/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Instrumentalities of the Night

The Tyranny of the Night

Glen Cook


Glen Cook

The Tyranny of the Night

It is an age lurching along the lip of a dark precipice, peeking fearfully into chaos's empty eyes, enrapt, like a giddy rat trying to stare down a hungry cobra. The gods are restless, tossing and turning and wakening in snippets to conspire at mischief. Their bastard offspring, the hundred million spirits of rock and brook and tree, of place and time and emotion, find old constraints are rotting. The Postern of Fate stands ajar. The world faces an age of fear, of conflict, of grand sorcery, of great change, and of greater despair amongst mortal men. And the cliffs of ice creep forward.

Great kings walk the earth. They cannot help but collide. Great ideas sweep back and forth across the face of a habitable world that is shrinking. Those cannot help but fire hatred and fear amongst adherents of dogmas and doctrines under increasing pressure.

As always, those who do the world's work most dearly pay the price of the world's pain.

Chaos scribbles with no regard to linear or narrative thought. Events in Andoray, in the twilight of the sturlanger era, when the ice walls are still a distant curiosity, precede those in Firaldia, Calzir, Dreanger, the Holy Lands, and the End of Connec by two centuries.

Events among the Wells of Ihrian seldom seem connected to anything else, early on. That region is in permanent ferment There are as many sides to a question as there are city-states capable of raising militias.

The just cause, always, is rooted in religion. The private motivation might be greed, power hunger, the lure of loot, or revenge for last year's holy mission by some old enemy. But the squabbling princes and primates are, in general, true believers.

The feud between the Grail Emperor and the Patriarch is nothing new. The penchant of the Patriarch to preach holy war is nothing new. The fratricidal mischief between Santerin and Arnhand is heating up again. Their great families have feudal obligations to both monarchies. Confused feudal ties generate absurdities. Father can face son across the bloody field.

The divine conspiracy is no great engine with goose-greased parts turning over smoothly. It is a drunken tarantella in a cosmic town square where the dancers frequently forget what they are doing and wander off drunkenly, bumping into things, before purpose is recollected.

And, like ants at their labors in the town common, those who do the world's work will, too frequently, enjoy the sudden, unpredictable strike of an inebriant's flashing hoof.

1. Skogafjordur, Andoray

Drums muttered like a clutch of old ladies gossiping. Their job in the ritual was to keep the children out from under foot while their parents watched the old folks manage the funeral. Night gathered. Torches came to life. Old Trygg thrust his brand into the bonfires. Starting from the left end of the line. Flames rose in defiance of the night. Horns called from the heights overlooking either shore of the Skogafjord. Horns called back from watchtowers inland.

A great man was about to go to sea for the last time.

Singer Briga stood at me cold water's edge, singing his song to the sea, reminding the tide that it was time to ebb.

The sea knew its part. Each wavelet fell a little farther short of Briga's bare toes.

Pulla the Priest waved to young men knee-deep in the chill water.

The drums shifted their beat. Erief Erealsson's own long-ship crew, last of the great sturlanger, pushed the ship out onto the dark tide.

A breeze caught the simple red-and-white-striped sail. A breathless silence overcame the celebrants. There could have been no better omen than that breeze, which would carry the ship down the fjord on the breast of the tide.

The horns resumed mourning. The drums took up their dialogue with the night. Erief's crewmen sped burning arrows toward the ship. Which now drifted into a fog that had not existed only moments before.

A kelpie surfaced, long green hair glowing in the firelight

The fire arrows seemed to have been loosed by the most inept archers ever. Only a handful reached the ship with the screaming bear's head prow. They failed to start a fire — despite kegs of oil having been splashed everywhere. Despite Erief's corpse being surrounded by tinder.

Not good.

A dozen sea people surrounded the ship. Was their sorcery stifling the fire? It had to be sorcery that kept the arrows missing the kelpies.

"Stop!" Pulla roared. "Do you want to waken the Curse of the Sea Kings?"

The archers desisted.

The ship drifted. Erief Erealsson would be missed. His genius in war and diplomacy had gathered the fractious families, clans, and tribes of the Andorayan fjords and islands under one banner for the first time since Neche's Reach.

"Everyone sing!" Briga shouted. "The Priga Keda! With heart!" He sounded frightened. The people picked up the song. It was the only one they knew that begged the Instrumentalities of the Night to overlook Skogafjordur when they chose to meddle in the lives of men.

The Old Gods, the gods of the forests and the sky and the north, were not the sort who responded to the prayers of men. They existed. They ruled. They were indifferent to mortal suffering and tribulation. Unlike some gods away down south, they made few demands. But they did know what went on in the world. They did notice those who lived their lives well. And those who did not Sometimes they sent luck or misfortune where those seemed particularly appropriate.

Times change, though. Even for the Old Ones.

The First Among Them, the All-Father, the One Who Harkens to the Sound, sometimes called the Walker or Gray Walker, was aware of the murder of Erief Erealsson.

The people of the sea screamed suddenly and plunged into the deeps.

Then the people of Snaefells and Skogafjordur fell silent again. This time in anticipation and awe. A huge presence began to fill the night. Something of great power, something terrible, was approaching.

Two shrieking streaks of darkness arrowed down at the longship. They circled like fluttering cloaks of darkness, defined by the bonfires.

A murmur of fear and awe: "Choosers of the Slain! Choosers of the Slain!" Everyone knew about those insane demigoddesses, but only ancient Trygg had seen them, when he was a boy of fourteen, off Mognhagn, during the thousand-ship battle of Neche's Reach.

"There're only two," someone muttered. "Where's the other one?"

"Maybe it's true, the story about Arlensul." One of the mad daughters of the Walker had been exiled for loving a mortal.

The air grew as cold as the land of ice farther north. The blankets of darkness squabbled like sparrows aboard the longship. Then they soared up and away.

The fire spread rapidly now, growing so enthusiastic it roared.

The people watched till the fire began to fade. The longship was far down the fjord, then, again accompanied by the people of the sea.

Pulla summoned the elders of Skogafjordur. "Now we deal with Erief's murderers."

There were several schools of thought about who had struck Erief so treacherously.

The law insisted that the fallen be seen into the next world before any trial or revenge or ruling of justification. Tempers needed time to cool.

Briga said, "The Choosers of the Slain." He could not get over that "The Choosers of the Slain. They came. Here."

Trygg nodded. Harl and Kel did the same.

Briga completed the thought. "There wasn't a battle. He was murdered."

"Frieslanders," Pulla said. Everyone knew there would have been a war with Friesland if Erief had had another summer to finish uniting all of Andoray. The Kings of Friesland claimed Andoray too, despite Neche's Reach.

The old men stared at Pulla. The old women, Borbjorg and Vidgis, too. None agreed with the godspeaker.

Pulla shook his head. "Maybe I'm wrong. But that's what I think."

Trygg observed, "Erief was a great one." Speaking no ill of the dead. "Maybe so great the Walker himself wanted him. Who else would send the Choosers? Did anybody see His ravens? No?"

Pulla said, "I'll throw the bones and consult the runes. There may be something the Night wants us to know. But first, we have to decide what to do with the outlanders."

The law had been observed. But tempers were no cooler than when the murder had been discovered.

Pulla sensed a wrongness before the torchlight revealed the prison pit. He barked, "Stop! Something huldrin has been here." Huldrin literally meant "hidden." In this instance huldrin meant a creature of Faerie, spawn of me Instrumentalities of the Night and the Hidden Realms. Huldre people, the Hidden Folk, while seldom seen, were part of everyday life. You disdained the Hidden Folk only at great peril.

The priest stopped. He shook his bag of bones overhead. Their clatter would intimidate the things of the night.

Still rattling the bones, Pulla moved forward. He stumbled after a dozen steps. He asked Briga to lower his torch.

He had slipped on a stick as thick as his wrist. Had he fallen forward he would have plunged into the empty prison pit.

"They're gone." Briga was a master at stating the obvious.

The outlanders had come to Snaefells and Skogafjordur three weeks earlier, peddling some absurd religion from the far south, where the sun burned so hot it addled men's brains. They seemed harmless enough at first. Their stories were so ridiculous they were entertaining. No grown man with the smarts to scratch his own lice would buy that nonsense. Physically, they were bad jokes. A half-grown girl could thrash them. Except that they refused to get that close to anyone female.

But sometime during the night last night somebody drove a dagger into Erief's heart while he slept. The dagger got stuck between the hero's ribs. The assassin abandoned it.

That blade was foreign, like none known in the north. Not even Trygg had seen its like. And Trygg had visited many far lands in his youth.

The foreigners went into the pit, protesting their innocence, minutes after the crime was discovered.

Trygg thought them innocent. His view, however, constituted a minority. The missionaries were awfully convenient.

Pulla gathered the old folks close. "These foreigners must be powerful sorcerers. They scattered the stick hut over the pit, then flew away."

Trygg snorted derisively. "Someone helped them climb out The someone who really murdered Erief. Someone huldrin."

That started a ferocious argument over whether the foreigners had been beaten badly enough before being dumped into the pit. They should not have been able to climb, even with help.

Herva, a crone so ancient she made Trygg seem young, snapped, "You waste your breath. None of that matters. They have escaped. They must be brought back. There must be a trial. Find Shagot the Bastard and his brother."

The people of Snaefells heard her. They approved. Shagot and his brother had been Erief's lieutenants. They were hardened, cruel men who made their own people nervous. Especially now that there was no Erief to rein them in. So why not get them out of the village and exploit their experience at the same time?

Something screamed on the mountainside. Nearer, something laughed in the dark.

The hidden folk were never far away.

2. Esther's Wood, in the Holy Lands

Else wakened instantly. Someone was approaching his tent stealthily. He grasped the hilt of a dagger. A silhouette formed at the tent's entrance, limned by the campfires beyond.

"Else! Captain! We need you." A hand parted the flaps beyond Else's toes. The firelight leapt inside.

"Bone?”

"Aye. We have a situation shaping up, sir."

The blazing campfires had told him that. "What kind of trouble?" It was nighttime. The fires were up. That was all the answer he needed, really.

"Supernatural."

Of course. Here in the wilds of the Holy Lands, amongst the Wells of Irhian, the most supernaturally infested corner of the earth, human danger seldom prowled the Realm of Night.

Else dressed quickly, slid out of his tent like a big cat, six feet tall, lithe and hard, with striking blond hair and blue eyes, at his physical prime.

"Where?" A glance at the horses told him they were not yet troubled.

"There."

Else jogged. Bone could not keep up. Bone was too old to be in the field. He should have stayed home to teach the youngsters coming up. But Bone knew the Holy Lands better than any other Sha-lug. He had fought the Rh?n here for two decades, long ago.

Else joined al-Azer er-Selim, the band's Master of Ghosts. Az stared fixedly into the darkness.

"What have we got? I don't see anything."

"Right there. The darkness that hides the trees behind it."

He saw it now. "What is it?" He saw more as his eyes adapted. Vague black wolf shapes prowled beyond the fringes of the light

"It's a bogon. The master spirit of the countryside. In a more settled land it would be a local deity, probably confined inside an idol in a town temple. To limit the amount of evil it could do. Out here, where no one lives, it would remain diffused. Normally."

"Normally." The darkness now had a vaguely manlike shape, but doublewide and fourteen feet tall. "It's manifesting? Why?"

"Somebody compelled it. Somebody — or something — conjured it, commanded it, and here it is. Once it manifests completely, it'll attack us. And slaughter us. Our charms can't repel that much brute power."

The wolf shapes were there in anticipation of the collapse of the mystic barriers protecting the camp.

"I thought things were going way too smooth. What do we do?"

"Right now we can only get ready to do whatever we'll try to do. We can't hurt it while it's still pulling itself together. Once it manifests, though, we'll have a few seconds before its intellect catches up with its body. That's when you'll have to act. So you'll have to be ready."

"I will, eh?"

"You're the captain."

"How much time do I have?"

"About five minutes."

Else turned. The men were all awake, now. Some seemed frightened, some resigned. In this foreign land, the Realm of War, their confidence in their own god was less than complete.

Other gods stalked this land. This was the land where gods were born. And devils, as well.

They stared at those restless wolf things, growing more defined and bold.

"Mohkam. Akir. Bring the falcon."

"What're you going to do, Captain?"

"I'm going to save your sorry asses. Unless you'd rather stand around asking me questions. Heged. Agban. Bring the money chest. Bone. I need a pail of gravel. Norts. Get a keg of firepowder. Az. Get a reliable torch going. All of you, do it on the run. Because if you don't you'll all be dead in about five minutes." Else ignored his own racing pulse. He did not look at the wolves directly. They looked like the real thing, now, impatient, snapping at one another. But they were half the size of real wolves, which had been exterminated in this region ages ago. They did not fear men. They were amongst the most common terrors generated by the Instrumentalities of the Night, known wherever men sat round campfires and looked out at the eyes of the Night They were more dangerous in number than as individuals. Any semicompetent hedge wizard could run a singleton off or keep a pack from breaking into the circle of light. Even a normal, unskilled man could handle a singleton if he kept his wits about him. Powdered wolfbane would chase those spawn of Night

Mohkam and Akir came running with the falcon, pushing the carriage. The little brass cannon could be as dangerous to its operators as to its target It had not been fired since its test shots at the foundry where it had been cast. Falcons were new, secret weapons meant to be used only in desperate circumstances. "Firepowder!" Else thundered. "Get moving! Bone! You lazy old fart, let's go! Heged! Agban! Where are you? Move it! Come on. Come on. Get that firepowder loaded. Charge and a half."

They looked at him warily but did as they were told. Bone arrived with the gravel. "This shit is everywhere when you're trying to sleep on the ground. But try to find a gallon when you need it."

"Get the chest open. Just silver. Fast. Mix it with the gravel."

"Captain! You can't…"

"Bitch about it later. Akir. Prime it. Heged. Agban. Load the shot. Move. Move." The bogon would not wait.

Seconds later, Agban jumped back. "It's ready."

"Get the ram out."

"Oh. Yeah."

Else said, "Good. Done with time to spare. Az. Get your ass over here. With the torch."

The wizard sputtered. He was no common soldier. He was a Master of Ghosts.

"You're the one who knows when to touch the fire. Get in here and do it."

The wolf shapes dared the light, testing the encampment's wards. The bogon towered eighteen feet high and eight wide, hunched forward like an ape. Its eyes had gained definition.

"Az!"

The wizard shook as he stepped up beside the falcon.

"The rest of you, get down. Get behind something. Or go calm the horses and oxen." He was pleased that the bogon had chosen to manifest on the side away from the animals. And wondered if there was any significance to that.

In an eye's blink the bogon finished manifesting.

Al-Azer er-Selim set torch to match hole.

The falcon gouted flame, thunder, and a vast cloud of sulfurous smoke. Else understood instantly that he had been right to overcharge. The firepowder had been damp. It had burned slow. It created so much smoke that, for half a minute, it was impossible to discover the effect of the shot.

Ah! That part had gone perfectly. The bogon was down, full of holes, with darkness evaporating off it like little streamers of black steam. Shredded wolf lay scattered around the monster. Beyond, brush had been leveled and trees stripped of their bark. Several small fires burned out there, already dying. And then there was the quiet, a silence as profound as that in the Void before God created Heaven and Earth.

Awed swearing began to leak from the nearest raiders.

"Bone. Mohkam. Akir. Have you checked the falcon for cracks? Have you swabbed the embers out? Are we ready if that thing gets up off the ground?"

The Master of Ghosts said, "The bogon won't bother us, Captain. It won't bother anyone ever again."

"Then the bogon is no concern anymore, Az. Now we worry about the man who raised it. It isn't him that we just killed."

"Worth remembering. He'll know that he failed. And awareness of the bogon's destruction will spread fast Though not how or why. A secret to be kept for sure. A lot of folk will think that some terrible feat of sorcery did it. We should get out of here fast. Before people come to investigate. We aren't supposed to be here."

"We can't move now. Not with our cargo. And I need to collect up as much of the silver as I can."

"This isn't our territory, Captain, whatever Gordimer and the Kaif say. The Rh?n, the Arnhander princes, and the Kaif of Qasr al-Zed claim it, too. Their presence is more concrete. We have several unfriendly fortresses within a half day's travel. Even those mad Unbelievers from the west have their Masters of Ghosts. Anyone who owns a horse is going to head this way. The destruction of a bogon is a major event. You don't dare ignore it."

"You're right, Az. Every word true. And every faction in the Holy Lands has heard that a band of foreigners is skulking around." You could evade men's eyes but only the most powerful sorcerers could avoid being noticed by the Instrumentalities of the Night. Else had no means of keeping his force concealed. His tools were speed and deception.

His band had drawn little attention so far. They had collected what they had gone after. They were well on their way home again.

Az continued, "There might even be wild tribesmen around."

"There might be. They'd have to be stupid to think that we're an easy chance."

That could not be denied. Particularly if Else ordered the Sha-lug standard revealed. The wild tribes showed the slave soldiers great respect. Gordimer the Lion, the warrior slave so great that he mastered the mighty and ancient kingdom of Dreanger, would have it no other way. That lesson had been bloodily taught several times.

Else did not want to reveal the band's allegiance. Too many questions would be asked. Once those started it would not be long before someone unfriendly put answers together. Who knew what evil would come of that?

Else asked, "Do we have any reason to worry again tonight? Will there be another monster?"

"I think not."

"Then let's stand down. Get some rest. Bone. I want to be ready to move out as soon as we have enough light. Even if we don't go right away. Az, have you checked our cargo?"

"I haven't, personally. The job is being done. Falaq!"

Of course the job was being done. Else's companions were the best of the Sha-lug. He did not need to mother them.

As soon as there was light sufficient to intimidate the Night, Else sent scouts out, posted sentries at the wood's edge, and had men start collecting the coins that had killed the bogon. He did not expect to recover many. There would be no time. Az was right. Soldiers from the Arnhander city-states, and everyone else interested in the Wells of Ihrian, would head for Esther's Wood the moment their Masters of Ghosts told them it was safe.

Else observed, "This land could see some blood spilled before the Tyranny of the Night reclaims it."

Someone suggested, "Suppose we check in with God? We could ask Him to make sure we don't do any of the bleeding."

Else stared at the spot where the Bogon had fallen. The earth was burned barren, the soil cooked to dust, across a fifteen-foot circle. That formed a shallow bowl a foot deep in the middle. What looked like an obsidian egg six inches on its longer axis lay there. It still radiated heat. Likewise, occasional streamers of mist curled away. You could see into the egg. Which, Else decided, was more kidney-shaped than egg-shaped. Silver coins remained trapped there. The coin nearest the egg's surface had melted around its rim. The inscriptions upon it were illegible.

Else asked, "The bogon can't pull itself back together here, can it, Az? It can't hatch out of this egg? It isn't some kind of phoenix?"

"No. A bogon is really strong. It's a king of spirits. But it's as simple as it's strong. Easy to kill in its manifest form, apparently. If you have a falcon, forewarning, and some silver shot Not to mention the assistance of a Master of Ghosts who doesn't get rattled." The unshakable Master of Ghosts collected the egg using a pair of heavy sticks. He wrapped it in rags, being careful not to touch it.

"I see. Good to know." Else was not reassured. Sorcerers, sorcery, and the Tyranny of the Night were beyond his simple understanding. He did not believe them capable of being straightforward or positive, whether they were on his side or opposed. Nor had he ever encountered any evidence to suggest that his attitudes were overly pessimistic.

"Captain!" One of the coin hunters beckoned.

"What have you got?" The man was quite wide of eye.

"A dead man. And not that long gone, either."

The corpse was charred. What remained of clothing and jewelry was foreign. Likewise, his weapons, though his sword was a horseman's blade. Around him lay what looked like foreign tools of sorcery.

Al-Azer said, "There should be horses around here somewhere. They'll tell us a lot."

"He what I think he is, Az?"

"Probably. Long way from home."

"Find those horses. You think he was spying on us and got part of the falcon's load?"

"Looks that way. He had no idea what the falcon was."

"Interesting. Is he the one who raised the bogon?"

"No. He was too young. But he might've worked for the man who did. As an eyewitness. On the other hand, he might have been following us because he knew about the mummies."

"Too many might haves, Az. What I'd like to know is how one of his kind can be down here, south of Lucidia. Bone! Are you ready to travel?"

"Just give the order, Captain."

Al-Azer said, "We'll know more after we look at his horses."

"You're sure there'll be more than one?"

"If he's really what he looks like he'll have had at least three."

A soft tone from a ram's horn sounded an alert. That horn's voice did not carry far. Else and al-Azer hastened toward the source of the sound.

A youngster named Hagid — not to be confused with Heged the cannoneer — crouched just inside the northeast edge of Esther's Wood. Hagid was remarkable because he was second-generation Sha-lug. His father was an intimate of Gordimer the Lion. Hagid had been sent with Else for tempering. With the courtier expecting that the boy would return alive, with his parts all still attached. But Else knew the Lion. He understood that the mission meant more than the survival of any privileged boy.

Hagid pointed. A cloud of dust shone brown-orange in the light of the rising sun. The men raising that dust were not moving in a tight column. They were scattered. Later in the day, when the sun stood higher, that dust would be much less obvious.

"Over there," Az said. "More of them."

The second cloud, due east instead of north-northeast and emerging from the desert, owned a more yellow cast and was much more obvious.

Else grumbled, "Bone! Where's Bone? Az. Who's likely to be coming at us out of the east?" That was all desert in that direction. The little principalities of the Holy Lands lay all tangled up with one another nearer the coast, to the north and west.

Az said, "It's time to go, Captain. One of those parties will be responsible for our spy. I'd guess the other would include the people who raised the bogon. Which is probably somebody who has something to do with the Kaif of Qasr al-Zed."

Bone finally turned up. "We found the dead man's horses. Three of them. We brought the stuff that was on them."

Else examined bridles, blankets, a saddle, saddlebags containing little but dried food, and things Az said a wizard might carry on a trip. One closed case contained arrows. Another contained a fine recurved bow made of laminated horn. Else said, "This stuff didn't belong to any Lucidian. Az, check this stuff over with your third eye."

"Captain…"

"I know. Don't get technical. Do what needs doing. Just be careful. He was out spying while your monster king was hunting. Hagid. Tell Agban to move out now. Due west, toward the coast road." The sea was less than thirty miles away.

The wood would mask the dust the company raised. And those hunters out there would have to worry about one another.

They would not be friends.

Else examined the bow. "This is horse people work. They must be sending scouts out to see what comes after Lucidia."

"They've never been defeated, Captain," Bone said. "Not in twenty years."

"They haven't met the Sha-lug." That might be an interesting encounter. The horse barbarians of the steppe were cruel, fearless, and disciplined. Their numbers were supposed to be inexhaustible but that could not be true. They made the best of what they had. They were, first and foremost, nomadic herdsmen.

The Sha-lug knew no life but war and preparation for war. They purchased boy children in slave markets everywhere, though mainly in Qasr al-Zed. Those boys grew up with weapons in their hands. The best and strongest became Sha-lug, the slaves who were masters of the sprawling, wealthy kingdom of Dreanger, the heart of the Kaifate of al-Minphet.

The Kaif of al-Minphet was Karim Kaseem al-Bakr, puppet of Gordimer the Lion, the Supreme Marshal of All Sha-lug, before whom the Enemies of God Wet Themselves in Terror, and so forth, and so forth.

Unlike most Sha-lug, Else was not impressed by Gordimer. He suspected the Lion was less noble than he pretended. Gordimer kept handing him these deadly chores, verging on the impossible. Like Gordimer hoped Else would not return.

In minutes the company was moving toward the coast, where friendly ships would be sure to see them.

Else, al-Azer, and Bone stayed behind.

Bone asked, "You know we're looking at the Plain of Judgment?"

Else grunted noncommittally. He knew without knowing the significance. Everything in the Holy Lands had historical and religious meaning to someone. Every crag, every dry wash, every wood, and most of all, every mystic well was a thread in a vast and ancient tapestry. Bone or Az would explain. Whether Else was interested or not.

Bone resumed. "Battles have been fought here since before men began recording history. Eleven major battles have been fought between the Well of Calamity south of us and the Well of Atonement to our north. A distance of nine miles. There've been scores of skirmishes."

"Indeed," al-Azer said. "The Written itself says this is where God and the Adversary will come together in final battle. Some sages, both ancient and modern, say that history began here and that it'll end here."

Else was no more religious than he needed to get by. He had not connected this place with the Plain of Judgment in the Written.

The scattered riders in the north drew near enough now for individuals to be discerned. They failed to notice the cloud in the east. They were near enough for the combined effect of their hoofbeats to be sensed, more on the edge of feeling than hearing.

The Master of Ghosts said, “Time to leave. Those are the buddies of the guy who got killed last night."

Else usually listened to his Master of Ghosts. It seemed the safest way to deal with the Tyranny of the Night. So, he was not there to witness a clash between steppe horsemen and cavalry from the northern Kaifate. The Lucidians were led by the famous Indala al-Sul Halaladin.

Not much happened. Neither force got the other to do anything stupid. Arhanders from Vantrad arrived in the afternoon. The earlier forces faded away as twilight gathered.

After dark supernatural forces got busy.

The Sha-lug made camp on the seaward side of the coastal road. Their carts had suffered badly, traveling cross country. Else doubted that the band would survive the journey south to Dreanger.

Bone was concerned. "What'll we do if a ship don't come?" Gordimer had vowed that warships would patrol the coast as far north as the roads of Vantrad until Else and his band were safely home.

"If no ship shows up I'll strap a mummy on your back. And like some black crow of an old woman, you can lug your baby around while you work."

Bone was no more religious than Else. That was characteristic of Sha-lug. They had seen too much to be unquestioning in their conviction of God's Mercy. The old man made a sign warding the evil eye. He followed that with a gesture meant to invoke God's favor — if He so willed.

Bone did not like the dead. He bore a particular prejudice against those dead who had practiced their trade a long time. Of the ancient dead of Andesqueluz, the Demon Kingdom, whose sorcerer kings' accursed relicts Else's Company had pilfered from their tombs, Bone's opinion consisted of irrational hatred deeply awash in stark terror. These days the Demon Kingdom was lost in the backwaters of history, known intimately only to scholars, but echoes of the terrible truth lived on in myth and fairy tale.

But Bone was a good soldier.

Sha-lug was synonymous with Good Soldier.

There were no incidents that night. Nevertheless, Else did not sleep well. He could not help anticipating further deviltry from the night

Al-Azer claimed that the supernatural reverberations of the bogon's destruction had not damped out yet Anything might be attempted by sorcerers who wanted to spy on their neighbors during such unsettled times.

Else did not possess an imagination adequate to encompass the magnitude of his one cannon blast. None of the company but al-Azer er-Selim realized that the blast had changed the world forever.

Al-Azer would never speak the words. He would not write them down. Few mortals would realize the truth, even within the supernatural trades. But that one inspired blast had proclaimed the imminent end of Mankind's long subjugation to the Tyranny of the Night. Mankind now had a means to contest with the gods themselves, did Man but realize it for even the greatest gods were nothing more than bogons on a mightier scale, some with a dollop of intellect

The Wells of Ihrian vented concentrated magical power, the fertilizer in which the things of night flourished. The Holy Lands seethed with supernatural beings. The region was as critical to the Instrumentalities of the Night as it was to the religions that considered the Wells of Ihrian the Holy Lands.

There were dozens of other wells of magic scattered around the world but none were as potent as those found in the Holy Lands. Nor as concentrated. And all the wells, everywhere, were in a weakening cycle. Which meant a more difficult existence for the Instrumentalities of the Night, much harder work for sorcerers, and a lot more cold along the bounds of the inhabited world.

The greatest, least recognized power of me wells was that their magic kept the ice at bay.

Nothing about the wells was common knowledge. Changes in their flow were never obvious. Nor was the advance or retreat of the ice along the bounds of the world.

Both the Written and secular historical documents mentioned lions, apes, and wolves in lands around the Mother Sea. In antiquity. The lions had been hunted out by classical times. Apes survived only in the extreme west, in small numbers. Wolves could be found in the forests of the north and the mountains beyond the Kaifate of Qasr-al-Zed. Even the forests around the Mother Sea were, mostly, gone now.

And now a way had been found to tame the Instrumentalities of the Night.

Now a man like Else, with no mystical talent whatsoever, with not one of those delicate skills a sorcerer honed for decades so as to manipulate a few minor spirits, could butcher a count of the night as easily as he could exterminate his own kind.

Understanding left Az filled with stark terror. The falcon's blast might catch the eyes of the gods themselves.

The gods — pressed, al-Azer would admit that there were more gods than the One God, the True God, There Is No Other — were not known for indulging mortal behaviors offensive enough to be noticed. In particular, they would resent the threat to their own dominion.

Else did not know what he had done. A threat revealed itself. He did what he was supposed to do. He dealt with it based on hearsay and the tools at hand.

Al-Azer rested more poorly than did his captain.

A small warship showing the banner of Al-Mlnphet Appeared early next morning. The vessel brought a letter from Gordimer, meant for Else if the ship happened upon him.

Else gathered his men. "The Lion has ordered me to report to him immediately, with the mummies and their accoutrements. He has another job for me. Already. Bone, that leaves you to take the company home. The galley only has space for maybe ten more men. One has to be Hagid. Bone, pick the others. There're other patrol ships out. I'll send them to cover you."

Bone named nine names immediately. Each belonged to an injured or sick soldier.

Else nodded. Those men were likely to be more burden than asset. He said, "It should be under a hundred miles to the Shidaun naval fortress. Abandon the carts. You'll make better time."

Else hoped he was not whistling in the dark. The fortified harbor at Shidaun was at least a hundred twenty miles away. Probably more. And while the Kaif's enemies might not be fast enough to catch the Sha-lug from behind, their sorcerers had ways of reaching out to potential allies between here and Shidaun. Once the night returned.

Al-Azer looked grim. He would be the last man in the band allowed to board a ship and scurry away to safety. The Master of Ghosts was the company's most important protector.

Else made the ship's master put in at Shidaun. There he used his authority to compel the garrison commander to send marines north to meet Bone.

That was all that he could do for his men.

3. St. Jeules ande Neuis, in the End of Connec

Brother Candle reached St. Jeules ande Neuis after noon prayers, on the third day of Mantans, in the third year of the Patriarchy of Sublime V in Brothe. Man and boy, adult and child, the villagers should have been getting ready for the bitter long hours of spring planting.

They had been preparing, naturally. But with little enthusiasm. Word had come that a Perfect Master was headed their way. The peasants were eager to see a famous holy man, even if few of them were believers themselves. The people were eager to hear and debate the message the Perfect Master would bring.

Even poor farmers in the Connec enjoyed an active intellectual life. Many minds still could not understand the Maysalean divergences from Episcopal creed — but most Connectens were willing to argue.

The Maysalean Heresy had been around for decades but only lately had it begun to catch on. Though there was as much nationalistic fervor in that as philosophical conviction. The Heresy's growth was a response to the incessant outrages practiced by the illegitimate Patriarchs of Brothe.

One hundred and fifty-six years had passed since the election of the Connecten Ornis of Cedelete to the Patriarchal throne. Within hours the unheroic Ornis fled the Holy City, harried by a mob whipped into a frenzy by agents of the Brothen Five Families. Who considered the western religious Patriarchy a part of their birthright.

Legitimate Patriarch Ornis, taking the reign name Worthy VI, established himself in the Palace of Kings at Viscesment. Though legitimate in canon law, Worthy's Patriarchy in exile was impotent. His own countrymen in the End of Connec did not take him seriously. His successors made up a parade of ineffective, craven, and often quickly murdered Patriarchs. Meanwhile, the illegitimate line of Usurper Patriarchs in Brothe came to be recognized by most of the Episcopal bishops, archbishops, and Principals. The Five Families of Brothe could pay much bigger bribes. Only lukewarm support from me Grail Emperors kept the Viscesment anti-Patriarchy breathing.

Barely, now known as the Pretender Patriarchy.

The current Pretender Patriarch, Guy ande Scars, styling himself Immaculate II, sputtered and fussed at the Episcopal world from his family estate outside Viscesment. His entire Patriarchal establishment, horizontally and vertically, consisted of fewer than a hundred persons, the majority of them extremely competent Braunsknechts Guards from the Grail Emperor Johannes' own Kretien Electorate. Their presence assured Immaculate a definite, though modest, level of respect.

For fifty years the usurpers in Brothe had been strong men. Principality by principality, by persuasion or by bribe, they had gained the allegiances of the lords of the Church and the Lords Temporal, so disdained by the Collegium.

The Maysalean Heresy renounced all things worldly, power and property and the pleasures of the flesh in particular.

Long ago Brother Candle wore the name Charde ande Clairs and was a wealthy merchant of Khaurene. Once his children were grown and married and had established their own lives, the merchant foreswore the world of trade. As a simple mendicant brother he set out in search of Perfect Enlightenment. His wife, Margete, entered the Maysalean nunnery at Fleaumont, where she attained Perfect status herself. Around Fleaumont Sister Probity was better known than her former husband.

The folk of St. Jeules ande Neuis welcomed the missionary heartily. His arrival guaranteed a break from boredom. Even devout Brothen Episcopals embraced the Perfect. The mendicant brothers were the news bringers of the back country. At a time when the world was quickening with fears and alarums. In rumor of late, it seemed every far land was boiling with conflicts.

Almost out to the edge of imagination, a fanatic styling himself Indala al-Sul Halaladin had overrun much of the Holy Lands, the region known as the Wells of Ihrian. Al-Sul Halaladin served the Kaif of Qasr al-Zed, a man something like a western Patriarch. With much more temporal power. He headed the al-Zhun Path of al-Prama, the Faith. Al-Prama made no distinction between religious and mundane leadership. Every ruler was responsible for both the secular and spiritual welfare of his people.

A few Praman rulers took that charge seriously.

The Kaif of Qasr al-Zed was determined to remove all westerners from the Holy Lands. His successes of a decade ago so disturbed the now-dead Usurper Patriarch Clemency III that the false Patriarch called for a new crusade to recover the holy places and strengthen up the small kingdoms and city states created by crusaders in ages past.

All this and much more Brother Candle explained to St. Jeules the first evening of his stay. Most of it they had heard already, in garbled form. News traversed the rural world slowly but it did travel. Those who were Viscesment Episcopals were intimately familiar with the wickedness of the Brothen Usurper Patriarch Clemency III and his successor, Sublime V. Bishop Serifs of nearby Antieux, sent out by Clemency III to wean the peoples of the eastern Connec from their allegiance to Immaculate II, and confirmed in his mission by Sublime V, was hated with immense vigor by Maysaleans, all subspecies of Episcopals, Devedians, Dainshaus, and the Connec's remaining handful of Pramans, of every station and faction. Because the Bishop seemed to have decided that his main mission was to deprive anyone who defied him of any hint of wealth. Wealth that, somehow, always found its way into his personal control.

Brother Candle was but one of numerous Perfect wandering the byways of the End of Connec, gently witnessing their creed without speaking ill of either Patriarch or anything Episcopal.

He failed to mention, right away, that most of the Perfect would come to St. Jeules after him.

Brother Candle went on to talk about the sharp religious fighting beyond the Verses Mountains, in Direcia, orchestrated by Peter of Navaya, who had married Isabeth, younger sister of Duke Tormond IV of Khaurene, the overlord of the End of Connec.

Brother Candle also predicted a resumption of hostilities between Santerin and Arnhand, partly because of dynastic disputes complicated by confused feudal obligations, but also because Santerin was not satisfied with the disaster their forces had visited upon Arnhand's at Themes in Tramaine last summer.

Connectens cared little about the squabble between Santerin and Arnhand except that it did keep Arnhand from taking an interest in me Connec. Connectens were more concerned about events to the east. It was in that direction that the big predators prowled.

“Tell us what Hansel is doing," Pere Alain insisted. Pere Alain meant the Grail Emperor Johannes III Blackboots, Hansel the Ferocious, supreme warlord of the New Brothen Empire, the Anointed Fist of God. The Usurper Patriarch Sublime's bitterest foe and abiding nightmare. Little Hans was a fierce critic of ecclesiastical corruption, which ran deep and was almost universal in the Episcopal Church. Johannes blamed all that on the Patriarchy, which defended the priesthood, however heinous or egregious its crimes. He hated Sublime V and held today's Patriarchy in deep contempt.

The Emperor was almost always at war with the Patriarchy somewhere but only desultorily because the Grail Empire could not finance a more vigorous campaign.

Sublime V had been Patriarch for barely two years. In that time he had issued numerous thunderous bulls excommunicating Johannes Blackboots and his captains, frequently to the dismay of those nobles who worried that God might be standing behind Sublime V instead of Immaculate II.

Hansel tirelessly belabored the point that Sublime was illegitimate and his decrees therefore no more momentous than those of other thieves and perjurers. Only the Patriarch in Viscesment could issue Writs of Anathema and Excommunication.

Unfortunately, even patriotic Connectens admitted that Immaculate II was a feeble joke who would fade faster than morning dew without Johannes behind him.

Pere Alain asked, "Master, will you stay long?"

"Call me Brother. Maysaleans consider all men equal. All men are brothers. We suffer nothing from hierarchy." Hierarchy caused more trouble amongst Episcopals than did any point of dogma. The Church and churchmen were hierarchical in the extreme. And jealous of every little perquisite. Which offended a great many layfolk, who retained the ancient values.

"Will you stay and teach?"

"Of course. That's my work. I teach, I witness, I perform acts of charity. And I'm tired of traveling." Brother Candle grinned his winsome grin but did not mention that other Perfects planned to gather in the village.

They put him up in the chapel. St. Jeules did not have its own priest It was a time of prosperity. Few Episcopals were taking orders. The smaller livings went begging.

The people of St Jeules trekked four miles to St Aldrain's for weekly service. Once a month, old Father Epoine made the difficult climb to St. Jeules to deal with baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and funerals. When extreme unction was needed a boy ran down and one of the donkeys of St. Aldrain's fetched Father Epoine up as fast as might be.

If good Episcopals were involved.

A quarter of the folk of St Jeules belonged in that category, supporting Viscesment. A third were Maysaleans. The rest were largely indifferent, though a handful, all connected to the Ashar family, still favored the ancient ways, bending to the Will of the Night.

By day Brother Candle taught basic ciphering and the most rudimentary fundamentals of reading, more Maysalean habits that scandalized the Church. After supper he sat with those who were interested and helped them explore new ways of thinking about the Creator, his handiwork, and the place the thinking animal occupied in the worldly pit.

One young man, who had been all the way to Antieux and was considered an adventurer, said, "They say the wells of power are weakening. That snow keeps piling deeper and deeper in lands where it's always winter."

"I don't know. That could be. Maysaleans are more concerned with the ice inside."

Their vision mirrored the traditional. To a Maysalean Perfect this world was not the handiwork of a kind and loving Creator. This world was an artifact torn violently from the womb of the void by the Adversary, to become a weapon in His great war with Heaven. Souls caught up in mortal existence were separated from the Light, subject to the Tyranny of the Night Some would cling to the Wheel of Life forever, never attaining Perfection, never rejoining the One.

The End of Connec had been tamed for fifteen hundred years. Yet minor spirits of wood and field and stream abounded, lurking, abetted by the Ashars and their like, doing mischief where they dared. Maysaleans considered all the Instrumentalities of the Night, great or small, to be concrete evidence of their creed's first principle.

The Heresy was a gentle creed. Traditionalists found its social notions more disturbing than its religious absurdities. In a time when senior churchmen lived more grandly than princes, the Maysaleans preached — and lived — lives of poverty and service. Their property ideals were communal, as had been those of the Founders of the Church. Their attitudes toward the sacraments were relaxed, particularly as regarded marriage. Though the Perfect abstained from the pleasures of the flesh. If one yielded to their temptation one fell from Perfection.

There were not many young Perfect.

Old Juie Sachs, the carpenter, told Brother Candle, "Sounds like a slow curse upon the world you got there, Master."

Puzzled, the Perfect said, "Please explain."

"It's a mathematical thing. If only the best people become Perfect and escape the world, then, each time one does, the world will get a little darker."

Jhean, the carpenter's son, said, "Maybe that's why me permanent snows get deeper and the winters get longer and colder. Maybe it don't have nothing to do with the wells of power."

Brother Candle was a fine missionary. When he explained the Maysalean Heresy it sounded obvious and inarguable. He had won countless converts. It was a harsh world even in good times. That made it easy to assert that life was a toy of darkness rather than a gift of light.

"We inspire the will to do good works by doing good works. The soul of the newborn does not bring with it the burden of sin accumulated in its previous life. In the beginning we stand equal before the Light, a book not yet written."

That did not answer the question posed, however. And now he was on difficult doctrinal ground. There were several points of view on the clean slate.

"Life starts as a blank tablet," he said. "Character is created and written each day. Meaning that there will always be more good people coming up."

That was an idea difficult to embrace. Common sense said some souls were so black that they could not become better if they went around the Wheel a million times. Even devoted Episcopals offered Sublime and the Bishop of Antieux as examples. The Bishop had taken ecclesiastical corruption into previously unknown realms.

One of the young men announced, "There's another Perfect on the way."

The old men in St. Jeules' little church eyed Brother Candle. It was time for him to tell them why he had come to their village. "All the Perfect who can are going to gather here. They'll come by the most remote and obscure byways."

The announcement caused no stir of excitement.

"We won't presume upon your charity. We'll pay for food and drink. And we'll help in the fields."

Someone asked, "How many Perfect Masters are there?"

"Forty-five," Brother Candle replied, though he had no real idea. "But they won't all come. Most are too far away."

The Maysalean Heresy did well wherever the Church was its most corrupt or oppressive. The ugliest accusations retailed by the Episcopal priesthood convinced no one that the Perfect were evil or out to harvest souls for the Adversary. Nor could the Church obscure the fact that most of me Perfect had been successful men before they donned the white robe.

So the bishops and priests of the Brothen rite peddled tales of devil worship and sexual license in secret, remote places. Credulous folk in cities and foreign places willingly believed anything wicked of anyone different. And neither accusation was an outright lie. Maysaleans did not worship the Adversary but they did believe that it was not me Evil One who had been cast out of Heaven. Nor did they believe in proprietary rights to the flesh of any individual, even in marriage.

Brother Candle said, "No more than twenty Perfect should turn up."

The old men wanted to know why the Perfect were gathering. There had been no Maysalean synod in more than fifty years.

"The Usurper, Sublime, intends to send selected priests to the Connec to destroy our beliefs. Some will belong to the Brotherhood of War. Some will be armed with writs granting them extraordinary powers. Bishop Serifs will be in charge of spiritual affairs throughout the Connec, with permission to use any means necessary to expunge our faith."

Old men spat. Young men cursed Serifs. The women offered prayers for me Bishop's disgrace and ruin.

"He'll be able to get away with anything as long as he claims he's doing it to suppress Those Who Seek the Light."

A key tenet of the Maysalean Heresy was a conviction that its followers were the true Chaldareans. Although that stretch was extreme, in truth, modern Episcopal dogma bore only a lip service resemblance to the gentle, egalitarian, communal doctrines of the Holy Founders.

The Episcopal Church survived on size, inertia, and the staying power of vested interest. It had survived challenges more serious than the Maysalean Heresy. The Borgians of the previous century had been more critical of the establishment and more militant in their defiance and disdain for all temporal power. The Borgians wanted to rid the world of all priests except part-time village clerics, and all nobles, period.

The Borgian dogma was naive. It required an already indifferent God to make sure no new hierarchies established themselves. It counted on that lazy deity to ensure that no savage invaders descended upon the pastoral Borgian realm, that no bandits took advantage.

The fatal flaw of the Borgian fallacy was that it assumed all men to be good and empathetic at heart, endowed with an innate drive to harm no one who would not fight back.

There were no Borgians anymore.

The Maysalean Perfect were pacifist but not blind. A man just had to glance around to find villains willing to eat him alive, then sell his bones.

Maysaleans were worldly enough to distinguish between ideal and real.

The second Perfect was the Grolsacher, Pacific. His speech was heavily accented and strong with dialect. Two more Perfect arrived before sundown. Brother Bell had made his home in Arcgent before he put the world aside. Brother Sales hailed from Cain, in Argony. He was in the Connec on a pilgrimage of personal discovery. His dialect was impenetrable.

That night St. Jeules went to sleep certain that momentous decisions would be made in their shy little village.

The Synod of the Perfect began formally midway through the second week of Mantans. Twenty-four Perfect had gathered. Their presence was a strain on the village. The people grumped about the disruption while pocketing startling amounts of money and taking advantage of the free labor.

The Perfect baffled the Episcopal faction by treating the female Perfect as the equals of men.

Equality had been part of early Chaldarean practice but had fallen to revisionism even before me founding prophets left the world.

The non-Maysaleans of St. Jeules were disappointed by the absence of orgies. Nor did the Perfect hold midnight masses where they celebrated their love for the Night.

The great difficulty for the Brothen Church in the End of Connec was that everyone there had friends or neighbors or cousins who were heretics. Everyone got an occasional glimpse of the truth. Maysaleans truly were Seekers After Light. And their gentle witnessing drew purses away from the established Church.

Sublime and Bishop Serifs were correct.

The Church was losing the Connec.

If the Connec went, the spread of heresy would accelerate. The Grail Emperor might profess it simply to seize a new weapon to wield in his squabble with Brothe.

The Maysalean Heresy was dangerous in ways that only a few of the Perfect understood. Which was one purpose of the gathering at St. Jeules.

The Seekers had good friends in Antieux, close to Bishop Serifs. They had friends in Brothe itself. And Sublime had numerous enemies willing to befriend the Seekers for as long as he survived.

The synod of the Perfect would also decide how Maysaleans should face the coming repression.

4. Andoray, with the Old Folks of Skogafjordur

The old farts, who had not gone sturlanger since the Father was a pup, did not have the stones for busybodying. Shagot the Bastard and his little brother, Svavar, would not suffer that from their mother. They would not tolerate the unflattering nicknames, either. Their real names were Grimur and Asgrimmur. They had been bullies all their lives. They never fit in, except in Erief s warrior cult. When Erief died their niche went with him. The old folks decided to send them after the fugitives. Because of those two there would be no more loot, no more rapes, no more wars to unite the clans under one Andorayan king. Nor would the brothers receive honors for their parts in creating this new and remarkable kingdom.

Grimur and Asgrimmur were too thick to understand that their neighbors just wanted them gone.

Pulla, Briga, Trygg, Herva, and Vidris concluded that the missionaries were not guilty of murder. Because those fools really believed the nonsense they preached. Which left them incapable of raising a hand against a fellow human being — even one who needed it.

Shagot, Svavar, and their friends were excited. The brothers appointed shipmates Hallgrim, Finnboga, and twins Sigurdur and Sigurjon Thorkalssons, to join them in their race to kill them some southern lilies.

Vidgis was a great-aunt of the Thorkalsson twins. She spoke to them privately before they departed.

It was not yet dawn when the sturlanger avengers began the long climb around the flank of Mount Hekla. They crossed the ever-expanding Langjokull glacier, then descended to the inland road the fugitives would follow to get back to their own country.

The old folks watched the troublemakers go. There would be peace for a while.

Most of the old folks did not care who had killed Erief Erealsson. Not while the far more intriguing question of why the Choosers of the Slain would appear remained unanswered.

The arguments were heated. The parties separated according to individual attitudes about the unification of Andoray. A lot of people wanted every island and fjord to continue as its own little principality. The religious question languished.

Freedom or unification. It was the question of the age in Andoray. Anyone tall enough to walk had an opinion, almost always informed by ignorance. Opponents called Erief a tool of Gludnir of Friesland, who styled himself King of Andoray,

too. That made no sense. Gludnir and Erief had been bitter foes forever. And a united Andoray could easily overawe the Frieslanders. But sense and reason seldom inform political discourse. Particularly when the growth of ice up north tried to factor itself in. Erief s partisans insisted that only a united Andoray could survive the advance of the ice.

Erief's enemies insisted the ice thing was pure hogwash.

The old folks drank a lot before the women put their heads together and concluded that Erief's murderer must be Kjarval Firstar, Eyjolfsdottir, with whom Erief had cohabited, against her will, since his return from plundering the nether coasts of Santerin, Scat, and Wole. During which expedition Kjarval's father, Eyjolf, took a fatal arrow in the eye. And died begging his captain to take his only daughter as his concubine.

There was a substantial dearth of witnesses to Eyjolf's dying wish. Even Erief's staunchest allies did not believe that story.

Trygg proposed that Erief's assassin served a certain foreign king, not to be named, who dwelt in Mognhagn in Friesland.

The debate warmed as the ale flowed. But some people fell asleep, the ale ran out, and then nobody was interested anymore.

No one cracked the puzzle of the brazen appearance of the Choosers of the Slain. Dread had had time to mature. That was mythic stuff. Skogafjordur folk were accustomed to the mythic staying safely and comfortably tucked away inside the myths.

Singer Briga was last to fade. He stared into the dying fire. He kept thinking he had become one of those characters named in passing in a saga, filling some role completely unlike the real Briga.

He had seen it happen. He was ancient enough to have known many of the people featured in the more familiar sagas. He had helped create several larger-than-life reputations. Exaggerate a little here, overlook something there. There was no absolute Truth or absolute Reality, anyway. Truth was whatever the majority on hand agreed that it was. Real Truth was egalitarian and democratic and not at all compelled to correspond to the world in any useful way. Truth had no respect whatsoever for Right, What's Best, or Needs Must. Real Truth was a dangerous beast in need of caging in even the quietest of times.

Ask any prince or priest.

Truth was the First Traitor.

Half a step short of discovering Final Truth, Briga tumbled into the realm of alcoholic dream.

5. Antieux, in the End of Connec

Serifs's secretary was too hasty in showing Bronte Doneto into the personal audience of the Bishop of Antieux. The Patriarchal legate saw a long-haired, blond, probable preadolescent hurriedly leave the skirts of the Bishop's robe and run. Doneto noted the tenting in the Bishop's lap. So the rumors were true. The Lord had blessed Serifs in that regard.

The Bishop seemed more angry than embarrassed. He glared at his secretary. He would have glared at Doneto but did not know the legate so did not know his standing in Brothe. But Doneto was from Brothe, sent by Sublime himself. That established the pecking order.

Both men pretended that there had been nothing to see. Doneto failed to show Serifs all the courtesies due his station. Which might mean that he was a member of the Collegium and Serifs's senior.

