Tel me, do you have any sense that we’re being watched?” 

“Somebody must be keeping track. I would be.”

“So would I.” Babeltausque wished he owned the skil s needed to fix the vil ains.

The senior noncom cal ed, “We’re in, sirs. The place is empty except for one unhappy pig.”

Babeltausque muttered, “We’re al comics tonight.” He went to meet the pig. “Stinks in here.”

Wolf said, “Rotten meat and blood. Even the cleanest butcher shop smel s. And this one isn’t the cleanest. Hel o, pig. Wasn’t your lucky day, was it?”

The noncom cal ed, “Somebody was here in back not so long ago.”

Babeltausque joined him. “Everyone freeze. I may be able to… Wel !” His ugly face split in a huge grin. The noncom was pointing. “I should be able to guess the movements of anyone who was here during the last two hours.” He shut his eyes and tried to slip into the state that would let him read the memories of the air. He could not push past the excitement caused by the presence of that partial pail of beer.

He hoped to see that girl again. She was a tad ripe, but beggars can’t be… He had not indulged in a long time.

Oh, the potential he had seen in those big, beautiful eyes!

Oh, the wonder—after she gave up the vil ains for whom she had bought the beer!

Sigh. “Mr. Wolf, we need to leave this place. We’l touch it no more than we have already. We’l go back and concentrate on the missing treasury.” Babeltausque winked when only Wolf could see. 

Nathan Wolf showed him a raised eyebrow but said nothing.

The sorcerer got heads together with the noncom managing the soldiers. He wished he could throw an arm across the man’s shoulders in comradely fashion. He did not, not because the man would be repel ed but because he was too tal . Babeltausque murmured instructions behind his hand so a clever spy could not read his lips.

The noncom nodded, indicated two men, took off.

Wolf asked, “What was that?”

“Royal charity.” He scanned the surrounding night but could not find the watcher.

...

Chames Marks eased back from the dormer vent in the attic over the apothecary shop. That man knew he was being watched. Best not tempt fate. He had shown unexpected abilities already, as a thinker and a magic user.

The sorcerer had not been distracted by the return of Colonel Gales and he had left the butcher shop looking like he had gotten a concrete lead.

Marks could not imagine what had gone wrong. He had done this his whole adult life. He did not make mistakes.

That was why he was stil alive. Minter had brought the tracker spel but he had been ready for that.

Black should be squarely in the center of the frame.

Marks took a careful look. 

The party was breaking up down there.

He could hear some of their talk. They were not going to go after the butcher.

Damn! The man deserved the intimate attention of the Queen’s interrogators.

Chames backed up again. “I suppose that’s true justice. I shouldn’t be so petty.”

Forward again, to get the best last look he could. In a similar situation he might hide a man or two to see what happened after it looked like the nosies had cleared away.

No one had stayed behind.

He went downstairs. Haida was in the back room, looking shaken. She husked, “That man was looking for me, wasn’t he?”

“No. He had no reason to connect you…” His eyes widened. “What happened to the beer? What did we do with that?”

“I don’t know. I gave it to you.” Then, “It’s probably stil over in the cutting room.”

“And the sorcerer saw you buy it.” Chames sighed. “He wasn’t after you before but he wil be now. We need to get you on the road west.”

“But…”

“You knew what he was thinking when he looked at you?”

“Yes. Uncle Paget used to get that look when…”

“This one might be worse than any of your uncles. Which means you need to be somewhere that he isn’t.”

“Yes, sir.” Wearily. Resigned. “I’l get my stuff. Who should I be?” 

“Bertram Blodgett. He’s your best character. Go to Errol enThal in Sedlmayr. While you turn into Bert I’l write letters of introduction in case you can’t get to Errol or someone else you know.”

Carrying a smal pack, looking like just another vagabond, the newly minted Bert slipped out the back of the apothecary shop half an hour later.

Chames Marks sat alone, contemplating a candle nearing the end of its life. Everyone else was covered. Now to cover himself.

He had tempted fate by tugging the royal beard. The stunt had snapped back in a big way.

...

Babeltausque chatted with the injured publican while tired old Dr. Wachtel tried to repair the man’s face. The sorcerer convinced the bartender, Rhys Benedit, that the explosion had not been meant to happen inside the Wrench. Those men should have taken the medal ion to their boss.

“Doctor Wachtel is the best doc in Kavelin. He’l make you right. There’l be an annuity, too, while Inger is Queen.

Mr. Wolf has already told the troops that the Wrench is the official watering hole of the garrison again.” Babeltausque inscribed strings of characters and symbols in precise cal igraphy on strips of the same heavy paper he had used to carry his tracer spel . He used five pens and five inks, sometimes including several colors in a single glyph. In addition to black he employed an intense scarlet, a dark green, a fierce yel ow, and an ink that could not be seen at al , thus leaving spaces that looked like blanks.

Dr. Wachtel said, “I’ve done everything I can for Master Benedit. From now on he’l have to depend on luck and clean healing. He’l probably lose sight in his right eye.

Unless you can do something.”

“Other than reducing the risk of infection al I can contribute is moral support. My healing skil s are limited.

Although I do have the ability to find the best medical man available.”

Wachtel gave him a brief, inscrutable look, as though unsure he had just heard that.

Babeltausque said, “Mr. Wolf, I have something for you.” He folded a paper strip. “I’m creating protective spel s to surround my space here. I expect to hear from Kristen’s gang before long. I want to be protected but I don’t want to have to drop everything whenever somebody trustworthy needs to get in. That script wil get you through the barrier spel s. Come. I need to prick your thumb and draw a drop of blood. Once that’s in the paper it won’t do anybody any good to steal your pass. It won’t work for anybody but you.

Doctor, I have one for you, too. I’l see Toby, the Queen, and some others tomorrow. But right now I’m ready to col apse.” Wolf was not happy about having to wound himself, however trivial y, but did what needed doing. As did Dr.

Wachtel.

Babeltausque then said, “Friend Benedit is miserable. He’s in pain, he’s scared, and he’s exhausted. Doctor, do you want to take him with you? Or should he stay here? I have the spare cot Toby uses sometimes.” Which was, right now, occupied by the man kil ed in the explosion at the Wrench.

The barkeep mumbled.

Babeltausque said, “He says he’d be more comfortable staying with you.”

“As you wish. Come along, then, sir. There is an infirmary off my quarters. We’l keep you there til you’re fit to go home.”

Wolf stayed. Once the others were out of earshot, he asked, “You got what you wanted?”

“I did. But I can’t do anything about it now. I am exhausted.

We’l deal with it tomorrow.”

“Let me know when you’re ready. I’m enjoying this.” Wolf slipped his pass into a pocket as he departed.

Babeltausque went to bed right away. He stared at the ceiling, wondering how best to enjoy himself once they captured the girl.

The prospects were delicious.

Chapter Thirteen:

1017 AFE:

Eyes of Night

Nepanthe deposited Varthlokkur’s dinner on the table designated for the purpose, close by where he was working. “Hey. You. Wake up. Time to eat.” He did awaken, displeased with himself for having fal en asleep.

Not good.

Sorcerers who fel asleep at work became known as late lamented sorcerers.

“I was resting my eyes.”

“Right. Why are you taking chances? What are you doing?”

“Looking to build a better rat trap based on the latest research.”

It was too damned cold for rats in Fangdred. “Ethrian tried to talk this afternoon. He couldn’t put a sentence together right but he tried hard.”

The wizard moved to the food. Nepanthe settled opposite him. She had brought something for herself. She could pretend to share a meal.

“That sounds good. Why not let him help with Smyrena?

Teach him to change diapers.” 

“Oh! I don’t know. He’s real y clumsy. And he gets frustrated.”

“Sometimes I think he must have had a stroke. Sometimes it feels like he’s completely aware but is trapped behind a wal he can’t break through.”

“You told me…”

“I know. But I’m no life-magic specialist. If the Old Man was here…” “He’s gone. Wishes and fishes.” She noticed a change. “What happened to the mummies?”

“I got worried that the Star Rider might find a use for them. I put them where he’l never get to them.” Each now resided inside a block of concrete distressed to look like an old aggregate boulder in the shadowed bottom of a distant canyon. And that was temporary. He wanted to reduce mummies and concrete to dust that Radeachar could scatter across a thousand miles of wilderness.

“Part of your strategy of denying him his resources?”

“Exactly.”

“Any plan for the Place of the Iron Statues?” Varthlokkur’s spoon halted inches from his mouth. His eyes went vague.

“You didn’t think about that.”

“I didn’t.” That stronghold of the Star Rider had not intruded on his consciousness for decades. “I’m amazed that you did.” With her memory problems of late. “I don’t even recal where it is.”

“Somebody went there during the wars. Maybe Michael.

Maybe one of my brothers. I don’t remember.” She had had memory problems since the night they died together. He had some himself. Even concentrating he could come up with only the vaguest recol ection of someone ever having gone looking for the Place.

He could not recal who, when, why, or what the result had been. Nepanthe said, “The night we al died…” And quit.

The pain was too intense.

“You’re right. Iron statues were there. They tamed the Princes Thaumaturge.”

“You had something to do with that place, too, once, didn’t you?” “Maybe when I was Eldred the Wanderer. I don’t remember it now.” That troubled him. He was having ever more trouble remembering details of his earliest years. It would be awful to lose those memories altogether. Things he had done, bargains he had made, impacted the world every day, even now. And his mother lived on nowhere else but inside the reaches of his mind.

Ekaterina and Scalza bustled in. They wore heavy clothing so must have been playing outdoors. Scalza hol ered,

“We’re going to see what Mother is doing, al right?”

“Don’t touch anything but your scrying bowl.” He had set them up with their own means of farseeing.

They could use the bowl any time, though he insisted on being told first. He wanted to be aware that he needed to keep an eye turned their way. Neither child ever thought much before acting. A reminder to take care might be resented but was never wasted.

Nepanthe said, “I wish I had a tenth of their energy.” She sighed. “I’d better go. Smyrena wil wake up soon. She’l be hungry. Have the wild animals bring the tray down.” The sorcerer touched her hand lightly, then resumed eating.

Mention of the Place of the Iron Statues reminded him that he had not paid much attention to the outside world lately.

Things happened where he was not looking. A lot, in Kavelin, during those intervals.

Scalza bel owed, “We found her, Uncle Varth! She’s in that tower place again.”

He pushed back from the table. This might be interesting.

...

Ragnarson thought he had the emotional instability whipped. He had to. Total control was now necessary. He had no time to waste on selfindulgence.

He had a chance to get out. Mist had something in mind. It was a razor-slash of light at the end of a ten-mile tunnel but it was there.

He had no idea what they were thinking. He meant to give no excuse to stop that thinking. This prison came close to his idea of hel .

The only way to make it worse would be to reduce the size of the cage.

“I’m living pretty damned high on the hog here, aren’t I?

When you get right down to it.”

“Excuse me?” Mist stepped in. “Who are you talking to?”

“The smartest man in the room. A fat tangle of superlatives, he is.”

“I see. Lord Ssu-ma thought you might be interested in seeing the assassin before we release him.” Ragnarson aced the test. His heart hammered and his vision reddened but he kept his composure. “You’re going to turn him loose, why?”

“Our interest was purely curiosity. He broke none of our laws and harmed none of our subjects. He was forthright when questioned. He’s a sad case. He has been alone and enclosed so long he doesn’t know any way but the way he’s fol owed forever.”

“We’re al like that anymore.”

“You could be right without actual y recognizing why.”

“And without understanding what you mean.”

“This assassin isn’t quite a real man. He’s more like a devil manufactured by the darkness inside us al . Though that isn’t what I’m real y trying to say.” She clapped her hands in frustration. “I saw elements of al of us in him. He’s hol ow inside.”

Ragnarson was baffled. Mist did not get philosophical.

Mist said, “One reason I cal him supernatural is, he doesn’t remember his own name.”

“How can you not know your own name?”

“I think because he’s used so many. I found him intriguing.

Lord Ssuma was taken by him, too.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“Come along. You’l see.”

Mist left. The door did not close behind her.

Ragnarson moved that way like a mouse intent on sneaking past a cobra. This could not be what it seemed. It had to be a cruel prank. Something awful would happen. He was safe as long as he did nothing. He should climb into bed and shut his eyes. There would be no pain in sleep.

Sherilee crossed his mind, then Elana, who had given him so many children, al of whom he had outlived. Then Fiana, so remarkable in her passion. She had given him a child he never got to know. And Inger, who had given hope and love in a time of deep despair, and a beautiful son, but who could not overcome her blood.

He stood before the door but did not consider it. He fixated on Inger. His wife had done little that was wicked before hubris drove him to destruction by Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i.

He bore Shih-ka’i no il wil . The Tervola had done his duty, defending his empire. The man had gone out of his way to repay a debt once his duty had been satisfied.

“Are you coming?”

Ragnarson could not see Mist. Her voice came from above.

He stepped into the gloom beyond the doorway, spied steps leading upward, to his right. He managed twenty-eight of those before he stopped to fight for breath.

