Harry Turtledove

Rulers of the Darkness

"Dramatis Personae” (* shows viewpoint character)


Almonio Constable in Gromheort

Ambaldo Colonel of dragonfliers in southern Unkerlant

Baiardo Mage attached to Plegmund's Brigade

Balastro Marquis; minister to Zuwayza

Bembo* Constable in Gromheort

Carietto Brigadier in Trapani

Domiziano Captain of dragonfliers in southern Unkerlant

Ercole Senior lieutenant with Plegmund's Brigade

Fronesia Woman at court in Trapani

Frontino Warder in Tricarico

Gastable Mage in Gromheort

Gismonda Sabrino's wife in Trapani

Gradasso Lurcanio's adjutant in Priekule

Lurcanio Colonel on occupation duty in Priekule

Mainardo Mezentio's brother; King of Jelgava

Malindo Scholar in Trapani

Mezentio King of Algarve

Oraste Constable in Gromheort

Orosio Captain of dragonfliers in southern Unkerlant

Pesaro Constabulary sergeant in Gromheort

Raniero Mezentio's cousin; King of Grelz

Sabrino* Colonel of dragonfliers in southern Unkerlant

Saffa Sketch artist in Tricarico

Solino General in Durrwangen

Spinello* Major on leave in Trapani for wound

Turpino Captain in Wriezen

Zerbino Captain in Plegmund's Brigade


Baldred Slogan writer in Eoforwic

Brivibas Kaunian in Gromheort; Vanai's grandfather

Brorda Count of Gromheort

Ceorl Soldier in Plegmund's Brigade near Hohenroda

Daukantis Kaunian in Gromheort; Doldasai's father

Doldasai Kaunian courtesan in Gromheort

Ealstan* Bookkeeper in Eoforwic; Vanai's husband

Ethelhelm Half Kaunian band leader in Eoforwic

Feliksai Kaunian in Gromheort; Doldasai's mother

Gippias Kaunian robber in Gromheort

Hengist Sidroc's father; Hestan's brother; in Gromheort

Hestan Bookkeeper in Gromheort; Ealstan's father

Leofsig Ealstan's deceased brother

Nemunas Kaunian refugee leader in Zuwayza

Penda King of Forthweg

Pernavai Kaunian in Valmiera; Vatsyunas' wife

Pybba Pottery magnate in Eoforwic

Sidroc* Soldier in Plegmund's Brigade near Hohenroda

Vanai* Kaunian in Eoforwic; Ealstan's wife

Vatsyunas Kaunian in Valmiera; Pernavai's husband

Vitols Kaunian refugee leader in Zuwayza

Werferth Sergeant in Plegmund's Brigade near Hohenroda

Yadwigai Kaunian girl with Algarvian army in Unkerlant


Arpad Ekrekek (King) of Gyongyos

Borsos Major; mage in western Unkerlant

Frigyes Captain in western Unkerlant

Hevesi Soldier in western Unkerlant

Horthy Gyongyosian minister to Zuwayza

Istvan* Sergeant in western Unkerlant

Kun Corporal in western Unkerlant; minor mage

Lajos Soldier in western Unkerlant

Szonyi Soldier in western Unkerlant

Tivadar Captain in western Unkerlant


Ausra Talsu's sister in Skrunda

Donalitu King of Jelgava; now in exile

Gailisa Talsu's wife, living in Skrunda

Kugu Silversmith in Skrunda

Laitsina Talsu's mother in Skrunda

Stikliu Friend of Talsu's in Skrunda

Talsu* Prisoner from Skrunda

Traku Talsu's father; tailor in Skrunda

Zverinu Banker in Skrunda


Alkio Theoretical sorcerer; married to Raahe

Elimaki Pekka's sister

Ilmarinen Master mage in the Naantali district

Juhainen One of the Seven Princes of Kuusamo

Leino Mage; Pekka's husband

Linna Serving woman in the Naantali district

Olavin Banker; Elimaki's husband

Parainen One of the Seven Princes of Kuusamo

Pekka* Mage in the Naantali district; Leino's wife

Piilis Theoretical sorcerer

Raahe Theoretical sorcerer; married to Alkio

Renavall One of the Seven Princes of Kuusamo

Siuntio Master mage in the Naantali district

Uto Pekka and Leino's son

Vihti Sorcerer in Naantali district


Brinco Grandmaster Pinhiero's secretary in Setubal

Fernao* Mage on duty in Kuusamo

Janira Cornelu's lady friend in Setubal

Pinhiero Grandmaster of Lagoan Guild of Mages

Vitor King of Lagoas


Ahinadab King of Ortah

Hadadezer Ortaho minister to Zuwayza


Balio Fisherman running eatery in Setubal; Janira's father

Brindza Cornelu's daughter in Tirgoviste town

Burebistu King of Sibiu

Cornelu* Commander; leviathan-rider in Setubal

Costache Cornelu's wife in Tirgoviste town


Addanz Archmage of Unkerlant

Ascovind Collaborator in Duchy of Grelz

Gandiluz Soldier contacting irregulars in Grelz

Garivald* Irregular fighter west of Herborn

Gundioc Captain in southern Unkerlant

Gurmun General of behemoths at Durrwangen bulge

Kiun Soldier in Leudast's company

Kyot Swemmel's deceased twin brother

Leudast* Sergeant in Sulingen

Merovec Major; Marshal Rathar's adjutant

Munderic Irregular leader west of Herborn

Obilot Irregular fighter west of Herborn

Rathar* Marshal of Unkerlant traveling to Cottbus

Razalic Irregular in forest west of Herborn

Recared Lieutenant in Sulingen

Sadoc Irregular fighter west of Herborn; would-be mage

Swemmel King of Unkerlant

Tantris Soldier contacting irregulars in Grelz

Vatran General in southern Unkerlant

Werbel Soldier in Sulingen

Ysolt Cook in Durrwangen


Amatu Noble returned from Valmiera

Bauska Krasta's maidservant in Priekule

Gainibu King of Valmiera

Gedominu Skarnu and Merkela's son

Krasta* Marchioness in Priekule; Skarnu's sister

Lauzdonu Noble returned from Valmiera

Merkela Underground fighter; Skarnu's wife

Palasta Mage in Erzvilkas

Raunu Sergeant and irregular near Pavilosta

Skarnu* Marquis; fighter in Ventspils; Krasta's brother

Terbatu Marquis in Priekule

Valnu Viscount in Priekule

Zarasai Underground fighter; a nom de guerre


Iskakis Yaninan minister to Zuwayza


Hajjaj* Foreign minister of Zuwayza

Ikhshid General in Bishah

Kolthoum Hajjaj's senior wife

Qutuz Hajjaj's secretary in Bishah

Shazli King of Zuwayza

Tewfik Hajjaj's majordomo

Qutuz Hajjaj's secretary in Bishah


Leudast looked across the snow-covered ruins of Sulingen. The silence seemed unnatural. After two spells of fighting in the city, he associated it with the horrible din of battle: bursting eggs, the hiss of beams as they turned snow to sudden steam, fire crackling beyond hope of control, masonry falling in on itself, wounded behemoths bawling, wounded horses and unicorns screaming, wounded men shrieking.

None of that now. Everything was silent, eerily so. Young Lieutenant Recared nudged Leudast and pointed. "Look, Sergeant," Recared said, his unlined face glowing with excitement, almost with awe. "Here come the captives."

"Aye," Leudast said softly. He couldn't have been more than two or three years older than Recared himself. It only seemed like ten or twelve. Awe was in his voice, too, as he said it again: "Aye."

He hadn't known quite so many Algarvians were left alive in Sulingen when their army at last gave up its hopeless fight. Here came some of them now: a long column of misery. By Unkerlanter standards, their tall enemies from the east were slim even when well fed. Now, after so much desperate fighting cut off from any hope of resupply, most of them were redheaded skeletons, nothing more.

They were filthy, too, with scraggly red beards covering their hollow cheeks. They wore a fantastic mix of cloaks, Algarvian tunics and kilts, long Unkerlanter tunics, and any rags and scraps of cloth they could get their hands on. Some had stuffed crumpled news sheets and other papers under their tunics to try to fight the frigid winter here in the southwest of Unkerlant. Here and there, Leudast saw Algarvians in pathetic overshoes of woven straw. Snug in his own felt boots, he almost pitied the foe. Almost. King Mezentio's men had come too close to killing him too many times for him to find feeling sorry for them easy.

Lieutenant Recared drew himself up very straight. "Seeing them makes me proud I'm an Unkerlanter," he said.

Maybe the ability to say things like that was part of what separated officers from ordinary soldiers. All Leudast could do was mumble, "Seeing them makes me glad I'm alive." He didn't think Recared heard him, which might have been just as well.

Most of the Algarvians trudged along with their heads down: they were beaten, and they knew it. A few, though, still somehow kept the jauntiness that marked their kind. One of them caught Leudast's eye, grinned, and spoke in pretty fair Unkerlanter: "Hey, Bignose- our turn today, tomorrow yours."

Leudast's mittened hand flew up to the organ the redhead had impugned. It was of a good size and strongly curved, but so were most Unkerlanters' noses. He waved derisively at the Algarvian, waved and said, "Big up above, big down below."

"Aye, all you Unkerlanters are big pricks," the captive came back with a chuckle.

Some soldiers would have blazed a man who said something like that. Leudast contented himself with the last word: "You think it's funny now. You won't be laughing so hard when they set you to work in the mines." That struck home. The Algarvian's grin slipped. He tramped on and was lost among his fellows.

At last, the long tide of misery ended. Recared shook himself, as if waking from a dream. He turned back to Leudast and said, "Now we've got to get ready to whip the rest of King Mezentio's men out of our kingdom."

"Sure enough, sir," Leudast agreed. He hadn't thought about what came after beating the Algarvians in Sulingen. He supposed thinking about such things before you had to was another part of what separated officers from the men they led.

"What state is your company in, Lieutenant?" Recared asked.

"About what you'd expect, sir- I've got maybe a section's worth of men," Leudast answered. Plenty of companies had sergeants in charge of them these days, and plenty of regiments, like Recared's, were commanded by lieutenants.

With a nod, Recared said, "Have them ready to move out tomorrow morning. I don't know for a fact that we will move tomorrow, but that's what it looks like."

"Aye, sir." Leudast's sigh built a young fogbank of vapor in front of his face. He knew he shouldn't have expected anything different, but he would have liked a little longer to rest after one fight before plunging into the next.

They didn't go north the next morning. They did go north the next afternoon, tramping up roads made passable by behemoths wearing snowshoes. Here and there, the snow lay too deep even for behemoths to trample out a usable path. Then the weary troopers had to shovel their way through the drifts. The duty was as physically wearing as combat, the only advantage being that the Algarvians weren't trying to blaze them or drop eggs on their heads.

One of Leudast's troopers said, "I wish we were riding a ley-line caravan up to the new front. Then we'd get there rested. The way things are, we're already halfway down the road to being dead." He flung a spadeful of snow over this shoulder, then stooped to get another one.

A few minutes later, the company emerged from the trench it had dug through a great drift. Leudast was awash in sweat, his lungs on fire, regardless of the frigid air he breathed. When he could see more than snow piled up in front of him, he started to laugh. There a few hundred yards to one side of the road lay a wrecked caravan, its lead car a burnt-out, blasted ruin- the Algarvians had planted an egg along the ley line, and its burst of sorcerous energy had done everything the redheads could have wanted. "Still want to go the easy way, Werbel?"

"No, thanks, Sergeant," the trooper answered at once. "Maybe this isn't so bad after all."

Leudast nodded. He wasn't laughing any more. The steersmen on that ley-line caravan were surely dead. So were dozens of Unkerlanter troopers: bodies lay stacked like cordwood by the ruined caravan. And more dozens, maybe hundreds, of men were hurt. The Algarvians had gained less by winning some skirmishes.

When the regiment encamped for the night in the ruins of an abandoned peasant village, Lieutenant Recared said, "There are some stretches of ley line that are safe. Our mages keep clearing more every day, too."

"I suppose they find out if the ley lines are clear by sending caravans on them," Leudast said sourly. "This one wasn't."

"No, but it will be now, after the mages cancel out the effect of the energy burst," Recared answered.

"And then they'll find another cursed egg a mile farther north," Leudast said. "Find it the hard way, odds are."

"You haven't got the right attitude, Sergeant," Recared said reprovingly.

Leudast thought he had just the right attitude. He was opposed to getting killed or maimed. He was especially opposed to getting killed or maimed because some mage hadn't done his job well enough. Having the enemy kill you was part of war; he understood that. Having your own side kill you… He'd come to understand that was part of war, too, however much he hated it.

In good weather, on good roads, they would have been about ten days' march from where the fighting was now. They took quite a bit longer than that to get there. The roads, even the best of them, were far from good. Though the winter solstice was well past, the days remained short and bleak and bitterly cold, with a new blizzard rolling in out of the west every other or every third day.

And, though no redheads opposed them on the ground, the Algarvians hadn't gone away and given up after losing Sulingen. They kept being difficult whenever and wherever they could. Unkerlant was vast, and dragons even thinner in the air than soldiers and behemoths were on the ground. That meant King Mezentio's dragonfliers could fare south to visit death and destruction on the Unkerlanters moving up to assail their countrymen.

When eggs fell, Leudast dived into the closest hole he could find. When Algarvian dragons swooped low to flame, he simply leaped into the snow on his belly and hoped his white smock would keep enemy dragonfliers from noticing him. It worked; after each attack ended, he got up and started slogging north again.

Not everyone was so lucky. He'd long since got used to seeing corpses, sometimes pieces of corpses, scattered in the snow and staining it red. But once the Algarvian dragons had been lucky enough to take out a column of more than a dozen Unkerlanter behemoths and the crews who served their egg-tossers and heavy sticks. The air that day was calm and still; the stench of burnt flesh still lingered as he tramped past. Dragonfire had roasted the behemoths inside the heavy chainmail they wore to protect them from weapons mere footsoldiers could carry. Even the beasts' snowshoe-encased hooves and the iron-shod, curving horns on their noses were covered with soot from the flames the dragons had loosed.

"Last winter, I hear, the Algarvians were eating the flesh of slain behemoths," Recared said.

He hadn't been in the fight the winter before. Leudast had. He nodded. "Aye, they did, sir." After a pause, he added, "So did we."

"Oh." Beneath his swarthy skin, beneath the dark whiskers he'd had scant chance to scrape, Recared looked a little green. "What… was it like?"

"Strong. Gamy," Leudast answered. Another pause. "A lot better than nothing."

"Ah. Aye." Recared nodded wisely. "Do you suppose we'll…?"

"Not these beasts," Leudast said. "Not unless you want to stop and do some butchering now. If we keep going, we'll be miles away before we stop for the night."

"That's true." Lieutenant Recared considered. In thoughtful tones, he remarked, "Field kitchens haven't been all they might be, have they?" Leudast started to erupt at that, then noticed the small smile on Recared's face. King Swemmel expected his soldiers to feed themselves whenever they could. Field kitchens were almost as rare as far western mountain apes roaming these plains.

The regiment ate behemoth that night, and for several days thereafter. It was as nasty as Leudast recalled. It was a lot better than the horrible stuff the Algarvians had been pouring down their throats in the last days at Sulingen, though. And, as he'd said, it was ever so much better than nothing.

A couple of nights later, thunder rumbled in the north as the Unkerlanter soldiers made camp. But it couldn't have been thunder; the sky, for once, was clear, with swarms of stars twinkling on jet black. When the weather was very cold, they seemed to twinkle more than on a mild summer night. Leudast noted that only in passing. He knew too well what that distant rumbling that went on and on meant. Scowling, he said, "We're close enough to the fun to hear eggs bursting again. I didn't miss 'em when we couldn't, believe you me I didn't."

"Fun?" Werbel hadn't been in the company long, but even he knew better than that. "More chances to get killed, is what it is."

"That's what they pay us for," Leudast answered. "When they bother to pay us, I mean." He'd lost track of how far in arrears his own pay was. Months- he was sure of that much. And he should have been owed a lieutenant's pay, or a captain's, not a sergeant's, considering the job he'd been doing for more than a year. Of course, Recared should have been paid like a colonel, too.

Werbel listened to the eggs in the distance. With a sigh, he said, "I wonder if they'll get caught up before the war ends."

Leudast's laugh was loud, raucous, and bitter. "Powers above, what makes you think it'll ever end?"


Sidroc was glad Forthwegians had the custom of wearing full beards. For one thing, the thick black hair on his chin and cheeks and upper lip went a little way toward keeping them warm in the savage cold of southern Unkerlant. Coming out of Gromheort in the sunny north, he'd never imagined weather like this. Had anybody told him even a quarter of the truth about it before he knew it for himself, he would have called that fellow a liar to his face. No more.

For another, the beards the men of Plegmund's Brigade- Forthwegians fighting in the service of their Algarvian occupiers- wore helped distinguish them from their Unkerlanter cousins. Unkerlanters and Forthwegians were both stocky, olive-skinned, hook-nosed, both given to wearing long tunics rather than kilts or trousers. But if Sidroc saw a clean-shaven face, he blazed at it without hesitation.

At the moment, he saw very little. His regiment- about a company's worth of men, after all the hard fighting they'd been through- was trying to hold the Unkerlanters out of a village called Hohenroda. It lay somewhere not far from the important town of Durrwangen, but whether north, south, east, or west Sidroc couldn't have said to save his life. He'd done too much marching and countermarching to have any exact notion of where he was.

Eggs crashed down on the village and in front of it. The log walls of the cabin where he was sheltering shook. He turned to Sergeant Werferth. "Those Unkerlanter buggers have every egg-tosser in the world lined up south of here, seems like."

"Wouldn't surprise me," Werferth answered. If anything ever did faze him, he didn't let on. He'd served in the Forthwegian army till the Algarvians destroyed it. Sidroc had been only fifteen when the Derlavaian War began three and a half years before. Werferth spat on the rammed-earth floor. "So what?"

That was too much calm for Sidroc to handle. "They're liable to kill us, that's what!" he burst out. Every once in a while, his voice still broke like a boy's. He hated that, but couldn't help it.

"They won't kill all of us, and the ones who're left'll make 'em pay a good price for this place," Werferth said. He'd signed up for Plegmund's Brigade as soon as the recruiting broadsheets started going up on walls and fences. As far as Sidroc could tell, Werferth didn't care for whom he fought. He might have served the Unkerlanters as readily as the Algarvians. He just liked to fight.

More eggs burst. A fragment of the metal casings that held their sorcerous energy in check till suddenly and violently released slammed into the wall. Timbers creaked. Straw from the thatched roof fell down into Sidroc's hair. He peered out through a tiny slit of a window. "I wish we could see better," he grumbled.

"They don't build houses with south-facing doors in these parts," Werferth said. "A lot of 'em haven't got any south-facing windows at all, not even these little pissy ones. They know where the bad weather comes from."

Sidroc had noticed there weren't any south-facing doors, but he hadn't thought about why. Questions like that didn't interest him. He wasn't stupid, but he didn't use his brains unless he had to. Hitting somebody or blazing somebody struck him as easier.

Werferth went to the other little window. He barked out several sharp curses. "Here they come," he said, and rested his stick on the window frame, the business end pointing out toward the Unkerlanters.

Mouth dry, Sidroc did the same. He'd seen Unkerlanter charges before- not too many, or he wouldn't have remained among those present. Now he had to try to fight off another one.

It was, he had to admit, an awe-inspiring sight. King Swemmel's soldiers formed up in the frozen fields south of Hohenroda, out beyond the range of the defenders' sticks: row on row of them, all in fur hats and white smocks. Sidroc could hear them howling like demons even though they were a long way off. "Do they really feed 'em spirits before they send 'em out to attack?" he asked Werferth.

"Oh, aye," the sergeant answered. "Makes 'em mean, I shouldn't wonder. Though I wouldn't mind a nip myself right now."

Then in the distance, whistles shrilled. The ice that ran up Sidroc's back had nothing to do with the ghastly weather. He knew what was coming next. And it came. The Unkerlanters linked arms, row on row of them. The officers' whistles squealed once more. The Unkerlanters charged.

"Urra!" they bellowed, a deep, rhythmic shout, as snow flew up from their felt boots. "Urra! Urra! Swemmel! Urra! Urra!" If they couldn't overrun Hohenroda- if they couldn't overrun the whole cursed world- they didn't know it.

No doubt because they were drunk, they started blazing long before they got close enough to be in any serious danger of hitting something. Puffs of steam in the snow in front of them showed that some of the men from Plegmund's Brigade had started blazing, too. "Fools!" Werferth growled. "Bloody stupid fornicating fools! We can't afford to waste charges like that. We haven't got any Kaunians around to kill to give us the sorcerous energy we need to get more."

They didn't even have any Unkerlanters to kill for the same purpose. The local peasants had long since fled Hohenroda. The men of Plegmund's Brigade were on their own here.

Or so Sidroc thought, till eggs started bursting among the onrushing Unkerlanters. He whooped with glee- and with surprise. Plegmund's Brigade was made up of footsoldiers; it had to rely on the Algarvians for support. "I didn't know there were egg-tossers back of town," Sidroc said to Werferth.

"Neither did I," Werferth said. "If you think our lords and masters tell us everything they're up to, you're daft. And if you think those eggs'll get rid of all those Unkerlanters, you're even dafter, by the powers above."

Sidroc knew that too well. As the eggs burst in their midst, some of Swemmel's men flew through the air, to lie broken and bleeding in the snow. Others, as far as he could tell, simply ceased to be. But the Unkerlanters who still lived, who could still move forward, came on. They kept shouting with no change in rhythm he could hear.

Then they were close enough to make targets even Werferth couldn't criticize. Sidroc thrust his right forefinger out through a hole in his mitten; his stick required the touch of real flesh to blaze. He stuck his finger into the opening at the rear of the stick and blazed at an Unkerlanter a few hundred yards away. The man went down, but Sidroc had no way to be sure his beam had hit him. He blazed again, and then cursed, for he must have missed his new target.

The Unkerlanters were blazing, too, as they had been for some little while. A beam smote the peasant hut only a foot or so above Sidroc's head. The sharp, tangy stink of charred pine made his nostrils twitch. In drier weather, a beam like that might have fired the hut. Not so much risk of that now, nor of the fire's spreading if it did take hold.

"Mow 'em down!" Werferth said cheerfully. Down the Unkerlanters went, too, in great swaths, almost as if they were being scythed at harvest time. Sidroc had long since seen Swemmel's soldiers cared little about losses. If they got a victory, they didn't count the cost.

"They're going to break in!" he said, an exclamation of dismay. They might pay a regiment's worth of men to shift the company's worth of Forthwegians in Hohenroda, but that wouldn't make the detachment from Plegmund's Brigade any less wrecked. It wouldn't make Sidroc any less dead.

"We have three lines of retreat prepared," Werferth said. "We'll use all of them." He sounded calm, unconcerned, ready for anything that might happen, and ready to make the Unkerlanters pay the highest possible price for this miserable little place. In the abstract, Sidroc admired that. When fear rose up inside him like a black, choking cloud, he knew he couldn't hope to match it.

And then, instead of swarming in among the huts of Hohenroda and rooting out the defenders with beams and with knives and with sticks swung clubwise and with knees in the crotch and thumbs gouging out eyes, the Unkerlanters had to stop short of the village. More eggs fell among Swemmel's men, these from the northeast. Heavy sticks seared down half a dozen men at a time. Algarvian behemoths, fighting as they had in the old days before sticks and eggs were so much of a much, got in among the Unkerlanters and trampled them and gored them with iron-encased horns.

And the Unkerlanters broke. They hadn't expected to run into behemoths around Hohenroda. When they fought according to their plans, they were the stubbornest soldiers in the world. When taken by surprise, they sometimes panicked.

Sidroc was heartily glad this proved one of those times. "Run, you buggers, run!" he shouted, and blazed a fleeing Unkerlanter in the back. Relief made him sound giddy. He didn't care. He felt giddy.

"They've got snowshoes," Werferth said. "The Algarvian behemoths, I mean. They didn't last winter, you know. The Algarvians hadn't figured they'd have to fight in the snow. It cost 'em."

Werferth didn't just like fighting, he liked going into detail about fighting. Sidroc didn't think that way. He'd joined Plegmund's Brigade mostly because he hadn't been able to get along with anybody back in Gromheort. A lot of the men in the Brigade were similar misfits. Some of them were out-and-out robbers and bandits. He'd led a sheltered life till the war. Things were different now.

Some of the behemoth crews waved to the defenders of Hohenroda, urging them out in pursuit of King Swemmel's men. Sidroc had no intention of pursuing anybody unless his own officers gave the order. He muttered under his breath when shouts rang out from inside the village: "Forward! South!"

Those shouts were in Algarvian. Algarvian officers commanded Plegmund's Brigade, and all orders came in their tongue. In a way, that made sense: the Brigade had to fight alongside Algarvian units and work smoothly with them. In another way, though, it was a reminder of who were the puppets and who the puppeteers.

"Let's go," Werferth said. He would never be anything more than a sergeant. Of course, had Forthweg's independent army survived, he would never have been anything more than a sergeant, either, for he had not a drop of noble blood.

Sidroc winced and cursed as the icy wind tore at him when he left the shelter of the peasant's hut. But he and his comrades were grinning at one another as they formed up and advanced toward the behemoths and toward the tumbled Unkerlanter corpses in the snow.

The Algarvian behemoth crews weren't grinning. "Who are these whoresons?" one of them shouted to a recognizably Algarvian lieutenant among the Forthwegians. "They look like a pack of Unkerlanters."

"We're from Plegmund's Brigade," the lieutenant answered. Sidroc followed Algarvian fairly well. He'd learned some in school, mostly beaten in with a switch, and more since joining the Brigade, which had ways of training harsher yet.

"Plegmund's Brigade!" the redhead on the behemoth burst out. "Plegmund's bloody Brigade? Powers above, we thought we were rescuing real Algarvians."

"Love you too, prickface." That was a trooper named Ceorl, like Sidroc in the squad Werferth led. He always had been and always would be more a ruffian than a soldier. Here, though, Sidroc completely agreed with him.


Major Spinello eyed the approaching Algarvian physician with all the warmth of a crippled elk eyeing a wolf. The physician either didn't notice or was used to such glances from recuperating soldiers. "Good morning," he said cheerfully. "How are we today?"

"I haven't the faintest idea about you, good my sir," Spinello replied- like a lot of Algarvians, he was given to extravagant flights of verbiage. "As for myself, I've never been better in all my born days. When do you propose to turn me loose so I can get back into the fight against the cursed Unkerlanters?"

He'd been saying the same thing for weeks. At first, the healing mages had ignored him. Then he'd been turned over to mere physicians… who'd also ignored him. This one said, "Well, we shall see what we shall see." He pressed a hearing tube against the right side of Spinello's chest. "If you'd be so kind as to cough for me…?"

After taking a deep breath, Spinello coughed. He also had the Algarvian fondness for overacting; with the energy he put into his coughs, he might have been at death's door from consumption. "There, you quack," he said when he let the racking spasm end. "Does that satisfy you?"

Perhaps fortunately for him, the physician was harder to offend than most of his countrymen. Instead of getting angry- or instead of continuing the conversation through seconds, as some might have done- the fellow just asked, "Did that hurt?"

"No. Not a bit." Spinello lied without hesitation. He'd taken a sniper's beam in the chest- powers above, a sniper's beam right through the chest- down in Sulingen. He had the feeling he'd hurt for years to come, if not for the rest of his life. That being so, he could- he had to- deal with the pain.

"I was listening to you," the physician said. "So that you know, I don't believe you, not a word of it."

"So that you know, sirrah, I don't care what you believe." Spinello hopped down from the infirmary bed on which he'd been sitting and glared at the physician. He had to look up his nose, not down it, for the doctor overtopped him by several inches: he was a bantam rooster of a man, but strong for his size and very quick. He also had a powerful will; under his gaze, the physician gave back a pace before checking himself. Voice soft and menacing, Spinello demanded, "Will you write me out the certificate that warrants me fit to return to duty?"

To his surprise, the physician said, "Aye." He reached into the folder he'd set on the bed and pulled out a printed form. "In fact, I have filled it out, all but the signature." He plucked a pen and a sealed bottle of ink from the breast pocket of his tunic, inked the pen, and scrawled something that might have been his name or might equally have been an obscenity in demotic Gyongyosian. Then he handed Spinello the completed form. "This will permit you to return to duty, Major. It doesn't warrant you as fit, because you aren't fit. But the kingdom needs you, and you're unlikely to fall over dead at the first harsh breeze. Powers above keep you safe." He bowed.

And Spinello bowed in return, more deeply than the physician had. That was an extraordinary courtesy; as a count, he surely outranked the other man, who was bound to be only a commoner. But the physician had given him what he wanted most in all the world. He bowed again. "I am in your debt, sir."

With a sigh, the physician said, "Why a man should be so eager to rush headlong into danger has always been beyond me."

"You said it yourself: Algarve needs me," Spinello replied. "Now tell me at once: is it true the last of our brave lads have had to yield themselves in Sulingen?"

"It's true," the physician said grimly. "The crystallomancers can't reach anyone there, and the Unkerlanters are shouting themselves hoarse at the victory. Not a word about the price we made them pay."

Spinello cursed. The Algarvians had fought their way into Sulingen the summer before- fought their way into it and never fought their way out again. South beyond the Wolter River lay the Mamming Hills, full of the cinnabar that made dragonfire burn so hot and fierce. Take Sulingen, storm over the Wolter, seize the mines in the hills- it had all seemed so straightforward.

It would have been, too, had the Unkerlanters not fought like demons for every street, for every manufactory, for every floor of every block of flats. And now, even though Swemmel's men had, as the physician said, surely paid a great price, an Algarvian army was gone, gone as if it had never been.

"I hope they send me west again in a tearing hurry," Spinello said, and the physician rolled his eyes. Spinello pointed to the closet at the far end of the room. "I'm sick of these cursed hospital whites. Is my uniform in there?"

"If you mean the one in which you came here, Major, no," the physician replied. "That one, as I hope you will understand, is somewhat the worse for wear. But a major's uniform does await you, aye. One moment." He went over to the closet, set a hand on the latch, and murmured softly. "There. Now it will open to your touch. We couldn't very well have had you escaping before you were even close to healed."

"I suppose not," Spinello admitted. They'd known him, all right. He walked over to the closet and tried the latch. It did open. It hadn't before; he'd tried a good many times. With a squeak of dry hinges, the door opened, too. There on hooks hung a tunic and kilt of severe military cut. The tunic, he saw to his pride, had on it a wound ribbon. He was entitled to that ribbon, and he would wear it. He got out of the baggy infirmary clothes and put on the uniform. It was baggy, too, baggy enough to make him angry. "Couldn't they have found a tailor who wasn't drunk?" he snapped.

"It is cut to your measure, Major," the physician answered. "Your former measure, I should say. You've lost a good deal of flesh since you were wounded."

"This much?" Spinello didn't want to believe it. But he couldn't very well call the physician a liar, either.

Also hanging in the closet was a broad-brimmed hat with a bright feather from some bird from tropical Siaulia sticking up from the leather hatband. Spinello clapped it on. His head hadn't shrunk, anyhow. That was a relief.

The physician said, "I have a mirror in my belt pouch, if you'd like to see yourself. We don't keep many in infirmaries. They might dismay patients like you, and they might do worse than dismay others, the ones unlucky enough to receive head wounds."

"Ah." Contemplating that was enough to make Spinello decide he hadn't come out so bad after all. In unwontedly quiet tones, he said, "Aye, sir, if you'd be so kind."

"Of course, Major." The physician took it out and held it up.

Spinello whistled softly. He had lost flesh; his cheekbones were promontories just under the skin, and the line of his jaw sharper than it had been since he left his teens- an era more than a dozen years behind him now. But his green eyes still gleamed, and the attendants who'd trimmed his coppery mustache and little chin beard and side whiskers had done a respectable job. He tilted the hat to a jauntier angle and said, "How ever will the girls keep their legs closed when they see me walking down the street?"

With a snort, the doctor put the mirror away. "You're well enough, all right," he said. "Go back to the west and terrorize the Unkerlanter women."

"Oh, my dear fellow!" Spinello rolled his eyes. "A homelier lot you'd never want to see. Built like bricks, almost all of them. I had better luck when I was on occupation duty in Forthweg. This little blond Kaunian, couldn't have been above seventeen" -his hands shaped an hourglass in the air- "and she'd do anything I wanted, and I do mean anything."

"How many times have you told me about her since you've been in my care?" the physician asked. "Her name was Vanai, and she lived in Oyngestun, and-"

"And every word of it true, too," Spinello said indignantly. He took a cloak from the closet and threw it on, then dealt with shoes and stockings. He was panting by the time he finished dressing; he'd spent too long flat on his back. But he refused to admit how worn he was, even to himself. "Now, then- what formalities must I go through to escape your lair here?"

He presented the certificate of discharge to the floor nurse. After she signed it, he presented it to the nursing station downstairs. After someone there signed it, Spinello presented it to the soldier at the doorway. The man had won the soft post with a right tunic sleeve pinned up short. He pointed along the street and said, "The reassignment depot is three blocks that way, sir. Can you walk it?"

"Why? Is this a test?" Spinello asked. Rather to his surprise, the one-armed soldier nodded. He realized it made a certain amount of sense: you might browbeat a doctor into giving you a certificate, but no one who couldn't walk three blocks had any business going off to the front. The soldier signed the certificate quite legibly. Spinello asked him, "Were you lefthanded… before?"

"No, sir," the fellow answered. "I got this in Forthweg, early on. I've had two and a half years to learn how to do things over again."

With a nod, Spinello left the infirmary for the first time since being brought there and headed in the direction the disabled soldier had given him. Before the war, Trapani had been a gay, lively city, as befit the capital of a great kingdom. The gray gloom on the streets now had only a little to do with the overcast sky and the nasty, cold mist in the air: it was a thing of the spirit, not of the weather.

People hurried along about their business without the strut and swagger that were as much a part of Algarvian life as wine. Women mostly looked mousy, which wasn't easy for Spinello's redheaded compatriots. The only men in the streets who weren't in uniform were old enough to be veterans of the Six Years' War a generation before or else creaking ancients even older than that.

And everyone, men and women alike, looked grim. The news sheets the vendors sold were bordered in black. Sulingen had fallen, all right. It had been plain for a long time that the town would fall to the Unkerlanters, but no one here seemed to have wanted to believe it no matter how plain it was. That made the blow even harder now that it struck home.

Big signs outside the entrance named the reassignment depot. Spinello bounded up the marble steps, threw the doors wide, and shouted, "I'm fit for duty again! The war is won!"

Some of the soldiers in there laughed. Some of them snorted. Some just rolled their eyes. "No matter who you are, sir, and no matter how great you are, you still have to queue up," a sergeant said. Spinello did, though he hated lines.

When he presented the multiply signed certificate of discharge to another sergeant, that worthy shuffled through files. At last, he said, "I have a regiment for you, Major, if you care to take it."

That was a formality. Spinello drew himself up to stiff attention. "Aye!" he exclaimed. The catch in his breath was partly from his healing, partly excitement.

The sergeant handed him his orders, as well as a list of ley-line caravans that would take him to the men who held the line somewhere in northern Unkerlant. They were waiting for him with bated breath. They just didn't know it yet. "If you hurry, sir, there's a caravan leaving from the main depot for Eoforwic in half an hour," the sergeant said helpfully. "That'll get you halfway there."

Spinello dashed out of the reassignment depot and screamed for a cab. He made the ley-line caravan he needed. As he glided southwest out of Trapani, he wondered why he was in such a hurry to go off and perhaps get himself killed. He had no answer, any more than the physician had. But he was.


Marshal Rathar wished with all his heart that he could have stayed down in southern Unkerlant and finished smashing the Algarvian invaders there. They were like serpents- you could step on them three days after you thought they were dead, and they'd rear up and bite you in the leg. Rathar sighed. He supposed General Vatran could handle things till he got back. King Swemmel had ordered him to Cottbus, and when King Swemmel ordered, every Unkerlanter obeyed.

As it was, Rathar wouldn't reach Cottbus as fast as Swemmel hoped and expected. Now that the Algarvians had been crushed in Sulingen and driven back from it, more direct ley-line routes between the south and the capital were in Unkerlanter hands once more. The trouble was, too many of them weren't yet usable. Retreating Algarvian mages had done their best to sabotage them. Retreating Algarvian engineers, relentless pragmatists, had buried eggs along the ley lines that traveled them after the Algarvian mages' efforts were overcome.

And so, Rathar had to travel almost as far out of a straight line to get from the vicinity of Sulingen to Cottbus as he had when coming south from Cottbus to Sulingen when things looked blackest the summer before. The steersman for the caravan kept sending flunkies back to Rathar with apologies for every zigzag. The marshal's displeasure carried weight. After Swemmel- but a long, long way after Swemmel (Rathar was convinced only he knew how far) -he was the most powerful man in Unkerlant.

But the marshal wasn't particularly displeased, not when he didn't want to go to Cottbus in the first place. He said, "I do prefer not getting killed on the journey, you know." The steward who'd brought him news of the latest delay had been pale under his swarthy skin. Now he breathed easier.

When the steward left the caravan car, a breath of chill got in, reminding the marshal it was winter- and a savage Unkerlanter winter at that- outside. Inside, with all the windows sealed, with a red-hot coal stove at each end of the car, it might as well have been summer in desert Zuwayza, or possibly summer in a bake oven. Rathar sighed. Unkerlanter caravan cars were always like that in winter. He rubbed his eyes. The hot, stuffy air never failed to give him a headache.

He yawned, lowered the lamps, and went to sleep. He was still sleeping when the ley-line caravan silently glided into Cottbus. An apologetic steward shook him awake. Yawning again, the marshal pulled off the thin linen tunic he'd been wearing and put on the thick wool one he'd used in the caves and ruined houses that had been his headquarters buildings down in the south. For good measure, he added a heavy wool cloak and a fur cap with earflaps.

Sweat rivered off him. "Powers above, get me out of here before I cook in my own juices," he said hoarsely.

"Aye, lord Marshal," the steward said, and led him to the door at the end of the car. He had to go past a stove to get there, and did come perilously close to steaming. Then the steward opened the door, and the frigid air outside hit him like a blow in the face. Cottbus was well north of Sulingen, and so enjoyed a milder climate, but milder didn't mean mild.

Rathar sneezed three times in quick succession as he walked down the wooden steps from the ley-line car- which floated a yard off the ground- to the floor of the depot. He pulled a handkerchief from his belt pouch and blew his large, proudly curved nose.

"Your health, lord Marshal," his adjutant said, coming to attention and saluting as Rathar's feet hit the flagstones. "It's good to see you again."

"Thank you, Major Merovec," Rathar answered. "It's good to be back in the capital." What a liar, what a courtier, I'm getting to be, he thought.

Merovec gestured to the squad of soldiers behind him. "Your honor guard, sir, and your bodyguard, to make sure no Algarvian assassin or Grelzer turncoat does you harm on the way to the royal palace."

"How generous of his Majesty to provide them for me," Rathar said. The soldiers looked blank-faced and tough: typical Unkerlanter farm boys. They were, no doubt, equally typical in their willingness to follow orders no matter what those orders were. If Swemmel had ordered them to arrest him, for instance, they would do it, regardless of the big stars on the collar tabs of his tunic. Swemmel stayed strong not least by allowing himself no strong subjects, and Rathar knew he'd won a good deal of fame for his operations in and around Sulingen.

If Swemmel wanted to seize him, he could. Rathar knew that. And so he strode up to Merovec and the unsmiling soldiers behind him. "I have a carriage waiting for you, lord Marshal," his adjutant said, "and others for the guards here. If you will come with me…"

The carriage was only a carriage, not a prison wagon. The troopers got into four other carriages. They took station around the one that carried Rathar. No, an assassin wouldn't have an easy blaze at him. The marshal didn't particularly worry about assassins. King Swemmel, now, King Swemmel saw them behind every curtain and under every chair.

Cottbus by night was dark and gloomy. Algarvian dragons still flew over to drop eggs on the Unkerlanter capital. The darkness helped thwart them, even if they didn't come nearly so often or in such numbers as they had the winter before. Algarvian behemoths and footsoldiers had almost broken into Cottbus then. They'd been pushed back a good way since, which meant a longer, harder journey for King Mezentio's dragonfliers.

"Well, what sort of juicy court gossip have you got for me?" Rathar asked his adjutant.

Major Merovec stared; even in the darkness, his eyes glittered as they widened. "N-Not much, lord Marshal," he stammered; Rathar was normally indifferent to the petty- and sometimes not so petty- scandal that set tongues wagging at every court on the continent of Derlavai… and every court off it, too.

Horses' hoofbeats muffled by snow on stone, the carriages entered the great empty square around the royal palace. Surrounding the square were statues of the kings of Unkerlant. Swemmel's loomed, twice as tall as any of the others. Rathar wondered how long the outsized image would endure in the reign of Swemmel's successor. That was not a thought he could ever speak aloud.

Inside the palace, lamps seared eyes used to darkness. The king had trouble sleeping, which meant his servitors hardly slept at all. "His Majesty will see you in the audience chamber," a messenger told Rathar.

The marshal hung the ceremonial sword of his rank on brackets in an anteroom to that chamber. Unsmiling guards patted him with intimacy few women would have dared use. Only after enduring that could he go on. And then he had to prostrate himself before the king and, face against the carpet, recite his praises until given permission to rise.

At last, King Swemmel gave it. As Rathar climbed to his feet- a knee clicked; he wasn't so young as he had been- the king said, "We wish to continue the rout of the cursed Algarvians from our land. Punish them! We command you!" His dark eyes flashed in his long, pale face.

"Your Majesty, I aim to do just that," Rathar replied. "Now that their army in Sulingen is no more, I can shift soldiers to my columns farther north. With luck, we'll bag most of the redheads still in the southwestern part of the kingdom, trap 'em as neatly as we did the ones who'd reached the Wolter."

He knew he was exaggerating- or rather, that he would have to be very lucky indeed to bring off everything he had in mind. The Algarvians would have a lot to say about what he did and what he ended up unable to do. Getting his sovereign to understand that was one of the hardest jobs he had. So far, he'd managed. Had he failed, Unkerlant would have a new marshal these days. Rathar didn't particularly fear for himself. He did doubt the kingdom had a better officer to lead her armies.

Swemmel said, "At last, we have them on the run. By the powers above, we shall punish them as they deserve. When King Mezentio is in our hands, we'll boil him alive, as we served Kyot." Kyot, his identical twin, had fought him for the throne and lost. Had he won, he would have boiled Swemmel- and, probably, Rathar with him, though he might have contented himself with taking the soldier's head.

As far as Rathar was concerned, his king was putting the unicorn's tail in front of its horn. The marshal said, "This war is still a long way from won, your Majesty."

But Swemmel had the bit between his teeth and trampled on: "And before we do, we'll give Mezentio's cousin Raniero, the misnamed King of Grelz, an end to make Mezentio glad he's just being boiled. Aye, we will." Gloating anticipation filled his voice.

Rathar did his best to draw the king back from dreams of revenge to what was real. "We have to beat the redheads first, you know. As I said, I want to keep biting chunks out of their forces in Unkerlant. We bit out a big chunk when we took Sulingen back, but they can still hurt us if we get careless. I aim to pin them against one river barrier after another, make them fight at a disadvantage or else have to make a whole series of difficult retreats…"

Swemmel wasn't listening. "Aye, when Raniero falls into our hands, we'll flay him and draw him and unman him and- oh, whatever else strikes our fancy."

"We almost ought to thank Mezentio for him," Rathar said. "One of our own nobles on the Grelzer throne in Herborn would have brought more traitors to the Algarvian side than Raniero has a hope of luring."

"Traitors everywhere," Swemmel muttered. "Everywhere." His eyes darted this way and that. "We'll kill them all, see if we don't." During the Twinkings War and even after it, there had been a good many real plots against him. There had also been a good many that existed only in his fevered imagination. Real plotters and imagined ones were equally dead now, with no one to say who was which. "Traitors."

To Rathar's relief, Swemmel wasn't looking at him. Almost desperately, the marshal said, "As I was telling you, your Majesty, our plans-"

Swemmel spoke in peremptory tones: "Set all the columns moving now. The sooner we strike the Algarvians, the sooner they shall be driven from our soil." Did he mean the soil of Unkerlant or his own, personal soil? Rathar often had trouble telling.