But Serifs considered it deliberate, a sign that Sublime was not satisfied with his progress at extinguishing the Maysalean Heresy.

The legate said so right away. "We serve a straightforward prelate, Bishop. He instructed me to be direct." The legate did not speak the Connecten dialect. He used ecclesiastical Brothen. "He directed you to stamp out this heresy. Instead of positive reports he keeps hearing complaints from Antieux, Khaurene, Castreresone, and so forth, all accusing you of abusing your office for your own enrichment."

The Bishop was not pleased. These stubborn Connectens … Sublime V was overconfident of his own security and power.

Serifs answered carefully in the ecclesiastical tongue. "His Holiness is welcome to deal with these people himself. From Count Raymone down to the lowliest shopkeeper they disdain my efforts. They refuse to see a problem. They ignore bulletins posted in the churches. The priests provide sacraments to those heretics who ask. They bury heretics in holy ground. Parish priests, especially in the countryside, will not condemn the heretics. Most tell their parishioners they can ignore anything coming out of Brothe because the true Patriarch is Immaculate II, at Viscesment. If I'm to get anywhere, that man has to be dealt with. And not just by swapping Writs of Anathema and Excommunication."

"His Holiness armed you with the authority to confiscate the properties of heretics. He expected you to show enough vigor to underwrite the Church's efforts here. Yet you send appeal after appeal for more funds."

"Duke Tormond overruled me. He says the Church has no power to confiscate anything. His lieutenant here, Count Raymone — whom I suspect of heretical sympathies — had my men whipped when they tried to execute their duties."

Bishop Serifs hoped to divert Doneto from questions about the disposition of properties that he had seized.

The legate did not visit the matter. "You explained to the Duke that by defying the Patriarch he risks his immortal soul?"

"Of course. And he told me he isn't defying the Patriarch, he's protecting the Connec from the predations of Firaldian thieves. He may be another who questions His Holiness's right to speak for God."

"I'm wondering if a strain of that hasn't insinuated itself here." Accusation edged the legate's voice. His disdainful expression made it clear that he did not approve of the way Serifs lived. Nor did he care about the obstacles life and a stubborn land placed in the Bishop's path.

Results. Sublime was interested only in results.

"I have an idea," Serifs said, congratulating himself on his own cunning. "Go into Antieux yourself and see how things really are. Disguise yourself as a merchant. Visit low places. Listen to what's being said when no one thinks Brothe is listening. Then we'll formulate a strategy based on your new appreciation of the Connecten reality."

The Bishop restrained a smile. The legate was exasperated. Again, Brothe cared only about results.

To his surprise, Doneto agreed. "You may have a point I'll come back tomorrow. After that there'll be no more excuses."

"Absolutely."

Serifs watched the legate go. The door was not yet fully closed when he snapped his fingers at the shadows to his left.

Armand, pretty Armand, came forth, licking his lips. No words had to be exchanged. Serifs slid down in his seat. Armand crawled up under his robe. In a moment the Bishop felt soft lips nursing and gentle fingers stroking. He closed his eyes and tried to fathom why Sublime was so determined to impose Brothe's control on the End of Connec.

It had to be the revenues. There could be no other answer. Sublime needed money to stave off the Grail Emperor while he sent crusaders to recapture the Wells of Ihrrian and to liberate Calzir. The revenues were the only possible answer.

The Connec was the richest land claimed by the Church. It had been two centuries since war had stained it, back when Duke Tormond's ancestor Volsard recaptured Terliaga from Meridian, a Praman kingdom of Direcia and former seat of the western Kaifate. After that triumph the Reconquest proceeded inexorably. A third of Direcia was back in the hands of Chaldareans of the Episcopal rite. Given the ambitions of kings like Peter of Navaya, the entire region would be reclaimed. Then the Reconquest would move on to reclaim the southern shore of the Mother Sea.

All that, Serifs thought dreamily, was Sublime's goal.

The Bishop slipped a hand under his robe to tease Armand's hair, to encourage him in his efforts.

6. Al-Qarn, in Dreanger of the Kaifate of al-Minphet

From the north al-Qarn appeared to stand in the deep desert. Its strange, dirty bistre wall rose from the bitter earth left by Gordimer's paranoia. The barren, unoccupied ground was the same color as the wall. It was a breeding place of flies. Garbage and night soils ended up there every morning. No human habitation, not even a nomad's tent for a night, was allowed within a mile of the wall.

Years ago an astrologer told Gordimer he would be brought low by an enemy from the north. The Lion had taken that to mean an army.

The astrologer could not be faulted. There was no other direction whence such an army could come. For six hundred miles westward the coastal cities owed allegiance to the Kaif of al-Minphet and were content. The nomad tribes of the desert and mountains sometimes acted up, but they were a threat to one another, not to Gordimer or the Kaifate.

South of Dreanger the many petty kingdoms all acknowledged the Kaif — despite the fact that the majority were some variety of Chaldarean who refused to accept the Brothen Patriarch as the head of their Church. They considered him a pompous upstart. Luckily, he was comfortably far away.

Else strode toward the Northern Gate, as alone as a beggar seeking his fortune. He had sent the Andesqueluzan mummies ahead while he dealt with the barge master who had brought him south from the island of Raine. The Lion's own warships were not permitted to proceed upriver from Raine.

Two log booms spanned the Shirne, above and below al-Qarn. Cargos destined for the upper Shirne had to be transshipped several times.

Dust devils danced across the barren. Else worried. Some evil spirits could come out in the daytime. If the Lion feared him enough, he might have er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen set something diabolic on him.

Else knew that Gordimer feared him but did not know why. Unless another soothsayer had filled the Lion's head with absurd ravings.

Gordimer was addicted to his augurs.

Else knew his life and performance were beyond reproach, back to his earliest days in the Vibrant Sapling school. He did nothing less than what was expected.

He was not perfect. No one is. Perfection is reserved for the God Who Is the One True God.

Else entertained a suspicion that many of the gods of the infidels were real, too, they were just less than the God of gods.

Al-Qarn's North Wall spanned Gordimer's Waste in a line as straight as a razor's slash. Windmills surmounted it at intervals, which made it unique amongst all the city walls in the world.

The windmills were there to pump water.

The top of the wall was an aqueduct. It carried water from the Shirne to reservoirs in the highest part of the city. Which, at Gordimer's insistence, were kept filled and free of settled mud.

Gordimer's Waste left Else wondering if all Dreanger might not end up barren because of that man.

Right now, a hundred seventy miles south of al-Qarn, the last forest in Dreanger was being clear-cut to provide timber for construction of a vast new war fleet Gordimer had decreed the expansion because he feared the ambitions of the Patriarch of Brothe, the Emperor of Rh?n and the fleets of the mercantile republics of Dateon, Aparion, and Sonsa. An invading army would need ships to reach Dreanger.

Else entered the city. Behind the wall differed from Gordimer's Waste like day differed from night. Every inch of al-Qarn was vibrant and busy, humming with life. Some claimed a million souls dwelt in al-Qarn. That was an exaggeration, but it delighted Else.

Al-Qarn was home. To Else and all Sha-lug. Al-Qarn's great mission was to produce the Sha-lug who protected the Kaifate and who were — in their own eyes — the chief defenders of the Realm of Peace and al-Prama, the Faith.

Else climbed the long flights of broad steps that took him up to the Palace of the Kings, no longer aptly named because there had been no kings in Dreanger for centuries. The name seemed the more unusual because God did not accept the competition for affection presented by kings. There were no kings anywhere inside the Realm of Peace. Only strongmen who arrogated the powers of kings.

Else's Vibrant Sapling school was one of seven that turned young slaves into polished Sha-lug. Before Gordimer there had been more. Gordimer compelled the surviving schools to watch one another, in a competition that perverted the original competition for excellence between schools.

The midday call to prayer came before Else entered. He abased himself, going through the motions. In al-Qarn everyone did. Even visiting infidels. There were spies everywhere. Transgressions were punished swiftly and brutally.

Gordimer the Lion had no respect for his Kaif, the captain of the religious ship, and held the man hostage, but he was a fanatic devotee of the Written. Despite the circumstances of his birth.

The record of his purchase survived. The slavers claimed Gordimer was a Cledian from the Promptean coast. But his name, his coloring, and his build suggested Arnhander ancestors. The Lion himself claimed descent from the Holy Family. Which Else thought must be a loyalty test. If you could swallow that obvious untruth, and never dispute it, you could survive in Gordimer's world.

But you never knew who might report to him. It might be someone with a grudge.

Everyone in direct contact with Gordimer spied for him, one way or another. He expected answers when he asked questions. He was feared universally. And respected by many because the culture honored strongmen. Only a strongman kept the dogs of war and civil unrest at heel.

Dreanger was rich. For millennia it exported grains and cotton and imported gold, silver, and luxuries. Its neighbors were less wealthy but the peace provided by the Kaif's suzerainty was treasure enough for most War profited only the few.

Else rose from stone worn by the tread of a hundred million sandals. He strode into the cool shade behind the structure's immense, square outer pillars. In passing, he noted that artisans were still removing or rewriting inscriptions that had come down from those fabulous ages predating Gordimer's ascension to power.

Posterity would know the tiniest details of Gordimer's life — those he did not keep secret — until the next ego-driven strongman decided to rewrite history. In which case Gordimer the Lion would be remembered only in the annals of his enemies.

"Captain Tage?"

Else paused. His eyes had not completed the transition from intense noon sunlight to interior gloom. "Yes."

"Will you follow me?"

The speaker wore simple clothing of a style recollecting that of the pagan priests of antiquity, a white cotton jacket with skirts that hung to the knee. This was the uniform of Gordimer's court wizards and augurs. This youngster would be a novice, not yet officially apprenticed. He would be a pure-blooded indigene, descended from the priestly caste of pagan times. Some of whom, if rumors could be credited, still followed the old ways in secret.

Though Else was supposed to report to Gordimer the moment he arrived, he could not refuse this summons. Er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen, called Rashal the Rascal by some, was as dangerous as Gordimer the Lion. Possibly more so. Er-Rashal's connections with the Instrumentalities of the Night made him powerful in his own right.

Er-Rashal was the nearest thing to an actual friend that Gordimer had in this world.

The Court sorcerer met Elsein a room not far from Gordimer's private audience. If Else were asked to pick the wizard out of a hundred strangers he would have chosen er-Rashal because the man fit the description of the wicked sorcerer in every old story and fairy tale told in this end of the world. He was a tall, dark man with heavy lips, a hooked nose, and a shaven skull. His eyes were dark and cold. His body was big and powerful. He looked two decades younger than his fifty years.

Er-Rashal chose to look like that specifically because everyone, noble and common, was raised on those stories. He wanted to be feared.

"Lord Rashal," Else said. "The Lion insisted that I see him as soon as I get here."

"He's aware of your arrival." The wizard's voice boomed. "You know him. It will be an hour before he gets around to you. I've told the guards you'll be here with me if they don't find you outside the audience door."

Else did not like this. It reeked of intrigue. This was the side of al-Qarn that he did not love.

He became nervous whenever he came in from the field. Al-Qarn was a political jungle. He was not cut out for its intrigues.

He was a soldier. He did not care who did what to whom in the capital. He had to take care of the men who followed him.

All of which made him a popular field commander. Officers beloved of their troops do not flourish in a dictatorship. Gordimer himself was once a popular commander who came to power by eliminating an elderly, no-longer-effective predecessor.

Else nodded his understanding, waited for the wizard to get to the point

Er-Rashal said, "You did well with the mummies. I didn't think you'd manage it. Gordimer had more faith. I owe him twenty silver drachmas. Which you shouldn't take to mean that I didn't pray that you'd be successful."

Else nodded again. "Good thing you weren't determined not to lose your money. One miracle survival a mission is all I can manage."

"That's what I want to ask you about. What I've heard so far baffles me."

Else shrugged. "There isn't much to tell, really. We were threatened by something that Az called a bogon. I did the only thing I could think of. Everything came out right"

"Nevertheless… Your Master of Ghosts might have failed to notice something."

Else told the story in detail. He was able to recall a lot because he knew he would be questioned repeatedly. Gordimer, in particular, would be interested in inimical supernatural manifestations around Sha-lug in the field. Especially north of al-Qarn.

Er-Rashal asked, "Why did you load your falcon with coins?"

"I can't figure that out. I guess because I heard somewhere that night things don't like silver. I do remember thinking that it wouldn't really work."

"Yet you never showed a doubt to your men."

So er-Rashal had talked to Hagid. "A good leader doesn't betray his doubts and doesn't become confused or flustered. He has to do something, even if it's wrong. When I had the falcon loaded with coins and gravel I was sure it was pointless. But it kept the men calm and occupied. That was the whole point at the time.”

"You were lucky. Silver is a potent poison to some night things, but only a few. Plain iron bothers more. You might consider taking along a sack of iron pellets if you're on a mission where you think you might have that kind of trouble."

"Now I'm wondering if there wasn't iron gravel in the stuff we put in the cannon."

"How did the falcon itself perform?"

"Better than I expected. You finally found the right alloy, or the right cooling process, or something. We couldn't find one flaw in the weapon afterward, although we overcharged it."

The sorcerer indulged in a little preening. He had produced a portable cannon that worked under combat conditions. No one had done that before.

"That's good news. I'll make more, now. I wish there was a

practical way to cast an iron tube."

Else observed, "Logically, iron would be better than brass."

"Absolutely. And iron is almost immune to the Tyranny of the Night. We're hunting ways to get around the difficulties. It's all trial and error, though."

"The firepowder needs improvement. It draws moisture. The damper it gets the less power it has and the more noxious smoke it makes." Else exulted secretly. He had diverted the thoughts of the smartest most dangerous man in the Kaifate. "If it ignites at all."

If you got er-Rashal onto one of his obsessions and grunted in the right places you were home free.

Else talked about firepowder weapons until the summons from Gordimer came.

Else was not afraid of Gordimer The man. Gordimer, the grand marshal of the Sha-lug, was another matter. Gordimer knew that. And was not pleased. Gordimer preferred to be feared by everyone. Personally.

Else did not fear the man because he was pushing fifty. Else himself was a hardened warrior in the prime of life.

When Else entered the presence with er-Rashal he accorded the warlord every ounce of respect he was due. He would continue to do so, regardless. While the marshal deserved that respect.

Gordimer the Lion was a tall, strong warrior risen so high he no longer worked to maintain the marvelous attributes that had helped him become famous when he was young. Else noted hints of fat and a sleepy droop of eye that suggested excessive personal indulgence. Further, he noted the flash of a female shape in gauze two steps slow in departing as he and the wizard arrived. Almost certainly on purpose, as a reminder of Gordimer's power.

"Cut the crap," Gordimer told Else while Else was amidst an elaborate ceremonial greeting. "You put him up to this, Rashal? Captain Tage, there's nobody watching and I'm not the Kaif. Let's just talk, soldier to soldier."

Gordimer still had the vast mane of blond hair mat had given him his nickname. His nature was suitably ferocious both toward his own enemies and those of God.

Else told his tale simply. "Things just went too smoothly for too long. Something like the bogon was bound to happen."

"Rashal. You invited yourself here. Explain that to me."

"A bogon is a shadow entity of great power, almost never seen anymore. It would equate with a count or baron or even a kaif in the mundane world. But harder to kill." Er-Rashal betrayed a tiny sneer. The Kaif of al-Minphet, through his proxy, Gordimer, had been trying to eliminate his irksomely deviationist rivals in Qasr al-Zed and al-Halambra for years. The main result was a missive from Indala al-Sul Halaladin indicating that he would not be pleased if anything happened to his Kaif.

Gordimer accepted the message at face value. The marshal respected Indala al-Sul Halaladin because of his signal successes in the Holy Lands.

Never having met, the men had been allies in wars against the outlanders. Wars that achieved little because whenever the northern Kaifate became involved in the Holy Lands it developed immediate border problems elsewhere. Inevitably, Rh?n would invade Lucidia's northernmost provinces in an effort to recover lost territory. In the east, the Ghargarlicean Empire would start probing the borders there. The Ghargarliceans were very aggressive under their current emperor. Though now they had their own distractions from the Hu'n-tai At.

The Hu'n-tai At were pressing Lucidia from the northeast, too. They were like the Wrath of the One God being vented against everyone.

Some Lucidian clerics believed that resisting the Hu'n-tai At meant defying the Will of God. Those clerics argued that Tsistimed the Golden, warlord of the Hu'n-tai At, was the Scourge of God prophesied in the Written, a pagan fury who

would punish the Realm of Peace for all the indulgences and sins and lapses of the Faithful.

But there were fundamentalist mullahs who believed that living in fixed houses, dwelling in urban areas, living under any but the harshest conditions, constituted a surrender to the seductions of the Adversary.

Gordimer and his Kaif had not abandoned hope of seeing the end of the Kaif of Qasr al-Zed. That Kaif's champion would soon be too busy to hare off on any mission of vengeance.

Fundamentalist priests were more a nuisance in the Lucidian Kaifate than in the Dreangerean. The Lion was the sort who made certain no one became too critical.

Gordimer listened attentively while er-Rashal analyzed Else's journey into the Idiam, to Andesqueluz, and his return with six mummies.

Er-Rashal praised Else's quick thinking and unswerving determination. Praise from the sorcerer was rare.

The marshal interrupted. "All right. He's a paragon. Nobody else could have pulled it off. But that's why I sent him. He doesn't need to stand around listening to a clutch of broad-ass bureaucrats tell him he's wonderful. He needs to know why I wanted him. So he can get to work planning."

Else said, "I did hope to spend some time with my family."

Gordimer scowled. He had no family. Family weighed you down. Family other than the Sha-lug was a weakness. Case in point. Else was distracted. But family were useful as hostages.

Er-Rashal observed, "It wouldn't be good to leap into the flames again, right away, after dancing in the fire as long as the captain has."

Gordimer waved a hand. "It'll be a long mission, anyway. A short delay won't matter."

The Lion relied on er-Rashal's advice but did not always like it. Else thought it might be wise to send his family out of town before he left al-Qarn again.

The horrors he could imagine had happened before, to others.

Gordimer the Lion was a genius on the battlefield but petty and vindictive as a ruler. And extremely selfish. And unable to recall the main reason he had removed his predecessor.

You could not keep pissing people off. They would do something about it eventually.

"My curiosity continues to grow," Else said, as a reminder that he had not yet been told why he had been summoned.

Gordimer said, "I'm sending you to Firaldia, to the Brothen Principalities, to find out what Sublime is up to. Our spies aren't making sense anymore."

Er-Rashal said, "They say Sublime is preaching new crusades. To reverse Indala al-Sul's successes. To drive the Faithful away from the Wells of Ihrian and out of the Holy Lands. To conquer Calzir. The same silly things Patriarchs always preach, but this one may mean it. Though a crusade doesn't make sense. Sublime is on the brink of war with the Grail Emperor. And still has problems with the Viscesment pretenders. In addition to which, he's preoccupied with something known as the Maysalean Heresy, which is strong in an Arnhander province called the Connec. Our spies suggest that the man has no acquaintance with reality. We don't believe anyone of his stature could be that disconnected."

The marshal added, "The only people capable of undertaking a new crusade are the same ones who backboned previous Chaldarean expeditions. The Arnhanders. But they're at war with Santerin. And they'd have to provide any soldiers needed to put down the heretics and anti-Brothen forces in the Connec."

Er-Rashal continued, "Nevertheless, this Patriarch seems convinced that he need only say that something is God's Will and it'll happen."

"Sounds like people should question the Patriarch's sanity."

Er-Rashal agreed. "But those people believe Honario Benedocto became something transcendent when he was elected Patriarch. In an election renown for bribery, blackmail, and at least one murder."

Gordimer growled, "Sublime worships a false god. He worships idols. Naturally, he's mad. But how deep does his madness run? Will crazy talk lead to crazy deeds? We need to know."

That made sense. Goidimer had to guard and preserve his portion of the Realm of Peace. But that could not be the whole story.

Er-Rashal said, "I want to know more about the Collegium. Besides what they're up to politically."

Then Gordimer said, "If Sublime is as crazy as it sounds, there ought to be factions in the Collegium willing to replace him."

"I don't know much …" Else cut himself short. No point offering even an appearance of contradiction. "Can I pass in Brothen society?"

Er-Rashal said, "In Brothe, in the Brothen Principalities, in Firaldia as a whole, yes. Easily. Brothe is as cosmopolitan as Hypraxium. I went there, once, years ago. Without knowing the language. I got by. You won't have trouble as long as you don't claim you're anything but what you are, a professional soldier. Be an unemployed mercenary from somewhere far away. If you don't tell anyone where you're from, you'll never have to deal with someone who wants to talk about the good old days back home. Say you don't want to talk about the past because there's a price on your head. Let the story involve the virtue of a woman whose husband you crippled when he caught you with his woman. That's the kind of crime westerners find amusing."

Gordimer said, "Rashal is as excited as a kid about finding out what the Collegium is up to in the catacombs under the Chiaro Palace. Me, I want to know if anybody can be turned against Sublime. And I want to know Sublime's plans. I want to know who his most likely successors are and what their attitudes are toward Dreanger, the Holy Lands, the Arnhander states, and the Realm of Peace. And I want to know everything I can find out about a man named Ferris Renfrew."

That caught Else from the blind side. "Ferris Renfrew? Who is Ferris Renfrew?"

"Exactly."

Er-Rashal had pity. "Ferris Renfrew is a very odd bird. He's visited al-Qarn twice. He represents himself as an agent of the Grail Emperor Johannes. He's slipperier than a freshwater eel. He wanted information without giving anything back."

Gordimer added, "He wouldn't be pinned down but it sounded like he wanted to forge a secret alliance against the Patriarch."

Er-Rashal said, "The Grail Emperors and Patriarchs have quarreled for more than a century over whether the religious hierarchy takes precedence over the secular. Also, there's a question of whether the Patriarch and his bishops have a right to the Episcopal Principalities. Under secular law, no feudal subject can leave his fief to the Church, or anyone else but his sons, without consent of his liege. In most cases the liege-ultimate is the Grail Emperor. Further, in the feudal estate, the Episcopal Principalities all have obligations to the Emperor and the Kings of Favorate, Stiluri, Alameddine, and — God laughed — even Calzir."

Else observed, "We do things more sensibly here."

The sorcerer missed Else's sarcasm. "In theory. Until the Imperial Electors elevated Johannes Blackboots the contest seldom amounted to anything. But now the principals are Johannes and Sublime. And Sublime is willing to use the full power of his office to improve the fortunes of his family, his city, and his Church. There's a real chance of war."

"Which we would like to encourage," Gordimer said. "Without getting pulled in. Better the Unbelievers butcher each other than attack us or the Holy Lands."

"I see," Else replied, careful to sound neutral.

Gordimer asked, "So, can I count on you?"

"Can I take some of my men?"

"Not this time. This time you go alone. A merchantman will take you to Runch on the Isle of Staklirhod. At Runch you can buy passage to Sonsa. Your documents will identify you as a minor Arnhander knight. You've been called home to deal with family matters in LaTriobe, in Tramaine. This is because of the confusion following Santerin's obliteration of the Duke of Harmonachy's army at Themes last summer."

"Sounds like you've done some detailed planning."

Er-Rashal admitted, "Actually, we're improvising on the fly."

Gordimer said, "We captured a Sir Aelford daSkees last week. He was in those exact circumstances. Pretend to be him till you reach Sonsa. It isn't likely that anyone knows him. Talk about changing ship to a Minochan coaster and traveling on to Sheavenalle in the End of Connec. When you reach Sonsa, though, drop the daSkees guise and head south toward Brothe as an unemployed mercenary.”

Er-Rashal added, "Once you leave Sonsa you'll be on your own."

Gordimer added, "There'll be a lot more to rehearse before you go. But, for now, relax. Rest. See your people."

Else imagined a sinister tone there. Perhaps inventing the Lion's implication that his family were hostage to his behavior.

Imagination or not, Else needed no reminding. He bowed.

Gordimer said, "A moment more. To show my gratitude for what you accomplished bringing those mummies out of Andesqueluz. Without losing a man. Rashal?"

"Extend your hands, Captain." The sorcerer placed a leather sack in Else's right hand. A generous reward indeed unless the coins within were bronze or copper. Then er-Rashal wrapped Else's left wrist with a strip of worn brown leather. He brought its ends together, muttered something while he drew a finger along the join. The leather closed seamlessly. Else rolled his wrist. A dozen odd stones and metal shapes decorated the leather.

Er-Rashid said, "That will fade from sight. It will shield you from a range of sorcery and most of the things of the night. Not that you should expect trouble. Brothe is almost as old as the temple cities of the Lower Kingdom. It's even more tamed."

"Thank you."

Gordimer told him, "Go. Enjoy yourself."

In remote antiquity Dreanger became divided administratively into the Lower, Middle, and Upper Kingdoms. The Lower Kingdom consisted of delta country and seacoast. It was prosperous agriculturally and commercially. It was also home to the oldest cities in the world, each of which grew up around the home temple of one of the Ancient Gods of Dreanger. Seven hundred years before Gordimer the Lion, when the Church became the official religion of the Old Brothen Empire — Dreanger was a province of the Empire then — the temples were stormed and torn apart by followers of the fanatic Josephus Alegiant. The priests were murdered.

Josephus was a mad devotee of Aaron of Chaldar. Aaron was one of the Holy Founders of the Church, born in Chaldar in the Holy Lands. Chaldar gave its name to that whole religious movement Chaldar existed still as a dusty village beside the Well of Peace.

Aaron was the first of the Holy Founders to preach the Chaldarean creed. His great message had been one of universal peace, love, and equality, informed with an abiding loathing of violence in every form.

Two hundred fifty years before Gordimer another wave of murderous apostles of love and peace swept through the Lower Kingdom. It swamped the ruling Chaldareans, destroying both their works and anything pagan that had survived Josephus Alegiant That consisted of thousands of books. Burned, those took with them the secrets, knowledge, and histories of thousands of years.

The Peqaad warriors of the Conquest were ignorant, superstitious, unbathed desert tribesmen frequently only weeks past their epiphanous moments of conversion. They came to Dreanger knowing a deep terror of books and writing. Literate men always worked evil by taking advantage of their education.

From earliest times the Middle Kingdom was the seat of Dreanger's governments. Even when priests ruled and kings were gods and Dreanger prostrated itself to the Tyranny of the Night whether sun or moon ruled the sky. And al-Qarn, wearing other names before the Conquest, had been the seat of administration since before men had begun to distinguish their rulers from their gods.

These days the Upper Kingdom was wild country, frontier country, snuggled up against the Slang Mountains, that shielded Dreanger from the south. Chaldarean cultists and anchorites, and pagan nomads, still haunted the Upper Kingdom, in company with the ghosts of seven thousand years worth of Dreangerean dead.

Today the Upper Kingdom was commonly called the Kingdom of the Dead. The barren hills on either bank of the Shirne, for as far as thirty miles back, were networked with tunnels that led to the tombs of half a thousand generations. The Instrumentalities of the Night made grave robbers and tomb raiders wish they had chosen more auspicious careers.

The original significance of being buried in the Hills of the Dead had gotten lost centuries before Josephus Alegiant, but even now, amongst those who claimed unalloyed Dreangerean blood, there was a social imperative for having one's corpse laid down underneath the Hills of the Dead.

That part of the Upper Kingdom had accumulated immense reserves of dark magic. Only the Holy Lands boasted a superior supernatural status and more concentrated magical power.

The Wells of Ihrian were the Heart of the Soul of the World.

Gordimer asked, "What do you think of captain Tage, Rashal?"

"I think you're letting your fears get the better of you again, my friend. That man might be your most loyal and valuable follower. He's truly, totally Sha-lug." No man but er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen would dare speak so directly to Gordimer the Lion.

The marshal was not pleased. But he could do nothing. Much as he hated it, he was at er-Rashal's mercy.

Gordimer had great difficulty grasping the fact that not everyone thought the way he did, that every man was not a slave to bloody ambition.

Captain Tage was a competent man. How could he not…?

Er-Rashal said, "Huge events will overtake us in coming years. If you go on the way you have been, those events will devour you, me, Dreanger, and the Kaifate of al-Minphet. Because you, driven by baseless fears, will have eliminated everyone with enough nerve, strength, and ability to lift a sword."

Gordimer rose. He stamped around. He cursed. He threatened. He appealed to God. He told his only friend, "You have to help me, Rashal. I can't control my thoughts. But they can control me."

"I'll do what I can. For Dreanger's sake as well as yours. But my best efforts won't do any good if you don't make an effort yourself. Remind yourself, whenever you think you smell a plot, that there's an excellent chance that it's imaginary. Talk to me before you start killing people. Sit down with me and we'll study the evidence. And let me question the suspects before you kill them. We don't want to waste good people. Abad did that. Abad wasted too many good people. Which was why you gained enough support to remove him."

Er-Rashal did not mention that he had been chief wizard to Gordimer's predecessor. No need to give Gordimer anything else to brood about.

"I try, Rashal. I really try. But it's a disease."

"Just let me question your suspects. Don't do anything yourself. Don't draw the lightning."

Gordimer grunted agreement. But he did so with secret reservations.

7. The Andorayan Travelers

Shagot rested his palms on his knees. He panted. He had stopped only seconds before he started puking from the exertion. He had done way too much drinking and loafing lately. Though he would never admit it, particularly to Sigurdur and Sigurjon, whose parents must have lost a riddling contest to a boulder to come up with names as unimaginative as those. Not that he and his brother had fared much better.

"Shit," Shagot gasped. He fought for air. "How the hell… can we still… be this far… behind… those assholes?"

Shagot and his companions stood in a saddle on a ridge in the Jottendyngjan Mountains, fighting for wind while studying the road south. The fire in Shagot's lungs was less a problem than his incredulity at the fact that those pussy missionaries were still safely ahead. But, there they were, looking like ants scaling the flank of the next line of mountains.

Svavar said, "I don't like this. We should've taken a ship down and waited for them at the Ormo crossing."

Shagot grunted. He did not waste breath reminding Svavar that the Ormo Strait was not friendly territory. Any ship from Andoray appearing there was inviting a ferocious disaster.

The Southron villains had to be overhauled from behind. On dry land.

Sigurdur asked, "What're we gonna do when it gets dark, Grim? They's trolls and dwarfs an' shit up here."

"Yeah. Not to mention ghosts and haunts left over from the god times," Sigurjon added. By the god times he meant prehistory. The gods were marginally active even today — witness the Choosers who took Erief away — but not much had been heard from them since those legendary times when the early Andorayans drove the wild, mystic, primitive Seatts north beyond the cliffs of ice, into the lands of always-snow.

"The old folks gave me all the wards and charms we'll need to get through the night For as long as it takes to catch those girls."

"Who gave them to you?" Svavar wanted to know. "Not Vidgis, I hope. Because if it was Vidgis we're dead already and we're just too boneheaded to lay down and stop kicking."

Vidgis had gotten Svavar to top her once, in a drunken hour. He insisted that it would not have happened if she was not some terrible witch who had enchanted him.

Chuckling, Shagot agreed. "Oh, yeah. She's a witch." The way all women are witches. She just had a few extra years on her. "Pulla, Trygg, and that bunch gave them to me. They're tribal charms. Charms they wouldn't have given us if Snaefells and the Skogafjordur hadn't witnessed those marvels."

"Huh?" Sigurdur said. Not the brightest man, Sigurdur. "What marvels?"

"Sigurdur, you think the murder of a king is something that happens every day?" Erief would have become king if he had lived, Shagot knew. "You think the Choosers of the Slain just drop in?"

"Oh. No. I get you. But I do reckon they picked us six mainly so they could get us out of town."

So Sigurdur was blind in one eye but could see out the other. Shagot had not realized that the old folks might have chosen this group so he and the others would not be hanging around causing trouble.

Those assholes Trygg and Pulla would pull that kind of shit, too. Old people did not like chaos, confusion, tumult, or excitement. They wanted life calm, quiet, and predictable.

Shagot thought he must be getting old himself since he had no trouble understanding why the old people wanted him out of the way.

"Let's just catch these guys, then get our asses on home." Of a sudden, Shagot found himself able to consider Snaefells special. Found that he could think of the village as home. He was amazed.

Shagot the Bastard was not able to catch those Missionaries. Those ferocious southerners who did not believe in raising a hand against their fellow man. Day by day, hour by hour, he and his companions gained ground, but never, ever, did they actually catch up.

Shagot's band was a scant thirty yards behind when they reached the shore of the Ormo Strait, at a village called Ara. Hallgrim and Finnboga both wasted arrows. Naturally, they missed. Shagot barked, "Quit it! You might hit the ferryman in the fog."

The boat the fugitives had chartered was small, manned by a single oarsman who must be a true man's man, for the strait was fourteen miles wide here. Ara was not the customary jump off for those who wanted to cross. That was Grynd, thirty miles southeastward along the coast. Commercial ferries ran there, making the four-mile journey through treacherous currents to Skola on the tip of Friesland.

Grynd and Skola were too civilized. Shagot could not go there. Erief's enemies and King Gludnir's friends were much too common there.

Unstringing his bow, taciturn Finnboga observed, "If we need proof that those two are villains, this is it."

"Because they chose a smugglers' crossing?"

The boatman would conduct his passengers to Orfland, a swampy, sparsely inhabited, totally impoverished island off the west coast of Friesland. The fugitives would have to traverse Orfland on foot, then cross to the mainland from Orfland's nether end — without ever attracting the attention of anyone who mattered in Friesland.

Sigurdur said, "I'm not comfortable leaving Andoray on foot."

That was such a dumb thing to say that Shagot just nodded. "You guys go scare up another boatman."

There was no boatman to be found. There was no one in the village. Not a soul. But the evidence said Ara had been a busy little town until a few hours ago.

Sigurjon said, "I don't like this, Grim. Something weird is going on.”

"I think you're right. Let's wait here. When that boat comes back we'll go across. Keep your bows strung. Just in case." He made sure his sword was loose in its scabbard. It was a fine old blade that had come from a monastery in Santerin, probably left there by some noble trying to bribe the local god.

Hallgrim asked, "What do you make of this fog? Fog usually burns off by this time."

"We're at the mouth of the Ormo Strait. There're strange currents and tides and fogs here all the time."

Hallgrim did not talk much. Shagot wished he would give up the vice altogether. When he did speak he always brought up something disgusting. Often he belabored the obvious when everyone else did not want to be reminded.

He did not shut up. "Will we all fit in that boat? It didn't look that big."

Shagot grunted. His brother Svavar asked, "You want me to hit him on the head?"

"He might not notice. Besides, it's a good question. And I think we will fit What I'm wondering is, how long will we have to wait? I didn't see a mast or a sail. And at the wrong time of day the current is going to be vicious."

The Ormo Strait joined the landlocked Shallow Sea with the Andorayan Sea, to the west. The Shallow Sea was so called because at dead low tide a tenth of its bottom lay exposed and a third of the remainder did not rise above a tall man's head. Ships on the Shallow Sea were broad of beam and drew very little water. And had to be guided by very knowledgeable pilots. There were just two small areas in all of the Shallow Sea where, at high tide, the water was over a hundred feet deep.

Navigation in the Ormo Strait was particularly harrowing. Immense volumes of water raced back and form as the tides turned.

People like the smugglers and fishermen of Ara knew their waters better than they knew their wives. They started learning the waters when they were toddlers.

Svavar sighed. "Yeah. We'll be lucky to get out of here today."

Sigurdur said, "The moon is almost full. We could manage a night crossing."

Finnboga mused, "We should liberate some horses after we get to the mainland. Then we could catch up fast"

Except, Shagot thought, that would make it impossible for them to come north again — assuming they stayed ahead of the pursuit after they stole the horses.

Svavar said, "It looks like the fog is thinning out"

But visibility remained less than a bowshot.

Shagot said, "You guys that went sneaking around, poking into stuff. Did you find anything that explains why nobody is home? Or where they went?" The absence of Ara's villagers bothered him. That likely meant an intercession by the Instrumentalities of the Night.

Those nights on the road, coming down from Skogafjordur, had produced only the feeblest of troubles. Even considering the charms the band carried, the supernatural weather had been unnaturally mild.

Shagot shuddered. He did not like thinking too much. But he was captain of the band. And it never hurt to be paranoid about the dark.

The Huldre Folk had followed them. The hidden people were of more than passing interest to them. Maybe they were responsible for all those little delays that kept the band from catching the foreigners before they escaped from Andoray. Why? If the foreigners' god became established here he would chase the hidden folk away.

"Hey!" Finnboga shouted. "There's a boat out there. It's coming in."

Shagot saw it, too. It was not the boat that had taken the missionaries away. This was a regular fishing boat, the kind that spent every clement hour at sea, fishing. It was shorter and wider than the war craft Shagot and his companions knew. But it seemed too well kempt to be your usual fisherman.

Shagot pulled his band together. "As far as these people are concerned, we don't know starboard from larboard. We're landlubbers. Understand? And let me do the talking." The fisher looked like it would require a minimum crew of three, though he could see only one man on deck. And there was a deck. So the boat had a hold. Which made sense for a fisherman — or smuggler — who wanted to keep his cargo from washing overboard in heavy seas.

The closer the fisherman approached, the more perfect she seemed. They could pile aboard her and run all the way down the western coast of Orfland, to put themselves into position to ambush the missionaries after they completed their grueling passage through the island's bogs. They would not have to slay the crew of the boat, even. If the fishermen were cooperative.

"Name's Red Hammer," the boat's master said. "And you men look like you need to get somewhere in a hurry, without being noticed." Before Shagot could respond, he added, "And this's my cousin, Smith."

"Smith?"

Red shrugged. "He just wants to be known by his nickname."

Shagot grunted, confused. He could not get his thoughts to follow. "What about the old man?"

"That's Walker. My father. He's getting old and slowing down. He isn't much use anymore. But he don't want to quit the game. So we take him along when we go out."

Shagot said, "We do need to get across the strait. And down the west coast of Orfland, to Tyrvo, or even to Grodnir's Point on the Friesland shore. That would be particularly useful."

Red Hammer nodded. "We can do that. So we just need to agree on a price. And to unload our catch." The stench of fish filled the air.

"We'll help you unload," Shagot promised. "So let's talk cost."

Initially, Red Hammer asked if what they wanted was worth thirty-five gold pieces.

Shagot laughed. "No. How stupid do we look? We don't have that kind of money, anyway. We look like kings? You won't find one piece of gold between us. You lunatic. Be happy that we'll give you five Santerin silver pennies."

The bargaining did not last long. Shagot was in a hurry. The fishermen were impatient to unload their cargo.

The tide was turning.

Svavar worried aloud as he stumbled along under a heavy sack of fish, some of which still wiggled. "We're getting too good a deal, Grim. They'll try to rob us."

"There's six of us. They may be big and dumb but they aren't that dumb. What do you want to bet they've got some illegal cargo that we'll help protect in order to get where we're going?"

Shagot understood such thinking. He had done things like that himself when he was not off with Erief.

“They have them a devilish look in their eyes, Grim."

"And I don't blame them. This is as lucky a day as poor people ever get."

Svavar went right on worrying about treachery and betrayal. Red Hammer might sell them to Gludnir.

Whenever Shagot met the eye of Red or Smith they seemed amused. As though they knew his worries and found them entertaining.

Shagot was sure he had the angles covered. These men were just fishermen and smugglers with no reason to turn treacherous.

It had been a hard go for Shagot, lately. Weariness hung on his bones like tattered cloth. He told the Thorkalssons, "Don't wake me up unless the ship is going under and the water is up to my nuts."

He found a place out of the way, on deck. He wanted nothing to do with the hold. The stink of fish was bad enough where he was.

The fog was closing in again.

He thought he dreamed.

He was sound asleep but saw his surroundings as though he was wide awake. The fog grew weaker. The sea became calmer. The people of the sea came up to frolic round the boat Beautiful maidens from the deep, indistinguishable from human girls except for their beauty, sang to the fishermen. Walker seemed to bless them. He seemed to get younger as the boat moved out to sea, too.

The sea itself changed. The water darkened. A growing chop came running in on the bow. The people of the sea stopped following.

Soon the fisherman was battering its way into the teeth of a rising storm. Its crew remained unperturbed, even after waves started leaping over the bow, hurling white spume. Then it was green water, pounding the foredeck with the fists of giants.

Indifferent, the crew forged on.

The three were no longer amiable or chatty. They worked ship — when they did anything at all — with very little talk. Shagot could not understand how they managed to cope.

Fierce lightning began dueling inside the storm. Several bolts stabbed the sea near the fishing craft. A bolt hit Red Hammer.

Shagot understood, then, that these mad fishermen had sailed them all to their deaths.

His eyes recovered from the glare. He saw the lunatic redhead standing with his arms upraised, his roaring laughter competing with the thunder. He welcomed the caress of the storm.

Shagot finally realized that he was not at the mercy of insane fishermen at all. He became more frightened than ever he had been, even in the deeps of the night, far from any friendly shore.

Walker sensed his shift of being the instant the fear took hold. He turned away from the storm and looked Shagot directly in the eye.

Shagot almost cried for his mother.

Walker was old but not nearly as old as before. He had become someone of strength and substance. But what pierced Shagot with terror was the fact that Walker had only one eye.

Shagot scarcely had a chance to whimper before darkness collapsed upon him.

The boat, now a golden barge, emerged from the storm onto an emerald sea like none ever seen by the traders and raiders of Andoray. The barge, invisibly propelled, moved in alongside a quay of polished rose granite. Officious, chattering dwarves with vast beards tied the barge up, then hustled aboard. They collected the sleeping warriors and took them ashore, carried them up a long road that led to a vast sprawl of a castle barely discernable atop a tall, sheer-flanked mountain.

Barge, sea, dwarves, mountain, and castle all appeared exactly as portrayed in legend and song.

Somewhere along the upward road there would be a bridge woven together from rainbows.

The people of Ara, all shaking their heads, bewildered, stumbled back into their village. A whole day had slipped off into eternity unnoticed.

Someone — or something — had come to Ara during their absence. Nothing was missing and no damage had been done. But someone had gone through Ara, poking into everything.

A cry came from the icehouse. The villagers all rushed over. And discovered that Ara had been blessed with the biggest catch of fish anyone had ever seen.

Folk scattered to collect gutting and scaling knives. The work began. The traditional malcontents grumbled because all this found wealth forced them to gut and bone and fillet and capture roe like never before in their experience.

For some people there is a cloud inside anything silver.

8. Antieux, in the End of Connec

The Patriarchal legate to the Bishop of Antieux, Bronte Doneto, was a bishop without a see. Which was an indirect way of saying that he was a member of the Collegium. One of those quiet, frightening members little known to anyone outside. Bishop Serifs, although a creature of the Patriarch, did not know the man. Had he done so he would have been less sanguine while awaiting his next meeting with the emissary.

Bronte Doneto was a close ally of Sublime V because they were cousins. Doneto expected that they would go far together. They were young. They were strong. They dreamed big dreams. But the path to fulfillment of those dreams was strewn with obstacles like Bishop Serifs, men venal enough to be used but without drive enough to do anything useful on their own. They were content to secrete themselves in their grand palaces, playing with their concubines and catamites while stealing the wherewithal to keep themselves in style.

Doneto was a cynic. He expected the worst of everyone and bragged that they seldom disappointed him. But he was a true believer, too — in his conviction that the Church ought to be the be-all and end-all of the Chaldarean world. He was not as deeply engaged by Church dogma.

Doneto chose to accept Bishop Serifs' challenge. He would sample the mood of the people. What the rabble had to say would tell him what needed doing to cleanse the Connec of heresy.

Bronte Doneto did not shift roles easily. He was not a prince who could disguise himself as a pauper and pass. He was not an actor with any range. This trip into the Connec was the farthest afield he had traveled, ever. Only once before had he ventured outside the safety of the Episcopal States, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince the families of Aparion that they should donate ships to transport an army that Sublime's predecessor wanted to send to invade the Firaldian Praman kingdom of Calzir.

Calzir was a more suitable target for a crusade, Doneto believed. It was not powerful. It had no friends. It just had those great natural defenses, the Vaillarentiglia Mountains. Expunge Calzir and you would clear Firaldia of the last vestiges of the Praman in the heartland of the Old Brothen Empire. That would encourage Chaldareans everywhere.

But Bronte's cousin wanted to be a Patriarch whose name echoed down the ages. He wanted to be remembered as the Patriarch who triumphed over the Pramans and the rest of the Church's enemies while uniting all Chaldareans under the Patriarchal banner and recovering the Holy Lands.

Doneto did not believe that they would live that long. It was too huge a task.

Bronte Doneto thought it would be easy to pass as lower class. All you had to do was talk crudely and smell bad. Never mind that your clothing was foreign and too rich. Never mind that bodyguards followed you around. Never mind that disdain rolled off you like steam even when you kept your mouth shut.

The folk of Antieux did not recognize him as a Patriarchal legate, though. So he did get an earful of Connecten attitude toward Sublime and his shit-eating, thieving running dog, Bishop Serifs.

Vries Yunker was the legate's chief bodyguard. Doneto found nothing to recommend the man other than the fact that no blade had yet found the episcopal throat. Yunker could have been a mastiff as far as Doneto was concerned.

Yunker suggested, "We should return to our quarters, sir. We're tempting fate." This after Doneto's passage through a farmer's market, as safe a venture as could be arranged.

Yunker knew the people who frequented the places that Doneto wanted to visit. He was that kind of people himself. They understood that something was going on immediately.

Doneto refused to listen. He was having too much fun feeling superior.

Yunkers' pessimism was not unfounded. In fact, when trouble came it was far worse than Yunker anticipated. There was a sudden rush of bodies, right there in the twilight street, in front of a hundred witnesses. Pain exploded in his side.

All three bodyguards died. Bronte Doneto suffered numerous stab wounds before he dragged an earthenware ball out of a pocket. He smashed that against the nearest building.

The world vanished in a torrent of light. Voices screamed, "Sorcery!"

Bronte Doneto plunged into unconsciousness.

The attending Brother seemed less than thrilled when Doneto opened his eyes. The look vanished instantly.

The legate gasped, "Do I need supreme unction?"

"Sir? Ah. No, sir. I'm a healing brother. Don't try to get up. You'll open your wounds."

Doneto recalled the sudden, brilliant pain of blades probing his flesh. He felt no pain now. But he did feel numerous bandages. He did feel the pull of stitches in a half-dozen places. "How bad am I hurt?"

"Only God's Grace saved you, sir. Or incredible luck. You were stabbed six times. Two of your wounds are so deep they must have been made by a sword. You lost a lot of blood."

When Bronte expressed no interest the healing brother volunteered, "Your companions weren't as lucky as you. All three perished."

Which they deserved for their failure. But Doneto did not vent his sentiments aloud. "Who was responsible? And why?"

The priest shrugged. "Robbers, I suppose."

Those were not robbers. Those were assassins. Those men were serious about their work. Those men were not novices. Bronte Doneto was supposed to be dead.

"You suppose? What did they have to say?"

The healing brother seemed baffled by the question.

"They were captured, weren't they?"

"No."

Of course not, Doneto thought. He insisted that the rest of his guards investigate. Obviously, the local authorities were incompetent.

It took his men almost no time to determine that no one would tell them anything. Mica Troendel told Doneto, "Nobody actually said so, Your Grace, but I got the distinct impression that your survival was a popular disappointment."

Doneto assumed that meant the assassins were locals able to intimidate the populace. Only later did he entertain the possibility that the populace might wish the assassins well without knowing who they were.

Lying there, unable to move, Doneto had a lot of time to reflect on the situation in the Connec as seen by ordinary folk. And he was not pleased. Not at all. But maybe the truth could be a useful tool, too.

"Maysalean heretics tried to murder me," Doneto told Serifs when the Bishop found time to get away from his indulgences.

Serifs disagreed. "No. They're pacifists. They wouldn't murder anybody."

"Not even a Patriarchal legate who's their sworn enemy?"

"Especially not a legate. They want no trouble with Brothe. They want Brothe to leave them alone. That's all the people of the Connec want. For Brothe to leave them alone."

"Put the accusation out there anyway."

"Nobody will believe it. The likely result is, they'll decide that you staged the whole thing so you'd have an excuse to make accusations." Serifs sounded mildly accusing himself. That suspicion had found a comfortable home in his mind.

Doneto realized he faced a no-win situation. His time amongst the unwashed had shown him how little they respected Brothe and the Church and how much suspicion they directed that way. Worse, the Connecten Episcopals were more critical than their heretical Maysalean cousins.

The fearful lesson of the night of the knives was that Connectens were convinced all social evil and moral depravity originated in Brothe and Krois, the Patriarchal Palace there.

"Then lay it at the feet of that syphilitic at Viscesment."

"As you wish. But the people won't believe that, either."

"What will they believe?" Doneto had to force himself to relax. He felt stitches tearing.

"Anything negative about the Patriarch and the Collegium, however absurd."

"So who tried to murder me? Really."

Bishop Serifs shrugged. "It might have been robbers." Then, as Doneto was about to explode, "Probably supporters of Immaculate who acted without approval from Viscesment. Or it might have been someone whose property we took."

"How would anyone from any faction know about me? This was supposed to be a secret mission. Even you don't know much about me."

Serifs shrugged again. "I told no one anything. So, once again, maybe they were robbers. Or, maybe, somebody in Brothe thought it might be convenient to kill you out here where it wouldn't cause much excitement."

Robbers? Bull. Robbers did not attack armed bands.

Murder as a political instrument was not common. Not this way, at least. When it did happen it involved poison or a skillfully placed dagger, usually after the fact of a coup or the unwinding of a skein of extreme duplicity. It did not happen in front of hundreds of witnesses. Unless … unless someone wanted to send a powerful message. As, for example, to Sublime himself.

Suddenly, Doneto trusted no one. Maybe Serifs himself was the villain. Or Duke Tormond. Tormond commanded soldiers. Those men might have been soldiers. But how would the Duke know? "I want to see my man Troendel." Mica Troendel was his senior surviving bodyguard. Doneto wanted to be ready to travel as soon as he could. And he wanted to feel safe until he was able.

He would deal with the problem of the Connec after he was safely away from it. Harshly.

This mission was a disaster. And he suspected that things would get no better.