Mist cal ed down, “One more story.”

She lied. It was two. He managed eight steps, took a break, then did six more. After that he took the steps one by one. He caught up unable to talk and unsure if he would get his breath back before he col apsed.

“You are leading too sedentary a life.”

He gasped, “Nor am I an eighteen-year-old stud anymore.”

“Get your breath. We stil have twenty steps to go.” It took Ragnarson ten minutes to clear those. He developed a cramp in his right thigh and an uncontrol able twitch in his left calf. He could not stand up straight. It seemed he would never stop panting. And he was much too aware of every overexcited thump of his hammering heart.

Mist said, “Go lean on the rampart. Don’t sit down. I’m not big enough to shift you if your muscles lock up.” She was teasing. He hurt too much to care. “Just get on with it.”

“As you wish.” Mist moved several steps away. “Shin-jei.

Bring the prisoner.”

Ragnarson paid no attention. He feasted his eyes on the cityscape. He enjoyed the breeze. He absorbed sounds he never heard in his apartment. He drew in alien smel s, especial y the rich, spicy odors of eastern cooking.

The Empress had known deprivation in her time. She was patient. But minutes were al she could afford. “Look at this man, Bragi. Tel me if you know him.”

Ragnarson looked at a westerner about six feet tal , wel -

weathered, and gaunt. His eyes were a changeable blue.

He appeared to be total y resigned. “Have we ever met?”

“I doubt it.” In a feeble monotone, not avoiding Ragnarson’s eyes. He was not afraid.

“The Guild. With Hawkwind. Before the El Murid Wars.” That startled the man but his face closed down immediately.

Ragnarson said, “We may have been in the same regiment when we were young. There would be nothing else to connect us. Except Sherilee.”

“I am disappointed. I’d hoped there was some drama of deep time coming to a head.”

“He might not be the man I’m remembering. He would have been just another recruit who went into the desert with Hawkwind.”

Mist gestured. Her bodyguards took the assassin into the tower.

“Did I pass the test?”

“You control ed your temper admirably. Though I do hope you can tel us more about that man.”

Ragnarson said, “No such luck. An arrow from a broken bow.”

Mist looked to Lord Ssu-ma, who had done his best to remain invisible. He had nothing to contribute now.

Mist said, “We wil take time to enjoy the sunset. I’m told the wondrous colors are by grace of the wars with Matayanga and the Deliverer.”

“A sky painted with the dust of souls,” Ragnarson observed.

“Don’t attribute that to me. Derel Prataxis said it.” Mist did not believe him, but why argue? “Those wars are over. Their horrors have been sucked down into the quicksand of time. If gaudy sunsets are their memorial, let the survivors enjoy them.”

Ragnarson grumbled, “Aren’t we deep into a philosophical pocket of night.”

Mist said, “Time to go back to your quarters. The trip should be easier this time.”

“Harsh.”

“And I have to get back to being mistress of this mad empire.”

...

Ragnarson settled for the night feeling renewed and too excited to sleep. He obsessed over the wonderful trivia he had seen. His happiest recol ection was of lightning bugs in their courtship dances.He was amazed that they had fireflies in the east, too.

...

Shih-ka’i asked, “Did we gain anything tonight?”

“Nothing knowledgewise. He did demonstrate a renewed ability to master his emotions.”

“For what that is worth.”

“You are a sour one lately.”

“That I cannot deny, Il ustrious.”

“What do you need? A new war in which to shine? I can’t give you one for a generation.”

“Il ustrious, I prefer the struggle for peace. Sadly, we don’t live in a world where such thinking is practical.”

“What do you want, Shih-ka’i?”

Lord Ssu-ma marshaled his courage. “A suite here. In this tower.” “For your own hideaway? Or for an enemy you want bound without hope?”

“There is someone I want to instal in a place that respects his standing while assuring an absence of contact with the world.”

“You make it sound deliciously mysterious.” Shih-ka’i shrugged. “The reality is quite banal.”

“Make it happen quickly. We have the final peace terms to dictate to Matayanga.”

“I’l be there when you need me.”

...

Shih-ka’i transferred to the island, he hoped for the last time. Though Ehelebe never much impacted his life he traversed the instal ation as though it had been the scene of significant childhood events. As though he wanted to reinforce memories of places he would never see again.

He did little things as he wandered about.

He found Kuo Wen-chin and the crazy man making breakfast. The island was that far east. Kuo was pleased to see him.

“I know it hasn’t been but it seems like a long time since you visited.” Kuo eyed Shih-ka’i expectantly.

“I haven’t yet dropped your name into conversation but I have been given permission to use a particular piece of property as I see fit.” He explained.

“I would be a prisoner in that tower instead of here.”

“It’s the best you can expect.”

Kuo smiled a tired smile.

“Somewhat less than optimal for you,” Shih-ka’i said. “The food wil be better.”

“And what would be the attitude of the Empress toward Kuo Wenchin these days?”

“She has none. She never mentions you.”

Both Tervola glanced at the old man. Though he moved slowly he did his share. He hummed as he began clearing away. The tune was catchy but unfamiliar.

Kuo said, “I can’t abandon him.”

“Uhm?”

“He’s better than he was but he’s not ready to take care of himself.”

“I wouldn’t leave him. He may be a link to the history of this place.” Shih-ka’i paused briefly. “Magden Norath is dead. A serendipitous thing. This was his headquarters, once.” The old man ceased humming. “Ehelebe,” he said, then got lost in his own mind again.

“I can’t divine the past,” Kuo said. “I’m sure there is interesting historical stuff to be found here. If I could.

Unfortunately, a clever man might use the same tools to manage long distance communications.”

Shih-ka’i replied, “You would know better than I. I’m not the technical sort.”

“I’l move if my friend comes, too.”

“Definitely not a problem.”

“On the other hand, permitted the tools, I could make a career of exploring this island’s yesterdays.”

“We might consider that after the Empire relaxes and persons of stature have become less paranoid about what ancient sorceries potential rivals might be unearthing.” Kuo Wen-chin sighed. “I understand. I don’t like it, but my likes are irrelevant. It isn’t just Norath and Ehelebe, either.

This place is ages older than that. This may have been the Star Rider’s base before the Pracchia betrayed it and the Deliverer drew attention to it.”

The old man, moving glacial y, twitched or winced each time Kuo said a name. Neither Tervola missed that. And neither believed the old guy understood why he responded that way.

Shih-ka’i said, “I do think it’s a good idea to keep him close.”

“Yes. I’m ready to leave when you are.”

“We should disguise you. The transfer operators might recognize you.”

Kuo said, “I’l be a bodyguard. The old man can be a prize we’re moving for safekeeping.”

...

The timing was coincidental but the Star Rider visited the eastern island shortly after its evacuation. He had not been there since the flight of the prisoner Ethrian, who had become the Deliverer. He expected the place to have been abandoned. The evidence argued otherwise.

Use by the Dread Empire was clear. The fortress reeked of Tervola. It was an excel ent place to operate quietly. They would be back.

Old Meddler’s nerves had not yet recovered from the shock of Norath’s murder. Inimical anarchy lurked in every shadow, lately. Experience left him confident that his jumpiness was justified. Ahead lay an age where al the survivors would hammer their imaginations for inventive ways to kil him.

He rested briefly, then cleared out before he stumbled into any of the booby traps certain to be cleverly disguised.

...

Mist reviewed the current status of the portals instal ed inside Kavelin over the decades. Technicians tended to be apolitical and kept good records. But search results were not encouraging.

The chief of technical research told her, “Those people were quite skil ed at finding and destroying portals once you left.”

“I know that, Lord Yuan. Portals that aren’t there now don’t interest me. How many survived? Must I have new ones smuggled in?”

“Several remain but we’ve only just started trying to reconnect with them. I have my cleverest man, Tang Shan, doing the work.”

“Where would they be?”

“One is in the caverns behind Maisak. One is in the attic of the house you occupied in exile.”

“I can’t see them not finding that.”

“It was a bolt hole type careful y disguised.”

“And the others?”

“One more, in the mausoleum of Queen Fiana. It was a sleeper, never activated.”

“How grotesque. I want the exact status of each by the end of the day.”

“As you wil , Il ustrious.”

...

Varthlokkur had spent several interesting hours with Ethrian. He did so most mornings, now. This particular morning the boy had sustained his half of a simple conversation. He had asked about Sahmaman no more than a dozen times and appeared to get it when Varthlokkur explained.

But he did not retain the information.

The wizard had gotten the boy to practice writing lists of nouns using a charcoal pencil.

Impatient Scalza demanded, “How soon can we go to the Wind Tower? I want to use my scrying bowl.” The boy had blood power. It would be amazing if he did not, with his antecedents. He had learned to manage the scrying bowl in two lessons. With it he did more than spy on his mother. Varthlokkur had given him a watch list of interesting operators to fol ow.

Scalza was of an age where peeping tom efforts were an attraction, too.

Varthlokkur hoped the boy never caught his mother sporting, though he suspected that Mist had lost interest after Valther’s demise.

“Patience is the first skil the young wizard must master,” Varthlokkur said. “We’l go after lunch.” Scalza headed for the kitchen to find out how long he had to remain patient. Ekaterina trailed him, saying, “Told you so.” Loftily, from the eminence of her superior years.

“Be quiet, brat.” 

“Ha ha!”

Varthlokkur watched. The children squabbled constantly, yet remained inseparable. He could not recal one ever being more than ten feet from the other. They would not sleep in separate rooms. When nightmares moved in they ended up in the same bed.

Varthlokkur worried more than did Nepanthe. She had grown up with a tribe of brothers, younger and older, none of whom treated her different from one another.

“Varth? Is something wrong?”

“Nepanthe? No. I got caught up in the old nightmare about what happened to my mother. Again.”

Nepanthe massaged his shoulders. “Lunch is ready. The children are in a hurry to go upstairs.”

“Of course. I’m coming. But I… I wonder why I stil have trouble with what happened. Only a lunatic would believe that a boy as young as I was could have done anything to keep them from burning a woman who frightened them.”

“But stil you obsess.”

“I do. Obsession drove me to avenge her. Obsession drove me to win you. And now, despite time-won wisdom, I suffer an intermittent obsession focused on the past.”

“Come have lunch. It wil improve your spirits. Then you can focus on better rat traps.”

Varthlokkur did as she suggested. A half hour later, in the Wind Tower, he could not remember what he had eaten.

Mist’s rascals were too distracting.

His efforts with Ethrian were paying off but he preferred time spent in the Wind Tower. There he felt like he was getting somewhere in his quest to create that better rat trap.

He surrounded himself with notes reminding himself that he was not the first. A mobile hung above his work table. Its strings bore twelve cards, each recording known details of a failed effort to rid the universe of the Star Rider. He would find more as he developed more tools to mine truth from the deep past.

He wanted to dive al the way down to the beginning of the world. To do that his first great task would be to find a means of breaking through barriers set to prevent that, without being noticed. He believed he was making headway. The research, so far, had not been as difficult as expected. The magic of the Winterstorm, and of the Unborn, were key. The grand chal enge was to remain undetected.

Others had believed that the answers could be found hidden in deep time. Several master sorcerers of yesteryear had tried mining the secret histories of the world. They had failed. Their digging had hit a tripwire at some point.

How? Wizards delved the past regularly without drawing fire.

He began by investigating the investigators. He was a loner. They had been loners. He knew how his mind worked. Their mental processes would have been similar.

And he had a big advantage over them.

He had time. Centuries, if he needed them.

“Hey, Uncle Varth! Something’s going on in that tower of Mother’s.”

“What?”

“They’re bringing in new prisoners.”

Which likely meant nothing. But he owed Scalza the courtesy.

Ekaterina leaned on her brother’s left shoulder, enthral ed by the quicksilver surface. Scalza, seated, elbows on the table and chin in his hands, was completely engrossed, too.

Varthlokkur saw nothing remarkable initial y. Then he recognized the tal est man: “Kuo Wen-chin! He’s supposed to be dead. I’d better study this. Thank you, Scalza.” The boy’s bowl offered visual access only. He could not eavesdrop. That was intentional, so Scalza would not be eavesdropping on his elders.

Most far-scryers, though, suffered from that handicap.

Sound was difficult to capture.

The device Varthlokkur activated presented a three-dimensional image and did transmit sound, unreliably. As it came to life it revealed something more amazing and exciting than an unexpectedly healthy Kuo Wen-chin.

Varthlokkur laughed softly, wickedly. This was priceless.

More than priceless if Old Meddler did not know.

That old man might be just what he needed.

And Ethrian might be the key to that old man.

Ethrian would be getting a lot more attention now.

Chapter Fourteen:

1017 AFE:

Ghosts of Tangled Destiny

Yasmid had gone to her father’s tent again. Elwas had claimed a serious breakthrough. She had been excited. He made it sound like El Murid was back.

Her father disappointed her again. He disappointed Elwas and swami

Phogedatvitsu, too. Both real y believed that the victory was at hand. El Murid proved them wrong. Yasmid was confident that the sabotage was deliberate.