"Do you not agree, your Majesty, that your armies have had more success when you waited till everything was ready before striking?" Rathar asked. He'd had trouble getting Swemmel to see that throughout the war. He didn't want more trouble now.

Swemmel, of course, cared nothing for what his marshal wanted. Swemmel cared only for what he wanted. And now, glaring down at Rathar from his high seat, he snapped, "We have given you an order. You may carry it out, or someone else may carry it out. We care nothing about that. We care only that we should be obeyed. Do you understand us?"

Sometimes, a threat to resign would bring Swemmel to his senses when he tried to order something uncommonly harebrained. Rathar didn't judge this would have been one of those times. The king wouldn't have summoned him from the south for anything but a show of unquestioned allegiance. And Swemmel would remove him and likely remove his head if he balked. Rathar looked down at the carpet and sighed. "Aye, your Majesty," he said, casting about in his mind for ways to say he obeyed while in fact doing what really needed doing.

"And think not to evade our will with plausible excuses," King Swemmel barked. He might not have been a very wise man, but no denying he was clever. Rathar sighed again.


Back before the Derlavaian War broke out, Skarnu had been a marquis. He still was a marquis, when you got down to it, but he hadn't lived like one for years. And, if the Algarvian occupiers of his native Valmiera ever got their hands on him, he wouldn't live anymore at all. This was what he got for carrying on the fight against the redheads after King Gainibu surrendered.

Had he made his peace with the conquerors, he could have been living soft in the familial mansion on the edge of Priekule, the capital. Instead, he found himself holed up in a dingy cold-water flat in Ventspils, an eastern provincial town of no great distinction- indeed, of no small distinction he could think of.

His sister still lived in that mansion. He growled, down deep in his throat. Krasta, curse her, had an Algarvian lover- Skarnu had seen them listed as a couple in a news sheet. Colonel Lurcanio and the Marchioness Krasta. Lurcanio, curse him, had come too close to catching Skarnu not long before. He'd had to flee the farm where he'd been living, the widow he'd come to love, and the child- his child- she was carrying. He hoped Lurcanio's men had only been after him, and that Merkela was safe.

Hope was all he could do. He didn't dare write to the farm outside the southern village of Pavilosta. If the Algarvians intercepted the letter, their mages might be able to use the law of contagion to trace it back to him. "Powers below eat them," he muttered. He wanted to pour out his soul to Merkela, but the enemy silenced him as effectively as if they'd clapped a gag over his mouth.

He went to the grimy window and looked down at the street three stories down. Wan winter sunshine filtered between the blocks of flats that sat almost side by side. Not even sunshine, though, could make the cobbles in the streets, the worn slates of the sidewalks, and the sooty, slushy snow in the gutters and in the corners by stairways anything but unlovely. The wind shook bare-branched trees; their shifting shadows put Skarnu in mind of groping, grabbing skeleton hands.

Blond Valmierans in tunics and trousers trudged this way and that. From what Skarnu had seen, nobody in Ventspils did much more than trudge. He wondered if he could blame that gloom on the Algarvian occupation, or if life in a provincial town would have been bloody dull even before the invaders came. Had he lived his whole life in Ventspils, he suspected he would have been gloomy most of the time himself.

Up the street came a couple of Algarvian soldiers or constables. He didn't recognize them by their red hair; like a lot of his countrymen, they wore hats to fight the cold. He didn't even recognize them by their pleated kilts, though he soon noticed those. No, what set them apart was the way they moved. They didn't trudge. They strutted, heads up, shoulders back, chests out. They moved as if they had vital business to take care of and wanted everybody around them to know it.

"Algarvians," Skarnu said with fine contempt. If they weren't the most self-important people on the face of the earth, he didn't know who was. He laughed, but not for long. Their pretensions would have been funnier if they hadn't dominated all the east of Derlavai.

And then they came up the stairs to his block of flats. When he saw that, he didn't hesitate for a moment. He grabbed a cloth cap, stuffed it down as low on his head as it would go, and left his flat, closing the door behind him as quietly as he could. His wool tunic would keep him warm for a while outside.

He hurried to the stairs and started down them. As he'd thought he would, he passed the Algarvians coming up. He didn't look at them; they didn't look at him. He'd gambled that they wouldn't. Their orders were probably something like, Arrest the man you find in flat 36. But there wouldn't be any man in flat 36 to arrest when they got there. If Skarnu hadn't seen them coming…

Vapor puffed from his mouth and nose as he opened the front door and went out onto the street. He was already hurrying up the sidewalk in the direction from which the redheads had come- a clever touch, he thought- when he realized he didn't know for a fact that they'd been after him. He laughed, though it wasn't funny. How likely that this block of flats held two men the Algarvians wanted badly enough to send their own after him instead of entrusting the job to Valmieran constables? Not very.

A youth waved a news sheet in his face. "Algarvians smash Unkerlanter drive south of Durrwangen!" he cried. The news sheets, of course, printed only what King Mezentio's ministers wanted Valmiera to hear. They'd stopped talking about Sulingen, for instance, as soon as the battle there was lost. They made the victories they reported these days sound like splendid triumphs instead of the desperate defensive struggles they had to be.

Skarnu strode past the vendor without a word, without even shaking his head. He turned a corner and then another and another and another, picking right or left at random each time. If the Algarvians came bursting out of the block of flats hot on his trail, they wouldn't have an easy time following him. He chuckled. He didn't know himself where he was going, so why should the redheads?

That didn't stay funny long, though. He had to pause and get his bearings- not easy in Ventspils, since he didn't know the town well. In Priekule, he could have looked for the Kaunian Column of Victory. That would have told him where in the city he was… till the Algarvians knocked it down. The victory it celebrated was one the Kaunian Empire had won over the barbarous Algarvic tribes- a victory that still rankled the tribesmen's barbarous descendants more than a millennium and a half later.

Though he took longer than he should have, he finally did figure out where he was. Then he needed to figure out where to go. That had only one answer, really: the tavern called the Lion and the Mouse. But the answer wasn't so good, either. Were the Algarvians after him in particular, or were they trying to smash all the resistance in Ventspils? If the former, they might know nothing of the tavern. If the latter, they were liable to be waiting in force around or inside it.

He muttered under his breath. A woman passing by gave him a curious look. He stared back so stonily, she hurried on her way as if she'd never looked at him at all. Maybe she thought him a madman or a derelict. As long as she didn't think him one of the handful who kept the fight against Algarve alive, he cared nothing for her opinion.

I've got to go, he realized. The Lion and the Mouse was the only place where he could hope to meet other irregulars. They could find him somewhere else to stay or spirit him out of Ventspils altogether. Without them… Skarnu didn't want to think about that. One man alone was one man helpless.

He approached the tavern with all the caution he'd learned as a captain in the Valmieran army- before the Algarvians used dragons and behemoths to smash that army into isolated chunks and then beat it. He couldn't see anything that looked particularly dangerous around the place. He wished Raunu, his veteran sergeant, were still with him. Having been in the army as long as Skarnu was alive, Raunu knew far more about soldiering than Skarnu had learned in something under a year. But Skarnu was a marquis and Raunu the son of a sausage seller, so Skarnu had led the company of which they'd both been part.

After twice walking past the doorway to the Lion and the Mouse, Skarnu, the mouse, decided he had to put his head in the lion's mouth. Scowling, he walked into the tavern. The burly fellow behind the bar was a man he'd seen before- which meant nothing if the man was in bed with the Algarvians.

But there, at a table in the far corner of the room, Skarnu spied a painter who was one of the leaders of the underground in Ventspils. Unless he proved a traitor, too, the Algarvians didn't know about this place. Skarnu bought a mug of ale- nothing wrong with Ventspils' ale- and sat down across the table from him.

"Well, hello, Pavilosta," the painter said. "Didn't expect to see you here today." That sounded polite, but harsh suspicion lay under it.

Skarnu's answering grimace was harsh, too. He didn't care to have even the name of the village he'd come from mentioned out loud. After a pull at the ale, he said, "A couple of redheads came into my block of flats an hour ago. If I hadn't spied 'em outside, they would've nabbed me."

"Well, we can't expect the Algarvians to love us, not after we yanked those Sibian dragonfliers right out from under their noses," the local underground leader said. "They'd want to poke back if they saw the chance to do it."

"I understand that." Like the painter, Skarnu kept his voice low. "But are they after underground folk in Ventspils, or me in particular?"

"Why would they be after you in particular?" the other man asked. Then he paused and thumped his forehead with the heel of his hand. "I keep forgetting you're not just Pavilosta. You're the chap with a sister in the wrong bed."

"That's one way to put it, aye," Skarnu said. It was, in fact, a gentler way to put it than he would have used. It also avoided mentioning his noble blood- common women could and did sleep with the redheaded occupiers, too.

After a pull on his own mug of ale, the painter said, "She knew where you were down in Pavilosta- she did, or else the Algarvian she's laying did. But how would she know you've come to Ventspils? How would the redheads know, either?"

"Obvious answer is, they're squeezing somebody between Pavilosta and here," Skarnu said. "I had a narrow escape getting out of there; they might have stumbled onto somebody who helped me." He named no names. What the other fellow didn't know, King Mezentio's men and their Valmieran stooges couldn't squeeze out of him. Skarnu wouldn't have been so careful about security even during his duty in the regular Valmieran army.

"If they've got hold of a link in the chain between here and there, that could be… unpleasant," the painter said. "Every time we take in a new man, we have to wonder if he's the fellow who's going to sell the lot of us to the Algarvians- and one fine day, one of them will do it."

Someone Skarnu had seen once or twice before strolled into the Lion and the Mouse. Instead of ordering ale or spirits, he spoke in casual tones: "Redheads and their dogs are heading toward this place. Some people might not want to hang around and wait for them." He didn't even look toward the corner where Skarnu and the painter sat.

Skarnu's first impulse was to leap and run. Then he realized how stupid that was: it would make him stand out, which was the last thing he wanted. And even if it didn't, where would he go? Ventspils wasn't his town; aside from the men of the underground, he had no friends and hardly any acquaintances here.

After a last quick swig, the painter set down his empty mug. "Maybe we'd better not hang around and wait for them," he said, with which conclusion Skarnu could hardly disagree.

Skarnu didn't bother finishing his ale. He left the mug on the table and followed the other man out. "Where do we go now?" he asked.

"There are places," the painter said, an answer that wasn't an answer. After a moment, Skarnu realized the underground leader had security concerns of his own. Sure enough, the man went on, "I don't think we'll have to blindfold you."

"I'm so glad to hear it." Skarnu had intended the words to be sarcastic. They didn't come out that way. The Unkerlanters might have the Algarvians on the run in the distant west, but here in Valmiera the redheads could still make their handful of foes dance to their tune.


Fernao was studying his Kuusaman. That was, he understood, a curious thing for a Lagoan mage to do. Though Lagoas and Kuusamo shared the large island off the southeastern coast of Derlavai, his countrymen were in the habit of looking in the direction of the mainland and not toward their eastern neighbors, whom they usually regarded as little more than amusing rustics.

That was true even though a lot of Lagoans had some Kuusaman blood. Fernao's height and his red hair proved him of mainly Algarvic stock, but his narrow, slanted eyes showed it wasn't pure. Lagoans also did their best not to notice that Kuusamo outweighed their kingdom about three to one.

Outside, a storm that had blown up from the south did its best to turn this stretch of Kuusamo into the land of the Ice People. The wind howled. Snow drifted around the hostel the soldiers of the Seven Princes had run up here in the middle of nowhere. The district of Naantali lay so far south, the sun rose above the horizon for only a little while each day.

Down on the austral continent, of course, it wouldn't have risen at all for a while on either side of the winter solstice. Having seen the land of the Ice People in midwinter, Fernao knew that all too well. Here, he had a coal-burning stove, not the brazier he'd fed lumps of dried camel dung.

"I shall shovel snow," he murmured: a particularly apt paradigm. "You will shovel snow. He, she, it will shovel snow. We shall shovel snow. You-plural will shovel snow. They-"

Someone knocked on the door. "One moment!" Fernao called, not in Kuusaman but in classical Kaunian, the language he really did share with his Kuusaman colleagues. Just getting to the door took rather more than a moment. He had to lever himself up from his stool with the help of a cane, grab the crutch that leaned by the chair, and use both of them to cross the room and reach the doorway.

And all of that, he thought as he opened the door, was progress. He'd almost died when an Algarvian egg burst too close to him down in the land of the Ice People. His leg had been shattered. Only in the past few days had the Kuusaman healers released what was left of it from its immobilizing plaster prison.

Pekka stood in the hall outside. "Hello," she said, also in classical Kaunian, the widespread language of scholarship. "I hope I did not interrupt any important calculations. I hate it when people do that to me."

"No." Fernao smiled down at her. Like most of her countrymen- the exceptions being those who had some Lagoan blood- she was short and slim and dark, with a wide face, high cheekbones, and eyes slanted like his own. He switched to her language to show what he had been doing: "We shall shovel snow. You-plural will shovel snow. They will shovel snow."

She laughed. Against her golden skin, her teeth seemed even whiter than they were. A moment later, she sobered and nodded. "Your accent is quite good," she said, first in Kaunian, then in her own tongue.

"Thanks," Fernao said in Kuusaman. Then he returned to the classical tongue: "I have always had a knack for learning languages, but yours is different from any other I have tried to pick up." Awkwardly, he stepped aside. "Please come in. Sit down. Make yourself at home."

"I wish I were at home," Pekka said. "I wish my husband were at home, too. I miss my family." Her husband, Fernao knew, was no less a sorcerer than she, but one of a more practical bent. As Pekka walked past, she asked, "Were you using the stool or the bed? I do not want to disturb you."

"The stool," Fernao answered. Pekka had already sat down on the bed by the time he closed the door, hobbled back across the chamber, and carefully lowered himself onto the stool. He propped the crutch where he could easily reach it before saying, "And what can I do for you this morning?"

He knew what he wouldn't have minded doing, not for her but with her. He'd always reckoned Kuusaman women too small and skinny to be very interesting, but was changing his mind about Pekka. That was probably because, working alongside her, he'd come to think of her as colleague and friend, to admire her wits as well as her body. Whatever the reason, his interest was real.

He kept quiet about it. By the way she spoke about Leino, her husband, and Uto, her son, she wasn't interested in him or in anyone but them. Making advances would have been worse than rude- it would have been futile. Though a good theoretical sorcerer, Fernao was a practical man in other ways. Stretching out his legs in front of him, he waited to hear what Pekka had to say.

She hesitated, something she seldom did. At last, she answered, "Have you done any more work on Ilmarinen's contention?"

"Which contention do you mean?" he said, as innocently as he could. "He has so many of them."

That got him another smile from Pekka. Like the first, it didn't last long. "You know which one," she said. "No matter how many strange ideas Ilmarinen comes up with, only one really matters to us now."

And that was also true. Fernao sighed. He didn't like admitting, even to himself, how true it was. Here, though, he had no choice. Pointing out the window- the double-glazed window that helped hold winter at bay- in the direction of the latest release of sorcerous energy the Kuusaman experimental team had touched off, he said, "That was fresh grass, summer grass, he pulled up from the middle of the crater."

"I know," Pekka said softly. "Fresh grass in the middle of- this." She pointed out the window, too, at the snow swirling past in the grip of the whistling wind. More softly still, she added, "It can mean just one thing."

Fernao sighed again. "The calculations suggested it all along. So did the other experimental results. No wonder Ilmarinen got angry at us when we didn't want to face what that meant."

Pekka's laugh was more rueful than anything else. "If Ilmarinen had not got angry over that, he would have got angry over something else," she said. "Getting angry, and getting other people angry, is what he enjoys more than anything else these days. But…" She stopped; she didn't want to say what followed logically from Ilmarinen's grass, either. In the end, she did: "We really do seem to be drawing our energy in these experiments by twisting time itself."

There. It was out. Fernao didn't want to hear it, any more than he'd wanted to say it. But now that Pekka had said it, he could only nod. "Aye. That is what the numbers say, sure enough." For once, he was glad to be speaking classical Kaunian. It let him sound more detached, more objective- and a lot less frightened- than he really was.

"I think the numbers also say we can only draw energy from it when we send one set of animals racing forward and the other racing back," Pekka said. "We cannot do any more meddling than that… can we?" She sounded frightened, too, as if she were pleading for reassurance.

Fernao gave her what reassurance he could: "I read the calculations the same way. So does Siuntio. And so does Ilmarinen, for all his bluff and bluster."

"I know," Pekka said. "I have had long talks with both of them- talks much more worried than this one." Maybe she found Kaunian distancing, too. But she added, "What if the Algarvians are also calculating- calculating and coming up with different answers?"

For effect, Fernao tried a few words of Kuusaman: "Then we're all in trouble." Pekka let out a startled laugh, then nodded. Fernao wished he could have gone on in her language, but had to drop back into classical Kaunian: "But most of their mages are busy with their murderous magic, and the rest really should get the same results we have."

"Powers above, I hope so!" Pekka exclaimed. "The energy release is dreadful enough as is, but the world could not stand having its past revised and edited."

Before Fernao could answer, someone else knocked on the door. Pekka sprang up and opened it before Fernao could start what was for him the long, slow, involved process of rising. "Oh, hello, my dear," Master Siuntio said in Kuusaman before courteously switching to classical Kaunian so Fernao could follow: "I came to ask if our distinguished Lagoan colleague would care to join me for dinner. Now I ask you the same question as well."

"I would be delighted, sir," Fernao said, and did struggle to his feet.

"And I," Pekka agreed. "Things may look brighter once we have some food and drink inside us."

A buffet waited in the dining room. Fernao piled Kuusaman smoked salmon- as good as any in the world- on a chewy roll, and added slices of onion and of hard-cooked egg and pickled cucumber. Along with a mug of ale, that made a dinner to keep him going till suppertime. "Would you like me to carry those for you?" Pekka asked.

"If you would be so kind- the plate, anyhow," Fernao answered. "I can manage the mug. Now I have two hands, but I would need three." Till not too long before, he'd had an arm in a cast as well as a leg. Then he'd needed four hands and possessed only one.

Pekka had built a sandwich almost as formidable as his own. She did some substantial damage to it before asking Siuntio, "Master, do you think you will find any loopholes in the spells we are crafting?"

Siuntio gently shook his head. He looked more like a kindly grandfather than the leading theoretical sorcerer of his generation. "No," he said. "We have been over this ground before, you know. I see extravagant energy releases, aye, far more extravagant than we could get from any other source. But I see no way to achieve anything but that. We cannot sneak back through the holes we tear in time- and a good thing we can't, too."

"I agree," Fernao said, gulping down a large mouthful of salmon to make sure his words came clear. "On both counts, I agree."

"I don't believe even Ilmarinen will disagree on this," Siuntio said.

"Disagree on what?" Ilmarinen asked, striding into the dining hall as if naming him could conjure him up. With a wispy white chin beard, wild hair, and gleaming eyes, he might have been Siuntio's raffish brother. But he, too, was a formidable mage. "Disagree on what?" he repeated.

"On the possibility of manipulating time along with extracting energy from it," Siuntio told him.

"Well, that doesn't look like it's in the math," Ilmarinen said. "On the other hand, you never can tell." He poured himself a mug of ale and then, for good measure, another. "Now this is a proper dinner," he declared as he sat down by Fernao.

"Do you truly think the question remains unanswered?" Fernao asked him.

"You never can tell," Ilmarinen said again, probably as much to annoy Fernao as because he really believed it. "We haven't been looking all that long, and neither have the redheads- excuse me, the Algarvians." Fernao had red hair, too. Ilmarinen went on: "A good thing the Algarvians are too taken up with killing people to power their magic to look anywhere else. Aye, a very good thing." He emptied the mugs in quick succession, then went back and filled them again.


A guard clattered his bludgeon against the iron bars of Talsu's cell. "Come on, you cursed traitor, get up!" the guard shouted at him. "You think this is a hostel, eh? Do you?"

"No, sir. I don't think that, sir," Talsu replied as he sprang off his cot and stood at attention beside it. He had to give a soft answer, or else the guard and maybe three or four of his comrades would swarm into the cell and use their bludgeons on him instead of on the bars. He'd got one beating for talking back. He didn't want another one.

"You'd cursed well better not," the guard snarled before stamping down the hall to waken the prisoner in the next cell after not enough sleep.

Talsu was glad when he couldn't see the ugly lout any more. The prison guard was as much a Jelgavan as he was: a blond man who wore trousers. But he served Mainardo, the younger brother King Mezentio of Algarve had installed on the Jelgavan throne, as readily as he'd ever served King Donalitu. Donalitu had fled when Jelgava fell. His dogs had stayed behind, and wagged their tails for their new masters.

Another Jelgavan came by a few minutes later. He shoved a bowl into Talsu's cell. The barley mush in the bowl smelled sour, almost nasty. Talsu spooned it up just the same. If he didn't eat what the gaolers fed him, he would have do make do on the cockroaches that swarmed across the floor of his cell or, if he was extraordinarily lucky, on the rats that got whatever the roaches missed- and got their share of roaches, too.

The cell didn't even boast a chamber pot. He pissed in a corner, hoping he was drowning some roaches as he did it. Then he went back and sat down on his cot. He had to be plainly visible when the guard collected his bowl and spoon. If he wasn't, the guard would assume he'd used the tin spoon to dig a hole through the stone floor and escape. Then he would suffer, and so would everyone else in this wing of the prison.

As always, the guard came by with a list and a pen. He scooped up the bowl and the spoon, checked them off on the list, and glared through the bars at Talsu. "Don't look so bloody innocent," he growled. "You're not. If you were, you wouldn't be here. You hear me?"

"Aye, sir. I hear you, sir," Talsu answered. If he didn't sit there looking innocent, the guards would decide he was insolent. That rated a beating, too. As best he could tell, he couldn't win.

Of course you can't win, fool, he thought. If you could, you wouldn't be stuck here. He felt like kicking himself. But how could he have guessed that the silversmith who taught classical Kaunian to would-be patriots in Skrunda was in fact an Algarvian cat's-paw? As soon as Talsu wanted to do more than learn the old language, as soon as he wanted to strike a blow against the redheads who occupied his kingdom, he'd gone to Kugu. Who was more likely to know how to put one foe of the Algarvians in touch with others? The logic was perfect- or it would have been, if Mezentio's men hadn't stayed a jump ahead.

Algarvians had caught him. They'd said he was in their hands. But they must have decided he wasn't that important, because they'd given him to their Jelgavan henchmen for disposal. Thanks to the fears of Jelgava's kings, her dungeons had been notorious even before the redheads overran the kingdom; Talsu doubted they'd improved since.

After breakfast, the Jelgavan guards retreated to the ends of the corridors. Cautiously, captives began calling back and forth from one cell to another. They were cautious for a couple of good reasons. Talk was against the rules; the gaolers could punish them for it no matter how innocuous their words were. And if their words weren't so innocuous but did get overheard… Talsu didn't like to think about what would happen then. For the most part, he kept quiet.

His corridor's exercise period came at midmorning. One by one, the guards unlocked the cells. "Come along," their sergeant said. "Don't dawdle. Don't give us any trouble." No one seemed inclined to give them trouble: they carried sticks now, not truncheons.

Along with his fellow unfortunates, Talsu shuffled down the corridor and out into the exercise yard. There, under the watchful eyes of the guards, he walked back and forth, back and forth, for an hour. The stone walls were so high, he got not a glimpse of the outside world. He had no idea in what part of Jelgava the prison was. But he could look up and see the sky. After spending the rest of the day locked away from light and air, he found that precious beyond belief.

"All right, scum- back you go," the guard sergeant said when the exercise period was over. Now Talsu stared down at the stone paving blocks so the guards couldn't see his glare. The Algarvians hadn't built this prison, or the others much like it scattered over the face of Jelgava- Jelgavan kings had done that, to keep their own subjects in line. But the redheads were perfectly willing to use the prisons- and the guards, as long as they kept their jobs, didn't care whom they were guarding, or for whom, or why.

Talsu sat back down on his cot and waited for the bowl of mush that would be dinner. It might even have a couple of bits of salt pork floating in it. Something to look forward to, he thought. The worst part of that was noticing how seriously he meant it.

But a guard strode up to the cell before dinnertime. "Talsu son of Traku?" he demanded.

"Aye, sir," Talsu said.

The guard made a check on his list. He unlocked the door and pointed a stick at Talsu's chest. "You will come with me," he said. "Interrogation."

"What about my dinner?" Talsu yelped. He really had been looking forward to it. They wouldn't save it for him. He knew that all too well. Instead of answering, the guard jerked his stick, as if to say Talsu wouldn't need to worry about dinner ever again if he didn't get moving right now. Having no choice, he got moving.

Even his interrogator was a Jelgavan, a man who wore the uniform of a constabulary captain. He did not invite Talsu to sit down. Indeed, but for his stool and those on which two armed guards perched, the room had nowhere to sit. One of the guards rose and positioned a lamp so it shone straight into Talsu's face. It was bright enough to make him blink and try to look away.

"So," the constabulary officer said. "You are another one who betrayed his lawful sovereign. What have you got to say for yourself?"

"Nothing, sir," Talsu answered. "Nothing I could say would get me out of the trouble I'm in, anyhow."

"No. There you are wrong," the interrogator said. "Give us the names of those who plotted with you and things will start looking better for you in short order. You may rest assured of that: I know whereof I speak."

"I don't know any names," Talsu said, as he had the first time they'd bothered questioning him. "How could I know any names? Nobody did any plotting with me. I was all by myself- and your man got me." He didn't try to hide the self-reproach in his voice.

"You assert, then, that your father knew nothing of your treason."

It wasn't treason, not in Talsu's eyes. How could turning on the Algarvians be treason for a Jelgavan? It couldn't. He didn't think the constable felt that way, though, so all he said was, "No, sir. You ask around in Skrunda. He's made more clothes for the Algarvians in town than anybody else there."

The interrogator didn't pursue it, from which Talsu concluded he'd already asked around, and had got the same answers Talsu had given. Now he tried a new tack: "You also assert your wife knew nothing of this."

"Of course I do," Talsu exclaimed in alarm he didn't try to hide. "I never said anything about it to Gailisa. By the powers above, it's the truth."

"And yet, she has plenty of reasons for disliking Algarvians- is that not so?" the interrogator went on. "Is it not so that she saw an Algarvian soldier stab you before you were married?"

"Aye, that is so." Talsu admitted what he could hardly deny. "But I never told her about anything. If I had told her about anything, she probably would have wanted to come with me. I didn't want that to happen."

"I see," the Jelgavan in Algarvian service said in tones suggesting Talsu hadn't helped himself or Gailisa with that answer. "You are not making this easy. You could, as I have said, if only you would name names."

"I haven't got any names to give you," Talsu said. "The only name I know is Kugu the silversmith's, and he's been on your side all along. I can't very well get him into trouble, can I?" I would if I could, he thought.

"Perhaps we can refresh your memory," his interrogator said. He rang a bell. A couple of more guards strode into the chamber. Without a word, they started working Talsu over. He tried to fight back, but had no luck. One against two was bad odds to begin with, and the fellows with the sticks would have intervened had he got anywhere. He didn't. The bruisers had learned their trade in a nastier school than he'd known even in the army, and learned it well. They had no trouble battering him into submission.

When the battering was done, he could hardly see out of one eye. He tasted blood, though no teeth seemed broken. One of his feet throbbed: a guard had stamped down hard on it. His ribs ached. So did his belly.

Calmly, the interrogator said, "Now, then- who else knew that you were plotting treason against King Mainardo?"

"No one," Talsu gasped. "Do you want me to make up names? What good would that do you?"

"If you want to name some of your friends and neighbors, go ahead," the interrogator said. "We will haul them in and question them most thoroughly. Here is paper. Here is a pen. Go ahead and write."

"But they wouldn't have done anything," Talsu said. "I'd just be making it up. You'd know I was just making it up."

"Suppose you let us worry about that," the interrogator said. "Once you make the accusations, things will go much easier for you. We might even think about letting you go."

"I don't understand," Talsu said, and that was true: he had trouble understanding anything but his own pain. The Jelgavan constabulary captain didn't answer. He just steepled his fingertips and waited. So did the guards with sticks. So did the bully boys who'd beaten Talsu.

It would be so easy, Talsu thought. I could give them what they want, and then they wouldn't hurt me anymore. He started to ask the interrogator to hand him the pen and paper. What happened to the people he might name didn't seem very important. It would, after all, be happening to someone else.

But what would happen to him? Nothing? That didn't seem likely. All at once, he saw the answer with horrid clarity. If he gave the Algarvians- or rather, their watchdog here- a few names, they would want more. After he gave them a first batch, how could he refuse to give them a second, and then a third? How could he refuse them anything after that? He couldn't. Had Kugu the silversmith started by making up a few names, too? Talsu gathered himself. "There wasn't anybody else," he said.

They beat him again before frog-marching him back to his cell. He'd expected they would. He'd hoped his armor of virtue would make the beating hurt less. It didn't. And he didn't get the bowl of mush he'd missed when they took him away. Even so, he slept well that night.


The blizzard screamed around the hostel in the barren wilderness of southeastern Kuusamo. It left Pekka feeling trapped, almost as if she were in prison. She and her fellow mages had come here so they could experiment without anyone else but a few reindeer noticing. That made good sense; some of the things they were doing would have wrecked good-sized chunks of Yliharma or Kajaani even if they went perfectly. And if some of those experiments escaped control… Pekka's shiver had nothing to do with the ghastly weather.

But, while the blizzards raged, Pekka and her colleagues couldn't experiment at all. If the rats and rabbits they were using froze to death the instant they went out of doors in spite of the best efforts of the secondary sorcerers, they were useless. That limited the amount of work the mages could do.

When Pekka said as much over supper one evening, Ilmarinen nodded soberly. "We should use Kaunians instead," he declared. "No one cares whether they live or die, after all: the Algarvians have proved as much."

Pekka winced. So did Siuntio and Fernao. That Ilmarinen spoke in classical Kaunian to include Fernao in the conversation only made his irony more savage. After a moment, Siuntio murmured, "If we succeed here, we'll keep the Algarvians from slaughtering more Kaunians."

"Will we? I doubt it." But Ilmarinen checked himself. "Well, maybe a few, and will we also keep Swemmel of Unkerlant from slaughtering his own folk to hold back the Algarvians? Maybe a few, again. What we will do, if we're lucky, is win the war this way. It's not the same thing, and we'd be fools to pretend it is."

"Right now, winning the war will do," Fernao said. "If we do not do that, nothing else matters."

Siuntio nodded in mournful agreement. He said, "Even if we do win the war, though, the world will never again be what it was. Too many dreadful things have happened."

"It will be worse if we lose," Pekka said. "Remember Yliharma." A sorcerous Algarvian attack had destroyed much of the capital of Kuusamo, had slain two of the Seven Princes, and had come too close to killing her and Siuntio and Ilmarinen.

"Everyone remembers wars." Siuntio still sounded sad. "Remembering what happened in the last one gives an excuse for fighting the next one."

Not even Ilmarinen felt like trying to top that gloomy bit of wisdom. The mages got up from the table and went off to their own chambers as if trying to escape it. But Pekka soon discovered, as she had before, that being alone in her room was anything but an escape.

Sometimes the mages would stay in the dining hall after supper, arguing about what they had done or what they wanted to do or simply chatting. Not tonight. They drifted apart and went upstairs to their chambers as if sick of one another's company. There were times when Pekka was sick of her comrades' company, most often of Ilmarinen's, then of Fernao's, and occasionally even of Siuntio's. Tonight wasn't one of those angry times. She just didn't want to talk to anyone.

Instead, she worked on two letters side by side. One was for her husband, the other for her son. Leino would be able to read his own, of course. Her sister Elimaki, who was taking care of Uto, would surely read aloud most of the one written to him, even though he was learning his letters.

The letter to Uto went well. Pekka had no trouble writing the things any mother should say to her son. Those were easy, and flowed from her pen as easily as they flowed from her heart. She loved him, she missed him, she hoped he was being a good little boy (with Uto, often a forlorn hope). The words, the thoughts, were simple and straightforward and true.

Writing to Leino was harder. She loved him and missed him, too, missed him with an ache that sometimes made her empty bed seem the loneliest place in the world. Those things were easy enough to say, even though she knew other eyes than his would also see them: functionaries serving the Seven Princes studied all outgoing correspondence to make sure no secrets were revealed.

But she wanted to tell her husband more. She couldn't even name the mages with whom she was working, for fear that knowledge would fall into the Algarvians' hands and give them clues they shouldn't have. She had to talk about personalities in indirect terms, a surprisingly difficult exercise. She had to talk about the work in which they were engaged in even more indirect terms. She hadn't been able to tell Leino all that much about it even when they'd been together. He hadn't asked, either. He'd known when silence was important, and respected the need for it.

We've had simply appalling weather lately, she wrote. If it were better, we could do more. That seemed safe enough. Most of Kuusamo had appalling weather through most of the winter. Hearing about it wouldn't tell an Algarvian spy where she was. And bad weather could interfere with any number of things, not all of them things in which a spy would be interested.

I hope to be able to see you before long. She'd been told she might be able to leave for a little while in the not too indefinite future. But even if she did manage to get away, could Leino escape his training as a proper military mage at the same time? She thought he should have stayed in a sorcerous laboratory, improving the weapons Kuusaman soldiers would take into battle. But the Seven Princes thought otherwise, and their will counted for more than hers.

Sighing, she stared down at the page. She wanted to tear it up and throw the pieces in the wastebasket. She had to be able to do better than the words she'd put down, the words that seemed so flat, so useless, even so stupid. What would Leino think when he saw them? That he'd married a halfwit?

He'll understand, she thought. I'm sure he's learning plenty of things he can't tell me, too. Most of her believed that. Just enough had doubts, though, to leave all of her upset and worried.

She jumped when someone knocked on the door. Springing away from her letters was something of a relief. Even arguing abstruse theoretical calculations with Ilmarinen seemed more appealing than trying to say things she couldn't say without having them cut out of her letter before Leino ever saw it.

But when she opened the door, she found Fernao standing there, not Ilmarinen. The Lagoan mage leaned on his stick and had his crutch stuck under his other arm. "I hope I am not disturbing you," he said in careful classical Kaunian.

"Not even a little bit," Pekka said in Kuusaman. She started to repeat that in the scholarly tongue, but Fernao's nod showed he'd followed her. "Come in," she went on, in Kaunian now. "Sit down. What can I do for you?"

"I thank you," he said, and made his slow way into her chamber. She took a couple of steps back, not only to get out of his way but to keep him from looming over her quite so much: Lagoans were almost uncouthly tall.

Maybe Fernao sensed what she felt, for he sank onto one of the stools in the room. Or maybe he's just glad to get off his feet, Pekka thought. Had she been injured as Fernao was, she knew she would have been. She turned the chair on which she'd been sitting to write away from the desk. "Shall I make you some tea?" she asked. She couldn't be much of a hostess here, but she could do that.

Fernao shook his head. "No, thank you," he said. "If you do not mind, I can talk with you without thinking I am once more a student bearding a professor in his den."

Pekka laughed. "I often have that feeling myself around Siuntio and Ilmarinen. I think even the Grandmaster of your kingdom's Guild of Mages would have it around them."

"Grandmaster Pinhiero is not the most potent mage ever to come out of our universities," Fernao said, "but he would speak his mind to anyone, even to King Swemmel of Unkerlant."

Lagoans had always had a reputation for speaking their minds, regardless of whether doing so was a good idea. Pekka asked, "Would that make Grandmaster Pinhiero a hero or a fool?"

"Without a doubt," Fernao answered. Pekka chewed on that for a little while before deciding it was another joke and laughing again. Fernao continued, "Every time I see how far you Kuusamans have come, it amazes me."

"Why is that?" Pekka knew her tone was tart, but couldn't help it. "Because you Lagoans do not think Kuusamo worth noticing at all most of the time?"

"That probably has something to do with it," he said, which caught her by surprise. "We did notice you when it came to declare war against Algarve- I will say that. We would have done it sooner had we not feared you might take Mezentio's side and assail us from behind."

"Ah." Pekka found herself nodding. "Aye, I knew people who wanted to do exactly that." She remembered a party at Elimaki's house. Some of the friends of Elimaki's husband, Olavin the banker, had been eager to take on Lagoas. Olavin was serving the Seven Princes these days. Pekka suspected most of those friends were doing the same thing.

"Did you?" Fernao said, and Pekka nodded again. He shrugged. "Well, I can hardly say I am surprised. It would have been… unfortunate had that happened, though." Even as Pekka wondered how he meant the word, he explained: "Unfortunate for Lagoas, unfortunate for the whole world."

"Aye, you are likely to be right." Pekka glanced over her shoulder at the letters to Leino and Uto, then back to Fernao. "May I ask you something?"

As if he were a great noble, he inclined his head to her. "Of course."

"How do you stand it here, cut off not just from your family but from your kingdom as well?"

Fernao said, "For one thing, I have not got much in the way of family: no wife, no children, and I am not what you would call close to either of my sisters. They never have understood what being a mage means. And, for another, the work we are doing here matters. It matters so much, or may matter so much, I would sooner be here than anywhere else."

That was a more thoughtful answer than Pekka had expected. She wondered how long Fernao had been waiting for someone to ask a question like hers. Quite a while, she guessed, which might also be a measure of his loneliness. "Why have you not got a wife?" she asked, and then, realizing she might have gone too far, she quickly added, "You need not answer that."

But the Lagoan didn't take offense. Instead, he started to laugh. "Not because I would rather have a pretty boy, if that is what you mean," he said. "I like women fine, thank you very much. But I have never found one I liked enough and respected enough to want to marry her." After a moment, he held up his hand. "I take it back. I have found a couple like that, but they were already other men's wives."

"Oh," Pekka said, and then, half a beat slower than she might have, "Aye, I can see how that would be hard." Was he looking at her? She didn't look over at him, not for a little while. She didn't want to know.

"You have things you were doing, I see." Awkwardly, Fernao levered himself to his feet. "I shall not keep you. May you have a pleasant evening." He made his slow way to the door.

"And you," Pekka said. She had no trouble looking at his back. But, when he had gone, she found she couldn't continue the letter to Leino. She put it aside, hoping she'd have more luck with it in the morning.


Ealstan enjoyed walking through the streets of Eoforwic much more these days than he had a few weeks before. True, the Algarvians still occupied what had been the capital of Forthweg. True, King Penda still remained in exile in Lagoas. True, a Kaunian whose sorcerous disguise as a Forthwegian was penetrated still had dreadful things happen to him. And yet…

SULINGEN was scrawled in chalk or charcoal or whitewash or paint on one or two walls or fences in almost every block. Up till now, a lot of Forthwegians had been sullenly resigned to Algarvian occupation. King Mezentio's men looked like winning the war; most people- most people who weren't Kaunians, anyhow- had got on with their lives as best they could in spite of that ugly weight hanging over them. Now, even though the Algarvians still held every inch of their kingdom, some of them didn't.

A couple of Algarvian constables strode past Ealstan. Their height and red hair separated them from the Forthwegians their kingdom had overcome. So did the pleated kilts they wore. And so did their swagger. No matter what had happened to their countrymen down in Sulingen, they showed no dismay.

But a Forthwegian behind Ealstan shouted, "Get out of here, you whoresons! Go home!"

Both Algarvians jerked as if stuck with pins. The shout had been in Forthwegian, but they'd understood. They whirled, one grabbing for his club, the other for his stick. For a dreadful moment, Ealstan thought they thought he'd yelled. Then, to his vast relief, he saw they were looking past him, not at him. One of them pointed toward a Forthwegian whose black beard was streaked with gray. They both strode purposefully by Ealstan and toward the older man. He stared this way and that, as if wondering whether flight or holding still was more dangerous.

Before he had to find an answer, someone from farther up the street- someone behind the constables now, someone they couldn't see- cried out, "Aye, bugger off!"

Again, the Algarvians spun. Again, they hurried past Ealstan. Again, they seized no one, for more insults rained down on them whenever they turned their backs. Algarvians often had tempers that burst like eggs. These redheads proved no exception. One of them shook his fist and shouted in pretty fluent Forthwegian: "You fornicating bigmouths, you yell much more, we treat you all like stinking Kaunians!" To leave no doubt about what he meant, his partner stuck his chin in the air and drew a forefinger across his throat.

"Shame!" Ealstan yelled. That might have got him into trouble, but other Forthwegians were also yelling, and yelling worse things. As Ealstan knew too well, most of them cared little about what happened to the Kaunian minority in Forthweg, but they all cared about what happened to them.

The constable who'd shouted the threat was the one who'd taken the stick off his belt. Cursing now in his own language, he blazed between a couple of Forthwegians standing not far from him. His beam missed them both, but bit into the wooden wall of the wineshop behind them. The wall began to smolder. The Forthwegians fled.

So did everyone else on the street. Ealstan wasted no time ducking around the first corner he came to. He kept on running after that, too, the hem of his long wool tunic flapping just below his knees. "Those bastards have gone daft!" another man making himself scarce said.

"What's daft about it?" Ealstan returned bitterly. "They probably get a bonus for anybody they blaze."

When the other fellow didn't argue with him, he decided he'd made his point. Having made it, he went right on trotting. He didn't know whether a new round of rioting was about to flare up in Eoforwic, and didn't care to stay around to find out. That was the trouble with people feeling feisty: no matter how much trouble they stirred up, they still couldn't get rid of the Algarvians.

"One of these days, though," Ealstan murmured. "Aye, one of these days…" He heard the longing in his own voice. Mezentio's men had been sitting on Forthweg for three and a half years now. He smiled when he passed another scribbled SULINGEN. Surely they couldn't hold down his kingdom forever.

His own block of flats lay in a poor part of town, one already scarred again and again by rioting. He wouldn't have minded seeing another round of that if it meant throwing Mezentio's men out of Eoforwic. Since he didn't think it would, he was glad things seemed quiet.

The stairwell smelled of stale cabbage and staler piss. He sighed as he trudged up toward his flat. He'd been used to better in Gromheort before he had to flee the eastern town and come to the capital. As a matter of fact, he could afford better here. But staying in a district where no one cared about you or what you were and no one expected you to be anybody much had advantages, too.

He walked down the hall and knocked on the door to his flat- once, twice, once. A scraping noise came from inside as Vanai lifted the bar that held the door closed. His wife worked the latch and let him in. He gave her a hug and kissed her. The magecraft that hid her Kaunianity and made her look Forthwegian made her look astonishingly like a particular Forthwegian: his older sister, Conberge. He'd needed a while before that stopped bothering him.

"We could stop using the coded knock, you know," he said. "Now that you don't look Kaunian anymore, there's not much point to it."

"I still like to know it's you at the door," she answered.

That made Ealstan smile. "All right," he said, and sniffed. "What smells good?"

"Nothing very exciting," Vanai told him. "Just barley porridge with a little cheese and some of those dried mushrooms I got from the grocer the other day."

"Must be the mushrooms," Ealstan said, which made Vanai smile and nod in turn: both Forthwegians and the Kaunian minority in Forthweg were mad for mushrooms. Ealstan reached out and stroked her hair. "You must be glad to be able to go to the grocer's yourself."

"You have no idea," Vanai said. Ealstan couldn't argue with her. Until she no longer looked like what she was, she'd had to stay holed up inside the flat. Had an Algarvian spotted her on the street, or had a Forthwegian betrayed her to the redheads, she would have been taken off to the Kaunian district- and then, all too likely, shipped west so her life energy could help power the sorceries the Algarvians used in their war against Unkerlant.

Ealstan went into the kitchen, pulled the stopper from a jar of wine, and filled two cups. He carried one of them back to Vanai and raised the other in salute. "To freedom!" he said.

"Or something close to it, anyhow," Vanai answered, but she did drink to the toast.

"Aye, something close to it," Ealstan agreed. "Maybe something getting closer, too." He told her how the Forthwegians had given the Algarvian constables a hard time.

"Good!" she said. "I wish I'd been there." After a moment, the fierce smile slipped from her face. "Of course, if I'd been there looking the way I really do, they'd have been just as happy to throw rocks at me and yell, 'Dirty Kaunian!' "

Her eyes held Ealstan's, as if challenging him to deny it. He looked away. He had to look away. The most he could do was mumble, "We're not all like that."