Doneto wanted to flee Antieux but the healing brothers insisted that he needed a lot of recuperation. In the end, they let him travel as far as Bishop Serifs's manor in the vineyard-strewn hills overlooking the city. It should be easier for his remaining bodyguards to protect him there.

That move did exactly what the healing brothers warned it might. It opened his wounds. He began a battle with infection that lasted for months.

9. Travels on the Mother Sea

The merchant ship was too small. It bounced on the water like a cork. It creaked and groaned of imminent disintegration even when the waters were calm. It stank. There was nothing for a passenger to do but hang on desperately when a blow came up. Its one saving grace was that it let Else keep his boots dry by not having to walk to Staklirhod.

The Sha-lug sprawled on something that might have contained cotton in the process of being smuggled. It was against Dreangerean law to sell cotton to Chaldareans. Merchants, though, did not let themselves get caught up in religious dogma or political faith. Gulls drifted around the ship, hoping for scraps but snapping up small fish churned to the surface in the wake. The sky was almost cloudless and of a blue so intense that it felt like he could fall in.

From where he lay Else could see the loom of several islands and the sails of a half-dozen ships.

An Antast Chaldarean seaman named Mallin sprawled close by, also feasting on the lack of tension. He hailed from the Neret Mountains, which faced the coast in both Lucidia and the southernmost province of the Eastern Empire. The region shifted between Rh?n and the eastern Kaifate frequently.

The Antasts harkened back to me Founders. They argued that their vision was identical to the one set forth by Aaron, Eis, Kelam, and the others.

"Don't you worry about pirates?" Else asked. "All these islands, seems like pirates' heaven."

"Maybe in ancient times. Before the Old Empire. And a couple of times afterward. But not today. The Brotherhood of War doesn't tolerate piracy. When piracy happens, a lot of people die. Most of them in bad ways. Wives, children, anyone fool enough to live in the same town. And if the Brotherhood don't get them, the Firaldian republics will. If the fleet of the Eastern Empire don't get there first. Nah. The problem we're likely to have is official harassment. See that island, looks like a saddle? We pass that, you'll see Cape Jen straight ahead. That's the eastern tip of Staklirhod. We should make port on the morning tide."

"I thought we'd need another day."

"We made good time. Nahlik says you're a good luck charm. We didn't have to pay bribes to get out of Shartelle and our cargo was ready when we got there. And there's been no bad weather."

"No bad weather? You're mad."

"Landlubber. We've seen nothing but mild breezes and light seas."

"So it is true. It does take a streak of insanity to be a sailor. A wide streak."

"No point denying that. What's your excuse for being out here?"

“I just like running around on water filled with things that want to eat me." Mallin was fishing. All the crew did. They were loyal to Dreanger but they were curious. They thought he might be Sha-lug, not some ransomed Arnhander knight.

Mallin grunted.

"It's family trouble," Else said, sticking to the official story though the whole crew knew he would not be on their ship if he really was an Arnhander knight headed home.

A whistle sounded up forward. "Warship off the port bow."

Else and Mallin sat up. Mallin asked, "What colors?"

"Still too far off to tell. But she's a big fucker."

Mallin told Else, "In these waters it'll be the Brotherhood of War. Or maybe the Sonsans. They do most of the trading in these islands."

The Brotherhood of War was an order of Chaldarean knights and soldiers who dedicated themselves to war against the enemies of their God. Their mission was to wrest the Wells of Ihrian from Praman control. They were fine warriors, often victorious, never daunted by unfavorable odds. The Sha-lug had learned never to engage them on their choice of ground.

The crewman forward announced, "They're not headed our way. She's a fast fucker. Three decker."

The galley loomed larger and larger. It was long and lean and dark, quiet and astonishingly fast. It shifted course slightly, toward the little merchantman without bearing down directly. Then it was right there, sliding past a hundred feet away, silent but for the hiss of the water along its hull and the muted creak, squeak, splash of its oars.

"Well, I'm baffled all to shit," Mallin said as the galley rushed away. "That was like a fucking ghost ship, or something. New fucker, too. Never saw it before."

Else had not, either, but he knew whose ship it was. It belonged to Gordimer the Lion. Among the gawkers at the galley's midships rail, staring at the sailors staring back, had been one er-Rashel al-Dhulquarnen from the Dreangerean court.

Two hours later a second galley appeared, smaller, older, shabbier, and much noisier. It belonged to the Brotherhood of War. It was looking for a strange warship roaming the archipelago.

Else remained unperturbed when Nahlik indicated the direction the other warship had gone. Er-Rashal could take care of himself.

"That would be an interesting fight," Mallin said. "Those two ships."

"It sure would."

The sun was barely up when the ship tied up at runch. Else hired a boy off the dock to help move his knightly gear. He followed the boy to a great stone building that housed the local factors of the Three Families of the Sonsan Republic. He presented himself as Aelford daSkees and explained his needs to a clerk who looked like a gnome left over from some creation myth.

The gnome said, "We don't have anything going out today or tomorrow. Should've gotten here yesterday. We sent a full cargo out then. Times are slow. The Dreangereans are cracking down on cotton smuggling and there isn't much kuf coming out of Lucidia." Kuf being Lucidian for narcotic hemp leaves. "We have wars and rumors of wars. Wars are always bad for business."

Else was surprised to hear a Sonsan say that. He thought merchants always prospered when there was fighting. "They're a little hard on families, too."

"I suppose." The gnome did not apologize to the daSkees dead. He listened to no one but himself. "Yes. Here. Vivia Infanti expects to be fully loaded by the day after tomorrow. Would you want a private cabin, shared quarters, or just to sleep on deck?"

"On deck. The Holy Lands didn't make me rich."

"They never do. Not the fighters. Will you take your own food? Or will you share the sailors' mess?"

"Which would be cheaper? I still have a long way to travel after I get to Sonsa."

"Bringing your own food appears marginally cheaper up front But then you have to manage your own cooking. Or you have to hire the ship's cook to do it for you."

"I'll eat with the crew."

"Are you bringing the boy?"

"I'm traveling alone. I hired the boy to help with my gear."

The gnome glanced at the pile. "Hardly worth dragging around, is it? You're looking at fourteen Sonsan silver scutti. Or any equivalent weight in other mintages."

Else suspected he was being overcharged. He glared at the old man. Which was water off a duck's back.

The gnome said, "Or you can walk. Though you would've been better off doing that while you were still on the mainland."

Else produced his sack of miscellaneous coinage, struck at a dozen different mints in as many lands. Near as he could tell, the gnome made no effort to cheat him. Unless he lied when he said Gordimer had begun debasing Dreanger's coinage recently.

Debasing the coinage was in character for the Lion.

The gnome asked, "Do you want to stay here while you wait for Infant? Or will you room somewhere else? Any seaman's flop will be cheaper but they won't provide meals and you'll probably be robbed in your sleep."

"How much will staying here hurt me?"

The gnome named a figure that Else found reasonable.

The gnome explained, "Our charter from the Brotherhood of War obliges us to house and feed crusaders at at-cost rates."

"Oh. Of course I'll stay here." Else had nighted over in sailors' hostels before. He would do so again if he had to. But he was willing to forgo the pleasure.

The gnome retreated into the shadows. His employers did not seem inclined to invest much in lighting. He returned with a great man-brute trailing behind. "Goydar will show you where to bunk."

Else gave the boy his pay, then followed the huge man, who carried everything. The big fellow never said a word. He carried a little extra soft weight, like a eunuch. Might he be a fugitive from some eastern court with tongue and testicles removed?

Else had a room to himself, though it was only four feet wide and not tall enough for him to stand up. He stowed his gear under the narrow cot

Seldom in his life had he enjoyed this much personal luxury. As a boy and single man he had been crowded into a barracks or tent. As a married man he shared a one-room hovel with a woman and two children, both daughters. It was part of being Sha-lug. You were never alone.

Alone actually made him uncomfortable.

He was going to be alone a lot from now on.

He searched the room for spy holes, then decided to skip his religious obeisances anyway. Who knew what sorcery might be at work in this foreign place? Every shadow might conceal some wicked spirit of the night.

He began rehearsing his recollections of Chaldarean religious rituals. He was bound to get something wrong. He hoped the excuse of having spent years overseas, in the company of rough, impious men, would get him by when he moved farther west. He did think that westerners were more casual than Pramans.

His first trial came at dinner, which he took in a communal hall resembling a military mess but with food placed on the tables. It was not a meal taken on a set schedule. Sonsan workers came and went as they liked, as did guests. Quite a few men awaited transport eastward or west. At Else's table was a Direcian veteran, Enio Scolora, headed home after two decades spent fighting the Unbeliever. He wanted to share every incident with fellow warrior daSkees. Scolora would sail aboard Vivia Infanti, too. Else dreaded the moment when he would have to talk about some personality they should both know. However, it did not take long to discover that keeping his own mouth shut while grunting occasionally would keep Scolora chattering indefinitely.

The real danger proved to be the meal itself. The main course was a massive roast. The diners all agreed that it was a huge treat. Mutton and more mutton garnished with mutton was the customary fare. Which would have been perfectly acceptable to Else.

Enio Scolora carved himself a chunk big enough to choke a tiger. "Ha! Confusion to our enemies. What kind of menace can they be if they can't stuff themselves with a good roast piggie once in a while?"

Another old soldier said, "This is where we separate out the Joskers and the Deves, all right." He snickered. Which blew snot onto me table. He wiped that away, smearing it on his leg.

Else knew what he meant by Deves. Devedians belonged to an old minority religion that had arisen in the Holy Lands before the modern contenders. Devedian dietary law resembled that of al-Prama. The Devedian prophets had schismed away from the ancestral Dainshaukin creed three centuries before the Chaldarean Founders — all of whom had considered themselves devout Deves — first discovered their voice. Deves were less numerous than Chaldareans and al-Pramans but remained influential.

"Not to mention the Dainshaus who started everything,"

Else said. "Joskers? I must've been living in a hole like some anchorite. I don't know that one."

"That's what we called the Kaif's men. It sounds a little like the Peqaad for 'Freaks from Qasr.'"

Arnhanders tended to drop the al-Zed when they talked about the eastern Kaifate. Which they called by the name of its older core kingdom, Lucidia, most of the time.

Else took a piece of pork. There was no choice. And he had a dispensation from the Kaif of al-Minphet personally, set forth because it had been clear from the beginning that he would have to break religious laws if he was going to pass as one of the enemy.

"This isn't bad." Eyes turned his way. "After the gruel and crud you get served in Triamolin." The real Aelford daSkees had served that minor coastal city-state before being summoned home.

"Good old maggoty hardtack straight out of the barrel, with meat so foul a vulture wouldn't touch it," Scolora said. "It's the romantic soldier's life for me."

The exigencies of life in the field were universal. Else said, "You have to keep your livestock on the hoof until you need it"

"You guys never did that. I never saw such a piss-poor excuse for a bunch of soldiers as you guys when you came in before the Battle of the Well of Days."

Else pretended to look around for eavesdroppers. "You didn't hear this from me. Prince Aderble is an idiot. Literally. He doesn't care about anything but his own vices. The priests use him as a figurehead while they line their purses. Your real reaction should be amazement that we got there in time for the fight. He was retailing nothing that was not common knowledge. Triamolin's company had been devoured by Indala al-Sul Ha-laladin. The rest of the crusader force had not fared much better. Which led to the inevitable question.

"How did you survive the Well of Days?"

"I was clever enough to be laid up recovering from a poisoned arrow I took in a skirmish with bandits from Dreanger." He had a scar he could show if necessary.

"There is a God."

"You wouldn't think much of Him if you ever took one of those arrows. They stings a bit."

"Where you from?" Scolora asked. "Originally."

"LaTriobe. In Tramaine. I know. You never heard of it. I've been in the Holy Lands since I was fifteen. Why?"

"You've got a funny accent."

"I talk Peqaad or Melhaic most of the time."

The old soldier made a sudden warning gesture. The table fell silent. The rest of the hall had done so already.

Two members of the Brotherhood of War had entered the mess. One was a grizzled, scarred fellow in his fifties. The other was under thirty. Both were lean, hard men, very clean and well-groomed. They looked enough alike to be family, though the Brothers took vows of chastity when they took orders.

The older man said, "Continue your conversation." He took a seat at Else's table. The younger man did the same.

Both wore Brotherhood black with a red hourglass and crossed white swords embroidered over their hearts, on their overshirts. The same symbol was repeated on their backs, much larger.

"Are you traveling?" Else asked. No one else seemed inclined to speak, let alone make introductions.

Most crusaders did not like the Brothers. They were fanatics, much too humorless, grim, and in a hurry to get to Heaven. Good to have on your side when you were in deep shit and needed somebody to save your ass, though.

Trenchers arrived for the newcomers. The older man said, "We're bound for Dateon. Sometime tonight." His stare was piercing. It reminded Else of Gordimer at his most intense. "You were talking about your adventures in the Holy Lands."

"I didn't have many. My father sent my uncle and me to Triamolin because his uncle told him that young men could make their names and fortunes there. He didn't understand the reality."

The younger Brother grunted, swallowed a chunk of pork he had not yet chewed. "The Carpets are a waste of flesh as warriors or nobles."

The elder said, "Except for Ansel, who founded the Triamolin state."

"A pity the Patriarch back then didn't check the Carpet offspring out before he put a crown on the old man's head."

The elder Brother let that slide. He addressed Else. "So you finally had enough, eh? You could become part of something with real meaning, here. The Brotherhood of War always has room for men who want to do the Lord's work."

Else did not observe that, to his recollection, the Chaldarean god was a pacifist. "That isn't it. I've been called home. I'm the last daSkees. The rest died when the Duke of Harmonachy invaded Tramaine. His Grolsacher mercenaries killed anybody who got in their way when they were running away from Themes."

"You said an uncle went east with you?"

"Reafer. Yes. Dysentery got him."

"It's a harsh world. Disease claims more good men than the efforts of any enemy."

That was true on the other side, too, where the medical and surgical arts were more advanced and ideas about prevention and containment of disease were more practical. Else grunted agreement. He continued to down bites of pork mechanically.

The younger brother observed, "You aren't afraid of us. The rest of these are."

"No. Should I be? Are you demons wearing the skins of men?"

"They all think we're sorcerers."

This was news to Else. He knew of the Brotherhood of War only as a band of ferocious warriors. "And? Have you turned on your own kind?"

Gentle gasps told him that a few of his companions did harbor some such suspicion.

"There are weeds in the gardens of the Lord. We face an age of renewed crusade. The steel must be tempered. We face formidable enemies in Indala al-Sul Halaladin and Gordimer the Lion. The battalions of the Lord will have no place in them for doubters or the faint of heart."

Some things were the same on both sides, Else reflected. "How about the worn out and exhausted who don't have anything left to give to kings and warlords who care more about their own glory and fortunes than they do about reclaiming the Wells of Ihrian?

"God and the Patriarch willing, that won't be a problem, next crusade."

"Enough," the old brother said. "He hasn't seen the Holy Lands yet," he told Else.

Apparently, the younger man had said something he should not have. Would extraordinary measures be taken to arm a new crusade with competent, motivated, true-believer commanders? That was not good. Arnhanders were formidable fighters. Only the pettiness and incompetence of their captains assured the failure of their efforts.

Else stared at the ceiling in the dark. The pork churned in his guts. Somewhere nearby someone used a woman with great vigor, with her enthusiastic participation. He paid little attention.

He had collected important intelligence already. The next crusade might be better organized and led. And the new Brothen Patriarch expected to pick and choose his commanders.

Else's thoughts drifted to the company he had taken to Andesqueluz. They should be home, now. He hoped they had been well rewarded.

He drifted on to the puzzle of the slain bogon.

Who conjured it? No friend, certainly. Someone who did not want the mummies to reach er-Rashal? That made sense. Assuming those brittle old sticks could be put to major sorcerous use.

In theory, the mysterious enemy could be any sorcerer aware of what er-Rashal was planning. Which, certainly, was nothing urgent. Or he would not be cruising the Mother Sea just to check on one spy's progress.

That deserved reflection, too.

There was a soft tap at his door. He did not respond. That would be another house whore offering her services. Or maybe a boy, since he had refused two women already.

Nahlik sat drinking wine across from Else. Else confined himself to coffee. It would take him a while to wean himself from dietary law.

Nahlik had succeed a long time ago.

Two more men shared their table in a sailors' dive known as the Rusted Lantern. Mallin had come in with Nahlik. The other man was a stranger. He had been there when Else arrived, unconscious in a pool of his own vomit. Customers took what seats they could, though that settled them in the company of strangers.

Mallin said, "We'd better talk before they throw this one out so they can fill the seat with a paying customer."

Else grunted. "Nahlik, you were on the mark when you said don't take anything embarrassing ashore. Somebody went through my stuff last night. While I was at supper."

"Probably just looking for something to steal," Mallin said. "But you'd a' heard about it if you had anything that didn't fit."

Nahlik said, "You were followed here. By that scrawny, stringy-haired character bellying up over there. He's too busy getting himself on the outside of a few quarts of wine to keep a close watch on you."

Else quickly related what he had heard last night and what that might mean in terms of the character of the new Patriarch.

Mallin opined, "He's just coming in overconfident. They all are at first. Then they find out how powerless they really are."

"This one has a different feel, even from here."

Nahlik said, "We don't know you anymore."

A big, sturdily built brute was talking to the stringy-haired character. Neither looked at Else but he knew they were talking about him.

Turning so it looked like he was talking to Mallin, Nahlik asked, "You know what ship you're taking?"

"Vivia Infanti."

"We'll get your stuff aboard. Mallin, take hold of the drunk. We'll walk him out like he's our friend."

They barely got the drunk off his stool before a boy materialized, armed with a filthy rag and a bowl of dirty water. He made a dispirited effort to clean up the vomit.

"Do a good job I'll give you a copper for your own," Else whispered.

The boy discovered reserves of enthusiasm. Else slipped him a coin. "I need more coffee. No! I don't want your sister, your mother, or you. I just want more coffee."

A newcomer started to settle opposite Else. The big man who had been talking to the skinny one pushed him aside. "Go away," he said. He took the stool himself.

Else studied his coffee and waited for another cup to arrive. He felt the big man staring at him.

He appeared to be alone. His behavior had attracted no attention despite its rude and provocative nature.

Else said, "That was inexcusably rude."

It was clear the big man meant to become violent. Else trumped him.

The man started to speak but gasped in surprise instead.

"Don't pick a fight with a man who has one hand under the table. If you take a breath I don't like I'll ruin your knee. If you move at all I'll ruin your kneecap. Nod if you understand."

The man nodded. He showed no fear, just pain and confusion. He was not accustomed to being on the downhill end of the pain/terror equation.

Else's fresh coffee arrived. He paid using one hand. Then he told his new friend, "You were going to explain what you're doing. And why. You were going to do that because you don't want to live the rest of your life with only one good leg."

The big man was careful not to move.

"Speak to me," Else said. He pushed the long dagger's razor-sharp tip a quarter inch deeper into the space beneath the man's right kneecap. Nothing. "There'll be no help. Your longhaired friend left." Still nothing. "If you have the brains God gave a toad …" The Sha-lug had a saying, You can't fix stupid, said of crusader captains who fell for a trick more than once. This looked like it might be a major case of stupid. "You're bothering me for a reason. I want to know what it is." He probed a little deeper with the dagger.

Else saw the moment when the shock cleared enough for realization to strike home. The moment when understanding arrived.

The big man ground his teeth. "There is nothing I can tell you." He spoke mechanically. "I was told to find Carpio. He would point you out. I would kill you in a brawl that Carpio would swear you started."

"But Carpio took off right after he talked to vou. Where do you suppose he went? Who told you to kill the man he marked?"

"Starkden. The order came from Starkden."

"Is that a man's name?"

"Starkden is a woman. They say."

Volunteered information. A good sign. A watershed in this relationship. "Be that as it may, Starkden sent you. Why?"

"Because she wanted you dead, I guess."

"Why?"

Shrug.

“Tell me about this woman. Including where I can find her."

The big man knew nothing. He'd never met Starkden. He'd heard that she was an older woman, in her forties or even her fifties. If you did what she said she paid well. She supposedly had no political or religious axes to grind. Not that he cared about that stuff himself.

Else questioned the man for another ten minutes and learned nothing more. "All right, Ben." The big fellow's name was Benatar Piola. "I want you to sit right there till your knee stops hurting. If you put any strain on it right away it'll fold up, you'll wreck the joint, and they'll probably have to cut off your leg." You could not fix stupid but you could use it.

Else called for wine for Ben, paid and left.

Once back at the factor house he told his story to anyone who would listen. He thought a legitimate traveler would do that. And he hoped somebody would have an idea about what really had happened. He got nothing for his trouble but insincere sympathy. He should have had sense enough not to frequent waterfront dives. Nobody seemed willing to guess who Starkden might be.

The morning he was supposed to board Vivia Infanti for Sonsa he received a summons through a house messenger. He followed nervously. Something must have gone wrong. Then he was sure it had when he found himself in a room with four older members of the Brotherhood of War.

"You're Sir Aelford daSkees, homeward bound after service in the Holy Lands?" one asked.

"I am."

"I'm Parthen Lorica. From the Special Office. We're interested in your encounter in the sailors' tavern."

"Why?'

"Excuse me?"

"I complained myself gray around here and the only thing anybody cared about was whether I owed anybody any money. Somebody's out to kill daSkees? Better not let him have anything on credit."

"Sound business practice."

Else grimaced but kept his mouth shut.

"Someone passed the story on to us. And here we are. Interested."

Else responded with a grudging, "All right."

“Tell us what happened. Try not to leave anything out. Any little detail might help. This might give us a chance to do something we've wanted for a long time."

"Which would be?"

“To get a line on a witch and spy who calls herself Starkden."

Else was tempted by the notion that any enemy of the Brotherhood of War was a friend of Else Tage. Only this particular enemy of the Brotherhood had paid to have Else Tage murdered.

Else told his story almost exactly as it had happened — discounting some creative editing on behalf of Nahlik and Mallin.

"Those sailors you were sitting with. You didn't know them?"

"No. The soberest two knew each other but not the unconscious drunk, I'm pretty sure, even though they carried him away. He was there when I sat down. Those two didn't show up until a few minutes later."

"And their names were Ren and Doy?"

"That's what they said. I didn't really care about them. I was in there because the Lantern has Peqaad coffee and I developed a taste for that… I was trying to relax some before I travel again. I hate sea voyages. I get seasick. Bad."

"Carpio and Benatar Piola were the other men?"

"Yes."

"We know Carpio," the oldest Brother said, speaking for the first time.

Lorica said, "Only a moron would trust Carpio with any secrets. But someone must have hired him. So he's a thread we can tug at. Piola shouldn't be that hard to find, either."

"Can you tell me anything about this woman who wanted me killed?"

"No. But only because we know so little ourselves. We're hoping to change that. Why would she want to kill you?"

"Please don't start that. I've already got my brain twisted into knots trying to figure that out. The only thing that makes any sense to me is, somebody picked the wrong target. That Carpio. If he was following me around, maybe he followed me from here. Maybe he was supposed to follow somebody else who was staying here."

"Possible, I suppose. Or Starkden might think you're someone else in disguise. Who could she mistake you for?"

Else shrugged. "I've spent my whole adult life fighting for Triamolin. I don't own anything worth stealing, in the Holy Lands or back home in Tramaine. I'm carrying my whole fortune with me. Who would this woman be spying for?"

"Rumors have linked her to the Patriarch, to the Eastern Emperor, and to Hansel Blackboots. Do any of them have any treason to kill you?"

"Hardly."

Lorica added, "Starkden has been associated with the Unbeliever, too. With Lucidia in particular."

"I never had much to do with them. We mostly dealt with tribal raiders that Dreanger bribed to harass us. Except for the battle at the Well of Days. Which I missed because I was laid up with a wound from a poisoned arrow."

Parthen Lorica told him, "We've been forthcoming with you. We hope you have with us. You're leaving aboard Infanti? If anything turns up before she sails we'll send a message."

"I appreciate that" It was a generous gesture. These men respected what they believed him to be. But he hoped they would have no success. Success could mean them finding out that Starkden really was after a Sha-lug chieftain pretending to be Aelford daSkees.

He devoted himself to mental exercises meant to conquer stress. Success eluded him. He envisioned a pretty little blonde girl, a toddler grinning wildly as she tried to walk toward him.

He puzzled that until he realized that she must be his sister. And that left him with the icy chills.

Normally, he failed miserably when he tried to remember his family. Which was surprising. The boys of the Vibrant Spring, while they were still little, remembered their families. Their mothers, especially. And spent a lot of silent tears in the darkness, when their instructors could not see.

Else boarded Vivia Infanti shortly after noon, having eaten nothing all morning. The ship was still taking on cargo when he arrived. He spied both Mallin and Nahlik on the quay.

A Sonsan seaman checked his name off a list. Another man, wearing a pipe on a chain around his neck, drew him aside. "Sir Aelford, the stuff you sent ahead is in your personal locker, up forward. I'll show you."

Vivia Infanti did not resemble the long, lean sharks of war that Else had seen while approaching Staklirhod. She was a huge wooden bathtub with exaggerated castles on either end, a hundred and thirty feet from stem to stern and fifty-five wide at the beam. A monster of a merchant ship, probably originally meant to transport soldiers eastward on the crusader routes.

There were stowage lockers below the rails up forward, obviously installed as an afterthought. The seaman opened a hatch on what proved to be a cubicle slightly more than two feet in each dimension.

"This will keep your stuff from sliding around. Or washing overboard in bad weather. It won't keep anything from getting stolen. It won't keep anything dry if we do run into any weather. Use it accordingly."

"Thank you." Else considered the small oilskin bundle lying inside. The bundle contained written instructions from Gordimer. He was not allowed to open them until he was on his way to Sonsa.

Else stowed his gear, shut the locker, and joined Enio Scolora at the landward rail. Scolora said, "I heard the Witchfinders had you in."

"Who? The Brothers I talked to this morning? They wanted to know what happened at the Rusted Lantern. What nobody else cared about"

"I heard it was Parthen Lonca and Bugo Armiena.

"One said his name was Lorica."

"That's them. They're from the Special Office. They hunt down ghosts and demons and sorcerers and whatnot. You don't want to get noticed by them."

"What? Tell me about this Special Office."

"You didn't have the Brotherhood underfoot in Triamolin, I take it."

“Triamolin is the back end of beyond. We're still there only because it isn't worth the trouble of kicking us out."

Scolora related a long tale about fanatics hidden inside the already fanatic Brotherhood. Men with strong sorcerous talents who wanted nothing less than the extinction of the tyranny of the night.

Else did not understand. The things of the night were no more evil than lions or hyenas. They did what God made them do, like dogs and flies and rainbows. They might be dangerous and deadly but so might any other part of the natural order. The tyranny of the night was part of the world and life.

Scolora shrugged. "They got it made. They can afford to be fanatic. They live out here where the night ain't part of their life every minute of every single day." Which it was amongst the Wells of Ihrian, more so than anywhere else in the world.

"How do they manage when they visit the Holy Lands?"

"They grumble a lot. And take it out on the Pramans. Word is, though, something happened over there that's got them all stirred up."

"Uhm?"

"I think somebody skragged some kind of big deal spook thing. Just a regular guy, not a wizard. They want to know how he did it."

Sailors asked Else and Scolora to move away from the rail. They began singling up the mooring lines. Boats gathered to nudge the vessel away from the quay and toward the channel. Vivia Infanti depended entirely on sail power. Eliminating oarsmen offered huge labor savings.

There was a ghost of a breeze directly on the ship's beam, pushing her toward the quay. The oarsmen in the boats earned their pay.

The deck force did not take in the fenders until Infanti was thirty feet out from the quay and her bow was swinging toward the channel.

The first small sails broke. Infanti soon held her heading on her own, and crept forward, though without adequate steerage way. More sails spread.

Else said, "The master of this tub is good."

"He wasn't, he wouldn't be her master. Sonsans are practical and pragmatic in the extreme. You all right?"

"I'm never all right when there's water under me instead of dirt. Big things with lots of teeth live down there. And they all want to eat me."

Scolora chuckled. "You get seasick, eh?"

The merchantman put more way on. She eased into the channel and ranged the lighthouse that marked the mouth of the harbor. Once Vivia Infanti passed that two-hundred-foot-tall brick structure she would be on open seas and Else would feel more and more like he had fallen off the edge of the world. "Yes."

Infanti's master lined her on the range markers. Signalmen exchanged messages with the harbormaster ashore and me traffic watchers in the lighthouse. There was a lot of traffic at Runch.

Excitement broke out on the stern castle. One of the signalmen called for the ship's master. Else said, "Something's up."

"They can't get anything past you, can they?"

The ship's master, first officer, and several others closed in on the signalmen. After two minutes of wigwags the chief boatswain shouted orders to the deck crew to get the sails taken in. The helmsman took the ship to starboard, out of the channel. She lost way. Shortly, the anchor chain squealed and rattled.

"Bet that there is the reason why," Scolora said, indicating a longboat putting out from the small quay at the foot of Mount Calen, which was crowned by the Castella Anjela dolla Picolina, headquarters of the Brotherhood of War. "Somebody wants a ride."

Else hoped that was all.

The ship's master barked. The deck hands began herding passengers belowdecks. Demands to know what was going on received no answer.

The working crew followed the passengers, no more pleased about their situation. The ratings and officers followed them, until no one remained above decks but the ship's master himself.

Else heard a boat come alongside and scrape against the hull. People clambered aboard. There was a muffled, heated exchange on deck. That faded away.

Crew and passengers alike virtually exploded onto the open deck when permission came down.

There was nothing to be seen now but a longboat headed toward the quay below Castella Anjela dolla Picolina. The ship's master resumed issuing orders. The crew prepared to get under way again.

An hour later no one knew more than what was obvious immediately. Scolora was of the opinion that, "It's somebody from the Special Office. A big-time sorcerer. Something's going on, Alf. This is history in the making. And we're right here in the middle of it." That excited him.

Else was not excited. He feared that he was why Vivia Infanti had stopped.

No sign was seen of any Brotherhood passenger. If such a creature existed he did his own cooking. The ship's cook was not fixing anything for any secret traveler. No one had been evicted from his quarters.

The west coast of Firaldia, approaching Sonsa from the south, was the most heavily settled rural land Else had ever seen. Every headland boasted some kind of fortress or watch-tower. The land sloped down steeply to the Mother Sea.

Sea traffic was heavy. Any boat that came within hailing distance tried to sell something.

"They're all out because the weather is so nice," Scolora said. "You have to take advantage of the good days."

"Sounds like words to live by." Else had grown comfortable with Scolora. Enio talked constantly but asked few questions. Enio did not mind the silent veteran type. A lot of old soldiers were that way.

Several other passengers were headed home from the Holy Lands. The lot formed a clique. The remaining passengers were pilgrims who had gone to visit the Wells of Ihrian. Else, Scolora, and two others from farther west had agreed to continue on from Sonsa together. Else wondered how he could get shut of Scolora long enough to disappear.

He had not managed enough privacy to look at his sealed orders. Gordimer's packet contained a dozen letters, each to be opened only after he reached a prescribed point in his mission. There were three letters he was supposed to read before he reached Sonsa. They remained unopened. He worried. There might be some critical detail that needed handling… though he doubted that Gordimer fussed worse than a clutch of old women.

"Looking forward to getting home?" Scolora asked.

"Not really. It won't be anything like what I remember. Everybody I knew will be old or dead."

Scolora made a sour face. "You sure as fuck take the fun out, Alf. Now you got me thinking I'm heading for a foreign country."

"There was an old Deve in Triamolin who used to say that."

"Huh? What?”

"That the past is a foreign country. I keep thinking I'm dreaming and pretty soon I'll wake up on my own cot back in Triamolin."

"Yeah? Dream about that. That's the outer lightship." Enio had visited Sonsa before.

Sonsa proper was a riverine city eight miles inland. Vivia Infanti would travel from lightship to lightship until regular river buoys became visible. A pilot waiting on this first lightship would take control for the rest of the journey.

That pilot came aboard. Hours passed. The ship proceeded slowly. Else grumbled, "We're going to spend a whole day just covering the last few miles."

"Bet you they'll let you get out and walk."

"Probably would," he admitted. "I'll be a new man once I get some dirt under my feet." He knew his companions were tired of his complaints.

"We're looking forward to it, pal."

It did take almost all day to climb the Sawn River to Sonsa's great waterfront. Else marveled at the strange, busy buildings, all so tall, so ornate, so gaily painted. Al-Qarn was a dun city of mud brick, low, square buildings, the only color the awnings merchants used to identify their trade. The Kaif did not like color.

Vivia Infanti passed berth after open berth. Else asked one of the sailors why.

"Those don't belong to us. They're Red or Blue. Infanti is a Durandanti ship. The Durandanti are Greens."

Color was a facet of Chaldarean culture that baffled Else. In the Eastern Empire, in the Firaldian kingdoms and republics, in the principalities along the Promptean coast, anywhere that the Old Brothen Empire had had an enduring impact, the populace divided into two or more Colors. These days those usually identified political factions. Colors had begun, in antiquity, as wagering societies and fan groups of team events at the circus and hippodrome.

Sonsa claimed it was the most important mercantile force on the Mother Sea. Aparion and Dateon disagreed. Platadura, over in Praman Direcia, offered a nay-say of its own. Sonsa showed a unified, determined face to the world but the squabbles of the factions at home were worse than those of spoiled children. Without rational basis in the eyes of outsiders.

There were no doctrinal or ideological conflicts. Just a perpetual, intractable contest for control of the state. As in local politics everywhere in Firaldia, it all came down to families.

The Durandanti had the largest merchant fleet They were of the fixed opinion that that made them the foremost Sonsan family.

The Scoviletti and the Fermi did not concur.

The Scoviletti possessed the smallest fleet but the mercenary army they managed, and rented out, mainly in Chaldarean Direcia, gave them a big edge in crude sword power.

And the Fermi, of course, always had a cousin who married the brother of the Patriarch, a daughter who married into a great family of Dateon or Aparion, or made loans to the princes of the city states on the northern plain, or in some other way forged alliances that sheltered them from the envy of the Durandanti and the Scoviletti.

Else grumbled, "Somewhere in Sonsa I'm supposed to find a solicitor who represents most of the families of Tramaine. The letter I got in Triamolin told me to find him. He'd know the latest."

"Makes sense," Scolora said. "So you do need to find him. But will he put you up?"

Yes, probably. There were Dreangerean agents in Sonsa. He was expected to make contact. "I'll hunt him down. If we ever get ashore. Here's my plan. You and Tonto and Adrano go get us set at the factor house and see about our passage to Sheavenalle. I'll find my man, then catch up with you there."

"Good plan. Except for one angle."

"And that would be?"

"I want to find out who's been hiding in the captain's cabin since we left Staklirhod. We can hide on the dock and watch until whoever it is sneaks ashore." Scolora's tone left no doubt of his conviction.

"You sure you want to take that chance?"

"Don't you?"

"I think it's a waste of time." But he did want to know if some Brotherhood of War sorcerer had followed him across me Mother Sea. "But, all right. Let's just be careful."

"Must be a holiday," Scolora said. "Hardly anybody seems to be working." He dragged everybody behind a cluster of fat cotton bales a hundred yards from the ship.

Else was appalled. This much cotton had been smuggled out of Dreanger? By just this one Firaldian house to just this one Firaldian port?

Scolora had chosen a good spot. It offered an excellent view of Vivia Infanti without the watchers being exposed to me curiosities of the few men working the docks.

"Can you understand these people?" Scolora asked. The Sonsan dialect was almost impenetrable. Else shook his head. He had trouble understanding Scolora.

Tonto whispered, "Something's happening. Shit, You cocksucker, Enio. I didn't believe you. Nobody believed you. But you were right."

They all found places to peek over or around the bales.

Sure enough, there was a stir aboard Vivia Infanti. Only moments earlier the ship had seemed dead, the crew having gone ashore right after the passengers.

"That isn't a Brother," Else said. Two men were leaving the ship. The first was tall and arrogant in bearing, looking around as though daring the universe to try something. The other was older, bent, and struggling with an unreasonable amount of luggage. The tall man did not help. Neither had been seen during the voyage.

"You think they'd run around in their black and red yelling, 'Hey! Here I am?' Whatever they're up to, we already know it's supposed to be secret."

A closed coach drawn by a two-horse team clopped to the foot of the gangway.

"There's what I call timing"

The older man began wrestling baggage aboard the coach. The driver helped. The tall man examined his surroundings intently.

"I don't like this," Tonto said. "Something's wrong. I'm out of here." He slid away into shadows, fast and silent.

"Damn!" Scolora said. "What was that all about?"

Adrano had known Tonto in the Holy Lands. He said, "I don't know. But him and me are still alive because his instincts were always right around the Wells of Ihrian."

Then we'd better listen," Else said. He was accustomed to crediting the undirected misgivings of Bone and al-Azer er-Selim.

"Coach is moving," Scolora said. "Coming our way."

"Damn! Get down, then. Get invisible."

Scolora protested, "There're other people around."

The coach, moving fast, drew abreast of their hiding place, Else glimpsed its polished ash flank through a gap between bales. Then all the darkness went out of the world.

A god's fist smashed into his chest and flung him against a warehouse wall. As he flew he heard shredded screams from his companions. Cotton fountained, some of it on fire.

Unconsciousness came.

It did not last long. A few numb-looking dock wallopers were just starting to get in amongst the bales, chattering too fast to be understood. Else picked out the word for sorcery, though.

He became aware of pain in his left wrist

"God is merciful," he murmured. His wrist had been burned. Blisters were rising already. His amulet had protected him.

He staggered to his feet, covered in cotton, startling the Sonsans. "What happened? Where are my friends?"

In an exchange made difficult by language problems Else explained that he and his friends had thought that they could save money by sleeping amongst the cotton bales. Then there had been an explosion.

That was all the Sonsans knew. Just, Boom! and the quay was covered by tons of smoldering cotton. They thought it might have something to do with the squabbles between me great families.

They found Scolora right away. The Direcian was dead. Thoroughly and gruesomely so. He had been torn into four pieces loosely connected by strings of skin and flesh. And Adrano was scattered almost as extensively as the cotton.

At that point me dock wallopers really caught on. They had used the word sorcery before. Now they saw the proof. They scattered immediately.

The quay was a complete ghost town, now. Where were the workers? The crews from the ships? Where were the curious, drawn by the explosion? Did bad news spread that fast here?

Else considered Scolora and Adrano. He could do nothing for them now. He felt guilt and anger.

He collected their gear and helped himself. Then he eased out onto the quay. No one was watching. All was still. Darkness was falling. He had to disappear into the city.

He could not turn up at that factor house now.

A light shown through the leaded glass stern lights of Vivia Infanti. From the captain's quarters.

Else moved quietly into the Stern Castle. No life had yet returned to the quay. But that would not last.

Someone in the master's quarters played a lute, a dolorous tune that Else did not recognize. It was a sad song of unrequited love. Like most of its kind, it originated in the End of Connec, where such things had been invented.

Else pulled the latch string slowly, swung the door inward without a sound.

The ship's master sat in a plush chair, beyond a chart table, staring out the stern lights at stars coming to life as indigo skies gave way to true night. His back was to Else.

He ceased playing his sad song. "I didn't think you'd keep your word, sorcerer." The seaman made that final word a curse and an expression of boundless contempt.

He turned. And was startled. "Who me hell are you?"

"An unhappy man. Your secret passenger just killed two friends of mine. You're going to tell me about him."

"You're kidding, right?”

"He's bad. But I'm here. And I'm angry enough to make you wish you were carrying a lamp, to light the road to Hell for my friends."

The ship's master struggled but was past his prime and never had been a fighter. Else was in his prime, a fighter, and he knew how to get prisoners to talk.

Once the inevitable was obvious, the ship's master said, "The man was a stupid, arrogant, bigoted pig. I'll actually wish you luck if you go after him."

That was not Else's plan. It was not his mission. He just wanted to know what was going on in case it affected future planning.

The ship's master talked. Else prowled. He considered relics that said this man's whole life was right here aboard this ship. That there was nowhere else he would rather be. He had collected exotic souvenirs in interesting places, including swords with unusual blades; a composite bow of the type used by the steppe horse peoples; a Ghargarlicean infantry bow six feet long, of a type that had gone out of use centuries ago; and a Lucidian crossbow of a sort mass-produced for use by local militias tasked with defending city walls. It did not have much power but any idiot could use it at close range. This one had been painted, then decorated with sutras from the Written and given a quality string. None of which had done its user any good, obviously, or the weapon would not be in a Chaldarean sea captain's weapons collection.

"Be careful with that," the Sonsan pleaded. "It has a hair trigger." There was, of course, a bolt in the mechanism.

"It isn't a good idea to leave the bow bent all the time. Takes the spring out." From questions about the Brotherhood sorcerer Else moved on to broader questions. What were the attitudes of Sonsans toward the Church? Toward Sublime V? Toward the Patriarch's apparent determination to launch a new crusade?

"Crusades are good for Sonsa," the ship's master replied. "The Patriarch is a raving lunatic, but we don't mind as long as his gold pours into our coffers."

Else settled into the master's chair. The master himself was strapped down on his own chart table. Else finally broke out his letters from Gordimer.

Those letters did not contain much that he could not figure out for himself. Keep low. Keep his eyes and ears open. Learn whatever he could, even if it did not appear relevant. Try to discover why Arnhanders thought the way they did. Sow seeds of conflict between Dreanger's potential enemies so they would have no attention to spare for overseas adventures. Work his way closer to Sublime and the Collegium when he could. And so on and so forth, with not one word about what to do when attacked by murderous spies. Or sorcerers from the Brotherhood of War.

He did find out how to contact two Dreangerean agents in Sonsa, neither of whom knew about the other. He was to keep it that way.

"Idiot crusader," the ship's master barked, harshly enough to recapture Else's attention. "Wake up. Somebody just came aboard."

Else did not ask how the man knew. It was his ship. Else collected his letters and the Lucidian crossbow and faded into a shadowed corner.

The latch on the cabin door rose. The door swung inward. A shape in black stepped inside, saw the ship's master laid out, blurted, "What the hell?"

Else triggered the crossbow. "Give my regards to Enio and Adrano."

The invader moved like a cat but not fast enough. He grunted in pain, pierced through the right arm and shoulder.

Else discarded the crossbow and moved in, hoping to strike before the man could use his sorcery.

But the Brother met him with a short sword. He showed no lack of confidence despite being wounded and having to fight left-handed. Until he realized that he faced a skilled opponent.

He lunged, pressed Else back a step, fled through the doorway. Else thought better of charging into whatever awaited him out there. It was nighttime now. And a major sorcerer was afoot

He found another quarrel for the Lucidian weapon, made sure his letters were safely stowed inside his shirt, then extinguished the one lamp burning and opened the leaded-glass stern light

He clambered outside, grabbed a mooring line and spidered down to the quay. He was crouched behind a big wooden bollard, catching his breath, when the wounded Brother clumping down the gangway looked over his shoulder.

Why had he not used his sorcery?

Else loosed his second bolt.

He heard it strike but it did not hamper the man's flight. Maybe he was wearing something under his Brotherhood clothing.

The Dreangerean agent who accepted Else into his shop at an impolite hour was a dwarf, a twisted little Devedian scarcely four feet high. He was not pleased. "I knew this day would come. I tried to pretend it wouldn't. I told myself it would just be a few pieces of silver now and then in exchange for the occasional letter. But this is what it was all about isn't it?"

Else examined his surroundings by the weak light of the tiny lamp the dwarf carried. The place was a miniscule silversmith's shop. The dwarf's clients would be mostly Devedian. Almost everything Else saw looked like Devedian religious paraphernalia. Which seemed likely, the shop being located in the heart of Sonsa's Devedian quarter. "Yes. You're right. This is what you've waited for. What you've been paid to wait for. I need to disappear. And to stay disappeared. I have a letter for you from al-Qarn."

The dwarf's name was Gledius Stewpo. "That's how they say it here and that's good enough to get by." Stewpo might not be pleased about developments but he was prepared to deal with them. He had a secret room underneath his house. It pretended to be a hidden workshop, in case somebody stumbled in. A man could hide there in relative comfort. "They won't find you here without using some heavyweight sorcery."

Stewpo had several ticks that Else found distracting. First, his head was in constant motion, nodding or shaking. And he ended every other sentence with a strained laugh, as though he was enjoying a joke he had just told himself.

Else did not find a single thing the dwarf said even vaguely amusing.

Worse, when the dwarf sat down, he rocked. Forward and back, forward and back, quickly and incessantly. And he was unaware of his ticks.

Stewpo read the letter from al-Qarn. "All right. Here we go. I'm ready to help any way that I can."

Else told him everything. Anything less seemed pointless. "I rigged Adrano's remains so it would look like it was me that got blown apart, then I went through everybody's stuff and took whatever might come in handy."

"That's good. What about the Brotherhood assassin who got away?"

"I don't know if that's what he really was. I know they're not rational people. But they must realize that murdering people like that ship's master, after all he did to help, is counterproductive. People don't pitch in if you kill them for their trouble."

"I was thinking more about what became of him."

"He got away."

"And never smacked you around with any sorcery?"

"That's right"

"They snookered you. The one you assumed was the servant was the sorcerer. The other one was his bodyguard and assistant."

"You could be right. How safe are we from the night here?"

"Quite. This country was civilized before the Old Brothen Empire rose up. The spirits have been winnowed a thousand times. Only the benign ones are still around. The malignant ones have all been driven away or bound into stones and trees and streams. There isn't much left that a sorcerer can use. Sonsans want it that way. They want a world shaped by the laws of economics, not those of pain and chaos."

"The laws of chaos?"

"Even disorder is orderly if you look close enough."

"Suppose this sorcerer brought his own spirits?"

The dwarf had wild white hair not well acquainted with a comb. He ran his fingers through that when not indulging another tick. "That's a possibility. But you said he's from the Special Office of the Brotherhood of War. Those people want to end the tyranny of the night. They don't drag it around."

"Will they employ the tools of evil in order to conquer evil?" A common human failing, even in the Realm of Peace.

"They'd say not. Whatever, they won't find you. If you stay in this room. Rest. In the morning I'll find out what they're saying in the streets."

"Don't change your routine. And I really could use a snack. I haven't eaten since this morning."

"I could be your grandfather, Sha-lug. Don't teach me my craft."

"I wasn't… I see."

Gledius Stewpo brought supper next evening. "Sha-lug, you don't want to be out there now. I assume you didn't lie to me. Yet your story is nothing like what the Brotherhood says happened. They say they were chasing a foreigner who wants to spy on the Church."

"Really? That sounds a little silly. Do they say who? Or why?"

"No. Around here nobody believes anything the Brothers say, anyway. Unless you're a Blue and beholden to the Fermi."

"So there's a lot of excitement. And Color politics is trying to take it over?"

"There're other theories out there. The point is, you don't want to be seen. Having blond hair will get you dragged in for questioning, guaranteed."

Else nodded. Typical luck. All he was supposed to do in Sonsa was get off the boat and go somewhere else.

"If you hadn't interrogated Vivia Infant's master you could've gotten away without anybody suspecting anything. But you tried to kill a member of the Brotherhood."

Else grunted. "I wasn't thinking strategically. Tactically, I thought I needed to find out what was going on."

"You're in luck. They don't know who they're looking for. But they are looking hard. Word from inside is, the wizard is in a tizzy because nobody should have lived through that explosion."

"Didn't you tell me that Sonsa is supernaturally pacified?"

"Obviously, I was jabbering out the wrong orifice."

"What do Sonsans think?"

The dwarf chuckled. "I don't know many people who'd be upset if a few Brothers from the local barracks got themselves dead. They don't have much power here, and little influence except with the Fermi, but they do make themselves thoroughly obnoxious to Devedians and Dainschaus."

"Do they have the kind of power that lets them grab people off the streets? Without Sonsa blowing up?"

"The Durandanti and Scoviletti don't want to alienate them. Because then the Brotherhood might line up with the other family."

"And the Brotherhood squeezes every ounce of advantage out of that, right?"

"Of course. They're not stupid. They don't understand how much they're disliked, though."

"Uhm?"

"They're too powerful. But they're powerful only because the situation here is repeated in every city in Firaldia. There's no unifying national nobility. There's just the Church. And the Empire meddling from outside. In Brothe there are five families dancing the power dance, with the Patriarchy itself the big prize. Without the Brotherhood of War behind him, particularly the Special Office, Sublime never would've gotten elected. He's beholden to them. His aggressive policies are their policies. I've kept telling al-Qarn. But al-Qarn won't listen."

"Gordimer is a great warrior. But as a ruler and planner he has shortcomings. Unfortunately, if Dreanger's fortunes were left to Kaif Karim Kaseem al-Bakr, we'd all do nothing but say prayers while crusaders harvest us like hay. You know Sonsa. How long before the novelty wears off?"

"Most people will forget by tomorrow night. The rest will give up before the weekend. Unless the Brothers offer a big reward. That would bring the sharks out.”

"So I'll just wait them out. Do they have sheep here? Or cattle? Or anything that isn't a pig? I ate salt pork all the way from Runch. Despite an indulgence from the kaif, I feel unclean."

Stewpo was no fool. "You think I'm an idiot, Sha-lug? You want to test my loyalty by studying my diet? You've been here twenty-some hours. You're not on a Brotherhood rack yet. In addition, you need to know that you've been badly misled. The Founding Family of al-Prama were self-deluded maniacs addicted to narcotics. But religion isn't the issue. Not for me. For me, it's what the crusaders have done to Suriet."

Suriet was the Melhaic name for the region everyone else called the Holy Lands.

The early crusader armies plundered the temples and towns of non-Chaldareans. As well as those of those Chaldareans who failed to acknowledge the ascendancy of the Brothen Patriarchy. Those were the times when the Brotherhood made its name and wealth.

In olden times, before the Praman Conquest, the Wells of Ihrian belonged to the Eastern Empire, where a less virulent strain of the Chaldarean faith held sway. It was tolerant. Followers of other religions were not molested as long as they met their legal obligations to the Emperor. That did not change much after the Conquest except that several Chaldarean sub-cults became part of the minority mix.

When westerners arrived to liberate the holy wells they considered even their religious cousins as subhuman resources there to be squeezed for wealth.

Else said, “Trust is the first casualty of our trade. My apologies. Though I'd still love to get next to a leg of lamb."