“I know what you’re doing, Habibul ah. It won’t work. I was there. I saw what I saw. He may be my father. His seed may have quickened my life. His early ministry may have given that life meaning. But the soul inside the man we saw tonight is not that of God’s True Messenger.” Habibul ah shrank into himself. “More than you do, now, I believe in the foreigner. He wil lure the Disciple away from the insidious sway of the Evil One, I am confident.” It had grown dark while they were inside her father’s tent. They were returning home now. Light from fires on the field below the New Castle, to their right, and from torches born by Invincible bodyguards, il uminated them. A chip of moon sometimes shone briefly through the grand flocks of clouds cantering westward over the Jebal. Somewhere out there, once the temperature dropped, they would dump their moisture.

Passing the pilgrim camp, Yasmid observed, “Not much interest in shrines anymore, is there? Pilgrims came by the thousands when I was young.”

“They tire. The world tires. Many of those pilgrims there now live off the charity of the Believers.” A voice from the waste cal ed, “Hai! Is truth unknown to…” Whatever fol owed got snatched away by a gust that promised rain, but those words, in that rhythm, seized the imaginations of Yasmid and Habibul ah, both. They stared at one another. Then Yasmid ordered, “Find that man.

Whoever he is.”

Minutes later Invincibles descended on the pilgrim camp.

...

Haroun bin Yousif had not survived so long by being slow to recognize his own mistakes. Somehow, suddenly, he had become interesting to some passing Invincibles.

He faded away immediately, resurfaced in a different guise, amongst people he had believing that they had known him longer than the few days that was the truth.

Scowling Invincibles with bad scars and parts missing took turns interrogating pilgrims. They were looking for someone but had no idea who. They hoped their quarry would give himself away. Haroun had to relate his life’s story al the way back to his great-grandfather.

“Of course,” he said. “Anything you want to know, God be praised. My father was Yousef the shoemaker of es Souanna. His father was… But wait! I remember you. We did this just a few days ago.”

“Hel , he’s right,” said another Invincible. “We did. He’s some kind of mummer. Weren’t you going to head on west with one of the caravans?”

Haroun recal ed having had a hearing problem before.

“Yes. But alMesali would not let me because of my infected ears. Which started healing as soon as it was too late. I am hoping for better luck next time. Meantime, I am surviving on wild greens salads. What’s up, anyway?”

“Nobody knows. The Lady and her eunuch heard something while they were passing by here. They went weird. We’re supposed to find somebody without knowing who we’re looking for.”

“Did you say lady? Your lips are hard to read because of your beard.”

“The Lady Yasmid, blessings be upon her. Daughter of the Disciple.”

Haroun tried to look awe-stricken. He had been that close to greatness!

He had been that close to disaster. He understood that, for the moment, he had eluded an arrow that he had not known was in the air.

The eunuch mentioned must be Habibul ah, who had served Yasmid since she was a child. 

It must be the banter that had betrayed him.

He asked, “Do you want to look through my things again?” How stupid could one man be? And how lucky?

“No.”

“This is amazing,” Haroun said. “To think that I was that close. I wish I had known so I could have gotten a glimpse.”

“You wouldn’t have seen much,” the talkative Invincible said, moving away.

“Muftaq!” his remaining companion snapped.

“What? It’s no secret that she’s as homely as the back end of a camel.”

“You have no right to say such things in front of perfect strangers.”

Haroun muttered, “I’m definitely not perfect. I wouldn’t be in this fix if I was.”

The Invincibles moved on, leaving the traveler in furious thought.

...

“Could it have been?” Yasmid demanded. “He would have to be mad to be here. Wouldn’t he?”

Habibul ah agreed, in private and aloud. “He would. But his madness has never been in question.”

Yasmid struggled to shed a maelstrom of conflicting feelings. “You did hear what I heard?” 

“It was the exact singsong the fat man used when we were young. Minus the accent.”

“Can there be an explanation other than the one our foolish hearts want it to be?”

“In God’s eyes al things are possible. We’l know for sure soon enough. The Invincibles wil question everyone who isn’t one of them. Anyone suspicious wil wind up at your feet.”

Yasmid said, “Uh-oh.”

Habibul ah said, “I’l put out a warning not to operate alone.

If it is him he won’t scruple to kil a man for his robes.” Yasmid said, “I don’t want him slain outright, Habibul ah. I want to see him first.”

“I understand.”

Watching the door again. Habibul ah knowing that. Her knowing that Habibul ah had told her what she wanted to hear. She was a woman. She was weak. She would not do what needed to be done. If Habibul ah got there first Haroun would die resisting capture.

Habibul ah’s foolish heart did not share the hungers of her foolish heart. Habibul ah nurtured an abiding and deadly grudge.

...

Haroun indulged in wishful thinking but did not waste time sitting stil . Aza was compromised. Aza would be very popular soon. Aza had to evaporate off the desert like dew in the morning sun. 

Haroun pawned his cart and contents, and his animals, with a oneeyed rogue known as Barking Snake, a parasite grown fat off desperate travelers. He smel ed desperation when Haroun arrived in the night. He took every advantage.

Haroun did not argue. He did make a point of remembering the fat face and greasy beard fil ed with a vulpine smile.

Haroun had just departed when a dozen Invincibles descended on Barking Snake’s establishment. He listened.

The Invincibles were out rousting the usual suspects.

Barking Snake lied smoothly, unctuously, while his underlings were stil moving reluctant goats in the background.

Haroun al owed himself a grim smile. Unless he was slicker than he looked Barking Snake would soon be answering questions for which he could offer no satisfactory replies.

Haroun wore shabby clothing he had acquired from Barking Snake, stil smel ing of its previous owner, who may have died in it. As a disguise it would be useless soon. Once the hunters knew that Barking Snake had bought Aza’s things they would make him tel them what to look for.

He considered becoming one of the hunters. But that would be impractical except as a momentary expedient.

The old warriors here al knew each other and were working in groups.

He could not return to being a pilgrim. No Believer would hide him. 

Patrols came close. They failed to catch him mainly because they had no real idea of what they were supposed to find.

Haroun considered fleeing Sebil el Selib. It was the logical course. But he could not reach the pass back to the east and he was not equipped to survive the desert. With a couple of water bags he could make it to el Aswad.

They would think of that right away.

It might be a useful false trail to lay down sometime.

The need for constant evasion pushed him toward the Disciple’s tent.

He rested in a shadowed dip fifty feet from that absurd sprawl of canvas. There was activity at its entrance, but only out of curiosity. The guards and staff refused to get caught up in the broader excitement.

The idea seemed obvious enough. If he could get inside…

Rumor said that the interior mostly went unused. A company of horsemen could hide in there.

Out of adversity, opportunity?

Why had the place not been picked clean by thieves?

If you were a Believer, perhaps, the Disciple’s presence made it holy and immune.

Haroun did not see the man as a god descended to earth, but was wil ing to profit from such thinking.

He used shaghûn skil s several times, always at the weakest intensity. Stil , that should have attracted attention.

Did they not have anyone watching for sorcery? Was the Disciple’s ban on witchcraft and wizardry actual y observed at Sebil el Selib?

Excel ent. He could be more bold. But not now. For now he had to remain a ghost.

He reached the tent unchal enged. This sector was quiet.

These people were their own worst enemies.

Shadows embraced him as he explored.

He never saw a patrol, though there was a path beaten alongside the tent, maybe laid down by those who made sure pegs and ropes remained properly set and taut. The bottom edge of the tent was secured by iron spikes at two foot intervals. Haroun oozed along for a hundred feet without finding even one of those missing.

That was a lot of iron. He could not imagine why some vil ain had not taken every other one and sold them to Barking Snake, who could have a blacksmith hammer them into a slightly different shape before he sold them back as replacements.

He had to pul this off without leaving evidence. He had to penetrate a space he could explore only with a shaghûn’s senses. His skil s were not infal ible when he had to keep watch in a dozen directions at once.

Maybe there was a sorcerer out there. The excitement was col apsing slowly toward him rather than expanding.

...

Yasmid and Habibul ah had just taken the latest confused reports from several baffled and weary Invincibles captains. Some of the elderly, hardline imams had come to poke their noses in. They could not be denied.

Yasmid murmured, “Please, God, make this a false alarm. Better, make these old coots keep their mouths shut and their ears the same.”

Habibul ah broke her heart by whispering, “The man in the pilgrim camp is the one we want. And he sounds like the man we don’t want.”

She understood. “Yes. He’s the one.” The fact that he had become a ghost was evidence enough. “But he isn’t Haroun bin Yousif.”

Habibul ah surprised her. “I concur. This is someone who wants us to believe he might be a dangerous dead man.

But he hasn’t affirmed it with the patterns of death that are the signature of the King Without a Throne.” Yasmid considered Habibul ah. What nonsense was this?

Haroun never tried to leave the survivors thinking what a clever murderer he was.

Elwas reported, “He must have fled into the desert. There is no sign of him.”

Yasmid sighed. She could not conquer mixed feelings. She yearned for the door to spring open and those powerful arms to sweep her up… Waiting for that vil ain to miss a step and fal foul of men who had hungered for his life for two generations.

She loved him hopelessly.

She hated him with a deep and abiding fervor.

The coldly calculating eyes of the imams were hungry, too, since rumor had it that the invisible pilgrim might be the King Without a Throne. Yasmid met the gaze of Ibn Adim ed-Din al-Dimishqi, her most virulent detractor. She put into her gaze her absolute wil ingness to snuff his irksome candle.

Elwas went. Other Invincibles came. They had nothing good to report. “If you could give us a better idea of what you want us to find,” one said. “That would be an immense help.”

Another suggested, “Dawn isn’t far off. We should rest until we can see what we’re doing.”

That did sound sensible. Rushing around in the dark, someone was sure to get hurt.

There had been no contact with the pilgrim since two Invincibles interviewed him during the first few minutes of excitement.

“Ah. Jirbash is here. This could be interesting.” Jirbash al-’Azariyah was a protégé of Elwas bin Farout al-Souki. His background was equal y dubious. His brains and ferocity made him a terror to enemies of the Believers. He ran a contemptuous eye over the three old men and the slightly younger Ibn Adim. Only al-Dimishqi did not sway back.

Jirbash had been the architect of their humbling. He remained openly unhappy because he had been denied permission to bury them.

He stepped up to Yasmid and Habibul ah, offering each a precisely calculated bow. He did not go to his knees.

Yasmid had forbidden the practice. Only God Himself rated that level of obeisance.

“Report,” she said. 

“We have been examining the effects of the criminal Farukh Barsbey al-Fadl, cal ed Barking Snake. We are solving a great many criminal mysteries. Al-Fadl did take the pilgrim’s livestock and property in pawn, at a discount violating the usury laws. He claims to know nothing about the man, who cal ed himself Aza. I believe him. Tonight’s events have shaken him. He never thought he would attract the attention of the religious authorities. He thought he was protected.”

Habibul ah asked, “This news helps us how?” Jirbash showed no impatience. “Even a void says something. It says there is nothing here. Go look somewhere else.”

A slight pinking appeared in Habibul ah’s cheeks. “I see.”

“The vil ain Farukh al-Fadl says the pilgrim asked for water bags, which al-Fadl could not provide. He asked if there had been reports of dangers along the road to el Aswad.

Al-Fadl says he advised the pilgrim not to go that way because the road is haunted by ghosts from the battle on the salt pan.”

Yasmid said, “El Aswad. The springs stil flow there.” Habibul ah said, “There were early reports of disappearing water bags.”

“Jirbash. Catch Elwas. Tel him you two wil catch the pilgrim on the road to el Aswad. Subdue him and bring him back alive.”

Behind her Habibul ah offered subtle expressions assuring Jirbash that the alive part was not critical.

It was a boys’ conspiracy, entered into because the girl was too soft.

...

Haroun found himself in a part of the tent that appeared not to have been visited in years. His weak spirit light revealed that it was storage for plunder. The leather goods were dried out and starting to crumble. There was mold al over one heap of camel saddles, despite the bone-dry air.

No one had cleaned the blood off.

The plunder “rooms” were vast and unorganized. Those who had stored the goods had not cared. Worthless stuff had been thrown everywhere. It took Haroun only minutes to create a hiding hole and disguise its entrance.

...

Elwas told Yasmid, “Lady, mentioning el Aswad was a diversion. Had he meant to run that way he would have done so straight from the criminal’s place. And he would have kept his mule.”

“You’re sure?”

“We looked. He didn’t go that way. Not even scavengers travel that road anymore.”

“Then he did what he does so wel , again.” She vacil ated between convictions. Right now she was convinced that she had passed within yards of her own Haroun before fate made it impossible for them to meet. No one had any idea where he had gone. El Aswad? Into the desert? Back across the Jebal? Some other direction? Or had he used sorcery to disguise himself as someone she saw every day?

Haroun bin Yousif. Her husband. The father of her only child.