Vanai's gaze softened. "Of course not. If you were like that, I'd be dead now. But too many Forthwegians are." She shrugged. "Nothing to be done about it, or nothing I can see. Come on. Supper should be ready."

After supper, Ealstan read a book while Vanai cleaned the dishes and silverware. He'd brought a lot of books home while she was trapped in the flat- reading was almost the only thing she'd been able to do while he went out and cast accounts and got them enough money to keep going. He read them, too. Some- the classics he'd had to study in his academy in Gromheort- proved much more interesting when he read them because he wanted to than when they were forced down his throat.

When Vanai came out of the kitchen, she sat down on the sofa beside him. She had a book waiting on the rickety table in front of the sofa. They read side by side for a while in companionable silence. Presently, Ealstan slipped his arm over Vanai's shoulder. If she'd gone on reading, he would have left it there for a while and then withdrawn it; one thing he'd learned was that she didn't care to have affection forced on her.

But she smiled, set down her book- a Forthwegian history of the glory days of the Kaunian Empire- and snuggled against him. Before long, they went back to the bedchamber together. Making love was the other thing they'd been able to do freely when Vanai was trapped in the flat- and, because Ealstan was only eighteen even now, they'd been able to do it pretty often.

Afterwards, they lay side by side, lazy and happy and soon to be ready to sleep. Ealstan reached out and ran his fingers through Vanai's hair. Some people, he'd heard, eventually grew bored with making love. Maybe that was true. He pitied those people if so.

When he woke the next morning, rain was drumming against the bedchamber windows. Winter was the rainy season in Forthweg, as in most northerly lands. Yawning, Ealstan opened one eye. Rain, sure enough. He opened the other eye and glanced over at Vanai.

He frowned. Her features had… changed. Her hair remained dark. It would: she regularly dyed it. But it looked straight now, not wavy. Her face was longer, her nose straight, not proudly hooked. Her skin had matched the swarthy tone of his. Now it was fairer, so the blood underneath showed through pink.

Before long, the rain woke her, too. As soon as her eyes opened, Ealstan said, "Your spell's worn off." Those eyes should have seemed dark brown, but they were their true grayish blue again.

Vanai nodded. "I'll fix it after breakfast. I don't think anyone will come bursting in to catch me looking like a Kaunian till then."

"All right," Ealstan said. "Don't forget."

She laughed at him. "I'm not likely to, you know."

And she didn't. After they'd washed down barley bread and olive oil with more red wine, Vanai took a length of yellow yarn and a length of dark brown, twisted them together, and began to chant in classical Kaunian. The spell was of her own devising, an adaptation of a Forthwegian charm in a little book called You Too Can Be a Mage that hadn't worked as it should have. Thanks to the training she'd had from her scholarly grandfather, the one she'd made did.

As soon as she spoke the last word of the charm, her face- indeed, her whole body- returned to its Forthwegian appearance. Kaunians in Eoforwic and throughout Forthweg used that same spell now. A lot of them had escaped from the districts in which the redheads had sealed them so they'd be handy when Algarve needed the life energy they could give. Mezentio's men weren't happy about that.

Ealstan was. He kissed Vanai and said, "If these were imperial times, you'd come down in history as a great heroine."

She answered in Kaunian, something she seldom did since taking on a Forthwegian seeming: "If these were imperial times, I wouldn't need such sorcery." Her voice was bleak.

Ealstan wished he could disagree with her. Since he couldn't, he did the next best thing: he kissed her again. "Whether you are remembered or not, you are still a heroine," he said, and had a demon of a time understanding why she suddenly started to weep.


Bembo cursed under his breath as he prowled through the streets of Gromheort. Oraste, his partner, didn't bother keeping his voice down. Gromheort lay in eastern Forthweg, not far from the border with Algarve, and a good many locals understood Algarvian. The constable kept cursing anyway.

"Miserable Kaunians," he growled. "Powers below eat them, every stinking one. They ought to have their throats cut, the filthy buggers, what with all the extra work they've piled on our backs."

"Aye, curse them," Bembo agreed. He was tubbier than he should have been, no braver than he had to be, and heartily disapproved of anything resembling work, especially work he'd have to do.

Oraste, for his part, disapproved of almost everything. "They're liable to cost us the war, the lousy, stinking whoresons. How are we supposed to scoop 'em up and send 'em west when they start looking like everybody else in this fornicating kingdom? The way things are going over in Unkerlant, we need all the help we can get."

"Aye," Bembo repeated, but on a less certain note. The idea of rounding up Kaunians and sending them toward the battlefront to be killed made his stomach turn unhappy flipflops. He did it- what choice did he have but to obey the sergeants and officers set over him? -but he had trouble believing it was the right thing to do.

Oraste had no doubts. Oraste, as far as Bembo could see, never had any doubts about anything. He waved now, not the usual extravagant Algarvian gesture but a functional one, one that took in the street ahead and the people on it. "Any of these bastards- any of 'em, by the powers above! -could be a Kaunian wrapped in magic cloaking. And what can we do about it? What can we do about it, I ask you?"

"Nothing much," Bembo answered mournfully. "If we start using Forthwegians the way we use the Kaunians here, this whole kingdom'll go up in smoke. We haven't got the men to hold it down, not if we want to go on fighting the Unkerlanters, too."

"It's war," Oraste said. "You do what you have to do. If we need Forthwegians, we'll take 'em. We can sell it to the ones we don't take: if the Kaunians weren't wolves in sheep's clothing, we can say, we wouldn't have to do this. The Forthwegians'll buy it, or enough of 'em will. They hate the blonds as much as we do."

"I suppose so." Bembo didn't particularly hate anybody- save, perhaps, people who made him work more than he cared to. Those people included Sergeant Pesaro, his boss, as well as the miscreants he all too often failed to run to earth.

"Look at 'em!" Oraste waved again, this time with a sort of animal frustration. "Any one of them could be a Kaunian. Any one, I tell you. You think I like the notion of those lousy blonds laughing at me? Not on your life, pal." He folded his beefy hands into fists. When he didn't like something, his notion of what to do next was pound it to pieces.

And, whenever he got into that kind of mood, he'd sometimes lash out at his partner, too; he wasn't always fussy about whom or what he hurt, so long as he was hurting someone or something. To try to placate him, Bembo pointed to a man whose beard was going gray. "There. That fellow's a genuine Forthwegian, no doubt about it."

"How d'you know?" Brooding suspicion filled Oraste's voice.

"Don't you remember? He's the one who had a son disappear off to powers above know where, and his nephew murdered his other son. He couldn't get anybody to do anything about it, because the nephew was in Plegmund's Brigade."

"Oh. Him. Aye." The fire in Oraste's hazel eyes faded a little. "Well, I can't say you're wrong- this time."

Bembo swept off his plumed hat and bowed as deeply as his belly would permit. "Your servant," he said.

"My arse," Oraste said. He pointed to the man with whom the assuredly genuine Forthwegian was speaking. "How about him? You going to tell me you know for sure he's no Kaunian, too?"

"How can I do that?" Bembo asked reasonably as he and Oraste came up to the two men. The other fellow certainly looked like a Forthwegian: a white-haired, white-bearded, rather dissolute-seeming old Forthwegian. "But what else is he likely to be? He's a blowhard, I'll tell you that."

Sure enough, the old man was doing most of the talking, his companion mostly listening and then trying to get a word or two in edgewise. As Bembo and Oraste came up to them, the geezer waved his forefinger in the other man's face and spoke in impassioned Forthwegian. Bembo couldn't understand more than one word in four, but he knew an irate, hectoring tone when he heard one. The fellow the old man was talking to looked as if he wished he were elsewhere.

Oraste rolled his eyes. "Blowhard, nothing. He's a stinking windbag, is what he is."

"Aye, that's the truth." Instead of walking past the windbag, Bembo slowed and cocked his head to one side, frowning and listening hard.

"Are you daft?" Oraste said. "Come on."

"Shut up." Bembo was usually a little afraid of his partner, and wouldn't have dared speak to him like that most of the time. But a moment later he gave a decisive nod. "It is. By the powers above, it is!"

"Is what?" Oraste asked.

Bembo started to point, then thought better of it. "That old Forthwegian- he's not a Forthwegian, or I'll eat my club. Remember that noisy, smartmouthed old Kaunian whoreson we first ran into in Oyngestun? We've bumped into him a few times here in Gromheort, too."

After another couple of paces, Oraste nodded. "Aye, I do. He's the one with the good-looking granddaughter- or he said she was his granddaughter, anyway."

"That's the one. And that's him," Bembo said. "I recognize his voice. Whatever magecraft he's using, it doesn't change that."

Oraste took one more step, then spun on his heel. "Let's snag the son of a whore."

Had Bembo seen two constables bearing down on him, he would have made himself scarce. Maybe the sorcerously disguised Kaunian didn't see him and Oraste; the fellow was still doing his best to talk the other man's ear off. He looked absurdly astonished when the Algarvians laid hold of him. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded- in good Algarvian.

That made Bembo beam. That smartmouthed Kaunian spoke Algarvian- he was supposed to be some sort of scholar. Bembo said, "You're under arrest on suspicion of being a Kaunian."

"Do I look like a Kaunian?" the old man said.

"Not now," Bembo answered. "We'll take you back, throw you in a cell, and wait and see if the magic wears off. If you still look ugly this same way tomorrow, we'll turn you loose. How much you want to bet we don't have to?"

To his surprise, the other Forthwegian, the genuine Forthwegian, tapped his belt pouch. Coins rang in there. "Gentlemen," he said, also in fluent Algarvian, "I'll make it worth your while if you forget you ever saw this fellow."

"No." Oraste spoke before Bembo could. Bembo, like a lot of Algarvians, didn't mind making some money on the side; his constable's salary didn't go very far. But he nodded now. He didn't want money. No, that wasn't quite true- he wanted money, but he wanted this old Kaunian's head more.

And so he, too, said, "No. We're going to take this fellow in and deal with him."

"You are making a serious mistake," the old man said. "I tell you, I am as much a Forthwegian as Hestan here."

Hestan there didn't say another word. He didn't call the old man who looked like a Forthwegian a liar, but he didn't claim he was telling the truth, either. Oraste started hauling the fellow off toward Gromheort's gaol, which was more crowded now than it had been when Forthweg ruled the city.

"What have we got here?" an Algarvian gaoler asked when the constables frog-marched their prisoner into the building. "You catch him filching somebody's false teeth?" He laughed at his own wit.

Bembo said, "Suspicion of Kaunianity. Lock him up and see if he still looks the same tomorrow. The magic isn't even good for a day at a time, from everything I've heard."

"Aha- one of those." The gaoler brightened. "How'd you catch him? Can't tell much by his hair, I'd say- white's still white."

"I recognized his voice," Bembo said proudly. "I'd run into him before, when he looked like what he really is. He made himself enough of a nuisance that he stuck in my mind."

"I am a Forthwegian," the old man said. "I am not a Kaunian."

"Shut up," the gaoler told him. "We'll find out what you are." He turned to a couple of his assistants, who looked to have been shooting dice before Bembo and Oraste came in with their captive. "Strip him- don't leave him anything he can use to make more magic and make more work for us. Then throw him in a cell. Like the constable says, we'll find out what he is."

"Aye," one of his assistants said. They did as they were told. The old man squawked protests and tried to fight back, but he might have been a three-year-old for all the good it did him. The assistant gaolers led him away. Even though he was naked, he kept on squawking.

"Now…" The gaoler reached into a desk drawer and pulled out some forms. "The paperwork. If he really is a Kaunian, you'll get the credit. If he's not, you'll get the blame."

"Blame? For what?" Bembo clapped a hand to his forehead in melodramatic disbelief. "For bothering a miserable Forthwegian? Where's the blame in that?"

"There's no blame for bothering a Forthwegian," the gaoler agreed. "But if that old bugger turns out not to be a Kaunian, you get the blame for bothering me." He favored the constables with a singularly unpleasant smile, the sort of smile that made them scurry out of the gaol in a hurry.

Once they'd got outside, Oraste gave Bembo the same kind of smile. "You'd better not be wrong," he said. Bembo wanted to scurry away from his partner, too, but he couldn't. He had to smile himself, and nod, and go on with his shift.

As soon as they came on duty the next day, they hurried to the gaol. The gaoler didn't start cursing the moment he set eyes on them, which Bembo took for a good sign. "Well, you boys got it straight," the gaoler said. "He was a Kaunian."

Oraste thumped Bembo on the shoulder, hard enough to stagger him. Bembo heard something Oraste missed. "Was?" he asked.

"Aye." The gaoler looked sour. "Sometime during the night, somebody gave him drawers and a tunic so he wouldn't freeze. He twisted 'em up and hanged himself with 'em. That killed the spell along with him. Like I say, he was a Kaunian, all right."

"Filthy bastard," Oraste said. "We could have got some use out of his life energy."

"That's right," Bembo said. "Killing yourself like that ought to be punishable by death." He laughed. After a moment, Oraste and the gaoler did, too.

"I've sent the forms off to the constabulary barracks," the gaoler said. "You deserve the credit, like I told you yesterday. That turned out to be a nice bit of work." Bembo beamed and preened and strutted. He hadn't much minded hearing that the longwinded old Kaunian was dead. Now that he knew he'd get the credit for capturing him, he didn't mind at all.


Back in the days when he was a peasant like any other peasant in the Unkerlanter Duchy of Grelz, Garivald had looked forward to winter. With snowdrifts covering the fields, he'd spent most of his time indoors and a lot of that time drunk. Aside from taking care of the livestock that always shared the hut with his family and him, what else was there to do but drink?

But he had no home now, only a miserable little shelter, not even worth dignifying with the name of hut, in the middle of the forest west of Herborn, the capital of Grelz. Munderic's band of irregulars still held the woods, still held away the Algarvians who'd overrun Grelz and the Grelzer puppets who served them, but irregulars had a harder time of it in winter than they did in summer.

Garivald came out of his shelter to look up through the pines and the bare-branched birches to the sullen gray sky overhead. It had snowed the day before. He thought it was done for a while, but you never could tell. He took a couple of steps. At each one, his felt boots left a clear track in the snow.

"Footprints," he growled, vapor puffing from his mouth at the word. "I wish there were a magic to make footprints go away."

"Don't say things like that," Obilot exclaimed. She was one of a handful of women in Munderic's band. The women who ran off to fight the redheads and their local cat's-paws commonly had reasons much more urgent than those of their male counterparts. Obilot went on, "Sadoc's liable to get wind of it and try to cast a spell to be rid of them."

"That might not be so bad," Garivald said. "Odds are, whatever magecraft he tried wouldn't do anything."

"Aye, but it might go wrong so badly, it'd bring the Algarvians down on our heads," Obilot said.

Neither of them spoke of the benefits that would follow if Sadoc's spell succeeded. Neither of them thought Sadoc's spell, if he made one, would succeed. He was the closest thing to a mage Munderic's band boasted. As far as Garivald was concerned, he wasn't close enough. He had no training whatever. He was just a peasant who'd fiddled around with a few charms.

"If only he knew when to try and when not to," Garivald said mournfully. "He might be good enough for little things, but he won't stay with those. He won't even take a blaze at them. If it isn't huge, he doesn't want to bother with it."

"Who doesn't want to bother with what?" Munderic asked. The leader of the irregulars was a big, hard-faced, burly man. He looked the part he played. His temper suited him to it, too. Scowling, he went on, "Who doesn't, curse it? We all have to do whatever we can."

Obilot and Garivald looked at each other. Garivald owed Munderic his life. If the irregulars hadn't plucked him from Algarvian hands, Mezentio's men would have boiled him alive for making songs that mocked them. Even so, he didn't want to give Munderic this particular idea, and neither, evidently, did Obilot.

Munderic saw as much, too. His bushy eyebrows formed a dark bar over his eyes as he scowled. "Who doesn't want to bother with what?" he repeated, an angry rumble in his voice. "You'd better tell me what you were talking about, or you'll be sorry."

"It wasn't anything, really." Garivald didn't want to antagonize Munderic, either. They'd already had a couple of run-ins. To his relief, Obilot nodded agreement.

But they didn't satisfy their leader. "Come on, out with it!" he barked. "If we're going to make the invaders and the traitors howl, we've got to do everything we can." His glare was so fierce, Garivald reluctantly told him what he and Obilot had been talking about. To his dismay, Munderic beamed. "Aye, that'd be just what we need. Footprints in the snow make it hard for us to raid without giving ourselves away. I'll talk to Sadoc."

"There's no guarantee he'll be able to do anything like that, you know," Obilot said. This time, Garivald was the one who nodded.

"I'll talk to him," Munderic said again. "We'll see what he can do. If we've got a mage here, we bloody well ought to get some use out of him, don't you think?" He stamped away without waiting for an answer.

"If we had a mage, we could get some use out of him," Garivald said after the irregulars' leader was out of earshot. "But we've got Sadoc instead."

"I know," Obilot said. They exchanged wry smiles. Garivald knew a certain amount of relief. He'd quarreled with Obilot not so long before, too.

I never wanted to quarrel with anybody, he thought. I just wanted to live out my life back in Zossen with my wife and my son and my daughter. But Zossen lay a long, long way to the west- fifty miles, maybe even sixty. He didn't know if he'd ever see his family again. Obilot was no great beauty, but she wasn't homely, either. He didn't want her angry at him.

He'd been away from Annore for most of a year now. Had Obilot decided to slip under the blankets with him, he wouldn't have thrown her out. But she hadn't. She didn't slip under the blankets with anyone, and she'd knifed a man who tried too persistently to slip under the blankets with her. The other women in the band of irregulars acted much the same way. Garivald looked toward her, but glanced away before their eyes met. What'll you do next? he thought sourly. Start coming up with love songs?

Obilot said, "Maybe nothing'll come of it." She didn't sound as if she believed that.

"Aye. Maybe." Garivald didn't sound as if he believed it, either.

A couple of days later, Munderic gathered the irregulars together in the clearing at the heart of their forest fastness. "We've got to go out and sabotage a ley line," he said. "There's heavy fighting around Durrwangen, south and west of here. If the regular army can take it back, they strike the Algarvians a heavy blow. And the redheads know it, curse 'em. They want to keep Durrwangen, same as they wanted to keep Sulingen. But they've got real supply lines into this place. The more we can do to keep men and behemoths and eggs from getting there, the better we serve Unkerlant. Have you got that?"

"Aye," the irregulars chorused, Garivald among them.

"We've found a stretch of ley line the Grelzer traitors don't guard well," Munderic went on. "We'll plant our eggs there. And we've got a new way of making sure the bastards who call Mezentio's precious cousin Raniero King of Grelz can't follow us. Sadoc will hide our tracks in the snow." He waved to the man who would be a mage.

"That's right," Sadoc said. He was a bruiser himself, maybe as much a bruiser as Munderic. "I'm sure it'll work." He stared from one of his comrades to another, challenging them to disagree with him.

Nobody said anything. Garivald wanted to, but Sadoc already knew what he thought of his magecraft. Maybe he won't make a hash of it this time, Garivald thought, his mind almost echoing Obilot's words. Unfortunately, it also echoed his own mournful coda. Aye. Maybe.

When night came, the irregulars left the forest and crossed the farm country around it. Garivald hoped Munderic was right when he said he knew about a length of ley line that wasn't well guarded. Some of the men supposed to be serving King Raniero really stayed loyal to King Swemmel of Unkerlant, and aided them when and as they could. But others hated Swemmel worse than the Algarvians; those Grelzers, as he'd found to his dismay, made fierce, determined foes.

Clouds scudded across the sky. Every so often, he got a glimpse of the moon, riding high in the northeast. Stars appeared, twinkled for a moment, and then vanished again. Obilot came up alongside Garivald. "Sadoc had better be able to hide our trail," she said in a low voice. "If he can't, the traitors will follow us home."

Garivald nodded. The earflaps on his fur cap bobbed up and down. "I've been thinking the same thing. I wish I hadn't."

Sometimes, the snow was deep, drifted. The irregulars had to bull through the drifts or else find a way around them. Garivald kept muttering under his breath. Even if Sadoc could sorcerously erase footprints, could he get rid of these signs of passage, too? Had Munderic thought about that? Had Munderic thought about anything but hitting the Algarvians a good lick? Garivald doubted it.

If a Grelzer company on patrol caught them out here in the open, they'd get slaughtered. He hung on to his stick- which had once belonged to a redhead who now had no further use for it- and hoped that wouldn't happen.

After what seemed like forever but the moon insisted was well before midnight, the irregulars came to the lines of shrubbery that marked the path of the invisible ley line. The shrubs kept men and animals from blundering into the path of an oncoming caravan. Garivald's heart thudded as the irregulars pushed through them. This time, no Grelzer guards shouted a challenge. Munderic had known whereof he spoke there, anyhow.

Some of the irregulars carried picks and spades as well as their sticks. They started digging a hole in which to conceal the egg they'd brought to destroy the caravan. The ground was frozen hard; they had a demon of a time excavating. Garivald could have told them they would. They probably knew it for themselves, too, but had to do the best they could. They planted the egg and heaped snow over it. With luck, the Algarvians in the lead caravan car wouldn't see it till too late.

"Let's go," Munderic said when the job was done well enough- and when he didn't feel like waiting anymore.

"Back the way we came, as near as we can," Sadoc added. "I'll get rid of all the footprints at once."

"He'd better," Garivald murmured to Obilot as they started off toward the forest. "We're in trouble if he doesn't, unless a blizzard blows up and sweeps our tracks away."

"I don't think one's coming," she said. "This isn't a hard winter, the way last year's was. Just- cold." Garivald nodded. It felt the same way to him. That didn't mean he couldn't freeze to death out here, only that freezing would take longer.

He was weary by the time the irregulars got back to the edge of the woods. Twilight hadn't touched the edge of the sky, but couldn't be far away. He hadn't heard the egg burst. Neither had Munderic, who was unhappy about it. "Something's gone wrong," the leader of the band kept saying. "Powers below eat me if something hasn't gone wrong."

"Maybe the caravan got stuck in a snowdrift," someone suggested.

"No, I'm sure something's buggered up somewhere," Munderic said fretfully. Garivald feared he was right. Munderic rounded on Sadoc. "Even if it didn't work, we don't want the foe to know we've been out. Get rid of those tracks, like you said."

"Aye." Sadoc nodded. He stooped in the snow and began to chant. The tune was one children used in a hide-and-seek game. Did that mean Sadoc was a fool, or that he truly could hide the footprints? Garivald waited and hoped. Sadoc chanted and made passes. With a last dramatic one, he cried out in a loud, commanding voice.

He'd gathered power to him. Garivald could feel it in the air, as if lightning were building. All at once, it was released- and every footprint, all the way back to the ley line (or at least as far as the eye could reach) began to glow with a soft, shimmering iridescence.

Munderic stared, then howled like a wolf. "You idiot!" he roared. "You dunderhead, you turd-witted son of a poxed sow, you-" He leaped at Sadoc. The only thing that kept him from murdering the inept mage was realizing- after he'd been pulled off- that glowing tracks in the snow weren't too much more visible than ordinary ones. The irregulars fled for their shelters in the clearing. Their new tracks didn't glow, for which Garivald thanked the powers above. He didn't think Sadoc would be working more magic any time soon. He thanked the powers above for that, too.


Krasta's foot came down on an icy patch on the sidewalk of the Avenue of Equestrians. She sat down on the pavement suddenly and very hard. An elderly Valmieran man started toward her to help her up, but she was cursing so foully, he beat a hasty, embarrassed retreat.

Her curses didn't bother a couple of Algarvian soldiers on leave in Priekule. The kilted redheads hurried over to her and hauled her to her feet. "You being all right, lady?" one of them asked in Valmieran with a trilling Algarvian accent.

"I am very well. And I thank you." Krasta was very conscious- even smugly conscious- of her own good looks. She was also very conscious that the redheads, given an inch, would cheerfully take a mile. If she were old and homely, they might well have walked right past her. Giving them her most haughty stare, she went on, "I am the Marchioness Krasta, and the companion to Colonel Lurcanio."

Her own rank probably meant very little to the soldiers in kilts. The Algarvian colonel's rank meant they couldn't take any liberties. They weren't too drunk to realize it, either. "You being careful, milady," one of them said. They both bowed, sweeping off their broad-brimmed hats in unison. And then they went away, perhaps in search of a woman who had no way, polite or otherwise, to tell them no. They probably wouldn't have to search too far.

Rubbing her tailbone, Krasta walked on in the opposite direction. The Avenue of Equestrians had always been Priekule's main shopping thoroughfare, with shops of all sorts catering to the most fastidious- and expensive- tastes. It still was, but now only a shadow of its former self. The Algarvian occupiers had methodically plundered Valmiera for more than two and half years. It showed.

They'd been methodically doing other things for more than two and a half years, too. Another Algarvian soldier came by, his arm around the waist of a blond Valmieran girl. He, of course, wore a kilt. But so did she, one that didn't come close to reaching her knees. A lot of Valmieran women- and a fair number of Valmieran men- had adopted their conquerors' fashions.

Krasta sniffed. She kept right on wearing trousers. She'd occasionally worn kilts before the war- as much to shock as for any other reason- but never since. Despite the Algarvians who used the west wing of her mansion as their own, despite an Algarvian lover, in some ways she felt her Kaunian blood more acutely these days than ever before. That was odd, especially since she'd long been convinced Algarve would win the Derlavaian War.

From behind her, someone called, "Congratulations on still having any money to spend, milady!"

She turned. Up the street toward her came Viscount Valnu. He was strikingly handsome, and would have been even more so had he not looked quite so much like a genial skull. He was one of the first men Krasta knew who'd started wearing kilts. She looked him up and down, then shook her head. "You've got knobby knees," she said in the tones of one passing sentence.

Nothing fazed Valnu. His grin grew more impudent yet. "I've got a baby's arm holding an apple, too, sweetheart."

"In your dreams," Krasta said with a snort; she knew the truth there. She waited for Valnu to come up to her. "And what are you doing here, if you haven't got any money?" Nobody came to the Avenue of Equestrians without money; the street offered poor folk nothing.

Valnu patted her on the backside. She couldn't decide whether to slap him or start laughing. In the end, she didn't do anything. The viscount made outrageousness part of his stock in trade. Blue eyes flashing, he answered, "Oh, I manage to scrape a couple of coppers together every now and then. I have my ways, so I do."

He might have meant he was a gigolo. He might have meant he was something with a harsher name; everyone who knew him knew his versatility. But he might just have meant he'd had a good run at dice, or that some rents from properties out in the provinces had come in. You never could tell with Valnu.

Needling him a little, Krasta asked, "And what's new with the Algarvians?"

"How should I know, darling?" he said. "You see more of them than I do. That house of yours is swarming with beefy redheads in kilts. Do you like their legs better than mine? Or will Lurcanio fling you in a dungeon if you even look at anyone but him?" He bared his teeth in happy, even friendly, malice.

Since she couldn't tell what Colonel Lurcanio might do, she was usually circumspect when she looked at anyone but him. "I don't invite them to grand, gruesome orgies at my mansion," she said.

"You don't need to. They're screwing all the maidservants anyhow," Valnu answered. Krasta's chief serving woman had had a baby by Lurcanio's former adjutant, so she couldn't very well deny that. At least Valnu hadn't come right out and said that Lurcanio was screwing her. From him, that was unusual delicacy.

Krasta had trouble holding her thoughts on any one thing. Her wave encompassed the Avenue of Equestrians and the whole city. "I'm so sick of dreariness!" she burst out.

"Things could be better," Valnu agreed. He waited till a couple of more plump, staring Algarvian soldiers enjoying leave in the captured capital of Valmiera went by and got safely out of earshot before adding, "Things could be worse, too. Those fellows are probably in from Unkerlant, for instance. It's a lot worse there."

Unkerlant, to Krasta, might as well have been a mile beyond the moon. "I'm talking about places where civilized people go," she said with a sneer.

"Kaunians go to Unkerlant, the same as Algarvians do," Valnu said in a low voice, almost a whisper. "The difference is, some Algarvians come out again."

The ice that ran through Krasta had nothing to do with the patch that had made her slip. "I saw that news sheet- broadsheet- whatever you want to call it." She shuddered. "I believe it. I believe everything it says."

One of the reasons she believed the horrors the sheet described was that it was written in her brother's hand. She hadn't told Valnu about that, nor Lurcanio, either. A lifetime of cattiness had taught her the importance of keeping some things secret. Lurcanio was after Skarnu as things were.

And you still let him sleep with you? she wondered, as she did every so often. But Algarve was stronger than Valmiera, and Lurcanio had proved himself stronger than she was- a shock that still lingered. What choice had she had? None she'd seen then, none she saw now.

As if to rub salt in the wound, Valnu said, "The redheads keep on falling back in southern Unkerlant. I don't think Durrwangen will hold."

"Where did you hear that?" Krasta asked. "It's not in any of the news sheets."

"Of course it's not." Valnu bared his teeth, mocking her naпvetй. "The Algarvians aren't fools. They don't want anybody here finding out things aren't going quite so well. But they know- and they talk among themselves. And sometimes they talk where other people can listen. Me, for instance." He struck a pose so absurd, Krasta couldn't help laughing.

But that laugh congealed on her face as a couple of constables came up the Avenue of Equestrians toward Valnu and her. They weren't Algarvians; they were the same Valmierans who'd patrolled the city before the kingdom fell. They wore almost the same dark green uniforms they had then. Their cap badges, though, were crossed axes, and crossed axes were also stamped on the brass buttons that held their tunics closed. Something seemed stamped on their features, too: a hard contempt for their own kind. They glared at her as they tramped past.

She glared, too, but only at their backs. Turning to Valnu, she complained, "They have no respect for rank." However angry her words, she didn't speak very loud: she didn't want those grim-looking men to hear.

"You're wrong, my sweet," Valnu said, and Krasta gave him a sour look as well. He blithely ignored it, as he blithely ignored so many things. Wagging a finger in her face, he went on, "They do indeed respect rank. As far as they're concerned, the Algarvians have it, and everyone else is scum. The Algarvians agree with them, of course."

"Of course," Krasta said dully. That wasn't too far removed from her own thoughts of a moment before. The Algarvians had strength, and if strength didn't give rank, what did? Blood, she thought, but the redheads had the strength to ignore that if they chose. "They will win the war, in spite of everything," she murmured. Now her glance toward Valnu was almost beseeching; she wanted him to tell her she was wrong.

He didn't. He said, "They may. They may very well. They've already taken more knocks than they ever expected, but they're still strong, too. And their mages don't care what they do- we know about that. If they win, there's liable not to be a Kaunian left alive in Forthweg by the time they're through."

Before the war, Krasta hadn't thought much about the Kaunians in Forthweg. When she did think of them, it was as backwoods bumpkins in a distant, backward kingdom. They were blood of her blood, aye, but distant cousins she would just as soon have forgotten. Poor relations. But the Algarvians seemed bound and determined to teach the lesson that even poor relations were relations after all.

Something crossed Krasta's mind. She didn't like thinking about these things- truth to tell, she didn't like thinking at all- but she couldn't help it. And she blurted forth the horrid notion as if to exorcise it: "What if they run out?"

Valnu patted her on the head. "My occasionally dear, you must not say these things, lest you risk losing your proud reputation as a featherbrain." She let out an indignant squawk. He ignored her and leaned forward so that his mouth was right by her ear. He teased her earlobe with his tongue for a moment, then whispered three words: "Night and fog."

"What?" The teasing tongue distracted her. She was easily distracted. "What's that got to do with anything?" She'd seen NIGHT AND FOG painted on the windows or doors of shops that suddenly closed for no reason anyone could find, but found no connection between the phrase and her own frightened question.

Viscount Valnu patted her again and gave her a sweet smile, as if she were a child. "I take it back," he said, fond indulgence in his voice. "You really are a featherbrain."

"I ought to slap your face," she snapped. She didn't know why she didn't. Had anyone else spoken to her so (except Colonel Lurcanio, who hit back), she would have. But Valnu made a habit of saying and doing preposterous things, to her and to everyone he knew. His panache had kept him out of trouble so far, and kept him out of trouble now.

He said, "Here, let's do something that's more fun instead," took her in his arms, and gave her a thoroughly competent kiss. Then, bowing as extravagantly as an Algarvian, he turned and sauntered up the Avenue of Equestrians as if he had not a care in the world. Knees aside, he looked better in a kilt than most redheads.

Krasta hadn't bought anything- a shockingly unusual trip to the Avenue of Equestrians. Even so, she went back to her carriage, which waited in a side street. Her driver, surprised at her coming back so soon, hastily hid a flask. "Take me home," she told him. But would she find any shelter there, either?


Winter was the rainy season in Bishah. The capital of Zuwayza rarely got much in the way of rain, but what it got, it got in winter. Sometimes, at this season, it also got cool enough at night to make Hajjaj think wearing clothes might not be the worst idea in the world.

The Zuwayzi foreign minister's senior wife patted his hand when he presumed to say that out loud. "If you want to put on a robe, put on a robe," Kolthoum told him. "No one here will mind if you do." Her tone suggested than anyone living in Hajjaj's home who did mind any eccentricity he happened to show would answer to her, and would not enjoy doing it.

But he shook his head. "My thanks, but no," he said. "No for two reasons. First, the servants would be scandalized, no matter what they said. I'm an old man now. I've been through too many scandals to invite another one."

"You're not so old as all that," Kolthoum said.

Hajjaj was far too courteous to laugh at his senior wife, but he knew better. His hair, having gone from black to gray, was now going from gray to white. (So was Kolthoum's; they'd been yoked together for almost fifty years. Hajjaj didn't notice it in her, for he saw her through the eyesight of a shared lifetime, where today and the lost time before the Six Years' War could blur into each other at a blink.) His dark brown skin had grown wrinkled and leathery. When it did rain here, his bones would ache.

He went on, "The second reason is even more compelling: so far as I know, we haven't got any clothes here. I have this style and that- short tunics and long ones and kilts and trousers and who knows what useless fripperies- in a closet next to my office down in the city, but I don't need to bother with such foreign nonsense in my own home."

"If you're feeling chilly, it isn't nonsense," Kolthoum said. "I'm sure we could have a maidservant fix you something out of a blanket or curtains or whatever would suit you."

"I'm fine," Hajjaj insisted. His senior wife looked eloquently unconvinced, but stopped arguing. One of the reasons they'd got on so well for so long was that they'd learned not to push each other too far.

Tewfik, the majordomo, walked into the chamber where they were sitting. Next to him, Hajjaj truly wasn't so old as all that: Tewfik had served his father before him. Bowing, the clan retainer said, "Sorry to disturb you, lad" -he was the only man Hajjaj knew who could call him that- "but a messenger from the palace just brought you this." He handed Hajjaj a roll of paper sealed with King Shazli's seal.

"I thank you, Tewfik," Hajjaj replied, and the majordomo bowed again. Hajjaj wasn't upset that he hadn't heard the messenger arrive; sheltering behind thick sandstone walls, his home, like any clanfather's, was a compound well on its way to being a little village. He put on his spectacles, broke the royal seal, unrolled the paper, and read.

"Can you speak of it?" Kolthoum asked.

"Oh, aye," he said. "His Majesty summons me to his audience chamber tomorrow morning, that's all."

"But you'd see him tomorrow anyhow," his senior wife observed. "Why does he need to summon you?"

"I don't know," Hajjaj admitted. "By tomorrow morning, though, I should find out, don't you think?"

Kolthoum sighed. "I suppose so." She reached out and patted her husband on the thigh, a gesture having more to do with sympathy than with desire. It had been a long time since they'd made love. Hajjaj couldn't remember just how long, in fact, but their companionship hardly needed physical intimacy anymore. One of these days, he would have to wed a new junior wife if he sought such amusements. Lalla, recently divorced, had been more expensive and more temperamental than she was worth. One of these days. As he neared seventy, lovemaking seemed less urgent than it had a couple of decades earlier.

He fortified himself with strong tea the next morning before his driver took the carriage down from the foothills and into Bishah proper. It hadn't rained lately, which meant the road wasn't muddy. It also wasn't dusty, a more common annoyance.

Men shouted back and forth on the roof of the royal palace. They weren't guards; the Zuwayzin liked King Shazli well. They were roofers: when the rains came, even the royal roof leaked. Unlike his citizens, Shazli didn't have to wait his turn to get things set right.

As he'd said he would, the king awaited his foreign minister in the audience chamber, a less formal setting than the throneroom. Shazli was about half Hajjaj's age. Hajjaj thought well of him: for a man so young, he was no fool. Only a gold circlet showed the king's rank- the Zuwayzi custom of nudity made display harder.

Bowing, Hajjaj said, "How may I serve your Majesty?"

"Before we talk business, we can take refreshment," Shazli answered, by which Hajjaj knew the business wasn't a desperate emergency- the king, unlike his subjects, could put aside the rules of hospitality if he chose. Shazli clapped his hands. A serving woman brought in tea and date wine and honey cakes enlivened with chopped pistachios.

While they nibbled and sipped, Shazli and Hajjaj were limited to polite small talk. Presently, the wine drunk and the cakes diminished, the maidservant came back and carried off the silver tray on which she'd fetched them. Hajjaj watched her swaying backside with appreciation but without urgency. That wasn't just his years; he'd seen so much bare flesh, it didn't inflame him as it did most Derlavaian folk.

"You will be wondering why I summoned you." Rituals completed, Shazli could with propriety get down to business.

"So I will, your Majesty," Hajjaj agreed. "As always, though, I expect you will enlighten me."

"Always the optimist," King Shazli said. Hajjaj raised an eyebrow. He'd been his kingdom's foreign minister since Zuwayza regained her freedom from an Unkerlant embroiled in the Twinkings War after the earlier ravages of the Six Years' War. Few men who'd spent their whole careers as diplomatists retained much in the way of optimism by the time they got old. Shazli's wry chuckle said he did know that. He reached under a pillow next to the one against which he reclined and pulled out a sheet of paper. Passing it to Hajjaj, he said, "This was brought to our line under flag of truce and, once its import was recognized, flown straight here by dragon."

Like any Zuwayzi, Hajjaj carried a large leather wallet to make up for his dearth of pockets. As he had for Shazli's summons, he took out his spectacles so he could read the document. When he was through, he peered over the lenses at his sovereign. "Unkerlant has never been a kingdom renowned for subtlety," he remarked. "The Unkerlanters would always sooner order than persuade, and they would sooner threaten than order… as we see here."

"As we see here," the king agreed. "All-out war against us- 'war to the knife' was the phrase they used, wasn't it? -unless we leave off fighting them and go over to their side against Algarve. They graciously allow us three days' time before our reply is due."

Hajjaj read the document again. Shazli had accurately summarized it. Inclining his head, the foreign minister inquired, "And what would you have of me in aid of this, your Majesty?"

"Can Swemmel do as he threatens?" Shazli demanded. "If he can, can we hope to withstand him if he hurls everything he has against us?"

"I hope you are also asking General Ikhshid these same questions," Hajjaj said. "I am not a soldier, nor do I pretend to be."

"I am consulting Ikhshid, aye." King Shazli nodded. "And I have some notion of what you are and what you are not, your Excellency. I'd better, after all these years. I want your view not as a man of war but as a man of the world."

Reclining against cushions didn't make even a seated bow easy, but Hajjaj managed. "You do me too much credit," he murmured, thinking nothing of the sort. After a few seconds, he shook his head. "I don't believe King Swemmel can do it," he said. "Aye, the Unkerlanters crushed Algarve at Sulingen, but they're still locked with Mezentio's men from the Narrow Sea in the south to the Garelian Ocean here in the tropic north. If they pull enough men from their lines to be sure of crushing us, the Algarvians are bound to find a way to make them pay. Algarve can hurt them worse than we'd ever dream of doing."

"Ikhshid said the same thing when I asked him last night, which does somewhat relieve my mind," Shazli said. "Still… My next question is, is Swemmel so mad for revenge against us that he'd do anything to harm us, not caring what might happen to his own kingdom?"

Hajjaj clicked his tongue between his teeth and sucked in a long, thoughtful breath. No, his sovereign was no fool. Far from it. Though a rational man himself, Shazli knew Swemmel of Unkerlant wasn't, or wasn't always. Swemmel did some unbelievably foolish things, but he also did some unexpectedly clever ones, not least because nobody else could think along with him.

After a second longish pause, Hajjaj said, "I don't believe Swemmel will forget the war against Algarve just to punish us. I would not swear by the powers above, but I don't believe so. The Algarvians, over the past year and a half, have made themselves very hard for any Unkerlanter to forget."

"This is also General Ikhshid's view," King Shazli said. "I am glad the two of you speak with a single voice here, very glad indeed. If you disagreed, I would have more hesitation about rejecting the Unkerlanter demands out of hand."

"Oh, your Majesty, you mustn't do that!" Hajjaj exclaimed.

"How not?" Shazli asked. "Will you tell me I misunderstood you, and that you want Zuwayza to bow down to Unkerlant after all? If you will tell me that, I shall have certain things to tell you: of that you may rest assured."

"By no means," Hajjaj said. "All I ask is that you not send Swemmel a paper as hot as the ultimatum he has given you. In fact, you might be wisest not to send him any reply at all. Aye, I believe that's best. Do nothing to inflame him, and our kingdom will stay safe."

By the nature of things, Zuwayza would never be a great power in Derlavai. The kingdom had not enough people, not enough land- and much of the land it did have was sun-blasted desert, in which thornbushes and lizards and camels might flourish but nothing else did. Hajjaj's ancestors had been nomads who roamed that desert waste and fought other Zuwayzi clans for the sport of it. Though generations removed from a camel-hair tent, he'd learned the old songs, the brave songs, as a boy. Counseling prudence came hard. But he reminded himself he was no barbarian but a civilized man. He did what needed doing.

And King Shazli nodded. "Aye, what you say makes good sense. Very well, then. If you will be so kind as to let me have that,…" Hajjaj passed the paper back to the king. Shazli tore it to pieces, saying, "Now we rely on the Algarvians to keep Unkerlant too busy to worry about the likes of us."

"I think we may safely do that," Hajjaj replied. "After all, the Algarvians have the strongest incentive to fight hard: if they lose, they're likely to get boiled alive."


Colonel Sabrino shook his head like a wild beast, trying to get the snow off his goggles. How was he supposed to see down to the ground if he couldn't see past the end of his nose? The Algarvian officer was tempted to take off the goggles and just use his eyes, as he did in good weather. But even then, his dragon could fly fast enough to make tears stream from his eyes and ruin his vision. The goggles would have to stay.

The dragon, sensing him distracted, let out a sharp screech and tried to fly where it wanted to go, not where he wanted it to. He whacked it with his long, iron-shod goad. It screeched again, this time in fury, and twisted its long, snaky neck so that it could glare back at him. Its yellow eyes blazed with hatred. He whacked it again. "You do what I tell you, you stupid, stinking thing!" he shouted.

Dragons were trained from hatchlinghood never to flame their riders off them. As far as humans were concerned, that was the most important lesson the great beasts ever learned. But dragonfliers knew how truly brainless their charges were. Every once in a while, a dragon forgot its lessons…

This one didn't. After another hideous screech, it resigned itself to doing as Sabrino commanded. He peered down through scattered, quick-scudding clouds at the fight around Durrwangen.

What he saw made him curse even more harshly than he had at his dragon. The Unkerlanters had almost completed their ring around the city. If they did, he saw nothing that would keep them from serving the Algarvian garrison inside as they'd served the Algarvian army that reached- but did not come out of- Sulingen.

Could Algarve withstand two great disasters in the southwest? Sabrino didn't know, and didn't want to have to find out. He spoke into his crystal to the squadron leaders he commanded: "All right, lads, let's give Swemmel's men the presents they've been waiting for."

"Aye, my lord Count." That was Captain Domiziano, who still seemed younger and more cheerful than he had any business being in the fourth year of a war that looked no closer to an end than it had the day it started: further from an end, perhaps.

"Aye." Captain Orosio didn't waste words. He never had. The other two squadron commanders also acknowledged the order.

Sabrino's laugh was bitter. He should have led sixty-four dragonfliers; each of his squadron commanders should have had charge of sixteen, including himself. When the fight against Unkerlant began, the wing had been at full strength. Now Sabrino commanded twenty-five men, and there were plenty of other colonels of dragonfliers who would have envied him for having so many.