"I understand. I'm not entirely comfortable with you, either. Satisfy my curiosity. How did you survive an attack that shredded your companions?"

Else chuckled. "Now who's testing who?"

Stewpo shared a mutton roast with Else. Afterward, he sipped a dark wine from the coastal vineyards. "Another interesting day." His ticks were less prominent tonight.

“Tell me. Anything. They didn't do well when they taught me patience."

"I found a source of Ambonypsgan beans."

"Excellent. I assume they reach Sonsa by the same routes and hands that bring the cotton across."

Ambonypsga was a black highland kingdom south and east of Dreanger, the former separated from the latter by an inhospitable stony waste. Ambonypsga was strongly proto-Arianist Chaldarean with a minor admixture of pagan and Devedian tribes. Ambonypsga produced the finest coffee beans grown.

Else raised his left hand. "In answer to your question the other night, I'm alive because I wear an amulet that shields me from sorcery and the things of the night. You can't see it. But you can see some burns. It got hot when it turned that killing spell."

"I see. I do wish you'd try this wine. It's a fine vintage."

Else shook his head.

A bell tinkled softly. The dwarf jumped. He muttered, "At this time of night? There aren't any more of you coming over, are there?"

"Not that I know of."

The bell continued to demand a response.

"Go." Else presumed there was no danger. The people looking for him would not ring bells, they would kick down doors.

Stewpo returned looking worried.He was all fidget and tick, now.

"What is it?" Else asked.

"There have been developments. They found your friend who fled before the attack. They think they know who they're looking for, now, too. Someone named Sir Aelford daSkees. Because he's the only passenger off Vivia Infanti who hasn't been accounted for. Because you named names before you didn't kill that Brother on the ship."

"The kid can't help it. He was born stupid."

"There's more. It's more interesting."

"I'm listening."

"Vivia Infanti's master complained publicly about the bad behavior and murderous intentions of the Special Office wizard he was forced to bring over from Runch. Here's an interesting piece of trivia. Your captain is the brother of Don Aleano Durandanti."

"Who would be a big name in that family. Right?"

"The top dog. And the way the Brotherhood started acting after this sorcerer showed up has everybody pissed off at them." The dwarf rocked double time. "Even the Fermi are grumbling."

"What happened?" Else scarcely noticed Stewpo's ticks, now.

"The Durandanti foreclosed on the Brotherhood barracks. The Brotherhood took a major loan against it a while back. And they weren't making payments."

"You don't seem disheartened."

"The Brotherhood of War are the worst predators in Suriet. Their order is built on stolen wealth and the sale of slaves."

Most Deves outside the Holy Lands, these days, were the descendants of peoples who had been sold around the shores of the Mother Sea.

"I understand," Else said.

"Can you keep information from those who sent you, Sha-lug?"

"I shouldn't. My reports are supposed to include anything al-Qarn might find interesting."

"There are things that I'd rather al-Qarn didn't know. Not Gordimer, particularly. But the other one. The wizard."

"Er-Rashal? Why?"

"He's a sorcerer. And we hear rumors about him. As a Devedian there are things I don't want him to know. If you feel obligated to report everything you observe, then I won't always be willing to help you."

"I can fail to see those small matters that don't pose any threat to my family, my people, my country, or my God." This one dwarf could not be a threat to Dreanger.

"Good. Very good. So I'll take a huge risk and assume that a Sha-lug's word is as precious as the Sha-lug want the world to believe."

Else growled a soft imprecation. Hell. The dwarf was making fun. And the truth was, al-Prama saw nothing wrong with deceiving unbelievers.

"You need to remember that Gledius Stewpo is no Sha-lug. Gledius Stewpo is a Devedian patriot helping his people by assisting the enemies of their enemies."

"I understand that."

The Deves of the diaspora kept quiet but those who survived in the Holy Lands professed it publicly. They wanted all invaders evicted from Suriet. Their Suriet.

Their dogma ignored the historical truth that they had been invaders themselves, in their time.

“I want you clear on the point Before I show you what I'm considering showing you."

The history of the Holy Lands was one of war and invasion again and again as one people after another tried to get control of the Wells of Ihrian.

Why had there been no empire, ever, based in the Holy Lands?

Else said, "We're clear on where we stand. If you think that something needs to be kept between just us two, I'll honor your wish."

"Good. Because I'm afraid we Sonsan Devedians are going to need the assistance of a real warrior soon."

Else grunted an interrogative.

"The Brotherhood aren't accepting the inevitable. They aren't walking away. They believe God is on their side. They won't leave their barracks. They're willing to fight. One Durandanti retainer has been killed already."

"And this ties in with me keeping secrets from al-Qarn?"

"The inevitable next stage — while the Brotherhood is temporizing and hoping for help from somewhere else — will be to lay off blame for the crisis on foreigners and unbelievers.

"They always attack the Devedian quarter when they riot. In the republics the ruling families discourage bigotry because it's bad for business. They depend on Devedian artisans and clerks. But the intolerance is still there in the mob."

Devedians were important in many Praman cities, too. In Praman Direcia the Devedian minority formed a bureaucratic class that supported its Praman rulers enthusiastically.

Stewpo added, "This new Patriarch, though… He has no tolerance at all. He preaches against everyone. Even his own people when they fail to agree that he's the Infallible Voice of God."

"You think something is going to happen?"

"I think the Sonsan mob will try to ran the Brotherhood out The Three Families will sit on their hands. People will get hurt. The Brotherhood will claim that it's all our fault. So the mob will turn on the easy victims. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood will work out an accommodation with the Three Families and nothing will change."

"And you want what from me?"

"Professional advice. On how to defend ourselves. Preferably in a way that keeps the casualties down so the mob doesn't get outraged because we did defend ourselves."

"Good luck with that" Else knew of no way to fight people without making them angrier than they already were. All you could do was hurt them until they were in so much pain that they let the anger go.

"So what's the point of asking me not to pass information on to al-Qarn?" He had seen nothing unusual yet.

"Oh. I thought you understood. We'll fight if we're attacked.

"Again, how does that concern al-Qarn?"

"Our methods might be of interest to the sorcerer."

"Fighting back might not be the smartest thing to do."

The dwarf shrugged. "So be it. Come with me."

The Devedian Quarter was quiet and dark. Else noticed pairs of armed men in its shadows. There was a racket in the direction of the Sawn. At least one large fire illuminated the underbellies of dense, low clouds.

"Looks like rain," Else told Stewpo.

"That would be good. It'd cool tempers."

They traveled barely a quarter mile, which was a large fraction of the width of the Devedian quarter. The quarter was densely populated. It occupied very little ground. Deves had to bury their dead outside the wall, in unhallowed ground set aside by the Church.

The dwarf muttered, "There are spies everywhere."

Two determined-looking youths challenged the dwarf quietly. Stewpo responded. One youth hurried ahead to open the door of what looked like a rich man's home. It had no shops at street level.

The door opened on a narrow hallway illuminated by a single candle. The floor was worn hardwood. Four doors opened off on that central hallway. Each was shut.

At the end of the hall a door opened on a steep cellar stairway. The dwarf needed no guide.

Stewpo stopped at the bottom, said nothing until their guide climbed back up the narrow stairs. Then he opened what appeared to be a derelict clothes cupboard stuffed with castoffs, reached through the clothing, pushed sideways. The back panel moved slightly, men swung away to reveal a darkness behind the cupboard.

Stewpo said, "There isn't anything lurking in this darkness."

"I'll be right behind you," Else said. And, "Have you visited Suriet yourself?"

"No. Have you?”

"Yes. Nowhere is the night so dark as it is there."

The dwarf pushed into the darkness. Which proved to be hanging strips of black felt.

There was no light on the other side of the felt, though. Until Stewpo said something that must have been a password.

An ancient Deve in traditional costume, wearing a huge beard, appeared behind a tiny candle. He said nothing while Stewpo and Else eased past and pushed through another set of felt hangings into a large underground room.

Else suspected the whole neighborhood was rife with tunnels and underground rooms, escape routes and places to hide. He wondered what the Deves had done with the surplus earth.

These Deves had been getting ready for trouble for a long time.

The underground room contained an arsenal and seven wizened, shrunken old men. Stewpo said, "These are the Devedian Elders of Sonsa."

Else noted forests of gray facial fur. These old men might not have seen the real world in a generation. One old man looked like he might have been around, criticizing and complaining, when the Creator was putting together his great, flawed clockwork piece of art.

Else considered them, pigeonholed them, shifted attention to the arsenal.

He was impressed. "There must be a lot of money in the Devedian quarter." He saw fire-throwing weapons from the Eastern Empire and Lucidian crossbows of the sort any fool could use with almost no training. He saw weapons meant for use by specialist troops like grenadiers. He saw amphorae marked as containing deadly poisons suitable for use on arrowheads, spearheads, crossbow bolts, swords, and knives.

It all suggested a ferocious determination.

The Devedians of Sonsa had suffered all they were going to take.

"I'm here," he said. "And I see that you're serious. What do you expect me to do?"

"Nothing if we're not attacked," Stewpo said. "Everything if we are. You'll be our general. You'll be our hope. But no one who isn't in this room now will ever know that a foreign soldier was involved."

Else felt his arm being twisted figuratively.

"Let's see what we have to work with." They did have him at their mercy.

Five minutes later, Else told the elders, "What'll happen is, you'll get yourselves massacred. First time they roll a wizard in on you." Sorcery, even in the hands of its masters, seldom operated on a large scale. In a large battle a single sorcerer was almost irrelevant because he could impact only a tiny fraction of the struggle at a time. But on the close, intimate battleground of a house-to-house struggle, the ability of a sorcerer to crush resistance systematically could be terrifying.

Else asked, "Why do Chaldareans want to attack Devedians?"

One old gray shrub with eyes said, "They say we're a worldwide conspiracy to bring on a permanent darkness."

"I guess that explains why Devedians are everywhere. Never mind that you arrived as slaves. You don't want to confuse true believers with facts." Also, there had been two earlier Devedian diasporas, before the most recent, brought about by the crusades. Those came during the age of the Old Empire.

Stewpo demanded, "What are you driving at?"

"A mob breaks into the Devedian quarter. It runs into military weapons used by determined fighters. What happens next?"

"A lot of pople get killed."

"Confirming the universal suspicion that the Deves are up to no good and need to be wiped out before they overthrow the Church and corrupt every Chaldarean virgin."

There was no point reasoning. These people wanted a fight They did not intend to let good sense get in the way. "What's this?" he asked, having just discovered an instrument of destruction that had no business existing outside Dreanger.

It was a firepowder weapon of smaller bore and longer tube than the falcon that had gone to Andesqueluz. A craftsman had been working on it only moments ago. The smell of hot iron still tainted the air.

The tube had been created by wrapping iron wire around a steel rod, then heating the metal and hammering it. "Is a swordsmith doing this?" It was a stretch but a similar concept underlay the making of the best swords. And the best swordsmiths in Praman Direcia were Devedian.

Would this be something he was supposed to report? The existence of the weapon? Or the fact that there were Deve agents inside er-Rashal's secret workshops? Firepowder weapons had seen field use only rarely. Until the incident of the bogon they had attracted no attention because of their freedom from success.

Stewpo finally confessed, "It's an experimental weapon. I don't pretend to understand it. I'm told it'll give us a way to deal with unfriendly sorcerers."

So. The elders were not blind to reality after all. Their chances would be improved if they could protect themselves against sorcery. Particularly if they were a quarter as wicked as the Church accused them of being.

Else said, "If you really want to fight back and live you'll get that toy finished fast"

How could the concept behind it have gotten to Sonsa so fast?

Silver-tipped arrows and poisoned iron daggers were the stuff of legend. However, any marginally competent sorcerer could surround himself with spells that would weaken or destroy the wood, feathers, bone, cotton or flax, and animal-glue parts of any missile, leaving nothing but a tumbling silver point that would cause harm only by chance.

A man with a dagger was easily frustrated, too, if the sorcerer was not napping.

Else realized that the Deves had trapped him neatly. Their most insidious lure was his need to find out what they were doing and the true depth of their resources. They betrayed themselves a little so he would feel compelled to find out more.

His discovery of the firepowder weapon was no accident.

That left him more convinced that there were Devedian spies close to er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen and, perhaps, even Gordimer the Lion.

Conflict arose predictably, following a tediously unsurprising escalation. A band of adolescents got into the Devedian quarter and threw rocks at Devedian youths, tried to break into a shop, attempted to assault a Devedian girl — then found themselves surrounded by unsmiling men who were not amused by their gentle ethnic jests. They beat me invaders senseless, then flung them into the filth of a midstreet gutter.

The fathers and brothers and cousins of the injured boys took umbrage. That led to confrontations that escalated into the use of weapons. A dozen Chaldareans perished.

In time, a too bold mob of drunks started a battle during which overly enthusiastic Devedian crossbowmen slaughtered scores of raiders.

Every confrontation occurred inside the Devedian quarter. For what little value that was as an arguing point before the city's masters.

Escalation took eight days. Else played the restraining general where no general was necessary and no restraint was possible. On the eighth evening the ruling families felt compelled to take notice because the rioters, turning to Color politics, began starting fires on the Chaldarean side of the Devedian quarter wall. They directed their household troops to restore order. But those forces were besieging the barracks filled with Brotherhood of War squatters.

Knowing success might doom Sonsa's Devedians, Else nevertheless organized an ambush that embarrassed the household forces.

The outrage of Sonsa's Chaldareans, naturally, knew no bounds.

Else told the elders, "Now they'll make war on you. You won't like the way it turns out. There are a hundred of them for every one of you."

"There always have been," Gledius Stewpo said. The Deves were drunk on success. To this point they had suffered no dead at all. One of the beards said, "The weapon is ready." Another said, "The business of Sonsa is business. That business can't go on without us. The Three Families have to let this run its course."

Sonsa became quiet. Order returned outside the devedian quarter. The ruling families did try to let emotions cool. But too many people preferred otherwise. Especially the Brotherhood of War, guided by the unidentified sorcerer off Vivia Infanti.

A rumor said foreign mercenaries were behind the uprising. One description of a Ferris Renfrow was good enough to get Else lynched.

Circumstances were changing. Else began to consider risking trying to get out of Sonsa.

He would be of no use to Dreanger if he got killed in a local uprising.

News of the uprising reached Brothe. The Patriarch had, already, issued a bull insisting on complete obliteration of the unbelievers. He ordered the Three Families to place all their armed men at the disposal of the Brotherhood of War.

Because the Devedian community had friends and spies, because the Brotherhood had enemies determined to see it embarrassed, those who schemed against the Deves had few secrets.

The Brothers were no fools. They would not believe that they could surprise the Deves. And because they numbered fewer than two score they would not be eager to lead an assault.

"Isn't that always the way? Those most eager get behind somebody who doesn't want to be there and push," Else said.

Bad timing. Right now the old men were solidly behind the young men but had no pushing to do. The youngsters were more eager than the old folks. Their situation had not yet grown grim.

Else asked, "What do you expect to do when the Brotherhood comes? They won't run from a few missiles. They'll bring their sorcerers. And they'll kill anybody who isn't one of them. I've seen it before."

Blank looks. Cold stares. The old men did not want to listen. And Else was trapped in their nightmare.

Not once since his first visit to the armory had he been alone. But he was sure he could shed his Deve shadows if he wanted.

The Brotherhood's attack came at night, as expected. Sorcerers felt more comfortable working in the dark. The family household forces, more afraid of the Brothers behind them than the Deves ahead, broke through the barricade barring entry to the Devedian quarter. Others climbed over the wall, which was slight and less than ten feet high. Its purpose was not defensive, it was intended to contain.

They met no resistance. Nervously, they moved ahead, cautious to a fault, anticipating some deadly trap.

It was dark, after all. And Deves were agents of the Will of the Night. Everybody knew that.

The invaders found the Deve buildings boarded up. They were empty when broken into. Not only were the occupants gone, so were their valuables.

The Three Families had told their soldiers to hurt as few people as possible. Deves were critical to Sonsa's prosperity.

The Brotherhood of War moved in as soon as they heard that there was no resistance, determined to plunder.

The household troops grew ever more unsettled.

Any minute now, those Deve sorcerers would unleash all the hounds of darkness.

Else observed the invasion through a crack in an unglazed cellar window. As he had anticipated, the invaders had worked themselves up immensely in anticipation of a desperate fight. Many were drunk. They did not know what to do if there was nobody to fight. They were standing around scaring one another, not even looking for something to steal.

Else whispered to Stewpo, "You see? Discipline is failing. They're drunk enough to forget why they came. They'll get a notion to start looking for secret Deve treasure in a minute. Then we'll have them."

The families and their most precious possessions had moved into the tunnels and cellars undermining the quarter. If complete disaster befell, there was an evacuation tunnel running under Sonsa's south wall. Though Else was not supposed to know about that, or several other tunnels leading out of the quarter. The younger Deves often forgot to speak Melhaic when he was around.

Else had done his best on behalf of the resistance because any success might inspire Devedians elsewhere. If Sublime was busy suppressing minorities at home he might not have time to look to the east.

"Here's the man we're waiting for."

A tall man well-wrapped in black appeared. This was the taller of the two who had come over aboard Vivia Infanti. The one Else had attacked. He seemed in surprisingly good health.

"Stand by," Else cautioned. "He'll use his powers to see what became of the people who should be here."

There was some truth to the rumor that old Deves were sorcerers. Not all of them, just a few. About as many as in any similarly sized group of old people. Those with that dollop of talent had been tasked with masking the hiding places of the women and children.

A number of obvious hiding places had been singled out for the opposite effect

The tall Brother moved toward Else's hiding place suddenly, swiftly, sensing something. "Match! Now!" Else said. He held the firepowder weapon on target. The sorcerer broke into a sprint.

The match man did his job.

There was a thunderous boom and a great cloud of sulfurous smoke. When the smoke cleared the Brother was sprawled on the cobbled street, ten feet back of where he had been when the weapon discharged, pierced through the heart by a silver ball, dead before he hit me ground.

The explosion was the signal hidden Devedian fighters were awaiting.

They made themselves known from the roofs, with a surprise rain of death directed mainly at the Brotherhood of War.

Men shouted orders to put all torches out.

Men shouted orders to belay those orders.

Devedian fighters emerged from the narrow byways, struck, faded away. Snipers up high continued to deliver misery to the intruders.

Else barked and swore at the men working the firepowder weapon. He wanted the weapon ready in case the older Brotherhood witchman turned up. But, even with three men working, it took five minutes to swab the fire tube and repack it with powder, wads, primer, iron pellets, and the silver scrap that was all skinflint Stewpo was willing to provide for a second firing.

It grew quiet outside. The Deve fighters faded away, taking their injured. They let the raiders remove their own casualties. Hope remained that it might be possible to get through this without alienating the Three Families.

"Outlander!" one of Else's team barked. "Here comes the other one."

Else elbowed his way to the window slit.

The mystery man from Vivia Infanti arrived shouting. Like whipped dogs the Household troops returned and began to creep off into the tight alleys and streets of the Devedian quarter.

The Brotherhood sorcerer spotted his fallen henchman. He studied the surrounding night as he edged toward the dead man. But he became so distressed that he failed to remain sufficiently alert

One of the crossbow bolts whizzing around caught a nip of flesh.

He let out a roar driven more by emotional pain than the sting of his wound. Then he began to cast a spell that had been prepared in advance.

That would be something meant to blind or disarm the snipers. Otherwise, he would suffer an endless shower of missiles. The spell would effect his own men, too. But he would not be worried about them.

"This isn't good," Else said as soon as he recognized what was happening. "Not good at all. Do we have any cold water handy? Do we have rags we can soak?"

His assistants wanted to know why that mattered.

"Because we've got a ferromage on our hands. This tube is going to get too hot to handle. Maybe even hot enough to set off the firepowder inside. If that happens, the weapon is useless. And we'll be dead."

The sorcerer did them a favor, though.

While his magic was still growing, while his surviving Brotherhood henchmen were bringing out weapons made of wood or glass, he seemed to sense the source of, if not the cause of, his apprentice's misfortune.

He uttered another thunderous cry and headed toward Else and his team.

Else aimed desperately, the tube not yet too hot to rest atop his shoulder. "Match man! Match man!"

He heard the firepowder hiss in the primer pan. The Brotherhood sorcerer seemed to hear it, too, because he made a sudden, violent effort to stop.

The firepowder exploded. Silver scrap and iron sand spewed into the night. Impact laid the Brotherhood sorcerer out in the air and flung him backward.

Something hit Else from behind, violently.

Else was out only momentarily. He recovered consciousness, found the cellar filled with smoke. It stank of spent firepowder, with a taint of smoldering timber.

The firepowder tube had exploded. He was still alive only because the match man had absorbed the blast. The Deve's blood was all over him now.

Else tried to look outside again. The view was inadequate. The target was down but did not seem mortally injured. The surviving Brotherhood soldiers were dragging him away.

The smell of wood smoke grew stronger.

It was time to find somewhere else to be. There was a whole cask of firepowder somewhere in the darkened cellar, along with all the brave, dead young Deves.

His every breath no longer monitored, Else seized the opportunity to serve his God, Dreanger, and the Sha-lug elsewhere. He abandoned the Devedian quarter by means of a deep, wet tunnel that led not to the country outside the city wall — that one would be crowded and well-guarded — but to a crypt in a mausoleum in the cathedral cemetery a hundred yards northeast of the Devedian quarter wall.

The existence of the tunnel was one of those secrets Else picked up when young fighters had not paid attention to what they were saying.

Despite the tumult in the Devedian quarter the rest of Sonsa was enjoying a quiet summer night. No moon interfered with the view of the sea of stars. A few belated fireflies still sparked among the tombstones and memorials. Neither the dead nor the living nor the Instrumentalities of the Night seemed interested in the progress of one filthy fugitive armed with a long knife and a short iron bar he had picked up during his flight.

Smoke and firelight rose above the Devedian quarter. The keg of firepowder had gone up while Else was in the tunnel. Household troops and Devedian fighters now worked shoulder to shoulder to stifle the flames.

Else took advantage of the opportunity offered by Fate's indifference. He looked for his other Sonsan contact, wishing he had sought this one first. He could have avoided all that Devedian unpleasantness. By now he could be in Brothe, employed in the Patriarch's armies. All unaware of the fact that Deve spies had penetrated the Palace of the Kings.

Rumor said the Patriarch was assembling an army to conquer Calzir. Or it might be the Emperor. Whichever, evidently, there were few takers. The campaign, if ever it materialized, would be extremely arduous while offering private soldiers little hope of plunder. Calzir was poor, agricultural, a bitter place to live. For two thousand years not much had changed there but the names of the masters.

An old joke said that Chaldareans and Pramans fought a war with Calzir at stake and the Pramans lost.

Calzir, though, did have considerable strategic significance. It bestrode the horn of Firaldia and the huge island of Shippen, gazing out at the slim waist of the Mother Sea. And it provided a Praman bridgehead on the Firaldian peninsula.

Else passed by four times before he discovered the cast bronze leopard that identified the home he sought. The leopard was no bigger than a house cat. It did not stand out. He had anticipated something more dramatic.

He slipped up to the door and knocked the prescribed series, unsure that anyone would respond at this hour. He ran through the series a second time, then a third, shrinking into shadow in order to be less noticeable. He leaned out once to consider the progress of the fire in the Devedian quarter.

They seemed to have gotten that under control.

His fourth effort was rewarded by appropriate counter-knocks from inside. He offered the counter countersign.

The narrow door opened a crack. Else saw nothing but heard a whispered query. He offered the proper response.

The door opened another inch. It was as dark as the Patriarch's heart in there. He did not move. He would not until he was invited or refused. There would be some sort of protection set up for the householder.

"Come forward."

He moved carefully, keeping his hands in plain sight, doing nothing that might be considered suspicious. The agent would be nervous, what with the Brotherhood raving on about foreign agitators stirring up the Deves.

"Turn to your right."

He could not see the speaker in the dark. The whispers came from a low altitude.

Not another dwarf?

No, it developed. Not another dwarf. A woman. Which he discovered once they entered a small room where a single weak candle burned. "I thought…"

"You were expecting my husband. He passed away last winter."

"I don't believe they know that at home." He did not mention al-Qarn because, he recalled, this agent believed he served the Eastern Emperor.

"It hasn't been reported. I need the money. Pledga left me no other income when he went."

Else did not ask how or why. He did not care. And knowing would change nothing. He considered the woman. She was small in stature and frame, about forty, graying, obviously proud, still striking and still betraying traces of the beauty she had been not so long ago. "I understand. Are you alone, then?"

The woman studied him as intently as he studied her. Each considered his or her life to be in the hands of the other.

"Yes. As long as the stipend keeps coming, I can afford that."

"Your husband let you know what he was doing?"

"We had no secrets. He told me a story he believed. But he was a bit gullible. What do you need?"

"A place to hide."

"You're the foreign spy they're warning everyone about." Her large, dark eyes came alive with humor.

"I'm a spy. The one they're talking about is one they made up to scare people. A boogeyman to make people behave the way they want."

"They described you pretty well. We need to do something about your hair."

Else sighed. "Maybe so."

"Right now you need to get clean."

Elseremained invisible for three weeks. He retreated to an attic room whenever Anna Mozilla had company. Which was often. The widow was a gregarious woman with numerous friends and relations who enjoyed gossiping. She had no children.

She was energetic and positive and must have been the driving force in her marriage. She gathered regular news of events in the city.

The Three Families fell out with the Brotherhood of War because the badly wounded Brotherhood sorcerer tried to order the Devedian population exterminated after he escaped the fighting in the Devedian quarter. That was a presumption of such epic arrogance that the Three Families all refused to allow it.

Brotherhood casualties that night included twelve dead and nineteen seriously injured. The uninjured survivors were unable to resist when the Durandanti evicted them from their barracks.

"They chartered a ship to take them to Brothe," Anna Mozilla reported. "But they'll be back." A large Brotherhood establishment, Castella dollas Pontellas, the Fortress of the Little Bridges, existed just a few hundred yards from the Chiaro Palace, and even closer to Krois, the island stronghold of the Patriarch. And the current Patriarch had that sweetheart relationship with the Brotherhood.

Anna continued, “The dons aren't pleased. The sorcerer threatened them with writs of anathema. Bishop Indigo threatened right back, banning the Brotherhood from the Sonsan See forever. He was never their friend. He preached against letting them set up here in the first place, back when I was a girl."

"The sorcerer did survive?"

"Yes. But they say he was hurt so bad he'll be crippled from now on. And he'll never perform major sorceries again."

"Uhm?"

"I heard he lost part of his left arm and the rest is useless. And that side of his face was destroyed. There's so much silver embedded in him, his own body will ruin whatever spells he tries." She sounded pleased.

"I really wish he was dead," Else said. "But I'll settle for second best. You say he left Sonsa?"

"Almost two weeks ago, now. He offended Don Bonaventura Scoviletti so badly that the Scovilettis say they won't support the Patriarch in anything that involves the Brotherhood in any way. Bishop Indigo is Don Bonaventura's uncle, by the way."

"Interesting. That must've taken guts. So. We had a nasty, major black-hearted villain here and even now we don't have any idea who he was."

"One of the top sorcerers from the Castella Anjela dolla Picolina. They say he came here because the augurs predicted that a huge threat to the Church would materialize in Sonsa."

"Be an ironic twist if his attempts to prevent that actually caused it."

"A lot of people are saying that."

"The trouble with the Deves should fade away, now. For a while. Without the Brotherhood to keep everybody angry."

"That's the talk. But things will never set back to normal."

"I should slip out of Sonsa, now."

"Not yet." Anna Mozilla sounded reluctant to see that happen, though what she said was, "The dons are still looking for somebody who sounds like the man I found at my door one night a while back. The Devedian elders insist they were duped by a provocateur from Dreanger who died in the explosion that started the fire in their quarter. You don't look like a Dreangerean."

"Goes to show you, you can't believe everything you hear."

Anna Mozilla gave him a look. He was fooling nobody but himself.

Fourteen days later, in the village of Alicea, twenty-two miles east of Sonsa, Else chanced on a dozen men out of Grolsach, Rence, Reste, and several other small political entities in the confusion of Ormienden and Dromedan. They were mostly very young and very tired. Else was tired himself. But he was on the road to Brothe at last

He had killed a hare with a slung stone earlier in the day. The rabbit bought him a place at the fire. The dozen were headed for Brothe, too, with ambitions toward finding work as soldiers. They were mostly strangers who had come together on the road.

The Grolsacher brothers Pico and Justi Mussa and their friend Gofit Aspel had deserted the men who held their apprentice indentures. They had picked up Rafi Corona and shifty-eyed old Bo Biogna while drifting through Dromedan, in Ormienden. The rest had accumulated since. Except for Biogna and a very large and slow-witted fellow who insisted on being called Just Plain Joe — whose traveling companion was a moth-eaten mule named Pig Iron — the men had no military experience. This was a first adventure for everyone. Even Bo Biogna and Just Plain Joe did their military stints in their home territories. When they heard Else was a traveled veteran they insisted he tell them all about the glory of war.

He told them the truth. They were not happy. That was not what they wanted to hear. But they had seen enough of the world to suspect that reality refused to bow to wishful thinking.

10. Khaurene, in the End of Connec

Word spread throughout the End of Connec. The synod of the Perfect had ruled that true Maysaleans must resist evil when evil became oppressive. So the Bishop of Antieux could be ignored if he confined himself to his cathedral or just lurked in his country manor, ranting about heresy. If he sent men to harm Maysaleans they would not be expected to turn the other cheek.

Brother Candle expected that most would, even so. Seekers After Light were gentle folk who longed for a world free of greed and hatred and all the evils Man practiced upon his fellows.

Brother Candle had argued against any surrender to the venom of the flesh. But he would not contest the will of the synod. God would be acknowledged His role as final arbiter. In any event, the targets of the Brothen interlopers were more often Connecten Episcopals than Maysaleans.

Bishop Serifs had kept his head down since the attack on the Patriarchal legate, though the Patriarch kept demanding a more aggressive campaign against heresy.

The legate was slow to recover from his wounds.

Antieux was quiet. Count Raymone Garete, young and quick of temper, remained in Khaurene, Duke Tormond's seat, held there by Tormond so he would not provoke the Church.

Brother Candle made his way through the crowded morning streets of Khaurene for the first time in two decades. No retinue accompanied him but he received more attention and respect than he had when he was Charde ande Clairs.

Episcopal and Maysalean alike, people saluted him or bowed or even hailed him in the ancient imperial manner. Becoming Perfect was considered a great accomplishment by Connectens of all faiths. Even Deves and Dainshaus, who could be found in all the larger towns and cities of the Connec, respected a holy spirit when they encountered one.

The old fortress called Metrelieux stood on an eminence overlooking a bend in the fat, slow, brown Vierses River. Metrelieux had been the seat of the Connecten dukes since time immemorial. The present fortress had been erected using dressed limestone from local quarries four centuries ago, on the foundations of an Old Brothen fortress that had served the identical purpose in imperial times. The original structure had been looted for building stone during the two centuries following the collapse of the Old Brothen Empire.

The stone of the modern fortress was soft. It was dirty. It showed severe weathering. Brother Candle doubted that it would last another hundred years.

Metrelieux reflected the nature of the man who occupied it. So the folk of Khaurene said, who knew him as the Great Vacillator.

Tormond IV just never seemed to get around to doing the big things.

Tormond was loved by the people of the Connec, as much for what he did not get around to as for what he did.

Tormond did not involve himself in the lives of his people. The people of the Connec found that an endearing trait in a ruling duke.

Tormond's father and grandfather had set the precedent. Though the grandfather (also Tormond, the third duke of that name) had gone crusading as a young man. His grandfather had been one of the founders of the crusader states of Kagure and Groves, which, in forms much diminished by Indala al-Sul Halaladin, survived today. Ruled by princes, nominated by the Brotherhood of War, and confirmed by all the more recent Patriarchs.

Brother Candle came up to the barbican gate of Metrelieux. Two sleepy, overweight, and elderly guards were all that stood between the fortress and invasion. They observed sporadic foot traffic from beneath a portcullis that, in all probability, would not come down in an emergency.

No one living could recall the last time the fortress had closed its gates.

There was fear in the streets today, though. The folk of Khaurene sensed that centuries of peace and prosperity were in peril. The people were troubled by a failed attempt on the life of Immaculate II, the anti-Patriarch.

Rumors in the street said that, through great good fortune and the grace of God, assassins intent on murdering the prelate had been overwhelmed by Immaculate's Braunsknechts Guards. There was talk of miracles and divine intervention. The killers should not have failed.

Sublime V, was, of course, the chief candidate for villain behind the crime. Though, naturally, Sublime would deny all responsibility.

The guards at the gate asked him what he wanted.

"I'm Brother Candle. The Duke…"

"Eh. Ye're late, sair. Himself pro'ly guv up on ye comin'." The heavier guard spoke a dialect used way out west, possibly from beyond the River Payme in Tramaine. "Come wi' me, sair."

Brother Candle asked, "What brought you to Khaurene?"

"Khaurene were where I was when I figured out I were ta ald ta be an adventurer anymore." Adventurer being the common euphemism for mercenary soldier. "An' I shoulda done 'er twen'y years sooner. The Duke, he bees a good man ta work far."

"I hear that everywhere." Brother Candle eventually left the guard with a blessing, at his request.

The Patriarch was right. They were everywhere.

Brother Candle passed through dusty halls where, it seemed, no effort had been made to keep house since the current reign began.

Tormond had unusual priorities, it seemed.

Tormond of Khaurene was a balding, graying, gaunt man in his early fifties. Handsome and vain in his youth, Tormond had lost interest in his appearance when he lost Artesia, his Duchess, in childbirth at the age of forty-four, four years past. The child was both deformed and stillborn. Every Connecten who put words into the mouth of God had something to say about that

Tormond disdained them all.

The Duke had aged terribly. His gray eyes were haunted.

"Charde ande Clairs," Tormond said, leaving a clutch of nobles to greet the Perfect.

"Just Brother Candle these days, Your Lordship."

"It must be true, what they say about you people drinking the blood of virgins. You don't look a year older."

"You flatter me, Your Lordship. My bones feel like the bones of an octogenarian. My joints creak and groan any time I bend over. My best years are behind me, alas."

Duke Tormond continued his own thought. "I, on the other hand, have aged for both of us. I'm so tired, Charde. Since I lost Artesia I wake up already weary of the world and its trials."

Had this been anyone other than Tormond, Brother Candle would now witness the peace to be found amongst the Seekers After Light But this was Tormond IV, beloved by his people, whose only male child had been stillborn. Whose most likely successor was Count Raymone Garete of Antieux, a friend of the Seekers but barely out of his teens and a ferocious hothead. Count Raymone suffered from the unfortunate delusion of an independent Connec allied with and protected by King Peter of Navaya in nearby Direcia.

Brother Candle said, "Send a courier to Fleaumont. The nuns can provide you an herbal remedy that will have you stamping the earth like a young stallion again in three months."

"Ah. Your wife is there these days, isn't she?"

"That's where she took her orders."

"I'll do that. You chose the perfect moment to arrive. I suppose that's why they call you Perfect Master." Tormond's sense of humor was not entirely dead. When Brother Candle did not correct him, he went on. "My sister is here." He indicated the group he had departed. Among them was a handsome woman in her early thirties.

“Pardon my brash observation, Your Lordship, but she's become quite a striking woman."

Isabeth was twenty-one years younger than Tormond. She was more like an indulged daughter than a little sister.

"I didn't know she was visiting."

"Officially, she's not. Officially, she's in Oranja, running the state while Peter besieges Camarghara. Please don't tell anyone that you saw her."

"Of course. If that's what you want."

"It is. Come over and sit with us."

Brother Candle followed the Duke to a table where the Queen of Navaya had just settled with six older men. One was a Dainshau. Two were Devedians. Of those two, one's dress suggested that he had come from Direcia, perhaps accompanying Isabeth. The other, named Michael Carhart, was a Devedian religious scholar of considerable substance and Khaurene's senior Devedian.

Of the remaining men, two were Episcopal priests and one looked like a professional soldier. Brother Candle recognized none of them.

Once Brother Candle and the Duke seated themselves, there were no empty chairs. Brother Candle said, "I presume that I'm the last to arrive. So what's the occasion for such a distinguished assembly?"

Tormond said, "A communication from the Patriarch. Sublime, not Immaculate."

Brother Candle surveyed the others. How had Isabeth gotten here so fast?

"Isabeth was here when the letter arrived. She came because King Peter had heard from the Patriarch earlier, on a related matter."

"I see."

"Sublime has commanded me, as Duke of the End of Connec, to rid the province of all heretics and unbelievers. He's done that before, but never backed by the threat of force. As always, he didn't specify who the offenders might be."

One Episcopal priest muttered, "The man is an idiot"

The other priest glared.

The first said, "Does he suppose Johannes would let him get away with that?"

The man who looked like a soldier said, "The message seems timed to arrive right after Immaculate's assassination. That failed. So the threat has no substance."

Queen Isabeth said, "Sublime presumes too much. He believes his own propaganda. His grasp on reality has become suspect."

Brother Candle turned to Duke Tormond for further explanation.

Tormond said, "The fool ordered Peter to ready his forces for an invasion of the Connec."

"Peter of Navaya?" That did indicate a serious disconnect with reality. Why would Sublime think that Peter would abandon the Reconquest to attack his wife's brother? Also, while Peter was a devout Chaldarean, he was tolerant. He did not

persecute the minorities within his own kingdom. Not even Pramans, so long as his own suzerainty remained unchallenged. Hell, rumor had it that Peter's queen was a Maysalean heretic herself. And there were more Maysaleans there than anywhere outside the Connec, except the rump Praman mercantile republic of Platadura, a port on the Direcian coast of the Mother Sea just beyond the eastern coastal end of the Verses Mountains.

Brother Candle suggested, "King Peter now regrets that his father shifted his allegiance from Viscesment to Brothe."

Queen Isabeth confessed, "He did that only because a few important vassals insisted. And they still do."

The military man asked, "Will they make war on fellow Chaldareans?"

"No, Sir Eardale. Our lords are of one mind militarily. The Reconquest. They won't respond to Sublime's call. They all have ties with our Connecten families. But someone else certainly will respond if called."

"Who?” Tormond asked.

"Arnhand, brother. Those people are all thieves."

"Arnhand has its hands full with Santerin."

"No one else has the manpower and moral flexibility. Consider helping make sure the conflict with Santerin stays hot."

"Why are we here?" Brother Candle asked.

"Because your peoples are the ones it's going to happen to if Sublime forces the issue. Father Clayto, here, has condemned Brothe though he's an adherent of the Brothen Patriarchy. Bishop LeCroes, though, is teetering."

Absurd. Brother Candle did not know the man but knew the name. LeCroes was Immaculate's bishop in Khaurene, where the Episcopal population favored the anti-Patriarch.

Father Clayto was critical of Brothe and what Brothe wanted to do in the Connec. For that he had received severe reprimands. Sublime had demoted him to assistant pastor in one of Khaurene's poorest parishes.

The righteous never go unpunished.

Tormond said, "I want to know where each of you will stand if Sublime does try to make war."

Michael Carhart said, "That man doesn't care about heresy or dissent Greed drives him. He means to plunder the Connec to finance a war against Calzir and another crusade into Suriet. The Holy Lands." Suriet being the name of the Holy Lands in Melhaic, a language spoken amongst the Wells of Ihrian and by the Devedians of the latest diaspora. "He's been trying to make forced loans from us in the Episcopal States. In Sonsa the Brotherhood of War tried to destroy and plunder the entire Devedian community."

In truth, whenever the Brothen Church gained power, laws controlling the activities of non-Chaldareans soon took effect. And those, invariably, worked to the detriment of the larger community.

The more educated people in most communities were non-Chaldareans because most Chaldareans of standing disdained literacy. If the Episcopal nobility wanted something written or read, or if they needed accounts kept, they hired some slinking, greedy, hand-wringing Deve to do the job.

Brother Candle said, "You've heard rumors of the synod of the Perfect this spring?"

Several people nodded. The military man shook his head.

Brother Candle continued, "The consensus was that all who follow the Path are required to resist evil actively, even to the extent of countering force with force. If the Patriarch — or anyone else — directly attacks any Seeker After Light for nothing more than the fact that his feet are on the Path, then the Seeker will be absolved of the taint of sin acquired by resisting evil."

Father Clayto asked, "Are you declaring war on me Church?"

"Don't be willfully ridiculous, Father. I said the synod believes that we're morally obligated to fight back if we're attacked. Nobody will be given a dispensation to go to Brothe to root Sublime out and hang him."

Michael Carhart said, “That's an entirely reasonable attitude. The Devedian community will assume the same posture."

Father Clayto snipped, "I suspect the Deves of Sonsa made a similar claim before committing their atrocities there."

Gently, Michael Carhart asked, "How many of those atrocities occurred outside Sonsa's Devedian quarter, Father? How many? Tell me, how many Chaldareans had their homes burned? Explain to me how it is that you people always find your way to the argument that us resisting rape, robbery, and murder is a crime against your god."

Duke Tormond stepped in. "Enough. I just want to know if your peoples will lie down should Sublime actually do something besides talk." Before anyone responded, he continued, "I've sent a deputation to Brothe. Another deputation. Though the first had no impact on Bishop Serifs's bad behavior and the second did nothing but bring back absurd demands. Sir Eardale was part of that mission. He had a good look at Firaldia, the Episcopal States, and Brothe." He pronounced the soldier's name Eh-ahr-dah-lay. "Brothe itself has been demilitarized."

Brother Candle knew the name, if not the man. Sir Eardale Dunn hailed from Santerin, a minor noble banished for reasons known only to himself, his king, and presumably, Duke Tormond. He had been Tormond's leading soldier for two decades, never having had to fight a war. He was not well known outside Metrelieux.

Sir Eardale said, "Sublime's ability to undertake a significant military operation exists entirely inside his own imagination. He believes his own propaganda. God is on his side because he's the Patriarch."

Sir Eardale continued, "Sublime has no troops he could send out on a foreign adventure. Every man he can afford to keep is waiting for Johannes Blackboots to attack. Most of them keeping their boots on at night so they don't have to waste time getting started running if Hansel does strike.

"Meantime, I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that the Emperor is interested in Calzir. Vondera Koterba, his puppet in Alameddine, is recruiting mercenaries, possibly with an eye to annexing Calzir."

Brother Candle took a moment to consider what he knew of Firaldia. Alameddine would be the Chaldarean kingdom that bordered Praman Calzir, on the north side of the Vaillarentiglia Mountains.

Sir Eardale stopped talking. He devoted himself to one of the large cups of coffee that Tormond himself had prepared while his marshal spoke. The Duke offered the drink all round. No one refused. Not even Brother Candle, who had not taken coffee for decades. "Oh, that's good," he confessed. "I'd forgotten. More than the pleasures of the flesh, the Adversary could use coffee to seduce mortal man."

The Duke asked, "Are we exercising ourselves about nothing? Is the Patriarch just a blowhard?"

Sir Eardale said, "He is, in great part. The problem and danger is that he doesn't know he is. He really thinks that all devout Chaldreans are spoiling for a war against everything non-Chaldarean. But he's wrong. Even the most devout Chaldareans just want to get on with their lives. In peace."

"What about us?" Tormond asked. "Is he likely to carry out his threats against the End of Connec? Can he?"

No one could answer that. Only Sir Eardale had seen what was happening in Brothe. His observation was, "You can't predict what a madman will do."

Father Clayto asked, "Does it matter if Sublime can carry out his threats? A better question is, will he try? I'm afraid that, unfortunately, the answer to that one might be yes."

The Duke asked, "Do you find all this amusing, Charde?"

"Yes. In an irreverent fashion. Though no less frightening, for all that." He explained how a Maysalean could see God as a cruel practical joker in this. Once he finished explaining, he asked, "How will the Emperor react if Sublime launches a crusade against the Connec?"

"Excellent question," Sir Eardale said. "We expect to take that up with the Emperor himself. He'll certainly be interested now that his soldiers have disposed of those assassins who wanted to kill Immaculate."

Brother Candle was intrigued by the incident at Viscesment. Immaculate's defenders must have been forewarned.

Dainshaukin were notoriously quiet and sternly withdrawn from everyday life. Within their own dwindling communities they considered themselves an elder race, the first masters of the transition between the Age of the Gods and the Age of Man. The Dainshau at the table showed a palm.

The Duke identified him. “Tember Remak wishes to speak."

The Dainshau said, “Tember Remak has a question. Where does the Collegium stand in this? Does the Patriarch have their support?"

"They elected him," Father Clayto said.

"That would be a function of bribery and political persuasion. That would mean nothing in the time of the Festival of Hungry Ghosts. We have seen no evidence that Sublime fronts for the Tyranny of the Night. He is a great blusterer living in Bad Dog Village, not the sweet lord of Once Glance Great Fortune."

Though couched in unfamiliar terms from Dainshaukin parable, the questions were important. If the sorcerers of the Church did not support Sublime his ambitions would be curbed. In particular his intelligence efforts would suffer. Espionage was one area where an alliance with the Instrumentalities of the Night could be very profitable.

"Is there any way to know?" Tormond asked. He peered at Brother Candle.

Brother Candle replied, "Our familiarity with the night is considerably exaggerated, Your Lordship. The fact is, Seekers After Light reject the night when we pledge to follow the Path. That's why we're called Seekers After Light. Some of my colleagues here, though … They probably do roast Chaldarean babies and run naked under the full moon with demons from the Pit." He could not keep a straight face. Father Clayto had denounced the Seekers After Light for those very things.

One by one, each religious leader denied any involvement with the Instrumentalities of the Night. Mostly with good humor.

"So we're blind," Tormond said. "So we have no choice but to sit here and take whatever Fate hands out."

That earned him a clutch of scowls. There was no "fate" involved in the Will of God.

Brother Candle said, "Isn't it always that way in the Connec? Time and fortune have been generous. Never compelling us to bend the knee to the tyranny of the night."

Brother Candle received scowls himself. There was no "fortune" in the Will of God, either.

It was a strange convocation. No one demanded war. Almost everyone pled for peace — while making it plain that there would be no acquiescence if Sublime chose to make war.

The gathering broke up before Brother Candle fully understood what was happening. He suspected that Tormond and Isabeth wanted it that way. The religious leadership was prepared to fight the agents of darkness and forces of oppression. Without Tormond himself having committed passionately to any particular course.

Vacillation and procrastination were Tormond's best-known traits. In the slow-moving world of the Connec doing nothing often proved to be the best way of handling problems.

Brother Candle was sure today's troubles would not fade away. Unless God chose to introduce Sublime to heaven's reward early.

11. Great Sky Fortress, Realm of the Gods

There was no time in the Hall of the Heroes. There was only horror without end.

Shagot wakened and slept, wakened and slept, ten thousand times, or less, or more. Each time he wakened he found himself in the same place in the same black-and-white world filled with the same silently screaming dead.

This was not the Heroes' Hall of legend. There was no roistering. The Daughters of the All-Father, when they could be seen, looked more like Eaters of the Dead than Choosers of the Slain. They walked but looked more like crones who had starved to death than the voluptuous maidens of myth.

Shagot never expected much of the Choosers of the Slain. Not even to see them, ever, fair or foul. Even so, he was disappointed in the Hall of the Heroes.

The dead heroes were heaped in there as though just dropped. Not even stacked. As they had died, faces contorted in agony, limbs missing, guts spilling, wounds open.

But there was no decay. There were no carrion bugs or birds. No worms. And no odor of death.

Shagot sensed nothing to convince him that he had died and gone to heaven.

Shagot did not spend much time awake but after a few decades of tiny slivers of consciousness, he concluded that a different destination had claimed him. Perhaps something as bleak and terrible as that burning pit those Southron girlie missionaries had insisted would be the destination of the wicked and those who did not believe in their weird god.

Not once did his view change. He saw nothing of his companions on the road, nor anything of the fake fishermen who had brought them here and then abandoned them. The Choosers of the Slain turned up once in a while, evidently bringing in new clients.

Only sleep kept insanity at bay. Vast sleep and the fact that he was not an imaginative man.

Then, on his ten-thousandth, or twenty-thousandth, or thirty-thousandth day of imprisonment in Paradise, Shagot wakened from eternal fog to find his view of heaven changing.

He was being moved by the Choosers of the Slain. He caught glimpses of their shrunken-head shriveled faces as they carried him by supporting him under the armpits. His feet dragged. He tried to help. Feet and legs would not cooperate. They just slipped and flopped.

Feeling began to return. He felt his heart try to beat, something he could not recall happening at any time since the boat. The Choosers' bony, hard fingers dug into his flesh. He felt the numbness and pain that spring up in muscles long unused.

He tried to speak.

Nothing but a gurgle emerged. But, at least, he was breathing again.

It was a long journey to wherever those horrid women dragged him.

His vision expanded and improved. He was able to lift his head for seconds at a time. He found himself being hauled into a part of the Great Sky Fortress that, despite vast emptiness, seemed more humanly comfortable. Not in the sense that it was anything like anywhere he had been before but because what he saw now fit in with what he had heard about the Eastern Emperor's palace at Hypraxium, from old-timers who had followed the amber route south to serve in the Emperor's lifeguard. That was something the old adventurers always mentioned. The unoccupied vastnesses of the Emperor's house.

Shagot's hearing began to return. He wished it had not. The Choosers of the Slain argued bitterly in a tongue that sounded a lot like Andorayan. Shagot understood about a third of what they said.

Ah! They used an ancient form of Andorayan.

Language had been a gift of the gods a long time ago. It stood to reason that that language would have been their own and that men would have corrupted it over time.

The Choosers of the Slain proved to be extremely negative minor goddesses. They were not happy about anything. They did not like Shagot and his band, other members of which were being resurrected as well. They did not like their Father's plan. They did not like the Hall of Heroes. They did not like the dead. They did not like their lives. They were especially put out with their sister Arlensul. Her selfish behavior had gotten her exiled and her share of the work dumped onto her long-suffering sisters.

The Choosers were just plain not happy with anything.

They got to wherever they were going. They dropped Shagot and went away. Shagot found himself resting on what appeared to be a vast plain of an empty floor. He saw no bounds, no walls, just a gradual fading into foggy darkness starting an arrow's flight away. There were no columns to support the ceiling. If one existed. It was too far above to be seen.