Her beloved. The man she hated so much.

Habibul ah’s conviction of the moment was the opposite.

Each report left him more certain that they had become entangled in a popular fantasy that would never wither completely. Too many people wanted it to be true.

“I am not pleased,” Yasmid said. “This pilgrim made fools of us al .” Who but her husband had the wil and the skil ?

“Back to the beginning. The man was here for days, camped where he should be, visiting shrines and memorials like any pilgrim. Evenings, he put on puppet shows for the children. Right?”

No one disagreed.

She asked, “Why wasn’t he doing anything? Wouldn’t a man with a sinister purpose make an effort to forward it?” Jirbash suggested, “He was waiting for the right time.” Yasmid wanted to believe that moment was one where he could see her alone. “Indeed? Could he have been just some Royalist spy?”

Jirbash said, “We can’t answer that without knowing who he was.”

Always the fantasy of a revenant Haroun returned to one pair of eyes.

Yet again, Yasmid demanded, “Why was he here?” Ibn Adim suggested, “The demon came here because this is where he would find his mate.”

Deadly emotion crossed Jirbash al-’Azariyah’s face. The imam might have won a death sentence with one malicious remark.

Yasmid did not chide Jirbash.

Elwas suggested, “Why not assume that his goals are evolving? I agree that who he is would be useful in predicting what he might do, might want to do, and is capable of doing. But everything we do, perforce, shapes what he wil be able to do.”

Ibn Adim recognized the death glow in Jirbash’s eyes. His voice was tight. “We’re chasing specters. Which wil be what he wants.”

“Explain,” Yasmid said.

“He’s long gone, laughing. Whatever kind of rogue he was, he wasn’t the infernal genius you al want to make him.”

“Do go on,” Yasmid said. Honestly. The man might be making a point that had evaded everyone else.

“I propose that he was a common crook. A confidence man. He ran to al-Fadl when the Invincibles started digging.

He got money and got out. He’s halfway to Al Rhemish or back in Souk el Arba, congratulating himself for being quick and clever.”

A couple of Invincible captains muttered agreement.

Yasmid looked to Habibul ah. He shrugged. Elwas did the same. “So. We could be making mountains out of termite hil s. So. We’l search for two more days. Ask every question again. Re-turn every stone. Try to think of something that hasn’t been suggested before. If nothing new surfaces we’l bow to Ibn Adim’s wisdom and congratulate the pilgrim for being quick and clever.”

... Haroun was suffering from imposter syndrome. He could not believe his own success. He was inside the tent of the Disciple, his deadly enemy since childhood. He was within striking distance. Nobody knew. Nobody was alarmed.

He studied the geography of the tent and the routines of life inside the fraction that saw use. He learned that most staff lived outside. They did almost nothing when out of sight of their supervisors, who did not themselves much care if the staff kept busy.

Much of the complex was in worse shape than the trash space where Haroun hid. Several vixens had denned up in one eastern area. They and their kits squabbled constantly.

The staff knew about them al . They knew about the rats and mice and camel spiders, too, and ignored them. Al they did was keep the rouge on the old woman’s cheeks by maintaining what could be seen from outside.

These people had abandoned El Murid’s dream.

They stole from him, too. Mostly food, now. Traffic in salable trinkets had dried up because there was so little worthwhile plunder left. Haroun suspected that the staff payrol s included some family ghosts, too.

The court of the Disciple was swamped in corruption.

Come nightfal Haroun was free to do as he wil ed. He ran into no one even when he pilfered food. He eavesdropped when he could. He had nothing else to do but wait.

In time he would feel safe going out again, as someone new.

He could kil the Disciple. That would be easy. But it would put him on the run again, with nowhere to hide. And the result might not be positive. El Murid’s religion had become locked into an inward-facing stasis. His latest genius war captains defeated al external threats but no longer insisted on converting the world.

The movement was old and tired and befuddled, like its founder.

Kil him and someone competent might step in.

Assassination could wait until God Himself could be framed for it.

He wished he could slip the old madman some opium. One fat dose would undo al the good so many had achieved.

Even by day the people who worked in the tent never left the smal occupied stain behind the entrance.

Haroun enjoyed himself the first week. During the second he grew more active because he felt more driven. During the third he began crafting schemes.

...

Yasmid greeted Elwas unhappily. “You have brought me nothing again.” “True. The ghost has not returned from the spirit world. And we did agree that we would leave him there, some time ago.”

“Yet you kept looking.”

“I did. For your sake.”

“And?” 

“No one has seen him since that night. People remember him on the coast. People remember him coming through the pass. He came here, then he vanished.”

“I real y do have to let go.” Talking to herself, not Elwas. “I want to talk about al-Fadl. He has given up the names of the

people who sold him some of the more unusual properties we found at his place.”

“You’re about to tel me something I’d rather not hear?” “I am. About bad people in places where we want only the best to

abide. Barking Snake was rich. He got that way sel ing stolen goods.

Most of those came from your father’s tent or from the shrines. Barking Snake’s business has been bad lately.

Your father had been robbed of everything smal enough to smuggle out of his tent. I talked to the guards. They check everyone going in but no one coming out. The need never occurred to them. I don’t think they were involved.” “My father’s servants stole from him?”

“It wasn’t organized.

It was individuals seizing opportunities.” “Elwas, I despair of humankind. The best man in our world, chosen by God Himself, has been surrounded by rogues and thieves, like flies around dung, since the first day he preached. I wish God would put patience aside and destroy the evildoers.”

“That wouldn’t leave many of us to deal with the corpses, Lady.” “No doubt. Any suggestions about how to deal with the thieves?” “Let them know that they’ve been found out. 

Punish the most egregious. Let the rest be, but with a never another chance warning.” “Accept their vil ainy?”

“Your father doesn’t tolerate change wel . The swami worked a miracle, getting accepted as quickly as he did.” True. Meals with her father were a regular event, now. He did not recognize her or speak to her yet but the Matayangan insisted they would get there soon.

She saw some improvement herself.

Phogedatvitsu said most of the indifference was stubbornness donned for the occasion.

“Can we recover any of the stolen goods?”

“Some, but, unfortunately, what the criminal stil had is of little value.”

“Find out who was the most flagrant vil ain. Have his right hand cut off. Then have someone who knows how look at their accounts.” “Very wel . Wil you cancel the next dinner?”

“No. Where is Habibul ah? It is a beautiful morning. I’d like to go walking.”

“It is a fine day, indeed. Unfortunately, Habibul ah is sick.

He has whatever has been going around among the old men. He’l be back in a few days.”

It was a fierce sickness—if it was not poison. One ancient imam and several elderly Invincibles had expired. Several other imams were not expected to recover.

Could someone be eliminating them?

Two more imams and another Invincible died. Habibul ah recovered.

Stil so weak he needed help walking, he took his place opposite Yasmid next time she dined with her father. 

Just they two were there. Elwas was outside removing a thief ’s stealing hand.

It said much about El Murid’s attendants that none had fled despite al-Fadl’s arrest.

Elwas came late to his seat beside Habibul ah but the Disciple was later stil . Phogedatvitsu showed up long enough to say, “There wil be a delay. This is the anniversary of an encounter from which he barely escaped death at the hand of a Wahlig of el Aswad. He thinks he saw the man’s ghost this morning.” He did not use his interpreter. Habibul ah told Elwas, “There was a raid soon after Nassef captured Sebil el-Selib. Yousif and his brother Fuad caught the Disciple near the

Malachite Throne. Only Nassef ’s timely arrival saved him.”

“That was a long time ago.”

Yasmid asked, “Is this a good sign? That he can get excited about something? Or is it bad?”

Elwas said, “It’s a step forward. He has engaged the external world.” Yasmid said, “An imaginary world.” Habibul ah said, “He could start seeing real people next.” And Elwas, “Lady, when I brought the swami here your father saw

legions of imaginary beings, mostly ghosts. And not the ones you would expect. Not your mother. Never your brother. He doesn’t remember that you had a brother anymore. He did see Nassef a lot. Nassef was always here. They engaged in spirited debates about everything imaginable. I heard only your father’s side and I’m too young to have seen the Scourge of God himself but I think I know him pretty wel , now. He was a remarkable man.”

“Yes. And a bizarre mix.” Yasmid did not want to talk about the dead.

Hammad al Nakir was inhabited more by ghosts than live actors. The people were tired of war but al looked back to the glory days of war, when captains like Nassef, Karim, el-Kader, and el Nadim had made the earth shake.

Yasmid had seen those days from the inside. She knew that the golden age was a delusion. The look-backers had forgotten the cost: women without husbands and sons, children without fathers, works public and private destroyed and, even now, not restored, and al the fertile lands laid waste. Al in the Name of God the Compassionate.

Recol ections of evil were fading. They would go extinct once the last folk who had survived those times went to their rewards. Then the Believers would grow infatuated with tales of glory til some young Nassef or el-Kader, some half-bandit, half-charismatic holy warrior, began the cycle anew.

“Lady?” Habibul ah sounded concerned. “Is something wrong?” “Yes. But we can’t do anything about it. We must be what God wil s.” Silence came. No one wanted a religious discussion. Habibul ah did say, “Submission is God’s Law. You think about it too much.” Yasmid lowered her gaze. “I do, don’t I? I always admired my father’s conviction. He never knew doubt.” She looked up. “How much longer…? Ah!”

She screamed and col apsed. 

“Lady? What is it?” Elwas demanded.

Habibul ah asked the air, “Did she faint?” He looked around frantical y. “Why did she scream? Look for a snake.

Maybe it was a viper.”

Yasmid had fal en onto her right side, then had curled into a bal . She seemed to be suffering severe stomach pain. No snake Habibul ah knew could cause that.

“Maybe a spider.”

Yasmid mumbled something about ghosts.

The men were on their knees around her when Phogedatvitsu arrived with her father.

Chapter Fifteen:

Summer, Year 1017 AFE:

Sedlmayr

Dahl Haas and Aral Dantice rode ahead to make the arrangements. Kristen slipped into Sedlmayr soon afterward. Her party fol owed, a few people at a time. They al vanished into the home of Cham Mundwil er and his brothers.

Cham was a long time dead but his kin shared his vision. They would support the lost king’s grandson while the younger Bragi continued policies parented by Queen Fiana and the first King Bragi.

Kristen was a believer. Her father had been a Wesson soldier who had risen to become King’s Champion.

Kristen’s party assembled in a banquet room in the Mundwil er compound, which was a minor fortress. From without the public saw a square, three-story structure a hundred forty feet to the side, without windows at ground level. Light entered the second level through archers’ slits.

There were regular, shuttered windows on the third floor.

Stepping back, the outsider would see the stone tower that stood in the yard inside. That final refuge could be entered only by climbing a ladder.

Al important Sedlmayrese families lived in some sort of urban fortress. Business and political disputes could become quite animated.

The Mundwil er compound stood out because its architecture had been adopted from cities farther west.

During the reigns of Fiana and Bragi, Sedlmayr had become a semiautonomous city-state acknowledging the Crown while disdaining the nobility and any feudal obligations.

There were other, similar charter towns. Al were rich.

Sedlmayr was weathering the current chaos with less hardship than any Nordmen demesne.

There was jealousy and resentment. Natural y. But prevailing economic conditions made it impossible for the Nordmen to impose themselves.

Al of which Kristen learned within minutes of her arrival.

She and hers were in a room so crowded with Sedlmayrese that the heat was becoming intolerable. Many of those bodies had gone too long unwashed, as wel .

Body odor was not something most people noticed. Kristen did so because the Sedlmayrese diet was heavy on pork.

Sedlmayrese smel ed different.

Bight Mundwil er was the youngest of the surviving Mundwil er brothers. His family had assigned him to Kristen. He stuck like a jealous lover, left hand always on the hilt of a long knife. Kristen suspected that he had not been pleased with the assignment before he met her. Now she feared she would not be able to get shut of him. 

Dahl and Aral Dantice were amused.

Bight was seventeen.

The grand dame of the clan, Ozora Mundwil er, cal ed for silence.

Silence rained down immediately.

A raised eyebrow from Ozora Mundwil er could alter the destiny of the clan.

The old woman said nothing after the silence fel .

Aral stepped up to address the crowd. He told everyone that Queen Inger’s writ no longer had any force outside Vorgreberg’s wal . Kristen whispered to Dahl, “What is he doing?”

“I’m not sure. How about we listen and find out?” He slipped an arm around her waist.

Dantice went into detail about the situation in Vorgreberg.

Kristen found his report depressing.

Inger had a staff sorcerer. He appeared to be competent.

His main assignment was to find the missing treasury money.

Those who thought young Bragi should be king had little more influence in the countryside. The Nordmen nobility were content to operate without any strong central authority.

Kristen thought they were being short-sighted. In time they would realize that life was better when there was a strong king in Vorgreberg.

She whispered her thoughts to Dahl. He said, “Tel these people.”

She understood. They wanted to know if she could think. So she spoke up. 