Back in headquarters far from the fighting, generals wrote orders a full wing would have had trouble meeting. They always got irate when the battered bands of dragonfliers they had in the field failed to carry out those orders in full. Sabrino got irate, too- at them, not that it did him any good.

All he could do was all he could do. Having spoken through the crystal, he used hand signals, too. Then he whacked his dragon with the goad again. It dove on a large concentration of Unkerlanters below. The dragonfliers in the wing followed him without hesitation. They always had, since the first clashes with the Forthwegians. Good men, one and all, he thought.

A few of the Unkerlanters blazed up at the diving dragons. A few tried to run, though running in snowshoes wouldn't get them very far very fast. Most just kept on with what they were doing. Unkerlanters were a stolid lot, and seemed all the more so to the excitable Algarvians.

Sabrino's dragon carried two eggs slung beneath its belly. He released them and let them fall on the foe. The other dragonfliers in his wing were doing the same. Bursts of suddenly released sorcerous energy flung snow and Unkerlanters and behemoths in all directions. Whooping, Sabrino ordered his dragon high into the air once more. "That's the way to do it, boys," he said. "We can still hit 'em a good lick every now and again, curse me if we can't."

He knew a moment's pity for the Unkerlanter footsoldiers. He'd been a footsoldier, toward the end of the dreadful slaughters of the Six Years' War a generation before. Having somehow come through alive, he'd vowed he would never fight on the ground again. Dragonfliers knew terror, too, but they rarely knew squalor.

Captain Domiziano's smiling face appeared in Sabrino's crystal. "Shall we go down and flame some of those whoresons, too?" the squadron leader asked.

Reluctantly, Sabrino shook his head. "Let's go back to the dragon farm and load up on eggs again instead," he answered. "It's not like flying down to Sulingen was- we can get back here again pretty fast. And that'll save on cinnabar."

Along with brimstone, the quicksilver in cinnabar helped dragons flame farther and fiercer. Brimstone was easy to come by. Quicksilver… Sabrino sighed. Algarve didn't have enough. Algarve had never had enough. Her own sorcery had turned and bit her, helping Lagoas and Kuusamo drive her from the land of the Ice People, from which she'd imported the vital mineral. There were quicksilver mines aplenty in the Mamming Hills south and west of Sulingen- but the Algarvians had never got to them. And so…

And so, as reluctantly, Domiziano nodded. "Aye, sir. Makes sense, I suppose. We'll save the dragonfire we've got for fighting with Unkerlanter beasts in the air."

"My thought exactly," Sabrino agreed. "We don't always get to do what we want to do. Sometimes we do what we have to do."

Surely King Mezentio had been doing what he wanted to do when he launched the Algarvian armies against Unkerlant. Until then, Algarve had gone from one triumph to another: over Forthweg, over Sibiu, over Valmiera, over Jelgava. Sabrino sighed again. The first summer's campaigns against the Unkerlanters had been triumphant, too. But Cottbus hadn't quite fallen. A year later, Sulingen hadn't quite fallen, and neither had the quicksilver mines in the Mamming Hills. And now Mezentio's men did what they had to do in Unkerlant, not what they wanted to do.

No sooner had that gloomy thought crossed Sabrino's mind than dour Captain Orosio's face replaced Domiziano's in the crystal. "Look down, sir," Orosio said. "Curse me if our soldiers aren't pulling out of Durrwangen."

"What?" Sabrino exclaimed. "They can't do that. They've got orders to hold that town against everything the Unkerlanters can do."

"You know that, sir," Orosio answered. "I know that. But if they know that, they don't know they know it, if you know what I mean."

And he was right. Durrwangen was an important town, and the Algarvians had put a sizable army into it to make sure it didn't fall back into Unkerlanter hands. And now that army, men and behemoths, horse and unicorn cavalry, was streaming out of Durrwangen through the one hole in the Unkerlanter ring around it, tramping north and east along whatever roads the soldiers and animals could find or make in the snow.

"Have they gone mad?" Sabrino wondered. "Their commander's head will go on the block for something like this."

"I was thinking the same thing, sir." But Orosio hesitated and then added, "At least they won't be thrown away, like the men down in Sulingen were."

"What? I didn't hear that." But Sabrino was arch; he'd heard perfectly well. And he could hardly deny that his squadron commander had a point. So far as he knew, not a man had come out of Sulingen. The Algarvians down here would live to fight another day- but they were supposed to have been fighting in Durrwangen.

"What do we do, sir?" Orosio asked.

Sabrino hesitated. That needed thought. At last, he answered, "We do what we would have done even if they'd stayed in the city. We go back, get more eggs, and then come and give them whatever help we can. I don't see what else we can do. If you've got a better answer, let me hear it, by the powers above."

But Orosio only shook his head. "No, sir."

"All right, then," Sabrino said. "We'll do that."

News of the Algarvians' retreat from Durrwangen had already reached the dragon farm by the time Sabrino's wing got back to it. Some of the dragon handlers said the commander in Durrwangen hadn't bothered asking for permission before pulling out. Others claimed he had asked for permission, been refused, and pulled out anyway. They were all sure of one thing. "His head will roll," said the fellow who tossed meat covered with powdered brimstone and cinnabar to Sabrino's dragon. He sounded quite cheerful about the prospect.

And Sabrino could only nod. "His head bloody well deserves to roll," he said. "You can't go around disobeying orders."

"Oh, aye," the dragon handler agreed. But then, after a pause, he went on, "Still and all, though, that's a lot of boys who can do a lot of fighting somewhere else."

"Everybody thinks he's a general," Sabrino said with a snort. The dragon handler tossed his mount another big gobbet of meat. The beast snatched it out of the air and gulped it down. Its yellow eyes followed the handler as he took yet another piece of meat from the cart. The dragon was far fonder of the man who fed it than of the man who flew it.

Despite his snort, Sabrino remained thoughtful. He and Orosio had said about the same thing as the dragon handler had. Did that mean they were on to something, or were they all daft the same way?

In the end, it probably wouldn't matter. Regardless of whether his move proved foolish or brilliant, the general in charge of the Algarvian forces breaking out from Durrwangen would be in trouble with his superiors. Being right was rarely an excuse for disobeying orders.

As soon as his beasts were fed and had fresh eggs slung beneath them, Sabrino ordered them into the air once more. He hoped they wouldn't meet Unkerlanter dragons. They'd been flying too much lately. They were tired and far from at their best. He wished they could have had more time to recover between flights. But there were too many miles of fighting and not enough dragons to cover them. The ones Algarve had needed to do all they could.

As if drawn by a lodestone, Sabrino led his dragonfliers back toward the Algarvian soldiers breaking out of Durrwangen. They were doing better than he'd thought they would be. Their retreat, plainly, had caught the Unkerlanters by surprise. Swemmel's men were swarming into the city they'd lost the summer before. Most of them seemed willing to let the soldiers who'd defended it go.

Sabrino and his dragonfliers punished the Unkerlanters who did attack the retreating Algarvians. Corpses, some in long, rock-gray tunics, others in the white smocks that made them harder to see against the snow, sprawled in unlovely death. Sabrino snorted at that, this time mocking what passed for poetry in his mind. He'd seen too much fighting in two different wars, and the next lovely death he found would be the first.

Down below, the Algarvian army kept falling back. It retreated in excellent order, without the slightest sign of disarray from the men. But if they were in such good spirits, why had their leader ordered them out of Durrwangen in the first place? Couldn't they have held the important town a good deal longer? Sabrino had plenty of questions, but no good answers to go with them.


On the defensive. Sergeant Istvan didn't like the phrase. Gyongyosians were by training and (they said) by birth a warrior race. Warriors, by the nature of their calling, boldly stormed forward and overwhelmed the foe. They didn't sit and wait inside fieldworks for the foe to storm forward and try to overwhelm them.

So said most of the men in Istvan's squad, at any rate. They'd come into the army to force their way through the passes of the Ilszung Mounts and through the endless, trackless forests of western Unkerlant. They'd done a good job of it, too. Unkerlant was distracted by her bigger fight with Algarve thousands of miles to the east, and never had put enough men into the defense against Gyongyos- never till recently, anyhow. Now…

"We just have to wait and see if we can build up reinforcements faster than those stinking whoresons, that's all," Istvan said. "If you haven't got the men, you can't do the things you could if you did."

"Aye, he's right," Corporal Kun agreed. Kun always looked more like what he had been- a mage's apprentice- than a proper soldier. He was thin- downright scrawny for a Gyongyosian- and his spectacles gave him a studious seeming. He went on, "Istvan and I had to put up with this same kind of nonsense of Obuda, out in the Bothnian Ocean, when the Kuusamans had enough men to get the jump on us."

"And me," Szonyi said. "Don't forget about me."

"And you," Istvan agreed. They'd all been on Obuda together. Istvan went on, "We've seen the kinds of things you have to do when you haven't got enough men to do everything you want. You sit and you wait for the other bugger to make a mistake and then you try and kick him in the balls when he does."

Kun and Szonyi nodded. The two of them- weedy corporal and burly common soldier with tawny hair and curly beard that made him look like a lion- understood how to play the game. So did Istvan. The rest of the men in the squad… he wasn't so sure of them. They listened. They nodded in all the right places. Did they really know what he was talking about? He doubted it.

"We are a warrior race. We shall prevail, no matter what the accursed Unkerlanters do." That was Lajos, one of the new men. He was as burly as Szonyi, a little burlier than Istvan. In the small bits of action he'd seen since coming up to the front, he'd fought as bravely as anyone could want. He was nineteen, and sure he knew everything. Who was there to tell him he might be wrong? Would he believe anyone? Not likely.

Istvan took off his gloves and looked at his hands. His nails were raggedly trimmed, with black dirt ground under them and into the folds of skin at his knuckles. He turned his hands over. Thick calluses, also dark with ground-in dirt, creased his palms. Scars seamed his hands, too. His eyes went, as they always did, to one in particular, a puckered line between the second and third fingers of his left hand.

Kun had a scar as near identical to that one as made no difference. So did Szonyi. So did several other squadmates, the men who'd served under Istvan for a while. Captain Tivadar had cut them all. The company commander would have been within his rights to kill them all. They'd eaten goat stew. They hadn't known it was goat; they'd killed the Unkerlanters who'd been cooking it. But knowledge didn't matter. They'd sinned. Istvan still didn't know if his expiation was enough, or if the curse on those who ate of forbidden flesh still lingered.

Someone approached the timber-reinforced redoubt in which Istvan and his squad waited. "Who comes?" he called softly.

"The fairy frog in the fable, to gulp you all down."

With a chuckle, Istvan said, "Come ahead, Captain."

Tivadar did, slipping from tree to tree so he didn't show himself to any Unkerlanter snipers who might be lurking nearby. Nodding to Istvan, he slid down into the redoubt. "Anything that looks like trouble?" he asked.

"No, sir," Istvan answered at once. "Everything's been real quiet the past couple of days."

"That's good." Tivadar checked. He wasn't much older than Istvan- he couldn't have been thirty- but he thought of everything, or as close to everything as he could. "I hope that's good, anyhow. Maybe Swemmel's boys are brewing up something nasty out of sight." He turned to Kun. "Anything that feels like trouble, Corporal?"

Kun shook his head. "Nothing I can sense, Captain. I don't know how much that's worth, though. I was only an apprentice, after all, not a mage myself." In the squad, he put on airs about the small spells he did know. Putting on airs with the company commander didn't pay.

"All right," Tivadar said. "The last time they struck us with sorcery, even our best mages didn't know what they'd do till they did it, curse them."

He was all business. Having purified Istvan, Kun, Szonyi, and the rest, he acted as if they were ritually pure, and never mentioned that dreadful night. Neither did any of them, not where anybody not of their number might hear. The shame was too great for that. Istvan thought it always would be.

Kun usually mocked whenever he saw the chance. He was a city man, and his ways often seemed strange and slick and rather repellent to Istvan, who like most Gyongyosians came from a mountain valley where the people were at feud with some neighboring valley when they weren't at feud among themselves. But Kun didn't mock now. In tones unwontedly serious, he said, "That was an abomination. The stars will not shine on men who murder their own to power their magecraft."

"Aye, you're right," Lajos boomed. "The Unkerlanters fight filthy. It's worse than eating goat's flesh, if you ask me."

He waited for everyone to nod and agree with him. In most squads, everybody would have. Here, the agreement was slow and halfhearted. It was badly acted by men who wanted to seem normal Gyongyosians but had trouble doing so. Lajos didn't realize that. Istvan hoped the motions of the stars would grant that he never did. The young trooper grunted and shifted uncomfortably, knowing things had gone wrong and not understanding why.

Szonyi said, "Captain, when can we take the fight to Swemmel's men again? We drove 'em through the mountains and we drove 'em through the woods. We can still do it, any time we get the orders."

Tivadar answered, "If the men set over me tell me to go forward, go forward I shall, unless I should die serving Gyongyos, in which case the stars will cherish my spirit forevermore. But if the men set over me tell me to wait in place, wait in place I shall. And if the men set over you, Trooper, if they tell you to wait in place, wait in place you will. And they do. I do."

"Aye, sir." Szonyi dipped his head in reluctant acquiescence. He was a man of his kingdom- and, like Istvan, a man of the countryside. Given his way, he would go straight at a foe, without subtlety but without hesitation, and keep going till one or the other of them couldn't stand up anymore.

"Remember, boys, you have to stay alert all the time," Tivadar warned. "The Unkerlanters are better in the forest than we are. We couldn't have come so far against 'em if we didn't have 'em outnumbered. They don't always need magic to have a go at us- sometimes sneakiness serves 'em just as well."

He climbed out of the redoubt and headed off along the line to the next Gyongyosian strongpoint. Istvan wished his countrymen had enough men to cover all the line through the forest they held. They didn't, especially in winter, where staying out alone might so easily lead to freezing to death.

"The captain is a pretty good officer," Lajos said.

"Aye, he is," Istvan agreed, and all the other veterans in the squad chimed in, too. Lajos let out a small sigh of relief. Not everyone thought he was an idiot all the time, anyhow.

Kun said, "If we can keep what we hold now when the war is over, we'll have won the greatest victory against Unkerlant in almost three hundred years."

"Is that a fact?" Istvan said, and Kun nodded in a way that proclaimed it was not only a fact, it was a fact anyone this side of feeblemindedness should have known. Istvan sent his corporal a look a little less than warm. Kun returned it: not quite so openly this time, for Istvan outranked him, but unmistakably nonetheless.

Szonyi sniffed, for all the world like a hound taking a scent. "More snow coming," he said. "Won't be long, either. You can taste the wind."

Istvan had plenty of practice gauging the weather himself. He opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, as if he were taking bites out of the air. The chill of the wind- a wind that had suddenly picked up- the feel of the moisture it carried… He nodded. "Aye, we're for it. Coming out of the west, from behind us."

"Blowing right into the Unkerlanters' faces," Szonyi said. "Seems a shame not to hit 'em when we've got that kind of edge. We could be like mountain apes, gone before they even knew we were there."

"Aye, I see the resemblance, all right." Kun planted the barb with a self-satisfied smirk. Szonyi glowered at him. Istvan kept the two of them from quarreling any worse than they usually did.

Whether right about striking or not, Szonyi was right about the storm. It blew in that night, snow swirling around the trees and through their branches till Lajos, on sentry-go, complained, "How am I supposed to see anything? King Swemmel and his whole court could be out there drinking tea, by the stars, and I wouldn't know it unless they invited me to have some."

"If Swemmel was out there, he'd be drinking spirits." Istvan spoke with great conviction. "And the son of a whore wouldn't invite anybody to share." But he could see no farther than Lajos. If the Unkerlanters were gathering in the forest not far away, he might not know it till too late. He might not, but Kun would. He shook the onetime mage's apprentice out of his bedroll.

"What do you want?" Kun asked irritably, yawning in his face.

"You've got that little magic that tells when somebody's moving toward you," Istvan answered. "Don't you think this would be a good time to use it?"

Kun eyed the snowstorm and nodded, though he warned, "The spell won't say whether the men it spies are friends or foes."

"Just work it," Istvan said impatiently. "If they're coming toward us from out of the east, they're no friends of ours."

"Well, you're bound to be right about that," Kun admitted, and worked the tiny spell. A moment later, he turned back to Istvan. "Nothing, Sergeant. Remember, the snow gives the Unkerlanters as much trouble as it gives us."

"All right." Istvan used a brisk nod to hide his relief. He knew he shouldn't have been so relieved; it wasn't proper for a man from a warrior race. But even a man of a warrior race might have been excused for being unwilling to wait and receive a blow from the enemy.

Kun said, "We'll get through another day. That will do." He sounded none too fierce himself, but Istvan didn't reprove him.


Now that Vanai dared go out onto the streets of Eoforwic once more, she wished she could find some books written in classical Kaunian. But they'd long since vanished from all the booksellers' shops, those dealing in new and secondhand volumes alike: the Algarvians forbade them. The redheads had aimed to destroy Kaunianity even before they'd started destroying Kaunians.

Vanai suspected she might have been able to get her hands on some had she known which booksellers to trust. But she didn't, and she didn't care to ask questions that might draw notice to herself. She made do with Forthwegian books.

My magecraft makes me look like a Forthwegian, she thought. Even Ealstan sees me this way almost all the time. I speak Forthwegian almost all the time. People call me Thelberge, as if I really were a Forthwegian. Am I still Vanai?

Whenever she looked in a mirror, her old familiar features looked back at her. Her sorcery didn't change the way she saw herself. In the mirror, she still had fair skin, a long face with a straight nose, and gray-blue eyes. But even in the mirror, her hair was black. Like any Kaunian with a grain of sense, she'd dyed it to make it harder for the Algarvians to penetrate her disguise.

Am I still Vanai, if the world knows me as Thelberge? If the world knows me as Thelberge for long enough, will the Vanai inside me start to die? If Algarve wins the Derlavaian War, will I have to go on being Thelberge for the rest of my life?

She didn't want to think about things like that, but how could she help it? If the Algarvians won the war, would Eoforwic stay shabby and battered, its people- even real Forthwegians- scrawny, for the rest of her life? She didn't want to think about that, either, but it looked like being true.

A lot of the graffiti that said SULINGEN had been painted over, but Vanai knew what rectangles of fresh whitewash meant. She smiled fiercely every time she saw one. The Algarvians had pasted recruiting broadsheets for Plegmund's Brigade everywhere they could, as if to mask the importance of the defeat they'd suffered from the Forthwegians and maybe from themselves.

Up on the hill at the heart of the city stood the royal palace. Vanai hadn't thought about King Penda very often back in the days before the war. She hadn't thought much of him, either, but that was a different story. Like most Kaunians in Forthweg, she hadn't been enamored of the rule of a man not of her blood, and a man who strongly preferred those who were of his own blood.

These days, a large Algarvian flag, red, green, and white, flew about the palace. An Algarvian governor ruled Forthweg in Penda's stead. Things surely had been less than ideal before the war. Now they were a great deal worse than that. Vanai shook her head. Who could have imagined such a thing?

Eoforwic had several market squares. It needed them, to keep so many people fed. The one closest to her block of flats was perhaps the smallest and meanest in the city, which meant it was larger than the one in Gromheort and dwarfed the tiny square back in Oyngestun.

Vanai bought barley and beans and turnips: food for hard times, food that would keep people going when nothing better was to be had. Even the beans and barley were in short supply, and more expensive than they should have been. If Ealstan hadn't brought home good money from casting accounts, the two of them might have gone hungry. By the pinched and anxious looks on the faces of a lot of people in the square, hunger was already loose in Eoforwic.

She stayed watchful and wary as she carried her purchases back toward her flat. She'd heard stories of people knocked on the head for the sake of a sack of grain. She didn't intend to be one of them.

A blocky Forthwegian man stood in the middle of the sidewalk, staring east and pointing up into the sky. Vanai had to stop; there was no polite way around him. But she didn't turn and look. For all she knew, he'd come up with a new way to distract people and then steal from them. If that did him an injustice, then it did. Better safe than sorry ran through her mind.

Then the Forthwegian shouted something that made her change her mind: "Dragons! Unkerlanter dragons!"

She was just starting to whirl when the first eggs fell on Eoforwic. "Get down!" screamed somebody who must have gone through such horror before. Vanai hadn't- the Algarvians hadn't reckoned Oyngestun important enough to waste eggs on it- but she wasted no time in throwing herself flat on the slates of the sidewalk… and on top of the precious food she'd bought. Even with dragons overhead, she couldn't afford to lose that.

More eggs burst, seemingly at random, some far away, others only a couple of blocks off. Along with the roars from the bursts came the almost musical tinkling of shattered glass hitting walls and pavements and shattering further and the screams of men and women either wounded or terrified.

Now Vanai did look up. The dragons were hard to see. It was a cloudy day, and their bellies were painted a gray that made them look like nothing so much as moving bits of cloud themselves. The eggs their dragonfliers released were easier to spy. They were darker, and fell straight and swift.

One seemed to fall straight toward Vanai. It got bigger and bigger- and burst only half a block away, close enough to pick her up and slam her back down to the ground with shocking and painful force. Her ears were stunned, deafened, she hoped not forever. A tiny sliver of glass tore a cut in the back of her left hand. But a full-throated scream drowned out her yelp.

The man who'd warned of the Unkerlanter dragons lay writhing on the sidewalk. His hands clutched at his belly, from which blood poured: a flood, a torrent, a deluge of blood. Vanai stared in helpless, dreadful fascination. How much blood did a living man hold? More to the point, how much could he lose before he stopped being a living man?

His shrieks faded. His hands relaxed. The blood poured off the edge of the sidewalk into the gutter. Vanai gulped, fighting sickness.

Almost as soon as it began, the Unkerlanter attack ended. The dragons had flown a long way. They couldn't carry very many eggs, or very heavy ones. As soon as they'd dropped what cargo of death they could bring, their dragonfliers guided them back toward the west once more.

Vanai picked up her groceries and hurried past the stocky man's corpse toward her block of flats. A couple of other bodies lay beyond that one. She tried not to look at them, either. A wounded woman cried out, but someone was already tending to her. Vanai went on without feeling the bite of conscience.

Eoforwic boiled like an anthill stirred by a stick. People who'd been inside their homes and shops when the eggs started falling came rushing out to see if loved ones and friends were all right or simply to see what had happened. People who'd been on the street rushed toward their homes and shops to make sure those were still standing. Here and there, physicians and mages and firefighting crews had to push their way through the chaos to do their duty.

All things considered, the Algarvian constables on the streets did a pretty good job of opening the way so help could get where it was going. They weren't subtle or gentle about it: they screamed abuse in their language and in broken Forthwegian and Kaunian, and they used their bludgeons to wallop anyone who proved even a split second slow in grasping what they meant. But Vanai didn't think Forthwegian constables would have acted differently. They did what needed doing on the spur of the moment; whys and wherefores could wait.

Vanai let out a great sigh of relief when she found her block of flats undamaged but for a couple of broken windows and no fires burning anywhere close by. She carried the barley and turnips and beans up to her flat, set down the sacks in the kitchen, and poured herself a large cup of wine.

She'd got halfway down it, a warm glow beginning to spread through her, when she started worrying about Ealstan. What if he didn't come back? What if he couldn't come back? What if he were injured? What if he were…? She wouldn't even think the word. She gulped down the rest of the wine instead.

Hour followed hour. Ealstan didn't come. There's no reason for him to come, Vanai told herself, over and over again. He's doing what he has to do, that's all. That made perfect sense. Eoforwic was a big city. The Unkerlanter raid had killed or wounded a relative handful of people. The odds that Ealstan was one of them were vanishingly small. Aye, it all made perfect logical sense. It didn't stop her heart from racing or her breath from whistling in her throat with anxiety.

And it didn't stop her from leaping in the air when she heard the coded knock at the door, or from crying out, "Where were you?" when Ealstan came inside.

"Casting accounts. Where else would I be?" he answered. Vanai's expression must have been eloquent, for he added, "None of the eggs fell anywhere near me. See? I'm right as rain."

Maybe he was telling the truth. Maybe he just didn't want her to worry. She didn't say anything about the cut on her hand, for fear he would worry. What she did say was, "Powers above be praised that you're safe." She squeezed the breath out of him.

"Oh, aye, I'm fine. All things considered, it wasn't much of a raid. I wonder if any of those dragons will get home again." Ealstan sounded dispassionate, but his arms tightened around her.

She squeezed him again. "Why did the Unkerlanters bother, if they didn't do Eoforwic any harm?"

"Oh, I didn't say that," Ealstan answered. "Haven't you heard?"

"Heard what?" Now Vanai wanted to shake him. "I was bringing groceries home when it happened, and I came straight here afterwards. How could I have heard anything?"

"All right. All right. I'll talk," Ealstan said, as if she were a constable pounding the truth out of him. "Most of their eggs fell around the ley-line caravan depot, and a couple of them smashed it up pretty well. The Algarvians will have some trouble moving soldiers through there for a while."

"Soldiers or… anybody else," Vanai said slowly. She couldn't bring herself to come out and mention by name the Kaunians the Algarvians sent west to be sacrificed so their life energy could power the redheads' sorceries.

"Aye, or anybody else." Ealstan understood what she meant. He set a hand on her shoulder. "With that sorcery you worked out, you've done more to make that hard for Mezentio's men than all the Unkerlanter dragons put together."

"Have I?" Vanai considered that. It was a pretty big thought. "Maybe I have," she said at last. "But even if I have, it's still not enough. The Algarvians shouldn't have been able to do what they did in the first place."

Ealstan nodded. "I know that. Anybody with any brains knows it. They never would have been able to, either, if so many Forthwegians didn't hate Kaunians." He gave Vanai a quick kiss. "You need to remember that not all Forthwegians do."

She smiled. "I already knew that. I'm always glad to hear it again, though- and to see proof." This time, she kissed him. One thing led to another. They ended up eating supper later than they'd intended to. They were both young enough to take that kind of thing for granted, even to laugh about it. Vanai never stopped to wonder how rare and fortunate it was.


Commander Cornelu guided his leviathan out of the harbor at Setubal and into the Strait of Valmiera. The leviathan was a fine, frisky beast. Cornelu patted its smooth, slick skin. "You may be as good as Eforiel," he said. "Aye, you just may."

The leviathan wriggled its long, slim body beneath him. It was far more sinuous, far more graceful, than its blocky cousins, the whales. It didn't understand what he'd said- he didn't think it would have understood even if he'd spoken Lagoan rather than his native Sibian- but it liked to hear him speak.

He patted it again. "Do you know what kind of compliments I'm paying you?" he asked. Since the leviathan couldn't answer, he did: "No, of course you don't. But if you did, you'd be flattered, believe me."

He'd ridden Eforiel from Sibiu to Lagoas after the Algarvians overran his island. Going into exile in Lagoas was vastly preferable to yielding to the invaders. Without false modesty, he knew Sibian-trained leviathans were the best in the world. Eforiel could do things no Lagoan leviathan-rider could hope to get his mount to match.

But Eforiel was dead, slain off his home island of Tirgoviste. After making his way back to Lagoas again, he'd had this new beast for a while, and he'd worked hard to train it up to Sibian standards. It was getting there. It might even have already arrived.

The leviathan darted to the left. Its jaws opened for a moment, then closed on a mackerel. A gulp and the fish was gone. Those great tooth jaws wouldn't have made more than two bites of a man- maybe only one. Like dragonfliers, leviathan-riders had, and needed to have, great respect for the beasts they took to war. Unlike dragonfliers, they got respect and affection in return. Cornelu wouldn't have wanted anything to do with dragons.

"Nasty, stupid, bad-tempered beasts," he told the leviathan. "Nothing like you. No, nothing like you."

With a flick of its tail, the leviathan dove below the surface. Magecraft, grease, and a rubber suit protected Cornelu from the chill of the sea. More magecraft let him breathe underwater. Without that spell, leviathan-riding would have been impossible. His mount could stay submerged far longer than he could.

Veterinary mages kept promising a spell to let leviathans breathe underwater, too. That would have changed warfare on the sea. Despite endless promises, though, the spell had yet to make an appearance. Cornelu didn't expect it during this war or, indeed, during his lifetime.

One stretch of ocean looked very much like another. Cornelu thanked the powers above that the day was clear: he had no trouble guiding his leviathan north, toward the coast of Valmiera. Along with him, the beasts carried two eggs hung under its belly. The Algarvians thought they could ship more or less safely in the waters off Valmiera. His job was to show them they were wrong.

Every so often, he glanced up at the sky. Ever since Mezentio's men seized Valmiera, their dragons and the Lagoans' had clashed above the strait that separated the island from the mainland. Now one side seized the upper hand, now the other. He'd had too many Algarvian dragonfliers attack him to want to let another one see him before he spied the enemy dragon.

Each time he looked today, the sky was empty. The Lagoans said a lot of Algarvian dragons had flown out of Valmiera lately, headed west. Maybe they were right, though Cornelu had trouble trusting them a great deal further than he trusted Mezentio's men. If they were, the war in Unkerlant was making the Algarvians forget about everything else.

Toward evening, the Derlavaian mainland rose up out of the sea ahead of Cornelu. He tapped his leviathan in a particular way. As it had been trained to do, it lifted its head out of the sea, standing on its tail with powerful beats of its flukes. Cornelu rose with the leviathan's head, and could see much farther than he could while closer to the surface.

Seeing farther, however, didn't mean seeing more here. No Algarvian freighters or warships glided along the ley lines. No Valmieran fishing boats used the ley lines, either, nor did any sailboats scud along without the power bigger vessels drew from the earth's grid of sorcerous energy.

Cornelu cursed under his breath. He'd sunk an Algarvian ley-line cruiser, along with other, smaller craft. He wanted more. With the Algarvians holding down his kingdom with a hand of iron, he hungered for more. The Sibian exiles fighting out of Lagoas were among the fiercest, most determined foes the Algarvians had.

But what a man wanted and what he got were not always, or even very often, one and the same. Cornelu had learned that painful lesson all too well. For this foray, he carried not one but two crystals. Making sure he'd chosen the one attuned to the Lagoan Admiralty, he murmured the activating charm he'd learned by rote and spoke into it: "Off the coast of Valmiera. No vessels visible. Proceeding with second plan." He'd also learned the phrases by rote. Lagoan was related to Sibian, but not too closely: its grammar was simplified, and it had borrowed far more words from Kuusaman and classical Kaunian than had his native tongue.

In the crystal, he saw the image of a Lagoan naval officer. Lagoan uniforms were darker, more somber, than the sea-green he'd worn while serving Sibiu. The Lagoan said, "Good luck with second plan. Good hunting with first." He'd evidently been briefed that Sibiu spoke his language imperfectly. After a small flare of light, the crystal returned to blankness.

The leviathan twisted in the water to catch a squid. Cornelu didn't let the motion disturb him as he replaced the first crystal in its oiled-leather case and drew out the second one from its.

Again, he murmured an activation charm. He spoke this one with much more confidence. It was in Algarvian, and Algarvian and Sibian were as closely related to each other as a couple of brothers, closer even than Valmieran and Jelgavan. He didn't know how the Lagoans had come by an Algarvian crystal: taken it from a captured dragonflier, perhaps, or brought it back from the land of the Ice People, from which Mezentio's men had been expelled.

However they'd got it, he had it now. He didn't speak into it, as he had into the one attuned to the Admiralty. All he did was listen, to see what emanations it would pick up from other Algarvian crystals aboard nearby ships or on the mainland.

For a while, he heard nothing. He cursed again, this time not under his breath. He hated the idea of going back to Setubal without having accomplished anything. He'd done it before, but he still hated it. It seemed a waste of an important part of his life.

And then, faint in the distance, he caught one Algarvian talking to another: "-cursed son of a whore slipped through our fingers again. Do you suppose his sister really is tipping him?"

"Not a chance- you think she's not watched?" the second Algarvian replied. "No, somebody slipped up, that's all, and won't admit it."

"Maybe. Maybe." But the first Algarvian didn't sound convinced. Along with the crystals, Cornelu had along a slate and a grease pencil. He scribbled notes on the conversation. He had no idea what it meant. Someone back in Setubal might.

After sunset, sea and sky and land went dark. As the Lagoans doused lamps to keep Algarvian dragons from finding targets, so Mezentio's men made sure Valmiera offered nothing to beasts flying up from the south. Cornelu found himself yawning. He didn't want to sleep; he'd have to orient himself again when he woke, for his leviathan would surely go wandering after food.

A fish leaped out of the sea and splashed back into the water. The tiny creatures on which fish fed glowed in alarm for a moment, then faded. Cornelu yawned again. He wondered why people and other animals slept. What earthly good did it do? Nothing he could see.

His captured Algarvian crystal started picking up emanations again. A couple of Mezentio's soldiers- Cornelu gradually realized they were brothers or close cousins- were comparing notes about their Valmieran girlfriends. They went into richly obscene detail. After listening for a while, Cornelu wasn't sleepy anymore. He didn't take notes on this conversation; he doubted the Lagoan officers who eventually got his slate would be amused.

"Oh, aye, she aims her toes right at the ceiling, she does," one of the Algarvians said. The other one laughed. Cornelu started to laugh, too, but choked on his own mirth. Back in Tirgoviste town, some Algarvian whore-hounds like these two had seduced his wife. He wondered if Costache would present him with a bastard to go with his own daughter if he ever got back there again. Then he wondered how he would ever get back to Tirgoviste- or why he would want to.

Along with frustrated lust, frustrated fury made sure he wouldn't fall asleep right away. At last, to his relief, the two Algarvians shut up. He lay atop his leviathan's back, rocking gently on the waves. The leviathan might have been dozing, or so he thought till it chased town and caught a good-sized tunny. He liked tunny's flesh himself, but baked in a pie with cheese, not raw and wriggling.

Maybe the chase changed the emanations that reached his crystal. In any case, a new Algarvian voice spoke out of it: "Everything ready with this new shipment? All the ley lines south cleared?"

"Aye," another Algarvian answered. "We've been leaning on the cursed bandits who make life such a joy. Nothing will go wrong this time."

"It had better not," the first voice said. "We haven't got any Kaunians to spare. We haven't got anything to spare, not here we don't. Everything gets sucked west, over to Unkerlant. If we don't bring this off now, powers above only know when we'll get another chance, if we ever do."

Cornelu wrote furiously. He wondered if the Lagoans back in Setubal would be able to read his scrawl. It didn't matter too much, as long as he was there along with the notes. Mezentio's men were planning murder, somewhere along the southern coast of Valmiera- murder doubtless aimed across the Strait of Valmiera at a Lagoan or Kuusaman coastal city.

Then a new voice interrupted the Algarvians: "Shut up, you cursed fools. The emanations from your crystals are leaking and someone- aye, someone- is listening to them."

If that wasn't a mage, Cornelu had never heard one. And the fellow would be doing everything he could to learn who and, even more important, where the eavesdropper was. Quickly, Cornelu murmured the charm that took the crystal down to dormancy again. That would make the Algarvian mage's work harder for him. Cornelu was tempted to throw the crystal into the sea, too, but refrained.

He did rouse the leviathan and send it swimming south again, as fast as it would go. The sooner he got away from the Valmieran coast, the tougher the time Mezentio's minions would have finding him and running him down. He glanced up at the sky again. He would have trouble spotting dragons, but dragonfliers wouldn't enjoy looking for his leviathan, either.

After a while, he activated the crystal that linked him to Lagoas. The same officer as before appeared in it. Cornelu spoke rapidly, outlining what he'd learned- who could guess when the Algarvians might start slaying?

The Lagoan heard him out, then said, "Well, Commander, I daresay you've earned your day's pay." A Sibian officer would have kissed him on both cheeks, even if he was only an image in a crystal. Somehow, though, he didn't mind this understated praise, not tonight.


Skarnu had got out of the habit of sleeping in barns. But, having escaped the latest Algarvian attempt to grab him in Ventspils, he'd gone out into the country again. A farmer risked his own neck by putting up a fugitive from what the redheads called justice.

"I'll help with the chores if you like," he told the man (whose name he deliberately did not learn) the next morning.

"Will you?" The farmer gave him an appraising look. "You know what you're doing? You talk like a city man."

"Try me," Skarnu answered. "I feel guilty sitting here eating your food and not helping you get more."

"Well, all right." The farmer chuckled. "We'll see if you still talk the same way at the end of the day."

By the end of that day, Skarnu had tended to a flock of chickens, mucked out a cow barn, weeded a vegetable plot and an herb garden, chopped firewood, and mended a fence. He felt worn to a nub. Farmwork always wore him to the nub. "How did I do?" he asked the man who was putting him up.

"I've seen worse," the fellow allowed. He glanced at Skarnu out of the corner of his eye. "You've done this before a time or two, I do believe."

"Who, me?" Skarnu said, as innocently as he could. "I'm just a city man. You said so yourself."

"I said you talked like one," the farmer answered, "and you cursed well do. But I'll shit a brick if you haven't spent some time behind a plow." He waved a hand. "Don't tell me about it. I don't want to hear. The less I know, the better, on account of the stinking Algarvians can't rip it out of me if it's not there to begin with."

Skarnu nodded. He'd learned that lesson as a captain in the Valmieran army. All the stubborn men- and women- who kept up the fight against Algarve in occupied Valmiera had learned it somewhere. The ones who couldn't learn it were mostly dead now, and too many of their friends with them.

Supper was black bread and hard cheese and sour cabbage and ale. In Priekule before the war, Skarnu would have turned up his nose at such simple fare. Now, with the relish of hunger, he ate enormously. And, with the relish of exhaustion, he had no trouble falling asleep in the barn.

Lanternlight in his face woke him in the middle of the night. He started to spring to his feet, grabbing for the knife at his belt. "Easy," the farmer said from behind the lantern. "It's not the stinking redheads. It's a friend."

Without letting go of the knife, Skarnu peered at the man with the farmer. Slowly, he nodded. He'd seen that face before, in a tavern where irregulars gathered. "You're Zarasai," he said, naming not the man but the southern town from which he'd come.

"Aye." "Zarasai" nodded. "And you're Pavilosta." That was the village nearest the farm where Skarnu had dwelt with the widow Merkela.

"What's so important, it won't wait till sunup?" Skarnu asked. "Are the Algarvians a jump and a half behind you, hot on my trail again?"

"No, or they'd better not be," "Zarasai" answered. "It's more important than that."

More important than my neck? Skarnu thought. What's more important to me than my neck? "You'd better tell me," he said.

And "Zarasai" did: "The Algarvians, powers below eat them, are shipping a caravanload- maybe more than one caravanload; I don't know for sure- of Kaunians from Forthweg to the shore of the Strait of Valmiera. You know what that means."

"Slaughter." Skarnu's stomach did a slow lurch. "Slaughter. Life energy. Magic aimed at… Lagoas? Kuusamo?"

"We don't know," answered the other leader of Valmieran resistance. "Against one of them or the other, that's sure."

"What can we do to stop it?" Skarnu asked.

"I don't know that, either," "Zarasai" replied. "That's why I came for you- you're the one who managed to get an egg under a ley-line caravan full of Kaunians from Forthweg one of the other times the stinking Algarvians tried this. Maybe you can help us do it again. Powers above, I hope so."

"I'll do whatever I can," Skarnu told him. When he'd buried that egg on the ley line not far from Pavilosta, he hadn't even known the Algarvians would be shipping a caravanload of captives to sacrifice. But the egg had burst regardless of whether he'd known that particular caravan was coming down the ley line. Now his fellows in the shadow fight against King Mezentio thought he could work magic twice when he hadn't really done it once. I'll try. I have to try.

"Come on, then," the irregular told him. "Let's get moving. We have no time to waste. If the redheads get them to a captives' camp, we've lost."

Skarnu paused only to pull on his boots. "I'm ready," he said, and bowed to the farmer. "Thanks for putting me up. Now forget you ever saw me."

"Saw who?" the farmer said with a dry chuckle. "I never saw nobody."

A carriage waited outside the barn. Skarnu climbed up into it, picking bits of straw off himself and yawning again and again. "Zarasai" took the reins. He drove with practiced assurance. Skarnu asked, "Which ley line will the redheads be using?"

Sounding slightly embarrassed, the other man replied, "We don't quite know. They've been acting busy at three or four different places down along the coast, running a caravan to this one, then another to that one, and so on. They're getting sneakier than they used to be, the miserable, stinking whoresons."

"We've caused 'em enough trouble to make 'em realize they have to be sneaky," Skarnu observed. "It's a compliment, if you like." He yawned again, trying to flog his sleepy wits to work. "Whatever they're doing with this sacrifice, they think it's important. They've never put this much work into trying to fool us before."

"Zarasai" grunted. "I'm glad I came for you. I hadn't thought of it like that. I don't think anybody's thought of it like that." He flicked the reins to make the horse move a little faster. "Doesn't mean I think you're wrong, on account of I think you're right. Powers below eat the Algarvians."

"Maybe they already have," Skarnu said, which kept his companion thoughtfully silent for quite a while.

Had an Algarvian patrol come across the carriage, it would have gone hard for the two irregulars, who were traveling far past the curfew hour. But Mezentio's men, and even the Valmierans who helped them run the occupied kingdom, were spread thin. Dawn was making the eastern sky blush when "Zarasai" drove into a village that made Pavilosta look like a city beside it: three or four houses, a tavern, and a blacksmith's shop. He tied the horse in front of one of the houses and got down from the carriage. Skarnu followed him to the front door.

It opened even before "Zarasai" knocked. "Come in," a woman hissed. "Quick. Don't waste any time. We'll get the carriage out of sight."

Fancier than a farmhouse, the place boasted a parlor. The furniture would have been stylish in the capital just before the Six Years' War. Maybe it was still stylish here in the middle of nowhere. Skarnu didn't know about that. He didn't have much of a chance to wonder, either, for his eye was drawn like iron to a lodestone in the direction of the half dozen crystals on the elaborately carven table in the middle of that parlor.

"We can talk almost anywhere in the kingdom," the woman said, not without pride.

"Good," Skarnu said. "Just don't do too much of it, or you'll have the Algarvians listening in." The woman nodded. Despite his words, Skarnu was impressed. Down on the farm near Pavilosta, he'd often wondered if his pin-pricks meant anything to the Algarvians, and if anyone else in Valmiera was doing anything against them. Seeing with his own eyes how resistance spread across the whole kingdom felt very fine indeed.

"Zarasai" went back into the kitchen and returned with a couple of steaming mugs of tea. He passed one on to Skarnu, waited till he'd sipped, and then said, "All right- you're in charge. Tell us what to do, and we'll do it."

Maybe having served as a captain fitted Skarnu to the role thrust on him. Having wrecked the one caravan didn't, as he knew too well. Doing his best to think like a soldier, he said, "Have you got a map with ley lines marked? I want to see the possibilities."

"Aye," the woman said matter-of-factly, and pulled one from the bureau drawer.

Skarnu studied it. "If they're after Setubal again, they'll send the captives to the camp by Dukstas, the one they used before when the Lagoans raided them."

The irregular from Zarasai nodded. "We figure that one's the most likely. They'd dearly love to serve Setubal as they served Yliharma. All these other camps are smaller and farther east. Setubal's the best target they've got. I don't see that they'd want to hit Kuusamo again and leave Lagoas untouched."

"No, I wouldn't think so, either," Skarnu agreed. But he frowned. "Dukstas is the obvious place to send the captives."

"Of course it is," "Zarasai" said. "That's why they're doing all these dances, isn't it? -to keep us from seeing what's obvious, I mean."

"Maybe." Skarnu shrugged. "It could be, aye. But I just don't know…" He cursed under his breath. "Can we try to sabotage the ley lines into all of these camps?"

"We can try doing them all." The other irregular sounded dubious, and explained why: "Odds are, some of the people we send in will get caught. They've got lots of soldiers and lots of cursed Valmieran traitors guarding the ley lines. They want to get these captives through, that's plain."

"That means something really big," Skarnu said. "Setubal or… something else." His frown turned into a scowl. "What could be bigger than Setubal, if they can bring it off? But Setubal doesn't feel right to me- do you know what I mean?"

"It's your call," the man from Zarasai answered. "That's why you're here."