Distant movement caught his eye.

The hideous pair dragged Svavar his way.

Shagot heard something behind him. He found the strength to roll over.

His face was less than a foot from polished black granite. Polished black granite that had not been there just minutes ago.

Tiers of black granite went up and up and up almost forever.

Somewhere, at the very edge of hearing, singing went on, funereal choral stuff that made Shagot's spine shudder with cold chills. What the hell was wrong with those people?

Shagot levered himself onto his hands and knees. That gave him a better view all around. The granite rose in one-yard steps and setbacks, only about twenty times. There were what might be thrones way up top.

Svavar groaned beside Shagot.

There followed a time of no time, when time must have passed because Shagot discovered that dramatic changes had taken place between one moment and the next.

Finnboga, Hellgrim, and the Thorlakssons were there. They remained disoriented. Beyond them was Erief Erealsson. Erief looked exactly like what he was, a dead man erect only by virtue of some supernatural power. Hundreds of equally color-drained dead men formed behind him, rank upon rank, as far as the eye could see.

Shagot did not greet his former captain. Erief exuded the same bleak creepiness Shagot felt whenever he neared one of the ancient burial mounds found throughout Andoray. The haunted mounds. Mounds said to be filled with blood-starved undead who, if they broke their bonds and caught one of the living to drain, could reclaim life. For a short while.

Shagot was a skeptic. He knew no one who had had a genuine encounter with a draug. He wanted to remain skeptical, too. But the Choosers of the Slain had been equally unreal. And these dead men had a hungry look in their eyes. Those that still had eyes.

One by one, his companions climbed to their feet No one spoke. They were not brilliant but they understood that this was a place where any word spoken might be the wrong word.

The Choosers of the Slain came forward. They were nightmares now. They looked more like the harpies of southern myth than the beautiful daughters of the great god of the north.

The chamber crackled. Shagot's hair stood out. Lightning flashed. Thunder bellowed. Shagot screamed. He recovered to find himself clinging to the top of the first granite tier, trying to remain upright. His equilibrium was gone.

The Choosers of the Slain were up top now, with a dozen more sublime beings. They were not ugly anymore. The gods all looked like they had just stepped out of the old stories. Each was good-looking. Each shed a golden glow of youth.

Excepting the one wearing the dark gray, with the eye-patch, the staff, and the long white hair. The one with the wicked, winged night thing riding his shoulder, unlike any raven that ever flew the skies of Shagot's earth. That one god was not in a cheerful, playful, or youthful mood.

The Gray One spoke to one of his companions, a small, bent god who looked like he might be part dwarf. The small god nodded, floated down toward the heroes. Shagot paid little attention, other than noting a vulpine calculation in the god's expression as he approached. Shagot was far more interested in several goddesses.

The bent god came to rest on the bottom step, in front of Shagot. “Hi there, Hero. Ready to go to work? Hell. Who gives a peck of rat shit if you are or you aren't? My half-idiot brother wants you. So he can tell you what your future is going to be.”

Shagot knew whom he faced now. His name, in modern Andorayan could be rendered several ways. Trickster. Liar. Deceiver. And, in a stretch, Traitor. Shagot's analytical side always wondered why the other gods did not exterminate him. Maybe by drowning him in a peck of rat shit.

The bent god made a couple of gestures. Shagot lost his allegiance to the floor. He tried to grab on to nothing. Trickster laughed but made sure Shagot drifted up toward the First Among Them, Whose Name Is Never Spoken. The One Who Harkens To The Sound.

Shagot knew the name, as did every Andorayan and everyone else who accepted northern pantheon, but he did not know how he knew it, since it was not supposed to be spoken.

The agony of standing in the glory of god drove Shagot to his knees. He was afraid, which was a rare sensation. He stared at the granite beneath him and awaited the will of the god.

These gods were old. These gods were tired. These gods were supported by a dwindling number of believers. The Chaldarean insanity was a thousand-tentacled monstrosity creeping in everywhere. It converted kings and princes and chieftains by political persuasion and bribery. They then converted their peoples at sword's point. These gods might not have many centuries left before they began to fade away to lesser spirits.

Sometimes, for the flickering instant, they failed to reflect the expectations of mortals. In those moments the All-Father and his spouse, his sons and daughters, his nephews and nieces and half-brother, looked no more appetizing than the Choosers of the Slain. Many became something to raise the human gorge.

But even that was because the human mind insisted on imposing form upon formless.

The All-Father addresses Grimur Grimmsson, known to the world as Shagot the Bastard. His voice sounded only inside the sturlanger's mind. Hero, we stand in the Postern of Fate, facing the end of time. Facing what could become the Twilight of the Gods. You have been chosen to accomplish great things.

That was like a scream deep inside Shagot's brain. The voice of the god was far too loud. Shagot smashed his forehead against the floor, trying to fight the pain.

The All-Father understood that mortal flesh had limitations. The volume went down. So did the level of divine sententiousness. The god chose to speak out loud like an ordinary man.

“Grimur Grimmsson, we have chosen you to be our champion in the world of men. We're approaching a critical age. The gods themselves are threatened. Not just your gods but all gods. The Heroes will go forth from the Hall to fight once more. And Grimur Grimmsson will show the way.”

“As you command.” Shagot could not stop shaking. Nor could he concentrate enough to listen closely. Nevertheless, he understood what gods wanted done.

Despite his lack of mental acuity, Shagot did wonder why the gods needed mere men to affect their will in the mortal world. They were gods, weren't they?

Shagot and his companions were going to visit the south, were other gods reigned. Once they found what the gods wanted found they would perform rites that would summon the Heroes of the Hall. All of them. The Heroes would execute the will of the gods. The full extent of which those gods did not see fit to reveal to Shagot the Bastard at the moment.

12. Firaldia, Ormienden, and the End of Connec at Antieux

By the second afternoon, after Else fell in with the youngsters, they were deferring to his leadership. He did not want that. But it fell out that way.

That evening the band reached Ralli, where the main industry was wresting white marble from the flank of a nearby mountain. Ralli marble was renown for its lack of flaws and its almost translucent quality. Quarrying had gone on there for two thousand years. Ralli marble could be found in palaces and memorials all around the Mother Sea.

The townspeople eyed the travelers warily, which was understandable. They might be brigands or criminal fugitives. Soldiers commonly were.

A fellow who might have been a constable came and told them, "If you're looking for quarry work you need to go up to the quarry head in the morning. If you're looking for the man hiring soldiers, he's set up on the barren south of town."

The constable wanted them to keep on moving.

Else grunted. His ragged bunch would generate confidence in no one.

"The recruiters are offering a hot meal to everybody who'll listen to their pitch."

Else asked, "Any of you boys interested in the quarrying trade? I recommend that over taking up the profession of arms."

Nobody volunteered. The youngsters were all sad and homesick and going on mainly because they did not want to reveal their humanity to their companions.

Two dozen tents stood in the waste ground mentioned by the constable. Else did not like the camp's look. It was too orderly. Too professional. He observed, "It looks like we're in time for supper." In the twilight a line of men received food from a pair of squat, wide cooks who might be brothers. "Anybody see any banners or shields?" It would be nice to know who was hiring.

A voice asked, "Does that matter?" An armed sentry materialized from brush beside the road. Else was startled. Professional indeed.

"Of course it does." Else assessed the man as best he could in the failing light. The sentry did the same with him. Each saw a professional soldier. Else said, "Some people I won't follow. Maybe because of who they are. But, mostly, because they have reputations for failing to pay their men."

The light was not so weak that Else failed to catch the sentry's contempt. He was not a mercenary himself so did not think well of mercenaries.

Else did not think well of them himself but he had to play that part.

The sentry shouted, "Post number three! I have thirteen and a mule, coming in."

Else asked, "Are you expecting an attack, or something? Here?"

"You let your guard down because you think you should be safe, you'll end up prematurely cold."

Else grunted. That confirmed his suspicion. Professionals, indeed. He had fallen in with the Brotherhood of War again. Not so good.

On the other hand, maybe not so bad, supposing they were putting together a gang to assist the Patriarch in some of his mischief.

But knowing who these men were made Else uneasy. He was marching a little too close to the Brotherhood lately.

Someone jogged up. He was not one of the fighting brothers. He was too small and too young but, obviously, had been around them long enough to have picked up a military patina. "Come with me, please."

Bo Biogna grumbled, "I got a feeling they's gonna be way too much spit an' polish horseshit aroun' here for me, Pipe."

Else was using the name Piper Hecht.

"There's honest work in the quarries, Bo."

"Then why not trot your ass back up there and sign on?"

"Not my kind of thing. I'm not made to stay in one place."

"So how's it different for me?"

It was different. Bo Biogna was not good at what he wanted to do. Else suspected Biogna never was much good at anything, but he was mostly honest and he tried as long as somebody was watching. "It's your life, Bo. I'm just reminding you that you have options."

Their guide took them directly to the tail of the chow line, where he said of Just Plain Joe's mule, "Hey, you can't take this critter with you."

"How come?" Just Plain Joe's friends wanted to know. Pig Iron was the most popular member of the company. He was like no other mule that ever lived. He was friendly and mostly cooperative. And Just Plain Joe insisted that Pig Iron wanted to join the cavalry. “This here horse is a born destrier."

The guide had no sense of humor. Which might have been why he had been assigned his particular job. He led the future cavalry steed away.

Else was impressed. This was a well-organized camp. And some thought had been invested in this recruiting scheme. Hot food, and plenty of it, was guaranteed to get potential recruits thinking kindly of you. Severe hunger was commonplace for the poor.

Else asked the nearest unfamiliar face, "Whose camp is this? What kind of campaign are they getting ready for?"

The guide showed up in time to hear the question, without Pig Iron. "This camp is commanded by Captain Veld Arnvolker. He hasn't told us what we're going to do, only that we'll have the Patriarch's blessing and there'll be plenty of booty. Talk is, it might have something to do with what's been going on in Sonsa."

"Where's Pig Iron? He doesn't usually like to be away from Joe."

"He's hobbled beside the tent you'll be sharing. He has hay and a ration of oats."

"He's turned traitor that cheap?" Joe grumbled.

"Plenty of booty?" Else queried. "I'll tell you, that doesn't sound promising. Not in Firaldia." Unless this was the Brotherhood preparing to punish Sonsa for having run it out by engineering the sacking of Sonsa and the Three Families. He found the possibility that he might go back to Sonsa in Brotherhood employ ironic.

"Then you're in for something new and marvelous, aren't you?"

Else had to restrain powerful urges springing from a lifetime of Sha-lug training. He understood the western approach to warfare philosophically but could not make a connection in his heart.

When westerners decided to make war they swept up the dregs and leavings of their societies, handed out old and poor quality weapons, added a few hereditary warriors as leaders, then turned the mob loose. Such armies were as dangerous to friend as foe. Either they would indulge in outrageous slaughter or they would break at the first threat of combat. But they were cheap during peacetime. It was not necessary to feed, house, clothe, or train them. And they were never the threat always presented by a standing army.

The evanescent loyalties of its frontier armies had been one cause of the breakdown of the Old Brothen Empire.

Else would have been willing to bet gold. And he would have won. The meat being served so generously, to the members of the company and prospective recruits, was pork. Else was beginning to develop a taste for the unclean flesh.

"You guys sure picked your time," the one-armed cook in charge told Else. The other, who, up close, looked enough like him to be a twin, still had both of his arms.

"Eh?"

"Pranced in here just late enough so you'll get you a free breakfast, too, didn't you?" He did not seem to mind, though.

All of Else's band were baffled.

The one-armed cook said, "The wizard does him a whole show on why you should praise God and sign up to the serve the Brotherhood. It's mostly a crock a shit but you get yourself a meal for sitting through it. Two meals, if you're just clever enough to wander in here too late for him to do his buck and wing tonight. For a wizard he sure likes to hit the sack early." The implication being that any wizard would be on intimate and extended terms with the Instrumentalities of the Night.

"Wizard?" Else had another bad feeling.

"I didn't stutter. Move along. It's time for the changing of the guard. And those assholes don't like to be kept waiting at chow time."

"And who could blame them?"

The youngster assigned as guide showed them where they were supposed to eat, then where they were supposed to clean up the wooden plates and cups and utensils they had been issued at the head of the line. That much order could not last, Else was confident

They were shown to a large tent where they were supposed to bed down with another half-dozen potential recruits. Pig Iron was hobbled alongside, outside. The mule seemed to think that he had elevated to mule heaven. Else had spent much of his life in worse quarters than that tent. He told Bo Biogna, “They're sure trying to seduce us here."

Biogna grunted. "You seen, they got an actual, real shithouse?"

Else had not overlooked that fact. It was an improvement on the traditional Praman field latrine. Which, Else felt, proved that the Brotherhood of War was in charge here. And it proved that the warrior monks were not so narrow of vision as to remain incapable of learning from their enemies.

Traditionally, more crusaders perished of dysentery, cholera, and typhoid than they did of the most violent efforts of Indala al-Sul Halaladin and other defenders of the Holy Lands. And the main reason that diseases got them was because they failed to recognize any possibility of a connection between illness and the presence of their own ordure.

Even here, though, there was a problem with the by-product of the animal population, especially horses and dogs.

"This all seems nice so far," Gofit Aspel observed as the band ate breakfast.

Else agreed. "They're doing everything they can to make us want to sign on. Things won't be nearly as nice once we take an oath."

Bo Biogna grumbled, "Let's hope that don't mean they figure it will all to go to shit whenever they get to wherever they're going."

"You fibbed. You've done this before."

"No. Only stands to reason that it might."

"So just keep expecting the worst. Then you'll be ready for it"

Their guide materialized. "You need to hurry. They want to get started early. Something important happened somewhere."

That something was all over camp in fifteen minutes, a secret out strutting its stuff in a dozen different dresses, none of them more than one quarter accurate.

"Somebody tried to kill the anti-Patriarch!"

"The killers were all wiped out by his guards!"

"I heard the assassins were ambushed!"

Before it was over Else could have put together a version where God himself had sent down an archangel with a warning while, in Viscesment, an army of elite Patriarchal troops was destroyed to the last man by invulnerable shadow knights magically whisked in from Hansel's capital in the New Brothen Empire. Which was a sufficiently delicious rumor that everyone played it up despite it being common knowledge that Johannes Blackboots and his daughters had taken up permanent residence at the Dimmel Palace in Plemenza, declaring an end to any interest in Firaldia, with the Emperor saying he was taking a vacation from politics.

Rumor and speculation simmered all morning. Else found the camp command's reaction to the news interesting. He told his group, "I think the Brotherhood is recruiting for a foray into the Connec, not Sonsa."

"They're starting to pack up," Just Plain Joe observed.

He was right. Men were striking tents, breaking down the kitchen facility, loading all that into wagons. Horses were being gotten into harness. Dogs were running around, being confused. The only thing missing was a train of women and children.

A grizzled old Brother named Redfearn arrived to take the potential recruits in hand. In addition to Else's group, four more would-be soldiers had come in since the last recruiting speech. Redfearn did not have much to say. "We're moving out." He had a strong accent that suggested an origin somewhere deep inside the New Brothen Empire. "You have until we begin movement to decide if you're with us. Pay will be regular. It will be on time. Food will be provided. It will be the best our quartermasters can obtain. Your enlistment will be for a period not to exceed one year. Weapons will be provided. You'll have to pay for any weapons or equipment you lose or throw away. If we have the opportunity to acquire it, uniform clothing will be provided. In return for all this generosity you'll be expected to train hard, behave well at all times, observe all religious obligations, and submit to Brotherhood discipline. Punishments will be harsh. But fair. Oh. You'll be expected to fight like hell in the name of heaven if we do get involved in a battle."

Else studied the veteran closely. The man had characteristics that were almost Sha-lug. He would be the Brotherhood's equivalent of Bone.

"What're you gonna do, Pipe?" Just Plain Joe asked. Bo and Gofit and the others all looked at him, too.

"Hey, you all thought you were grown-up enough to leave home." He softened his pushing away by asking the old soldier, "Who are we signing on with? We've heard talk about a sorcerer."

The Brother frowned, having trouble grasping the fact that mercenaries might have intellectual difficulties with their services. The man came closer, where he could whisper, all talk lost in the increasing bang and clatter of an armed camp preparing to move. "Are you serious?"

"Of course I am. I assume you're a religious man. Which would mean there are things you won't do because they're just not right."

"This is the Brotherhood of War! The Sword of Heaven!" The old soldier could not imagine the rectitude of the Brotherhood being questioned.

"But there was talk about a sorcerer."

"You're not one of those fundamentalists who believes that any sorcerer, by definition, has to be an agent of evil, are you?"

"No. But I don't like getting close to anybody with ties to the Instrumentalities of the Night."

"Oh. I don't think you'll find a straighter arrow than Grade Drocker. He came all the way from the Special Office headquarters at Runch."

"A witchfinder!" one of the boys blurted, suddenly frightened.

Bo Biogna asked aloud what Else had wondered in private. "How come, if they want to fight sorcery an' all that shit, an' get rid of the invisible people, an' all that shit, too, how come they're all big-time sorcerers an' necromancers, an' all that shit?"

The question did not bother the old man a bit. "You don't send a pacifist priest to duel an enemy champion. Not if you want to come out on top."

For just an instant Else caught a glimpse of a man leaving the one tent still standing. He was dressed in worn Brotherhood field apparel but Else was sure he was the sorcerer from Sonsa.

“The witchfinder's name is Grade Drocker?"

"That's not his real name. Look, we need to move out. You have to make a decision."

"Rate of pay?" Else asked.

"Raw recruits, three and a half silver scutti monthly, with a boost to five when training is complete. That's the good Sonsan scutti, too. Food, weapons, and clothing provided. We don't have mail or protective clothing available. Experienced soldiers will start at five scutti, be expected to lead and teach the greenhorns, and will get a kick up to six scutti when the training period is complete."

"What about guys what's been officers an' shit?" Just Plain Joe asked. Just Plain Joe seemed to get smarter when he was in touching distance of Pig Iron.

"You mean you?"

"Shit. No. Piper. Lookit. Pipe don' say shit 'bout what he done 'fore he hooked up wit' us, but even a dummy like me can see that he musta been some kin' a officer or a sergeant at least, once upon a time. He always knows what ta do an' the best way ta do it."

The old soldier turned to Else. "What do you have to say?"

"Joe is letting his imagination get away from him."

The Brother started to question Else more closely. Else was evasive, offering vague remarks about, "the fighting east of the Shurstula," "pagan savages," "the Grand Marshes," and whatnot. The more specific his story became the more likely it would be that someone would trip him up on a detail.

He was saved a harsher grilling by the fact that the real Brotherhood soldiers started moving out. Their recruits followed.

Pico Mussi said, "Nuts. I'm going. We won't get a better deal anywhere else." He and his brother and their friend Gofit started getting ready to travel. Bo Biogna joined them. Then a few more did the same.

Else was unsure why he joined the others. Did he feel responsible for the kids? Was it because the man now calling himself Grade Drocker had done so much evil during his brief sojourn in Sonsa? He was sure Drocker and that monster were one and the same.

"All right I had my heart set on finding something cushy in Brothe. But there's nothing all that nasty going on around here."

The old soldier said, "Right, then. If you're coming, get moving."

Else tried not to notice that his companions seemed relieved because he was joining them. He did not want to become responsible for them.

The story was, Sublime had sent a member of his own family into the Connec to see to the details of ensuring that the True Church did not suffer any more outrages at the hands of the heretics so common in that province. The heretics had responded by slaughtering the legate's bodyguards and leaving the legate himself sprawled upon death's stoop.

Soon afterward a team of assassins invaded the Palace at Viscesment with the intention of murdering the anti-Patriarch, Immaculate II. By the grace of God and the competence of Immaculate's company of Braunsknecht lifeguards the assassins all died before Immaculate knew that he was in danger.

Sublime was, naturally, suspect. And was, naturally, expected to denounce such behavior as soon as news of the failure got back to Brothe. Sublime was as blatantly hypocritical in serving his God as his deadliest enemies could imagine.

Else developed more respect for the ancient enemy. The warriors he had faced in the Holy Lands were created from men like these youngsters, never short on courage and hardiness.

There was little hardship in the Brotherhood camp. The survivors of the embarrassment in Sonsa seemed to have everything they could possibly need.

Following his ejection from Sonsa, the sorcerer sailed to Brothe, where he gained an immediate audience with the Patriarch. He was on the road north the next day, with reinforcements out of Castella dollas Pontellas. He began recruiting immediately. Money was not a problem.

After weeks spent crossing the confusion of principalities forming Ormienden, the Brotherhood force went into camp on the lands of a monastery in the wine country of Dromedan, a tiny Episcopal state tucked into a corner where the Connec, Grohlsach, the Firaldian dependency Seline, and the Sorvine Principiate snuggled up to one another. There were no clearly defined boundaries. The End of Connec was not alone in its near independence. Ormienden was equally on its own, although carved up into numerous smaller feudalities that had obligations in many directions, including to Hansel Blackboots.

"It's worse up north, in the Empire," a career mercenary named Pinkus Ghort told Else. Ghort was a fellow enlistee who had betrayed his military experience, though with considerably less reluctance. He and Else had charge of companies of inexperienced recruits the majority of their training hours. The members of the Brotherhood were too few to manage everything in a camp that kept growing by the hour. "Even one solitary little town in the middle of one lonely little county can owe its allegiance to somebody who really ought to be the ancient enemy. But up there the problem is because of dowries, not confused inheritance rules."

"The Grail Emperor will straighten it all out."

"Sure, he will."

"You fail to impress me with your passion."

"Hansel can't do much. Almost anything he does try has to have the approval of the Electors."

"Uhm." Else tried to sound like he understood what Ghort was talking about. The west was far less monolithic and much more complex than had seemed plausible, viewed from al-Qarn.

"You got any guess what these lunatics are up to?" Pinkus Ghort was willing to take Brotherhood silver but did not think much of their divine ideology.

"I think we're just for show. The Patriarch wants to bully the Connec. The Connec keeps disdaining him. So he ups the ante by sending this crackpate Grade Drocker to conjure up a make-believe army as a boogerman to scare the Connec into line."

"Boogermen are real where I come from."

"Nobody could seriously expect this mob to actually do anything useful militarily."

"Where have you been working? I've seen a lot worse. Not that long ago, either. These guys are trying hard because they're actually getting paid good and fed well and the Brothers keep whipping them up with those rah-rah speeches." There Ghort went being sarcastic again. "You should've seen what we had to work with when we went out to Themes."

"You were part of that?"

"And on the Duke of Harmonechy's side, too."

"You were lucky, then."

"I was fast on my feet. Also, I saw it coming. I was ready for it. My point, though, is that the men who followed the Duke out there were the worst scum you can imagine. The Duke made no effort to train them and very little to arm them. Or to control them. It was ugly. Santerin did the world a favor by exterminating seventeen thousand of its worst two-legged beasts."

"And their leaders? The nobles?"

"They had horses, don't you know? Only a handful didn't get away. Those ended up getting ransomed."

The sorcerer remained invisible. But Else felt his presence constantly. Like the man was always right behind him, making his wrist itch. If he could just spin around fast enough… "Have you worked for the Brotherhood before?"

"No. Nobody has that I know of. This is a big old first. And it wouldn't have happened now if we didn't have Sublime for a Patriarch."

"You know if we're going to get that weapons delivery any time soon? I don't have enough to go around, even for training."

“They don't tell me anything they don't tell you. I'm more concerned about food." Summer would be over soon. "We can't sit here sucking up the area's surplus forever." The force had been in place below the Dencitл Monastery for more than a month, so long that whores, cheats, and sutlers had begun to build their own village just outside the bounds of the religious estate. "Here comes Bechter."

Redfearn Bechter was the Brother-sergeant responsible for the mercenaries. That was a huge load. He was willing to share it with Else, Pinkus Ghort, and several others. Else found him reminiscent of old Bone. He had seen it all. Only something truly unusual could shake him.

He seemed shaken now. His accent thickened. "Gentlemen, this cluster fuck is about to turn into the real thing. The wizard just got word that the heretics and their running dogs have the Bishop of Antieux treed in his manor house outside Antieux. The Patriarch himself says we have to do something about that."

"What?" Else asked in disbelief. "That's sheer lunacy."

Ghort said, "A local bishop has a manor house? In the wine country?" Ghort appreciated wine. He talked about it a lot. And experimented with it a lot because the Ormienden region was famous for its fine vintages. "Since when do priests …?"

"Never mind," Bechter said. "Thinking isn't in your job description. Or mine. Anyway, I'm not saying we are going to go. I'm saying there's a chance we might go. It isn't official yet. Call it a warning order. So you can look like you know, what you're doing if movement orders do come down."

Ghort said, "I beg your pardon. My excitement overcame me for a moment." Pinkus Ghort was long on sarcasm and irony.

Else asked, "So what's the word on the arms? I've still got men practicing with sticks."

The great Patriarchal army now numbered almost eight hundred men. Each day ten, twenty, even thirty more men arrived. Else was surprised that there were so many. Ghort took the opposite view, being astonished that they were so few, particularly with the Brotherhood being so generous. Perhaps rumors recalling the Battle of Themes discouraged the more thoughtful potential volunteer.

Bechter shrugged, "On the way. So they keep telling me."

Else said, "We'd better tell our poor children that they now have some real motivation for learning their trade."

The news remained resolutely unpleasant. Bishop Serifs kept screaming for help. Else observed, "If this man whines any louder he won't need to use messengers."

Bo Biogna agreed, "If he was as bad off as he says he'd a been dead before he started hollerin'."

Two Brotherhood members sent to reconnoiter failed to return. Orders came from the sorcerer's tent: Prepare for movement. Those were rescinded almost immediately, after Else, Ghort, and several others reminded Redfearn Bechter that a third of the troops had no weapons and the rest, in general, were armed very poorly. Then came word that the Grolsacher mercenary chieftain Adolf Black was going to join them. He would arrive within a week with five hundred veterans.

The possibility of real fighting had an impact. Those who had signed on just for the meals became invisible. Those who stuck around paid much more attention to learning lessons that might keep them alive.

The arms shipment arrived. Adolf Black did not. The Grolsacher had caught wind of the changed situation. He wanted more money.

The little army crossed over into the Connec. The Brothers made sure there was no plundering, nor any behavior the locals would find objectionable. There was no resistance, though the force was not welcomed anywhere. Even those few Episcopal priests oriented toward Brothe observed them with an abiding suspicion.

The Connec as a whole was deeply xenophobic.

Firm and absolute discipline had begun at the moment of first enlistment. The Brotherhood knew men. Amongst the low, crude sort who joined it was inevitable that there would be predators. The Brotherhood did not tolerate behaviors common in other camps. Bullying earned ten lashes in the first instance, followed by a severe caning and dismissal without pay if the bully did not learn right away. The one man caught forcing himself on one of the youngsters found himself face-to-face with the sorcerer before he could get his pants pulled up. Which interview proved fatal for the buggery enthusiast. Although his final breath followed pronunciation of his sentence by fully ten days.

A minor theft generated a severe caning.

The troops got the message, at least for the time being.

The column reached the Dechear River, below Mount Milaue. They spent a day crossing on the ferry there. The west fork of the main Inland Road from the north ran down the west bank of the Dechear. To the north and east that same Old Brothen military road marked the boundary between the New Brothen Empire and the states where some version of Arnhander was spoken. Farther north still, a branch of the road ran northeastward to Salpeno, seat of the Arnhander kings.

In the Connec, one branch of the ancient road ran westward, past most of the main cities of the Connec. Eventually it reached the Vierses River at Parliers. The Vierses, navigable from that point, ran northwestward, past Khaurene and on to the ocean.

Two days later the Patriarchal force left the road and turned south into rolling hills covered with vineyards. Before long, the little army settled on the estate of Bishop Serifs, overlooking Antieux.

The Bishop's manor was a vast sprawl resembling the old-time latifundia, mostly given over to vineyards. The manor house had a fine view of the tall walls of Antieux. That city clung to the flank of an ocher hillside within a loop of the River Job. Its fortifications were strong and in good repair and appeared to justify the confidence of its defenders, which the invaders had begun hearing about days ago.

Count Raymone Garete and the folk of Antieux, contemptuously disloyal to their bishop, openly told the invaders' scouts that they had stores enough put by to withstand a siege that would last all winter. They would be eating well, still, when the enemies of reason and sense outside their city were stewing their boots and eating mud because all the dogs, cats, and rats had been devoured.

Bishop Serifs came out of the manor while the invading force was setting up camp. He was livid over the damage to his vines.

Else was not far away when the bishop encountered Grade Drocker. He was not close enough to overhear their exchange. But the sorcerer had an immediate impact. The bishop gulped air, became pale, sputtered. The sorcerer stalked away. The bishop gradually regained his breath and went red again. He stormed back into the manor house.

Grade Drocker must have some real power behind him. The bishop was supposed to be one of the Patriarch's favorites.

Else settled his bunch where he could see the sorcerer's tent, the manor house, and still had a good view of Antieux. Else considered the city and concluded that its denizens were justified in their confidence. Those tall walls could withstand the attentions of this incompetent mob forever. Even if Grade Drocker chose to invest the full extent of his remaining sorcery.

The Patriarchal force had been in place four days. Those who had besieged the bishop were a problem no longer.

The force's only intercourse with Antieux was a regular exchange of insults. The Patriarchal soldiers were young and intemperate and would have gotten themselves badly hurt had anyone inside the city had the sense and smarts to exploit the fact that the besiegers were so inexperienced they still could not yet stay in step.

Of course, the folk of Antieux had no need. They could sit back and let winter drive the besiegers away. Count Raymone Garete, in fact, issued proclamations to that effect, confident that it would be possible to end the siege with the only casualties being the bishop's vineyards and the Brothers' pride.

Grade Drocker assembled his officers. He wanted their opinions before making any decisions. At Else's level no one saw the point. The man would do what he wanted. Why waste time on voices that would not be heard?

Else was now a brevet officer who held his position only because none of the Brotherhood soldiers wanted it. He did not rate a chair in the room Bishop Serifs provided so the meeting could be held safe from the drizzle outside. That room had been stripped of everything crude men might steal or sully. Else leaned against a cold, damp wall, out of the way in the rear, beside Pinkus Ghort. It was ironic. He had slipped right into the same role that he had played at home. He was God's company commander.

Ghort murmured, "Brother Drocker seems a tad disgruntled, don't you think?"

"I'd say." And almost completely incapacitated, too.

Rumor was right. That blast of silver shot had left Drocker damaged dramatically and permanently. Spots of raw bone could be seen on the left side of his face.

Ghort observed, "Man, he's totally fucked up. He looks like he spent about four hours on the wrong end of a toothless tiger."

Else had heard Drocker wore a mask most of the time. He wondered why the sorcerer had not done so today.

Drocker needed assistance seating himself at the high table. And he was angry. His voice was not weak when he said, in breathy, three-word bursts, "Bechter. Find Bishop… Serifs. And Principal … Doneto. They were … told to be here."

Ghort murmured, "I hope Drocker reams them two a new set of assholes. Them fuckers got us up to our tits in the shit and think they're too fucking good to show up when we're going to fix it?”

Else kept his expression blank. Ghort must have had wine for breakfast He had stated his opinion loudly.

Ghort was not so tipsy that he failed to recognize his gaffe. He shut up. He stayed shut up. For a while.

The bishop arrived. Else saw a sizable man showing obvious signs of prolonged and diligent dissolution. His fat face was florid, suggesting an old, long-term acquaintance with drink and a current case of apoplexy. There was somewhere else he would rather be.

He arrived full of bluster. That vanished under the force of one cold, grim look from Grade Drocker.

It had to be hard to whine while face-to-face with Drocker, soldiering on despite his injuries.

Drocker said, "There's a chair for you on the end, Bishop. Where is Principate Doneto?"

The legate arrived shortly, aboard a litter carried by his guards and a borrowed member of the bishop's household. The rest of Doneto's bodyguards had deserted him. Which did not bode well for Doneto if he got into another unfriendly situation.

Else feared Ghort might say something about the Principate, too. But it was obvious immediately that the legate was getting around the only way he could.

That ambush had injured him much worse than had been made public.

The bishop began to vent his displeasure, suggesting that Sublime himself would get an earful.

Drocker said, "You have attracted the attention of the Special Office, Serifs. Don't compel that office to take official notice. We're beholden to no one. Not even His Holiness. Do you understand?"

The bishop subsided into a bitter silence. Life, fate, and the universe itself were completely unfair.

"Excellent Now, let us see what can be done about the problem of heresy in the Connec. Bishop, I require you to deliver straightforward answers. No whining. No self-serving. No excuse-making. You will respond in simple, declarative sentences. If you fail to comply you will suffer the displeasure of the Special Office. Is this clear?"

Evidently not. Serifs rambled angrily.

Then he shrieked.

"Must not have been listening," Pinkus Ghort observed, unable to keep quiet. He chuckled. He had conceived a strong dislike for the bishop based on hearsay.

According to Connecten witnesses, only two people alive had any use for the bishop, the Patriarch and Serifs's pretty blond catamite.

Nevertheless, Serifs did have allies within the Church and the nobility, wherever there was concern about the Maysalean Heresy.

Else tried hard to hear the sorcerer's questions. Drocker had no energy, now. The bishop's answers were louder. Questions could be inferred from his responses.

Questioned closely, prodded judiciously, the bishop made it evident that the main reason the Connec was in critical spiritual straits was because its Brothen Episcopal spiritual shepherd was a bad character.

No surprise to anyone paying attention. The core of that problem was the Church's intransigent insistence that its people could do no wrong.

Drocker passed the questioning to one of the Brothers. He had reached his limits.

Else studied Drocker. The man should not be able to do much in the way of sorcery, crippled up and saturated with silver as he was.

Pinkus Ghort whispered, "There's something wrong with that Doneto guy. He's using opium, or something."

It did look that way. "Maybe he got addicted. He doesn't look like the sort who thrives on pain."

The meeting grew less interesting by the minute. Bishop Serifs enumerated steps already taken to combat the Maysalean Heresy. Ideas about what to try next consisted mainly of, "Let's kill them and steal all their stuff." Which view enjoyed considerable support. Potential perpetrators stood to profit.

Drocker returned to the discussion, "That approach will profit the Church, the Brotherhood, and us, only briefly. Meanwhile, Brothe informs me that Arnhand will be sending an army to assist us. That news, by the way, doesn't leave this room."

Enforce that, Else thought. That news would sweep the Connec. Because somebody here would have to pass it on to one special friend. Who would have to … And so forth.

Drocker could not be that dim. He wanted the news to get out.

Pinkus Ghort pinched Else's elbow. "Show's over. Time to wake up."

Else grunted, embarrassed. He and Ghort were nearest the door so were first to leave. Ten steps down the hall Ghort walked into Else, who had stopped suddenly. "What?" Ghort barked.

"Nothing. I had a thought."

"Sounds dangerous. Maybe even potentially lethal if it had anything to do with the Church."

"No." No. It had not been a thought at all. It had been a vision. A sighting. A pretty blond boy observing the exodus from behind a tapestry that masked a doorway. Bishop Serifs's catamite, no doubt. And a ringer for someone Else had known in another place and time. But probably not a ringer at all because the boy's reaction to seeing him had been shock followed by outright terror.

Else shook his head. It was impossible. The boy he remembered would be twenty years old by now.

Else on the hillside, amongst the vines. He stared down at Antieux but did not see it. He was thinking about that boy. That boy complicated matters.

Antlike comings and goings marked a postern gate on the river side of the city. People went down to the water, then climbed back to the gate. They had been doing so for generations. The path was paved.

Kids from the city were out swimming, in defiance of the besiegers. Else paid them no mind, though something told him he ought to.

What was the catamite's name? He had heard it mentioned. Serifs's relationship with the boy was another reason Connectens loathed their bishop.

A dozen men under a flag of truce left the main gate of Antieux.

Else returned to his company.

It took an hour for the deputation to reach the manor house. By then speculation and rumor were rife. The more thoughtful soldiers, having considered the height and thickness of Antieux's walls, hoped that those men meant to bend their knees to the Church. So there would be no need for fighting.

The lord whose demesne centered upon Antieux was Count Raymone Garete. Count Raymone was a stranger in his own land. He preferred the Duke's court at Khaurene. At Khaurene there were a thousand intrigues to entice a handsome young nobleman. Nevertheless, perchance, Count Raymone was home for the siege and now headed this delegation. He carried no weapons. His head was bare.

From confrontations in me east, Else understood this to mean that the Count intended to submit. Later, it came out that the leading men of Antieux had decided to yield to most of the Patriarch's demands. They would submit to the will of the Brothen Patriarchs. They would ban the Maysalean heresy and exile any Seekers After Light who refused to renounce their false doctrine. They would expel those Episcopal priests determined to maintain their allegiance to Immaculate II.

Bishop Serifs, stinking of brandy, rudely interrupted the Count before he could say more than a few words. "Just close your mouth, boy. I'll tell you what you're going to do." He produced a scroll. "These persons are to be arrested immediately and bound over for trial before a tribunal of Holy Father Church."

Coldly, Count Raymone responded, "The Church does not try laypersons. That is the logical and obvious corollary to the Church's insistence that secular courts have no right to try ecclesiastical persons."

That remark shattered Serifs's civility and self-control. He began raging about grievances so petty that everyone forced to witness his outburst was appalled.

Count Raymone interjected, "What does that have to do with the works of the Church? Or with its rights?"

Four of the men accompanying the Count were Episcopal priests. Three of those were supporters of Sublime V. Until today they had remained unswerving in their support of Serifs simply because Sublime had assigned him.

One priest said, "It isn't the peoples' responsibility to harvest your grapes, Bishop."

A second suggested, "Perhaps if you sent the boy to a proper orphanage those things wouldn't be written on the cathedral walls."

The people of Antieux put on airs about their main church. It was large and grand but not a true cathedral, yet they applauded that bit of Serifs's hubris. Even if most people who lived in Antieux were Seekers After Light or Episcopate who recognized Immaculate II as the True Patriarch.

Grade Drocker appeared at the peak of the bishop's diatribe. He was angry but did not interfere. He consulted Brotherhood henchmen who had seen the whole show. He sighed, glared, shook his head, but did not intervene.

He was content to let Sublime's pet idiot make a complete ass of himself. And Serifs piled up the reasons why he ought to be reduced to itinerant brother status and sent to convert the pagans of the Grand Marshes, such a mission being a common fate for truly bad priests.

Count Raymone said, "We came here to submit, in the name of peace, despite our experience of the Brothen Church and its people. Our efforts have been rejected and reviled. Hear me, all of you who serve the Adversary, and especially the usurper Honario Benedocto: Antieux rejects you completely and utterly. Let the Lord Our God look down upon this abomination of a bishop and understand why. Let him examine each of our hearts. Then let Him proclaim where the right of the matter lies."

Obliquely, Count Raymone had declared war. And had placed the outcome in the hands of God.

As Raymone and his companions returned to Antieux, a hundred minds were hard at work already trying to determine how best to guide the hand of God toward a favorable conclusion. Even Bishop Serifs himself did not fail to notice that all three pro-Brothen priests returned to the city.

Else Tage thought that God must spend a lot of time being amazed by the words men put into His mouth.

"They didn't mean it when they made their offer," Else told his troops. "They were pretending in hopes that we would go away. Raymone Garete's family are almost all heretics." He regurgitated the official position recently articulated by Grade Drocker. He intended to parrot the sorcerer as long as he remained caught in his current role.

He needed time to digest what the folk of Antieux had just tried to do.

No Sha-lug would have yielded an inch, religiously, in similar circumstances. But you would not expect unbelievers to do the same, simply because they were wrong.

Bo Biogna expressed a common sentiment. "Sounds like the smart thing to do, you ask me."

"Oh?"

"There ain't twenty guys in this crowd who give a fuck if they worship rocks or snakes down there, Cap. An' most of them is probably thieves like that fuckin' buzzard bishop."

Else nodded. What Bo said was, largely, true.

He glimpsed the pretty blond boy in a second-story window, watching Garete's party withdraw. Else studied him until he realized he was being watched.

"The idiot bishop's play toy," Pinkus Ghort said, following Else's gaze.

"Yeah."

"You up for some close-order training? My guys against yours?"

"If you keep your rat-face Berger away from my Pico and Justi."

"You afraid he'll hurt them?"

"No. I worry about what Just Plain Joe might do if he figures Berger is bullying them."

"Good point. I've never seen nobody as strong as that Joe. Now what the fuck is going on down there?"

A big clatter and uproar was developing beside the river.

"Ah, damn!" Else swore. "I knew this was going to happen. This is why I make my guys get their water on this side of the hill."

Water for the camp came up from the river. The manor's cisterns could not sustain an army. Not even a pathetic little mob like this.

Water carriers from the camp had gotten into it with city youths who were swimming. There were more of the latter than of the former. The situation was a nightmare that found a way to be born.

Younger soldiers camped farther downhill whooped and ran to help me water carriers. Ghort said, "Ah, shit. Here we go."

Else said, "Bo, go tell our guys I want them to fall in here, right now."

Ghort asked, "You're not going to get into this, are you?"

"No. I'll take them on a march so they don't get into it"

"I'd better get mine going, too. Or half of them will end up dead due to their own stupidity."

The situation developed too fast, and with a mad inevitability. More mercenaries raced downhill. More young men came out of the city. Their meeting became a big street brawl beneath the city wall. Count Raymone Garete was still on the far side of Antieux so was unable to stanch the stupidity of his city's youngsters. In the vineyards overlooking the town the Patriarch's authorized Brotherhood officers failed to take notice. They were all inside the manor house, pouting and avoiding the weather.

Else finally figured out what he had missed about the situation down there. While the town boys frolicked in the river and traded insults with the besiegers, hundreds of people were carrying water into the city. Antieux's cisterns were not ready for a siege.

Initially, neither side brought weapons to the fray. But it was not long before the mercenaries seized that advantage.

It took only a few killings to panic the people of Antieux.

The mercenaries pressed forward. A seething mob fought around the postern gate, trying to get inside. People inside did not shut the gate. They put up no resistance when the mercenaries began pouring in. Archers on the walls sent a few shafts down, to no effect. The flood would not be stemmed.

Else could not stop his own company from rushing down there once talk of plunder started. Only Bo Biogna, Just Plain Joe, and Pig Iron, of course, controlled themselves and stayed back.

Of Ghort's company only Ghort himself failed to surrender to the reek of blood on the wind.

Redfearn Bechter finally came charging out of the manor house, demanding, "What the hell is going on? Where did everybody go?" There were not thirty men left in camp.

"Our boys have gotten into Antieux," Else told him. "I imagine they're murdering everyone in sight."

"Who told them to do that?"

"The Patriarch and Bishop Serifs seemed pretty clear on the no mercy stuff."

"How long has this been going on? Why didn't somebody come tell us?"

Ghort observed, "Us riffraff aren't allowed in the house. Unless somebody comes out and invites us. I assume because we might track mud and pig shit all over the parquetry."

The city was not far enough away for the screaming to go unheard.

"You don't need to be a wiseass, Ghort." Bechter hurried back into the house. Soon all the Brothers came outside. Then the bishop materialized. And flew into a rage that worsened dramatically when no one paid any attention to his orders. He knocked one of the Brotherhood soldiers down. Before he could do anything more obnoxious, Grade Drocker arrived.

The sorcerer's fell stare calmed the bishop. In a moment Serifs announced his intention of finding a horse so he could get over to his city in a hurry. He had properties in Antieux. Somebody had to protect them.

Drocker spotted Else and Ghort. "You. With the attitude. What happened?"

Ghort did as he was told. He explained.

Drocker asked, "Why are you still here?"

"I was told to make war on enemies of the Church, not to murder no women and children. Whether I'm there or here won't make no difference. You've seen this stuff before. These things are like fires that have to burn themselves out. If I stay here — and I ain't got orders to go nowhere else — I won't stain my soul with no more sins than it's got on it already."

"And you? Hecht?"

"I agree with Pinkus."

Drocker grunted. "From what I see, you who stayed are men who have seen this beast before. As have I. But I must show my face over there, even so." That face was in such a state that no expression could be read there. He did seem to be inviting comment, however.

Else did nothing to attract any more attention.

Drocker said, "You men stay here. Protect the Principal. And the bishop's property. If that's your inclination. I'll try to salvage Antieux. But I fear that God has turned His back."

The moment Drocker was out of earshot, Ghort asked, "Where you figure on heading when we're done here, Pipe?"

"Uh? I don't know. I haven't thought about it Why?"

"I'm thinking there's a good chance we might be out of work tomorrow morning. We might even be running for our lives."

"What?"

"There's a big slaughter going on over there right now. Because them people did something really stupid. And then they panicked. But there's a lot more of them than there are of our guys. Who are just overgrown kids who don't really know what the fuck they're doing."

"You think they'll get themselves killed?”

"I think there's a good chance. I also think that, no matter how it turns out, what's happening is going to decide how the Patriarchy and the Connec get along from now on. Meantime, let's go protect Doneto."

"When did he get promoted? First I heard of him, he was just a bishop who had one foot in the Collegium door. But the sorcerer keeps calling him Principatл.” Which was the top title in the Church, after Patriarch. It came from an Old Brothen word meaning prince.

"Drocker came from Brothe. My guess is, Sublime gave him the title figuring it was a freebie because Doneto was going to croak in a few days, anyway."

"You're a cynical bastard."

"Absolutely."

Drocker went to Antteux's main gate first. His party were refused entry. The city's defenders were active there.

Pesky archers compelled the Brotherhood soldiers to work their way around to the open postern. They followed the path Bishop Serifs had been forced to take a short while earlier.

Horror reigned inside the city. The invaders suffered wherever they encountered serious resistance. But the defenders were equally inexperienced, were scattered, panicky, and without credible leadership where the actual bloodletting was happening.

Hundreds of dead and dying littered the streets. The butchery was worthy of a historical epic. One of those where the gutters ran swollen with torrents of blood.

The greatest horror occurred in Bishop Serifs's own cathedral, where more than a thousand of Antieux's population, Episcopal and Maysalean alike, tried to find sanctuary.

The invaders broke down the cathedral doors and brought the slaughter into the house of the God whose work they were supposed to be doing.

The madness continued elsewhere as well, growing instead of subsiding. The invaders broke up into small bands and raced through the streets in search of easy victims and loot.

Bishop Serifs reached the cathedral while the killing there was still in progress. He made himself beloved of the people of the Connec, of all faiths, everywhere, when he broke down in a foaming-mouth rage over the damage being done to "his" property.

There were few living people inside the Cathedral when Grade Drocker arrived. Bishop Serifs was among them, though his fat body bore witness that he had been punished severely by someone. His survival was a miracle. Maybe his God did love him.

Fighting continued but began to run out of impetus. The invaders were tending their wounds, looting, or were just too exhausted to go on.

Grade Drocker chose to exercise his right as commander. He sent Brotherhood soldiers out to remind the mercenaries that the distribution of booty was entirely at the discretion of the army commander.

Not the brightest move. He was surrounded by a city inundated in lawlessness. His only protection was a handful of men who did not think highly of him or the Special Office.

Several messengers were assaulted. But the truly awful response of the mercenaries was, in places, a decision to destroy everything if they could not take what they wanted for themselves. They started setting fires.

The Legate did not seem surprised to see Else, Ghort, and their companions when they bullied their way past his remaining two bodyguards. He murmured something.

"Drocker told us to guard you," Ghort said. "The way things are going, it looks like you might need some protecting."

Doneto mumbled a question. He was drugged, obviously. Even so, his mind was working. He wanted to know what was going on.

Else said, "You explain it, Pinkus. I'm going to look the place over, see if we can defend it."

He knew the answer already. Thirty men, a mule, two nervous bodyguards, and a smattering of terrified servants who were disappearing fast would not be able to hold out. This house had not been built with defense in mind.

He wanted to find that boy. The catamite should be a treasure trove of information.

The house was vast. And richly appointed. And falling apart. And empty.

Empty. That struck home. A place this big needed a staff of dozens. But Else saw no one at all above the ground floor. Serifs was too miserly to employ an adequate staff.

Else found the bishop's personal quarters. The concentration of comfort and wealth there was astonishing.

Candles burned there already, though it was not yet dark. They were beeswax candles, too. The most expensive kind. They did not dispel the darkness completely. There were curious little twitchings in the corners that revealed an uncomfortable truth. Bishop Serifs had some small communion with the Instrumentalities of the Night.

They were not big enough or powerful enough to be threatening, but they were there. The Instrumentalities of the Night were always there. The wise man never forgot that, not for a moment

Else made no noise as he drifted through the apartment until he found a room where a small, slim form stood framed by a window, watching Antieux burn.

"Osa."

The boy jumped as though slapped. He spun, looked for somewhere to run.

"There's no way out"

The boy eyed him more closely. "Captain Tage."

"Piper Hecht is the name."

"What're you doing here in the Connec?"

"The Lion sent me to spy on the Chaldareans. What's your story? You were eleven and top boy in the Vibrant Spring school last time I saw you. That was eight years ago. But you're still eleven."

"The Lion sent me, too. After I spent half a year in er-Rashal's hands. My body won't ever look any older than it does now."

Else nodded. The Osa Stile he remembered was extremely bright and totally fearless, though he did not know the boy well and did not give it a second thought when he disappeared from the Vibrant Spring barracks. That happened.

"And you're supposed to do what?"

"Create chaos and dissension so the Chaldareans can't put together another crusade. I've been doing pretty well."

"You've been poisoning Doneto, haven't you?"

The boy nodded. "I set him up to be assassinated, too, but it didn't take. Now having him alive but not recovering is more useful than having him dead. He keeps the Patriarch looking this way."

"How could you arrange an assassination? We don't have anyone else here."

"I'm an agent of the Grail Emperor, too. He sent me here. He knew Bishop Serifs was a pederast."

"You're the reason the Patriarch's assassins didn't get Immaculate. You warned him."

Osa smiled wickedly. "I make life difficult for the enemies of al-Prama. And of the Empire, when that's convenient"

"You may not have your bishop much longer."

"I know. I've been trying to decide what to do if he doesn't survive."

"He's over there. The sorcerer is over there. Doneto is at my mercy downstairs. If all three of them die …"

"That can't happen. If the disaster is complete Sublime might forget the Connec and focus on an eastern crusade."