Ozora Mundwil er nodded. “That’s true, child. But I think you see the flaw in your argument as wel . Periods of prosperity and peace were few and brief because we were so often at war, if not with El Murid or Shinsan, then with one of our neighbors. And if not with any of those, then with ourselves for whatever reason seemed fashionable. Those who ponder such things believe Old Meddler caused most of the turmoil.”

Ozora Mundwil er had to be ninety, yet was neither stooped nor frail. She had no trouble making herself heard. “The remarkable truth is that, given any window of peace, even as briefly as a few months, Kavelin produces wealth and makes life better for its peoples.”

The woman surveyed her audience. “We have entered upon such a period of peace, if only because every faction is exhausted. Things are getting better. Those who look backward do not see that. They see wanderers on the road, looking for work. They do not see that work found everywhere, in field and forest. They see castles fal ing into disrepair because the nobility have squandered their fortunes on aggression. They do not see the new mil s and mines. They do not notice the caravans beginning to move through the Savernake Gap. Where they are particularly constipated of outlook they have failed to see the remarkable explosion in agricultural confidence brought on by what has been the most benign and propitious climate to bless us in a generation.”

Ozora paused. Tentative applause tickled the silence.

Kristen realized she knew nothing about what the woman was saying. She did, in fact, have very little idea what was going on anywhere in the kingdom. Which might be the old woman’s point.

One theme had run through the reigns of the old Krief, his childbride Fiana, and her lover King Bragi. Each had been determined to do what was best for Kavelin, not for themselves. Each had made huge mistakes and had committed dreadful sins but none of them ever forgot that they were part of something bigger than themselves. Each, in his or her way, had been married to Kavelin, forsaking al others.

Kristen looked up at the old woman. She understood where this was going.

Sedlmayr would support Bragi I —provisional y. Sedlmayr would not spend lives or treasure to put him on the throne.

He would be protected til time decided between him and Fulk.

Ozora Mundwil er suffered from the disease that had afflicted Kavelin’s last three monarchs. She would not support anyone who would not keep the peace and who would not keep the state hard on the course those monarchs had plotted.

Inger wanted to shift course. Her support had col apsed.

She could make no changes. She was a fever that had to run its course.

The only guarantee that Kristen and Bragi would fol ow the desired course was the girl’s word.

Ozora Mundwil er painted her into a corner. Her only exit was to publicly swear to pursue the ideals of her father-inlaw.

She glared at Aral Dantice. Had he shaped this situation deliberately, perhaps with the connivance of Michael Trebilcock?

...

Babeltausque joined Queen Inger for breakfast, at her request. “Tel me you have something positive for me,” she said.

“You wil have to judge.”

“About what happened to Colonel Gales?”

“Those who held him have scattered like startled mice. We did identify a girl known as Haida Heltkler. Miss Heltkler hasn’t been seen since she left the Twisted Wrench with a pail of beer.”

Nathan Wolf had told Inger al that already. “And the butcher was cleared?”

“Mr. Black claims he was framed. He might actual y have been.”

“Who would do that? And why?”

“The girl. She’s his niece. Busybodies in the neighborhood think she might have been getting back for him having taken indecent liberties.”

The sorcerer was alert for any nuance of response. He was sure Inger’s male relatives had taken liberties with her when she was young.

He needed to know how much she would tolerate.

He was safely free of the Duke now. He was in a good place to indulge his own secret needs.

Those had begun to surface the night he looked into the eyes of that girl Haida.

The Queen shrugged. “Is that important?”

“Only in the sense that someone may have wanted the butcher to suffer.”

“It’s an odd thing to be distressed about. But I’l take your word.”

“Most gracious of you. Majesty, we wil continue to look at that, hoping the vil ains give themselves away. Meantime, I must deliver some unhappy news. Mr. Wolf and I have identified the spy.”

“And?”

“The spy is the doctor. He uses Toby as his runner.”

“That can’t be. That old man has never been anything but the castle doctor. He was the castle doctor even while Shinsan occupied Kavelin.”

“I share your disappointment. I didn’t want to believe it myself. I like Wachtel. But there is no doubt. Something must have changed.”

“What could that be?”

“I don’t know. I suggest we ignore it. We gain nothing by arresting him. Let’s keep treating him as a national treasure but don’t let him near anything interesting.”

“Make sure of that and I’l go along.”

“With Toby, too. The boy may actual y be the lead conspirator.”

Inger shook her head, mumbled. Babeltausque suspected that she was hurt by Wachtel’s treason. He wondered, too, why she never had the boy king close by. Fulk was little, sure, and sickly, but he should be suckling the ways of kingship along with mother’s milk. Though he never got near his true mommy’s teat.

Inger asked, “What about the money?”

“Stil missing. Mr. Wolf and I have exhausted every idea we could generate. We’re reduced to doing what everyone else has. Trying to recreate the itinerary of the thieves and search everywhere along the way.”

“Others are looking?”

“It’s supposed to be a lot of money.” Careful to sound neutral, he added, “We may have to accept the possibility that the money has been taken already. Perhaps by General Liakopulos. Or maybe Michael Trebilcock has had it al along.”

Inger snapped, “Keep looking! Never stop looking. That money is our only hope of hanging on here.” A servant brought word that Nathan Wolf wanted to see his Queen right away.

Inger looked at the sorcerer. He shrugged. “Send him in.” Babeltausque was irked. Wolf ’s timing was awful. He had been about to nibble around the edges of his need.

Wolf wasted no time. “Kristen has moved into Sedlmayr.

The Mundwil ers have been taken her in. Sedlmayr’s elders have declared for Bragi. Again.”

“When can we expect trouble?” Inger glanced at Babeltausque. Her look said find that treasure fast.

Wolf said, “We won’t have to, apparently.”

“Nathan?” 

“Their strategy, that they mean to preach everywhere, wil be to ignore us.”

Babeltausque observed, “That’s an odd way of doing business.”

“I report what was reported to me. They intend to take a business approach. They wil consolidate the kingdom from Sedlmayr, avoiding any fighting. Looks to me like they’l end up in control of the economy. The Estates wil accommodate themselves to the reality.”

Inger said, “There is something you don’t want to tel me, Nathan. What would that be?”

“I don’t want to upset you more than you already are.” The sorcerer forced a bland face.

“Spit it out.”

“Majesty, the people backing Kristen are making no military preparations. They don’t consider them necessary. They expect us to col apse under the weight of our own incompetence.”

Nathan tried to soften the sting. Likely the people he mentioned themselves named no name but Inger’s.

The Queen said, “We shal disappoint them.” Her look told Babeltausque he was the man to make or break the future.

He left with Wolf, disappointed. He had not managed to lay any groundwork.

Wolf stayed with Babeltausque al the way to the latter’s apartment. “Do not despair, Mr. Wolf. We aren’t yet out of options.”

“Did you get anything from that corpse?”

“No. That was a head game with our enemies. Cunning wil have to make up for what we lack in money and numbers.” Wolf was not reassured.

Babeltausque wondered how long Nathan would endure.

The rest of the Itaskians would fol ow if he deserted .

...

Babeltausque slipped a silver groat to the warder. The man wandered off, probably to the Twisted Wrench. He forgot his keys.

For a month, now, there had been only one prisoner.

The man whimpered when he heard keys jingle.

Babeltausque peered in at Dane of Greyfel s. The Duke’s situation was no longer so grim. He had been moved to a better cel . He had lamps. He ate the same as the garrison.

He had his own chamber pot, cycled daily. He had a smal table, a chair, pen, ink, and inexpensive paper, though he was permitted no communication with anyone outside.

There was fresh straw for the floor each five days.

He had a cot, a pil ow, and a soldier’s rough blanket.

“Doing good for an unpopular prisoner,” the sorcerer observed.

Greyfel s cowered in a corner. He made a mewling sound when Babeltausque rattled the keys.

The sorcerer stared for half a minute, then grumbled,

“Evidently the balance has been rectified. This doesn’t interest me anymore. Be at peace, My Lord.” He returned the way he had come, leaving the keys where he had found them. Soon afterward he left the castle. He did not care who noticed his departure.

...

Chames Marks, known also as Chames Felt, Ghaiman Felt, Marcus Michaels, and a half-dozen others, had returned to his apothecary shop after a brief hiatus. The castle folk were not interested in him by any name despite his known connection to Haida Heltkler.

He did not trust that indifference despite assurances that Nathan Wolf and the sorcerer had given him only the briefest look. They seemed confident that he had no interests outside his apothecary business.

Chames thought those people might be smart enough to see that his business made a good cover for traffic generated by espionage. Maybe they based their thinking on the fact that he had a broad, solid business, not just a storefront. Maybe his best character witness, Dr. Wachtel, had been found out and was being played. He decided to go about his business as though every breath was scrutinized.

He replaced Haida Heltkler with Seline Shalot, a younger, more flamboyant girl the castle folks ought to be able to suborn. She could deliver regular reports on how boring he was.

He grinned. The game was getting dangerous. He savored the heady risk.

...

Summer was on the wane. Early crops were being harvested. Across Kavelin anyone not committed otherwise became involved in the harvest; reaping, winnowing, slaughtering, preserving, storing. A thousand tasks had to be managed. Crops were good everywhere. Piglets grown into hogs and lambs grown into sheep were spared the kil ing knife because their sacrifice would not be needed.

There was forage enough to bring them through the winter so they could be bred to expand the herds and flocks.

Prosperity threatened not just Kavelin but al of the Lesser Kingdoms. There was but one evil omen.

That monster harbinger, that angel of evil, the Unborn, had become a fixture of the nighttime sky, haunting Kavelin, its presence blatant.

Wicked old Varthlokkur wanted it known that he was watching. That hideous lich caused a hundred schemes to miscarry. Even those who thought Varthlokkur ought to see them favorably tried to avoid being noticed by the Unborn.

...

Dahl Haas said, “I don’t understand why you feel so negative, love. It’s al going good. Even the Estates are coming around.” 

“But they don’t mean it in their hearts. Bragi looks like the coming thing so they’re covering their asses.”

“Yeah. But you’re thinking too much. Most people don’t look past the end of next week. Have faith in the stupidity of your friends and of your enemies.”

“Dahl, I’d rather not think at al .”

They were alone. The soldier leaned in and planted an ardent kiss on the king’s mother. The king’s mother responded enthusiastical y.

Haas pul ed back. “Ozora is bril iant. It’s going exactly how she predicted. Time is our champion now. Inger won’t last much longer.”

“Aral says she’s trying hard to find the missing treasury money. If she does…”

“She’l be disappointed. Assuming Aral told the truth.”

“Uhm?”

“He claimed Michael said there wasn’t much treasury left.”

“It grows in the tel ing?”

“Because of wishful thinking.”

“Does Varthlokkur know? There have been so many Unborn sightings. That makes me nervous.”

“Which would be the point. Varthlokkur and Bragi had a fal ing out but that didn’t end the wizard’s interest in Kavelin.”

Kristen was sure Kavelin would hear directly from the wizard soon.

...

Babeltausque slipped into the abandoned house, quivering with anticipation. He paused in the darkness, looked back into the moonlight. Eager though he was, he did not move for minutes. He dared not be tracked by Inger’s enemies.

He sensed watchers every time he left the castle. He did nothing to confound them by day but for these nocturnal ventures he used every trick available.

Satisfied that he had arrived unnoticed, he drifted into the interior. Ghost fire revealed the damage done by treasure hunters.

For a long time every hunter started with the house, but no longer. A hundred visitations had produced only a few random copper coins from beneath furniture or, in one case, wedged between floorboards.

There was an intimidation factor, too. The owner had left numerous booby traps. Men had died. No trap had yet been found actual y guarding anything. They were not based on western magic so they antedated the night the treasury disappeared.

Once he became the Queen’s own sorcerer Babeltausque spawned rumors that bigger and more deadly traps had yet to be sprung. He then instal ed a few of those himself.

At first he wanted the house shunned because he suspected the treasury might actual y be there, despite repeated failures to find it. Then he had come to appreciate the place for its more arcane possibilities.

He had yet to explore it al . There were areas where the residual sorcery was so brawny it frightened him, left him feeling like he was sliding through a canebrake of spel s.

He never stopped turning up new facets of the most magical y active site in Kavelin. Stil , he had yet to make an effort to chart its defenses or uncover what it was hiding.

Because it was shunned it was now the place he went when he wanted to be alone, to relax, to enjoy.

He had been conquered by his need. He had begun to indulge it. Here.

He could wait no longer. He must run to his beloved.

Chapter Sixteen:

Year 1017 AFE:

The East

Mist took every precaution testing the portals into Kavelin. Tang Shan’s skil s had been sufficient to establish connections with each, but there was no way to know what lay beyond without

going to look.

She chose to go herself, despite the protests of her lifeguards. She did indulge in one old-time, non-magical safety technique. She tied a rope around her waist before she stepped through. Her bodyguards could drag her back.

They could have overruled her. They had that right. But to do so could mean loss of place or even exile should the Empress be sufficiently irked.