"All right." Skarnu nodded to the woman who did duty for a crystallomancer. "As much in the way of sabotage on every ley line we can reach that leads to one of those camps. I'm not convinced the captives are going to Dukstas. Maybe we'll see where they are going when we seen which ley lines the redheads defend hardest."

"Sabotage all the ley lines we can," the woman repeated. "I shall pass the word." Pass it she did, one crystal at a time. Having given his orders, Skarnu could only wait to see how things far away turned out. That was new for him: he'd been a captain before, aye, but never a general.

Reports started coming back around midday, some from raiders who had planted eggs, others from bands that failed because their stretch of ley line was too strongly protected. A couple of bands never reported back at all. Skarnu worried about that. Eyeing the map, "Zarasai" said, "Well, the buggers won't ship 'em into Dukstas, and that's flat."

"So it is." Skarnu felt a certain satisfaction himself. A few hours later, word came that the Algarvians had succeeded in moving the Kaunian captives into a seaside camp, but one far, far to the east. He cursed, but made the best of things: "They may manage something, but we kept them from doing their worst."


From the dining room of the hostel that had been run up in the wilderness of southeastern Kuusamo, Pekka looked out on bright sunlight shining off snow. She took another bite of a grilled and salted mackerel. "Finally," she said in classical Kaunian. "Decent weather for more experiments."

"I've seen bad weather," Ilmarinen said. "I don't know that I've ever seen indecent weather. Might be interesting." Even in the classical language, he liked to twist words back on themselves to see what happened.

Pekka gave him a sweet smile. "Any weather with you out in it, Master, would soon become indecent."

Siuntio coughed. Fernao chuckled. Ilmarinen guffawed. "That all depends on whether the experiment goes up or down," he said.

Siuntio coughed again, more sharply this time. "Let us please remember the high seriousness of the work in which we are engaged," he said.

"Why?" Ilmarinen asked. "The work will go on just the same either way. We'll have more fun if we have more fun, though."

"We are also more likely to make a mistake if we take things lightly," Siuntio said. "Considering the forces we are trying to manipulate, a mistake would be something less than desirable."

"Enough," Pekka said before the elderly and distinguished mages could get any further into their schoolboy bickering. "One of the mistakes we make is arguing among ourselves."

"Quite right." Siuntio nodded, then shook a finger in Ilmarinen's direction. "You should pay attention to Mistress Pekka's wisdom, for she-"

Now Fernao coughed. "It pains me to tell you this, Master Siuntio," he said in his careful Kaunian, "but you are still arguing."

"I am?" Siuntio sounded astonished. Then he seemed to consider. "Why, so I am." He dipped his head to Fernao. "My thanks for pointing it out; I confess I hadn't noticed."

Pekka believed him. He was just the sort of man who might do such a thing without paying much attention to what he was doing. She said, "When we go out today- or tomorrow, if we do not get the chance to do it today- we have to remind the secondary sorcerers to bend every effort to keeping all the animals hale while we perform the primary incantations. Having one of the rats in the younger group die before the spell was complete ruined a day's work and more."

"As opposed to ruining a good part of the landscape," Ilmarinen said.

"We have already done that," Pekka said. "Even after the blizzards come and pour snow over the latest hole in the ground, you can still see the scars of what we have done." She shook her head. "And to think all this started with an acorn disappearing."

"More than an acorn disappearing nowadays," Fernao said, "but that will be the experiment the textbooks of the future mention."

"Textbooks," Ilmarinen said with the scorn of a man who'd written a good many. "The permanent written record of what the world doesn't remember quite the right way."

"I want to go out to the site," Pekka said. "I want to go into the blockhouse and cast the spells. We have come so far now. We need to go on."

"We need to pluck more fresh, green grass from the latest crater," Ilmarinen said, throwing oil on the fire. "We need to see what we can do about that, and we need to see if anything smarter than a blade of grass can come through unchanged." He eyed Fernao, then shook his head. "No, you wouldn't make a proper experimental subject there."

"True," Fernao agreed imperturbably. "I am not green."

Ilmarinen looked wounded at having provoked no warmer response. Pekka pushed her plate toward the center of the table and stood up. "Let us go out to the blockhouse," she said. "Let us see if we can keep from snapping one another's heads off while we go."

As usual, she rode in the sleigh with Fernao. Part of that was deference to the two senior sorcerers. Part of it was that the two younger mages had more in common with each other than either did with Siuntio or Ilmarinen. Some small part of it was slowly growing pleasure in each other's company.

The blockhouse had had new work done on it since the experiments began, to make it stronger and better able to withstand the energies the mages released. Even so, the secondary sorcerers set up the rows of animal cages more than twice as far from the little reinforced hut as they had when the series of spells started.

"Well, let's get on with it," Ilmarinen said when they were assembled in the blockhouse. "With any luck at all, we can drop this whole corner of the island into the sea. In a few weeks, who knows? Maybe we'll manage the whole island."

One of the secondary sorcerers said, "May it please you, Masters, Mistress, the animals are ready."

He spoke in Kuusaman. When he started to repeat himself in classical Kaunian for Fernao's benefit, the Lagoan mage said, "Never mind. I understand."

In Kaunian, Pekka said, "Your Kuusaman has a noticeable Kajaani accent."

"Does it?" Fernao said. "I wonder why that would be." They smiled at each other.

"To business, if you please," Siuntio said.

"Aye. To business," Pekka agreed. She took a deep breath, then intoned the words with which a mage of her blood prefaced every major sorcerous operation: "Before the Kaunians came, we of Kuusamo were here. Before the Lagoans came, we of Kuusamo were here. After the Kaunians departed, we of Kuusamo were here. We of Kuusamo are here. After the Lagoans depart, we of Kuusamo shall be here."

Siuntio and Ilmarinen both nodded; they'd used that ritual far longer than she'd been alive. One of Fernao's eyebrows rose. He had to know what the words were, what they meant. Did he believe them, as the Kuusaman sorcerers did? That was bound to be a different question.

Ritual complete, Pekka glanced to the secondary sorcerers. They nodded: they were ready to support the experimental animals and to transmit the magecraft so it had its proper effect. Pekka took another deep breath. "I begin."

She had not got more than half a dozen lines into the newly revised and strengthened spell- not nearly far enough to land in serious trouble for stopping- when her head suddenly came up and she looked away from the text she'd been reading. "Something's wrong," she said, first in her own language, then in classical Kaunian.

Siuntio and Fernao both frowned; whatever it was that had disturbed her, they didn't sense it. But Ilmarinen's head was up and swinging this way and that, too, the expression on his face one that might have been a wolf's when it feared a hunter close by.

And then, as that wary old wolf might have, he took a scent. "The Algarvians!" he said harshly. "Another slaughter."

This time, Siuntio nodded. His eyes went very wide, wider than Pekka had ever seen them, wider than she'd thought a Kuusaman's eyes could get. White showed all around his irises. He said the three worst words Pekka could imagine just then: "Aimed at us."

Pekka gasped. She felt it, too, the horrid sense of potent murder-powered magic not so far away. She and Siuntio and Ilmarinen had been in Yliharma when Mezentio's mages attacked the capital of Kuusamo. That had been bad, very bad. She hadn't thought anything could be much worse. But she'd been wrong. Now she found out how wrong.

As he usually did, Siuntio had the right of it: this time, the stolen life energy of those Kaunian captives was hurled straight at the blockhouse, a deadly dart of sorcerous force. The lamps flickered in a strange, rhythmic pattern. Then the walls started to shake in the same rhythm, and then the floor beneath Pekka's feet. The air felt hot and thick in her lungs. It tasted of blood.

The paper on which her cantrip was written burst into flames. One of the secondary sorcerers screamed. Her hair had burst into flames, too. A comrade swaddled her head with a blanket, but the flames did not want to go out.

"No!" Siuntio shouted, a battle cry that might have burst from the throat of a man half his age. "By the powers above, no! You shall not have us! You shall not!" He began what had to be a counterspell. Pekka had never imagined such a thing- one determined mage, all alone, trying to withstand the massed might of many, a might magnified by murder.

Ilmarinen's voice joined Siuntio's a moment later. They were the finest sorcerers of their generation. For an instant, just for an instant, Pekka, marshaling in her mind what she could do to aid their magecraft, thought they might have fought the Algarvians to a standstill. But then the lamps went out altogether, plunging the blockhouse into darkness. With a shriek of bursting timbers, the roof fell in. Something hit Pekka in the side of the head. The dark went black, shot with scarlet.

She couldn't have stayed senseless long. When she woke, she was lying in the snow outside the blockhouse- the burning blockhouse, for flames crackled and smoke poured from it. She tried to sit up, but the pounding pain in her head got worse. Her eyes didn't want to focus. The world seemed to spin. So did her guts. She leaned over and was violently sick in the snow.

Somewhere not far away, Ilmarinen let out a string of horrible curses in Kuusaman, Kaunian, and Lagoan all mixed together. "Go after him, you fools!" he bellowed. "Go after him! Go on, powers below eat you all! He's worth more than the lot of you put together. Get him out of there!"

Pekka tried again to sit. This time, moving ever so slowly and carefully, she managed it. Ilmarinen and Fernao both stood by the blockhouse. Fernao was shouting, too, in Kaunian when he remembered and in incomprehensible Lagoan when he didn't.

Ilmarinen tried to run into the burning building. One of the secondary sorcerers grabbed him and pulled him back. He stuck an elbow into the man's belly and broke free. But two other men seized him before he could do what he so plainly wanted to.

Fernao turned to him and said something Pekka didn't catch. Ilmarinen's shoulders sagged. He seemed to shrink in on himself. In that moment, for the very first time, he looked his age, with another twenty years tacked on besides.

Pekka grubbed up some snow well away from where she'd vomited and used it to rinse the vile taste from her mouth. The motion drew the notice of the other two theoretical sorcerers. They both came over to her, Fernao making slow going of it with the one stick he'd managed to bring out into the open.

"What- what happened?" The banality of the question shamed Pekka, but it was the best she could do.

"The Algarvians must have noticed the sorcerous energy we were releasing in our experiments," Fernao answered. "They decided to put a stop to them." He had a cut above one eye, a shiner, and another cut on his cheek, and appeared to notice none of them.

Ilmarinen added, "Rather like stepping on a cockroach with a mountain. Powers above, they're strong when they want to be. Curse them all. Curse them forever." Tears froze halfway down his cheeks.

Trying to make her battered brains think at all, Pekka asked, "Where's Master Siuntio?" Neither mage answered. Fernao looked back toward the burning blockhouse. Ilmarinen started cursing again. More tears flowed and froze. Pekka gulped, a heartsickness far worse than the pounding her body had taken. Siuntio- gone? Now, when they needed him more than ever?

Grimly, Ilmarinen said, "There shall be a reckoning. Aye, by the powers above, there shall be a reckoning indeed."


Fernao sat in the dining room of the small hostel in the Kuusaman wilderness. When he lifted a finger, a serving woman brought him a new glass of brandy. Glasses he'd already emptied crowded the table in front of him. No one said a word about it. Kuusamans often mourned their dead with spirits. If a foreigner wanted to do likewise, they would let him.

Presently, I shall fall asleep. Fernao thought with the false clarity of a man already drunk and getting drunker. Then they will carry me upstairs, the way they carried Ilmarinen upstairs half an hour ago.

He was surprised and proud he'd outlasted the Kuusaman mage. But Ilmarinen had thrown himself into his binge with a frightening enthusiasm, as if he didn't care whether he came out the other side. He'd known Siuntio for more than fifty years. In their minds, they'd both gone places no one else in the world could reach till they showed the way. No wonder Ilmarinen drank as if he'd lost a brother, maybe a twin.

Fernao reached for the new glass- reached for it and missed. "Hold still," he told it, and tried again. This time, he not only captured it, he raised it to his mouth.

Even if his body didn't want to obey him, his wits still worked after a fashion. What will I be like tomorrow morning? he wondered- a truly frightening thought. He drank some more to drown it. Part of him knew that wouldn't help. He drank anyway.

He'd almost emptied the glass when Pekka stepped into the dining room. Seeing him, she came his way. She walked slowly and carefully. She'd taken a nasty whack when the blockhouse came down in ruin, and her head had to hurt even more now than his would come morning.

"May I join you?" she asked.

"Aye. Please do. I am honored." Fernao remembered to answer in classical Kaunian, not Lagoan, which she didn't speak. He stopped just before he ran through the whole passive conjugation of the verb to honor: you are honored, he/she/it is honored, we…

"I wondered if I would see Master Ilmarinen here," Pekka said.

"He went belly-up a while ago," Fernao answered.

"Ah." Pekka nodded. "They understood each other, those two. I wonder if anyone else did."

That so closely paralleled Fernao's thought, he tried to tell her of it. His tongue tripped over itself and wouldn't let him. "I am sorry, milady," he said. "You see me… not at my best." He knocked back his brandy and signaled for another.

"You need not apologize, not here, not now," Pekka said. "I would drink to the dead, too, but the healers gave me a decoction of poppy juice and told me I must not take spirits with it."

The serving woman brought Fernao a fresh brandy, then glanced a question at Pekka. Ever so slightly, the Kuusaman mage shook her head. The serving woman went away. "Which decoction?" Fernao asked. What with his injuries down in the land of the Ice People, he'd become something of an expert on the anodynes made from poppy sap.

"It was yellow and tasted nasty," Pekka answered.

"Ah, the yellow one." Part of Fernao's nod was drunken gravity, part remembering. "Aye. Compared to some of the others, it leaves your wits fairly clear."

"Then the others must be ferocious," Pekka said. "I thought my head would float away. Considering how it felt, I hoped my head would float away. Some of the drug has worn off since." Her grimace showed she wished it hadn't. She brightened when she added, "I can take more soon."

For Fernao, the yellow decoction had been a long and welcome step back toward the real world; he'd been taking more potent mixtures before. For Pekka, plainly, it was a long and welcome step out of the real world.

After a little while, she said, "One of the secondary sorcerers told me you dragged me out of the blockhouse. Thank you."

"I wish I could have carried you." Abrupt fury filled Fernao's voice. "If I could have moved faster, I might have got you out and then gone back in and got Siuntio, too, before the fire spread too badly. If…" He knocked back the brandy. In spite of it, his hand shook as he set down the empty glass.

Pekka said, "Had you been standing closer to him than to me, you would have taken him first, and then you would have tried to come back for me." She reached into her belt pouch and took out a bottle full of the yellow decoction and a spoon. "It is not quite time for my dose yet, but I do not care. I do not wish to think about that." Fernao would have taken more, but he was bigger than she.

The serving woman appeared at his elbow. He hadn't noticed her come up. There were a good many things he wasn't noticing right now. "Will I get you another, sir?" she asked.

"No, thank you," he said, and she went away again.

"How badly are we set back?" Pekka said.

Fernao shrugged. "I think they are still sorting things out. Sooner or later, we shall have answers."

"Answers of a sort," Pekka said. "But we shall never again have Master Siuntio's answers, and there are none better." She sighed, but then her pain-and grief-lined face softened. "The decoction works quickly. I can forget for a little while that my head belongs to me."

"I know about that," Fernao said. "Believe me, I know about that." He also knew he would wish for some of the yellow liquid- or maybe one of the stronger ones- in the morning. He would wish for it, but he wouldn't borrow any from Pekka. After so long taking decoctions of one color or another, he'd had to get over a craving for poppy juice. He didn't want to bring it back to life. He hoped he would remember that when he went from drunk to hung over.

Pekka said, "What will we do without Siuntio? How can we go on without him? He made this field what it is today. Everyone else walks in his footsteps- except Ilmarinen, who walks around them and pisses in them whenever he sees the chance."

Fernao would have laughed at that even sober. Drunk, he thought it the funniest thing he'd ever heard. He laughed and laughed. He laughed so hard, he had to put his head down on the table. That proved a mistake, or at least the end of his evening. He never heard himself starting to snore.

He never knew how he got into his bed, either. Most likely, the servitors carried him up, as they'd carried up Ilmarinen. Fernao couldn't have proved it. For all he could prove, it might as readily have been cockroaches or dragons.

Whoever had done it, he wished they'd thrown him on the rubbish heap instead. His head pounded even worse than he'd thought it would. The wan sunshine of winter in southern Kuusamo seemed as bright as the Zuwayzi desert; he had to squint to see at all. By the taste in his mouth, he'd been sleeping in a latrine trench.

He felt of himself, and made at least one happy discovery. "Powers above be praised, I didn't piss the bed," he said. Then he winced again. His voice might have been a raven's, a very loud raven's, harsh croak.

Holding his head with his free hand, he limped into the commode with one crutch. Along with a water closet, it also boasted a cold-water tap. He splashed water on his face. He cleaned his teeth. After rinsing his mouth, he took a couple of sips of water. Even that was almost too much for his poor, abused stomach. He thought he'd be sick right there. Somehow, he wasn't.

Groaning- and trying not to groan, because the noise hurt his head- he limped back to bed. He felt better than he had before he got up, which meant he was no longer actively wishing he were dead. He lay there for a while. Quiet and with his eyes closed, he did his best to wait out the hangover.

Again, he didn't notice drifting off. This time, he fell into something close to real sleep, not sodden unconsciousness. He would have slept longer, but someone tapped on his door. The taps weren't very loud- except to his ears. He sat up, and winced. "Who is it?" he asked, and winced again.

"I." Pekka's voice came through the door. "May I come in?"

"I suppose so," Fernao answered.

The door opened. Pekka carried a tray to his bedside. "Here," she said briskly. "Half a raw cabbage, chopped. And a mug of cranberry juice with a slug- a small slug- of spirits mixed in. Eat. Drink. You will be better for it."

"Will I?" Fernao said dubiously. His own countrymen used fruit juice laced with spirits to fight the morning after, but cabbage was a remedy new to him. He didn't much feel like eating or drinking anything, but had to admit himself improved after he did.

Pekka saw as much. "You will do," she said. "Ilmarinen is worse, but he will do, too."

In an odd way, Fernao found himself agreeing with her. He would do. "How are you?" he asked, knowing sudden shame that he'd let her serve him. "You are the one who is truly hurt. This" -he patted his own forehead- "this will be nothing at all in a few hours. But you have real injuries."

"My head hurts," Pekka said matter-of-factly. "I have a little trouble remembering things. I would not want to try to work magic right now. I do not think it is the yellow decoction. I think you are right. I think it is the blow to the head. As with you, time will set it right. With the yellow liquid, it is not too bad."

He suspected she was making light of what had happened to her. If she wanted to do that, he wouldn't challenge her; he honored her courage. There was something he'd meant to tell her the night before. He was surprised he recalled it. He was surprised he recalled anything from the night before. But he realized now that it didn't matter. He couldn't say what he'd meant to, anyhow.

Pekka went on, "Alkio and Raahe and Piilis will be coming here now. You will know of them, if you do not know them."

"I met them in Yliharma," Fernao said. "Good theoretical sorcerers, all three."

"Aye." Pekka nodded carefully. "And the first two, husband and wife, work very well together. Add up the three of them and they are… not too far from Siuntio."

"May it be so." Fernao wondered if three good mages could match one towering genius.

"And now, the Seven Princes will give us everything we need or might need or imagine we need," Pekka said. "If we have done enough to alarm the Algarvians, to make them strike at us, we must be doing something worthwhile- or so the Princes think. This assault may prove the greatest mistake Mezentio's mages ever made."

"May it be so," Fernao repeated.

"And Siuntio saved us," Pekka said. "He and Ilmarinen- had they not resisted as best they could, we would all have died in the blockhouse." Fernao could only nod at that. Pekka rose and picked up the tray. "I will not disturb you anymore. I hope you feel better soon."

"And you," he called as she left the room. No, he couldn't very well tell her she'd made one small mistake. When the Algarvians assailed the blockhouse out in the wilderness, he'd been several strides closer to Siuntio than to her. But he'd turned one way, done one thing, and not the other… and now he and everyone else, everyone save poor Siuntio, would have to live with the consequences of that.


Before he'd got blazed, Major Spinello had served in southern Unkerlant. Now he'd been sent to the north of King Swemmel's realm. He found he loathed this part of the kingdom at least as much as he'd despised the other.

Blizzards seemed less common here, but cold, driving rain went a long way toward making up for them. Most of his regiment was holed up in a little town called Wriezen, with the rest on a picket line west of the place. Nothing would be coming at them quickly, not today- and not tomorrow or the next day, either. Here in the north, the muddy season lasted most of the winter.

Naturally, Spinello had commandeered the finest house in Wriezen as his own. It had probably belonged to the firstman of the place, but he'd long since fled. Spinello turned to his seniormost company commander, a dour captain named Turpino, and said, "How do we give the Unkerlanters a good boot in the balls?"

"We wait till the ground dries out, and then we outmaneuver them," Turpino answered. "Sir."

Spinello hopped in the air in annoyance. "No, no, no!" he exclaimed. "That isn't what I meant. How do we boot 'em in the balls now?"

Turpino, who was several inches taller than he, looked down his nose at him. "We don't," he said. "Sir."

Spinello carefully didn't notice how slow Turpino was with the title of respect. "Do Swemmel's men think we can't do anything in this mess, too?" he demanded.

"Of course they do," Turpino answered. "They're no fools." By his tone, he wasn't sure the same applied to his superior officer.

"If they think it can't be done, that's the best argument in the world for doing it," Spinello said. "Now we have to consider ways and means."

"Excellent." Turpino gave him a stiff bow. "If you transform our soldiers into worms, they can crawl through the mud and take the Unkerlanters by surprise coming at them from behind."

If I transform my troopers into worms, you'll be a bloodsucking leech, Spinello thought resentfully. "With the south in chaos, we ought to keep moving forward here in the north."

"If the moves serve some strategic purpose, certainly," Turpino said.

Spinello snapped his fingers to show what he thought of strategic purpose. Part of him knew the gloomy captain had a point of sorts. The rest, the bigger part, craved action, especially after so long flat on his back. He said, "Anything that throws the foe into confusion and either forces him back or forces him to shift troops here serves a strategic purpose, would you not agree?"

Captain Turpino's face was a closed book. "I would rather answer a specific question than a hypothetical one."

It was as polite a way of saying, You won't ask me a specific question, because you haven't got a real plan, as any Spinello had heard. If Turpino hadn't irked him, he might have admired the other officer. Instead, snapping his fingers again, he said, "What are the dominant features of the terrain at the present time, Captain?"

"Rain," Turpino answered at once. "Mud."

"Very good." Spinello bowed and made as if to applaud. "And how do we get around in the mud, pray?"

"Mostly we don't." Turpino's responses were getting shorter and shorter.

With another bow- sooner or later, Turpino would have to lose his temper- Spinello said, "Let me try a different question. How do the Unkerlanters get around in the rain?" He held up a forefinger. "You needn't answer- I already know. They have those high-wheeled wagons with the round bottoms that might almost be boats. If anything moves, those wagons do."

"Miserable little things." Turpino's lip curled. "They don't hold much."

"But what they do hold moves," Spinello said. "If we can get our hands on a hundred of them, Captain, we can move, too. And the Unkerlanters will never expect us to use those miserable little things." He didn't quite mimic Turpino's tone, but he came close. "What do you think?"

Turpino grunted. "Aye, we might move," he said at last. "If we could lay hold of a hundred of them. Sir."

By the way he sounded, he didn't think the regiment could do it. Spinello grinned at him. "You will provide the wagons for the regiment, Captain. You have four days. Gather them here, and we shall go west. Otherwise, we hold in place."

This time, Turpino didn't say anything. Of course he didn't. Spinello had given him an order he disliked. If he failed to carry it out, nothing much would happen to the regiment or to him.

Spinello's grin got wider. "If that attack goes in, my dear fellow, I intend to lead it in person. If I fall, the regiment is yours, at least for the time being. I can't promise you a pretty blond Kaunian popsy like the one I enjoyed back in Forthweg, but isn't that the next best thing?"

Turpino still didn't smile. He was far more staid than most of his countrymen. All he said was, "I'll see what I can do."

Four days later, 131 wagons clogged the muddy streets of Wriezen. "Commendable initiative, Captain," Spinello remarked.

"Incentive," Turpino replied. "Sir."

"Now, lads" -Spinello raised his voice to be heard through the rain- "Swemmel's men don't expect us to do a thing in this weather. And when we do things the Unkerlanters don't expect, they break. You've seen it, I've seen it, we've all seen it. So let's go give them a surprise, shall we?" He blew his whistle. "Forward!"

Where anything else would have bogged down in the thick mud, the wagons did go forward. Along with commandeering them from the countryside, Captain Turpino had also made sure the regiment had plenty of horses and mules to draw them. He wanted the attack to go in after all. If it failed, and maybe even if it succeeded, the regiment would be his.

The rain hadn't eased. That cut Spinello's visibility down to yards, but he didn't mind. If anything, it cheered him. He knew where the Unkerlanters were. This way, they wouldn't be able to see his men and him coming.

A few eggs, not many, burst out in front of the wagons. Here in the north, not enough egg-tossers were stretched too thin along too many miles of battle line. Spinello hadn't even tried to get Turpino to gather them as he'd gathered the wagons. No one cared about funny-looking Unkerlanter wagons, but every Algarvian officer jealously clutched to his bosom all the egg-tossers he had.

One slow step after another, the horse pulled Spinello's wagon forward. The rest of the wagons churned their way west along the road and through the fields to either side. With their tall wheels, they found bottom where any Algarvian vehicle this side of a ley-line caravan would have bogged down. Mucky wakes streamed out behind those wheels and sometimes behind the wagons, too, as if they were on a river rather than what was supposed to be dry land.

Somebody up ahead shouted something at Spinello in a language he didn't understand. If it wasn't Unkerlanter, he would have been mightily surprised. He shouted back, not in Algarvian but in classical Kaunian, in which he was quite fluent. The odd sounds confused the fellow who'd challenged him. The stranger shouted again, this time with a questioning note in his voice.

By then, Spinello's wagon had got close enough to let him see the other man: an Unkerlanter, sure enough. It had also got close enough to let him blaze the fellow in spite of the way the driving rain degraded his beam's performance. His stick went to his shoulder; his finger found the touch-hole. The Unkerlanter had been about to blaze at him, too. Instead, he crumpled back into his hole in the ground.

Spinello whooped with glee. He blew his whistle again, a long, piercing blast. "Forward!" he shouted.

Forward they went. They knocked over a few more pickets and then rolled toward a peasant village about a quarter the size of Wriezen. A couple of Unkerlanter soldiers came out of the thatch-roofed huts and waved to them as they came up. Spinello laughed out loud. Swemmel's men thought they were the only ones who knew what those wagons were good for.

They soon discovered their mistake. The Algarvians swarmed out of the wagons and through the village, making short work of the little Unkerlanter garrison there. Before long, some high-pitched screams rang out. That meant they'd found women, and were making a different sort of short work of them.

Spinello let them have their fun for a little while, but only for a little while. Then he started blowing his whistle again. "Come on, my dears," he shouted. "Finish them off and let's get back to work. They're only ugly Unkerlanters, after all- they're not worth keeping."

Once his men, or most of them, were back in the wagons, the advance slashed forward again. Not far west of the village, they came upon three batteries of Unkerlanter egg-tossers. Again, they overran them without much trouble. The enemy didn't realize he was in danger till too late.

"Turn them around, boys, turn them around," Spinello said, and his soldiers fell to work with a will. "Let's drop some eggs on the heads of our dear friends farther west."

Captain Turpino squelched up to him. "You're not advancing any more?" he asked.

"I hadn't planned to," Spinello answered. "We've done what we came to do, after all. Go too far and Swemmel's men will bite back."

To his surprise, Turpino swept off his hat and bowed low. "Command me, sir!" he exclaimed, his voice more friendly, more respectful, than Spinello had ever heard it. "You've proved you know what you're doing."

"Have I?" Spinello said, and Turpino, still bareheaded, nodded. Spinello went on, "Well then, put your hat back on before you drown." Turpino laughed- another first- and obeyed. Spinello asked him, "Do you know anything about serving egg-tossers?"

"Aye, somewhat," the other officer replied.

"Good- you take charge of that business," Spinello said. "I'll make sure the Unkerlanters won't have an easy time throwing us back. I was down in Sulingen. I know all about field fortifications, by the powers above."

"Mm." Turpino grunted again. "Aye, you would, down there. How'd you get out?" Before Spinello could answer, the captain pointed to the wound badge on his chest. "Is that when you picked up your trinket?"

Spinello nodded. "Sniper got me a month or so before the Unkerlanters cut us off, so they were able to fly me out and patch me up." His wave encompassed the ground the regiment had taken. "Now we'll patch this place up and hold onto it as long as we can- or else move forward again if we see the chance." Would Turpino argue again? No. The senior captain just saluted. If he was happy, the rest of the officers in the regiment would be. To Spinello, that mattered almost as much as taking a worthless village and some egg-tossers away from King Swemmel's men. He'd made the regiment his. From here on out, it would follow wherever he led.


Cockroaches scuttled across the floor of Talsu's cell. He'd given up stomping them not long after his captors put him in there. He could have stomped night and day and not killed them all. This one prison probably held as many of them as Jelgava held people.

His stomach growled. These past few days, he'd started getting tempted to kill them again rather than doing his best to ignore them. They were food, or they could be food if a man were desperate enough.

Talsu didn't want to think he was that desperate. But the bowls of mush his captors doled out didn't come close to keeping him fed. His body was consuming itself. He didn't want to take off his tunic: his cell was anything but warm. But when he ran a hand along his ribs, he found them easier to feel every day as the flesh melted off him. More and more, he found himself wondering what the roaches tasted like and whether he could get them down without heaving them up again a moment later.

One day, the door to his cell came open at an hour when it usually stayed closed. Three guards stood outside, all of them with their sticks pointed at him. "Come along with us," one of them said.

"Why?" Talsu asked. Moving at all seemed more trouble than it was worth.

But the guard strode in and backhanded him across the face. "Because I say so, you stinking turd," he said. "You don't ask questions here, curse you. We ask questions." He slapped Talsu again. "Now come along."

Tasting blood from a split lip, Talsu came. He feared he knew where they were going. After they'd taken two turns, he knew he was right. The Jelgavan constabulary captain hadn't grilled him for a while. He wondered what sort of torments he would have to go through this time, and whether he would be able to endure them without starting to name names for the Algarvians' hound.

He was still half a corridor away from the captain's office when his nose twitched. His head came up. It had been a long time since he'd smelled roast mutton rather than the usual prison stinks. Spit flooded into his mouth. He muttered under his breath, being careful not to say anything loud enough to draw the notice- and anger- of the guards. He'd only thought he knew how hungry he was.

"Here he is, sir." The guards shoved him into the office.

"Talsu son of Traku!" the constabulary captain exclaimed, as if greeting an old friend. "How are you today? Sit down, why don't you?"

Astonishingly, a chair waited for Talsu in front of the captain's desk. He hadn't noticed it till the captain invited him to sit. He hadn't noticed it because all his attention focused on the desk itself, and on the lovely leg of mutton sitting there along with olives and white bread and butter and green beans cooked with little bits of bacon and a big carafe of wine red as blood.

"How are you today?" the constabulary captain asked again as Talsu, like a man in a dream, took his seat.

"Hungry," Talsu murmured. He could hardly talk- powers above, he could hardly think- staring at all that wonderful food. "So hungry."

"Isn't that interesting?" the Jelgavan in Algarvian service replied. "And here I was just sitting down to supper." He gestured to the guard who'd slapped Talsu around. "Pour this fellow some wine, will you? And some for me, too, while you're at it."

Sure enough, two glasses stood by that carafe. The guard filled them both. Talsu waited till he saw the constabulary captain drink before raising his own glass to his lips. He realized that might not help. If the wine was drugged, the captain might already have taken an antidote. But Talsu couldn't resist the temptation. He took a long pull at the glass.

"Ahh," he said when he set it down. He might almost have been sighing with longing for Gailisa, his wife. He smacked his lips, savoring the sweetness of the grape cut with the juices of lemon and lime and orange in the usual Jelgavan fashion.

Slowly, deliberately, the constabulary captain cut a slice from the leg of mutton and set the meat on his plate. He took a bite, chewed with appetite, and swallowed. Then he looked up. His blue eyes, mild and frank, met Talsu's. "Would you… like to join me for supper?" he asked.

"Aye!" The word was out of Talsu's mouth before he could call it back. He wished he hadn't said it, but the constable would have known he was thinking it even so.

"Pour him some more wine," the captain said. As the guard obeyed, the officer helped himself to green beans, ate an olive and spat the pit into the wastepaper basket, and tore off a chunk of that lovely white loaf and spread butter over it. He smiled at Talsu. "It's all very good."

Talsu didn't dare speak. He also didn't dare hurl himself at the food on the constabulary captain's desk without permission. No matter how hungry he was, he feared what the guards would do to him. But he had permission to drink the wine. After the stale, musty water he'd been getting, how fine it tasted!

Half starved as he was, it mounted straight to his head. Back in Skrunda, a couple of glasses of wine wouldn't have mattered much. Back in Skrunda, though, he would have had enough to eat; he wouldn't have poured them down on an empty, an ever so empty, stomach.

"Now then," the constabulary captain said, "suppose you tell me the names of the others who conspired with you against King Mainardo back in Skrunda." He took another bite of pink, juicy mutton. "If you want us to cooperate with you, after all, you have to cooperate with us, my friend." He swallowed the bite. He'd never missed a meal. Constabulary captains never did.

"Cooperate." Talsu could hear how his own voice slurred. Instead of naming names, he said what was uppermost in his mind: "Feed me!"

"All in good time, my friend; all in good time." The constable took a bit of bread. Butter left his lips greasy, shiny, till he gently blotted them on a snowy linen napkin. At his gesture, the guard put an identical napkin on Talsu's lap. Then the fellow poured Talsu's wineglass full once more.

"I don't want…" But Talsu couldn't say that. He couldn't come close to saying that. He did want the wine. He wanted it with all his soul. Even it made him feel less empty inside. He drank quickly, fearful lest the guard snatch the glass from his hand. When the glass was empty again, he stared owlishly at the food.

"It's very good," the constabulary captain remarked. "Tell us a few names. What's so hard about that? Once you've done it, you can eat your fill."

"Feed me first," Talsu whispered. It wasn't bargaining. At least, he didn't think of it as bargaining. It was much more like pleading.

The captain nodded to the guard. But it wasn't the sort of nod Talsu had hoped for. The guard slapped him again, hard enough to make his head ring. He dropped the wineglass. It fell on the floor and broke. "You don't tell us what to do," the captain said in a voice like iron. "We tell you what to do. Have you got that?" The guard belted him again.

Through swollen lips now bleeding freely, Talsu mumbled, "Aye."

"Well, good." The interrogator's tone softened. "I try to give you something you might want, and what thanks do I get? What cooperation do I get? I must say, you've disappointed me, Talsu son of Traku."

"I'm sure you don't disappoint the Algarvians," Talsu said. He hurt already. He didn't think they'd make him hurt too much worse.

They were about to do their best. The guards who'd brought him from the cell growled and raised their arms to strike. But the constabulary captain raised his arm, too, hand open, palm out. "Wait," he said, and the guards stopped. His gaze swung back to Talsu. "I do my duty. I serve my king, whoever he may be. I served King Donalitu. Now I serve King Mainardo. Should King Donalitu return- which I do not expect- I would serve him again. And he would want my services, for I am good at what I do."

"I don't understand," Talsu muttered. His notion of duty was loyalty to the kingdom. His interrogator seemed to think it meant going on with his job no matter whom it benefited: that the work was an end in itself, not a means to serving Jelgava. Talsu wished he thought the captain a hypocrite. Unfortunately, he was convinced the man meant every word he said.

"You don't need to understand," the constabulary captain told him. "All you need to do is give me the names of others in Skrunda who are not favorably inclined to the present authorities."

"I've told you before- Kugu the silversmith is the only one who ever said anything like that to me," Talsu answered. "I'll gladly denounce him."

"That, I fear, is not an adequate offer." The interrogator cut a bite of mutton and offered it to Talsu on the tip of his knife. "Here. Maybe this will make you change your mind."

Talsu leaned forward. He more than half expected the officer to withdraw the meat as he did so, but the man held it steady. He took the bite off the knife. It was as good as he'd thought it would be. He chewed it as long as he could, and then a little longer than that, but at last he had to swallow.

When he did, the constabulary captain handed him an olive. He ate it with the same loving care he'd given the mutton. To show his thanks, he didn't spit the pit back at the interrogator, but down on the floor by his chair. "Now," the officer said, with the air of a man getting down to business, "do you suppose you can come up with any more names for me? It would be a shame to make me eat this whole lovely supper by myself."

Talsu's belly screamed for food- screamed all the louder now that it had a tiny bit inside it. Wine made his tongue freer, as the constabulary captain must have planned. But the wine didn't make his tongue run along the ley line for which the interrogator had hoped. He said, "When the Algarvians ship you west to cut your throat, do you think they'll care what you did for them?"

That blaze got home. Just for a moment, Talsu saw fury in the constable's eyes, fury and- fear? Whatever it was didn't stay there long. The interrogator nodded to the guards. "You may as well go ahead, boys. It seems I've kept you waiting too long already."

The guards did go ahead, and with a will. They had to manhandle Talsu back to his cell: by the time they'd finished, he couldn't put one foot in front of the other. When they let go of him, he lay on the floor while the door slammed shut behind him. Only later did he find the strength to crawl to his cot.

A cockroach scuttled over him, and then another. He lacked the energy to try to mash them or to catch them. Maybe I should have made up some names, he thought. They hadn't beat him up so badly the time before.

But then they'd own you, the way they own Kugu. That was doubtless true. The way he hurt now, he had a hard time caring.


Durrwangen was less battered than Sulingen had been. That was about as much as Marshal Rathar would say for the city. Down in Sulingen, the Algarvians had fought till they couldn't fight anymore. Here, they'd pulled out just before his armies surrounded them. That meant some buildings remained intact.

He made his headquarters in one of those. It had been a bank. By the time he took possession of it, though, the vaults were empty. Someone, Algarvian or Unkerlanter, was richer than he had been… if he'd lived to enjoy his wealth.

Along with General Vatran, Rathar studied a map tacked to the wall. Vatran was in high spirits, as high as Rathar had ever seen him show. "We've got the whoresons," Vatran boomed. "By the powers above, they're on the run now. I never thought I'd see the day, but I believe I do."

"It could be," Rathar said. "Aye, it could be." That was as large a display of high spirits as he would allow himself. No, not quite: when he reached out and touched the map, he might have been caressing the soft, warm flesh of his beloved.

And he had reason to caress that map. Three Unkerlanter columns pushed out from Durrwangen, one to the east, one to the northeast toward the border of the Duchy of Grelz, and one due north. The Algarvians weren't managing much more than a rear-guard fight against any of them.

"Did I hear right?" Vatran asked. "Did the redheads cashier the general who pulled their soldiers out of here without orders?"

"That's what captives say," Rather answered. "I'd be amazed if they were wrong."

Vatran's chuckle was wheezy. "Oh, aye, lord Marshal, so would I." His bushy white eyebrows flew upwards. "If one of our generals had done such a thing… If one of our generals had done such a thing, he'd count himself lucky to get cashiered. He'd count himself lucky just to lose his head, he would. Sure as sure, King Swemmel'd be pouring the water into a great big pot and stoking the fire underneath it."

Rathar nodded. A good many officers who'd failed to meet King Swemmel's exacting requirements were no longer among those present. Rathar had come close to seeing the inside of a stew pot a couple of times himself.

But when he looked at the map, he made a discontented noise. "That was a stupid order: the one to hold Durrwangen at all costs, I mean. The redhead may have paid with his job, but he saved an army the Algarvians will be able to use against us somewhere else."

"Would you have disobeyed?" Vatran's voice was sly.

"Don't ask me things like that," Rathar said irritably. "I'm not an Algarvian, and I'm cursed glad I'm not, too."

But he kept worrying at the question, as he might have at a bit of gristle stuck between two back teeth. Mezentio gave his officers more freedom to use their judgment than did Swemmel, who trusted no one's judgment but his own. Not even the Algarvians, though, tolerated direct disobedience: the man who'd retreat from Durrwangen had got the sack. And yet… Rathar studied the map one more time, trying to remember how things had been a few weeks before. He couldn't make himself believe that redhead had been wrong.

A commotion in the street outside the plundered bank distracted him- or rather, he let it distract him, not something he usually did. Vatran, now, Vatran liked excitement. "Let's see what's going on," he said, and Rathar followed him out.

Men and women pointed and hooted at three men led up the street by soldiers carrying sticks. "You're going to get it!" somebody shouted at the glum-looking men. Somebody else added, "Aye, and you'll deserve it, too!"

"Oh. Is this all?" Vatran looked and sounded disappointed.

"Aye. Collaborators." The word left a sour, nasty taste in Rathar's mouth. He'd seen and heard of too many men and women willing- even eager- to go along with the Algarvian invaders. Things weren't so bad here as they were over in Grelz, but they were bad enough. But when the Unkerlanters retook a town, people sometimes settled scores with enemies by calling them collaborators. He'd seen and heard of too much of that, too.

None of these men was crying out that he'd been wrongly accused. Even the guilty often did that. The silence here said these fellows had no hope of being believed, which meant they must have been in bed with the redheads.

Vatran must have been thinking along similar lines, for he said, "Good riddance to bad rubbish. We might as well get back to work."

"Fair enough." No one ever had to urge Rathar back to work twice.

When they returned, Vatran pointed to the map and said, "The more I look at it, the worse the trouble Mezentio's men are in."

"Here's hoping you're right." Rathar tapped the pins that showed how far the columns advancing out of Durrwangen had got. "What we have to do is, we have to make sure we push the Algarvians back as far as we can before the spring thaw gets this far south. Then we'll be properly set up for the battles this summer."

For two summers in a row, King Swemmel had wanted to hit the Algarvians before they hit him. The first year, he'd flat-out failed; King Mezentio beat him to the punch. The second year, Vatran had launched an attack against the redheads south of Aspang- right into the teeth of their own building force. Attack all too soon became retreat.

This coming summer… Rathar dared look ahead to the battles of this coming summer with something approaching optimism.

And then Vatran said, "The other thing I wonder is what new sorceries the Algarvian mages will come up with."

That sank Rathar's optimism as if it were an egg bursting on a fishing boat. With an angry grunt, the marshal answered, "Those whoresons'll fight the war to the very last Kaunian. There will be a reckoning for that. By the powers above, there will be."

Vatran grunted, too. "Oh, there's a reckoning, all right. Every time they slaughter their Kaunian captives to power magecraft against us, we have to reckon how many of our own peasants we've got to kill to block their sorcery and to make matching magics of our own."

"Aye." A lot of kingdoms, Rathar suspected, would have folded up and yielded when the Algarvians started aiming murder-powered magecraft at them. He'd been horrified himself; no one had fought wars like that for centuries. The Twinkings War had been as savage a struggle as any in the world, but neither Swemmel nor Kyot had started massacring people for the sake of potent sorcery.

But Swemmel hadn't hesitated here, not for a heartbeat. As soon as he'd learned what the Algarvians were doing, he'd ordered his own archmage to match Mezentio's men murder for murder. He'd come right out and said that he didn't care if he ended up with only one subject… so long as no Algarvians were left by then.

In a way, Marshal Rathar had to admire such ruthless determination. Without it, the Algarvians probably would have taken Cottbus, and who could guess whether Unkerlant would have been able to continue the fight without its capital? Cottbus had held, Sulingen had held, and now Rathar's men were moving forward.

In another way, though, Swemmel's complete indifference to what happened to his kingdom as long as he held the throne chilled the marshal to the marrow. If Rathar failed, he might end up in a camp with his throat slit to fuel the magic backing the attack some other marshal would make.

Before he could go on with that gloomy thought, a dowser rushed into the headquarters and cried, "Dragons! Dragons heading this way out of the north!"

"How many?" Rathar rapped out. "How soon?"

"I don't know, lord Marshal," the man answered. "They're throwing out those cursed strips of paper again." Dowsers had a sorcerous gift- sometimes the only sorcerous gift they had- for sensing motion: water through ground, ships on water, dragons through the air. But Algarvian dragonfliers had taken to throwing out bits of paper as they flew. The motion of those scraps helped mask the motion of the dragons themselves.