True. Yet Sublime could not be allowed to succeed here, either. Conquest of the End of Connec would give him the wealth to finance other adventures. If the Connec ceased to distract Sublime, only Calzir and the Grail Emperor would remain as brakes on his ambitions in the east.

"Explain your business with the Grail Emperor."

"Gordimer gave me to Johannes. As a gift. As a weapon to use as he saw fit. At the Emperor's request. A man came to al-Qarn. He spoke to the Lion but he really was talking to er-Rashal. He wanted to acquire a special slave."

"Ah. So they trained you and put spells on you before they sold you. Was someone named Ferris Renfrow involved?"

"He was the go-between who arranged everything."

"You actually met him?"

"Yes. I still see him sometimes. When there's going to be a change in the way things are set up. Why?"

"Gordimer and er-Rashal told me to find out anything I can about Ferris Renfrow. They're worried about him."

"He's devious and clever but he's devoted to me Emperor. They don't need to worry about him. The Emperor isn't interested in anything but thwarting the Patriarchs and widening the influence of the New Brothen Empire. He couldn't care less if the rest of the world vanishes under the ice."

Else decided to let that rest. Osa had some emotion invested in Johannes Blackboots. "Does the name Starkden mean anything?" He had not forgotten the incident in Runch.

"Starkden? I've heard it It's the name of a smuggler, I think. Is it important?"

"It is to me. Starkden tried to kill me. In Runch. The Special Office was particularly interested." Else still wondered if there was a connection with Grade Drocker's emergency passage to Sonsa.

"I can ask Ferris Renfrow. He knows everybody on the underside of the world."

"You do that. Without mentioning me."

Else had a feeling that Renfrow would be in touch soon.

Osa asked, "How long before they come looking for you?"

"You're right. I didn't find you. You don't know me. I'll talk to you again, if I can. If Bishop Serifs gets himself killed, maybe you can catch on with Doneto."

"Maybe. But it wouldn't be the same way. That man has no sexual side at all."

Plnkus Ghort asked, "Where've you been? I was about to send out a search party."

"Lost, sort of. This dump is a warren upstairs. And totally indefensible. If the people of Antieux come after us, we're dead. I say we fill our pockets and run."

"A couple of faint hearts came back. I guessed right. Antieux is going to wipe out those idiots who charged in there. But I took care of us."

"Uhm?"

"We're fixed. We're Principate Doneto's new bodyguards. And our new boss wants us to take him home to Brothe. Now."

Else was stunned. "You're a genius, Pinkus. An evil genius."

Ghort shrugged modestly. "It was the obvious thing to do. You'd rather be in Brothe. I want to go to Brothe. The Principatл doesn't want to stay here. He claims he'd rather die on the road than stay. He's worked up a real strong dislike for the End of Connec. It might go real bad for the Connec if he does make it back and starts blowing in his cousin's ear."

"Good. Excellent. And I don't see how we could be held accountable by the Brotherhood."

"That's a real, big-time cluster fuck going on over there, Pipe. And we were ordered to protect Doneto."

"I'm in. All right. What about the rest of these guys?"

"Some of them want to sit right here and see what happens. They smell plunder. But the smart ones know it's time to go. Even if our guys come out on top. Because everything has changed. Because now these people, these peaceful fools, these Connectens, will know that the Brothen Church considers them resources that it can exploit There's going to be a backlash against all things Brothen. So we need to be somewhere else."

"You're probably right. When were you figuring on leaving? And can Doneto handle the stress?"

"I'm thinking we should move out as soon as there's light enough to see. Unless that mess over there looks like it's headed this way before that. As for Doneto handling it, we can baby him along for a while. But it don't matter much if he makes it, I figure. As long as we show up in Brothe with his body, looking like we tried real hard."

Just Plain Joe and Pig Iron helped Else stare at the burning city. Else said, "I wish there was some way to fish those idiot kids out of there. If they haven't gotten themselves killed already."

"Don't beat yourself up 'cause you couldn't keep them from being stupid, Pipe."

"Easier said than done, Joe. You seen Bo?"

"Him and Ghort was seeing if they couldn't find the Brotherhood's war chest."

"Of course. I'll find them. You be sure you're ready if we need to take off in a hurry."

13. Near Rhecale, on Arnhand's Southern Border

Finnboga was first to waken. He was terrified. His mind remained engulfed in the nightmare. It took him a while to realize that he and his companions lay tumbled in a grove of trees in a land unlike any he had seen before. The sun was too bright. The hillsides were covered with tawny brown grass. The trees all seemed old, gnarled, and not evergreen. There was no sign of human habitation. But a paved road slithered through the valley below. An arched aqueduct spanned that valley, three tiers high, in the distance.

Finnboga did not know that it was an aqueduct, never having seen or heard of such a thing.

The twins recovered next. Finnboga watched their horror fade. Sigurdur asked, "Where are we?"

Finnboga responded, "I don't know. In the realm of the living. Maybe Grim knows. They talked to him." The horrors of the Hall of Heroes were fading from memory already, leaving only chills and a vague recollection that heaven was not what it was supposed to be.

Svavar and Hallgrim also awakened before Shagot. All five tried to figure out where they were, why, and, most of all, what had happened to them.

Finnboga muttered, "Surrender to the Will of the Night."

"What?" Sigurjon asked.

Finnboga frowned, baffled by his own remark. "I don't know."

They concluded that they must have been out of the world for months. Possibly even for years.

Shagot took much longer to recover. The sun reached its zenith, then sank halfway to the ridgeline behind the band before Shagot was upright and sufficiently in touch to answer questions.

Finnboga asked, "How about it, Grim? You got any idea where we're at? Or when? Or why?"

Shagot could not see well. He felt like he was stinking drunk. But he was the captain. He was the one the gods had entrusted with the mission.

He was the one who would retain every memory of every horror of their sojourn in the Great Sky Fortress.

Shagot spent a while longer collecting himself. "We should be in the country of the Arnhanders, near a city called Rhecale, in some hills that are still fat with old magic from a time when tribes who worshiped our gods ambushed a big Brothen army. In that valley down there. In those days this country was all forest. There was an altar here. Which is why the gods put us here. This was the closest they could send us to where we need to go."

"Which would be where?" Svavar wanted to know.

"We have to figure that out. We're looking for a man. We'll know him when we find him." Shagot felt bad. He was lying. But the Old Ones compelled him.

"We have to wait here. An army is coming. We'll join it and stay with it till we find our man. He's with another army this one will be joining."

Hallgrim asked, "How come this guy is so high on the god's shit list that they snatched us to kill him for them?"

That was not quite the mission. "He might've found a way to fight them. They want to get rid of him before he figures that out." Shagot frowned. There must be more to it than that "Meantime, while we're waiting, we have to dig up some holy relics. We'll need them later."

Weapons, tools, armor, foodstuffs, anything the gods thought might prove useful, remained scattered all over the slope. Shagot said, "Get all that shit together. Turn this into a fucking camp." He glanced northward. There was a chill in the air. There was a hint of rain as well. "There should be some kind of tent in that mess. Get it set up. Unless you like sleeping in the rain."

They did have a fire burning. He did not need to think of that

Shagot ambled around the hillside, muttering. His meanderings made no sense to the others. They made little sense to him, either, except that he knew the pattern he was supposed to walk. He kept rehearsing it under his breath. Each time he paused, visions of another time filled his mind. He saw strange, wildly hairy men in wolf and bear skins fighting and drinking and sacrificing Brothen captives to their gods. At first, Shagot did not understand their speech, though it shared some sounds and rhythms with his own. They were angry, bitter men, as content to butcher one another in brawls and blood feuds as to massacre the enemy for whom they were waiting.

The ancient language gradually assumed meaning. And Shagot began to understand why these men, dead fifteen hundred years, had gathered to battle the legions of Brothe.

Where Brothens went Brothen culture followed, along with Brothen ideals and Brothen prosperity. Brothens welcomed all gods into their community of deities. Brothens were at peace with the Instrumentalities of the Night. Where Brothens went the old ways and the Old Gods became diminished and softened and, too often, subsumed or, at best, paled into extreme obscurity, recalled only as demons or night gaunts.

Shagot did not understand that this battle had happened centuries before the births of the founding apostles of the Chaldarean creed. He did know that his gods believed that only their meddling in the middle realm kept them strong.

All Shagot knew of the ancient battle were snippets the gods had given him. There were things he did not see. Such as me fact that the tribal priests saw him as clearly as he saw them. He would never know that the biggest factor in the barbarians' victory was their conviction that one of their gods walked among them.

Svavar brought Shagot out of his reverie. "Come on, Grim. Get something to eat"

As he gnawed dried meat, Shagot muttered, "The trouble was, there was always another Brothen army."

Svavar said, "I'm worried, Grim. It ain't like you to do so much thinking."

Hallgrim wanted to know, "What was all that stalking around, mumbling and staring at nothing, Grim?"

"I was figuring out where we were going to have to dig. We'll take care of that tomorrow. Build the fire up. I'm cold to the bone."

The others eyed him strangely but Finnboga tossed more brush on the fire.

Once he finished eating, Shagot crawled into the tent and began snoring almost immediately. The others worried a while but, as twilight gathered, they retreated into the tent themselves. They felt the power of the night. It was strong here. This was a place where ghosts would walk and might even talk if a man was fool enough to put himself at risk of having to listen.

Shagot slept a sleep close to sleep of death. He would not remember it in the morning but his spirit returned to the Great Sky Fortress. His companions did not rest well. Strange lights moved around outside. Weird shadows played on the walls of the tent. No one had the nerve to go look.

You did not prosper by tempting the Instrumentalities of the Night

Shagot knew everything that needed knowing.It took just half a day to recover the necessary treasures from the graves of ancient priests. Despite the fact that Shagot had slept in. Despite the icy drizzle that fell all day.

"Hang that stuff where the rain can wash the mud off. Good. There's one more grave that we have to find. The most important one."

Shagot knew where to dig. The work went fast — until the others saw what lay under the earth.

Time had shrunk and shriveled it but it had not decayed.

"What is that thing?" Finnboga asked.

"It ain't human," Svavar declared.

"It looks like a giant dwarf without a beard," Sigurjon said.

It was as tall as a man and shaped like a man but it was wider and much more muscular.

Shagot said, "Get the grave goods out. I need to go through them." As the others did that, Shagot jumped into the grave and took the corpse's head.

Svavar asked, "Grim, what the hell is that thing?"

"I don't know what he was. Something like a man but not a man. A powerful mage. The last of his kind." Shagot mounted the head on the tip of a spear taken from the creature's grave, so the drizzle could wash the dirt away. "We'll need him in order to complete our mission."

"What mission, Grim? The old folks told us to catch those pansy priests that murdered Erief."

"Those priests didn't kill Erief."

"What?"

"I have that from the gods themselves."

"Who did, then?"

Shagot found that he could not say. And it was not that important, anyway. That had nothing to do with their mission.

Shagot retired early, again, and slept for an abnormally long time.

Shagot indicated a turn in the road onto a stone bridge over a nameless creek. "We'll wait there."

The band moved to the point indicated, weighted down by the stuff that had arrived with them and the relics they had recovered. Shagot carried the head in a sack. An hour later an old man on a donkey appeared, coming from the south. He spied them as he was about to cross the bridge, which did not speak well for his eyes. He halted. He stared. His mouth fell open. He stared some more. Then he headed back south, spanking his donkey.

Hallgrim said, "He must've thought we were robbers."

Svavar said, "We might ought to keep an eye out for bandits. There's been almost no traffic the last two days."

One reason was that, though modern maps labeled the area the White Hills, those who lived in their shadow called them the Haunted Hills. The tyranny of the night remained in full sway in the Haunted Hills. And, lately, travelers reported that the hills had become more active.

There were, as well, rumors of war, coming out of Arnhand, as did the road itself.

Another hour passed. A pair of riders appeared, coming down from the north. Two more pairs trailed them by a hundred yards, out on either side of the road. The lead riders stopped. They gawked.

The Andorayans gawked back. Those soldiers were like none they had ever seen.

The outriders eased closer carefully.

The Andorayans had placed themselves beside the road rather than in it. Shagot thought that should make it clear they were waiting, not blocking the way. Even Amhanders ought to be able to figure that out.

At which point Shagot began to wonder how he would communicate with these men. In the past when he dealt with people unable to speak Andorayan he was in a position to bluster and threaten and make himself understood by hurting people who did not do what he wanted. That option would not be available here.

The riders talked it over. One rode back the way they had come. The rest remained where they were, distinctly uncomfortable.

"Are they afraid of us?" Finnboga asked.

"I don't know," Shagot replied. He did not think his bunch looked threatening, if only because they were weighted down with so much clutter. The gods should have sent a few slaves or pack animals along.

An hour passed. The Andorayans ate bad cheese and dried meat. The Arnhanders watched. They did dismount, loosen their saddles, and let their animals graze.

"Hey, Grim. There's people coming."

Shagot had fallen asleep. There was no time when he could not use a little more sleep.

Twenty-five or thirty riders approached in a hurry. Shagot wondered, "Does everybody in this country carry his own flag?" The riders all carried long spears with pennons attached. Except for a handful in black, riding among them.

Sigurjon swore. "It's those damned crows who killed Erief!"

Shagot had better eyes. "No. They're priests but they aren't those priests. Even if they were, this isn't the time to close that account. Erief can take care of that himself."

The band all stared at him.

"No, I don't know why I said that."

"You're getting spooky, Grim."

Somebody who had to be of superior rank moved closer, accompanied by bodyguards. And the priests. There were four of those. One of them was of exalted rank, too.

Shagot leaned on the shaft of a spear, cheek to cheek with the dead ogre's head. His brother and the others eyed him nervously because that dead monster bothered him not at all.

With those memories that he did retain it seemed unlikely that he would be squeamish about anything ever again.

The senior priest and senior soldier halted eighty feet away. Shagot began to feel impatient. He could not fathom why those people acted so strangely.

The priests came forward without the soldiers. They stopped ten yards away. They were unnaturally pale. Two shook so badly they could barely keep hold of their reins.

"By the thunder!" Finnboga said. "These guys are shitting themselves just looking at us."

"Yeah," Shagot said. "So what are they seeing that we can't? Why are they scared of us? Hey! Assholes in the slave smocks. What's your fucking problem? We just want to join up with your army."

The priests chattered among themselves in a nasal, whining tongue unlike any Shagot had heard before. He asked his companions, "Any of you guys understand them?"

The priests began trying different languages. Probably their best course, Shagot thought. His bunch, between them, might stumble through in two languages beside their own. And one of those would be Seatt because Finnboga's family used to trade with the witch people of the extreme north, up on the permanent ice.

"Ha!" Svavar said. "That fat, scared asshole just said something that sounded like it might be in Santerin."

"Hallgrim," Shagot said. "You were a prisoner in Santerin for a while. Talk to him." Shagot had a little Santerin himself, but only enough to ask where the treasure was hidden.

Hallgrim said, "It's Santerin, all right. But it ain't like any variety I ever heard before. I only get about a third of what he's saying. They seem to think that we're demons."

"Keep him talking," Shagot said. He was starting to pull it together. He began to catch up with Hallgrim. But that was only good enough to leave him puzzled.

Why would these idiots pick them out as demons? Because he and his bunch did not understand their bizarre religion?

"Start beating on the point that we're just the opposite. The gods have sent us to join their army."

"They won't believe that. Not even if you've got a signed letter of introduction from the All-Father."

"Just keep them talking. Keep telling them we're here to join their army."

The Andorayans were allowed to accompany the Arnhander force, which was commanded by the Baron Martex Algres, a cousin of the king of Arnhand. His second in command was Archbishop Berл of Source, the foremost cleric of Arnhand, an in absentia member of the Collegium. The army numbered about fifteen hundred, plus camp followers. Many noble Arnhander families were represented in the force. Its mood was optimistic in the extreme. The army would join up with Adolf Black's Grolsacher mercenaries in a few days, on the border of the Connec. Then they would sweep through that province, destroying its heretics root and branch. The Duke of Khaurene would himself join them somewhere near Castreresone, after they settled up with Antieux for what it had done to the Patriarchal force sent to stifle the unholy rebellion of its people.

Shagot and the Andorayan band trudged along, always spied upon by several priests, never able to understand what moved these people. Always, at least one of the monitors was something called a witchfinder.

Shagot spent all of his time with the Arnhanders, confused. Their reasons for war made no sense. People were going to die over differences in doctrines between Episcopals and Maysaleans? When anyone old enough and smart enough to tie their own bootlaces could not possibly believe any of the crap put out by either bunch?

The most disturbing aspect of the situation for Shagot, though, was the universal conviction of the Arnhanders that the murder of Erief Erealsson had taken place two centuries ago. Today Andoray, Friesland, Weldence, and far Iceland were united under a single crown. And the official religion there was Chaldarean.

Were the gods mad to send him into such a mad world?

14. The Connec, Antieux, and Beyond

The rape of Antieux saw almost seven thousand of that city's people slaughtered. The majority were women, children, and the old. As shock and despair faded, the survivors became ever more animated by anger, horror, and deepening hatred.

People who wanted to help straggled in from the ends of the Connec and beyond. Count Raymone Garete burned bridges by publicly vowing a vendetta against Sublime V and the Brotherhood of War. That was a bold pledge. Not even Johannes Blackboots dared go that far. The Count's vow was so intemperate that Duke Tormond showered him with letters demanding that he recant.

Now a new army approached Antieux. This one was stronger than the last, better equipped, and consisted of veteran soldiers. It included members of many of the noble families of Arnhand. It was commanded by experienced men determined to make Raymone Garete eat his words one at a time, without condiments, chewing carefully.

Count Raymone was not dismayed. The previous mistake would not be repeated.

It was late in the season. The Arnhander troops were feudal levies on short terms of obligation. They would head home before many weeks passed.

Bishop Serifs paid for his perfidy. The people of Antieux vented their anger on his properties and on those of the Church.

Everywhere priests who supported Sublime suffered. At Gadge, previously a devout Episcopal town, an angry mob exhumed Bishop Maryl Pontл, Serifs's predecessor, tried him for crimes against God and humanity, then reburied his bones in an unmarked grave in unhallowed ground.

Messengers scurried everywhere as Kings and Princes and the Grail Emperor himself made their opinions known. Sublime V received no congratulatory letters.

The Arnhanders and Adolf Black's Grolsacher mercenaries took up positions around Antieux. Their Brotherhood predecessors had not been numerous enough for a complete encirclement so they had not wasted any effort trying.

This time there would be no accidental invasion caused by the stupidity of adolescents. The stupid kids were all dead. And, this time, every possible cistern, barrel, and container had been filled with water beforehand. This time Antieux was prepared. This time Antieux truly understood the stakes. And this time those caught inside the wall remained calm under pressure.

Archbishop Berл himself demanded that Antieux open its gates, swear allegiance to the Brothen Patriarch, and turn out the heretics dwelling there. He presented a list of people the Church wanted arrested and bound over for trial.

Count Raymone Garete responded by evicting that handful of Episcopal priests who refused to denounce Sublime V. They took with them the relics of St. Erude the Wayfarer.

Count Raymone was a hard, bright youngster who feared nothing and believed that he had nothing to lose anymore. He was determined to remain Brothe's most terrible enemy while he lived.

The siege of Antieux proceeded for thirty-one days. The weather turned colder. The Arnhander soldiers became increasingly disgruntled. Where was the easy plunder they had been promised? Their enemies were getting fat, staying warm inside the ruins of burned houses while out here the soldiers starved, amidst fields and hills stripped of edibles and combustibles. And now there were reports of incursions from Argony and Tramaine, as Santerin captured castles and villages long in dispute between Santerin and Arnhand.

News that reached the besiegers' camp also found its way into Antieux. The siege lines did not extend across the River Job. The folk of Antieux came and went as they pleased, in that direction, under cover of darkness.

Count Raymone Garete took advantage of the besiegers' failure to finish surrounding Antieux on the other side of the river. He slipped away and joined a group of hotheaded young nobles eager to take more aggressive action against the invaders.

Baron Algres and Archbishop Bere enjoyed an angry confrontation in the Baron's quarters in the ruin of Bishop Serifs's manor house. The Archbishop refused to understand why the troops would abandon the siege when God's work remained incomplete.

The Baron had a reputation for being undiplomatic. "Go out there and find me one private soldier who gives a shit about God's work. You go look, you'll find a whole lot of men who figure God is big enough to take care of himself. And I can't say I don't agree with them."

"But…"

"You knew the situation when you bullied my cousin into sending me down here to help the Church rob these people. Sixty days is all we can demand of the soldiers. That's been the goddamned law since our ancestors were savages in hide tents. If Sublime wants to war on these Connecten fools all year round, let him put together his own army and leave us to protect ourselves from Santerin. Oh. Wait. Sublime already sent his own army. It got wiped out"

As always, in all times and in all places, despite the scale of the stakes, personalities gave definition to history. These two had loathed one another for half a century. The Archbishop was the less articulate of the two. But he was determined to execute the will of the Patriarch and his God.

Snowflakes were in the air. On the walls of Antieux the city's defenders jeered and taunted. The Arnhanders were on the move, headed home. This time they would use the westward route because the one they had taken coming south had been foraged already. Baron Algres and his captains were uncomfortable with the situation. They were not accustomed to being in the field this late in the season, this far from home. Even Archbishop Berл now wondered aloud about the wisdom of those who had decreed this folly.

Adolf Black and his Grolsacher veterans stuck with the Arnhander army. Their commission was about to expire but they had been offered employment on the frontiers of Tramaine. More telling than that offer, though, was news that angry Connectens were gathering to intercept them if they withdrew directly toward Grolsach.

A thousand rumors plagued the army. Lately, there was a cycle of stories about the Grail Emperor asserting his rights in the Episcopal States of northern Firaldia and in Ormienden. And he had begun to revisit Imperial claims to several towns in Arnhand's eastern marches.

Atop everything else, the Arnhander-founded crusader states in the east kept shrieking for help. The Lucidians were pressing them hard.

Worse still, the King of Arnhand was extremely ill. His only surviving son was eleven, a will-less extension of his ambitious mother, a woman detested by everyone. She, like her failing husband, seemed incapable of understanding that just wishing would not make something happen. An example: soldiers had a regrettable tendency to demand regular pay, on time, for the risks they took. The money needed to pay and maintain them refused to be conjured out of thin air.

A lot of time and treasure had gone down a rat hole so Baron Algres and Archbishop Berл could visit Antieux, be embarrassed, and leave two hundred Arnhander subjects in graves beneath Bishop Serifs's vineyards. To a man, they had perished from disease rather than enemy action.

Starvation made it difficult to resist diseases.

Dysentery remained widespread as the army made its stumbling retreat

To the right of the ancient military road, two hundred feet back, stood a dense growth of gray-barked trees of a species common along the verges of high altitude wetlands. The ground was soft but not soggy. To the left of the road lay two hundred yards of increasingly boggy ground, then a narrow, slow, shallow stream. Beyond the stream stood a thin curtain of trees, then rocks that had fallen off sheer cliffs that rose for hundreds of feet. The morning sunlight crept down the dull face of the cliff. The stone was a dark gray but had a pinkish tinge wherever it was freshly bruised or broken.

This was near the summit of the pass through the Black Mountains, still on the eastern side. Soon the road would swoop downhill and the worst would be over.

A small breeze stirred the mist. The brightness of the light waned as the sun elevated itself above the trailing edge of those clouds that continued to shed the occasional desultory handful of snowflakes.

The Arnhanders and their Grolsacher hirelings, traipsing along the ancient road, were cold, bitterly hungry, and thoroughly demoralized. They had invested three months of misery for no return. And their prospects were completely bleak.

Worse than bleak.

Connecten trumpets sounded. Far worse than bleak.

Count Raymone Garete's avenging army was outnumbered. Despite the rage sweeping the Connec, not that many men were willing to defy Duke Tormond. Raymone's initial plan had been to launch a surprise attack on the invaders' column, in a place and at a time when they would be least alert. He wanted to punish the Arnhanders, then fade away, going more for an emotional and moral victory than a physical one. But the stunned Arnhanders made little effort to defend themselves. Instead of fighting they fled toward the marshy ground at the base of the cliffs.

Adolf Black's Grolsachers gave a better accounting of themselves but with the same ultimate result.

The slaughter continued until the Connectens had sated their bloodlust. That paid litde attention to rank or station. The Arnhander leadership perished because the armored Connecten knights could not ride out onto the wet ground. The men on foot, possessed of no class commonality with the nobility they slaughtered, took no prisoners.

15. Ormienden, the Ownvidian Knot, and Plemenza

Principatл Bronte Doneto could not travel with any vigor. There were days when he could not endure more than an hour on the road. Two weeks passed. The party covered no more ground than a normal band might have spanned in four days. Fortunately, no one seemed interested in interfering. And, Else noted, the Principatл's color and health improved steadily as he put distance between himself and Antieux.

Once back in Ormienden, at the Dencitл Monastery, the Principate decided to convalesce.

"Hey, Pipe. Want to hear some news?" Pinkus Ghort asked one morning.

"If it's the real thing. I'm not looking for any more of the same old thing."

"Guess I can't help you, after all."

"Groan. So rain on me."

"Just Plain Joe came in from his lookout down by the bridge. He says people are headed this way. Eight or nine of them. He thinks one might be Bishop Serifs."

"Well. Makes you wonder what kind of sense of humor God really has, doesn't it?"

"Makes me wonder if the Maysaleans maybe don't have it right when they say it was the Adversary who won the war in heaven."

"Good thing our boss can't hear you. He'd have you burned."

The Principatл had been making those kinds of noises lately. The Church was bleeding and Bronte Doneto was determined to cauterize its wounds.

Ghort was cynical about the whole thing. "Doneto is posturing. He don't believe the shit he's putting out. It's excuse crap he tosses around so he can do cruel shit and claim he's got a good reason."

Else observed, "You're awfully critical of the guy who's paying you to protect him."

"He ain't paying me to lie about him, only to keep his ass alive."

Else shrugged. "I don't think I'd have the moral flexibility to protect somebody like Serifs. Somebody wanted to cut his throat, I'd probably hand him a knife and hold his coat while he's working."

Ghort got a laugh out of that.

Bishop Serifs went straight into the monastery. He was not seen again for days. Else noted that Osa Stile became invisible when the bishop did so.

Several days later a message arrived from Brothe. It included news that Grade Drocker had made his way successfully to the Castella dollas Pontellas in the capital city.

Which news caused Pinkus Ghort to declare, "My heart is all aflutter. The world can go on. Old Ugly lives."

"I was kind of thinking that way myself."

More interesting news washed the thrill of the sorcerer's survival away. A substantial Arnhander force had rushed into the Connec. It was besieging Antieux. Else observed, "That won't do the Patriarch's cause any good. Those people won't be simple twice."

"Fine by me," Ghort said. "Let them sit there freezing their asses off and starving. They ought to put all Arnhanders through that. And double for that asshole, Adolf Black."

"Every day I spend around you I find out about somebody else that you don't like."

Ghort laughed. "He's got me figured."

Bo Biogna had just wandered in. "What've I been missin'? What's so funny?"

"Life itself," Else replied. "Sit down and look at where you're at. Then remember where you hoped you'd be now, say, twelve years ago."

Biogna shook his head. "Pipe, I got a notion you're a good guy to have in charge when the shit comes down but the rest of the time you're too fuckin' serious."

Ghort sneered. "Now Bo's got you nailed."

"Blame it on my upbringing." Which was a truth that revealed nothing.

The time spent loafing around at the monastery, waiting for Principatл Doneto to heal up, passed into Else Tage's personal history as close to halcyon. Not once before in his life had he had a month where he had so little to do.

Then snippets of news about the Arnhander disaster in the Connec began to arrive. At first Else was sure the reports were exaggerated. But next day a courier arrived from Brothe. He brought orders from the Patriarch himself. The Collegium would convene to formulate the Church's response to the massacre. Not only had the Connecten heretics spit in the face of all good Chaldareans, they had raped away the lives of numerous members of the most important families of Arnhand.

Bronte Doneto assembled his band. "We're not ready to travel. But travel we must. The Instrumentalities of the Night walk the earth unopposed. The Holy Father has summoned me. He plans to charge me with managing the Church's response once a course is decided."

Odd choice of words, Else thought. The messenger said Sublime wanted Doneto back in Brothe because he needed the Principatл's voice and vote in the Collegium. The Collegium frustrated Sublime's ambitions too often, thwarting him just to remind him that even the Voice of God on Earth was subject to checks.

Else told Ghort, "Doneto must have sensed something that wasn't in the literal text of the summons."

"He saw what he wanted to see."

Bo wanted to know, "What happens after we get him home, Pipe? To us, I mean."

"I don't know. I'm not sure I care. I'll be in Brothe, which was where I was headed when I ran into you guys originally."

His path had taken several unexpected turns but he was not dissatisfied, overall. He had learned a great deal about the west. He had become a tick in its fur. And now he was headed toward the center of the web again.

"I like that," Ghort said. "I was headed for Brothe myself when I let me get distracted by a chance to get rich.”

Else said, "Well, let's all go get rich in the heart of the old empire."

Doneto began traveling the next day.By then more rumors had reached the monastery, painting the Arnhander defeat in darker, bloodier colors. There had been few survivors, even amongst the nobles and clergy, who usually bought their ways out of the consequences of military disasters.

This would rock the world. This would define the future. After this, surely, Sublime would abandon all overseas ambitions and focus completely on the Connec.

Bronte Doneto was in better health but could not travel with any speed. A week after leaving the Dencitл Monastery his party still had not departed Ormienden.

The travelers were nervous. Things of the night had been active throughout the hours of darkness, though with no obvious purpose. When they were restless, then so must be the creatures of the day.

Grumbling softly, Else walked with Just Plain Joe and Pig Iron. Bo Biogna tagged along behind. They made up the rear guard. With the mule being the most useful of the bunch.

Pinkus Ghort was out front, as vanguard and point, shouting back alarms about ghosts in the mist.

It was cold. Colder than Else had encountered, ever, in Dreanger. The wet weather did not help. It hid night things that were not false alarms.

Just Plain Joe teased Else about how he had gotten soft since he had come south.

Winters in the land whence Piper Hecht purportedly hailed were renown for their savagery. Each summer the ice did not retreat as far as it had the summer before.

Else did not keep up his end of the banter. He watched Bishop Serifs and Osa, examining the depth of his own devotion to his god and country. He could not imagine enduring what Osa had.

Else suspected that Serifs's awful behavior had come about because of Osa's bedroom manipulations.

The weather was miserable. A cold, fine mist kept falling. That wore a man down, made it hard to concentrate. The resentment and controlled hostility of the local populace did not help, nor did the constant presence of night things in the mist, even by day, just beyond the range of vision.

A psychotic depression brought to life, Else thought. This was what he had expected the west to be like all the time.

The mist crawled with shadows and whispers.

Ormienden was not as tame as most would claim.

That was probably true everywhere. In some places things of the night concealed themselves better.

Some sort of excitement broke out at the head of the column.

In moments Else found himself being disarmed by soldiers in unfamiliar livery.

The Instrumentalities of the Night had been active because some wizard had used them to help conceal the presence of the soldiers.

Resistance was pointless.

Only Bishop Serifs was dim enough to try to make demands, to boom orders at people who did not give a damn what he said.

The soldiers beat Serifs. And laid on with renewed enthusiasm every time the bishop opened his mouth. Nor did they help him once the beatings took their toll. A noncom told Serifs he would be killed if he did not keep up.

Else made sure his companions did nothing to trigger their captors. Their easiest way of dealing with prisoners would be to kill them.

Else said a silent prayer and placed himself in the hands of God. "Ghort, you have any idea who these men are?"

"They're the Emperor's men. From his own guard. The Braunsknechts. Maybe from Viscesment."

On political maps Ormienden lay within the New Brothen Empire, despite its constituent counties and principalities sometimes owing their first allegiance elsewhere. Viscesment sat on the border between Ormienden and the Connec, on the Ormienden side of the Dechear River. Although the folk of Viscesment spoke the Connecten dialect of Arnhander and everyone in the region considered the city Connecten.

Viscesment lay ninety miles northwest of the ambush site.

The Braunsknechts were not in a bloodthirsty mood. Their captain had orders to avoid making the incident more irksome to Brothe than the actual kidnapping of a Principatл of the Collegium would cause.

"But we're not headed toward Viscesment," Else pointed out. "Viscesment would be back that way."

"Look at the bright side, Pipe," Ghort said. "We might get to meet the Emperor himself, if we keep on headed this way."

Bo Biogna grumbled, "Pipe, this guy is so contrary I bet he was born feetfirst."

"How's that?" Else asked. He was still trying to make sense of what had happened. Why did God keep turning his path away from Brothe?

"Shit, Pipe. When things is goin' good Ghort don' do nothin' but bitch. And when we're standin' on our heads in liquid shit, he goes to hummin' an' singin' like he just got laid."

Ghort said, “That's because I know all is right with the world, Bo. It's normal, everyday situation is, throw the dick to Pinkus Ghort. I'm used to that. I'm comfortable with that. I can deal with that. Slip me the pork pole and I strut around grinning."

Misty rain continued. Else grew nervous for no discernable reason. The nervousness was a state, an intuition, not connected to his current situation. Which, while better than it could have been, did not seem promising. The Braunsknechts tolerated their prisoners, excepting Bronte Doneto. It was clear that Bronte Doneto was what this was all about.

Not keeping up with Doneto really might turn fatal.

But the mist itself was most troubling. Else still felt presences out there more numerous now than before the ambush.

Curious. The Braunsknechts were uncomfortable, too.

This was the kind of day when the things of the night stayed out and caused mischief.

The west was too tame. Its major shades, all bound into the features of the land now, slept a deep sleep.

In the Holy Lands, the Wells of Ihrian either generated or attracted all the Instrumentalities of the Night. In the Holy Lands you were inundated.

"Hey, Pipe! What the fuck's the matter with you?"

"Uh? Eh? Oh. Bo. Just lost in my thoughts. We're not in a good place, here."

Ghort looked him askance. "Just stay calm, don't give them no shit, and you'll be all right. They'll probably ask us to sign on with Hansel. Where've you been working, Pipe?"

Else sighed. He had forgotten to think western. Even in the Holy Lands the Arnhanders employed turncoats recruited from amongst their prisoners. And the Rh?n were even worse. The Rh?n recruited whole tribes to patrol their frontiers.

"The north country isn't nearly as friendly, Pinkus. They like to sacrifice you to their gods. They burn you or drown you or hang you, or whatever, depending on which god they're bribing."

"Bribing?"

"Yes. Their whole way of praying, worshiping, and sacrificing is meant to distract their gods, so they'll leave the people alone."

"Sounds primitive."

"It is. But the Grand Marshes are more intimate with the Instrumentalities of the Night than these tame old lands down here."

"Whistling past the graveyard, eh?”

Ghort was aware of the shades in the mist around them.

Else remained confused. This business made no sense. Yet.

Ghort told him, "You'll catch on. In about a hundred years. It's all politics."

Else was baffled by politics back home, where the players were fewer and their motives more transparent.

The Emperor's men were typical professional soldiers. They worked with calm, quiet efficiency, and no passion. Workaday work. If they had to kill somebody, they would, dispassionately, without regrets. Ghort was right. Given no stress, no provocation, no excuse, they would not behave badly.

The rain stopped in the afternoon. The sky rose.

The Imperials left the main road. They followed a winding track upward into harsh, precipitous, ice-capped limestone mountains. Those were like nothing Else had seen before. Vegetation was scrubby and the road seldom more than a wide animal track.

Ghort murmured, "I know where we're at, Pipe. This is the Ownvidian Knot. They're taking a shortcut. Twenty miles of this and we'll come out in the Duchy of Plemenza."

Else reviewed what he knew of northern Firaldia. Ghort could be right. But his estimate of distance sounded optimistic. Forty miles sounded more like it.

Bishop Serifs did not like heights. He balked when he saw what lay ahead. The Imperial troops pushed him, showing no respect.

Day had begun to fade. The bishop demanded, "When are we going to stop?"

A soldier replied, "We would've been there already if you didn't keep stalling and whining. But you do keep on. So we still have three miles to go."

That set the bishop off. He stopped. He refused to move. The captain of the band told his men, "Keep going. There's still enough light. I'll reason with the priest, then catch you up."

"Not good," Ghort whispered to Else. "If you happen to be an asshole bishop."

Else grunted.

"He's about to get spanked."

Else noted that Principatл Doneto started to argue with the captain, fell silent at a look, then developed a smug little smile. Almost as if he saw a serendipitous answer to an old prayer.

The bishop's boy whore would not be separated from bis patron.

Sometime later, after a mile or so, Else heard a distant cry, short and sharp. It might have been the scream of an eagle. It might have been something else.

The captain did not have the bishop in tow when he caught up. Armand preceded him on foot, running, looking grim and frightened.

"How about that?" Pinkus Ghort mused. "The brat weaseled out."

Bo Biogna observed, "You got to figure a kid like that is gonna be a survivor."

Ghort whispered. "We might want to set our own watch and keep ready for anything, Pipe. I didn't think they'd go this far. That captain must be damned sure Hansel will back him up."

By morning everyone had heard the catamite explain that the bishop, stubbornly refusing to go any further into the mountains, had tried to escape back the way he had come. His horse had lost its footing on a patch of ice. Bishop and beast had gone down the side of the mountain, mostly with the horse on top of its rider.

The Imperial soldiers noted that ice had been spreading throughout the Ownvidian Knot for half a century, never fading during the summers.

"This guy is slick," Ghort said of the Braunsknecht captain, whose name they had not been able to discover. "Getting somebody else to tell his story for him."

Else wondered. Osa claimed to be an agent of the Emperor. Maybe he thought that his association with Bishop Serifs had outlived its usefulness.

Breakfast was thin. The Imperials had consumed most of their own rations while waiting to spring their trap. The Principatл's party had expected to reach another Episcopal stronghold late that afternoon.

Else asked, "What'll happen when we don't turn up at Dominagua tonight?"

"They'll send somebody out to look around. When they don't find us, they'll go back and panic. What's the matter? You're shaking."

"I'm cold. I hope I'm just cold, not coming down with something." He had been lucky so far. His only brush with illness, this mission, had been seasickness aboard Vivia Infanti.

After repeating his story several times, Osa Stile joined the rest of the prisoners. Else managed a slow, cautious, conversation. "What really happened out there?"

"Almost what I said. Though the bishop's horse might have had help wandering onto the ice. We weren't alone, just the three of us. There were things you couldn't see. They're all around us now. The Night is very interested in us."

The Ownvidian Knot was wild and uninhabited and not much visited since the ice began to creep down from the highest peaks. It was the kind of country where the creatures of night fled when civilization pressed. The road had markers each hundred paces, every one charmed, but those spells were old and limited in how much protection they could extend.

Else continued to suffer bouts of the chills. He was relieved when he heard they would stop early. He contributed his share of labor, then bundled up and crowded as close to the prisoners' fire as he could.

Supper was spare again.

Just Plain Joe did not take kindly to a suggestion that Pig Iron volunteer to become the main ingredient in a mule goulash.

"That's enough," Else said when tempers started to heat. "Bo, you're a hill country boy." So Biogna had claimed, when he was not telling one of several other tall tales about his origins. "Suppose you ask our hosts to join you in a nighttime goat hunt?" Else had seen wild goats during the day. "The moon should rise early tonight."

"Hate to disappoint you, Pipe," Biogna replied. "But my ass is gonna starve before I go out there in the dark. Anyways, by the time moonrise comes, it's gonna be snowin'."

"I see. And, no doubt, those goats would be too tough to eat, anyway."

"Hell, no. They's probably tastier 'n shit. But it's a fact. It's gonna be as dark and cold as a whore's heart and this ain't country where you wanna be wanderin' away from camp after the sun goes down."

"You're probably right." He stroked the invisible thing on his wrist and wondered if its presence had dulled his thinking.

"In that case, make noises like a nanny in heat and wait for some stupid billy to come running."

"That wouldn't work, Pipe." Sometimes Bo's thinking was too literal.

Else studied his captors. They were a little larger, a little healthier, and a lot more professional than the mob he had accompanied to Antieux. Still, they joked and grumbled and bitched around their own fire, and generally agreed that the natural order was all wrong because, obviously, the farther you had your head up your own ass the higher you soared in the chain of command.

Another bout of shivering took Else. He wriggled closer to the fire.

Else did not dream often.Not that he remembered. But that night he did. And remembered.

He dreamed that trouble was coming. Major trouble, down from the ice, out of the night so cold. The Instrumentalities of the Night had become focused upon the Ownvidian Knot Something old was awakening out there. And its attention was focused on the Braunsknechts' camp.

Else awakened. His wrist ached. His amulet felt hot. He felt terribly cold himself. Everyone else was asleep. His own sentry, the Braunsknechts sentries, all were sound asleep. The fires had burned low. The warding posts put out to protect the encampment leaned drunkenly or had fallen.

Even Pig Iron snored like a mule.

Not good. Not good at all.

Ignoring his pain, Else crept across a dusting of snow to shake Principatл Doneto. He could not imagine anyone else who offered any hope against what was coming. This night resembled the one in Esther's Wood, amongst the Wells of Ihrian. But now he had no falcon, no treasure chest, and no inspiration.

Bronte Doneto did not want to wake up. Else shook and shook. His wrist hurt worse and worse. The Principatл groaned but remained asleep. And now he began to sense a second something, possibly even more terrible than the darkness close at hand.

Else pinched Doneto vigorously, in tender places, still to no effect. Grinding his thumb into the sensitive spot between left hand middle and ring finger finally got results.

The Principal leapt to his feet, instantly awake and immediately sensing wrongness. "Go away."

Else stole away, found a place where snow had collected. He crushed that against his wrist, hugged his stomach, folded up around the pain. Which became the center of his being. Then, gradually, it began to go away. Reason crept back into his mind.

Still clutching his wrist, Else got up onto his knees and looked around. Little had changed. The snow was falling more heavily. Doneto was on his hands and knees, but staggering anyway, heaving his guts up like a man who had tried to chug a gallon of cheap wine.

The sense of a great dread gathering had begun to fade away. Reluctantly. Powerfully angry at having been thwarted. And behind and beyond, afar, something faintly smug and satisfied.

As was often the case in encounters with the things of the night, at no time was there ever anything to be seen.

The nameless Braunsknecht captain was first to waken. He discovered his sentries snoring and his protective charms down, saw the state of Doneto and Else. Groggily, he kicked his men awake.

The sense of presence beyond the rim of firelight continued to fade.

Vaguely, Else heard the captain muttering, "What happened to our wards? There shouldn't be anything strong enough to overcome our wards. Not in this part of the world."

Soldiers and prisoners all had suffered nightmares like Else's, consisting of an overpowering impression of approaching menace, with an added certainty that escape was impossible.

"But you woke up," Pinkus Ghort said. Ghort remained disoriented.

Struggling to reclaim his dignity, Bronte Doneto leaned on Just Plain Joe and said, "You woke up, Hecht. In time. How did you manage that?"

"I don't know. It was the stomach cramps, I guess. The pain … It was instinct, mostly. Once I was awake enough I knew something supernatural was going on and I didn't know what to do. So I woke you up. How did you make it go away?"

"I prayed." Doneto's tone suggested that he did not expect to be taken seriously. The fact that he belonged to the Collegium was no secret. Many members of the Collegium were accomplished sorcerers.

The Braunsknecht captain invited himself into the conversation. "Principatл. Can you explain what just happened?"

"Something from the dawn of time woke up. Something that must have been put to sleep before the old empire came in. But why would it wake up tonight? Did someone wake it up on purpose? Because of us? What's special about us? Or about you?"

"That will be the question, won't it?"

Else held his aching wrist to his stomach and grimaced. He did not need to become part of any investigation. His amulet could not possibly evade notice during a close examination. He did not mention sensing a second supernatural presence.

Ghort suggested, "Maybe it was the bishop."

"What?" That from half a dozen mouths.

"I was just thinking, maybe whatever was coming after us was one of those old-time gods that wanted human sacrifices. It was almost dark when the bishop fell down and killed himself. Maybe that woke it up."

"That's as good a hypothesis as any," Doneto said. "But suppose we just let ourselves recover? Let's fuss about it later. Hecht. Will you be all right?"

"I passed some gas. The pain isn't as bad now."

Ghort snorted. "Swamp Boy passes gas. The rest of us fart or cut the cheese."

Despite good intentions and a universal lust to get the hell out of the Knot, movement did not commence until noon.

Everyone needed to recuperate. Else felt drained of will and strength.

Last night had been no simple brush with a mischievous sprite or malign minor shade. That presence was the dreadful equal of the thing in Esther's Wood. And it had not been vanquished.

Darkness threatened again before they exited the Ownvidian Knot on its northeastern side. Prisoners and captors had redefined their relationship, somewhat, though, as Ghort observed, "I don't hear nobody making wedding plans."

Plemenza maintained a small garrison in a watchtower on the Knot side of a village named Tampas. A dozen Imperial soldiers waited there, guarding supplies.

The Braunsknecht captain disappeared immediately. Professional to his core, he would prepare a report for his superiors. His own needs he would see to later.

After an enthusiastic meal, Bronte Doneto bellowed, "Hecht! Ghort! Come here."

Else and Ghort joined Doneto away from the others. Doneto I said, "Something remarkable happened last night. A thing called a bogon came after us. Luck or God's favor saw us through. Which doesn't matter. What does is, the Instrumentalities of the Night fear one Episcopal Principatл enough to raise something ancient to attack him. Which doesn't happen in modern times. I'm astounded to see it anywhere outside of Scripture."

Else was pleased. Let Doneto think that whatever happened had to be about him. And that just might be.

He asked, "You sure the darkness did that on its own?”

"What do you mean, Hecht?"

"I was wondering if some unfriendly sorcerer was behind it."

Doneto took time to consider. "That's plausible. But I don't see how it could be managed. I don't know of anyone powerful enough to do it."

Ghort volunteered, "Maybe you pissed off one of the gods."

Doneto's face darkened. He was a prince of the Church. That Church acknowledged the existence of only one God.

"Excuse me," Ghort said. "Amend that to say some devil or demon."

Else nodded. "Slick, Pinkus." His own coreligionists handled the matter that way. There was the One God, the Merciful, the True God, There Is No Other, and everything else out there belonged to that vast host of lesser supernatural beings sworn to serve the Adversary.

Bronte Doneto relaxed. "You could be right, Ghort. Having endured the impossible already, we shouldn't discount any possibility."

"An open mind is a mind that has a chance to see the one path leading through darkness to tomorrow's safety."

"Of course. A child's lesson."

Else tried not to look baffled but failed.

Ghort told him, "It's from Kelam. Letters to the Toscans."

"I missed that, I guess."

"Most people do who don't spend some time in the seminary."

Else did not have a clue, now.

Doneto chuckled. "I suspect that Brother Hecht had very little opportunity to acquire a solid religious foundation growing up on the verges of the Grand Marshes."

Else grabbed that straw. "My family was never particularly devout. So don't expect me to have anything memorized."

Doneto said, "That is of no consequence. Survival and the work of the Lord is."

"Sir?"

"God has given me a calling. I didn't see that at first. I went to the Connec full of arrogance. Those assassins failed to waken me. Our Lord was forbearing. He sent you. He brought me out of the Connec. He saw me through the Ownvidian Knot. And now I'm ready to hear Him. I'm prepared to do His work." Doneto was intense. He continued, "All right. I didn't expect you would experience the same epiphany. But I do want to talk about what our situation means."

"It means we're out of work," Ghort said. "We can't protect you here. They chunk you in the dungeon, you don't need us anymore. Even if they don't, you couldn't pay us."

"Possibly. Johannes wouldn't be that bold, though. He'll just put me under house arrest until Sublime ransoms me by acknowledging the Emperor's claims somewhere. It'll all be handled quietly. Then I'll be on my way to Brothe again, with a need for lifeguards."

Else considered Doneto. He had arrived too late to experience the old Doneto but he had heard plenty from survivors of Doneto's original bodyguard. He did not believe that men changed their basic nature. They just pretended for tactical reasons.

"I'm trying to tell you that I want you to stay with me, despite this setback."

Else grunted. There could not be a more advantageous position than that of officer in the lifeguard of a member of the Collegium. "I'll stay."

Doneto nodded. "We'll see how onerous the Emperor makes our captivity. You may not miss a payday."

Plemenza was one of the wealthier cities of Firaldia. Nominally, it was a republic. An independent city-state. In truth, as with most Firaldian cities, the real rulers were a handful of families. Here, however, those had less influence than elsewhere because here there was a bigger dog.

The Grail Emperor had ancestral ties with the House of Truncella, the noble family whose firstborn sons were the Counts of Plemenza but who no longer much mattered locally. Johannes had been a minor noble himself when the Electors chose him Emperor as a compromise candidate who could be manipulated easily and pushed aside shortly. But Johannes Ege revealed a potent personality, was passionate in his convictions and persuasive in his arguments. The grasping cupidity of recent Patriarchs made Johannes particularly appealing to Firaldian nobles eager to slip the squeeze of the Church.

The Grail Emperor was staying in the Dimmel Palace with his son and two daughters. The Dimmel Palace had been the seat of the Truncella Counts for centuries. His stay had no stated date of termination.

Johannes's presence underscored his abiding interest in Firaldia. His expansionist interest, his enemies would say. Though Hansel himself insisted that he had come to Plemenza only to establish his daughters there, in a city where they could avail themselves of cultural and educational opportunities absent in the bleak agricultural lowlands of the Kretien Electorate.

The daughters were of interest for their political value. No match had been made for either, yet. Johannes's reluctance to entertain suits was causing strain amongst the Electors — some of whom secretly hoped to become Hansel's successor.

Johannes was looking for sons-in-law — if he had to tolerate such beasts at all — who would bring him treasure and soldiers and, most of all, enthusiasm for his struggle with the Patriarchy. There were few suitors of sufficient stature who shared his abiding loathing of the Patriarchy. And those matches all wanted bequest of the Empire itself. Because Johannes had only the one sickly son, Lothar.

Lothar's sisters and nurses doted on him, mainly because he was not expected to survive to succeed his father.

Hansel himself loved Lothar with an unreasonable fervor but could not deceive himself about the boy's prospects.