Her first crossing took her into the caverns behind Maisak. She stepped into utter darkness. The air was stil , dry, and carried a taint of old death. She withdrew immediately. “I need a lantern.”

The lantern helped only a little. 

She was in a large, empty space once used to receive transferring troops. Dead portals stretched away to either hand.

Lifting her lantern overhead, Mist could just make out a sprawled skeleton.

Those bones were not human.

Something moved behind her. She gave up a startled squeak. A lifeguard joined her, bringing another lantern. He said nothing. He fol owed when she moved toward the bones.

The Captal of Savernake, once master of Maisak, had enjoyed the friendship of many nonhuman creatures, mostly products of his own sorcery. Mist had met some in those dark old days. They had been gentle, timid creatures who loved their creator too wel . They were al gone now. The world was poorer for it.

From her vantage over the bones Mist could see three more skeletons, al human.

Her bodyguard said, “We are not alone. Return to the portal.”

She felt it, too. Somehow. She neither saw, heard, nor smel ed anything, but something was watching. This was a moment when she was not the paramount wil of Shinsan.

She moved.

The lifeguard’s sword sang as it cleared its scabbard.

From the darkness came a long, sad sigh that turned into a desperate moan.

Mist stepped across to safety. Her bodyguard fol owed.

She asked, “What was it?” 

He snapped, “Seal it! Shut it down!” at the operators.

Something as pale as a grub began to emerge from the portal.

The operators ended the session.

Three quarters of a man fel to the floor. He left behind parts of his right leg and right arm. He did not bleed. He did not speak. His eyes blazed with a desperate, hungry madness.

He was a wild, nasty mass of filth, unkempt hair, and rags.

Mist said, “He’s wearing Imperial… He’s been trapped there since…”

Despite his injuries, the man crawled forward, toward humanity.

The enormity of what he must have suffered hit Mist like a fist in the gut. She threw up.

“I’m al right. Get me something to rinse my mouth with. Let me get cleaned up. Tang Shan. Send a task group to find out if more of our people are trapped in there.”

“Any who are wil be quite insane.”

“Even so. They’re ours.”

“As you wil , so shal it be.”

“Good. Where to next?”

Her bodyguards and the portal specialists alike looked at her askance. “I’m fine. Just bring me some water. Let’s get on with it.”

Tang Shan said, “I would recommend the mausoleum of the Kaveliner queen. Lord Yuan is not yet entirely confident of the connection with the other portal. Nor am I.” Mist frowned. Tang Shan remained cautiously neutral always but she suspected him of traditional convictions. 

The Imperial throne should not be occupied by a girl.

She said, “I’m ready.”

A lifeguard said, “This time I go first.”

“Of course.” Though what danger was likely to be lurking in a mausoleum?

Ghouls? Hungry ghosts?

Al right. Danger might be sleeping with the dead.

She got squatters.

They were a Siluro family of six who had not emigrated.

They belonged to the smal est and least loved ethnic group in Kavelin.

Mist did not ask for their sad story.

Any couple with four sprats under six, driven to take refuge with the revered dead, would tel a sad tale indeed.

Her charity went only so far as to flush them out rather than compel them to join the occupant of the mausoleum.

The lifeguard did not approve. They might carry tales.

“Ghost stories, perhaps.”

She paused to consider the dead queen. “The wizard did wonders with this one.”

Fiana looked like a girl asleep, awaiting the wakening kiss of her prince. She remained as colorful and fresh as she had in life.

Her glass-topped casket was fil ed with a gentle light that remained active after al these years. It made her look younger and more beautiful than she had at her passing.

The long agony of birthing Radeachar had been massaged out of face and body.

Bragi’s last gift to his love, begged from Varthlokkur.

“Extreme caution is necessary,” the lifeguard said. “This place hasn’t been plundered or vandalized.”

“The homeless lived here unharmed.”

The beauty in the box had been the best loved of Kavelin’s recent monarchs. That was why no evil had taken place.

“Let’s go outside.” It had been a long time since she had looked into Kavelin’s skies. She had fond memories of a less harried life here. Her children had been conceived and born here. The only man she ever loved was buried here.

It was nighttime. No clouds masked the shoals of stars.

There was no moon. Only a few tiny lights marked the location of Vorgreberg.

The bodyguards said, “To the north. The woods.”

“I see it. Let’s go.”

A pinkish dot had risen. It quested briefly, then headed their way, fast.

Back in the staging room, Mist said, “The Unborn sensed us.”

Tang Shan suggested, “Or it sensed the portal’s use.”

“Whatever, I won’t test the other one yet. It’s only a few miles from that one.”

Tang Shan seemed relieved.

Mist asked, “Is that a good thing?”

“I said, Lord Yuan isn’t comfortable with the…”

“You told me al three were sound.”

“And so they are, Lady. In the sense that we trust them enough to send me through them. But the escape portal in your old house has a bitter flavor. We are less wil ing to risk you going through.” 

Should she be flattered or frustrated? “I want it usable by this time tomorrow.” Flattered, because Tang Shan disdained female leaders.

“As you wil .”

...

The door to the world creaked behind Ragnarson. He looked over his shoulder, saw Mist and her right hand, Lord Ssu-ma. But who else would it be? It was not mealtime Mist looked puzzled. “What are you doing?” It was unusual to find him reading or writing, though he could manage both without much skil .

“Derel Prataxis once suggested that I would find it useful to make tal y sheets if I was contemplating actions that might impact a lot of lives. I didn’t listen then.”

“And this is what you got.” Her gesture included his surroundings.

“This is what I got.”

“So what are you planning?”

“Nothing. I’m working the sums for what I lost because I didn’t think before I acted and then was too stubborn to change once it was obvious that I’d done something stupid.”

Ragnarson considered the Tervola. Lord Ssu-ma seldom said much. His opinion, though, carried considerable weight with Mist. 

She asked, “How are you managing emotional y?”

“I’m operating under the conviction that losing Sherilee shocked me sane. That could be a delusion, though.” Lord Ssu-ma said, “You have failed to take advantage of the new liberties you have been granted.” Ragnarson was free to go to the tower top. He had done so only once. It had taken immense wil to abandon the safety of his prison, though he knew he should be chal enging the stairs regularly, building himself back up. He shrugged, reported the truth. “I don’t feel comfortable up there.” Mist asked, “Have you lost your taste for freedom?”

“No. What are you up to?”

Lord Ssu-ma wore his mask. This visit was not informal.

Mist said, “What would you do if I sent you back to Kavelin?”

“I’ve played that what-if a thousand times. Til last month I wanted to show the world what the poet meant when he said don’t inflame the wrath of kings. I was set to burn Kavelin to the ground. I was pitiful y selfish. Now I understand who did the real betraying. So I’m just pitiful.”

“That response surprises us only in that you were able to articulate it,” Mist said.

“Is that why you’re here? To see if you dare cut me loose?”

“What would you do if you woke up in Kavelin tomorrow morning?”

“Go looking for my family. Kristen and my grandkids, not Inger and Fulk. I wouldn’t make war on Inger. I’d try to get her to go home to Itaskia.”

“She might not be able. The Greyfel s fortunes col apsed after she locked up the Duke.”

He could not restrain himself. “Excel ent!” Greyfel s vil ains had caused him misery since he was a boy.

Mist said, “Sending you to tame the chaos is under consideration. Steps are being taken. But nothing has been decided. My councilors wil argue that the chaos is benign.

Why risk loosing such a stubborn enemy?” Ragnarson smiled. “Nor would I want the world to think I was beholden to you.”

Mist actual y chuckled. “You wouldn’t, would you?”

...

The door shut behind them. Shih-ka’i asked, “Was that true?” “He could pul Kavelin together. A strong central authority there would be to our advantage, commercial y.”

“I see.”

“We’re here. You said you want me to see something.”

“I have captives of my own. One, as Ragnarson is for you, is an old friend and recent enemy, now entirely harmless.”

“Ooh. Mysterious.”

Shih-ka’i’s nerves tautened.

“You want to show me your prizes, then?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Do it. I don’t have much free time.”

No one would ever cal Shih-ka’i a coward. Not after his war with the Deliverer. But the pig farmer’s son was not confident. His hands trembled as he entered the apartment where Kuo Wen-chin and the sad old man were caged. 

Kuo was nowhere to be seen. The old man was a few feet from the entrance, looking vague.

Mist halted as though met by some savage weapon. “Lord Ssu-ma. Can this be?”

“Il ustrious?”

“This ancient…?”

“He is the companion of my friend, who is my prisoner.”

“You don’t realize who he is?”

Shih-ka’i stopped. Her intensity alarmed him. “I do not, Il ustrious. He is here because my friend insisted on bringing him. He’s feebleminded. He can manage only simple tasks.”

“Real y?” The Empress sounded disappointed.

Shih-ka’i studied her briefly before asking, “Who is he, then? Or, who was he?”

“One of the eyewitnesses to my father’s demise. That night probably left him like this. I suppose nobody in the whole world knows he’s stil alive.”

Ssu-ma Shih-ka’i had not been a witness. He said so, tartly. “I’m sorry. He’s the legend. The Old Man of the Mountain. He

occupied Fangdred before Varthlokkur.”

Shih-ka’i was so moved he took off his mask. This man might be as old as the Star Rider. He stood witness to thousands of years. Kuo Wen-chin stepped into view. “The Old Man? Truly?” His voice was soft but rich, vibrant with awe.

Shih-ka’i failed to catch the Empress’s response to Kuo’s continued existence. He was enthral ed by the moment, too. 

That grinning idiot was half as old as time?

That brain must hold incalculable knowledge. The magics of the ages, perhaps. Al inaccessible, now? Sad beyond comprehension if true. Shih-ka’i asked Kuo, “You didn’t know?”

“I had no idea. Of myriad possibilities that particular one never occurred to me. I thought him a tool abandoned by Magden Norath.”

Kuo bowed to the Empress. He did not speak to her.

Lord Ssu-ma asked her, “You’re sure he is who you say?”

“I’ve done dozens of past divinations involving that night.

This man was there. He hasn’t changed in appearance, except to become more gaunt and frail.”

Mist considered Shih-ka’i and Kuo, unshaken by Kuo’s survival. She asked Kuo, “You consider him your friend?”

“Not exactly. I felt responsible for him after I found him. He’s better now than he was.”

She considered the apartment. It resembled the one where King Bragi was confined, two floors below. She instructed the Tervola to arrange cushions around a low table. The three settled there, leaving a space for the idiot opposite the Empress.

She considered Kuo, then looked Shih-ka’i in the eye and said, “I understand.” She told Kuo, “Don’t make me regret my trust in Lord Ssu-ma’s judgment.”

“I am at thy mercy, Il ustrious. Blessed be, I am bereft of ambition. Not that I was ever driven. I honor those who were friends in the harsh times as wel as the sweet.” Shih-ka’i frowned. Kuo might golden-tongue himself into a tight spot. The Empress said, “I hope that we have entered into a new age. The Tervola have begun to demonstrate a more traditional attitude toward the values underpinning our empire.”

...

Scalza asked, “Do you understand any of that, Uncle Varth?” “I’d say that I understand without ful y comprehending.” The boy told his sister, “He’s about to unload a bucket of mystic wizard crap.”

The prophecy was harsh but essential y accurate.

Varthlokkur had been about to say something vague meant to protect children.

From what? he wondered. Maybe Scalza could use an unadulterated, ful -flavored dose of grownup reality.

“Lord Ssu-ma is your mother’s most important al y. The other Tervola is Lord Kuo Wen-chin, the man she deposed.

Evidently, he and Lord Ssu-ma were close. Lord Ssu-ma saved his life and hid him. Lord Ssu-ma has revealed himself. Your mother has chosen to honor his decisions.” Ekaterina asked, “Where does the old man fit? How come he worries you?”

That was a grownup question. “Because he was who he was. The Old Man.”

“The one who was missing here when you went to find him?”

“Yes. I thought he was dead.”

Nepanthe arrived, bringing lunch. Ethrian accompanied her, carrying Smyrena and a pail of smal beer. The glow in front of Varthlokkur drew him.

He became quite animated. He pointed at the Old Man and chattered.

Varthlokkur said, “See that he doesn’t drop the baby.” Unnecessarily. Both children did so automatical y.

Ekaterina said, “He says that’s the man who helped him get away when he was a prisoner, before he got turned into the Deliverer.”

“You understand him?”

“Sometimes. Not always.”

Varthlokkur was amazed. He had not realized that children often understood one another when adults heard only baby talk and halfformed word sounds.

He did not turn the moment into an interrogation. These kids would turn stubborn on principal. “That old man may be the key to the future. He’s in a bad place mental y but he could recover and help break the tyranny of the Star Rider.” Nepanthe had come to look. “I thought he died.”

“We al did. We al thought wrong. Eka says Ethrian says he was the one who saved him on that island.”

“Does the Star Rider know he’s stil alive?” The wizard chuckled. “You al need to clear out so I can work without distractions.”

“Can it wait til after lunch?”