"Won't be long," Vatran predicted gloomily. Rathar could only nod, because he thought the general was right. Vatran went on, "Well, what'll it be when they do get here? Will they go after the ley lines again, or will they try and drop those eggs on our heads? Place your bets, folks."

"If they have any sense, they'll go after the ley lines," Rathar replied. "If their eggs can smash up the depot or hit a line itself and overload it with energy, that really hurts us. But if they knock headquarters flat, so what? Swemmel chooses a couple of new generals, and the war goes on the same as it would have."

Vatran chuckled. "You don't give yourself enough credit, Marshal- or me, either, come to that."

Before Rathar could answer, eggs started bursting not far away. "Maybe the redheads are being stupid," the marshal said. "In any case, I move we adjourn."

"I've heard worse ideas," Vatran admitted.

They both went down into what had been the vault. A faint metallic smell lingered in the air, a monument of coins now vanished. In the meanwhile, artisans attached to the Unkerlanter army had further shored up the ceiling with crisscrossing timbers. If an egg burst directly on top of it, those timbers might not- probably wouldn't- hold out all the sorcerous energy. Otherwise, the men down there were safe enough.

Rathar cursed in a mild sort of way. "What's eating you now?" Vatran asked.

"When I'm down here, I can't tell where the eggs are bursting," Rathar complained. "They all just sound like they're up there somewhere."

"You couldn't do much about them right this minute, except maybe get caught by one," Vatran pointed out. He was right, too, however little Rathar cared to admit it. After a while, Vatran went on, "I don't know where all those eggs are bursting, but sounds like there's a lot of them."

"Aye, it does." Rathar didn't like that, either. "The Algarvians shouldn't be able to put so many dragons in the air against Durrwangen."

"The Algarvians shouldn't be able to do all sorts of things they end up doing," Vatran said. He was right about that, too, however little Rathar cared to acknowledge it.

"We haven't routed out as many of their dragon farms as we thought we had," Rathar said. As if to underscore his words, an egg burst somewhere close to the headquarters building, close enough that plaster pattered down through the rows of crisscrossed timbers and into the cellar.

"If we'd wanted easy work, we would have been headsmen, not soldiers," Vatran observed. "The fellows we'd deal with then wouldn't fight back."

Another near miss shook the vault and sent more plaster down into it. Coughing a little at the dust in the air, Rathar said, "Every now and again, you know, that doesn't sound so bad."

"We've got the redheads on the run, remember," Vatran said. "We were both sure of it just a little while ago."

"Oh, aye," Rathar said. "You know it, and I know it. But do the redheads know it?"


Bembo was feeling more like a spy than a constable these days. Turning to Oraste, he said, "I told you that Kaunian robber you blazed earlier this winter would turn out to be somebody important."

"Why, you lying sack of guts!" Oraste exclaimed. "You didn't think anything at all about him till I wondered why his pals and him knocked over that jeweler's shop and what they'd do with the loot."

"Oh." Bembo had the grace to look shamefaced. "Now that I think on it, you may be right."

"May I shit in my hat if I'm not," Oraste said.

"Took us long enough to get any leads to the dead whoreson's pals," Bembo said. "That's suspicious all by itself, you ask me."

"Well, we've got 'em now. Only question is how much good they'll do us." Oraste spat on the sidewalk of Gromheort. "Cursed Kaunian sorcery. If a blond looks like a Forthwegian all the time these days, how do we go about hauling him in?"

"By figuring out which Forthwegian he looks like," Bembo answered. "Or by remembering that the magic doesn't change his voice. That's how I bagged that longwinded foof of a Brivibas, if you'll recall." He strutted a couple of paces. That had been his coup, not Oraste's.

His partner grunted. "Aye, but you'd heard that old cocksucker's voice before. We don't know what these buggers sound like."

Since Bembo didn't feel like answering that, he kept quiet. The address they'd been given wasn't anywhere near Gromheort's Kaunian quarter, even though both men they wanted were- or, before hair dye and sorcery, would have been- blonds. "Powers below eat the Kaunians," Bembo growled. "They make us work too cursed hard."

"Powers below eat the Kaunians," Oraste said. "Period." He needed no special reason to hate them. He just did. After another half a block, he snapped his fingers. "You know what we ought to do?"

"Stop in a tavern and have some wine?" Bembo suggested. "I'm thirsty."

Oraste ignored him. "What we ought to do is, we ought to go into the Kaunian quarter and grab everybody who's got dark hair. Ship all those fornicators west. We wouldn't even have to make up any new rules to let us do it. Owning black hair dye's already against the law."

After some thought, Bembo nodded. "That's not too bad. But the real trouble is all the Kaunians who've already snuck out of the quarter here and the one in Eoforwic. Once they're out, they look like ordinary Forthwegians as long as they can keep the magic up. Then they can go anywhere. And do you know what else I've heard?"

"Tell me." Oraste was a stolid specimen of an Algarvian, but not altogether immune to the lodestone of gossip.

"Some of the blonds are even dyeing their bushes to make it harder for us to tell who's what," Bembo said.

"That's disgusting," Oraste said. "It's also pretty sneaky." A lot of Algarvian constables would have spoken with a certain grudging admiration. They admired clever criminals- and admired them all the more when they didn't have to try to run them down. But Oraste wasted neither admiration nor sympathy on Kaunians.

The two constables rounded the last corner and started toward the block of flats in which the robber Gippias' pals were alleged to be holed up. Bembo whistled. "Well, we've got company. A good thing, too, if you ask me."

"Plenty of company," Oraste added. "See? The powers that be don't like Kaunians who knock over jewelers' shops. Jewels mean money, and blonds with real money are liable to mean real trouble."

"You were right," Bembo admitted. "Do you want a medal? If we catch these buggers, they'll pin one on you."

"I'd rather have some leave or a pass to a brothel, but I'll take a medal if they give me one." Oraste was a relentless pragmatist.

"I hope they've got a mage here," Bembo said as they walked up to the other constables already assembled outside the building. "That'd make it a lot easier to tell who's a Kaunian and who's nothing but a stupid Forthwegian."

"What other kind is there?" asked Oraste, who loved none of his kingdom's neighboring peoples. He went on, "I almost hope there isn't a mage."

"Why?" Bembo said in surprise.

"Because if there is, he won't be any bloody good, that's why," Oraste said. "The ones who know what they're doing are either home ensorceling weapons or fighting the stinking Unkerlanters. The kind we'd get here, they'd be the whoresons who couldn't count to twenty-one without reaching under their kilts."

That jerked a laugh out of Bembo. When he saw that the constables did have a mage with them, and what sort of mage he was, it stopped being funny. Bembo knew a drunk when he saw one. He'd dragged plenty of them out of the gutter- aye, and beaten a few who'd provoked him, too. This fellow was standing up, but looked as if he'd fall over in a stiff breeze. He also looked like a man with a monster hangover, an expression with which Bembo was intimately familiar.

"Listen to me, you people!" shouted the Algarvian constabulary captain who looked to be in charge of things. "We are going to get everybody out of this here building. Men, women, children- everybody. We'll clip 'em all, top and bottom."

"See?" Bembo whispered to Oraste. His partner nodded.

The captain went on, "On account of that still might not tell us what we want- these Kaunians are demon sly, they are- we've got Master Gastable here with us." He pointed to the mage, who still seemed less than steady. "He can sniff out a blond like a dog can sniff out-"

"Another dog's backside," Bembo said, and missed whatever simile the officer used.

"So we'll root 'em out if they're in there," the constabulary captain finished. "And if they're not, odds are we'll dig up some other nasty Kaunians even so. Our soldiers'll be able to use their life energy- you'd best believe that."

Use their life energy. That was a nice phrase. Bembo contemplated it and nodded. You could say something like that and not have to think at all about actually killing people. Bembo approved. He didn't like to think about killing people, even Kaunians. Sometimes it needed doing- he knew that- but he didn't like to think about it.

"Let's go!" the captain cried. The constables swarmed into the block of flats and started pounding on doors. The captain stayed out on the sidewalk. It wasn't as if he'd do any of the hard work himself. He took a flask from his belt, swigged, and passed it to Gastable the mage.

"Open up!" Bembo shouted in front of the first door he and Oraste came to. The two of them waited a few heartbeats. Then Oraste kicked in the door. The constables burst into the flat, sticks aimed and ready to blaze. But there was nobody to blaze; the place appeared to stand empty. They quickly turned it upside down, poking their noses everywhere someone might hide. They found nobody.

"Whoever lives there'll get a surprise when he comes home tonight," Oraste said cheerfully. He and Bembo didn't bother closing the door after themselves. "I wonder if he'll have any stuff left by then. No skin off my nose either way."

He pounded on the next door. A Forthwegian woman opened it. Bembo eyed her appreciatively. She had a pretty face; he thought it a pity she followed her country's fashion by wearing such a long, baggy tunic. "Out!" he said, and jerked a thumb toward the stairs leading down to the street. "Anybody else in here with you?"

She yammered at him in Forthwegian, which he didn't speak. He tried again, this time in his halting classical Kaunian. She understood that, and turned out to speak Kaunian a lot better and a lot more angrily than he did. But when Oraste pointed his stick at her face, she quieted down and got moving in a hurry.

"See?" Oraste said. "You just have to know which language to use."

They went through the flat and found an old woman snoring in bed, sound asleep despite the commotion. When they shook her awake, she cursed in Forthwegian and Kaunian. "Oh, shut up, you horrible hag," Bembo said, not bothering to waste politeness on anybody who wasn't good-looking. "Go downstairs." He managed to put that into Kaunian, and the old woman, still fuming, went.

"I hope she turns out to be a blond," Oraste said. "Serve the noisy sow right."

"She'll be steamed enough when they flip up her tunic and trim her bush." Bembo shuddered. "Checking her daughter would be fun, but her? I'm glad somebody else'll get stuck doing that."

Along with the rest of the constables, they went through the building like a dose of salts. A few coins left too visible ended up in Bembo's belt pouch. He didn't notice Oraste making up for low pay, but he wouldn't have been surprised. Once the constables had got up to the top floor, a sergeant said, "All right, let's go back down and make sure the whoresons we rousted don't give anybody any trouble."

When Bembo got down to the sidewalk again, women were screeching about getting clipped anywhere but on their heads. A man and woman who hadn't thought to dye the hair on their private parts had been separated from their neighbors. Their faces were masks of dismay; four or five Algarvian constables pointed sticks at them.

Gastable was making sorcerous passes and muttering to himself in front of a pair of men who looked like Forthwegians. They kept on looking like Forthwegians once he finished his passes, too. Did that mean they weren't disguised, or was he inept? Bembo had no answers. He suspected Gastable had no answers, either.

He wasn't the only one with such suspicions. Oraste said, "I don't think this mage could tell a turd from a tulip."

"I wouldn't be surprised if you were right," Bembo agreed. "Of course, who knows if those Kaunian bandits were here to begin with?"

No sooner had the words come from his lips than the next pair of men fetched before Gastable suddenly seemed to writhe and change shape. They weren't Forthwegians- they were Kaunians with dyed hair. The constabulary captain spoke to Bembo and Oraste: "Are these the men you saw with the perpetrator Gippias?"

The two constables looked at each other. They both shrugged. "We don't know, sir," Bembo said. "When we saw 'em, they were in their sorcerous disguise and running like blazes around a corner."

"How are we supposed to identify them, if you bloody well can't?" the captain asked.

"Don't you still have hold of that Forthwegian who told us the name of the one Kaunian whoreson?" Bembo asked.

By the way the captain set his hands on his hips, he didn't. By the way he glared at Bembo and Oraste, he was ready- even eager- to blame them for what was obviously his failing. But he seemed to realize he couldn't quite get away with that. Scowling, he tried to make the best of it: "Well, we'll just have to see what we can squeeze out of them."

"Aye, sir," Bembo said- that actually made sense. He pointed to the two discovered Kaunians and spoke to Oraste in a low voice: "By the time we're through with them, they'll wish they'd just been shipped west."

Oraste considered. After a moment, he said, "Good."

"And the two of us are off the hook," Bembo added. As far as he was concerned, that was pretty good, too.


When Ealstan came into the flat he shared with Vanai, she handed him an envelope. "Here," she said. "This came in the morning's post. The rest was just advertising circulars. I threw them away."

He kissed his wife, then said, "All right- what have we got here?" He thought he knew; the hand that had addressed the envelope looked familiar. When he opened it and extracted the note inside, he nodded. "Ethelhelm is back in Eoforwic," he told Vanai.

"And he'll want you to reckon up the accounts for the band's tour in the provinces?" she asked.

"That's right." Ealstan sighed. "I wonder if he'll have any money left, what with the squeeze the redheads take from him." Ethelhelm was half Kaunian. If he hadn't been the most popular singer and band leader in Forthweg, he might well have been shipped west. As things were, the Algarvians preferred to let him go on playing, but to make him pay heavily for the privilege of staying free. It was a highly unofficial form of taxation, but that didn't mean it wasn't lucrative.

Ethelhelm played Forthwegian-style music. Ealstan knew Vanai didn't much care for it; her tastes along those lines were purely Kaunian, which meant she liked a thumping beat to every song. And her thoughts here weren't strictly on the music anyhow. She said, "As long as the Algarvians leave him enough money to keep paying you."

"If they don't, he'll bloody well have to find himself another bookkeeper, that's all." Ealstan sighed again. "He used to be my friend, you know, not just my client. He used to write bold songs, strong songs, songs that'd make even a lackwit sit up and think about what Mezentio's men were doing to us. Then they got their hooks into him."

"If he hadn't gone to sing for the men of Plegmund's Brigade when they were training outside of town here…" Vanai's voice trailed away.

"Aye, he might have stayed free," Ealstan said. "Of course, the redheads might have flung him into a ley-line caravan car and cut his throat, too. You can't know." Ethelhelm hadn't had the nerve to find out. Ealstan wondered what he would have done in the band leader's place. He was glad he didn't know.

"You can worry about Ethelhelm later," Vanai said. "For now, you can sit down to supper. I found some nice sausage at the butcher's."

"Probably half horsemeat and half dog," Ealstan said. Vanai made a horrible face at him. Shrugging, he went on, "I don't care. I'll eat it anyway, as long as it doesn't bark when I stick a fork in it."

Enough garlic and pepper and oregano and mint spiced the sausage to make it impossible to tell what the meat had been before it was ground up and stuffed into a casing. Whatever it was, it went well with salted olives and crumbly white cheese and bread and honey, and filled the hole in Ealstan's belly.

Walking over to Ethelhelm's block of flats the next morning reminded Ealstan of the distance between the wealthy entertainer and the fellow who kept books for him. Actually, Ealstan could have afforded a better flat for himself, but clung to the neighborhood into which he'd moved when he first came to Eoforwic because it let him- and, more important, Vanai- stay nearly invisible to the Algarvian occupiers.

Ethelhelm's building boasted a doorman. Ealstan was glad his building boasted a sturdy front door. The doorman opened the door from inside the lobby. Nodding to Ealstan, he said, "Master Ethelhelm told me I was to expect you, sir. Go right on up."

"Thanks," Ealstan said, and did. Ethelhelm's building also boasted carpeting on the stairs. Nobody'd pissed in the stairwell, either.

And yet, when Ealstan rapped on Ethelhelm's door, he knew he would rather have worn his own shoes than the band leader's. Ethelhelm looked worn to a nub. Ealstan had seen that before on his face when he came back from a tour. But Ethelhelm had never seemed quite so frazzled till now. "Hard trip?" Ealstan asked, hoping that accounted for the musician's state.

"You might say so," Ethelhelm answered. "Aye, you just might say so." A glass of brandy rested on the arm of a chair. Pointing to it, Ethelhelm asked, "Will you join me?" He didn't bother to wait for an answer, but went into the kitchen to pour another glass, brought it back, and thrust it into Ealstan's hand. He pointed to another chair. "Sit, if you care to."

Ealstan sat. The chair, at a guess, was worth more than all the furniture in his flat. He raised the glass Ethelhelm had given him and asked, "To what shall we drink?"

"I've been drinking for a while," the band leader said. "I've been drinking to being able to drink. Will that do for you, or do I have to come up with something fancier?" He knocked back his glass of brandy at a gulp.

More cautiously, Ealstan drank, too. "As bad as that?" he asked.

"Worse," Ethelhelm said. "Eventually, you can go through all the receipts and see how much money I lost. It could have been worse. I could have stayed here and lost even more. Aye, as bad as that."

"Why did they let you go, then, if all they were going to do was steal from you?" Ealstan didn't usually drink brandy in the morning, but made an exception today. He thought he would need lubricating to hear the band leader's story.

"Why?" Ethelhelm's laugh had nothing to do with honest mirth; it seemed more a howl of pain. "I'll tell you why: so they would have more to steal, that's why." He disappeared into the kitchen again, and returned with his glass newly full. "But I never thought when I set out that they'd steal so bloody much."

"They're Algarvians," Ealstan said, as if that explained everything.

But Ethelhelm only laughed that raw, wounded laugh again. "Even Algarvians have limits- most of the time. They don't have any limits with me. None at all. Look."

He rose again. Ealstan had hardly any choice but to look at him. The band leader was swarthy like a proper Forthwegian, but he overtopped Ealstan (who was of good size by Forthwegian standards) by half a head. His face was longer than a Forthwegian's should have been, too. Kaunian blood, sure as sure.

"If I don't do what they tell me, if I don't pay whatever they ask of me…" His voice faded out. "They'd just as soon kill me as waste their time dickering. You can't pick your ancestors. That's what everybody says, and it's not a lie, but oh, by the powers above, how I wish it were."

"Maybe you ought to quit singing and find quiet work where they won't pay any attention to you," Ealstan said slowly.

Ethelhelm glared. "Why don't you ask me to cut my leg off, too, while I'm at it?"

"If it's in a trap, sometimes you have to," Ealstan answered. He knew all about that. He'd had to flee Gromheort after stunning his cousin Sidroc when Sidroc found out he'd been seeing Vanai. At the time, he hadn't known whether Sidroc would live or die. He'd lived, lived and gone on to kill Ealstan's brother Leofsig, so Ealstan wished he'd killed him.

Ethelhelm was shaking his head back and forth. He looked trapped. "I can't, curse it," he said. "Ask me to live without my music and you might as well ask me not to live at all."

Patiently, Ealstan said, "I'm not asking you to live without your music. Make all you want, for yourself and for whatever friends you make after you disappear from Eoforwic. Just don't make a big enough splash with it to draw the redheads' notice."

"It's not just making the music." The band leader shook his head. "I think I'm trying to explain color to a blind man. You don't know what it's like to get up there on a stage and have thousands of people clapping and yelling out your name." He waved at the elegant flat. "You don't know what it's like to have all this stuff, either."

Ethelhelm didn't know that Ealstan's father was well-to-do. Ealstan didn't know how much like his father he sounded when he said, "If these things are more important to you than staying alive, you haven't got them. They've got you. Same goes for getting up on stage."

Now Ethelhelm stared at him. "You're not my mother, you know. You can't tell me what to do."

"I'm not telling you what to do," Ealstan said. "I'm just a bookkeeper, so I can't. But I can't help seeing how things add up, either, and that's what I'm telling you. You don't have to listen to me."

Ethelhelm kept shaking his head. "You don't have any idea how hard I've worked to get where I am."

"And where is that, exactly?" Ealstan returned. "Under the Algarvians' eye, that's where. Under their thumb, too."

"Curse you," the band leader snarled. "Who told you you could come here and mock me?"

Ealstan got to his feet and gave Ethelhelm a courteous bow: almost an Algarvian-style bow. "Good day," he said politely. "I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding someone else to keep your books in order for you- or you can always do it yourself." He had a good deal of his father's quiet but touchy pride, too.

"Wait!" Ethelhelm said, as if he were a superior entitled to give orders. Ealstan kept walking toward the door. "Wait!" Ethelhelm said again, this time with a different kind of urgency. "Do you know any people who could help me disappear out from under the redheads' noses?"

"No," Ealstan said, and set his hand on the latch. It was true. He wished he did know people of that sort. He would gladly have joined their ranks. Even if he had known them, though, he wouldn't have admitted it to Ethelhelm. The musician might have used their services. But he might also have betrayed them to Mezentio's men to buy favor for himself. Ealstan opened the door, then turned back and bowed again. "Good luck. Powers above keep you safe."

Walking home, he wondered how he'd make up the hole in his income he'd just created for himself. He thought he would be able to manage it. He'd been in Eoforwic a year and a half now. People who needed their accounts reckoned up were getting to know he was in business, and that he was good.

Men were pasting up new broadsheets in his neighborhood. They showed a dragon with King Swemmel's face flaming eastern Derlavai, the slogan beneath reading, SLAY THE BEAST! The Algarvians used good artists. Ealstan still wondered if anyone took the broadsheets seriously.

The postman was putting mail in boxes when he went into his building. "One for you here," the fellow said, and thrust an envelope into his hand.

"Thanks," Ealstan replied, and then said, "Thanks!" again in a different tone of voice when he recognized his father's handwriting. He didn't hear from Gromheort nearly often enough, though he understood why: he might still be sought, and writing carried risk. He was smiling when he opened the envelope and stepped into the stairwell- he'd read the letter on the way up.

By the time he got to the top, he wasn't smiling anymore. When Vanai opened the door to let him in, he thrust the letter into her hand. She quickly read it, then let out a long sigh. "I wish I were sorrier to hear they'd caught my grandfather," she said at last. "He was a fine scholar."

"Is that all you have to say?" Ealstan asked.

"It's bad luck to speak ill of the dead," she answered, "so I said what good I could." Brivibas had raised Vanai from the time she was small; Ealstan knew as much. He didn't know what had estranged them, and wondered if he ever would. Later that evening, he found his father's letter, a balled-up wad of paper, in the wastebasket. Whatever her reasons, Vanai meant them.


Lieutenant Recared's whistle squealed. "Forward!" the young officer shouted.

"Forward!" Sergeant Leudast echoed, though without the accompaniment of the whistle.

"Urra!" the Unkerlanter soldiers shouted, and forward they went. They'd been going forward ever since they cut off the redheads down in Sulingen, and Leudast saw no reason they shouldn't keep right on going forward till they ran King Mezentio out of his palace in Trapani.

He had no sure notion of where Trapani was. Until Swemmel's impressers hauled him into the army, he'd known only his own village not too far west of the border with Forthweg and the nearby market town. He'd seen a lot more of the world since, but few pleasant places in it.

The village ahead didn't look very pleasant. It did have one thing in common with Trapani, wherever Trapani was: it was full of Algarvians. Mezentio's soldiers had never quit fighting through their long, hard retreat from southern Unkerlant; they simply hadn't had the manpower to hold back the Unkerlanters over a broad front. In any one skirmish, though, there was no guarantee Leudast and his countrymen would come out on top.

That thought crossed Leudast's mind even before eggs started bursting among the advancing Unkerlanters. He threw himself down in the snow, cursing as he dove: nobody had told him the Algarvians had a couple of egg-tossers in the village. Some of his men dove for cover, too. Some- the new recruits, mostly- kept running forward in spite of the eggs. A lot of them went down, too, as if a scythe had sliced through them at harvest time. Their shrieks and wails rose above the roar of the bursting eggs.

Algarvian pickets in carefully chosen hidey-holes in front of the village blazed at Leudast and his comrades. "Sir," he shouted to Lieutenant Recared, who sprawled behind a rock not far away, "I don't know if we can pry them out of there by ourselves."

At the start of the winter campaign, Recared would have called him a coward and might have had him blazed. They'd been ordered to take the village, and orders, to Recared, might have been handed down by the powers above. But action had taught the company commander a couple of things. He pointed off to the left, to the west. "We don't have to do it by ourselves. We've got behemoths for company."

Leudast yelled himself hoarse as the big beasts lumbered forward. He'd hated it when the Algarvians threw behemoths at him, and loved Unkerlanter revenge in equal measure. Eggs from the tossers mounted on the behemoths' back started bursting in the village. The redheads there stopped pounding the Unkerlanter footsoldiers and swung their egg-tossers toward the behemoths.

"Forward!" Recared yelled again, to take advantage of the enemy's distraction.

But, even though the tossers weren't aimed at the footsoldiers, eggs kept bursting under them anyhow as they got closer to the village. "They've buried them under the snow!" Leudast shouted. "We burst them as we run over them." He'd seen the Algarvians do that before, but not since the fighting in the ruins of Sulingen, where they'd had plenty of time to dig in.

No sooner had that thought crossed his mind than an Unkerlanter behemoth trod on a buried egg. The burst of sorcerous energy killed the beast at once. Its body shielded the crew who rode it from the worst of the energies, but as it toppled over onto its side, it crushed a couple of men beneath it.

Recared's whistle squealed again- the shrill squeak reminded Leudast of the noise a pig made in the moment it was castrated. "Forward!" the young lieutenant yelled once more. "Look behind you- we're not in this alone. We've got reinforcements coming up to give us a hand, too."

Leudast risked a quick glance over his shoulder. Sure enough, a fresh wave of soldiers in white smocks worn over long gray tunics stormed toward the village on the heels of Recared's regiment. That was plenty to make him shout, "Urra!" and scramble toward the huts himself. This winter, for the first time, his kingdom seemed able to put men where they were needed when they were needed there. Up till very recently, far too many attacks had gone in either late or in the wrong place.

An Algarvian picket popped up out of his hole to blaze at the onrushing Unkerlanters. Leudast raised his own stick to his shoulder and blazed the redhead. The enemy soldier went down with a screech. An Unkerlanter closer to that hole than Leudast was jumped down into it. A moment later, he scrambled out again and ran on toward the village. The Algarvian didn't come up again.

As King Swemmel's men pushed forward, a couple of enemy pickets tried to run back into the village themselves. One fell before he could take half a dozen steps. The other might have blazed Leudast if he hadn't been more interested in trying to get away.

"Surrender!" Leudast shouted in Algarvian. "Hands high!" That was about all of the language he knew: all a soldier needed to know.

The soldier took a couple more steps. Leudast raised his stick, ready and more than ready to blaze. Then the redhead seemed to realize he couldn't get away. He threw his stick down in the snow and raised his hands over his head. The smile he aimed at Leudast was was half cheerful, half fearful. He loosed a torrent of speech in his own language.

"Shut up," barked Leudast, who understood not a word. He strode forward and relieved the Algarvian of money and rations, then gestured with his stick: go to the rear. Hands still high, the redhead obeyed. Maybe he'd end up in a captives' camp; maybe the other Unkerlanters would kill him before he got off the battlefield. Leudast didn't look back to find out.

Sticks or bursting eggs had started fires in a couple of the peasant huts at the southern end of the village. Leudast welcomed the smoke. It made the Algarvians have a tougher time seeing him, and it might attenuate their beams, too. More eggs churned up the ground in front of him as the behemoth crews did all they could to help the footsoldiers.

Getting through the houses in the southern half of the village proved easier than Leudast had expected. Once the Unkerlanters reached those houses, the enemy fought only a rear-guard action against them. That surprised Leudast till he got to the edge of the market square.

As in most Unkerlanter peasant villages, the square was good and wide. In happier times, people would buy and sell things there, or else just stand around and gossip. Now… Now the Algarvians had dug themselves in on the far side of the square. If the Unkerlanters wanted to come at them, they would have to charge across that open space. It might be possible. It wouldn't be easy, or cheap.

An Algarvian beam seared the timbers of the hut behind which Leudast crouched. He pulled back in a hurry; smoke scraped his throat as he breathed in. He hoped the hut wouldn't catch.

A couple of men, both new recruits, tried to rush across the square. Almost contemptuously, the Algarvians let them run for four or five strides before knocking them over. One crumpled and lay still. The other, moaning and dragging a useless leg, crawled back toward cover. Beams boiled snow into puffs of steam all around him. He'd nearly made it to safety when one struck home. His moans turned to shrieks. A moment later, another beam bit. He fell silent.

"Can we do it, Sergeant?" a soldier asked Leudast.

He shook his head. He wouldn't order a charge across the square. If Recared did, he'd try to talk the regimental commander out of it. If he couldn't, he'd sprint across the square along with his comrades- and see how far he got.

Somewhere a few houses over, Lieutenant Recared was speaking to some other soldiers: "We'll have to be quick, aye, and we'll have to be bold, too. The Algarvians can't have that many men on the other side of the square." Leudast's heart sank. He saw no reason why the redheads couldn't have that many men and more in the northern part of the village.

But it turned out not to matter. He didn't know where the dragons came from. Maybe they were returning from another raid when some of their dragonfliers looked down and saw the fighting, or maybe the other regiment had a crystallomancer with better connections than Recared's. The Algarvians in the village were surely ready for an attack on the ground. They were just as surely not ready for the death that swooped on them from the sky.

When Leudast heard the thunder of great wings overhead, he threw himself flat in the muddy snow- not that that was likely to save him. But the attacking dragons were painted rock-gray, and they flamed the half of the village Mezentio's men still held. Even from across the market square, he could feel the heat as houses and barricades- and soldiers- caught fire. Soldiers burned not quite to death screamed. A couple of minutes later, the Unkerlanter dragons flamed the Algarvians again. Then they flew off toward the south.

Even before Lieutenant Recared blew his precious officer's whistle, Unkerlanters started rushing across the square. A few of them fell; the dragons hadn't killed all the redheads. But they had flamed the heart out of the enemy's position. Some of the Algarvians fought on anyhow, and made Swemmel's men pay a price for killing them. The rest- more than usual in this kind of fight- surrendered. They seemed dazed, astonished to be alive.

"Another village down," Recared said proudly. "Little by little, we take back our kingdom."

"A village down is right, sir," Leudast answered, coughing a little and then more than a little. "It'll be a while before the peasants move back here."

Recared opened his mouth in surprise, as if the people who'd once lived in the village hadn't crossed his mind. They probably hadn't; he was, Leudast knew, a city man. After a moment, he did find a reply: "They weren't serving the kingdom with the Algarvians holding this place." Since that was true, Leudast nodded. He couldn't prove Recared had missed the point.

With what light remained to the day, the Unkerlanters pushed north again. Leudast approved of that without reservation. He approved of it even more because it didn't involve fighting. Somewhere up ahead, Algarvians would be holed up in the next village. When he came to them, he'd do whatever he had to do. Till then, he enjoyed the respite.

He didn't enjoy having Recared shake him awake in the middle of the night. "What's gone wrong, sir?" he asked, assuming something had.

Only faint glowing embers illuminated the young lieutenant's face. In that dim, bloody light, Recared looked, for once, far older than his years. "Our crystallomancer just got the order," he said. "We have to countermarch, head back south."

"What?" Leudast exclaimed. "Powers above, why?"

"I don't know, curse it. The order didn't explain." Recared sounded as harassed as an ordinary soldier. "But you're bound to be right, Sergeant: something's gone wrong somewhere."


Hajjaj hoped no one knew he'd left Bishah. He did manage to sneak out of the capital every now and again. So far, he'd managed to keep the secret from those who would have been most interested in learning it: chief among them Marquis Balastro, the Algarvian minister to Zuwayza. Balastro knew Zuwayza was imperfectly happy in her role as Algarve's ally; Hajjaj worked hard to keep him from knowing just how unhappy his kingdom was, not least since Zuwayza would have been even unhappier without Algarve.

As the ley-line caravan glided east out of the Zuwayzi capital, Hajjaj smiled at his secretary and said, "Isn't it astonishing how quickly I've recovered from the indisposition everyone thinks I have?"

Qutuz smiled, too. "Astonishing indeed, your Excellency. And I am very glad to see you looking so well."

"I thank you, my dear fellow, though I think I ought to ask whether you need new spectacles," Hajjaj said. "I don't look particularly well. What I look is old." He paused a moment in thought. "Of course, a man my age who does not look well is liable to look dead."

"May you live to a hundred and twenty," Qutuz replied, a polite commonplace among the Zuwayzin.

"I've been over halfway there for a while now, but I don't think my private ley line will stretch quite so far," Hajjaj said. "Tewfik, now, Tewfik seems bound and determined to take the proverb literally. I hope he makes it."

"Someone does every now and then, or so they say," his secretary answered.

"They say all sorts of things," Hajjaj observed. "Every now and then, what they say is even true- but don't count on it." As foreign minister of a kingdom with a large, unfriendly neighbor and an arrogant cobelligerent, Hajjaj didn't see the advisability of counting on much of anything.

Qutuz leaned back in his seat- King Shazli had laid on a first-class caravan car for Hajjaj and his secretary- and remarked, "The scenery is prettier than usual, anyhow."

"Well, so it is," Hajjaj agreed. "It was high summer the last time I traveled to Najran, and the sun had baked the life out of everything. Gray rock, yellow rock, brown thornbushes- you know what it's like most of the year."

"Don't we all?" Qutuz spoke with a certain somber pride. In high summer, the sun of northern Zuwayza stood right at the zenith or even a little south of it, something seen nowhere else on the mainland of Derlavai. Except at oases and along the banks of the few streams that flowed down from the mountains the year around, life seemed to cease. Qutuz's wave urged Hajjaj to look out the window. "Certainly not like that now, your Excellency."

"No, it isn't." As his secretary had said, Hajjaj could for once enjoy peering through the glass. Late winter was the time for that in Zuwayza, if ever there was such a time: some years, there wasn't. But, by Zuwayzi standards, this had been a wet winter. The thornbushes were green now. Flowers of all sorts carpeted the usually barren hills and splashed them with crimson and gold and azure.

Had the ley-line caravan halted, Hajjaj would have been able to spy butterflies, moving bits of color. Toads would be croaking and creeping in the wadis, the dry riverbeds, that weren't quite dry now. Had Hajjaj been lucky, he might have spotted a small herd of antelope grazing on greenery whose like they wouldn't see again for months.

He sighed. "It won't last. It never does." With another sigh, he added, "And if that's not a lesson for anyone daft enough to want to be a diplomat, curse me if I know what would be."

The ley-line caravan got into Najran late in the afternoon, gliding up over a last little rise before revealing the almost painfully blue sea ahead. The ley line that ran from Bishah to Najran continued on out into the Bay of Ajlun. If it hadn't, Najran would have had no reason for being. As things were, its harbor was too small and too open to the elements to let it become a great port, or even a moderately important one. It was nondescript, isolated- a perfect home for the Kaunian refugees who'd fled west across the sea from Forthweg.

Their tents, these days, considerably outnumbered the ramshackle houses of the fishermen and boatbuilders and netmakers and the handful of merchants who called Najran home. Without the ley line, the Zuwayzin could never have kept them fed. Pale-skinned men and women in tunics and trousers were more common on the streets than naked, dark brown locals. But the Kaunians had universally adapted the wide-brimmed straw hats the Zuwayzin wore. If they hadn't, their brains would have baked in their skulls.

Hajjaj had thought about putting on tunic and trousers himself when he came to visit the refugees. In the end, he'd decided not to. They were guests in his kingdom, after all, so he didn't feel the need to go against his own usages, as he did when meeting diplomats from other, chillier lands.

A carriage waited for him at the caravan depot: much the largest building in Najran. As he and Qutuz climbed in, he told the driver, "The tent city."

"Aye, your Excellency," the man said, touching the brim of his own big hat. He flicked the reins and clucked to the horses. They were sad, skinny beasts, and didn't seem in a hurry to get anywhere- they would pause to graze whenever they passed anything green and growing.

"Fellow ought to take a whip to them," Qutuz grumbled.

"Never mind," Hajjaj said. "We're not going far, and I'm not in that big a hurry." The truth was, he didn't have the heart to watch the horses beaten.

Blond men and women, a lot of them sunburned despite their hats, greeted the carriage as it approached. Hajjaj heard his own name spoken; some of the people in the growing crowd recognized him from his earlier visit. They started taking off their hats and bowing- not theatrically, as Algarvians would have, but with great sincerity. "Powers above bless you, sir!" someone called to Hajjaj, and a moment later everyone took up the cry.

Irony smote: he'd learned classical Kaunian in Algarve before the Six Years' War. He stood up in the carriage and bowed to the refugees in return. Letting them stay in Zuwayza sometimes felt like the single most worthwhile thing he'd done in the war. Had he given them to the Algarvians, they would surely be dead now.

A couple of blond men pushed their way through the cheering crowd. They, too, bowed to Hajjaj, who returned the courtesy. "Thank you for coming, your Excellency," one of them said. "We're grateful to you once more."

"Which of you is Nemunas, and which Vitols?" Hajjaj asked.

"I'm Vitols," said the man who'd spoken before.

"And I'm Nemunas," the other one added. He was a couple of years older than Vitols, and had a nasty scar on the back of one hand. They'd both been sergeants in King Penda's army before the Algarvians crushed Forthweg. Now they led the Kaunian refugees in Zuwayza.

Vitols pointed to a tent not far away. "We can talk there, if that suits you."

"As good a place as any," Hajjaj said. "This gentlemen with me is my secretary, Qutuz. He knows what we'll be discussing." The Kaunians bowed to Qutuz, too. He bowed back.

In the tent waited tea and wine and cakes. Hajjaj was touched again that the blonds favored him with a Zuwayzi ritual. He and Qutuz sipped and ate and made small talk; as hosts, Vitols and Nemunas were the ones to say when to get down to serious business. Nemunas didn't wait long. "Will you let us sail back to Forthweg, like we asked in our letter?" he said. "Now that there's a magic to let us look like Forthwegians, we can go back there and take proper revenge on the redheads."

He and Vitols leaned toward Hajjaj, waiting on his reply. He didn't leave them waiting long. "No," he said. "I will not permit it. I will not encourage it. If Zuwayzi ships see Kaunians sailing east, they will sink them if they can."

"But- why, your Excellency?" Nemunas sounded astonished. "You know what the Algarvians are doing to our people there. You'd never have let us stay here if you didn't."

"Every word of that is true." Hajjaj clamped his jaws shut tight after he finished speaking. He'd known this would be hard, brutally hard, and it was.

"Well, then," Vitols said, as if he expected the Zuwayzi foreign minister to change his mind on the instant and give his blessing to the Kaunians who wanted to go back to Forthweg and cause trouble for Algarve there.

But Hajjaj did not intend to change his mind. "No," he repeated.

"Why?" Vitols and Nemunas spoke together. Neither sounded as if he believed his ears.

"I will tell you why," Hajjaj replied. "Because, if you go back to your homeland and harass my cobelligerents, you make them more likely to lose the war."

Both Kaunian refugee leaders spoke several pungent phrases of a sort Hajjaj's language master had never taught him. He understood the sentiment if not the precise meaning of those phrases. At last, the Kaunians grew more coherent. "Of course we want to make them lose the war," Vitols said.

"Why wouldn't we?" Nemunas added. "They're murdering us."

"Why won't you let us strike back at them?" Vitols demanded. "Why don't you want them to lose the war? Why don't you curse them the way we curse them?"

"Because if Algarve loses the war, Zuwayza loses the war, too," Hajjaj said. "And if Zuwayza loses the war, King Swemmel is all too likely to serve my people as King Mezentio is serving yours."

"He wouldn't," Vitols said. "You might lose, you might even have to go back under Unkerlanter rule again, but you wouldn't get slaughtered."

"It is possible that you are right," Hajjaj admitted. "On the other hand, it is also possible that you are wrong. Knowing Swemmel, knowing the affront Zuwayza has given him, I must tell you that I do not care to take the chance. The things my cobelligerents have done horrify me. The things my foes could do if they get the chance horrify me more. I am sorry, gentlemen, but you cannot ask me to risk my people for the sake of yours."

Nemunas and Vitols put their heads together for a couple of minutes, muttering in low voices. When they were done, they both bowed to Hajjaj. Vitols spoke for them: "Very well, your Excellency. We understand your reasons. We don't agree, mind, but we understand. We'll obey. We wouldn't endanger your folk after you saved ours."

"I thank you." Hajjaj bowed in return. "I also require that obedience."

"You'll have it," Vitols said, and Nemunas nodded. The meeting ended a few minutes later.

On the way back to the ley-line caravan depot, Qutuz remarked, "They're lying."

"I know," Hajjaj said calmly.

"But…" his secretary said.

"I've done what I had to do," Hajjaj said. "I've warned them. Our ships will sink some of them. That will make the Algarvians happy. And if some do get back to Forthweg and raise trouble… that won't make me altogether unhappy." He smiled at Qutuz. The carriage rolled on toward Najran.


Krasta had been to a good many entertainments since joining herself with Colonel Lurcanio. Having a companion from among the victorious Algarvians with whom to go to entertainments had been one of the reasons, and not, perhaps, the least of them, why she'd let Lurcanio into her bed. But this one, at a wealthy cheese merchant's house in Priekule, struck her as the strangest of any of them.

After looking around at the other guests, she stuck her nose in the air, ostentatiously enough for Lurcanio to notice. "Is something troubling you, my sweet?" he asked, concern mostly masking the faint scorn in his voice.

"Something? Aye, something." Krasta struggled to put what she felt into words. Except when inspired by spite, she wasn't usually very articulate. What she came up with now was a horrified four-word outburst: "Who are these people?"

"Friends of Algarve, of course," Lurcanio said.

"Powers above help you, in that case." As soon as she spoke, Krasta realized she might have gone too far. She cared- Lurcanio, when annoyed, made life unpleasant for her- but only to a point. The trouble was, she'd spoken altogether too much truth.

Most gatherings since the redheads overran Valmiera featured mixed crowds. Krasta had grown to accept that. Some nobles, like her, made the best of things; others chose not to appear with the occupiers. Not all the female companions the Algarvians found for themselves were noblewomen, or even ladies. And a lot of the Valmieran men who worked hand in glove with Algarve conspicuously lacked noble blood.

But tonight's crowd… Except for Lurcanio- possibly except for Lurcanio, Krasta thought with a sweet dash of spite- the Algarvian officers were boors, busy getting drunk as fast as they could. The women with them were sluts; half of them were making plays for men of higher rank than the ones who'd brought them.

One of them, in too much powder and paint and not enough clothes, sidled up to Lurcanio, who didn't bother pretending he didn't notice her. "Go away," Krasta hissed at her. "You'll give him a disease."

"He already has one," the tart retorted. "You're here."

"What's your name?" Krasta asked sweetly. "Do you dare tell it? If they look in the constabulary records, how many solicitation charges will they find?"

She hadn't meant to be anything but bitchy, but the other woman, instead of going on with the row, turned pale under her thick makeup and found something else to do in a hurry.

"I have better taste than that, I assure you," Lurcanio said.

"Maybe you do." Krasta's eyes left her Algarvian lover's face and slid down to the front of his kilt. "I'm not so sure about him." Lurcanio threw back his head and laughed, for all the world as if she were joking.

She didn't enjoy her little triumph long. It oozed away as she went back to contemplating the company she was keeping. The Algarvian officers were bad. The Valmieran women were worse. But the Valmieran men were worst of all.

Even the handful of nobles depressed her. Backwoods counts and viscounts, they'd never shown their faces in Priekule before the Algarvians came- and there were good reasons why they hadn't. Krasta knew a couple of them by reputation. The Valmieran nobility was and always had been reactionary. Krasta despised commoners and was proud of it. But, even by her standards, that count over there- the one who belted his trousers with a short, nasty whip- went too far.

She had little use for the commoners in the crowd, either. Some people came from families that had been prominent for generations, even if they weren't noble. You could rely on folk like that. The ones here at the cheese merchant's… Krasta hadn't heard of any of them before the Algarvians took Priekule, and wished she hadn't heard of most of them since.

"We shall prevail," one of them told another not far away.

"Oh, aye, of course we shall," the other man answered. "We'll grind Swemmel into the dust. Plenty of time after that to settle with treacherous Lagoas."

Both men wore kilts and tunics not merely Algarvian in style but modeled after those of Algarvian soldiers. They'd grown side whiskers and little strips of chin beard, too; one of them waxed his mustaches so that they stuck out like horns. But for being blond and speaking Valmieran, they might have been born in Mezentio's kingdom.

Krasta nudged Lurcanio and pointed to the two men. "Buy them some hair dye and you could have a couple of new Algarvians to throw into the fighting against Unkerlant."

He surprised her by taking her seriously. "We've thought about that. But in Forthweg and in Algarve, hair dye has caused us more problems than it's solved, so we probably won't."

"What kind of trouble?" Krasta asked.

"People masquerading as things they aren't," the Algarvian colonel said. "We've pretty much put a stop to that by now- and about time, too, if you ask me."