Else learned most of that from Doneto on the road to Plemenza.

Pinkus Ghort fell in beside Else. "Pipe, do we really want to stick with this weasel?"

Else chuckled. "I can be a weasel, too. I plan to gouge him for a better deal."

Ghort snickered but nodded. "When you make decisions, don't forget you're making them for more than just you."

"Excuse me?"

"Wherever you go now, for reasons they couldn't explain themselves, Bo, Joe, and Pig Iron are likely going to follow. You're just one of those kind of guys. That Pig Iron is a good soldier. But the rest…"

Pig Iron was a good soldier. The mule did more than his share of the work. He never complained, unlike Joe and Bo. Pig Iron was content just to go where Joe went.

Else had no trouble imagining schemers like er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen trying to breed a race of warriors as placid and pliable as Joe's favorite mule.

Ah. The Sha-lug were not that way? The ideal Sha-lug. Not those Sha-lug like Else Tage, with a regrettable tendency to think for himself.

"Pinkus, here's an original notion. Instead of worrying about that stuff, how about we concentrate on getting out of this alive?"

"Shit, we got no worries, Pipe. Things are so ugly right now that I guarantee you everything's going to turn out all right. That's the way the Pinkus Ghort story gets told."

16. Andorayans and the Black Mountain Massacre

Blood and murder swirled around the Andorayans. The Connecten attack had caught them off guard. But they were shambling along through an alien time, unready for much of anything but being amazed.

The Andorayans could no longer refuse to believe that they had fallen into a world where the grandsons of the men they had pursued were long dead of old age. That truth hammered them constantly.

They were never a part of that army. Their presence was tolerated but to the Arnhanders they were less than remoras to sharks. Unpleasantnesses had hounded them since that day at the bridge in the Haunted Hills.

In the matter of the murder of Erief Erealsson Shagot grew ever more suspicious of the gods themselves. The murder served them too well. He did not share his suspicions. Words spoken were words sure to be overheard by the Instrumentalities of the Night.

Shagot had no idea what they wanted him doing now. He knew only that he was supposed to recognize the moment when it arrived.

Shagot was doubtful of any convictions he discovered when he explored his own inner landscape. Or was amazed at the depth of his own cynicism.

The rest of the band were deeper in the dark. All they could do was stick, protect him, and hope that a time would come when everyone would understand what they had to do. But there was no enthusiasm for the task.

When the Arnhander army entered the pass below the Black Mountain of the Steigfeit Range, Shagot's companions were beyond complaining. They no longer talked to their leader much, either. They just trudged along, bent to the Will of the Gods, indifferent to a world that betrayed no interest in them.

Thus, because of their self-involvement, they responded slowly when the attack came.

Shagot said, "They don't see us."

Indeed. The attackers paid them no heed at all. Until they began to run toward those same trees whence the attack had come. Then a couple of infantrymen came at them. Svavar and Finnboga dispatched the two almost casually.

"Don't anybody move," Shagot said. More attackers were headed their way.

The Connectens lost interest.

"Like old Trygg," Hallgrim said. "He was always forgetting what he was going to do."

Shagot said, "Let's move. They aren't looking, now."

They covered maybe eighty feet before a lone horseman in heavy armor charged them. Sigurjon flung an axe. While the rider fended it Shagot dropped his mount with a two-handed sword stroke to its forelegs. The others murdered the rider before he hit the ground.

Trial and error showed them that short bursts, a dozen yards at a time, followed by a minute of inactivity, let them travel without attracting attackers.

"Pretty damned feeble magic if you ask me, Grim," Svavar said.

"It's keeping your stinky ass alive, ain't it? Once we get to them rocks over there we'll lay up until this shit is over and the survivors go away."

It was clear who the victors would be. Already it was all over but the butchery.

The battlefield was quiet. The connectens had given up looting the dead and murdering the wounded. Now they were coping with the enormity of what they had done. It was more difficult for them than for men of Shagot's land and time. The Connec's only acquaintance with war was through those few adventurous sons who went to fight in the Holy Lands.

Svavar asked, "What do we do next, Grim?"

Shagot had no idea. This disaster was nothing that the gods had foreseen. "I need to sleep on it. I'll let you know in the morning."

The others did not question that.

They were all weird men.

They had been to heaven and back.

Or maybe they had gone somewhere else.

But in this world all beliefs were true. In this world the gods came first, then men re-created them in images they preferred.

In time the victors went away. The surviving Arnhanders and Grolsachers were long gone by then. Shagot and his friends took the opportunity to scavenge what they could.

They did not find much.

"So where are we headed, Grim?"

"Back the way we came. Staying away from people."

After Shagot explained what he had learned in his dreams, Hallgrim wanted to know, "Who is this Godslayer?"

"I don't know."

"So how're we supposed to recognize him when we find him?"

"I don't know."

"This whole thing is turning into a cluster fuck, Grim."

"I know."

"And the answers are all in this place called Brothe?"

"Unless the Old Ones change their minds. Now shut the fuck up. We've got a long walk ahead. And most of the time we'll need to stay out of sight of the natives."

"Why?"

“The Old Ones don't want us noticed. They didn't say why. Same old shit. We're supposed to be thrilled to be used like a pack of dogs."

Each hour left the six less sympathetic toward their gods.

The Gods of the Andorayans reflected the northern folk themselves. Which meant that they were rowdy, drunken, not too bright, drunken, violent, drunken, and short-sighted. While often drunk.

Those were values their culture had accreted over the ages.

They were not the values of anyone in the world where the Andorayans found themselves now.

"We'll find the man."

The others scowled but readied themselves for travel. With less enthusiasm than ever.

The serious grumbling started a week later, as Shagot tried to sneak past Antieux unnoticed. Finnboga snapped, "What the fuck are we doing, Grim? We were supposed to catch some assholes that killed Erief. But I ain't heard Erief's name come up in a month."

Sigurdur grumbled, "I'm ready to go home."

Shagot reminded him, "Home ain't there anymore."

"Whatever is there, it'll be a lot more like home than this is."

Even Asgrimmur was restive. "I'm thinking maybe it's time the gods looked out for themselves."

Shagot drew a deep breath, released it. He did not know how to fight this creeping defeatism. He had trouble enough motivating himself.

He slept longer now than he had while they were part of the Arnhander army. He could not help it. He wanted to pursue a normal waking cycle. He wanted his band out of this country where they could be held accountable for the bad behavior of their former Arnhander companions.

That was the worst. The sneaking. The creeping along, trying to get by unnoticed.

Hallgrim wanted to know, "Why the hell are we doing this, Grim? These people don't know who we are. We should get down on the regular road. Just be some guys headed east."

Hallgrim's argument made sense. But the god voices inside Shagot would not let him acquiesce.

"This is bullshit," Finnboga insisted. "I'm about ready to take off on my own."

"It'll get easier once we get to the country they call Ormienden."

It seemed to take forever to get there, though, because Shagot spent so much time asleep. And, after they reached Ormienden, Shagot still refused to travel normally.

Svavar, Hallgrim, and the others became increasingly mutinous. While Shagot became more and more unable to be anything but "a huldrin mouthpiece for a gang of lunatic gods who ain't relevant no more," according to Shagot's own brother, Svavar.

A week into Ormienden, Shagot wakened to find himself alone except for his brother. The way Svavar hunched as he cooked told Shagot that something was seriously wrong.

Horses were missing.

"They left, Grim. They couldn't take it no more. But they left all the stuff."

Shagot could not get an emotional handle on what had happened. "I don't understand."

"You won't listen, will you? They been telling you and telling you."

"You're still here."

"I'm your brother. But if I thought you could keep yourself alive on your own for a week, I'd be gone, too."

Shagot did not resume traveling that day or the next, sure the others would recover their senses and return.

Svavar did not push. Svavar no longer believed in any mission from the gods. But Shagot was family.

Svavar had concluded, after all he had been through since Erief's murder, that it might not be a bad thing if a few gods died, too.

In time, Shagot pulled himself together enough to get up on his hind legs and start traveling again.

"Where are we headed, big brother?" Svavar wanted to know.

"For now, the Old City. Brothe. I don't know why. That's where they want us to go."

Shagot was puzzled with himself. He had no drive left But for the nagging of the god voices in the back of his brain he would have headed home himself.

Asgrimmur, for his part, began to see his brother as a holy madman. Those were rare in northern tradition but the notion of the insane having been touched by the gods was entrenched. In Shagot's case there was no doubt.

The Gods of the north were spiteful, childish, and petty. A great many gods, across the earth, went way long on the famine, pestilence, and war, but came up short on characteristics their worshippers would find congenial.

Finnboga and Hallgrim, Sigurdur and Sigurjon, encountered the malice of the Instrumentalities of the Night just two evenings after abandoning Shagot and Svavar.

They were sheltering for the night beneath an old stone bridge spanning a stream less than six yards wide. The river was low because of the season. It had snowed that afternoon. Now a brisk and bitter wind muttered around the old bridge. Gusts whipped their little fire, threatening to kill it.

This shelter had served travelers for centuries. Numerous fires had burned on the same spot, surrounded by the same blackened stones. Another fire burned on the north side of the stream, where half a dozen southbound travelers huddled against the cold.

Hallgrim grumbled, "I'm getting old. Ten years ago this would've been a spring breeze. Now I'm thinking about emigrating to Iceland."

His companions grunted. None had visited Iceland but they had heard about the geysers and hot springs and magical vents that defeated the most ferocious winters. When the cliffs of ice crossed the Ormo Strait to begin devouring the New Brothen Empire, Iceland would still be warm.

Sigurjon observed, "Things could be different out there, though. If it's part of one big kingdom and those black crow priests run things."

Finnboga inquired, "How hard could it be to kill a few priests?"

"How hard?" Sigurdur snapped. "Look at us."

Sigurjon said, "It must be harder than it looks. Otherwise, why would those lilies be in power?"

Sigurdur said, "You're right. They are in charge in these parts. And it don't look like there's much chance of that changing. Shit!"

"What?"

"I've got to crap again." It was the sixth time that day. Sigurdur had begun to worry. A man who lost control of his bowels could end up shitting himself to death.

Sigurjon told him, "Well, take it downwind. That last load was so foul the flies dropped dead."

Stomach cramping, Sigurdur stumbled away, headed for a spot he had scouted before darkness fell, anticipating this emergency.

He located the twin stones, fumbled with his trousers, urgently willing them out of the way before the explosion came while dreading me crude bite of the wind on his buttocks.

He managed in time, voided the first nasty charge. He indulged in a little self-congratulation even as he bent over a fresh, more ferocious set of cramps.

As that departed in a rumbling gush Sigurdur realized that he was not alone. And that whoever was there was not one of his traveling companions. He could see his brother, Hallgrim, and Finnboga huddling close to the fire, making jokes at his expense.

He eased a hand toward his knife.

A shadow drifted nearer. The campfires cast just enough light to show him a woman wearing a hooded black cloak. The cloak's hem dragged the ground.

He could see nothing but her face. It was a beautiful face, much like his mother's must have looked when she was young.

Sigurdur thought, you heard about this sort of thing all your life but you were never ready when it happened. You never believed you would attract the interest of the Instrumentalities of the Night.

The woman opened her cloak. She wore nothing beneath. Her body was perfection. It exuded warmth. It could not be resisted.

It was too late even for the wary.

Sigurjon began to worry. "What'staking him so long?”

He's always been full of shit, but… gods."

"Maybe he's trying to get it all worked out in one grand-daddy load."

"He'll get frostbite on his ass if he fools around too long." Sigurjon rose. He yelled. His twin did not respond. He sat back down, sure that if there was any real trouble he would sense it through their twin bond.

Half an hour later Finnboga and Hallgrim were troubled enough to go out searching, shouting, leaving Sigurjon by the fire.

They found nothing.

"We'll look again after it's light. We can't find anything now. Let's cast lots for first watch." That would have been Sigurdur's job.

They found the place where Sigurdur had emptied his bowels. Then, despite the tracks they had left all over while searching in the dark, they discovered the trail Sigurdur had left when he headed upstream, beside the river. They found Sigurdur himself half a mile from camp, half in and half out of the river, naked from the waist down. They never found his trousers.

"He died happy," Hallgrim said.

But Sigurdur's skin was as pale as the snow, not because he was dead but because all the blood had been drained from his body.

The frozen mud retained footprints made by a woman's small, bare feet.

The tale was not hard to read, just hard to believe. You heard the stories but you never really believed.

But the things of the night were as real as cruel death. And every bit as wicked as the stories claimed.

The survivors made no immediate connection between Sigurdur's misfortune and their having turned their backs on their gods.

When they returned to camp they discovered that they had been plundered by their neighbors. The villains had left them with little more than what they wore and the weapons they carried. Which they had come near ruining while hacking out a shallow grave for Sigurdur.

Sigurjon was the smartest survivor. He began to suspect divine mischief when something got Hallgrim a week later. This death in the dark did not leave its victim smiling. It did not leave its victim with a face at all.

Neither Sigurjon nor Finnboga ever heard a sound.

17. The Connec, After the Blood

Brother Candle's captors let several days pass before he was allowed to see Count Raymone Garete. No one accused him of anything. He was known and respected throughout the End of Connec. To be deemed a traitor he would have to indict himself out of his own mouth.

"Well?" the Count asked. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

"I was on the road. Trying to overtake you. The Arnhanders captured me. At the moment you attacked the Archbishop was offering me the opportunity to be the central character in a heresy trial."

"I can see why he'd think that way. Why were you trying to catch me?"

"In hopes that I could talk you out of attacking the Arnhanders. This war can only end in disaster for the End of Connec."

The Count's henchmen laughed, mocked Brother Candle, made chicken-clucking noises. Few were older than the Count. One said, "Looks to me like the disaster boot is on the other foot, Brother. Twice, now."

Brother Candle shook his head. "I have no hope of selling sanity, now. The die is cast. You arrogant young men. Listen! Don't rest on your laurels. Next summer, or the summer after, or the summer after that, the armies of Arnhand and the Brothen Patriarch will return. And they'll descend like the Wrath of God Himself."

That was not what they wanted to hear. They wanted to be told that Santerin would never stop feuding with Arnhand. They wanted to hear about dynastic troubles that would cripple Arnhand. They wanted to be told that the Patriarch was a bucket full of wind, with the Grail Emperor hard on its flank, poised to strike the instant Sublime overextended himself.

Brother Candle had enjoyed success in his worldly life. His success as a Perfect was more limited, because he was now a holy man. A holy man who lacked the advantage enjoyed by Sublime: an army to make dimwits listen.

He did not remain with the Count. He got back on the road. He would rejoin Duke Tormond and try to subdue the future from Khaurene.

There was no way to stop the coming war. Arnhand's leading families would all demand it. What he had to do now was keep emotion from gaining complete control. The more the emotions could be blunted the gentler the future would be.

He would try to convince the high and the mighty — Tormond in particular — that they must prepare for the worst.

He did not want war. But if war could not be avoided, then the Connec should be prepared to respond with a ferocity and vigor that would overawe anyone interested only in fattening his fortune.

Brother Candle walked the ancient, cold highway to Khaurene uncomfortably aware that the one last thing he had to do in this world, and had to do better than he had done anything before, was a work that he loathed. He had to nurture and guide the Seekers After Light through an age of horror and violence that would determine whether their faith persevered or vanished from the earth forever.

The Maysalean Heresy would not go meekly, however gentle its hopes. Ironically, though, those Connectens who would bear the brunt of the expense and fighting would be devout Chaldareans defending themselves from men who claimed to be the champions of their own faith.

18. Plemenza: The Dimmel Palace

Plemenza was a bright and colorful city but the captives got no chance to enjoy it. The troops who brought them in made sure they had no contact with the locals. As far as Else could tell, the locals were not curious.

The party passed through the gates of the Dimmel Palace. And that was that, for a long time.

Nothing cruel happened. Nothing happened at all. The captives entered a section of palace where the windows and all but one door had been bricked up. Then they were ignored. Though meals did arrive regularly. Initially, Bronte Doneto raged and demanded to see someone, anyone, even the Emperor himself. The only servant they ever saw never responded in any way.

Doneto was outraged but not concerned for his safety. "This is just a logical escalation in the Emperor's squabble with Sublime. If Johannes keeps me away from the Collegium, the Patriarch will have a lot of trouble getting their backing."

Else listened closely. If removing one man could paralyze the enemy's center of power… A little work with some sharpened steel and…

Much better, more clever, to make a key vote disappear somewhere away from Brothe. Keeping the survival of the voter a mystery.

The Collegium could not replace Bronte Doneto unless they knew he was no longer healthy enough to assist in the glorification of the Church. And then they would need the Patriarch's blessing.

Doneto was positive. He wakened every morning sure that this would be the last day of his captivity. And every night he fell asleep on a thin mattress, confused and alone except for his despair.

Some evil genius had invested deeply in the preparation of their prison. The captives had no contact whatsoever with the world, no way of knowing if it were night or day, or even the season — though it must be winter. The Palace was frigid. There was no privacy whatsoever. The Principatл had to share facilities and space with his men. And with Pig Iron, because the Braunsknechts did not want the mule in their stables, where he might inspire uncomfortable questions. The mule's presence was a statement, too. Someone wanted Doneto to know that in the eyes of the Grail Emperor a Principatл of the Episcopal Collegium was of the same significance as a clever mule.

Not true, of course. But the Emperor's clear contempt ground away at the Principatл.

Yet there was iron behind Doneto's arrogance and self-admiration. And some humanity as well. Doneto adapted to his company. Thirty sleeps into their confinement even Bo Biogna and Just Plain Joe could sit down with him and talk.

In the middle of his days, when his optimism was strongest, Doneto returned to his beginnings as a priest. So he said. Though everyone knew that members of the Collegium bought their positions. Few ever endured the workaday cares of the priesthood.

"He was born a bishop," Pinkus Ghort said, making the point. "If you're a Brothen from the right family and a second son, you start life as a bishop. He probably got his miter when he was fourteen."

Else was amused. Here was Ghort being Ghort. Ghort spent more time with the Principatл, toadying up, than did any three other captives. But he would not surrender his right to criticize.

Ghort said, "You need to work on Doneto more, Pipe. You're never gonna get another chance like this. Remember, we could be out of here tomorrow. They won't give us any warning."

This was a unique opportunity to position himself. Doneto had offered him work in Brothe already.

Doneto's notion was to pretend to keep Else at a distance, then ease him into a position where he could keep an eye on Bronte Doneto's enemies.

Ghort had snapped up the plum, commanding Doneto's lifeguard, already.

Else told him, "Don't let it go to your head, Pinkus. You're the third one this year. A whole lot of people don't like this guy."

"Oh, I'll be careful. This is the kind of job I've been angling for all my life. This is Easy Street. No way I'm not gonna do the best job anybody ever did. And if we can get you set up in the right place, you can warn me whenever some shit is about to happen."

"I've been thinking about that."

"I don't like your tone, Pipe. It means I'm probably not gonna want to hear what you're gonna say."

"That wouldn't surprise me. What I'm thinking is, if we do find ourselves in the situation the Principatл wants to set up, then the information has to go both ways."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning that if I'm going to be your guy on the inside, you're going to be my guy on the inside. I'll need to look good sometimes, too. Unless you think you have to be one way about the whole thing."

"Not me. God forbid. I'm just trying to set myself up with a comfortable life."

"If we do it right, we can write both of us letters of marque."

Ghort chuckled. "You ain't as simple as you let on, are you, Pipe?"

Beforetheir quarters were converted they had enjoyed an incarnation at the palace lumber rooms. There were heaps of tattered old books and records left over from the last century. Many dealt with the Truncella family, histories of generations long gone. They were of little use to anyone but Else, who used them to study western manuscript styles.

There were a few actual books mixed into the mess. Else found those educational. In a professional development sort of way.

Those written in the modern vernacular were not interesting. Mainly, they delved into the lives of Chaldarean saints, of which there were hosts. Information useful if you wanted to fit in, but of no practical value otherwise.

The majority of the real books were in Old Brothen, meticulously copied from texts first set down in classical times and interesting now because they opened marvelous windows into pasts never rewritten by the prejudices and ambitions of intervening ages.

Else got help from Bronte Doneto, who enjoyed teaching when he could find no loftier target for his energies. Doneto told Else, "These are copies of texts set down before the Chaldarean Confirmation. They're in the formal Brothen of their time. Which is lucky for us. The formal language didn't change as fast as the vulgate. But these are treatises on technical things. How to manage vineyards and wineries. How to manage latifundia, which were large commercial agricultural enterprises that included fig, olive, and citrus orchards, along with grain and vegetable crops. They weren't big on meat in those days, except for seafood. This one is a treatise on how to construct various engines, from wine and olive presses to artillery and siege machines. This one concerns the conduct of war. These are about the lives of the emperors and key personalities of their times."

Doneto taught Else a smattering of classical Brothen. Else then spent most of his waking hours puzzling his way through the old books.

He set a precedent. He started a fad. Captivity was so dull that even Bo Biogna and Just Plain Joe were ready to do anything to stave off the boredom. Even if that meant learning, with the Principate doing most of the teaching.

"Pig Iron will be next," Else predicted. "And he'll learn faster than the rest of us." He told an old Dreangerean story about teaching a camel to whistle, though he made it a mule instead of a camel.

Armed with what he was learning. Else would be able to spy on the mail of Dreanger's enemies.

Gradually, as time passed, Else allowed himself to be drawn into the Principatл's plans, but according to his own goals.

The captives had no clear notion of the length of their captivity. At least three months, everyone agreed. Some thought it might be as much as five. Else was surprised that they managed to survive without becoming violent. That, likely, was due to how much space was available. And because despair never set in. Bronte Doneto never stopped believing that rescue or ransom was imminent.

Just Plain Joe was content. He told Else, "I never lived this good in my whole life. Look at this. I'm warm. I got plenny a food. I got frien's. I got Pig Iron. An' I'm even learnin' how ta read an' talk right."

Joe's dream did not end anytime soon. Inevitably, eventually, Bronte Doneto began to lose his confidence. Else wondered if there had not been a complete collapse of human nature in Plemenza.

It was impossible that news of Bronte Doneto's whereabouts would not have reached people who cared.

Ghort suggested, "Maybe our boss has a big head. He's a hundred eighty miles from home. Why would anybody recognize him?"

"I'll buy that," Else replied. "Tell you the truth, I don't think most of those Braunknechts knew who he was. Rounding us up was just a job."

That notion did nothing to improve anyone's mood.

Ghort said, "You'd think the Emperor would want a few people to know. He can't profit just by having Doneto locked up."

He could, though. But that was not obvious from inside a prison.

Else said, "Maybe it's what we were talking about, way back. If Hansel has the Principatл, the Collegium is locked up. If the Collegium is locked up, Sublime can't do the crazy stuff he keeps ranting about. Including making life miserable for the Emperor."

"You're probably right, Pipe. But I don't like it. That means Hansel told the world he's got Sublime's boy. And Sublime thinks he can out-stubborn him. Or flat don't care what happens to his cousin."

Bo Biogna organized a pool. Whoever came closest to guessing the exact length of their captivity would collect. Even Bronte Doneto bought in.

Else often wondered why the Doneto he knew was so unlike the Doneto who had been sent into the End of Connec to help Bishop Serifs and enforce Sublime V's will.

"Why not ask?" Ghort queried when Else posed the question. "What I'm wondering is, whatever happened to the bishop's pretty boy?"

Yes. Osa Stile vanished the day they reached Plemenza. Perhaps the Grail Emperor had found new work for him.

Else gathered his daring and, during a card game, did ask Principatл Doneto why his character seemed to have changed dramatically.

"You aren't even a little slow, are you, Hecht? You notice things."

"I'm a professional soldier, sir. I like to understand the people I work for. These days you aren't anything like the legate we heard about when we first got to Antieux."

"You're right, Hecht. But remember, the job isn't the man. I was fulfilling a role on behalf of the Patriarch. A role hung on me by Bishop Serifs, may that fat, corrupt moron roast in Hell for the harm he did the Church."

One day someone came who was not the one silent servant they always saw. The newcomer scanned the nineteen prisoners. The seventeen who were not too sick crowded toward him. He indicated a man. "You. Come with me."

He had chosen Bo Biogna. Bo did not want to go. But the new face had not come alone. Three armed men surrounded Bo. They did not look reluctant to employ the tools of their trade.

"Go on, Bo," Else said. "If they intended to do anything awful they would've already done it to save on feeding us."

Else told Ghort, "I hope I'm right," once Bo left.

"Made sense to me. You know they plan to use us somehow."

Bo Biogna was gone less than fifteen minutes. The men who returned him took another captive away.

"Well?" Ghort asked Biogna. Everyone able crowded around. Even Bronte Doneto positioned himself to hear Biogna's report.

"I don't know. They took me down the hall to this room with nothin' in it but this long table wit' four guys who asked me questions. That they didn't seem to give a shit about the answers."

"What sort of questions?" Else asked.

"Who was I, what was my job, how did I hook up wit' the Patriarch's army."

"Why would they want to know that instead of something more operational?"

"Yeah, well, they asked a bunch of questions about all kinds of shit. Especially about that Brotherhood sorcerer. That Grade Drocker. An' about what happened in the Connec. Only like not about what, exactly, but more like why an' how. An' who really stirred things up. I think they gave up on me pretty quick on account of they realized that I'm a nobody who don't know nothin' about nothin'."

The second man said much the same. Likewise, the third, though by now Else had the impression that the interrogations were tailored to their objects. Which suggested that the interrogators had a good idea who they were questioning before they started.

Pinkus Ghort was the fourth man taken. He was absent more than an hour. He returned unhurt but drained. He flopped onto his pallet. "That was rough. In a nonphysical way. It's hard to keep everything straight when they ask you the same thing fifty different times fifty different ways."

Bronte Doneto was curious. And worried. His turn would come. He was right there listening when Else countered, "How so?"

"It was like Bo and the others said. Only there was more of it. They was infatuated with the notion that I know all of the Patriarch's personal secrets on account of I was like a pick-up captain in a half-ass gang of robbers that Sublime sent out. So what if I've never been any closer to the old boy than I am right now?"

"Did they threaten you? Did they try to bribe you?"

"No. And that was weird, too. I don't think they really cared what I answered. They just wanted to ask the questions."

That bothered Bronte Doneto. Else asked, "Sir? Have we missed something?"

"They may be using lie-detecting spells. If they have specialist adepts, our answers won't matter. What were the questioners like?"

Ghort replied, "They didn't look like no kind of wizards. They was just soldiers. Guys used to getting their hands dirty. I recognized one of them from somewhere. The guy on the end, on their right, was somebody that I should ought to remember. But I don't know where from."

More men went through the process, some for longer, some not so long. Just Plain Joe was away only eight minutes.

When Joe came back the soldiers beckoned Pinkus. Ghort protested, "I've already been."

"Then you know the way. Let's go."

Ghort was gone a long time.

The soldiers wanted Principatл Doneto next. Things got tense. Ghort said, “Take it easy, Chief. It ain't that big a deal."

"Why did they call you back?" Else asked after the door slammed behind the Principatл.

"Maybe they didn't understand me the first time. They asked all the same questions. I'm thinking maybe Doneto is right. Something is going on besides them asking questions."

"It took them over an hour to get the same old answers you already gave them?"

"Oh, no. That part added up to only maybe twenty minutes. In the middle of it they all just got up and left. Like they went out for dinner or something. And didn't need to worry about me."

"So you just sat there?"

"Well, I got up and wandered around some. I didn't go far. They locked the door."

Bronte Doneto was gone for hours. He was exhausted when he returned. He had little to say. He sucked down a bowl of lentil soup, curled up in his blanket and slept.

His was the last interview of the day.

The interviews resumed next morning. The first man taken had gone before. He reported, "They're up to something different. It was about religion this time."

Else went third. He was not nervous. He could handle basic religious questions. He had been paying attention.

The room was exactly as described, featureless and brightly lighted. The smell of tallow was strong. Four men sat behind a table, their backs to a wall. One straight-backed, hard chair faced the table. The men did not look like professional inquisitors. The man farthest to Else's right might be a priest. He pegged two more as soldiers. The man between the priest and soldiers, though, was someone important.

The man to that man's right asked, "Piper Hecht?"

"Yes."

"Religion?"

"Yes."

"Excuse me?"

"Yes. I'm religious."

"What religion?"

"Why?"

The man Else suspected of being in control said, "Stop that. Sit down, Hecht. Answer the questions put to you."

"Why?"

A flicker of anger. Nobody else had been difficult.

His left wrist began to itch. He scratched. His fingertips tripped over the invisible amulet, which had begun to get warm.

Sorcery. Of course.

Else said, "I don't understand why you would expect me to cooperate. Why would I help my employer's enemies?"

The man farthest to Else's left said, "Tell us about your life before you joined the force the Patriarch sent to rescue the Bishop of Antieux."

Else suppressed an urge to remain argumentative. Maybe he was not supposed to be able. Maybe that was the nature of the sorcery at work here.

Else spoke vaguely of growing up in Duarnenia, a minor crusader principality on the southeastern coast of the Shallow Sea, on a small estate near Tusnet, well inland, just inside the marches where Chaldarean crusaders of the Grail Order remained constantly at war with the Sheard heathen of the Grand Marshes. He mentioned running away at fifteen, banging around from one minor employer to another, drifting southward. He offered no specifics. Mercenaries seldom did.

He included more detail about his service since joining the Brotherhood-sponsored force. The four probably knew all that already.

The man in charge told the others, "Step outside, please. I want to talk to this one alone."

The room cleared so quickly Else suspected that it must have been planned.

He kept his baffled face on. Just another dumb soldier, he had no clue. Though that would not work for long. His own men tried it on him, regularly, with limited success.

The man who stayed behind considered Else. Else studied the man back. This must be Ferris Renfrew. No one else would fit in just here, just now, would they?

He was about fifty, looked more Firaldian than northern. He had all of his hair. That was black, lightly salted with gray. It had no luster left, though. His eyes were small, brown, squinted, permanently suspicious. His lips were frozen into a pout, suggesting that he thought everyone was lying to him all the time. His nose was completely unremarkable. His chin was strong. His face was rectangular and weathered. He had excellent teeth, which was uncommon in Chaldarean lands.

“Tell me what happened in the Knot. The night your company fell foul of the bogon."

"Sir? The what?"

"The attack. By the night monster. The thing is called a bogon."

"There isn't anything to tell. We survived.”

"You saved the band."

Else shrugged. "That was Principatл Doneto. All I did was, I had a nightmare. It woke me up. It felt like something bad was happening so I woke the Principatл. That's all I did. He belongs to the Collegium. After that I was tied up with bad stomach cramps. He took care of the monster."

"This wasn't your first time, though. Did it go the same at Esther's Wood? And Runch?"

Shaken, Else managed better than he expected. And even tucked away a curiosity about the mention of Runch. No bogon manifested there. He did not reply.

Renfrow said, "There's a connecting thread. I don't know what, yet, but the more recent attacks must have followed because the first one failed."

"Huh?"

"I know who you are, Captain Tage. I've been waiting for you for months. You haven't done anything you were expected to do. That ruction in Sonsa, that was a masterpiece."

"Sir, you've lost me completely. You're not making any sense." Else suspected, though, that the man was not just fishing. "Who are you, sir?"

The inquisitor shook his head.

Osa Stile. That little bastard had not been able to keep his mouth shut.

Renfrow must be the man Pinkus Ghort remembered from somewhere else.

"It's possible you may not know what's going on. If I was to send you into enemy territory I wouldn't tell you everything. I'd let the touchiest parts wait till you'd survived making all your contacts."

This felt more dangerous by the minute.

"Yes. That's it. They just flung you in, like throwing a snake into a campfire. Either they figured you could handle the heat or they wanted you to burn. Which was it? What did they tell you to do?"

Else kept his mouth shut, stared at the inquisitor like the man was raving in tongues, the way the al-Kobean dervishes did.

Else would not surrender his identity as Piper Hecht. They had no means of proving that he was not Piper Hecht.

"Lest you think you can bluff your way past me, I remind you that we've met before."

"No, sir. Even if I was who you say I am. I'd remember you if we'd met." Else spoke with complete conviction. It was true.

"I get the impression you really believe what you just said."

"I don't just believe it, it's true. Who are you? Where are we supposed to have met? I doubt that you're the sort who volunteers to serve in the Grand Marshes."

"Ah, no. No. I have to rethink this. There's a page missing." For a moment he listened to something only he could hear.

Else concentrated on ignoring his left wrist. He itched terribly.

There was sorcery at work here … So many candles. They made it warm. He had begun to sweat. And the odor of candle smoke … There was another odor there, behind the burnt tallow. An incense sort of smell. Which would be why he felt light-headed. These naughty people were doing something to make him more pliable.

The inquisitor could not understand why Else was not more suggestible. He would be wondering if he had not made some grotesque mistake.

"Ah. I recall the circumstances. You're right. We haven't met. You were pointed out by a gentleman named er-Rashal al-Dhulquarnen, in the Palace of the Kings in al-Qarn two years ago. The wizard said you were leaving on a mission that could impact the balance of power in the east. If you were successful. Were you successful?"

Else tried to recall all he had heard about Ferris Renfrow. While mulling the fact that the Grail Emperor's people might have known that he was coming. Was that Osa's doing? Or had there been word from al-Qarn?

Why would Osa have been told?

"I have no idea what you're talking about. But I'm at your mercy. I won't argue."

"We're at loggerheads, then, Captain. And if you won't be Else Tage from Dreanger, then I can't help Else Tage accomplish his mission. Nor will Else Tage be able to help me with mine."

"What would you do for me if I agree to be this Else guy?" He mispronounced his own name. "What would I have to do? On account of, if it'll get me out of here, I'll be the Patriarch's favorite daughter. Or any saint you want to name."

Renfrow showed signs of exasperation. Nothing was working.

"There's something wrong here," Renfrow said. "Even if you aren't the man I think, you shouldn't be able to reason or argue." He waved a hand. Smoke swirled around his fingers.

Else grunted an interrogative.

"Sit still." Renfrow left the room.

The smoke and whatever else was in the air dragged Else down into unconsciousness.

Else wakened back in the lockup. He had the shakes and a headache. Pinkus Ghort and Just Plain Joe were there to nurse him. Joe had cold water. Ghort had a cold, wet rag and was mopping his face, soothing his fever.

Ghort asked, "What the hell happened, Pipe?"

"They tried to get me to confess that I'm a spy. They used some kind of drug on me. It was in the air, like incense."

Just Plain Joe asked, "How could you be a spy? You weren't never been in these parts before. An' the only reason you ever was was on account of they brought you."

Else finished a pint of cold water. "Joe, I don't have any idea. Maybe you could ask them. All I know is, they want me to be a spy. And they drugged me to get me there. And, before I passed out, I was thinking that it didn't matter whether I was a spy so long as I told them I was a spy. I think I volunteered to be the spy if they'd just let me out. What time is it?"

It was noon of the day following Else's last clear memory. The inquisitors had interviewed prisoners all morning. The tenor of the interviews had changed. The Imperials wanted the prisoners to talk about their comrades.

Ghort said, "I just had my third round. My head's still fuzzy. You're right about that smoke. They asked me about everything but Pig Iron. They're definitely looking for something."

Just Plain Joe said, "They've got the Principatл in there, now. You better eat somethin' while you can, Pipe. In case they jump your ass when they find out you're awake."

Ghort agreed. "Sound advice. The way they worked on you yesterday, they'll be right back at you. What's that all about, anyway?"

"I told you. They want me to be a spy."

"Eat," Joe said.

"And suck down some more water," Ghort told him. "A lot of water."

"Did they drug you guys?" Else asked.

Joe shrugged.

Ghort replied, "I told you. They're putting something in the air."

Else described the man who had interrogated him alone. "You know who I'm talking about? Is he the one you said you thought you'd seen before?"

"The very one. And I remember where, now. It was six years ago. I was new at this stuff. I was working for the Duke of Clearenza. That's up north, in the foothills. They call it a Duchy but you can throw a rock across it. Johannes was just getting going. He kept his people distracted by pushing the Empire's claims in Firaldia. Clearenza owed allegiance to the Grail Empire but that wasn't being enforced. The Dukes were related to the two Patriarchs before Sublime. They thought that would protect them."

Else chuckled. "Evidently it didn't. So what does that mean to us?"

"When Hansel's troops showed up Clemency III didn't do anything. He was about a hundred years old and too busy croaking. The Duke decided to shut the gates and sit tight. Then this guy who'd been with us about two months went down to the gatehouse in the middle of the night, killed the guard on duty, and opened up. They say it didn't look intentional. That he just wanted to choke the old man until he passed out. But he broke the old man's windpipe.

"It turned out the killer was the Grail Emperor's man. He called himself Lester Temagat but his real name was Ferris Renfrew. They say he pulls tricks like that all the time.”

"And you put him on your grudge list?"

"The guard in that gatehouse was my old man. My father."

Just Plain Joe shoved food into Else's hands, "You got to eat, Pipe. Come on. Don't be a dope. They're going to nab you again."

Else ate. And reflected on Ghort's story. It was interesting. But was any of it true?

The Imperial interrogators sent for him half an hour later.

Osa Stile was in the interrogation room. Else acknowledged the boy with a glance. He took the seat that Renfrew indicated, facing the table.

"Captain, I think you know this young man."

"He was Bishop Serif's boy whore. Armand. I expect he's found himself a new bed to bounce in. He disappeared when we got to Plemenza."

"Osa is an agent of the Grail Empire. One of our finest. He was a gift to us from your master, Gordimer the Lion. But you know that already."

Else said nothing. He maintained his baffled expression and waited for the situation to show him the way to go.

"You'll remain stubborn to the end, won't you?"

"No. I told you already. I'll be anyone you want me to be. If I can just get out of here. Tell me about this Captain Tage and I'll do my best. As long as you don't put me anywhere where there's somebody that already knows him."

Rage flared behind Renfrew's eyes. For some reason he had a lot of emotion invested in getting Else to confess his true identity.

Osa Stile smiled thinly. Renfrew did not see him do so.

So. The boy might belong to Renfrew but he did not love the man. Good to know.

Renfrew turned. "Tell me, boy. Is this the man you knew as Captain Else Tage of the Sha-lug?"

"He looks a little like Tage. But with an awful lot of wear and age on him. If he is, I don't how you'd prove it. Anyway, I think he's too tall."

Amusing. Osa was giving Renfrew nothing.

Ferris Renfrew stared at Osa Stile for half a minute. The boy did not flinch. He was Sha-lug on the inside.

Renfrew rose and patrolled the circumference of the room, as though hunting the little night things rumored to be used as spies by sorcerers and such. He completed two full, careful circuits before he resumed his seat.

"All right. We'll do it your way. You'll be Else Tage, Dreangerean spy, for me, because that'll help get you out of confinement."

Else sat quietly. He waited.

"But from now on you're going to be an agent of the Grail Empire, too. It shouldn't be long before the Emperor releases Principatй Doneto. It looks like the Patriarch will give up trying to wait us out. Things aren't going well for him. He needs Doneto's support in the Collegium.

"I understand that the Principatй plans to keep all of you as part of his lifeguard. With you near him the Emperor could have someone close to one of the men closest to the Patriarch."

Else said nothing.

"Well?"

"And if I decline?”

"Then you'll never leave the Dimmel Palace. You'll never do your Dreangerean masters a lick of good."

Else grunted, unsurprised.

"So you won't forget us as soon as you get out of here, we'll have you sign a contract. We'll give it to the Principatй if you fail us."

Else grunted again. "Tell me about the pay. I won't do it just because you twist my arm."

"You want to get out of here?"

"I told you I'd be your foreigner so I can get out. Once I'm out, I need to make a living."

"The Principatй will be …"

"He'll pay me for working for him. There has to be balance. The workman must be given his due." Was he being too clever? Although common to most religions, that notion was a pronounced favorite of the Maysalean Heresy.

Osa Stile said, "Don't be such a damned skinflint, Renfrow. It isn't your money."

They argued. Was that for show? Was Osa Stile diverting Renfrew from thoughts of Dreanger, Gordimer, and the Sha-lug?

Had he been able, Else would have slipped away. He muttered, "Being a prisoner does limit one's choices."

Ferris Renfrow turned to Else. "Tage. I'm finished with you. For now. You know where we stand. I'll see you again. Be prepared to sign on with the Grail Emperor. You'll be paid well." Renfrow rang a bell.

Else made sure no one could eavesdrop. He told Principat Doneto, "They're trying to force me to spy for them against you and the Church."

“Tell me."

Else left out little but Renfrew's insistence that he be Else Tage.

"Here's what we'll do. You go ahead and agree. I'll get you a job outside my own household. Cooperate. Build their trust. And someday we'll use that."

"Of course." That was his own plan. Better to let Doneto verbalize it, though. Part of that development of trust thing.

Doneto said, "Go tell tales. I'm sure the others have had offers from that devil Renfrow, too. And service to the Emperor would be attractive to a certain sort."

"Renfrow?" Else asked.

"Ferris Renfrow is the man trying to enlist you. He's one of Johannes's favorites. Baseborn but one of the most powerful men in the Grail Empire despite that."

Else joined Pinkus Ghort, Just Plain Joe, and Bo Biogna. They were working on a cheese and a salami and did not have much mouth to spare. Biogna did ask, "You feeling better now, Piper?”

"Some. I don't think they drugged me this time. I'm hungry. Give me some of that cheese." In the nature of things, the salami would be mostly pork. "And give me one of those sausages you're trying to hide, Pinkus." That would be pork, too. But it would be juicy and tasty and about the only thing he would miss when this captivity came to an end.

Scowling, Ghort asked, "What was all that with the Principatй?"

"I was holding him up. The Imperials want to recruit me for a campaign to establish the Emperor's rights in cities that are supposed to belong to him. Bo. Joe. Did you guys tell them something to make me look good? They seem to think they can trust me with my own battalion."

"Shit." Ghort did not sound happy. "And I was thinking about giving you another sausage."

"What?"

"I'm jealous. They didn't offer me nothing that good. And I did every bit as good a job as you did.”

"Better. I've only got three of my guys still in one piece. And the only one of them worth two dead flies is a mule."

"But a real special mule," Bo Biogna said.

"Hey!" Joe growled. "Don't go making fun."

Ghort said, "Calm down, Joe. We all know that Pig Iron is the best man."

Else asked, "So what did they want from you, Pinkus?" He wondered if Ghort would tell the same story twice.

"Mainly, to stick with the Principatй and report back what the Church is up to. Same thing they probably asked everybody to do."

"They didn't ask me," Joe said. "They never asked me much of anything, neither time."

"Me, neither," Biogna grumbled. "Story of my life. I'd a done it. Double pay. An' I got no use for neither side, so let me get fuckin' rich sellin' them both out to each other."

Else told him, “They probably realized that, Bo. You were probably too eager."

"Yeah. I ain't so bright sometimes."

During the day all of the captives enjoyed a few minutes with the inquisitors. Six of the first twelve men to go did not return. Imperial people came for their possessions. As always, those refused to talk.

"Something's going on," Ghort declared, compelled to state the obvious.

Else grunted. "And they haven't pulled in you, me, Bo, Joe, or the Principatй yet."

"Don't forget Pig Iron."

"I haven't. But they have. You notice, they never question him."

"We ought to complain."

"You go first."

Just Plain Joe was the next soldier taken. He wad back ten minutes later, grinning from ear to ear. "I done it, Pipe. I guv 'em nine kinds a hell on account of they don't respect Pig Iron the way they do the rest of the troops."

"Good for you, Joe," Ghort said. "I'm gonna do that myself. Pipe, I figure we're about to get out of here. That's the only way all this makes sense. The guys not coming back are the ones going over to Johannes."

Only Bronte Doneto himself remained to be called again when Else was taken for the last time.

Else twitched and shrugged, uncomfortable and itchy in badly fitted formal clothing. He wore it in order to escort Bronte Doneto to an audience with the Grail Emperor.

Pinkus Ghort kept reminding him, "I told you so."

Principate Doneto was not pleased. Ghort and Else were his only supporting cast. He felt he deserved an entourage. He was a Prince of the Church. He was a cousin of the Patriarch. He had Patriarchs among his ancestors, despite Church policies concerning clerical celibacy.

"We should've brought Pig Iron," Ghort said. "We could've dressed him as ugly as us, no problem."

Else scratched and fidgeted. "Pig Iron would've been more comfortable than I am. And wouldn't feel half as ridiculous."

Doneto grinned, but that flash of polished teeth vanished immediately. The Prince of the Church took over. The Principatй scowled, impatient with this familiar humor.

The Counts of Plemenza had been wealthy. Recollections of that wealth remained, though the Truncella themselves were out of the Dimmel Palace and lived on only in circumstances so reduced that they could afford staffs of fewer than forty servants.

The antechamber where the three waited boasted silk-upholstered furniture, oil portraits of past Truncella greats, busts that appeared to have survived from antiquity, and a tapestry from the last century portraying a confrontation between Chaldarean crusaders and Praman warriors.

Noting Else's interest, the Principatй reported, "That would be the Battle of the Well of Remembrance. I had an ancestor die in that battle."

"Ah!" A closer examination of the banners portrayed helped.

Sha-lug remembered it as the Battle of the Four Armies, an abomination in which Praman fought Praman, with the Arnhanders aiding the weaker side. At the time the Kaifate of Qasr al-Zed and the Kaifate of al-Minphet were struggling for control of the eastern approaches to the Wells of Ihrian. The Lucidians had help from the Crusader states. The Sha-lug were supported by swarms of Ishoti tribal auxiliaries out of Peqaa.

The battle did not take place near the Well of Remembrance. The westerners named it for the Well because both sides were hurrying to grab it before the other could get there. An unplanned encounter battle took place on the eastern edge of the Plain of Judgement. Thanks to the insanely fanatic Ishoti the situation devolved into chaos. Each side brought more and more swords up to support those already engaged. The epic slaughter swept back and forth until the mercurial Ishoti suddenly lost their taste for blood and ran away.

The battle, by whatever name, was the bloodiest of the long contest for control of the Holy Lands. And the least decisive. It changed nothing.

A year later the Sha-lug and crusaders joined forces to evict the Lucidians from those few territories they had captured after the Battle of the Four Armies.

In the Holy Lands alliances were as fluid as imagination, treachery, and shortsightedness could write them.

Pinkus Ghort said, "Pipe's folks were still pagan when that cluster fuck went down."

A majordomo type materialized. "His Imperial Majesty will see you now." He bowed slightly to the Principatй.

"Show time." Ghort began to adjust his clothing. He and Else followed the Principatй, two steps behind, flanked out to either side.

The audience hall was unimpressive. It was a room fifteen feet by twenty-something. The only furniture was one heavy wooden chair. That was occupied by a dark, ugly little man. He was dressed as though he planned to ride to the hunt once he got this unpleasant chore out of the way. This was Hansel, Johannes Blackboots, the Grail Emperor, Elector of Kretien, and terror of Sublime V's cohorts.

The Emperor wore black boots. Of course.

Else pegged him immediately as a man determined to live up to the reputation awarded him by rumor. He liked being the Ferocious Little Hans.

At least twenty people crowded the room, mostly men with shields and spears. They lined the walls. A handful of unarmed people surrounded the Emperor. Three of those appeared to be Johannes's children. Two were attractive young women. The third was a thin, pallid boy. The men posed nearest Johannes would be his closest advisers.

Those deserved close study. Particularly the one who was not Ferris Renfrow. But Else could not concentrate. His attention had been arrested by the woman who must be the Emperor's younger daughter, Helspeth.

Strangely, the impact seemed mutual and electric.

Else forced himself to focus. Critical things could happen. A prince of the Church was engaged with the most powerful lord in the west. The future might be shaped here. That ugly little man, Johannes Ege, troubled men as self-confident as Sublime V. Else's next few years would find him — he hoped — intimately involved in the affairs of the Church and all these men.

His attention stole back to Helspeth.

Helspeth was young enough to get away with considering him frankly.

Helspeth Ege was taller than her father by a hand. She was thin by prevailing standards, in Firaldia and Dreanger both. The most desirable women were expected to be more substantial, more rounded. Helspeth was too slight even by the standards of her own people. In the Grail Empire, particularly in the north, women were supposed to have hips and muscles, possibly so they could give birth while pulling a plow.

Helspeth's features suggested exotic ancestry. Her eyes were large and dark. Her hair was almost an oriental black. It fell straight, in a single heavy braid that hung down past her waist. Her mouth was wide and her lips prominent, almost puffy. Her nose, though, was small and pointed. She looked like she might have freckles. The light was not good enough to say for sure, nor to reveal the exact color of her eyes.

Except for the ugly, she seemed very much her father's daughter. Which meant that her older sister Katrin must take after her mother.

Other than being tall and slim, the sisters shared little in appearance. Katrin's hair was blond almost to the point of being white. Her eyes were small, narrow, and appeared to be an icy blue. That hinted at a mean streak. Her mouth was a severe slash, almost lipless and definitely colorless. At a glance, Else guessed that Katrin Ege did not like the world very much and suspected that on close acquaintance that feeling might be reflected right back. Katrin's clothing suggested an austere, inflexible personality. It was of a quality consistent with her station but plain, White, and a very pale, washed-out, misty sort of bluish-green. She could pass as one of the more exotic strains of Episcopal nuns.

Katrin's gaze swept across Else once, like a moving beam of winter. Then it went away. And stayed away.

Not so Helspeth's interest. Helspeth kept trying to concentrate on her father but her gaze refused to shun Else for long.

He noted, further, that the younger sister was more blessed with breasts. Seemed to be, anyway. Imperial style did not contrive to flatter women in that arena.

Else could not work out why the girl had such an impact. And she was, really, just a girl. And he was a married man with familial obligations.

And Helspeth Ege was the daughter of an emperor.

The atmosphere in this realm of Unbelievers must have stricken him with a brain fever. He had no business even noticing the woman except as an accoutrement of the Grail Emperor's court.

Bronte Doneto's interview with Emperor Johannes went as those things could be expected to. Platitudes were exchanged. Not one forthright word was spoken.

Doneto nearly lost control when he learned that the Patriarch had not yet committed to his ransom. "Sublime agrees in principal," Johannes said. "But he just doesn't want to turn loose any money. If he does, his effort to force the Connec to bend the knee will be crippled. Which is the point of the exercise from where I sit."