It could, of course, having waited so long. But Varthlokkur rushed, making no comment on Nepanthe’s effort. He had banged headlong into one of those rare moments when he could get excited again. 

First thing, he had to recal the Unborn. The monster’s transit would take hours. So he went looking elsewhere while he waited.

There was fading excitement at Sebil el Selib, at the extreme range of what he could see. He missed some details. Some people thought they had been visited by the King Without a Throne but Varthlokkur found no sign of Haroun. Clearly, the incident had grown outsized because of deep fears and wishful thinking.

At Al Rhemish Megelin remained paralyzed by indecision.

His advisers were content to let inaction prevail. Megelin had dragged the Royalist cause from one disaster to another. Enough. The chance that Haroun bin Yousif might return inspired a thousand hopes.

A sweep round Kavelin left Varthlokkur thinking that Mist’s plan to send Ragnarson home was pointless. Agricultural prospects had everyone outside Vorgreberg warmly optimistic. Inger’s influence continued to dwindle. Kristen’s was waxing. She and the younger Bragi, as custodians of the ideological flame, were attractive right now. The doyen Ozora made arguments the artisan and mercantile classes found irresistible.

Important men visited her by the score. Some had been regulars at Inger’s court as little as six months earlier.

Varthlokkur was tempted to ask Mist to keep Ragnarson locked up. But that might be residual animosity.

The wizard did not yet understand what had gotten into him, back when. His behavior had been irrational. He had done stupid things. So had Ragnarson. Had Old Meddler managed to twist their minds somehow?

Unlikely. Powerful though the Star Rider was, nothing suggested that he could do that. This was one of those cases where ascribing to malice or conspiracy was sil y when plain old stupidity explained everything.

The looking consumed six hours. The Unborn was approaching the Dragon’s Teeth but would be two more hours in transit. Varthlokkur ate supper with Nepanthe, then returned to his long-range espionage.

He had time to take only a cursory survey but found peace and prosperity everywhere excepting for one family in Itaskia, whose properties were being seized and sold to satisfy debts undertaken to finance an adventure in Kavelin.

No new Greyfel s strongman had emerged.

The Unborn arrived. Varthlokkur brought it into his Wind Tower workroom. Nepanthe would be upset when she heard. She loathed Radeachar. She was sure it would turn on them someday. She believed Radeachar’s nature would compel it to do so.

Varthlokkur knew the Unborn was a monster, but it was his monster. Every atom of evil in it was directed elsewhere.

Wicked as Radeachar was, it remained an extension of the Empire Destroyer.

He overlooked its behavior while transporting Mist. He failed to acknowledge that his wife, wards, and children were not the Empire Destroyer himself.

He communed with Radeachar til wel after midnight, then sent it out with a message for Mist.

He reflected on Radeachar’s reports. Something interesting might be moving under the surface in Kavelin.

Folks had begun taking the Unborn into account.

...

The Empress was not visiting the Karkha Tower when the Unborn arrived. Candidate Lein She found the courage to deal with it once he understood that its behavior was not aggressive. It delivered a smal wooden box addressed to the Empress. The identity of the courier declared the source of the box.

Lein She sent a man to the Empress’s headquarters.

He carried a note suggesting that the Empire Destroyer could not fol ow her movements as closely as feared.

...

The lifeguards were too enthusiastic in their efforts to protect their Empress. They damaged the box, which had been handcrafted by Scalza. She was surprised that the boy’s effort moved her so.

The message from the wizard was important. So was that from Lein She.

Yes, it was important to keep the Old Man’s survival secret. And, yes, the Star Rider’s awareness, or lack thereof, could be tested.

Every means must be employed to help the Old Man reclaim his memory if he was so truly in revolt that the era of the Deliverer had been sparked by an act of defiance of his.

The Matayangan treaty was about to be finalized. There were no threats on any horizon. There was time for this and time for building something with her children.

Chapter Seventeen:

Year 1017 AFE:

Ghosts

"What a stupid thing to do,” Haroun muttered again as he inventoried his travel gear. He had to move fast. They would surround the tent before they began the search.

His only hope was to be gone before the cordon closed.

Why did he take that chance? Hearing her should have been enough. He eased out into the evening via a prepared emergency exit. No one

saw him. His destination was Barking Snake’s establishment, which was abandoned if the Disciple’s criminal servants were to be believed. He would hide there.

Why in God’s Name did she have to look up just then?

And, for the hundredth time, what madness had brought him to Sebil el Selib?

It was dark now. He had encountered only one man, so far, who had offered only an indifferent, surly greeting in passing.

Where was al the excitement?

Yasmid must not have reported him.

Why not? Because he was her husband? Because she thought he was imaginary?

The Disciple had reported seeing a similar ghost.

A chal enge. “Who is there?”

Damn!

They had left a watchman.

...

Yasmid glared at Ibn Adim ed-Din al-Dimishqi, who was frightened but refused to let her see that a woman could scare him.

She did see and savored it. The deaths among the elderly were God’s gift, without assistance. But let Ibn Adim fear the worst.

“I have a task for you, son of Adim,” Yasmid said. “It is wel -

suited to your detail-oriented nature.”

“As ever, I am here to serve.”

“Good. You have heard about the thievery in my father’s tent?”

“You were most compassionate, punishing only the one criminal.”

“Too much so. The corruption runs deeper than I thought.

Some whom we believed to be righteous actual y skimmed the take of lesser thieves.” Let him think she meant the men of action he so despised. “Go into my father’s tent.

Examine the records. Find out where the money came from. Find out where it went. Create an exact and detailed inventory of everything stored there.”

“Lady? Could you be more specific?”

Yasmid thought she had been clear. “Over the years my father received thousands of gifts and untold treasure as his portion of booty. It al ended up in that moldering atrocity of a tent. There is no reliable inventory. Therefore, there is no way to know what was stolen.”

“I understand, Lady. That is something I can sink my teeth into. How much help wil I have? How much leeway in questioning recalcitrant witnesses?” 

“Consult me on a case by case basis. For assistance feel free to conscript any cleric not already handling an assigned task.” That would get the old men out of her hair.

“When shal I begin?”

“Up to you. Habibul ah has warrants prepared. Inform me of any exceptional discoveries or outstanding efforts to obstruct you.”

The imam took his leave, accompanied by Habibul ah.

Yasmid permitted herself a smug smile.

Ibn Adim would do her work. He would suffer the odium of the investigated while finding out if someone had been hiding in her father’s tent.

Even Habibul ah thought she had suffered a seizure that night.

She was convinced that she had suffered a hal ucination brought on by the swami’s talk about her father having seen the ghost of Haroun’s father.

It was al power of suggestion, rooted in what she thought she had heard from the pilgrim camp.

...

Being King of Hammad al Nakir meant suffering frustrations and indignities and things always going wrong.

Megelin suspected that a diabolical force was thwarting him. It made his life uglier even when he did nothing.

The disaster on the salt lake should not have happened.

He had failed through no fault of his own. The antiques who commanded his battalions did not carry out their orders. 

Those saboteurs. They undermined him al the time. He would be rid of them if he could.

Sadly, he dared do nothing obvious. Some had been around since his father was a pup. They were fixtures. The soldiers—the few who remained—considered them tutelary spirits.

Patience was his only tool. They must surrender to the inevitable soon enough.

But patience was not in Megelin’s nature.

And these rumors, prevalent since Magden Norath had been so stupid as to get himself kil ed, about his father’s return…? What to do? How to respond? True or false, they impacted everything, every day. The possibility that Haroun bin Yousif was out there touched every decision anyone made.

Megelin was not sure what he would do if his father did reappear. He understood that the Royalist faithful would let the man to do as he pleased and would support him.

Haroun bin Yousif, despite his faults and failures, was now a demigod.

The question nagging Megelin, and anyone else who cared, was, where was the revenant king? Why did he not show himself?

As ever, Megelin obsessed about Norath’s death. He had witnessed nothing. He had been too thoroughly protected.

But that creature he and Norath had been there to meet…

The Star Rider. The oldest vil ain of al . Possibly the Evil One incarnate. What had become of that wicked old troublemaker? Was he the one making everything go wrong? Was he stil feeding the insanity of the Disciple?

Why, then, meet Norath and himself? And why stay away now?

Megelin had expected to see the man again after the excitement of the murder subsided. Nothing ever happened.

Impotent in his own capital, amongst his own subjects, Megelin did nothing but brood. Alone. Always alone.

People were rigidly proper in his presence and accepted his every directive. But once they left his presence something happened. Even simple orders would not be executed properly. Because he would not go see for himself it was impossible to tel if insubordination was responsible.

The nearer people were to him the more pathetic Megelin seemed.

Thousands hoped the murder of Magden Norath was a good omen.

...

Haroun answered the chal enge, “Mowfaq al-Tiriki. Tel Snake I’m back from Al Rhemish.”

The guard unshuttered a smal lantern. He thought on his feet, too. “I’m new. Does Barking Snake know you?” Haroun put suspicion into his voice. “Everyone knows al-Tiriki. Who are you? What’s going on?” He drew a knife, making sure the sound could be heard.

The guard responded by drawing a sword. “You are under arrest. In the name of the Disciple, drop the knife.”

“I don’t think so, pup.” Haroun backed away. A suitable clot of darkness presented itself. He stepped inside, released two smal , prepared spel s. One interfered with the guard’s eyesight. The other made it hard for any eye to fix on Haroun bin Yousif.

The guard became frustrated. He muttered. What should he do? Stick to his post? Run to his superiors?

Either choice could be wrong. He would be the goat whatever might go badly.

Haroun flitted from shadow to shadow, circling. He would not go to ground here, now, but might find something he could use. Not so, however. Just minutes proved that the Invincibles had cleaned the place out.

The sentry decided to report. Haroun retraced his approach. As midnight loomed he slipped back inside the Disciple’s tent. He went to his best hide and buried himself.

He fel asleep tel ing himself it was time to hatch a real plan.

A passive life was not his style.

What a fool. He had endured so much to get here but had no fixed purpose now.

...

Elwas brought the man in, though he was a man mostly by reason of having done a man’s job. He was about fifteen. “Tel the Lady Yasmid.” Sometimes mumbling, often stumbling, the boy told his story.

“Mowfaq al-Tiriki?” Yasmid asked Elwas.

“A senior lieutenant of Farukh al-Fadl. One of the criminals we haven’t yet caught.”

“You wanted me to know about it because?”

“Because al-Tiriki vanished as thoroughly as the pilgrim did.”

“The same man?”

“Probably not. Boy. You did say he was clean-shaven?”

“Almost. He had been shaved recently. I couldn’t tel much else in the dark.”

Yasmid thought the lad confident beyond his years. He had faced up to danger in the night. He was standing steadfast here. She would commend him to Elwas later.

“Anything else? About the man?”

“He smel ed bad, Lady. He had not bathed in a long time.” That was not unusual. She raised an eyebrow.

The boy said, “I prefer to keep myself clean. In accordance with the early teachings.”

Yasmid looked to Elwas. He shrugged. “Some young men are extremely fastidious. Al-Tiriki would have sweat a lot during a journey from Al Rhemish.”

“I won’t turn the world upside down again but I do want the Invincibles to keep a sharp watch. Al-Tiriki could give us some insight on what’s happening in Al Rhemish.” She made a smal gesture indicating that the interview was over. Then, “Elwas, when next you run into Ibn Adim tel him I want to see him when he has a moment free.” Yasmid bint Micah was no despot in the time-honored mode but Elwas executed her wishes as though she was.

Ibn Adim was on his knees in front of her within the hour.

“Up. I hear you’re starting the audit today.”

“I was assigning tasks when al-Souki came.”

“As you inventory I want you watchful for signs of squatters.”

“You think…?”

“Nothing. See if those thieves didn’t move their families in where my father never goes.”

“I see. Of course. I’l keep my eyes open.”

“My father says his tent is haunted. Ask about ghosts.”

“As you wil , so shal it be.”

...

Haroun found it more difficult to steal food. Outsiders roamed the empty reaches of the tent. They did not find him. They did discover the vixens and kits. The latter were nearly grown. They caused a great deal of excitement.

Haroun hid elsewhere and waited out the scramble.

They found no evidence of his presence.

He learned that he could slip out nights with little risk. ...

Yasmid was exhausted. Trivia that would never have come near her during wartime inundated her now. Nobody wanted to be remembered for having made a decision should blame ever be assessed.

“Elwas, in six months these people wil expect me to change their babies. Let’s start a war.” Elwas started to say something serious.

Yasmid burst out laughing.

“Lady?”

“I’m sorry. Your expression. When I was eight I saw that look on my father’s face when Nassef asked if he couldn’t start a war so he wouldn’t have to waste time listening to people with the brains of chickpeas whine about trivia.”

“Makes you wonder.”

“Elwas?”

“How many wars happen because somebody with the power to start them was bored or sick of listening to nitwits?”

“So pass on the bit of tedium you’ve brought me now.”

“There has been an increase in petty theft and vandalism.”

“Oh?”