"People masquerading," Krasta echoed. "The folk here are masquerading as things they aren't- as important people, I mean."

"Oh, but they are important," Lurcanio said. "They are very important indeed. Without them, how could we run Valmiera?"

"With your own men, of course," Krasta answered. "If you don't run Valmiera with your own men, why have you taken half my mansion?"

"Do you know what the Algarvians in your mansion do?" Lurcanio asked. "Have you any idea?"

Krasta didn't like his sardonic tone. She returned it, with venomous interest: "You mean, besides seducing the serving women? They run Priekule for your king." Spoken baldly like that, it seemed less shameful that Algarve should run a city that had never been hers.

Lurcanio clicked his heels and bowed. "You are correct. We run Priekule. And do you know how we run Priekule? Nine times out of ten, we go to some Valmieran and say, 'Do thus and so.' And he will bow and say, 'Aye, your Excellency.' And lo and behold, thus and so will be done. We have not the men to do all the thus and sos ourselves. We never did. With the war in the west drawing so many thither, having so many Algarvians here grows more impossible by the day. And so, as I say, we rule this kingdom and your countrymen run it for us."

Valmieran constables. Valmieran caravan conductors. Valmieran tax collectors. Even, Krasta supposed, Valmieran mages. And every one of them in the service, not of poor drunken King Gainibu, but of redheaded King Mezentio and the Algarvian occupiers.

She shuddered. Before she thought- nothing new for her- she said, "It reminds me of sheep leading other sheep to the slaughter."

Lurcanio started to reply, then checked himself. "There are times when I do believe that, given education and application, you could be formidable." He bowed to Krasta, who wasn't sure whether that constituted praise or dismissal. When she didn't say anything, he went on, "As for your metaphor, well, what do you think a bell wether is sometimes called upon to do? And what do you think happens to a ram when he is made into a wether?"

"I don't know," Krasta said, irritable again. "All I know is, you're confusing me."

"Am I?" Lurcanio's smile turned smug again. "Well, this isn't the first time, and I doubt it will be the last."

Krasta found one question more- one question too many, probably: "What will happen to all these people if Algarve loses the war?"

The smug smile slipped. "You may rest assured, my poppet, that will not happen. Life is not so easy as we wished it would be, but it is not so hard as our enemies wish it were, either. We struck Kuusamo a heavy blow not long ago- struck it from here in Valmiera, in fact." Lurcanio seemed on the point of saying more, but turned the subject instead: "But I will answer you, in a hypothetical sense. What would happen to them? Not what will, mind you, but what would? It should be obvious even to you: whatever the victors wanted."

If Algarve somehow lost the war, what would the victors do with those who had taken her side? Krasta couldn't stay on that high philosophical plane for long. As usual, her thoughts descended to the personal: if Algarve somehow lost, what would the victors do to her?

She shuddered again. That might have some distinctly nasty answers. She'd made her bed, made it and lain down in it and invited Lurcanio into it to keep her warm. Clasping his arm in sudden fright, she said, "Take me home."

"You listened to a ghost story and frightened yourself," Lurcanio said.

That was likely to be true. Krasta hoped it was. She would have held that hope even more strongly were Lurcanio not pursuing her brother, and had Skarnu not penned that sheet claiming all sorts of horrors in the west. But she'd chosen her side, and she had no idea how to unchoose it. "Take me home," she repeated.

Lurcanio sighed. "Oh, very well," he said. "Let me apologize to our gracious host" -he couldn't say that with a straight face, try as he would- "for leaving the festivities so early."

A chilly rain had begun to fall. They both put up the hoods to their cloaks as they hurried out to Lurcanio's carriage. He spoke to his driver in Algarvian. The driver, already hooded against the rain, nodded and got the horses moving. The carriage rolled away from the cheese merchant's house.

"I hope he can find his way back," Krasta said. "It's very dark. I can hardly see across the street."

"I expect he will manage," Lurcanio answered. "He used to have trouble, I know, but by now he has been here long enough to learn his way around." That was another way of saying Valmiera had been in Algarvian hands for quite a while. Krasta sighed and snuggled against Lurcanio, partly for warmth, partly to keep from thinking about the choices she'd made and the choices she might have made.

They hadn't gone far before a dull roar sounded off to the north, and then another and another. "The Lagoans," Krasta said. "They're dropping eggs on us again." Yet another burst of sorcerous energy echoed through Priekule, this one quite a bit closer.

"Well, so they are," Lurcanio answered. "Dropping them at random, too, in this weather. Charming people, there on the other side of the Strait." If he knew he was in danger, he gave no sign of it. He'd never lacked for courage.

"Should we find a shelter?" Krasta asked.

She felt rather than seeing Lurcanio shrug. "If you like," he said. "I think the odds favor us, though. He spoke in Algarvian to the driver, who laughed and replied in the same language. Lurcanio also laughed, and translated: "He says he is fated to be blazed by an outraged husband at the age of a hundred and three, and so he is not worried about Lagoan eggs."

That made Krasta laugh, too. Then an egg burst close enough for her to see its flash, close enough that a piece of its thin metal casing whined through the air past the carriage. It had certainly come down on somebody's head. Krasta knew she could have been that somebody. And she, unlike Lurcanio and his driver, had no Algarvian bravado to sustain her. She cursed the Lagoans all the way back to her mansion. Did they care about the Valmierans one bit more than Mezentio's men did? If so, she wished they would have found a different way to show it.


Things could have been worse. A few weeks before, watching Algarvian soldiers stream out of Durrwangen without orders, against orders, Colonel Sabrino would have had a hard time saying that. Now… Now it looked as if something might be salvaged in the southwest after all.

The colonel of dragonfliers wasn't the only one with that thought. At supper one evening at the wing's dragon farm, Captain Domiziano raised a glass of ferocious Unkerlanter spirits in salute and said, "Here's to General Solino. Looks like he really did know what he was doing."

He knocked back the spirits, coughing a little as he did so. Along with the rest of the officers, Sabrino also drank to the toast. Captain Orosio said, "Aye. Turns out we're better off with that army loose and able to hit back than we would have been if we'd pissed it away like the one down in Sulingen."

"Pity Solino's head had to roll," Domiziano said. "Doesn't seem fair."

Orosio shrugged. "The price you pay for being right."

"Aye, that's how things work," Sabrino agreed. "If you advance against orders to hold and something good comes of it, you're a hero. If you retreat against orders to hold, they'll reckon you a coward no matter what happens. Even if you were right, they'll figure you're liable to run away the next time, too." He pointed to the big plate of pork ribs in the middle of the table. "Pass me a couple more of those, somebody, if you please."

Once he had the ribs, he smeared them with horseradish sauce and gnawed all the meat off the bones. Like his own glass of spirits, the sauce gave the illusion of warmth. In an Unkerlanter winter, even the illusion was not to be despised.

Domiziano also spread the sauce over another rib. In between bites, he sighed and said, "This cursed war is jading my palate so I'll never properly appreciate a delicate sauce again."

Sabrino chuckled at that. "There are worse problems to have. I was in the trenches in the Six Years' War, and I know." Domiziano had been making messes in his drawers during the Six Years' War, if he'd been born at all. He looked at Sabrino as if he'd started speaking Gyongyosian. Orosio was only a little older, but he understood such things. His nod and, even more, his knowing expression said as much.

A dragon handler stuck his head into Sabrino's tent and said, "Sir, that new wing is starting to land at the farm."

"The one that had been flying against Lagoas?" Sabrino asked, and the handler nodded. Mischief glinting in his eyes, Sabrino turned back to his squadron commanders. "Well, gentlemen, shall we help them settle in? I'm sure they'll be delighted at the accommodations they find waiting for them here."

Even Domiziano recognized the irony there well enough to chuckle. Orosio laughed out loud. Sabrino got to his feet. His subordinates followed him out.

Cold bit at his nose and cheeks. He ignored it; he'd known worse. Sure enough, dragons spiraled down out of the cloudy sky along with the occasional snowflake. Many, many dragons… "Powers above," Sabrino said softly. "If that's not a full-strength wing, then I'm a naked black Zuwayzi." Wings with their full complement of sixty-four dragons and dragonfliers simply didn't exist in the war against Unkerlant. Whenever he got his up over half strength, he counted himself lucky.

Accompanied by a dragon handler, an officer he'd never seen before came up. "You are Colonel Sabrino?" the newcomer asked, and Sabrino admitted he was. After bows and an embrace and kisses on both cheeks, the other officer continued, "I am Colonel Ambaldo, and I was told you would arrange for the well-being of my dragons and my men."

"My handlers will do what they can, and we'll see what we can scrounge up in the way of extra tents and extra rations," Sabrino answered. "Anything you brought and anything you can steal will help a lot, though."

Ambaldo stared at him. "Is that a joke, my dear sir?"

"Not even close to one," Sabrino answered. "Let me guess. You've spent the whole war up till now in Valmiera? At some pretty little peasant village? With pretty blond women to darn your socks and warm your beds? It's not like that here."

"My dear sir, I have been fighting, too," Ambaldo said stiffly, "fighting against the vile air pirates of Lagoas and Kuusamo. You will please remember this fact."

Sabrino bowed again. "I didn't say you haven't been fighting. But I meant what I did say. It's not like that here. It's nothing like that here. The Unkerlanters really and truly hate us, or most of them do, anyway. We haven't got enough of anything to go around: not enough men, not enough dragons, not enough supplies, nothing. The current strength of my wing is thirty-one- I've just been reinforced."

"Thirty-one?" Ambaldo's eyes looked as if they'd pop out of his head. "Where are the rest, by the powers above?"

"Where do you think?" Sabrino said. "Dead or wounded. And a lot of the replacements that could have got sent to me went to some other wing instead."

"Do your superiors hate you so?" Ambaldo asked.

"No, no, no." Sabrino wondered if he could ever get through to this poor, naive soul. "They went to other wings because those were even further under strength than mine."

Orosio spoke up: "Colonel Ambaldo, sir, if you want to look good in your uniform, you can do that anywhere. If you want to fight a war and hurt the kingdom's enemies, this is the place."

"Who is this insolent man?" Ambaldo demanded of Sabrino. "I ask, you understand, so that my friends may speak to him."

"We don't duel on this front," Sabrino said. "Oh, there's no law or king's command against it, but we don't. The Unkerlanters kill too many of us; we don't make things easier for them by killing each other."

Ambaldo's eyebrows shot upwards. "Truly I have come to a barbarous country." Some of his officers walked up behind him. They were staring around in amazement at the landscape in which they found themselves.

Sabrino had a hard time blaming them. Had he been jerked out of a pleasant billet in Valmiera and plopped down in the wilds of Unkerlant, he would have been amazed, too, and not with delight. "Come on, gentlemen," he said. "We'll do what we can for you. We have to work together, after all."

The newcomers had brought some tents. Sabrino shoehorned the rest of their dragonfliers in with his men; he shoehorned Colonel Ambaldo in with himself. Getting enough meat for the new dragons would have been impossible if his dragon handlers hadn't come across the bodies of a couple of behemoths. Brimstone was not a problem. Brimstone had never been a problem. Quicksilver… He didn't have and couldn't get enough quicksilver to give his own dragons all they needed. He shared what he had with the new arrived wing.

Horseradish and raw Unkerlanter spirits did nothing to improve Ambaldo's mood. He kept muttering things like, "What did we do to deserve this?" Since Sabrino didn't know whom Ambaldo might have offended, he couldn't very well answer that. At last, to his relief, the other wing commander pulled himself together and asked, "What is to be done?"

"Here." Sabrino pointed to a map. "The Unkerlanters have failed to concentrate their forces as they should have. Instead of one large attack advancing from Durrwangen to some other point that could anchor their whole line, they've sent columns out in several directions, none of them with its far end secured by a river or mountains or anything we can't maneuver around. And so, we're going to cut those columns off and then cut them up." He showed what he meant with several quick gestures.

Ambaldo studied the map. "Do we have the force here to bring this off?"

Good. Sabrino thought with more relief. He's not a fool. "On paper, the Unkerlanters always have more than we do," he answered. "But, for one thing, we're better than they are, no matter how much Swemmel babbles about efficiency. And, for another" -he grimaced- "our mages work stronger magic killing Kaunians than theirs do, slaughtering their own peasants."

Ambaldo didn't just grimace. He reached for the jar of spirits, poured his mug full, and gulped it down. "They really do those things here, then?" he said. "Nobody in Valmiera much wanted to talk about them- we were living among blonds, after all."

"They do them," Sabrino answered grimly. "So do we. By the end of this fight, only one side will be left standing. It's as simple as that." He hated that truth with all his soul, but hating it made it no less a truth. Colonel Ambaldo drank more spirits.

But Ambaldo was ready to fly again the next day, and so were his dragons. In spite of their long journey from Valmiera, Sabrino envied them their condition. They'd eaten better and fought less than any wing here in the west.

And they proved professionally competent; they plastered an Unkerlanter strongpoint northeast of Durrwangen with eggs and swooped low to attack a ley-line caravan surely loaded with enemy soldiers. They left the caravan a flaming wreck. Sabrino, whose smaller, more depleted wing accompanied and guided them on their attacks, found nothing about which he could complain.

Ambaldo's image appeared in his crystal. "Why didn't we win the war here long ago, if this is the best the Unkerlanters can do?" demanded the wing commander from out of the west.

Before Sabrino could reply, the Unkerlanters gave Ambaldo an answer of their own. Dragons painted rock-gray hurled themselves at the Algarvians in the air. As usual, Swemmel's men flew with less skill than the Algarvians they attacked- and Ambaldo's dragonfliers showed they had as much skill aboard their mounts as any other Algarvians. But there were, also as usual, a demon of a lot of Unkerlanters. Ambaldo's wing had holes torn in it, even though it gave better than it got.

So did Sabrino's. He was, by now, long since used to scraping by and making do with whatever replacements he happened to get- if he happened to get any. He wondered how Ambaldo's men would fare in a place where, without scrounging and improvising, they couldn't hope to keep going. They hadn't had to do such things in Valmiera- that was plain from the abundance they'd brought west.

Down on the ground, Algarvian troopers and behemoths were moving toward the places the dragons had pounded. Sabrino wondered if they included regiments and brigades plucked from occupation duty in Valmiera or Jelgava and carried across a good stretch of Derlavai by ley-line caravan so they could get into this fight. He rather hoped so. He'd gone on peacetime holiday to the beaches of northern Jelgava. Occupation duty there had to be a true hardship- he rolled his eyes, thinking of how dreadful patrolling beaches full of nearly naked bathers had to be. A little frostbite would go a long way toward fixing the sunburn from which those troopers might be suffering.

And then the ground shook down below: literally, for he could see the ripples as it writhed like an animal in pain. Here and there, purple flames shot up through the snow and stabbed toward the heavens. What had been Unkerlanter strongpoints were wrecked, ruined, ravaged.

Sabrino's sardonic smile slipped. How many Kaunians had died to power that magecraft? However many it was, even troops plucked from pleasant occupation duty should have been able to exploit the holes it tore in the Unkerlanter line.


Garivald was on sentry-go when the Grelzer company strode into the forest Munderic's band of irregulars reckoned all their own. He didn't see the Grelzers till they were quite close; snow was falling fairly heavily, cloaking things in the middle and far distance from his eyes.

When he did spy them, he pulled the hood of his white snow smock down low on his forehead, making sure it covered his dark hair. Then he slipped back through the bare-branched woods toward the clearing where the irregulars had their headquarters. He moved far faster than the soldiers who'd chosen Raniero the Algarvian puppet rather than Swemmel of Unkerlant. He knew where he was going, while the Grelzers couldn't be sure- he hoped they couldn't be sure- just where in the woods the irregulars lurked.

He'd got about halfway to the clearing when a soft, clear voice called a challenge: "Who goes?"

"It's me, Obilot- Garivald," he answered.

She slid out from behind a birch, her snow smock hardly lighter than its pale bark. Her stick didn't quite point at him, but wouldn't have to move far to do so. After she recognized that it was indeed he, she demanded, "Why aren't you at your post?"

"Because there's a great mob of Grelzers not very far behind me," he answered. "We'd better get ready to beat them back if we can, or to make sure they don't find us if we can't."

Her mouth twisted. "Fair enough," she said, and then, "Can we make sure they don't find us? It's not like they're Algarvians or those mercenaries from up in Forthweg."

"I know," Garivald said unhappily. Except in their choice of a king, the Grelzers who favored Raniero weren't much different from the ones who still carried on the fight against him and against Algarve. Some of them would have hunted in this forest in peacetime, hunted or come here to gather mushrooms or honey. They might not know where the irregulars denned, but they would have some idea.

"Go on, then," Obilot said. "You haven't got time to waste." Garivald nodded and plunged on through the woods.

He got challenged once more before reaching the clearing: Munderic was not about to be taken by surprise. The other irregular also passed him through after only a few words. Raniero's troopers hadn't come into the forest in force for quite a while.

When he trotted, panting, into the clearing, he wanted to shout out his warning. He didn't, not knowing how far behind him the Grelzer troopers were, he didn't want to risk their hearing a wild cry of alarm. Instead, he called out the news urgently but without panic or excitement in his voice.

That did what wanted doing. The irregulars came boiling out of their makeshift shelters, almost all of them clutching sticks. "What do we do?" Garivald asked Munderic. "Do we fight them, or do we try to get away?"

Munderic gnawed on his lower lip. "I don't know," he answered. "I just don't know. What kind of soldiers are they? That's the rub. If they just go forward till they bump into something and then run away, that's one thing. But if they're like that bunch we ran into on the way to the ley line…" He scowled and shook his head. "Those whoresons meant it, powers below eat them."

"Let's fight 'em!" Sadoc boomed. If the makeshift mage favored fighting, that in itself was to Garivald a strong argument against it.

Munderic had more confidence in Sadoc's sorcerous abilities than Garivald thought wise. Any confidence in Sadoc's sorcerous abilities was more than Garivald thought wise. But the leader of the irregulars never had believed Sadoc made much of a general. Munderic said, "No, I think we'd do better to pick the fight ourselves and not let those bastards do it for us. Let's slide into the woods off to the west and see if we can't give 'em the slip."

Another irregular hurried into the clearing with word of the advancing Grelzers. That seemed to decide the men and the handful of women there against arguing with Munderic. They left the clearing by ones and twos, slipping deeper into the woods. Munderic gestured to Garivald, who nodded. They hurried out together.

"We've played these games before," Munderic said. "Remember the fun we had when the Algarvians tried to chase us out of here?"

"Oh, aye," Garivald answered. "I'm not likely to forget- I was part of it, after all."

But befooling the Algarvians in summer, when trees in full leaf gave extra cover and when dirt didn't hold tracks so well, was a business different from confusing Grelzer soldiers here in winter, where the trees were bare and when snow on the ground told trackers too much. Maybe Munderic didn't want to think about that. Maybe he just didn't believe the irregulars could make a standup fight. And maybe he was right not to believe that, too.

If he was, though, what did that say about how much good the irregulars were doing in their fight against Algarve and her puppets? Maybe Garivald didn't want to think about that.

Munderic pointed to a snow-covered boulder. "Shall we flop down behind that and pot ourselves a couple of those Grelzer traitors if they try and come after us?"

"Aye. Why not?" Garivald said. "I wondered if you intended to do any fighting."

"Oh, I'll fight… now and again," Munderic answered, not much put out. "I'll fight when I can hurt the enemy and he can't do much to hurt me. Or I'll fight when I haven't got any other choice. Otherwise, I'll run like a rabbit. I'm not doing this for the glory of it."

There he sounded very much like an Unkerlanter peasant- or perhaps like a soldier who'd been in enough fights to realize he didn't want to be in a whole lot more. Garivald stretched out behind the boulder. Munderic had certainly been in enough fights to know good cover when he saw it. Garivald barely had to lift his head to have a perfect view of the route by which the pursuers would likely come- and they would have a demon of a time spotting him.

By the happy grunt Munderic let out from the other side of the boulder, his position was just as good. "We'll sting them here, so we will," he said.

"You could have Sadoc make a great magic and sweep the Grelzers to destruction," Garivald said, unable to resist the gibe.

"Oh, shut up," the leader of the irregulars muttered. He turned his head to glare at Garivald. "All right, curse you, I'll admit it: he's a menace when he tries to do magecraft. There. Are you happy?"

"Happier, anyhow." But Garivald didn't have long to celebrate his tiny triumph- he spied motion through the dancing snow and flattened himself behind the rock. "They're coming."

"Aye." Munderic must have seen it, too: his voice dropped to a thin thread of whisper. "We'll make them pay."

The Grelzers advanced as confidently as if they'd taken lessons in arrogance from their Algarvian overlords. Garivald thought Munderic would tell him to wait, not to hurry, to let the enemy come close before he started blazing. But Munderic kept his mouth shut. It wasn't because the Grelzers were already so close, he'd give himself away; they weren't. It was, Garivald realized after a long moment's silence, because he himself had turned into a veteran, and could be trusted to do the right thing without being told.

He waited. Then he waited some more. We'll know what kind of soldiers they are as soon as the blazing starts, he thought. That made him want to wait even longer. Not knowing, he could imagine that the men who followed the Algarvian-imposed King of Grelz were a pack of cowards who'd run right away. The last thing he cared to do was discover he was wrong.

At last, he couldn't wait anymore. A couple of soldiers with white smocks over the dark green of Grelz were within ten or twelve paces of the boulder. They were looking off into the trees farther west; if they hadn't been, they surely would have spotted Munderic or him.

Garivald slipped his finger out through the hole in his mitten and into the blazing hole on his stick. The beam leaped forth. It caught a Grelzer square in the chest. He stopped as abruptly as if he'd walked into a stone wall, then crumpled. Munderic blazed his companion, not so neatly- the second Grelzer started howling like a dog a wagon had run over and tried to drag himself away. Munderic blazed him again. He shuddered and lay still.

"Urra!" the irregulars in the rear guard shouted as they started blazing down the men who'd invaded their forest. "King Swemmel! Urra!" If they made as much noise as they could, the Grelzers might think they had more men than they really did.

They were blazing from ambush, every one of them, and took their foes by surprise. A good many Grelzers went down. But the others dashed for cover with a speed that warned they had a good notion of what they were doing. They raised shouts of their own: "Raniero of Grelz!" "Death to Swemmel the tyrant!" "Grelz and freedom!"

"Grelz and the Algarvians' cock up your arse!" Garivald yelled back- not a splendid song lyric, but a fine insult. A Grelzer, shouting with fury, hopped up from behind the bush where he crouched. Garivald blazed him. He'd never been trained in the proper response to literary criticism, but had considerable natural talent.

A beam sizzled snow not far from Garivald's head: one of the critic's comrades, protesting his sudden abridgement. Garivald blazed back, making the Grelzer keep his head down. Then he glanced over at Munderic. "Most of the band will have slid off to some other hidey-holes. Don't you think it's about time we did the same?"

"Aye, we'd better," Munderic agreed. "Otherwise they'll flank us out and rip us to pieces. The redheads would, and these whoresons have been taking lessons."

Garivald scrambled back toward a pine. More beams sent up gouts of steam as the Grelzers tried to make sure he'd sing no more songs. But he made it to the tree, scuttled behind it, and started blazing at Raniero's men again.

Munderic had waited till Garivald could cover him before retreating himself. The leader of the irregulars dashed off toward a bush thickly covered with snow. He never made it. A beam caught him in the flank as he ran. He let out a horrible scream and fell in the snow. He crawled on for another few feet, leaving a long trail of scarlet behind him. Then, as if very tired, he let his hands slip out from under him and sprawled at full length. He might have been lying down to sleep, but from this sleep he would not awaken.

Cursing, Garivald blundered west through the forest, blazing now and then but also doing his best to shake off the Grelzers. He finally did; they weren't cowards, but the irregulars knew the routes they'd made through these woods better than they did. Munderic's men had made false trails, too, and punished the Grelzers from ambush when they came charging down them.

Every time he came on some of his fellows, Garivald had to tell them Munderic was dead. It tore at him; he hadn't had such a hard time speaking of a death since his own father's. At least, near sundown, the irregulars- those who survived- gathered in a clearing well to the west of the one they'd called their own. Garivald started to say something. Then he saw all of them looking straight at him. "Not me!" he exclaimed, but his comrades nodded as one man. He never would have joined a band of irregulars on his own, but now he led one.


Come on!" Sergeant Werferth shouted. "Keep moving. That's what we've got to do, keep moving. We're calling the tune now, not those Unkerlanter barbarians. Shake a leg, boys, or you'll be sorry."

"Slave driver," Sidroc muttered to Ceorl as they tramped south and west over a field in southern Unkerlant. "All he needs is a whip."

"Shut up, boy," the ruffian answered. "Don't give him ideas." But he didn't sound so sour as usual. Plegmund's Brigade was moving forward for the first time in weeks, and that made up for a multitude of failings.

"There." Werferth pointed to a couple of troops of Algarvian behemoths up ahead. "We'll form up with them."

"If they don't try and blaze us or toss eggs at us first, we will," Ceorl said, and spat in the snow. "Half the time, these fornicating idiots think we're Unkerlanters our own selves." He spat again, as offended as any Forthwegian would be to get mistaken for his cousins to the west.

Sidroc made such excuses for the Algarvians as he could: "Some of these fellows we're seeing here at the front don't look like they ever set eyes on an Unkerlanter before, let alone a Forthwegian. They've been doing occupation duty somewhere off in the east."

"Powers below eat 'em for it, too," Ceorl said. "They've been eating and drinking and screwing themselves silly, and we've been doing their fighting and dying for them. About time they started earning their cursed keep."

"Aye, that's so," Sidroc admitted. "It won't do us much good if they do decide we're Unkerlanters, though."

For a moment, it looked as if the behemoth crews would think the men shouting and waving and advancing on them belonged to the enemy. Only when the Algarvian officers leading the Forthwegians came out in front of them did the redheads on the behemoths relax… a little.

"Plegmund's Brigade?" one of them said as Sidroc and his comrades approached. "What in the futtering blazes is Plegmund's Brigade? Sounds like a futtering disease, that's what." A couple of the other troopers on the behemoth laughed and nodded.

Not bothering to keep his voice down, Sidroc asked Werferth, "Sergeant, can we whale the stuffing out of these redheaded fools before we go on and deal with the Unkerlanters?"

With what looked like real regret, Werferth shook his head. Since Sidroc had spoken in Forthwegian, the Algarvians aboard the behemoth didn't know what he'd said. But one of the redheaded officers with the Brigade said what amounted to the same thing- "We'll show you what we are, by the powers above!" -and said it in unmistakable Algarvian.

Sidroc stood very straight, his chest swelling with pride. But Ceorl only grunted. "That means they'll spend us the way a rich whore spends coppers. They'll throw us away to prove we're brave."

"Bite your tongue, curse it!" Werferth exclaimed. Sidroc was scowling, too; Ceorl's words had a horrid feel of probability to them.

The soldiers of Plegmund's Brigade had to march hard to keep up with the advancing behemoths. "Bastards would slow down a little for their own kind," Sidroc grumbled.

"Maybe," Werferth said. "But maybe not, too. Getting there fast counts in this business."

War had already swept its red-hot rake over the countryside, swept it coming and going. All the villages had been fought over, most of them twice, some, by their look, more often than that. The Unkerlanter soldiers based in the ruined villages seemed astonished to find King Mezentio's men moving forward once more.

Astonished or not, the Unkerlanters fought hard. From everything Sidroc had seen, they always did. But footsoldiers without behemoths were at a great disadvantage facing footsoldiers with them. Sidroc had already had his nose rubbed in that lesson. Before long, and at small cost, they cleared several villages, one after the other.

"Forward!" shouted the Algarvian officers attached to Plegmund's Brigade. "Forward!" shouted the officers who led the behemoths. Across the snowy fields, Sidroc saw Algarvian footsoldiers moving forward, too.

"We've doubled back around the Unkerlanters," he said in considerable excitement. "If we can cut them off, we'll give 'em a good kick in the arse."

"Thanks, Marshal Sidroc," Ceorl said. "I'm sure you'll be telling King Mezentio where to go and what to do one fine day."

"I'll tell you where to go and what to do when the powers below drag you down there," Sidroc retorted.

And that was plenty to set Ceorl off. "Don't you talk to me like that, you son of a whore," he snarled. "You talk to me like that, I'll cut your fornicating heart out and eat it with onions."

Back in the Brigade's training camp, Ceorl had frightened the whey out of Sidroc. He was a robber, likely a murderer, and Sidroc had led a quiet, prosperous life till the war turned everything on its head. But a lot had changed since the Brigade came to Unkerlant. Sidroc had seen and done things every bit as dreadful as anything Ceorl had done. He looked at the ruffian and said, "Come ahead. I'll give you all you want."

Ceorl snarled again and grabbed for his knife. "Stop that, you stupid buggers, or you'll answer to the redheads," Sergeant Werferth growled. "After we win the war, you two can do whatever you want to each other, and I won't care a fart's worth. Till then, you're stuck with each other."

Sidroc kept his hand on his own knife hilt till he saw Ceorl lower his. As the Forthwegians marched on, he kept watching his countryman. In spite of Werferth's order, he didn't trust Ceorl. Ceorl was watching him, too. The way he watched reassured Sidroc- it wasn't contemptuous, but a look that said Ceorl had something to worry about, and knew it.

Werferth was watching both of them. "Powers above, you lackwits, show some sense," he said after about half a mile. "What's the point in going after each other when the Unkerlanters are liable to do worse to you than either one of you could dream of?"

That held an unpleasant amount of sense. Sidroc saw as much at once. For a wonder, Ceorl saw it, too. The frozen, twisted corpses lying in the snow they passed made it easier for Werferth to get his point across.

Someone up ahead shouted and pointed. There were more Unkerlanters, tramping south across the plains. They had a few behemoths with them, but only a few. Officers' whistles squealed in Plegmund's Brigade and among the Algarvians. The same order rang out among them all: "Forward!"

Swemmel's men, intent on their retreat, didn't notice the attack developing against their flank till too late. Sidroc soon discovered why: they were falling back under pursuit from the north. Eggs burst among them, kicking up puffs of snow and knocking over footsoldiers and a couple of behemoths. One of the behemoths, to his disappointment, scrambled back to its feet, though without most of its crew.

His comrades and he flopped down in the snow and started blazing at the Unkerlanters. The Algarvian behemoths plastered them with more eggs. Beams from heavy sticks seared three Algarvian behemoths in quick succession. They also sent up great gouts of steam when they bit into the snow.

"Forward!" the officers cried, and the men of Plegmund's Brigade, along with their Algarvian allies, got up again and rushed toward the enemy.

We're going to get killed, Sidroc thought, even as he slogged through the snow. He'd seen Unkerlanter troops fierce in attack and stubborn in defense. Now, for once, he saw them taken by surprise and panic-stricken. A few of the men in rock-gray tunics stood their ground and blazed at the Algarvians and Forthwegians, but more simply fled. Quite a few threw their hands in the air and surrendered.

"You're a Grelzer?" one of those asked Sidroc as Sidroc stole his weapon and money and food. Unkerlanter and Forthwegian were cousins; Sidroc had no great trouble understanding the question.

"No. Plegmund's Brigade," he answered. That didn't seem to mean anything to the captive. Well, we'll make it mean something to these whoresons, Sidroc thought. He gestured with his stick. The Unkerlanter, hands still high, headed north, away from the fighting. Sooner or later, someone would take charge of him. He was far from the only captive who needed to be gathered in.

King Swemmel's soldiers kept running. A few tried to make a stand in a little village in the path of Plegmund's Brigade, but the Forthwegians were so close behind them, they got in among the houses at almost the same time as the Unkerlanters did.

Shrieks from a couple of peasant huts brought howls of delight from the men of the Brigade. "Women!" somebody yelled, as if those screams needed to be identified. Either the local peasants had never left this place or they'd returned, thinking men who fought for Mezentio would never come so far again. If that was what they'd thought, they'd miscalculated.

They'd also given the Forthwegians one more reason to finish off the enemy soldiers in the village as fast as they could. The Unkerlanters wouldn't have lasted long anyhow, not when they were badly outnumbered and unable to form a defensive line. As things were, they vanished as if they had never been.

And then the other hunt was on. By twos and threes, the men of Plegmund's Brigade hammered down the door to every hut in the village.

Only an ancient woman and an even more ancient man stared in horror as Sidroc and Ceorl and another trooper burst into the hut where they'd lived for most if not all of their lives. Ceorl stared in disgust. "You're no cursed good!" he exclaimed, and blazed them both.

But screams and excited shouts from next door sent the men from Plegmund's Brigade rushing over there. Two of their comrades were holding a woman down while a third pumped between her legs. One of the men holding her looked up and said, "Wait your turn, boys. Won't be long- we've all gone without for a long time."

Sidroc took his turn when it came. Back in Gromheort, there were laws against such things. No law here, only winners and losers. The Unkerlanter peasant woman had stopped screaming. Sidroc knelt and thrust and grunted as pleasure shot through him. Then he got to his feet, fixed his drawers, and picked up his stick, which he'd set down for a little while.

Ceorl took his place. He was glad he'd gone before the ruffian; it made him less likely to need a physician's services later on.

Outside, whistles were screeching. Algarvian officers were yelling: "Forward! Come on, you filthy cockhounds!"

Regretfully, Sidroc left the hut. The chilly wind smote him. Sergeant Werferth waved him south and west. "Did you get any?" Sidroc asked.

Werferth nodded. "Wouldn't let it go to waste."

With a nod of his own, Sidroc fell in behind the squad leader. The army was advancing. He'd enjoyed the fruits of victory. War didn't look so bad.


"Another big Algarvian victory near Durrwangen!" a news-sheet vendor shouted to Vanai. "Unkerlanters falling back in disorder!" He waved the sheet, doing his best to tempt her.

"No," she said, and hurried past him toward her block of flats. She had to hurry. She'd been out longer than she'd planned to be. Somehow, time had got away from her. She didn't know how long she would go on looking like a Forthwegian.

Worse, she wouldn't know when she stopped looking like a Forthwegian. She couldn't see the spell that kept her safe. It was for others, not for herself.

She was almost running now. She kept waiting for the cry of, "Kaunian!" to ring out behind her. Oh, her hair was dyed black, but that wouldn't save her once her features shifted.

Only a few more blocks to go- a few more crowded blocks, a few more blocks full of Forthwegians, full of people all too many of whom hated Kaunians. If the Forthwegians hadn't hated Kaunians, how could the Algarvians have done what they'd done to Vanai's people? They couldn't. She knew it only too well.

She imagined she felt the enchantment slipping away. Of course it was imagination; she couldn't feel the enchantment at all, any more than she could see it. But she could feel the fright welling up inside her. If she couldn't renew the spell- if she couldn't renew it now- she thought she would go mad. Wait till she got to the flat? It might be too late. Powers above, it might be too late!

And then she let out what was almost a sob of relief. Not the block of flats- not even her street, not yet- but the next best thing: the Forthwegian apothecary's shop whose proprietor had given her medicine for Ealstan even though, in those days, she'd not only been a Kaunian but looked like one, and who'd passed her spell on to the other Kaunians in Eoforwic.

She had a length of yellow yarn and a length of dark brown in her handbag. She always kept them there against emergencies- but she hadn't thought today would turn out to be an emergency, not when she went outside she hadn't. If the apothecary would let her use a back room for a few minutes, she'd be safe again for hours on end.

When she walked in, he was molding pills in a little metal press. "Good day," he said from behind the high counter. "And how may I help you?"

"Could I please go into some quiet little room?" she asked. "When I come out again, I'll feel much better, much… safer." She was pretty sure he already knew she was a Kaunian- who else but a Kaunian would have given him such a spell? Even so, fear made her stop short of coming out and saying it.

But he only smiled and nodded and said, "Of course. Come around behind here and right on into my storeroom. Take as much time as you need. I'm sure you'll look the same when you come out as you do now."

The spell hadn't slipped yet, then. "Powers above bless you!" Vanai exclaimed, and hurried into the room. The apothecary shut the door behind her and, she supposed, went back to grinding pills.

Only a small, dim lamp lit the room. It was full of jars and vials and pots that crowded shelves and one little table set into a back corner. Vanai breathed in a heady mixture of poppy juice and mint and licorice and laurel and camphor and at least half a dozen other odors she couldn't name right away. She took a couple of long, deep breaths and smiled. If she had anything wrong with her lungs, she wouldn't when she came out.

She fished through her handbag- far less convenient than a belt pouch, but Forthwegian women didn't belt their tunics, using them to conceal their figures- till she found the lengths of yarn. She set them on the table, twisting them together, and began her chant.

Because it was in classical Kaunian, a forbidden language in Forthweg these days, she kept her voice very low: she didn't want to endanger the apothecary who'd done so much for her and for Kaunians all over the kingdom. She would have been amazed if he were able to hear her through the door.

Just as she was finishing the cantrip, she distinctly heard him say, "Good day. And how may I help you gentlemen?" Maybe he spoke a little louder than usual to warn her someone else had come into the shop; maybe the wood of the door just wasn't very thick. Either way, she was glad she'd incanted quietly. She waited in the little storeroom, sure the apothecary would let her know when it was safe to come out.

And then one of the newcomers said, "You are someone who knows of the filthy magics the Kaunian scum make to disguise themselves." He spoke fluent Forthwegian, but with a trilling Algarvian accent.

"I don't know what you're talking about," the apothecary answered calmly. "Can I interest you in a horehound-and-honey cough elixir? You sound stuffy, and I've just mixed up a new batch."

In the little storeroom, Vanai shivered with terror. She hadn't wanted to bring the man danger by casting her spell too loudly, but she'd brought him worse danger, deadly danger, by asking him to pass it on to her fellow Kaunians. And now the redheads were here, and one jump away from her.

She wanted to jump out from the storeroom and attack them, as if she were the heroine of one of the trashy Forthwegian romances of which she'd read so many while cooped up in the flat. Common sense told her that would only ruin her along with the apothecary. She stayed where she was, hating herself for it.

"You are a whorehound, and a son of a whorehound besides," the Algarvian said. He and his comrade both laughed loudly at his wit. "You are also a lying son of a whorehound, and you are going to pay for it. Come with us right now, and we shall have the truth from you."

"I have given you the truth," the apothecary said.

"You have given us dung, and told us it is perfume," the Algarvian retorted. "Now you come with us, or we blaze you where you stand. Here! Hold! What are you doing?"

"Taking a pill," the apothecary said, his voice easy and relaxed. "I've been getting over the grippe. Let me swallow it down, and I am yours."

"You are ours, all right. Now we have you in our grip." Mezentio's man, along with his other depravities, fancied himself a punster.

"I go with you under protest, for you are seizing an innocent man," the apothecary said.

That sent both Algarvians into gales of laughter. Vanai leaned forward and ever so cautiously pressed her ear to the door. Receding footsteps told her of the redheads' departure with their captive. She didn't hear the front door slam behind them. The Algarvians wouldn't care who plundered the shop, while the apothecary, bless him, was giving her a way to slip off without drawing notice to herself.

She waited. Then she opened the door the tiniest crack and peered out. Not seeing anyone, she darted out from behind the counter and into the front part of the shop, as if she were an ordinary customer. Then, as casually as she could, she left the place and strode out onto the street.

Nobody asked her what she was doing coming out of the shop bare minutes after a couple of Algarvians had hauled away the proprietor. Nobody paid her any heed at all, in fact. A good-sized crowd had gathered down at the end of the block.

Confident now that she would keep on looking Forthwegian, Vanai hurried over to find out what was going on. She saw two redheads in the middle of the crowd: they overtopped the Forthwegians around them by several inches. One of them said, "We did not touch him, by the powers above! He just fell over."

She'd heard that voice in the apothecary's shop. The Algarvian wasn't punning now. His partner bent down, disappearing from Vanai's view. A moment later, he spoke in his own language: "He's dead."

The day was cool and gloomy, but sunshine burst in Vanai. She didn't know, but she would have bet her life what the apothecary had taken had nothing to do with the grippe. The Algarvians reached the same conclusion a heartbeat later. They both started cursing in their own language. "He cheated us, the stinking bugger!" cried the one who'd done all the talking in Forthwegian.

"If he weren't already dead, I'd kill him for that," the other one answered.

The one who did the talking in Forthwegian started waving his arms. That got him attention, not least because he held a short, deadly looking stick in his right hand. "Go away!" he shouted. "This criminal, this dog who hid Kaunians, has escaped our justice, but the fight against the menace of the blonds goes on."

Vanai wondered how many in the crowd were sorcerously disguised Kaunians like herself. Because the Forthwegian majority left without a word of protest, she couldn't stay. She had to act as it she were a person who despised her own kind. It left her sick inside, even as she realized she had no choice.

She had to walk past the apothecary's shop on the way back to her block of flats. People were already going in and starting to clean the place out. Vanai wanted to scream at them, but would good would that do? Again, none at all. It would only draw the Algarvians' notice, the one thing she couldn't afford, the thing the apothecary had kept from happening.

"He's dead because of what I did," she said to Ealstan when he came home that evening. "How do I live with that?"

"He'd want you to," Ealstan answered. "He killed himself so Mezentio's men couldn't pry anything about you out of him- and so they couldn't torment him, of course."

"But they wouldn't have had anything to torment him about if it weren't for me," Vanai said.

"And if it weren't for you and it weren't for him, how many Kaunians who are still alive would be dead now?" her husband returned.

It was a good question. It had no good answer. No matter how obvious its truth, Vanai still felt terrible. And she had an argument of her own: "He shouldn't have died for what he did. He should be a hero. He is a hero."

"Not to the Algarvians," Ealstan said.

"A pestilence take the Algarvians!" Vanai glared at him, starting to get really angry. "They're evil, nothing else."

"They would say the same about Kaunians. A lot of Forthwegians would say the same about Kaunians," Ealstan replied. "They really believe it. I used to think they knew they were doing wrong. I'm not so sure anymore."

"That doesn't make it any better," Vanai snapped. "If anything, that makes it worse. If they can't tell the difference between right and wrong…"

"It makes it more complicated," Ealstan said. "The more I look at things, the more complicated they get." His mouth twisted. "I wonder if your magic would work on Ethelhelm."

"If it did, maybe he wouldn't have to sell himself to the Algarvians any more." Vanai drummed her fingers on the table. "I suppose you're going to tell me that's complicated, too."

"I sometimes have some sympathy for him," Ealstan answered. "He tried to make a little bargain with the redheads, and-"

Vanai pounced. "And he found out you can't make a little bargain with evil."

Ealstan thought about that. Slowly, he nodded. "Maybe you're right. Ethelhelm would say you were."

"I should hope so," Vanai said. "When you're a mouse, there's nothing complicated about a hawk." She stared a challenge at Ealstan. He didn't argue with her, which was one of the wiser things he'd done, or hadn't done, since they were married.


Cornelu thought no one could possibly hate the Algarvians more than he did. They'd invaded and occupied his kingdom. Powers above, they'd invaded and occupied his wife. But the two men who met him at the leviathan pen in Setubal harbor gave him pause.

They stared at him out of chilly, gray-blue eyes. "You look too much like one of Mezentio's men," one of them said in Lagoan spoken with a rather mushy Valmieran accent.

He drew himself up with all the dignity he had. "I am of Sibiu," he replied. "This for Mezentio's men." He spat on the timbers of the pier.

"Some Sibians fight side by side with Algarve," the other Valmieran said. "Some Sibians…" He spoke too rapidly for Cornelu to follow.

Whatever it was, the tone made him bristle. Switching to classical Kaunian, he said, "Perhaps you will explain yourself, sir, in a language with which I am more familiar than that of this kingdom. Or perhaps you will apologize for what certainly sounded as if it might be a slur against my own homeland."

"I apologize for nothing," the second Valmieran said in the language of his imperial ancestors. "I spoke nothing but the truth: some of your countrymen, in Algarvian service, go forward because some of my fellow Kaunians were murdered to make magic against the Unkerlanters."

Cornelu started to let his temper slip. But then he checked himself. Sibiu was occupied, aye. The kingdom was sad and hungry and grim. He'd seen it for himself after his leviathan was killed off his home island of Tirgoviste, seen it till he could escape again. He had no doubt that a good many Sibians known to be unfriendly to King Mezentio no longer remained among the living. But the Valmieran was right: Mezentio's minions hadn't started massacring Sibians, as they had Kaunians from Forthweg.