Hansel ended the diplomatic hot air just that simply. He continued, "I had you brought up from the underworld because my agents tell me Sublime is ready to face reality. That he's pulling the ransom together. Which isn't going as well as he hoped. Most Devedian moneylenders won't do business with a man who says he wants to exterminate them. Odd. Plus, a lot of people in Brothe aren't eager to have you back."

Else concentrated. Personalities and conflicts were of paramount interest. If Collegium members could be bribed, say, it might be possible to avoid war altogether.

The Sha-lug sang the glories of war and worked hard at preparing themselves for it, but, because they knew it intimately, they were not at all averse to pursuing alternatives.

Bronte Doneto said, "Any man who achieves any stature through his own efforts accumulates enemies. Envy is the most common human failing. You must be familiar with this yourself."

"Indeed I am. You could say that the envy of the Church is at the root of my conflict with the Patriarch."

The Grail Emperor was having fun. He had Sublime V by the short hairs. "So I'm bringing you upstairs, as my guest, until those who love you buy your vote back."

Doneto held his tongue. With obvious difficulty.

Else studied Johannes and his advisers. The Emperor was more than just short and ugly. His frame was twisted slightly. He had a small hump. It was easy to see why someone might not take him seriously. Possibly the other Imperial Electors had counted on his deformities to get him out of the way sooner than later.

Hansel's features were more pronouncedly oriental that Helspeth's. One of the invading tribes that pulled the Old Empire down must have camped near the Ege family tree.

Johannes had made himself the most powerful Grail Emperor yet. If an equally powerful personality had not resided in Brothe, the Empire might have engulfed the hundred states of Firaldia. The Patriarchy might have become an extension of the Grail Emperor's power.

Interesting times. Two mighty men. Both wanted to be lord of the world, king of kings. Excellent for the sons of al-Prama — until one subdued the other. While they fought, men like Indala al-Sul Halaladin and Gordimer the Lion might purge the Holy Lands of crusader states.

Which would fire the contest between the kaifates of Qasr al-Zed and al-Minphet. And waken the inscrutable ambitions of the Rh?n emperors. And, at a remove, there was Tsistimed the Golden and the Hu'n-tai At, the doom now breaking against the far borders of the Ghargarlicean Empire.

The man with Johannes who was not Ferris Renfrow was unfamiliar. Else studied him. The man might have been decoration for all the interest he showed.

Helspeth was eyeballing him again, her interest so frank that Else suspected Ferris Renfrow had rehearsed her as a distraction.

Pinkus Ghort's sudden touch startled Else. "Wake up! we're leaving."

What? Had he become that distracted? Apparently so. And the Principatй was not pleased.

Bronte Doneto moved to an apartment on the fourth floor of the Dimmel Palace. His imprisonment was no less real, however. He was given three servants, all of whom could be trusted to report to Ferris Renfrow. He was allowed to keep Pinkus Ghort and Else as bodyguards, though they remained unarmed. They could not leave the apartment except for religious services in a small secondary chapel. Where they saw only the same people they had seen every day since the ambush.

Of those who came to Plemenza with Doneto, nine took service with the Grail Emperor. Two succumbed to ill health. So, besides Ghort, Else, Bo, and Joe, only three men chose to stick with the Principatй. Two were the last survivors of Doneto's original lifeguard. The other, Gitto Boratto, a Vangelin, was obviously a spy.

The Patriarch continued to procrastinate. His reluctance to pay had no limit. Crucial tasks of the Church remained untended because of deadlocks in the Collegium.

"Wake up, Pipe!" Ghort shouted one morning, long before Else's shift with the Principatй. "We're moving out. The ransom money finally showed up."

"Really?"

"Really. Himself says so."

And well past time. It was spring outside. Else grumbled, "At least we got through the winter without freezing."

Ghort chuckled. He knew perfectly well that Else was sick of Bronte Doneto and even more sick of Pinkus Ghort.

Ghort prophesied, "You may not have to strangle me after all.”

Else suspected that, for all he complained about everyone he ever met, Pinkus Ghort had no nerves to be rubbed raw by interminable proximity.

"Maybe. But don't push your luck. What happened? Why the sudden turnaround?"

"Pirates."

"What? You want me to brain you? What's with the cryptic answer?"

"I mean it. Pirates from Calzir are all over the place, suddenly. Raiding both coasts. I'm sure there's a story. But all I've heard is, the raiders are picking on the Church and the Benedocto family holdings."

Piracy was an old-time favorite sport of Calzir's Pramans. At times buccaneering offered better prospects than any more mundane career. At least until the appearance of the Firaldian mercantile republics. Those ferocious capitalists were less forgiving than feeble counts and dukes and kings. The men they sent to scour out the pirates' home villages and harbors were deadly, cruel, and thorough.

Else said as much. "They couldn't be that stupid. Could they?"

"Why ask me? All I know is, we're getting out of here. You want to argue about it, take it up with the Principatй. Or the Patriarch next time you see him. Or those lunatic Calzirans."

"All right. All right. I'm just amazed at humanity's boundless capacity for making stupid choices." How could the Calzirans have grown so contemptuous of reality? Sublime was looking for excuses to preach a crusade. Did they believe that Sonsa, Dateon, and Aparion would look away? Hell. Maybe they did. The Devedian uprisings, fomented by the Brotherhood of War and Patriarchal agitators, might have made the republics withdraw protection from areas not their direct dependents.

Else asked, "Do you know where the raids were? Only Patriarchal States got hit?"

Ghort shrugged. "They didn't call me into any councils, Pipe. They told me to wake your ass up and get ready to hike. And hike for real, because we ain't getting our horses back. So, if you don't mind, get shaking. I'll get Pig Iron and the boys stirring."

They made a pathetic little band leaving Plemenza. The anonymous Braunsknechts captain watched from the gateway, as though to make sure they really went away.

There were seven of them. The Principatй, Else, and Ghort. Bo Biogna and Just Plain Joe. Plus Bergos Delmareal and Gadjeu Tifft. The spy who had intended to stick with Doneto, Gitto Boratto, was too sick to travel. Which was a genuine coincidence. Boratto came down with the runs the afternoon before the ransom arrived. Bo thought Boratto's troubles were due to a rich diet that was his reward for spying.

So Delmareal and Tifft were reliable. Delmareal was an exile from one of the smaller Chaldarean kingdoms in Direcia, absorbed by Navaya shortly after Peter became king. Delmareal had no inclination to go home.

Gadjeu Tifft hailed from Croizat, a tiny state on the Creveldian coast across the narrow Vieran Sea, east of Firaldia. The details of his story were protean. Men did stupid, impulsive things when they were young.

Tifft did not seem bright enough to be an agent of the Rh?n, though Croizat and all of Creveldia belonged to the Eastern Empire.

No matter. The shores of the Mother Sea crawled with displaced men who, often in some way that they did not comprehend, found themselves far from anyone or anything they knew. They survived by signing on with some warlord.

The Bronte Donetos were always there.

Doneto was in good health now and eager to get home. He pushed as hard as Pig Iron allowed. And Pig Iron was in a mood to put Plemenza behind him.

Pinkus Ghort started grumbling before the first day was halfway done. "Good thing we spent so much time staying in shape, eh? That's paying dividends now." Else was one of few prisoners who had made an effort to stay fit. Ghort was not.

Even the Principatй had to walk. Possibly, Hansel thought, that might inspire him to rein in his natural arrogance.

Only a brace of ancient donkeys had been given the privilege of becoming Pig Iron's associates in the transport department.

Doneto wanted to plot against the future. He told Else, "As soon as we get to Brothe, before anybody even sees you, I'm going to set you up with Draco Arniena. He'll take you on because, although he opposes Sublime publicly, in secret he's our ally."

Doneto bubbled with eagerness to plunge into Brother's ferocious political dialogue.

19. Andorayans in Brothe

Shagot and Svavar survived by theft and violence while they learned enough Firaldian to get by. Then they worked their way up the ranks of strong-arm men. They started as bouncers in one of Brothe's more riotous waterfront dives, then became wholesale butchers on behalf of an association of shopkeepers grown weary of paying protection to gangs who did not protect them from other gangs demanding protection money.

They had a miraculous knack for surviving. Their coldbloodedness intimidated the most hardened Brothen criminals. It took just months to convince a superstitious underworld that they could not be touched but would happily obliterate anyone who even thought about getting in their way.

Shagot learned that producing the monster head while using weapons from the old battlefield in the White Hills left him and Svavar invulnerable. He did not understand why. He did not care. It was sufficient that he was doing the work of the gods.

The brothers had no trouble being coldly murderous because they were so far out of their own time that they did not see people of the present as entirely human.

This was like butchering chickens. When Shagot could stay awake. Shagot slept up to sixteen hours a day.

Their work came to the attention of Father Syvlie Obilade, who had a special place in the household of the Bruglioni family. The Bruglioni were one of the Five Families of Brothe. They were long-time enemies of the Benedocto. Father Obilade told the brothers they would enjoy an easier, more profitable life if they put their talents on retainer to the Bruglioni.

Shagot had nothing but contempt for Father Obilade. "They're all oil and slime, these Chaldarean priests," he told Svavar. "I'd love to see them delivered to the mercies of the Old Ones. Especially these shit-for-brains Brothen priests. All they're interested in is getting hold of power. Their screams would be sweet music."

Svavar did not reply. He seldom spoke anymore. He did what Shagot required of him, however bloody, insane, or cruel, while abiding his release from his obligations to his gods.

The biggest handicap endured by the brothers was Shagot's sleep compulsion. That worsened almost daily.

Sylvie Obilade was not a blood member of the Bruglioni. He was a boyhood friend of Soneral Bruglioni, who would be the Bruglioni chieftain today if he had not somehow managed to swallow a fatal dose of poison during the maneuvering prior to the election of Honario Benedocto. The priest's apparent loyalty now lay with Soneral's brother, Paludan.

Paludan Bruglioni overflowed with rage and hatred. Paludan Bruglioni's whole being revolved around those. All Brothe believed Father Obilade did nothing to soften Paludan's dark obsessions. Indeed, perhaps, he nurtured Paludan's abhorrence of those who favored the Benedocto Patriarchy.

Sylvie Obilade tried to be a good priest. But he had wrestled with his own faith for years.

Shagot and Svavar entered Father Obilade's small, dank room. The stench of mold and mildew beset them. Discarded clothing lay in the corners, damp and decaying, gifts never worn.

The priest never changed his filthy, tattered smock, His personal odors were powerful, too. "Thank you for coming." His voice was raspy, damaged permanently by the mold in the air.

Shagot exchanged glances with his brother. This ragged old skeleton was one of the more powerful men in Brothe. Which was why Shagot had listened when the priest recruited him.

The view is always better from a high place. From a high enough vantage Shagot thought he could see all the way to the man he was supposed to find.

Father Obilade teetered on the brink of his fiftieth year but a lifetime of self-abuse had him looking seventy. He ate only unleavened bread and drank nothing but water. On holy days he rewarded himself by fasting.

Shagot considered him a madman. He rumbled, "You said your boss would pay well. So we came."

Svavar asked, "Have you found out anything about the man we're seeking?"

The priest was puzzled momentarily. Then, "Oh. The mystery man from the orient. No. Not yet. No one knows anything. But Brothe is big and the search is of no urgency to anyone but you. And the hunt has only just begun."

Shagot grunted, tormented by the alien urgency coiled within him. He forced it down. "You have work for us or not?"

The smelly old man twitched. He had moral qualms about what he had been told to engineer.

The Grimmssons did not yet realize that they had been retained only because the Bruglioni family could deny them. And because they could be used up in some scheme down the road, where deniability would be particularly appetizing.

Father Obilade had spent a lifetime deluding himself. But he was not stupid. He knew Paludan Bruglioni did not intend to exploit these foreigners for the glory of God. But it might be possible that what served the Bruglioni could benefit God as well. This was the mission Sylvie Obilade set himself daily, to weave his day into the grand tapestry of God's master plan.

It is an easy intellectual step to the conviction that whatever you do must be part of God's plan. Justification for villainy knows no intellectual constraint.

Shagot said, "It reeks in here, old man. Why don't you clean this shit out?" And, before Father Obilade could respond, "What do you want? You woke me up. So get to the point."

"The Patriarch plans to rectify his weakness in the Collegium by creating new Principatй positions disguised as the presentation of honors to stalwart defenders of the faith."

Shagot snorted. He did not understand Episcopal politics.

"Sublime will nominate three men of three apparently diverse viewpoints: one enemy of Sublime, one ally, and one disinterested outlander unlikely to assume his seat. These seats won't be permanent." Most Principatйs served only in their own names, for life. But the Five Families colluded to make sure each clan held at least one seat at all times. You had to be a Principatй to be elected Patriarch. "They'll pass away when these individuals go to their heavenly rewards."

Again, Shagot snorted. "Why should I care about that shit?"

"Rodrigo Cologni has made a secret agreement with Sublime. After his confirmation he'll change sides and vote with Sublime's party in return for castles and estates he can distribute to his children."

The purportedly celibate fathers of the Church could be fathers in the literal sense. They failed to admit the hypocrisy.

"Once these nominations go through and Bronte Doneto returns, Sublime will have a three-vote advantage in the Collegium. But Sublime's plans aren't in the best interest of God's Church. Therefore …"

Shagot suspected that the Chadarean god was old enough to look out for himself. "You want somebody killed."

"Crudely put, but, yes. Though it isn't as simple as that. There'll be a clamor if Rodrigo Cologni is murdered. That can't be connected with the Bruglioni."

Shagot was not brilliant but he was a cunning villain. Things fell into place instantly.

He and Svavar would kill this Rodrigo Cologni and, somehow, before they could be arrested and questioned, brave Bruglioni household fighters who arrived too late would kill them while supposedly trying to save Cologni. Or some variant on such a scheme.

"How much time do we have to get ready?"

"It needs to happen within the next twenty days… Before Bronte Doneto returns."

"I'll sleep on it. I'll see what the physical situation is. Do you have somebody inside the Cologni household?” Shagot thought it likely that the Five Families all had spies inside the others' houses.

Father Obilade was exasperated. These outlanders were too clever, by half. But he had to use the tools at hand.

"Why is that of concern?" the priest asked.

"Because we need to know the target's movements. His plans. We can't just march into the Cologni compound to get him."

"Access won't be a problem. Rodrigo Cologni is a whore-master. He's determined to enjoy as many women as he can before it's too late to futter another. He goes looking for new whores at least three nights a week."

"Good. Good. That'll make it easier." Rodrigo did not sound bright. Far safer to have women brought to him. "How big a mob follows him around?"

"There haven't been any family wars for a generation. The Five Families want to avoid the excesses of the past. So Rodrigo only needs to worry about robbers. He'll have four bodyguards. And maybe a few friends. None of those have to die. But the Cologni bodyguards may be a challenge."

"Uh. Like I said. Let me sleep on it. Let me look it over. Find out whatever you can about Rodrigo Cologni. Be ready to say yes when I name our price."

Once they left the crazy priest, Svavar observed, "They plan to use us up."

"They mean to try. But they don't understand our luck. Let's have a little fun with them." Clever evil was Shagot's sole remaining pleasure.

The Walker himself strode through Shagot's dreams that night.

Father Obilade, of course, wanted Shagot to wait till after the job to get paid. Shagot laughed. That after Svavar spent dozens of hours studying Rodrigo Cologni and the Cologni compound. Which, like the homes of all of the Five Families, was a fortress. Literally.

Shagot replied, "I'm inclined to go along, old man. I mean, why would a priest try to cheat me? But my brother Asgrimmur, he says he didn't just fall off the turnip cart. He's naturally suspicious. Especially of anybody who chooses to live in these southern cities, where honor and the value of a man's word are considered trivial. Well, he's my brother. I've got to keep him happy. So what we're gonna do is, we're gonna take a third for each of us right now, then we'll pick up the rest afterward."

Father Obilade had not yet recovered from hearing Shagot's price for Rodrigo Cologni's life, six hundred gold Patriarchal ducats.

Nor did he like the demand for two-thirds payment up front. He could not make that deal, anyway. Paludan Bruglioni had not put that much specie at his disposal.

Paludan had a powerful desire to turn loose as little money as possible because he might not get it back.

Paludan had a reputation for squeezing a ducat till the Patriarch thereon squealed like a eunuch undergoing his signature procedure.

Father Obilade confessed, "I can't go with that. I wasn't given the power. Your fee is … I suppose excessive isn't the right word. You pay the most when you buy the best. Meet me here same time, night after tomorrow night. I'll warn Caniglia that you're coming."

"We'll be here," Shagot promised cheerfully. "I'm looking forward to taking your money." And he was. He had found a Deve who would invest it at an excellent rate of return. He had no idea what he would do with his wealth, but that did not concern him. He was enjoying life as much as he ever had.

He did not sit around. He sent Svavar out to dog Rodrigo.

Father Obilade wanted the attack to take place in the Madhur Plaza, as near Basbanes's Fountain as could be managed. In response to questions about why, the priest shrugged and said the location had personal meaning for Paludan.

Shagot examined the plaza personally, and had Svavar do so repeatedly, by day and by night. The site seemed ideal for what the priest wanted done. There were numerous excellent lurking places where heroic rescuers could wait to charge out and, to their eternal sorrow, be just moments too late to save Rodrigo Cologni.

Rodrigo Cologni was an assassination begging to happen. He was predictable in the extreme. He left the Cologni compound at the same time every time. And he followed the same route to the same whorehouses.

Father Obilade yielded to Shagot's financial demands. He turned over four hundred of the six hundred ducats two days before Rodrigo's scheduled early elevation to Heaven. Shagot told the priest, "We'll follow your script if we can, but we'll change shit around if anything comes up." The old priest scowled. "Just get it done."

Svavar and Shagot moved into the Madhur Plaza hours ahead of time. They brought all their trophies and fetishes. Even Svavar felt optimistic. "Going to be some real surprised assholes, Grim. Going to be some real surprised assholes."

Shagot chuckled. "Yeah. Going to be some good laughs on Father Obilade and Paludan fucking Bruglioni and his butt boy, Gervase. So. Let's fade into the fucking background and let the drama begin."

They did not stand out. Brothe drew countless pilgrims from everywhere. Basbanes's Fountain was a sight the foreigners all wanted to see. It had a history almost as long as that of the Old Empire itself.

Rodrigo Cologni passed through the plaza, outward bound, escorted only by his bodyguards. Shagot and Svavar felt even more confident.

A city watchman reminded them, "No sleeping in the plaza, gents."

"Not to worry," Shagot replied in credible Firaldian. "We've got a place to stay. We work for Paludan Bruglioni." He grinned and chuckled. The sergeant would remember that later.

Svavar laughed softly, too. He was having a good time. For the first time since they had come out of the Great Sky Fortress, he was happy to be alive, partly because he thought they were putting one over on the gods themselves.

"Hey," Shagot said, "we need to get out of sight. The Bruglioni gang should turn up pretty soon."

They slipped into the deep shadows between two buildings. Svavar asked, "You think the Bruglioni guys will do the job if we just sit on our hands?"

Treachery was in the works. Shagot's dreams had confirmed that. But he had dreamed much more. Some of which he had not yet unraveled. What Svavar suggested fit.

"Excellent thinking, little brother. I don't know what they'd do. How about we give them the opportunity? We can always tag Rodrigo somewhere else, later."

The wait seemed both long and short. One of those things relative to the moment. Svavar had trouble controlling the giggles. That was when time fled its swiftest. Time dragged when he grew somber and thought about everything that could go wrong.

"Quiet," Svavar whispered. "Here's the boss's boys."

Six Firaldians stole past, visible briefly in the light of a rising sliver of moon. They went into hiding scarcely a dozen yards from where Shagot and Svavar had holed up.

"Did you recognize any of them?" Shagot asked in a whisper that could not be heard five feet away.

"This isn't going to be a happy night for the Bruglioni. I saw Gildeo and Acato Bruglioni for sure. One of the others looked like Saldi Serena." That put both sons and a nephew of Paludan Bruglioni among the condemned.

In the middle of the plaza the complex menagerie of Basbanes's Fountain kept spitting and peeing and pouring. The falling waters generated a soporific noise that Shagot found hard to fight.

The moon moved on to where its light would no longer betray someone who snaked out of the thin gap where Shagot and Svavar waited. Shagot murmured, "Hang on. I'm going to see if I can hear anything." Carrying the head from the Haunted Hills. Shagot stole toward where his would-be assassins waited. Soon he lay on his stomach inches from the mouth of the gap where the Bruglioni boys had gone to ground.

A heated argument was underway. Somebody wanted to know why the idiot foreigners had not shown. Someone told that one to shut the fuck up. It was not time, yet. Fifteen minutes from now, then they could start worrying.

One of the lesser Bruglioni insisted, "I could go a long way, for a long time, on four hundred ducats."

"Your whores would pick your bones within a week."

Shagot could be as patient as stone when he knew there was a point. He remained frozen, listening, as minutes, then tens of minutes slipped by. He listened as the Bruglioni gang grew ever more uneasy.

Their cat's-paws were supposed to have arrived by now. They had not shown. Had Paludan flung four hundred ducats into a great big black sack of nothing?

Soon it was way past time for Shagot and Svavar to be out there hanging around the fountain, a pair of drunken foreigners who looked threatening to no one but themselves. Most of the foreigners infesting the city were too stupid to tie their own bootlaces.

Shagot crept backward. It would not be long before Rodrigo appeared. Already, it seemed, the Cologni was at the nether edge of the range of his behavior. He was late.

Drunken singing approached.

Rodrigo. And his bodyguards. And some drunks that the Cologni had accumulated during the evening.

This was something that Svavar had not seen before. It was out of character. "I definitely don't think we should do it now, Grim. I don't like the look of this."

Rodrigo's drinking buddies did not seem interested in getting on out of the Madhur Plaza. They stopped at Basbanes's Fountain and stalled around until Rodrigo's bodyguards insisted that Rodrigo get moving.

Shagot muttered, "I think I'll just go pound on that old priest till his balls fall off."

Svavar touched his arm. "There's some excitement starting."

The Bruglioni crew surrendered to the romance of their own stupidity. They rushed the party in the plaza.

As Shagot intuited, the drunken new friends were not drunk at all. But their level of alertness had dropped because no attack had come when expected at the fountain. On the other hand, Rodrigo's guards were sharply alert because of the pretend drunks' obvious stalls.

When the Bruglioni thugs rushed out, the Cologni bodyguards shoved knives into the backs of the pretend drunks.

The rush arrived. Blades flashed. Several men went down, one a Cologni bodyguard.

Then came a surprise second rush consisting of another half-dozen men who swooped in from the far side of the square. A great clangor ensued.

Both Gildeo and Acato Bruglioni thought well of themselves as duelists. They had reputations to support their confidence.

Their confidence was misplaced.

"These guys are fucking professionals," Shagot said. The new bunch were very good, though not good enough to avoid injuries of their own.

The speed and fury of the mess left the Bruglioni thugs and Rodrigo's bodyguards no chance to flee.

Shagot nodded to himself as the winners collected their prize — Rodrigo Cologni — and then their wounded. Those included the backstabbed companion drunks, who were still alive but unlikely to remain that way if they did not get to some skilled care soon. "Four of them are hurt bad. Two more have lesser wounds. As soon as they're out of sight, start tracking them. We need to find out who they are and where they're headed."

Svavar nodded unhappily. He was not feeling particularly bloodthirsty now. Which was, probably, why Grim was giving him this job while he stayed here.

Svavar knew Grim would have no trouble finding him later. Grim always knew where he was.

The Bruglioni were trying to pull themselves together, to limp back to the family fortress, when Shagot strolled up. At this point, no-one had yet been killed. But none of the Bruglioni or Cologni were in shape to fight on, either. Shagot cut a couple of throats, just to get everybody focused. One of those belonged to Acato Bruglioni, who had not been badly hurt before. His skill as a duelist did him no good whatsoever.

Shagot told the rest, "I want to know what this was all about." He asked pointed questions, with a sword's tip encouraging quick responses. He killed Saldi Serena when that young man tried to run.

Shagot learned that the setup had been what he guessed. He and Svavar were supposed to take the frame for murdering a man expected to support the Patriarch in the Collegium.

"And who stopped you?"

"That's what doesn't make no sense," Gildeo Bruglioni confessed. "Those were the Patriarch's wolves. The Brotherhood of War. They wouldn't have no reason to kidnap Rodrigo Cologni. He's on their side. But those were the orders they had."

"Really?" Shagot set his undermind to work on that, and the fact that the Brotherhood attackers had been entirely familiar with what was supposed to be happening. "This is what you're going to do. Assuming you want to survive. Finish off those Cologni. Then start hiking. Fast as you can."

Reluctantly, Gildeo Bruglioni turned on Rodrigo's wounded bodyguards, none of whom were able to resist.

Gildeo finished, turned, discovered that Shagot had slain the rest of the Bruglioni crew. His mouth opened but nothing came out.

Shagot killed Gildeo with a single stroke that took the man's head right off. Then Shagot jogged off after his brother. How long would it be before people moved in to loot the dead? Shagot wondered if he ought not to have done so himself.

How big a stink would come from tonight's evils? A huge one, surely, once the evidence was examined.

Shagot grinned. This was fun.

Rodrigo Cologni's captors were headed toward the Teragi River and the Castella dollas Pontellas, which made sense if they were Brotherhood of War.

Shagot stopped trying to overtake his brother. He ranged out in front of his quarry instead.

Those men moved slowly, avoiding notice.

Shagot knew little about the Brotherhood of War. They were some kind of fighting priests, which sounded like a bad joke, considering the Chaldarean priests of his experience.

He ambushed the party from the side, after letting their point man pass the unnaturally impenetrable shadow in which he crouched. A shadow he did not recognize as unusual, only as handy.

Much happened around Shagot that he failed to notice.

He attacked with an ancient bronze sword in one hand and the demon's head in the other. He thought he was jumping in amongst priests like Sylvie Obilade. It seemed he could see in the dark tonight, a talent of considerable utility.

He had no trouble dropping the first four surprised and previously injured kidnappers he encountered. Then the point man returned and Shagot learned the truth about the fighting priests of the Brotherhood of War.

Shagot's opponent was like none he had faced since those far days when he and Erief practiced against one another. Only the fact that the darkness was no handicap gave Shagot any edge.

He kept dancing away, seizing fleeting chances to strike at the others. He had a chop at Rodrigo Cologni's hamstring when he noticed the old man trying to slip away.

Then Shagot found himself with his back to a wall. The best of three attackers was directly in front of him. Another unwounded man came at him from his right while an injured but capable fighter occupied him on his left, trying to get past the scowling demon's head. All three were wary, cautious, professionals. Shagot would have been calling for the Choosers of the Slain had he not seen his brother behind his attackers.

It was not easy, even so. Shagot suffered several wounds, including one that would have been permanently crippling had he not been touched by the gods.

Svavar fared worse. The Old Ones had placed less of a blessing on him. He suffered slash wounds to both arms and stab wounds to his stomach and chest. They were serious but needed not be fatal if handled quickly.

Shagot performed some hasty first aid, collected the dead — making sure everyone but his brother belonged to that select category — in a heap out of sight of passersby, then settled next to Svavar, shoulder to shoulder, so that his own Great Sky Fortress blessing would rub off.

Shagot the Bastard might be a festering mold on human dung but he did love his little brother.

Shagot soon felt sleep trying to take control. He could not let that happen. He had hours of must-do ahead of him, still.

"Little brother. Can you get up and stumble home now?"

Svavar grunted. He could do that. For Shagot's sake. Thanks to Shagot. But he could not do much more, if Shagot wanted something else.

"Good. So do that, then."

Svavar murmured, "We moved our stuff to the backup place."

"That's right! I'm having trouble keeping my eyes open and my brain working. Go there and lay low. I'll wrap this shit up.”

"Grim…"

"Go on. Can you carry something? Can you take this totem stuff for me?"

"What're you going to do?"

"I'm going to go have a friendly chat with that asshole priest. And make sure we get paid. Take this stuff and get moving." Shagot hugged his brother before the younger man trudged away, carrying a thirty-pound load and a hundredweight of pain, picking his way through an unfamiliar city in the dark, his destination a flat he had visited only once before.

The bronze sword was the only item of power that Shagot retained. It still cut dead flesh like slicing softened butter. He completed his first task in three minutes. Then he set about systematically relieving the dead of any coins they had been carrying when misfortune overtook them.

The Brothers were not rich men but amongst them they did carry as broad a variety of coin as could be imagined. Shagot failed to recognize the origins of most.

No matter. Merchants would know them. And would weigh them, too. They trusted no one. And trusted those with big names and big reputations least of all.

Plundering done, Shagot slung his sack of heads over one shoulder, then retraced his route to the Madhur Plaza.

The sack was actually a shirt taken off the largest of the dead Brothers.

Shagot's wounds ached terribly. He worried about Asgrimmur, hoped the gods had sense enough to protect his brother. His mission was doomed without Asgrimmur's help.

He returned to the Madhur Plaza. The massacre in the square had been discovered. The bodies had been plundered. Now the righteous folk, with torches and lanterns, were out tut-tutting and recalling the good old days when there was order in Brothe and things like this just did not happen where the right sort of people had to look at it.

Such was human nature.

Shagot headed for the Bruglioni citadel. He might be able to get there before the bad news arrived.

The appointed tradesman's gate was ajar and unguarded. Shagot moved through the Bruglioni back court to Father Obilade's quarters. The priest's door opened instantly. Sylvie Obilade and another man waited behind it. An unfamiliar voice demanded, “What the hell took you so…?” The speaker realized Shagot was alone. And that Shagot was Shagot. He gawked. Father Obilade gawked. The first man dropped a hand to the hilt of a dueling sword but did not draw. Shagot offered him a warning shake of the head.

“You owe me some money, old man.” Shagot produced the head of Rodrigo Cologni.

“Sweet Aaron! Blessed Kelam!” Father Obilade made signs meant to ward off the evil eye and the Instrumentalities of the Night. “Did you have to…?”

“You wouldn't just take my word, would you? You're Brothen. Easy there fellow.” The other man, pale as death now, had begun to ease away. “Stand still. I'm not happy tonight.”

Shagot dumped his sack.

Both witnesses swore. They looked at one another in horror. The man with the sword gasped, “That's Strauther Arnot! And Junger Trilling! They're two of the top men from Castella. What have you done? You killed eight of them?” There were eight heads in addition to Rodrigo Cologni.

“My brother helped.”

“Eight of them. Brotherhood veterans. Just the two of you. What have I conjured?”

Shagot thought this might be Paludan Bruglioni. He said, “We had to kill them. They were taking off with the target.”

“What have you done?” the priest whimpered, to himself rather than Shagot.

Shagot sneered. “You've been asking yourselves a question ever since you realized it was me. You may not like the answer. Let's get comfortable and wait. You. Give me that pigsticker. You don't want to do something stupid and get yourself killed. You the Boss Bruglioni? Not gonna say? It don't matter. Let's you and this smelly old woman go sit by that fig tree. Where I can keep an eye on you.”

Shagot drew the ancient sword. It seemed to radiate darkness. With that in hand, Shagot felt renewed. He would not fall asleep while the sword was drawn. He would feel no pain. With that blade in hand he felt as though he could slice through time itself.

The man who might be Paludan Bruglioni considered the old sword with contempt. But Father Obilade's eyes went wide. He whimpered, then commenced a swiftly cadenced, stammering appeal to his god for shelter from the malice of the Instrumentalities of the Night.

It took longer than Shagot expected for news from the Madhur Plaza to arrive. It was almost dawn. Evil, seductive sleep was doing its best to overwhelm the old sword's magic.

Sleep's insidious appeal ended when a small, lean, slightly shaggy man burst in, gasping, "There you are, Paludan! Terrible news! Terrible news! Acato, Gildeo, Faluda, Pygnus, the others … they're all gone! Lost! In the Madhur Plaza! Murdered! Along with all of Rodrigo Cologni's bodyguards."

The messenger was so excited that he continued to throw up words until, while straining for breath, he noticed Shagot and the heads. "Shit!"

"Indeed," Shagot said. He felt like a god. They were almost trivial, these southerners. "Slide over there with the others."

The newcomer considered the heads. "Oh, Blessed Kelam and the Fathers of the Church! That's Strauther Arnot! Secretary of the Special Office. What's going on, Paludan?"

Shagot surmised that this must be the deadly clever Gervase Saluda, Paludan Bruglioni's good friend from his youth, from a time when Paludan had slipped away at night to run with a gang of orphans and runaways. That legend was, likely, pure artifice. But Gervase's reputation might be deserved.

Shagot suggested, "Keep your hands where I can see them. Unless you think that set of heads is one short and yours would complete it."

"He's soultaken," Father Obilade whined. "Don't defy him. He can't be defeated. That old sword… It was forged back when the tyranny of the night ruled the world complete."

"Thank you," Shagot told him. "What the crone says is true. And this is true, too. The men you sent to murder my brother and me failed. They murdered Rodrigo Cologni's bodyguards instead. These eight showed up while they were at it. They killed everybody but Cologni. They took him away with them. My brother and I pursued them. We had a contract with the Bruglioni. They refused to cooperate. So we took their heads, thinking we might earn a bonus by fulfilling the Bruglioni revenge for you." Shagot used a toe to propel a head toward Paludan Bruglioni. It rolled over on its nose and changed course toward Gervase Saluda.

"What have you done?" Paludan's plea was feeble and rhetorical.

"What demon rules your soul?" Father Obilade asked. "What ancient horror have you hauled into the modern age, into the heartland of the Episcopal faith?"

Shagot said, "You owe me two hundred gold ducats. Plus a bonus for avenging your dead."

Paludan Bruglioni surrendered to the will of the night "Obilade. Get the money the man wants. Don't get into any mischief along the way. You understand me?"

The priest bowed. "Yes, sir."

Shagot understood, too. "Excellent. And hurry. Because if that money doesn't get here fast, with no treachery, people will die."

Once Father Obilade was gone, Shagot kicked another head and said, "These Brotherhood people knew exactly what was supposed to happen in the Madhur Plaza. How could that be?"

"What have you done?" Paludan whined again.

I have shaken Brothe's foundation stones, Shagot thought.

Never in all his life had he had so much impact upon others. Not even at the height of the sturlanger raids on the coasts of the Isle of Eights had so many people who had no idea who he was suffered so much because of his actions.

"I'm just trying to make a living," Shagot replied. "I don't think that requires me to be sacrificed to some local half-wit's ambition."

Father Obilade returned. He brought more than three hundred ducats in gold coins bearing the likenesses of dead Patriarchs. Shagot checked a few to make sure they were real. "Good. Good. I hope you gentlemen don't resent the lesson in fair play." He crooked a finger at the old priest. "Closer, Father. Closer."

When the old man was close enough, Shagot leaned in to whisper, "These guys know what really happened, Padre. You'd better hike up your skirt and run." In a voice that carried, he continued, "Thanks, everyone. Try not to be such a bunch of weasels, eh?"

Shagot got out of there before sleep could hammer him down.

Touched by the favor of the night, he managed to rejoin his brother before he collapsed.

Once sleep came, though, it would not withdraw until Svavar neared a state of panic. Could his brother possibly survive?

20. Khaurene, in the End of Connec

Winter in the Connec was a season of worry. For those who tried to come to grips with what Arnhanders called the Black Mountain Massacre. Because the invaders insisted that that disaster was in no way their fault.

Well-meaning pilgrims had entered the Connec to help harried Episcopal coreligionists protect themselves from the predations of heretics who roasted babies and sacrificed virgins. Unless that went the other way around.

"That about sum up your position?" Count Raymone Garete flung at the obnoxious, insulting deformed hunchback of an envoy from Salpeno, Father Austen Rinpochй. "You couldn't invent something more ridiculous? You could've accused us of having sexual congress with goats. Fool. Our intransigent apostasy and heresy is why there's an active Episcopal church on every other corner in Khaurene. It's why there are more real cathedrals in the End of Connec than there are in all of your piss-drinking Pail of Arnhand. We built those cathedrals, of course, so we'd have somewhere to snuggle with our goats."

Duke Tormond tried to restrain the young noble. But Count Raymone was beyond restraint. Following his triumph over Baron Algres, Raymone's voice would be loud in the councils of the Connec. "You're speechless? A priest? Talk to me, priest. Name one Episcopal in the End of Connec who has suffered at the hands of the Seekers After Light"

Gleefully, Father Rinpoche retorted, "Bishop Serifs of Antieux."

Silence.

More silence.

Someone said, "Sweet Aaron on a jackass, the fool is serious."

Count Raymone sneered, "The priest isn't a fool. He's a league beyond. He's a complete idiot."

Even the Great Vacillator, Duke Tormond, stared at Father Rinpochй like he thought the man was a half-wit reveling in his debility. "Are you serious, Father? That man was a thief. He abused his office. He was indifferent to the rights of others. He was a perjurer, a pederast, and a sodomite. There's no end to the catalog of his crimes. Absent the protection of Sublime he would've been hung years ago. I did feel some sympathy for your mission until now. But we all know rats who deserve higher honors than Bishop Serifs."

Count Raymone snapped, "Serifs was such a waste that Principatй Bronte Doneto — the Patriarch's own cousin — had him thrown off a cliff after they failed to rob and morder the people of Antieux."

Father Rinpochй clung to his position.

Duke Tormond stood. He clasped his hands but let his arms hang. "I'm a good Episcopal, Father. I attend church every day. I never miss confession. I sent a letter to the Holy Father asking what more can possibly be expected. He hasn't replied. Meantime, we're here and, yet again, we're being subjected to unfounded and trumped-up charges by men whose interest in God's work is secondary to their hopes of plundering the Connec. Hear me, Rinpochй. In this hall, with you, is almost every man of substance in Khaurene. I challenge you to go among them and find one unbeliever."

Not the wisest challenge, in Brother Candle's view. He was there. And not alone in his inability to recognize the infallibility of Sublime V.

The Arnhander priest did not take the challenge. He refused to speak to it, or even to acknowledge it.

Rinpochй could only return to Salpeno and report that the Connec remained recalcitrant, intransigent, and that those agents of the Adversary, the Maysaleans, had gained hidden mastery. The sole practical answer appeared to be the one the Patriarch was pushing privately, a crusade to extinguish the Maysalean Heresy.

The powerful in Salpeno had no trouble accepting Father Rinpochй's arguments. Most hungered for revenge, for plunder, and had little interest in any truth that got in their way. They had, as well, a feeble king unable to execute his royal duties while remaining equally incompetent at dying. Though his death would avail nothing. There was no crown prince.

That looked sweet to a spectrum of ambitious dukes, barons, and relations legitimate and otherwise.

It held an equally powerful appeal to the lords and knights of Santerin's continental possessions, along their frontiers with Arnhand.

There were skirmishes and incursions almost every day, from down south where Tramaine bumped against the Connec all the way to the northernmost villages on the seacoast east of easternmost Argony. Local knights and garrisons did little to make life difficult for the aggressors. Members of the same families lived on both sides of the shifting border. Feudal obligations in the marches changed with every marriage, birth, death, and with the altering fortunes of war.

And a change of rulers made little difference in the lives of local people. Some peasants did not speak the language of either set of masters.

Every Arnhander family of substance had relatives overseas, in the crusader states. They sent their young men east to temper them in the ruthless struggle for control of the Holy Lands.

The young men took servants and foot soldiers and treasure with them.

Usually only the young men themselves returned — no longer young.

With so many strains upon it, it was insanity for Arnhand to listen to Sublime's mad call for help punishing the Chaldareans of the Connec for their recalcitrance and the Connecten Seekers After Light for disrespecting God Himself.

Anne of Menand, mistress of Arnhand's king, had two children by her lover. The eldest was a son, Regard. Regard was just fourteen but of sound mind and body and had a regal air. In normal times no one would consider him a candidate to replace his father. Legitimacy was a huge issue for the Arnhander nobility. But these were abnormal times. Dedicated schemers could get the past restructured to render Regard legitimate.

Anne had presented her favors to a select few outside the royal bedchamber as well, creating a circle of accomplices. The boy's father was amenable to her strident efforts to have Regard designated Crown Prince. But powerful factions were arrayed behind rival candidates.

Anne of Menand was a schemer and manipulator and slut. She bedded men not only to manipulate them but because she was possessed by a huge enthusiasm for night sports. Yet she was a devout Chaldarean with a sincere belief in Patriarchal infallibility. If Sublime asked for troops to punish the apostate Connec, then Arnhand should produce those troops.

It was a measure of Anne's standing that she managed to engineer a crusade of eighty knights and their entourages. The little army never reached the Connec, though. It turned back before the levees completed their obligations. Not once did it engage — or even sight — a heretic. But it did lose three dozen souls to disease and accident.

Brother Candle traveled the Connec,bringing heart to Seekers After Light who sensed a gathering storm. He visited the nobles of each town. They had to understand that they were obliged to protect everyone from foreign enemies. He reminded them that the jongleurs and poets called the Connec the Peaceful Kingdom. Connectens took pride in their ability to live in harmony.

It was a time of moral posturing. It was a time of absurd justifications, before the fact, of anticipated bad behaviors.

Sublime V issued frequent thunderous bulls denouncing all things Maysalean and most things traditionally Connecten. He seemed driven to alienate his flock.

The people of the Connec began to rally behind Immaculate II, who found sufficient fire to spew a few bulls of his own. Pro-Brothen priests, who had been unpopular before now, faced active hostility.

The sleepy Connec had begun to awaken. And was getting up cranky.

Brother Candle feared Sublime's shortsighted greed would waken the whirlwind. He did not enjoy the increasingly bellicose nationalism churning through the Connec. It grew fat on the fear of bigger and fiercer armies coming to torment the Connec.

Wherever Brother Candle carried his message he saw city walls being heightened and strengthened. He saw castles being readied for siege. He saw local militias receiving instruction in the use of arms from men who were respected because they were veterans of the wars to liberate the Holy Lands. And everywhere he went he found that Tormond's men had preceded him, asking people not to prepare for war. Brothe and Arnhand might find that provocative.

That reasoning left even pacifist Brother Candle bewildered.

No one outside Khaurene paid Duke Tormond any mind. The population plunged into preparations as if expecting Arnhander cannibals in tens of thousands as soon as the first leaves budded.

Spring eased into early summer. Invaders persisted in their failure to appear. Duke Tormond floated the notion of an embassy to Brothe that would work out something with Sublime. Brother Candle was not present for the ferocious debate that followed. He was celebrating his own religion with the Maysalean community of Castreresone. But he heard about the raging arguments. Even Sublime's Connectian allies favored not sending anyone to Brothe. Mathe Richeneau, the recently appointed, newly arrived, Arnhand-born Bishop of Antieux, also suggested going slow. Sublime was certain to consider any approach an acknowledgment of his primacy.

Tormond's advisers won that day but never made him understand that he could not just sit down and talk things out with Sublime. Being infallible, the Patriarch knew there was nothing to negotiate.

Tormond did hate committing to anything completely. And there was no arguing the fact that his style of rule, which he shared with his more recent ancestors, had worked for more than a century.

There was no invading army in the spring. There was no invading army during the summer. Preparations for war became less urgent, more relaxed, and, at the farthest removes from me northern frontier they ceased altogether.

Come summer Duke Tormond surrendered to his need to act. He sent an embassy to Salpeno to try to make peace with Arnhand. It failed. Then, as autumn gathered, Tormond surrendered to unreason again. He returned to his notion of opening a dialogue with Sublime.

This time no one could change his mind.

Brother Candle returned to Khaurene just days BEfore the news came out. He was staying with a good Maysalean family, the Archimbaults, who were in the tanning trade. Raulet Archimbault feared the Duke's decision would hurl the Connec over the edge of a precipice.

Seekers After Light customarily gathered in discussion groups in the evening, before the final meal of the day. That was taken late in the Connec, long after nightfall. A large group convened at the Archimbaults' because everyone wanted to hear the Perfect. Familiar with the way Devedian and Dainshaukin minorities were abused by Brothen Episcopals, they were concerned about their own future. Sublime, clearly, intended to go beyond ranting about heretics and unbelievers.

Brother Candle said, "We've talked about this before, Raulet, so I understand you. But elucidate for the benefit of your guests, who may not be familiar with your thinking."

Raulet Archimbault was uncomfortable as the focus of a group. Haltingly, he explained, "Just by sending an embassy to Brothe Tormond weakens the standing of the Connec." He stopped.

Brother Candle encouraged him. "Go on. Tell us why."

"Well, it says Tormond admits the Brothen Patriarch has a say in our affairs. That sets a bad precedent all by itself. Also, it diminishes the Patriarch at Viscesment. And he's the legal Patriarch. Right?"

Brother Candle said, "Diminishing that man isn't hard to do. How many of you — by show of hands — know who the anti-Patriarch is? See. Immaculate the Second, Brothers and Sisters. Those of you who do know most likely do because somebody tried to kill him last spring."

"Pathetic," Raulet said.

"Yes," Brother Candle agreed. "And he's supposed to be our Patriarch. The Patriarch who represents all Chaldareans. Arianist, Antast, Episcopal, Eastern Rite, Shaker, or Maysalean." Most Maysaleans did consider themselves good Chaldareans, in the Antast mode. "He's the Patriarch who's supposed to stop the Five Families of Brothe from treating the Church as their own private pot at the end of the rainbow."

"The thing I don't understand," Madame Archimbault said, "is why the Duke would do this despite his advisers. That doesn't make sense." Among Seekers After Light, women stood equal to men, with a full right to speak and question. "They must have explained everything to him."

Brother Candle nodded. "Absolutely. Over and over. I was there once when Tormond heard it all, point by point. He said he understood. But, as all of you who have raised children know, you can't make someone hear what he doesn't want to hear."

Scarre the Baker, asked, "Could he have been stricken mad?"

A little voice piped, "It must be the Night."

Raulet offered, "Or Sublime's god touched him. Maybe the Brothen Episcopal god agrees with Sublime about us." Raulet was trying to make a joke but everybody took him seriously.

Brother Candle said, "I ought to get together with Bishop LeCroes and see what he thinks."

"Unbelievable," someone muttered.

Madame Archimbault inquired, "Will the men around Tormond interfere? Brother, you've said Brothe has no friends in Tormond's court."

"Not many, no. But Tormond's men are loyal and honorable. They'll do what they're told once they know they can't change his mind."

Someone said, "What will Count Raymone do?"

"A critical question," Brother Candle replied. "And one only Raymone Garete can answer. He doesn't hide his disgust."

Madame Archimbault observed, "Raymone is young. The young praise action for its own sake."

The Maysalean Heresy appealed mainly to those who had left youth's distractions behind.

Brother Candle accepted wine from his host's daughter, Kedle, who was thrilled to be auditing the meeting. She was thirteen, a woman by some standards, but would never speak up while a Perfect was present.

Seekers After Light were convinced they were true Chaldareans. They claimed their teachings harkened back to those of Aaron, Eis, Lalitha, and the other Founders, before those became twisted and perverted by the successors of Josephus Alegiant and his clique. The god of the Arianists, and of the Episcopals who came after them, was actually the Great Adversary reproached by the Founders.

The Great Adversary had wrought a thousand deceptions while hiding amongst the Instrumentalities of the Night. It was impossible to untangle the skein of lies. Because there was always another lie in line.

Brother Candle relaxed and observed as the discussion drifted to reincarnation, which had leaked into the Maysalean Creed despite being an oriental concept.

The group wanted to examine the moral implications of reincarnation. Some thought rebirth gave you an out if you behaved badly. You could do your next incarnation as a makeup.

Brother Candle had not yet worked out where he stood regarding reincarnation. He found the idea comforting. Reincarnation meant a second chance to get life right. It was the Great Wheel of Life.

Someone wanted his attention. "Yes?"

Madame Scarre asked if he believed Seekers After Light were obliged to fight back if attacked.

"Absolutely. It's one more way to resist evil. If we don't fight evil we become accessories to evil."

Nothing but hurried breathing sounded in the Archimbault household. A great Maysalean mind was about to share a thought.

Brother Candle disappointed everyone. "That's it. That's the truth. The lines are never clear. There is no absolute right. There is absolute wrong but it's hard to identify. It manages to adopt a great many disguises."

Scarre the Baker asked, "What do you mean, Brother?"

He began to preach. "We are slaves to reason. Reason exterminates every argument our enemies throw up. Righteousness slides through their fingers like water. All they have left in hand is emotion. Our weakness is, we don't recognize it when dreams and emotion guide us. So we're as much victims of the Instrumentalities of the Night as those we disdain for being less thoughtful."

Brother Candle was afraid he had failed to express himself in a way the others could understand. Not even he was equipped to comprehend the full nature of mankind's relationship with the Instrumentalities of the Night.

Despite a moral code being part of every religion, with innumerable admonitions to do good put into the mouths of the gods, Brother Candle had yet to see any direct evidence that the Instrumentalities of the Night, at any level, demonstrated any innate moral polarity. Like earth, wind, water, and fire, they just were. And, like life itself, they wanted.

Good and evil were concepts imposed by men, through their perceptions and beliefs, or directly by force of sorcery.

Brother Candle found it difficult to be a spiritual adviser and guide in a world where there were few absolutes to serve as navigational beacons when he charted his own course.

He said, "If we Seekers After Light disappear from the grand pageant of history it won't be because logic and persuasion overwhelmed us. It will be because a superior weight of arms and terror were deployed."

Brother Candle dreaded any future that had roots sunk into the ordure of Duke Tormond's incredible decision to try dealing with Sublime V. The Brothen Patriarch was not a man like him, simple and moved by goodwill toward all.

Perhaps Honario Benedocto was a cosmic prank being played by the Instrumentalities of the Night. Some old religions declared their gods capable of far worse, just for the amusement to be gained by kicking the anthill.

21. Brothe, in the Gathering of the War

Brothe was in a ferment. Neither a Patriarchal nor a Collegium delegation came out to greet Principatй Doneto. Sublime's limited forces were desperately trying to keep order, busy as a three-legged cat in a room full of mice.

The Five Families hurled accusations and pointed fingers. Their young men found excuses to duel. Every duelist who came in second added fuel to the emotional holocaust The law forbid family forces larger than a personal guard. In the past they had shown themselves unable to refrain from throwing swords at every little problem. Now they sought ways to get around the law.

The Brotherhood of War was mad at everybody.

Word of the troubles, with mystic swiftnes