“I think bored kids are stealing things and destroying property. There is no pattern. There are no witnesses.

Nothing taken has much value.”

“Then let parents and sons know that the parties responsible wil be exposed to public humiliation when we catch them.”

“Excel ent. That’s al I had.”

“Then I’m cal ing it a day. You do the same.”

“Thank you, Lady. Perhaps we should consider mandating shorter days and longer nights.”

Elwas was a good man, she reflected as she withdrew into her private quarters. He left her wearing a smile when he could.

It never occurred to her that Elwas bin Farout al-Souki, Jirbash al’Azariyah, or any of several others young enough to be her sons, might be infatuated.

It did not occur to those young men that they were besotted by the daughter of the Disciple because it was not the mad fascination brought on by the proximity of a beautiful young woman.

Habibul ah saw it. Habibul ah understood. He remembered the young Yasmid and never missed a chance to see today’s Yasmid. He had been besotted for generations.

Despite the stresses and irritations of her day Yasmid went to her rest happy and almost content.

...

A chil took Yasmid in her sleep. Fright clamped talons round her heart. She was a maiden again, wakening to terror in the night. The feeble mutton tal ow lamp did not help. It set wicked shadows fluttering al round.

Something terrible was near by, watching, slavering in its hunger to defile her.

Seconds passed before she recal ed that she was a grown woman, old enough to be a grandmother but cursed with a son who would not give her grandchildren.

Reflection tamed her fright. Amused, she began to slide back down into the sink of sleep, wondering why Megelin did not wed. It was not that he preferred men. His worst enemies had found no evidence to suggest that.

The boy just did not relate.

Something pricked her senses again. She jerked involuntarily. She squeaked. She was wide awake, shaking, chil ed to the core. She rol ed and sat up, seized an unconsecrated Harish kil dagger that had been a gift from the last master of that cult. It needed only to enforce the slightest cut to cause an excruciating death.

The lamplight did not reassure her. There was a man-shaped shadow fading in and out. Someone was there.

How had he gotten in? Only Habibul ah had access at night.

He would never dare.

Yasmid rose slowly, ready to fight. She fixed the intruder with a hard stare. He remained a pattern of shadow inside a dancing shadow. It was hard to stay focused.

How long would it take for help to arrive once she yel ed?

“Show yourself.”

The shadows coalesced.

“It was you!”

Haroun stepped out of the shaghûn cloak of darkness. “It was me. And after waiting so long I decided to take a chance.” He advanced another step. He was almost close enough to cut. Almost.

He would come no nearer. Not even when his own wife held the knife. No tel ing where her heart lay after so long.

Yasmid put the kil dagger aside, careful y. It could bite her as easily as him. “Come talk to me. It’s been a long time.

You must have a grand tale.” Tomorrow was soon enough to decide what to do.

“Not so much. I spent most of it in prison.”

“Sit.”

That boy Invincible was right. Haroun smel ed perfectly awful. The smel might lead to difficult questions tomorrow.

Chapter Eighteen:

Year 1017 AFE:

Distracting Darkness

Inger told Nathan Wolf, “This is ugly beyond anything I can grasp.” She reread the brief report. Eleven years old.

Tortured. Raped repeatedly. Discarded in an al eyway near the Western Gate, probably stil breathing at the time. She had not been found for days. No one had been looking.

Wolf said, “I nearly puked, Majesty. I wil spare you the ful ugliness. I won’t spare you a demand that we do everything we can to find the monster who did that to her.”

“Do you have a personal interest, Nathan?”

“No, Majesty. What we know comes courtesy of the sorcerer’s lame efforts. Her name was Phyletia Plens. She was the adopted daughter of Herald and Janna Bors. They identified the body. They say that her real parents had a chance encounter during the excitement back when.

Phyletia was not a happy child. She ran away sometimes.

This time she didn’t come back.”

Inger made a growling sound. This was more information than she wanted. “Nathan!”

“Majesty, more than anything else… We could reap the whirlwind if we don’t protect the children.” 

“Yes.” Inger had a child of her own.

What she did not understand was why Nathan Wolf, unmarried and childless, was emotional y engaged. She asked.

“Majesty, I can’t explain. I don’t have the words. I just know that whoever did that to Phyletia Plens was a soul uglier than a savan dalage.” His intensity pleased Inger, though its foundation remained obscure.

She asked again.

“I doesn’t matter. Al we can do for her, now, is mourn her.

But another girl is missing. Hanna Isodor. She disappeared just before Plens turned up. She’s the same age, similar background, same physical description.” Inger started to speak. Nathan gave her no room. “Also missing is a Carrie Depar, almost thirteen, different physical description. She’s been

gone five days. She told friends she was going to run away with her boyfriend. They didn’t know who the boyfriend was.”

“This could change everything even though it has no strategic significance.”

Nobody in the provinces gave a rat’s ass whether the Queen protected Vorgreberg’s children but Vorgrebergers certainly did. Protection was the reason kings and nobles existed. The protected worked hard to produce surpluses in kind and coin to support a warrior class meant to defend them from predators external and internal.

In most kingdoms, much of the time, that mutual obligation was under stress, humans being the despicable beasts they became given any opportunity. But what was happening here was the nightmare that lurked in every parent’s heart.

There was no denying it. The Boogerman walked among them.

Angered, Inger summoned Josiah Gales, Babeltausque, and Doctor Wachtel to join her and Wolf.

She seated them and Wolf at a table her husband had used when he wanted his henchmen to brainstorm. “We have to handle this fast. I don’t know how but we have got to find the man who tortured the Plens girl. If we don’t we’l lose Vorgreberg, too.

I’ve had an inventory run. It revealed two things. First, the servants have been stealing from us. Second, we should begin eating the horses to save their grain for a possible siege. Which we might withstand for as much as six days.” Colonel Gales coughed, meant as a signal. It was heavy, liquid, and disturbing. He remained far from recovered.

The Queen stopped jabbering. “Josiah?”

“Cleave to the problem at hand. Don’t look into the gloom just yet.” “Of course. Gentlemen. We have a monster among us. How do we find him? Babeltausque?” The sorcerer shifted uneasily. Gales and Wolf looked at him like they dared him to open his mouth. Both had been in Greyfel s service a long time.

Inger had heard rumors, too. “Wel ? Wouldn’t you understand this kind of mind better than anybody?” Babeltausque asked, “Is there the remotest chance that your cousin has been getting out at night?” That was wel -played. Inger would relive her experiences as a comely lass in a household where wickedness was routine and Dane of Greyfel s was one of the more wicked players.

Gales and Wolf kept on eyeing him darkly.

He tapped into his courage. “Torture isn’t what moves me. I never harmed anyone. I only love them til they break my heart.” Gales and Wolf donned contemptuous smiles.

Inger seemed appal ed.

What a screw up. He had used the present tense.

What mad, self-destructive force compel ed him to indict himself that way? Was he so conflicted that he would set himself up to be convicted of another’s monstrous behavior?

Wachtel looked eager to get that word out. He might betray himself in his haste.

“Al of you, listen. I did not harm Phyletia Plens. I didn’t know her.

She is nothing to me. Was nothing, in that way. Look for someone else.

As Her Majesty noted, there may be no hunter better than I.

Doctor, sit.

Relax. We’l be here a while. Tel us, has this happened before?” The old man took his time. Final y, he nodded.

“Sadly, you are correct. There have been similar incidents, the most recent before your arrival. Things were more confused back then. No one had attention to spare for an anonymous child who probably brought it on herself.”

“Anonymous?” Babeltausque asked.

“She turned out to be El ie Wood, a runaway, in flight from an abusive father. There was another one, seven or eight years ago, named Tefe Black, thirteen and pregnant by her father or one of her brothers. It would have been a marvelous scandal if there hadn’t been a war on.” Babeltausque nodded. “Their deaths touched you.”

“They were children. Nobody loved them. They were tormented by their own kin first, then a monster consumed them. No one cared. No one but me. And I was powerless.

Not even Michael would take it on.” Tears fil ed the old man’s eyes. The others were amazed. Babeltausque said,

“Black isn’t a common surname, is it? It sounds Itaskian.

Right? Mr. Wolf, didn’t we run into that surname somewhere recently?”

Wolf looked blank. “I don’t think so.”

“The butcher. In the shop where the Heltkler girl left the beer.”

“His name was Black? I don’t recal that.”

“Maybe I didn’t mention it. Neighborhood gossip says Haida Heltkler was an abuse victim.”

“The butcher?”

“Maybe too obvious. He wouldn’t destroy the girl physical y.

He would be feeding a different need. He would be the unwanted lover.

Someone else would be the punisher. Someone close to the butcher.

Let’s find out if Tefe Black was related. If so, we’l look for the man Black’s girls ran to… Doctor?”

Wachtel seemed to be choking.

...

“That isn’t particularly subtle,” Nepanthe observed, watching over Varthlokkur’s shoulder. “You said you don’t want people remembering you.”

The Unborn was making a night progress over Sedlmayr. “This is the time when little plots wil come to life.

Radeachar wil discourage them.”

“What wil you do about what’s happening in Vorgreberg?” She meant the girl-kil er.

He sighed. He did care. He was appal ed. But there were only so many hours and no way everyone could be saved.

There were bigger issues. And those people were not idiots. They could manage if they wanted.

“And tel me this, husband. How can you eavesdrop in Castle Krief but not on Haroun or Mist?”

“We lived in Castle Krief. I know every inch. Every inch remembers me. And I bespel ed the place before we left.” And he could eavesdrop on Mist, when conditions were right. But Mist insisted on making it difficult now that she knew it could be done.

The truth was more technical but that was the gist.

“The baby-kil er.”

Exasperated, “What would you have me do?”

“Something. Good men do nothing.”

He counted silently.

Nepanthe said, “The Star Rider wil be there til the end of time. Meantime, the monster has hold of another girl.”

“I understand.” Surrendering to the wil of the wife. 

The vil ain should not be hard to find. A divination at the body dump… “I’d have to go there. I can’t manage the time dives from here.”

Fright flashed across Nepanthe’s face. “Real y? You’re not just saying that so I’l ask you to back off?”

“No. I have to be there to catch the necessary personal resonances.”

Nepanthe freed one of her classic sighs. “What must be, must be. Go.”

“You insist?”

“I do.”

“I’l set Scalza’s scrying bowl so you can watch.” That lacked any facility for listening in. He did some this and that while mumbling about it being a good thing that Radeachar did not have much character. The monster had gotten flung al over creation lately, with little respite.

He had the Unknown show itself blatantly, then cal ed it back to Fangdred.

...

Ozora Mundwil er glared at Kristen. She scowled at Dahl Haas. “That thing is going house to house, staring in windows!”

Dahl said, “The wizard wants it understood that he’s watching.”

The old woman seemed inclined to lay the blame at their feet. “We’ve always known that. Why the sudden close-ups?” 

Kristen said, “Neither of us knows Varthlokkur wel enough to fathom his thinking. If I was to guess, though, the intent is to panic somebody into thinking that the wizard is onto them.”

“Somebody in Sedlmayr.”

Dahl nodded. “Would that be a first?”

“No. But it would be someone skil ed at not getting noticed.” Aral Dantice came to al three minds. And Aral had disappeared.

Ozora announced, “I have regained my composure. I wil assume the Unborn’s behavior to be a message. I’l ask questions. If there is anything going on I wil expose it.

Bight? Where is that boy?”

Haas said, “He’s got a new crush.”

“That Blodgett chit? He’s not supposed to let Kristen out of his sight.”

“She would be the one,” Kristen said, amused. “She may be just a wee bit more pliable than I am.”

“I’l ply…”

Haas added, “She seems like a nice kid. Down to earth.

For her age.”

“But an orphan,” Ozora grumbled. Styling. It was no secret she actual y liked Bertie Blodgett. The girl made her laugh.

“Living on the charity of the enThal family. Where did she come from, anyway? Those people…!”

Old family animosities were at work there. Ozora was too old and set to let them slide. She was, surprisingly, stil flexible enough not to issue anti-fraternization decrees on that basis alone. 

Later, Dahl teased Kristen, “You got too old for Bight.”

“What you mean is, too sophisticated.”

“And too taken.”

“That could be changed. I see the way you look at that Bertie.”

“Can I help it if I’m not dead yet? A man is a man. I never do anything but look.”

Kristen did not take that in the spirit in which it was offered.

...

“I don’t have the skil s to divine the past!” Babeltausque declared, not for the first time. “I’m not real y a necromancer. The spirits I command can’t look back, either. We need to find something of the vil ain’s and trace that. Or just keep on working the neighborhood where the girls grew up. We’l find something eventual y.” Nathan Wolf asked, “Does it have to be something that belonged to the vil ain? We do have the dead girl.”

“That might work,” Babeltausque conceded, irked that it had taken a layman to suggest what should have been obvious to him.

So far working the neighborhood had produced only rumors, ugly stories, and malicious finger-pointing. Few local girls reached their wedding days untouched by family or neighbors. People considered it part of growing up.