He bowed and spoke one word: "Algarve." Then he spat again.

The Valmierans looked at each other. Grudgingly, the one who'd accused Cornelu of looking too much like one of Mezentio's men said, "It could be that even men with red hair can hate Algarve."

Lagoas was a land of mostly redhaired folk. Somehow, the Valmieran exiles seemed not to have noticed that. Still speaking classical Kaunian- his Lagoan remained bad, and Sibian, being so close to Algarvian, would have set their teeth on edge if they understood it- Cornelu said, "I shall take you across the Strait of Valmiera. Help your countrymen resist."

That last was a barb of its own. A lot of Valmierans, nobles and commoners alike, weren't resisting but acquiescing in Algarvian rule. By the way the two exiles flinched, they knew it too well. Jelgava was the same way; Cornelu had brought home a sorcerously disguised Kuusaman who was stirring up trouble there.

"Let us be off," the first Valmieran said. "Enough talk back and forth."

"That is well said," Cornelu answered. It was, as far as he was concerned, the first thing these supercilious blonds had said well. One could see why the Algarvians… He shook his head. He didn't want his thoughts gliding down that ley line, even in annoyance.

He slapped the surface of the water in the leviathan pen. That let the beast know who he was and that he was allowed, even required, to be here. Had he got into the water without the slaps, the leviathan might have recognized him; they'd been working together for a while now. Had the arrogant Valmierans got into the water without the recognition signal, their end would have been swift and unpleasant.

Up to the surface came the leviathan. It pointed its long, toothy snout at Cornelu and let out a surprisingly shrill squeak. He patted the slick, smooth skin, then reached into a bucket on the pier and tossed it a couple of fish. They disappeared as if they had never been, fast enough to make anyone watching glad the leviathan was tame and well trained.

Smiling an unpleasant smile, Cornelu threw the beast another mackerel. As its great teeth closed on the tidbit, he turned that smile on the Valmierans he was to ferry across the strait and back to their own kingdom. "Shall we go, gentlemen?" he asked as he slid down into the water.

They looked at each other before answering. At last, one of them said, "Aye," and they both got in.

They weren't leviathan-riders; if Cornelu had to guess, he would have said they'd never done this before, not even once. He had to show them how to secure themselves in harness, and how to lie still along the leviathan's back and not give the beast even inadvertent signals. "It would be unfortunate if you did that," he remarked.

"How unfortunate?" one of the Valmierans asked.

"That depends," Cornelu replied. "You might live. On the other hand…" He was exaggerating, but he didn't want his passengers annoying or confusing the leviathan.

When he was sure everything was ready, he waved to the Lagoans who handled the nets that formed the pen. They waved back and let down one side; the leviathan swam out of the pen and into the harbor channel that led to the sea.

Cornelu wasn't quite so happy as usual to be leaving Setubal. The reason for that was simple: he wasn't alone with his thoughts, as he so often was on leviathanback, and as he craved to be. He had company, and not the best of company, either.

They weren't seamen, despite the rubber suits and spells that kept them from freezing or drowning in the chilly waters of the Strait of Valmiera. And they were Valmieran nobles, which meant that to them even a minor noble of Algarvic blood like Cornelu wasn't far removed from a savage hunting wild boar in the forest. They kept talking about him in Valmieran. He didn't speak it, but enough words were recognizably similar to their classical Kaunian ancestors for him to have no trouble figuring out they weren't paying him compliments.

By the powers above, Valmiera deserved to have the Algarvians run over it, Cornelu thought. If Mezentio's men were only a little smarter, they might have slaughtered all the nobles there- and even more so in Jelgava- and won the commoners to them forever. But they hadn't. They'd worked through the nobles who would work with them and replaced others with men more cooperative but no less nasty. And so both kingdoms still had rebellions simmering against the occupiers.

Maybe these fellows would help bring the rebellion in Valmiera from simmer to boil. That would be good; it would distract the Algarvians from their even bigger troubles elsewhere. But Cornelu wouldn't have bet much above a copper on it. He didn't want anything to do with them. Why would anyone with a dram of sense in their own kingdom think any different?

He knew nothing but relief when he saw the coast of the Derlavaian mainland crawl up over the horizon. It had been an easy trip across the Strait: no enemy ley-line ships, no leviathans, only a couple of dragons off in the distance- and neither of their dragonfliers had spotted the leviathan.

"Is this the place where you are to land us?" one of the Valmierans demanded. "Are you sure this is the place where you are to land us?" He sounded as if he didn't think Cornelu could find his way across the street, let alone across a hundred miles of ocean.

"By the landmarks, by the configuration of the ley lines, this is the place where I am to land you," the leviathan-rider answered with such patience as he could muster. "Swim to shore and twist the Algarvians' tails for them."

The two blonds struck out awkwardly toward the land a couple of hundred yards away. Cornelu would go no closer, for fear of beaching his leviathan. The Valmierans couldn't drown, no matter how hard they tried, not with the spells laid on them. If they had to, they would walk across the seabottom to the shore, breathing as if they were fish. Cornelu felt a little guilty about not wishing them good luck, but only a little.

They didn't bring him any luck, not on the way back to Setubal. An Algarvian dragonflier spotted his leviathan and dropped a couple of eggs close enough to it to panic the beast- and very nearly close enough to hurt or kill it. The leviathan swam at random, deep underwater, till at last it had to surface once more.

That might have been the best thing it could have done. When it did spout, the dragon was far away; the Algarvian aboard it must have assumed that Cornelu would run straight south for Setubal. And so he might have, but he hadn't anything to do with it. The leviathan had swum almost due west- in the direction of Algarve itself. Cornelu would have loved to attack Mezentio's land, but he had no weapons with which to do it, not this time.

He regained control over the leviathan during its next dive, and did manage to lead it away from the Algarvian dragon. The search spirals the dragon flew worked against it this time, carrying it farther and farther from Cornelu. At last, when he was sure the dragonflier couldn't possibly see him, he waved a courteous good-bye. It was a relieved good-bye, too. He hesitated to admit that, even to himself.

About halfway across the Strait, he spied a great many dragons ahead. That meant only one thing: the Lagoans and Algarvians were fighting at sea. On a leviathan not carrying eggs, Cornelu should have stayed away. He knew that. He could do nothing. But the spectacle of the fight would be riveting in itself. He steered the leviathan toward it.

A Lagoan ley-line cruiser was engaging two lighter, swifter Algarvian vessels. They tossed eggs at one another and blazed away with sticks that drew their sorcerous energy from the world's grid over which the ships traveled: sticks far larger and heavier and more powerful than any that could have been made mobile on land.

More eggs fell from the dragons overhead. But they couldn't swoop to drop them with deadly accuracy, as they might have against footsoldiers. Those potent sticks would have blazed them out of the sky had they dared. And so the dragons wheeled and fought among themselves high above the bigger fray on the surface of the sea. The eggs their dragonfliers dropped churned the Strait, but few struck home.

Someone aboard the Lagoan cruiser spotted Cornelu atop his leviathan. A stick swung his way with terrifying speed. "No, you fools, I'm a friend!" he shouted, which of course did no good at all.

The beam missed, but not by much. A patch of ocean perhaps fifty yards from the leviathan turned all at once to steam, with a noise as of a red-hot iron behemoth suddenly falling into the sea. The leviathan didn't know that was dangerous. Cornelu did. He urged the beast into a dive and took it away from the fight he shouldn't have approached.

When he got back to Setubal, he learned the cruiser had sunk, as had one of its Algarvian foes. The other, badly damaged, was limping toward home with more Lagoan ships in pursuit. No one really owned the Strait. Cornelu doubted anyone would, not till the Derlavaian War was as good as won. Till then, both sides would keep struggling over it.


A new man in Istvan's squad, a fellow named Hevesi, came up to the front from regimental headquarters with orders to be alert because of a possible Unkerlanter attack and with gossip that had his hazel eyes bugging out of his head. "You'll never guess, Sergeant," he said to Istvan after relaying the order. "By the stars, you couldn't guess if you tried for the next five years."

"Well, you'd better tell me, then," Istvan said reasonably.

"Aye, speak up," Szonyi agreed. Safe behind a timber rampart, he stood up to show that he towered over Hevesi, as he did over most people. "Speak up before somebody decides to tear the words out of you."

"Anything new would be welcome in this dreary wilderness," Corporal Kun added. The rest of the soldiers crowded toward Hevesi so they could hear, too.

He grinned, pleased at the effect he'd created. "No need to get pushy," he said. "I'll talk. I'm glad to talk, to spit it out." He spoke with the accent of the northeastern mountain provinces of Gyongyos, an accent so much like Istvan's that he might have come from only a few valleys away.

When he still didn't start talking right away, Szonyi loomed over him and rumbled, "Out with it, little man."

Hevesi wasn't so little as all that. But he was a good-natured fellow, and didn't get angry, as many Gyongyosians might have. "All right." For dramatic effect, he lowered his voice to not much more than a whisper: "I hear that, up a couple of regiments north of us, they burned three men for- goat-eating."

Everyone who heard him exclaimed in horror. But Hevesi didn't know his comrades were expressing two different kinds of horror. Istvan hoped he never found out, either. Eating goat's flesh was the worst abomination Gyongyos recognized. Istvan and several of his comrades knew the sin from the inside out. If anyone but Captain Tivadar ever discovered that they knew, they were doomed. Some of their horror was disgust at themselves, some a fear others might learn what they'd done.

"How did they come to do that?" asked Lajos, who'd already shown more interest in goats and goat's flesh than Istvan was comfortable with.

"They overran one of those little forest villages you stumble across every once in a while," Hevesi answered. Istvan nodded. He and his squad had overrun such a village himself, and doubted if any mountain valley in all of Gyongyos were so isolated. Hevesi went on, "The accursed Unkerlanters keep goats, of course. And these three just slaughtered one and roasted it and ate of the flesh." He shuddered.

"Of their own free will?" Kun asked. "Knowingly?"

"By the stars, they did," Hevesi said.

Kun bared his teeth in what was anything but a smile. In the tones of a man passing sentence, he said, "I expect they deserved it, then."

"Aye." Istvan could speak with conviction, too. "If they did it and they knew what they were doing, that sets them beyond the pale. There might be some excuse for letting them live if they didn't." He wouldn't look at the scar on his hand, but he could feel the blood pulsing through it.

"I don't know that it really much matters, Sergeant. If they ate goat…" Hevesi drew his thumb across his throat.

"By the stars, that's right," Lajos said. "No excuse for that sort of filthy business. None." He spoke with great certainty.

"Well, there are those who would tell you you're right, and plenty of 'em," Istvan said, wishing with all his heart that Hevesi had come back to his squad with any other gossip but that. The way things looked, he would never be able to escape from goat-eating and stories about goat-eating as long as he lived.

"What was that?" Szonyi suddenly pointed east. "Did you hear something from the Unkerlanters?"

The question made soldiers separate as fast as Hevesi's gossip had brought them together. Men snatched up their sticks and scrambled off to loopholes and good blazing positions. Istvan wouldn't have thought that standing on the defensive came naturally to the warrior race the Gyongyosians prided themselves on being. But they'd seemed willing enough to give the Unkerlanters the initiative; by all the signs, they'd never quite known what to do with it themselves.

After an anxious pause here, they relaxed. "Looks like you were wrong," Istvan told Szonyi.

"Aye. Looks like I was. Doesn't break my heart." Szonyi's broad shoulders went up and down in a shrug.

Kun said, "Better to be alert about something that isn't there than to miss something that is."

"That's right," Istvan said gravely. The three veterans, and a couple of other men in the squad, nodded with more solemnity than the remark might have deserved. Istvan suspected Szonyi hadn't heard anything whatsoever out of the ordinary. He had managed to get Hevesi and the rest of the squad to stop talking about- more important, to stop thinking about- the abomination of goat-eating, though, and that, as far as Istvan was concerned, was all to the good.

Kun might have been thinking along with him. Behind the lenses of his spectacles, his eyes slid toward Szonyi. "Sometimes you're not as foolish as you look," he remarked, and then spoiled it by adding, "Sometimes, of course, you bloody well are."

"Thanks," Szonyi said. "Thanks ever so much. I'll remember you in my nightmares."

"Enough," Istvan said. "I've had enough of saying, 'Enough,' to the two of you."

And then he made a sharp chopping motion with his right hand, urging Szonyi and Kun and the rest of the squad to silence. Somewhere in the woods out in front of them, a twig had snapped- not an imaginary one like Szonyi's, but unquestionably real. There was plenty of snow and ice out there; its weight sometimes broke great boughs. Those sharp reports could panic a regiment. This one might have been something like that, but smaller. Or it might have been an Unkerlanter making a mistake.

"What do you think, Sergeant?" Kun's voice was a thin thread of whisper.

Istvan's shrug barely moved one shoulder. "I think we'd better find out." He made a little gesture that could be seen from the side but not from ahead. "Szonyi, with me."

"Aye, Sergeant," Szonyi said. Istvan could hear the answer. He didn't think any of Swemmel's men would be able to, even if they were just on the other side of the redoubt.

Kun looked offended. Istvan didn't care. Kun was a good soldier. Szonyi was a better one, especially moving forward. But then, instead of getting angry, Kun said something sensible: "Let me use my little sorcery. That will tell you if anyone's out there before you go."

After a couple of heartbeats' thought, Istvan nodded. "Aye. Go ahead. Do it."

The charm was very simple. If it hadn't been very simple, the former mage's apprentice wouldn't have been able to use it. When he was done, he said one word: "Somebody."

"There would be." Istvan gestured to Szonyi. "Let's go find out. The idea is to come back, understand, not just to disappear out there."

"I'm not stupid," Szonyi answered. Istvan wasn't altogether sure that was true, but he didn't argue.

They left the redoubt to the rear, shielded from the enemy's sight- and from his sticks- by the snow-covered logs piled up in front. Istvan gestured to the left. Szonyi nodded. Both the gesture and the nod were small, all but unnoticeable. In their white smocks, Istvan and Szonyi might have been a couple of moving drifts of snow. Istvan felt cold as a snowdrift.

But, even as he muttered inaudibly to himself about that, he also felt like a proper warrior again. He wondered about that. It perplexed him. Saying it alarmed him wouldn't have been far shy of the mark, either. He'd seen enough fighting to last him a lifetime, probably two. Why go looking for more?

Because that's what I've been trained to do, he thought, but that wasn't the whole answer, or even any great part of it. Because if I don't go looking for it, it'll come looking for me. At that, he nodded again, though he was careful to keep the hood of his smock low and expose none of his face to an enemy's beam.

He knew what he was doing in the snow. He'd had enough practice in it, after all; his home valley was worse in winter than these woods ever dreamt of being. He got within five or six feet of an ermine before it realized he was there. He'd spotted it by the triangle of black dots that marked its eyes and nose and the black spot at the very tip of its tail that never went white in winter. It drew back in sudden horror when it spied or scented him, baring a pink mouth full of needle teeth. Then it scurried behind a tree trunk and vanished.

Istvan followed it, not in any real pursuit but because that beech also gave him cover from the east. The ermine, by then, was gone, only tiny tracks in the snow showing where it had run.

Szonyi had found cover behind a pine not far away. He glanced toward Istvan, who paused for a moment, taking his bearings. Then Istvan pointed in the direction from which he thought the suspicious noise had come. Szonyi considered, then nodded. They both crawled forward again.

Now they advanced separately, each one taking his own path to the target. If something happens to me, Szonyi will get back with the word, Istvan thought. He hoped the converse was in Szonyi's mind. He hoped even more that the two of them were right.

Have to be close now, went through his mind a few minutes later. He looked around for Szonyi, but didn't see him. He refused to let that worry him. Despite the stories told, silently killing a man wasn't that easy. Had something gone wrong, he would have heard the struggle. So he told himself, at any rate.

He started to come out from behind a birch, then froze in the sense of not moving as opposed to the sense of being cold. In the snow in front of the tree were tracks- not the little marks of an ermine, but those of a man on snowshoes. The Unkerlanters were very fond of snowshoes, and Istvan didn't think any of his own folk had come this way lately.

A scout, he thought. Doesn't look like more than one man. Just a scout, snooping around to see what we're up to. That wasn't so bad. He vastly preferred it to coming across the forerunners of a brigade about to sweep down on him. Maybe the rumor of attack Hevesi had brought was nothing but a rumor. The Unkerlanters have as much trouble putting enough men into this fight as we do. Different reasons, but as much trouble.

No sooner had that thought crossed his mind than the Unkerlanter soldier came out from behind a tree a couple of hundred yards away. Istvan got only a glimpse- other trees blocked his view and gave him hardly any chance for a good blaze.

He wasn't too inclined to take one anyhow; he had more sympathy for Swemmel's men than he'd had when the war was new. But, a moment later, the Unkerlanter crumpled with a yowl of pain- Szonyi, evidently, had a better spot and less sympathy. "Back now!" Istvan called, and headed off toward the redoubt. If Swemmel's men had hoped to catch the Gyongyosians hereabouts napping, they'd just been disappointed.


Captured by the Algarvians the summer before, retaken by Unkerlant only a couple of months earlier, the starting point from which Marshal Rathar had sent out his attacking columns to ravage the redheads further, Durrwangen was under Algarvian attack again.

Now that it was too late to do him any good, Rathar understood the lesson Mezentio's men had taught him. "We just pushed them back here and there," he said to General Vatran. "We didn't pinch in behind them and destroy them, the way they did to us so many times."

"You wanted to make them fight in front of rivers and such," Vatran said. "We thought they were panicked, or else turning coward, when they wouldn't stand and fight, but fell back instead."

"Never trust an Algarvian retreat," Rathar said solemnly- mournfully, when you got down to it. "They saved their men, they concentrated them- and then they went and hit us with them."

"Disgraceful, deceitful thing to go and do," Vatran said, as if the Algarvians had pulled off some underhanded trick instead of one of the more brilliant counterattacks Rathar had ever seen. He would have appreciated it even more had it not been aimed at him.

"We were almost up to Hagenow," he said, pointing to the map. His voice grew more mournful still. "We'd driven east all the way up to the border of Grelz. And then, curse them, the redheads bit back." He kicked at the floor of the battered bank that housed his headquarters. "I knew they'd try. I didn't think they could bite so hard, or with such sharp teeth."

As if to underscore that, more eggs burst in Durrwangen, some of them close to the headquarters. He didn't have to worry about splinters of glass flying through the air like shining knives to pierce him; by now, he doubted whether any building in Durrwangen kept glazed windows. He knew perfectly well that the headquarters didn't.

"Shall we go down to the vault?" Vatran asked.

"Oh, very well." Rathar's voice was testy. He seldom suggested such a thing himself; he was too proud for that. But he wasn't too proud to acknowledge common sense when he heard it.

Down in the vault, everyone- commanders, subordinate officers, runners, crystallomancers, secretaries, cooks, what have you- was crowded together as tightly as sardines in a tin. People didn't even have oil to lubricate the spaces between them. They elbowed one another, trod on one another's toes, breathed in one another's faces, and, without intending to at all, generally made themselves as unpleasant for one another as they could.

Above them, around them, the ground shuddered as if in torment. And that was only from the sorcerous energy the Algarvian eggs released when they burst. If Mezentio's mages decided to start killing Kaunians… Turning to Vatran, Rathar asked, "Are our special sorcerous countermeasures in place?"

Special sorcerous countermeasures was a euphemism for the peasants and condemned criminals Unkerlanters had available and ready to slay to blunt Algarvian magics and to power spells against the redheads. Rathar was no more comfortable than anyone else- always excluding King Swemmel, whose many vices did not include hypocrisy- about calling murder by its right name.

Vatran nodded. "Aye, lord Marshal. If they try and bring the roof down around our ears with magecraft, we can try to hold it up the same way."

"Good," Rathar said, though he was anything but sure it was. He wished the Algarvians hadn't turned loose the demon of slaughter. It might have won them the war if Swemmel hadn't been so quick to adopt it for his own, but Swemmel, as he'd proved in the Twinkings War, would do anything survival called for. Now both sides slaughtered, and neither gained much by it.

More eggs fell, these closer still. Ysolt the cook, who'd been steady as a rock in the cave by the Wolter River even when the fighting for Sulingen was at its worst, let out a shriek that tore at Rathar's eardrums. "We'll all be killed," she blubbered. "Every last one of us killed." Rathar wished he were convinced she was wrong.

And then Vatran asked him a truly unwelcome question: "If they try to throw us out of Durrwangen, can we stop 'em?"

"If they come straight at us out of the north, aye, we can," Rathar replied. But that wasn't exactly what the general had asked. "If they try to flank us out… I just don't know."

Vatran replied with what the whole Derlavaian War had proved: "They're cursed good at flanking maneuvers."

Before Rathar could say anything to that, Ysolt started screaming again. "Be silent!" he roared in a parade-ground voice, and the cook, for a wonder, was silent. He wished once more, this time that he could control the Algarvians so easily. Since he couldn't, he answered Vatran, "Up until a few days ago, I was hoping for a late thaw this spring, so we could grab all we could before everything slowed to a crawl. Now I'm hoping for an early one, to do half- powers above, more than half- our fighting for us."

Vatran's chuckle was wheezy. "Oh, aye, Marshal Mud's an even stronger master than Marshal Winter."

"Curse the Algarvians," Rathar ground out. "We had them on the run. I never dreamt I was fighting circus acrobats who could turn a somersault and then come forward as fast as they'd gone back."

"Life is full of surprises," Vatran said dryly. An egg burst close enough to the headquarters to add a deafening emphasis to that. Chunks of plaster slid between the boards that shored up the ceiling and came down on people's heads. Ysolt started screaming again, and she wasn't the only one. Some of the cries were contralto, others bass.

And, at that most inauspicious moment, a crystallomancer shouted, "Lord Marshal, sir! His Majesty would speak to you from Cottbus!"

Rathar had a long list of people to whom he would sooner have spoken than Swemmel just then. Having such a list did him no good whatever, of course. "I'm coming," he said, and then had to elbow his way through the insanely crowded vault to get to the crystal.

When he did, the crystallomancer murmured into it, presumably to his colleague back in Cottbus. A moment later, Swemmel's long, pale face appeared in the crystal. He glared out at Rathar. Without preamble, he said, "Lord Marshal, we are not pleased. We are, in fact, far from pleased."

"Your Majesty, I am far from pleased, too," Rathar said. Another handful of eggs burst on Durrwangen, surely close enough to the headquarters for Swemmel to hear them through the crystal. In case he didn't recognize them for what they were, Rathar added, "I'm under attack here."

"Aye. That is why we are not pleased," Swemmel answered. Rather's safety meant nothing to him. The disruption of his plans counted for far more. "We ordered you to attack, not to be attacked."

"You ordered me to attack in every direction at once, your Majesty," Rathar said. "I obeyed you. Now do you see that an attack in every direction is in fact an attack in no direction at all?"

Swemmel's eyebrows rose in surprise, then came down in anger. "Do you presume to tell us how to conduct our war?"

"Isn't that why you pay me, your Majesty?" Rathar returned. "If you want a cake, you hire the best cook you can."

"And what sort of sour, burnt thing do you set on the table before us?" Swemmel demanded.

"The kind you ordered," Rathar said, and waited. Swemmel was more likely to make the roof cave in on him than were Algarvian eggs.

"You blame us for the debacle of Unkerlant's arms?" the king said. "How dare you? We did not send the armies out to defeat. You did."

"Aye, so I did," Rathar agreed. "I sent them out according to your plan, at your order, and against my better judgment- the Algarvians were not so weak as you supposed, and they have proved it. If you put sour milk, rancid butter, and moldy flour into a cake, it will not be fit to eat. If you joggle an officer's elbow when he tries to fight an army, the fighting it gives you will not be what you had in mind, either."

Swemmel's eyes opened very wide. He wasn't used to frank speech from those who served him, not least because of the horrible things that often happened after someone was rash enough to speak his mind. In most of the things that went on at court, whether Swemmel heard the truth or a pleasing lie mattered little in the grand scheme of things. But in matters military, that wasn't so. Bad advice and bad decisions in the war against Algarve could- and nearly had- cost him his kingdom.

For years, then, Rathar had used frankness as a weapon and a shield. He knew the weapon might burst in his hand one day, and wondered if this would be that day. Vatran would handle things reasonably well if he got the sack. There were some other promising officers. He hoped Swemmel would grant him the quick mercy of the axe and not be so angry as to boil him alive.

It had got very quiet inside the vault. Everyone was staring at the small image of the king. Rathar realized, more slowly than he should have, that King Swemmel might not be satisfied with his head alone. He might destroy everyone at the headquarters. Who was there to tell him he could not, he should not? No one at all.

Next to Swemmel's wrath, the eggs bursting all around were indeed small tubers. Swemmel could, if he chose, wreck his realm in a moment of fury. The Algarvians couldn't come close to that, no matter how hard they tried.

Rathar couldn't help feeling fear. He stolidly refused to show it: in that, too, he differed from most of the king's courtiers. After a long, long pause, Swemmel said, "We suppose you will tell us now that, if we give you your head, you will reverse all this at the snap of a finger and swear by the powers above to preserve Durrwangen against the building Algarvian attack?"

"No, your Majesty," Rathar said at once. "I'll fight for this town. I'll fight hard. But we stretched ourselves too thin, and Mezentio's men are the ones on the move right now. They can't just break into Durrwangen, but they may be able to flank us out of it."

"Curse them," Swemmel snarled. "Curse them all. We live for the day we can hurl their sovereign into the soup pot."

At least he wasn't talking about hurling Rathar into the soup pot. The marshal said, "They may retake Durrwangen. Or, as I told you, we may yet hold them out of it till spring comes, and the spring thaw with it. But even if they do take it, your Majesty, they can't possibly hope to do anything more till summer."

"So you say." But the king didn't call Rathar a liar. Swemmel had called Rathar a great many things, but never that. Maybe a reputation for frankness was worth something after all. After muttering something about traitors Rathar was probably lucky not to hear, King Swemmel went on, "Hold Durrwangen if you can. We shall give you the wherewithal to do it, so far as that may be in our power."

"What I can do, I will," Rather promised. Swemmel's image winked out. The crystal flared, then went dark. Rather sighed. He'd survived again.


"Sir?" Leudast came up to Lieutenant Recared as his company commander sat hunched in front of a little fire, toasting a gobbet of unicorn meat over the flames.

"Eh?" Recared turned. His face and voice were still very young, but he moved like an old man these days. Leudast could hardly blame his superior; he felt like an old man himself these days. The lieutenant let out a weary sigh. "What is it, Sergeant?"

"Sir, I was just wondering," Leudast answered. "Have you got any notion of where in blazes we are? We've done so much marching and countermarching, hopping onto this ley-line caravan car and off of that one- I wouldn't be sure I'd brought my arsehole along if it weren't attached, if you know what I mean."

That got him a wan smile from Lieutenant Recared, who said, "I wouldn't put it quite that way, but I do know what you mean, aye. And I can even tell you where we are- more or less. We're somewhere south and a little west of Durrwangen. Does it make you happy to know that?"

"Happy? No, sir." Leudast shook his head. One of the earflaps on his far cap flipped up for a moment; he grabbed it and shoved it back into place. The spring thaw was coming. It hadn't got here yet, and nights remained bitterly cold. "We came through this part of the country a while ago. I didn't ever want to see it again. It was ugly to start with, and it hasn't got better since."

Recared smiled again, and added a couple of syllables' worth of chuckle. "There are other reasons for not wanting to see it again, too," he said, "as in, if we had the bit between our teeth instead of the Algarvians, they wouldn't have forced us into defensive positions to try to save Durrwangen again." He cut a piece from the chunk of unicorn meat with his knife and popped it into his mouth. "Powers above, that's good! I don't remember the last time I had anything to eat."

He didn't offer to share, but Leudast wasn't particularly offended- Recared was an officer, after all. And Leudast wasn't particularly hungry, either; he made a better forager than Recared would be if he lived to be a hundred. The very idea of living to a hundred made Leudast snort. He didn't expect to live through the war, and was amazed he'd been wounded only once.

A few eggs burst, several hundred yards off to the west. "Those are ours, I think," Leudast said. "Anything we can do to make the redheads keep their heads down is fine by me."

"They have to be almost at the end of their tether," Recared said. "Who would have thought they could counterattack at all, the way we drove them north and east through the winter?" His face set in unhappy lines. "They're a formidable people."

He spoke with regret and with genuine if grudging respect. There might have been Unkerlanters who didn't respect Algarvian soldiers after seeing them in action. Leudast hadn't met any, though. He suspected that most of his countrymen who couldn't see what was in front of their noses didn't live long enough to spread their opinions very far.

Felt boots crunched on crusted snow. Leudast whirled, snatching his stick off his back and swinging it in the direction of the sound. "Don't blaze, Sergeant!" an unmistakable Unkerlanter voice called. A trooper- a man of Recared's regiment- came into the small circle of firelight. "I'm looking for the lieutenant."

Recared raised his head. "I'm here, Sindold. What do you need from me?"

"Sir, I've got Captain Gundioc with me here," Sindold answered. "He's commanding a regiment that's just come up out of the west through Sulingen. They'll be going into the line alongside of us, and he wants to know what they'll be up against."

"That's about the size of it," Captain Gundioc agreed, coming forward into the light with Sindold. "I'm new to this business, and so are the soldiers I'm commanding. You've been through the fire; I'll be grateful for anything you can tell me."

He looked like a man who hadn't yet seen combat. His face- strong and serious, with a jutting chin- was well shaven. He wore a thick, clean cloak over his equally clean uniform tunic. Even his boots had only a couple of mud stains on them, and those looked new. He might have been running a foundry or teaching school only a few days before.

"I'll be glad to tell you what I know, sir," Recared answered. "And this is Sergeant Leudast, who has a lot more experience than I do. If you don't mind his sitting in, you can learn from him. I have."

Leudast hid a grin. He knew he'd taught Recared a thing or two; he hadn't been so sure the lieutenant also knew it. Gundioc nodded, saying, "Aye, I'll gladly hear the sergeant. If he's fought and he's alive, he knows things worth knowing."

He may be raw, but he's no fool, Leudast thought. After coughing a couple of times, he said, "The thing to remember about the redheads, sir, is, they think lefthanded a lot of the time. They'll do things we'd never imagine, and they'll make them work. They love to feint and to make flank attacks. They'll look like they're going to hit you one place and then drive it home somewhere else- up your arse, usually."

"All that's true," Recared agreed. "Every word of it. It's also wise not to go right at them. A charge straight for their lines will slaughter the men who make it. Use the ground as best you can. Use feints, too. If it's obvious, they'll wreck it. If it's not, you have a better chance."

"I understand," Gundioc said. "This all strikes me as good advice. But if I'm ordered to go forward and I have inspectors with sticks standing behind my line to make sure I obey, what am I to do?"

Blaze those buggers, Leudast thought. But he couldn't say that aloud, not unless he wanted an inspector blazing him. He glanced over to Recared. If the officer had the privileges of his rank, he also had the obligations, which included answering nasty questions like that. Answer he did, saying, "If you are ordered, you must obey. But men who give such orders often don't live very long in the field. The Algarvians seem to kill them quickly."

Or we can blame it on the Algarvians, anyhow, Leudast thought. He didn't know exactly how many Unkerlanter officers had met with unfortunate accidents from the men they were supposed to be leading. Not enough, probably. One reason the Unkerlanters had suffered such gruesome casualties was that their officers weren't trained so well as their counterparts in Mezentio's service. Another was that, with plenty of men to spend, the Unkerlanters put out fires by throwing bodies on them till they smothered.

Did Gundioc understand what Recared had just told him? If he didn't, maybe he was the sort of officer who'd meet with an accident one fine day. But he did. His eyes narrowed. The lines running down from his nose to his mouth deepened and darkened and filled with shadow. "I… see," he said slowly. "That sounds… unofficial."

"I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about, sir," Recared answered.

"Which is probably just as well." Gundioc got to his feet. "Thank you for your time. You've given me a thing or two to think about." He trudged across the snow toward his own regiment.

Leudast went up to his company, not far behind the fighting front. His nose guided him to a pot sizzling above a little fire. A cook ladled bits of turnip and parsnip and chunks of meat into his mess tin. He didn't ask what the meat was. Had he found out, he might have decided he didn't want to eat it, and he was too hungry to take the chance.

"What are the redheads doing?" he asked- the first question anyone with any sense asked on getting near the Algarvians.

"Nothing much, Sergeant, doesn't look like," one of his troopers answered. "Real quiet-like over there."

Suspicion flowered in Leudast. "That's not good," he said. "They're up to something. But what? Will it land on our heads, or will it come down on somebody else?"

"Here's hoping it's somebody else," the soldier said.

"Oh, aye, here's hoping." Leudast's voice was dry. "But hope doesn't milk the cow. We'll send extra pickets forward. If the redheads have got something nasty under their kilts, they'll have to work hard to bring it off."

Even with extra men out in front of the main line, he had trouble going to sleep. He didn't like having raw troops to his left. Their commander seemed smart enough, but how good were his men? What would they do if the Algarvians tested them? He dozed off dreaming about it.

When he woke, he thought he was still in the dream: a soldier shook him awake, shouting, "Sergeant, everything's gone south on the left!"

"What do you mean?" Leudast demanded. Somebody had been saying much the same thing to him in his nightmare.

"The redheads hit that new regiment and broke through, Sergeant," the soldier answered, alarm in his voice. "Now they're trying to swing over and attack us from the flank."

"Aye, that sounds like them." After two sentences, Leudast was fully awake. He started shouting orders: "First squad, third squad, fall back and form a front to the left. Runner! I need a runner!" For a wonder, he got one. "Go back to brigade headquarters and tell them we're under attack from the left."

"Aye, Sergeant!" The runner dashed off.

A couple of squads of Leudast's company weren't the only Unkerlanters trying to stem the Algarvian breakthrough. Recared's other company commanders also used some of their men as a firewall against the redheads. Like him, they were all sergeants who'd seen a lot of fighting; they knew what having Mezentio's men on their flank meant, and how much danger it put them in.

The trouble was, telling who was who in the dark wasn't easy. Some of the men running toward the line Leudast and his comrades desperately tried to form were Unkerlanters from Gundioc's shattered regiment, fleeing the Algarvian onslaught. Others were authentic redheads. They didn't yell "Mezentio!" as they came forward, not now- silence helped them sow confusion.

"If it moves, blaze it!" Leudast shouted to his men. "We'll sort it out later, but we can't let the Algarvians get in among us." That was all the more true- and urgent- because the men he'd pulled out to face left didn't have enough holes in which to hide, and the ones they did have weren't deep enough. If it meant some of his countrymen got blazed, it did, that was all. And how are you different from the officers you warned Gundioc about? Leudast wondered. He had no answer, except that he wanted to stay alive.

Someone blazed at him out of the night. The beam hissed as it boiled snow into steam a few feet to his right. He blazed back, and was rewarded with a cry of pain: more to the point, a cry of pain whose words he didn't understand but whose language was undeniably Algarvian. He didn't have to feel personally guilty, not yet.

His runner, or another one from the regiment, must have got through. Eggs started falling where the Algarvians had broken the line. A fresh regiment of Unkerlanter soldiers- all of them shouting, "Urra!" and "Swemmel!" -rushed up to push the redheads back. A couple of troops of behemoths came forward with the reinforcements. Sullenly, the Algarvians withdrew.

After the sun came up, Leudast saw Captain Gundioc's body. He sprawled in the snow with some of his own men and some redheads. Leudast sighed. Gundioc might well have made a good officer with some seasoning. He'd never get it now.


Wind whipped past Colonel Sabrino's face as his dragon dove on a ley-line caravan coming up into Durrwangen from the south. He didn't know whether the caravan was carrying Unkerlanter soldiers or horses and unicorns or simply sacks of barley and dried peas. He didn't much care, either. Whatever it was carrying would help King Swemmel's men inside Durrwangen- if it got there.

As the dragon stooped like a striking falcon, the caravan swelled from a worm on the ground to a toy to its real size with astonishing speed. "Mezentio!" Sabrino shouted, loosing the eggs slung under his mount's belly. Then he whacked the dragon with his goad to make it pull up. If he hadn't, the stupid thing might have flown itself straight into the ground.

Without the weight of the eggs, it gained height more readily. Behind it, twin flashes of light marked bursts of sorcerous energy. Sabrino looked back over his shoulder. He whooped with glee. He'd knocked the caravan right off the ley line. Whatever it was carrying wouldn't get to Durrwangen any time soon. Flames leaped up from a shattered caravan car. Sabrino whooped again. Some of what that caravan was carrying wouldn't get to Durrwangen at all.

Captain Domiziano's image appeared in the crystal Sabrino carried. "Nicely struck, Colonel!" he cried.

Sabrino bowed in his harness. "I thank you." He looked around. "Now let's see what else we can do to make King Swemmel's boys love us."

No immediately obvious answer sprang to mind. A nice pillar of smoke was rising from the wrecked ley-line caravan now. More smoke, much more, rose from Durrwangen itself. Algarvian egg-tossers and dragons had been pounding the city ever since the late-winter counterattacks pushed this far south. Sabrino hoped his countrymen would be able to break into Durrwangen before the spring thaw glued everything in place for a month or a month and a half. If they didn't, the Unkerlanters would have all that time to fortify the town, and then it would be twice as expensive to take… if it could be done at all.

That wasn't anything about which he could do much. He couldn't even drop any more eggs till he flew back to the dragon farm and loaded up again.

"Sir!" That was Domiziano again, his voice cracking with excitement like a youth's. "Look over to the west, sir. A column of behemoths, and curse me if they aren't stuck in a snowdrift."

After looking, Sabrino said, "You have sharp eyes, Captain. I didn't spot those buggers at all. Well, since you did see them, would you like to give your squadron the honor of the first pass against them?"

"My honor, sir, and my pleasure," Domiziano replied. Not all the rank-and-file dragonfliers had crystals; he used hand signals to point them toward the new target. Off they flew, the rest of Sabrino's battered wing trailing them to ward against Unkerlanter dragons and to finish whatever behemoths they might miss.

Sabrino sang a tune that had been popular on the stage in Trapani the year before the Derlavaian War broke out. It was called "Just Routine," and sung by one longtime lover to another. Smashing up columns of Unkerlanter behemoths was just routine for him these days. He'd been doing it ever since Algarve and Unkerlant first collided, more than a year and a half ago now.

Great wingbeats quickly ate up the distance to the behemoths. Sabrino laughed aloud, saying, "So your snowshoes didn't help you this time, eh?" The first winter here in the trackless west had been a nightmare, with the Unkerlanters able to move through snow that stymied Algarvian men and behemoths. Those odds were more even now: experience was a harsh schoolmaster, but an undeniably effective one.

The snow down there didn't seem all that deep. Sabrino had seen drifts that looked like young mountain ranges, drifts into which you could drop a palace, let alone a behemoth. Of course, gauging the ground from above was always risky business. Maybe snow filled a gully, and the behemoths had discovered it the hard way. Still, although they'd halted, they didn't seem to be in any enormous distress.

He frowned. That thought sent suspicion blazing through him. He peered through his goggles, trying to see if anything else about the behemoths looked out of the ordinary. He didn't note anything, not at first.

But then he did. "Domiziano!" he shouted into the crystal. "Pull up, Domiziano! They've all got heavy sticks, and they're waiting for us!"

Usually, dragons took behemoths by surprise, and the men aboard those behemoths had scant seconds to swing their sticks toward the dragonfliers diving on them. Usually, too, more behemoths carried egg-tossers- useless against dragons- than heavy sticks. Not this column. Swemmel's men had set a trap for Algarvian dragonfliers, and Sabrino's wing was flying right into it.

Before Domiziano and his dragonfliers could even begin to obey Sabrino's orders, the Unkerlanters started blazing at them. The behemoth crews had seen the dragons coming, and had had the time to swing their heavy sticks toward the leaders of the attack. The beams that burst forth from those sticks were bright and hot as the sun.

They struck dragon after dragon out of the sky, almost as a man might swat flies that annoyed him. A heavy stick could burn through the silver paint that shielded dragons' bellies from weapons a footsoldier might carry, or could sear a wing and send a dragon and the man who rode it tumbling to the ground so far below.

Domiziano's dragon seemed to stumble in midair. Sabrino cried out in horror; Domiziano had led a squadron in his wing since the war was new. He would lead it no more. His dragon took another couple of halfhearted flaps, then plummeted. A cloud of snow briefly rose when it smashed to earth: the only memorial Domiziano would ever have.

"Pull up! Pull back!" Sabrino called to his surviving squadron commanders. "Gain height. Even their sticks won't bite if we're high enough- and we can still drop our eggs on them. Vengeance!"

A poor, mean vengeance it would be, with half a dozen dragons hacked down. How many Unkerlanter behemoths made a fair exchange for one dragon, for one highly trained dragonflier? More than were in this column: of that Sabrino was sure.

Another dragon fell as one of his own men proved less cautious than he should have. Sabrino's curses went flat and harsh with despair. Some of his dragonfliers started dropping their eggs too soon, so they burst in front of the Unkerlanters without coming particularly close to them.

But others had more patience, and before long the bursts came among the behemoths, as nicely placed as Sabrino could have wished. When the snow cleared down below, some of the beasts lay on their sides, while others lumbered off in all directions. That was how behemoths should have behaved when attacked by dragons. Even so, Sabrino ordered no pursuit. The Unkerlanters had already done too much damage to his wing, and who could say what other tricks they had waiting?

"Back to the dragon farm," he commanded. No one protested. The Algarvians were all in shock. Not till they'd turned and been flying northeast for some little while did he realize that, for perhaps the first time in the war, the Unkerlanters had succeeded in intimidating him.

Because of that weight of gloom, the flight back to the dragon farm seemed against the wind all the way. When he finally got his dragon down on the ground, Sabrino discovered he had been flying against the wind. Instead of endlessly blowing out of the west, it came from the north, and carried warmth and an odor of growing things with it.

"Spring any day now," a dragon handler said as he chained Sabrino's mount to a crowbar driven into the ground. He looked around. "Where's the rest of the beasts, Colonel? Off to a different farm?"

"Dead." Whatever the wind said, Sabrino's voice held nothing but winter. "The Unkerlanters set a snare, and we blundered right into it. And now I have to write Domiziano's kin and tell them how their son died a hero for Algarve. Which he did, but I'd sooner he went on living as a hero instead."

He was writing that letter, and having a tough go of it, when Colonel Ambaldo stuck his head into the tent. Ambaldo was beaming. "We smashed them!" he told Sabrino, who could smell brandy fumes on his breath. With a scornful snap of his fingers, the newcomer from the east went on, "These Unkerlanters, they are not so much of a much. The Lagoans and Kuusamans are ten times the dragonfliers you see here in Unkerlant. We smashed up a couple of squadrons over Durrwangen, and dropped any number of eggs on the town."

"Good for you," Sabrino said tonelessly. "And now, good my sir, if you will excuse me, I am trying to send my condolences to a fallen flier's family."

"Ah. I see. Of course," Ambaldo said. Had he left the tent then, everything would have been… if not fine, then at least tolerably well. But, perhaps elevated by the brandy, he added, "Though how anyone could easily lose men to these Unkerlanter clods is beyond me."

Sabrino rose to his feet. Fixing Ambaldo with a deadly glare, he spoke in a voice chillier than any Unkerlanter winter: "A great many things appear to be beyond you, sir, sense among them. Kindly take your possessions and get them out of this, my tent. You are no longer welcome here. Lodge yourself elsewhere or let the powers below eat you- it's all one to me. But get out."

Colonel Ambaldo's eyes widened. "Sir, you may not speak to me so. Regardless of what you claim to be the rules of the front, I shall seek satisfaction."

"If you want satisfaction, go find a whore." Sabrino gave Ambaldo a mocking bow. "I told you, we do not duel here. Let me say this, then: if you ever seek to inflict your presence upon me here in this tent again, I will not duel. I will simply kill you on sight."

"You joke," Ambaldo exclaimed.

Sabrino shrugged. "You are welcome to make the experiment. And after you do, somebody will have to write to your kin, assuming anyone has any idea who your father is."

"Sir, I know you are overwrought, but you try my patience," Ambaldo said. "I warn you, I will call you out regardless of these so-called rules if provoked too far."

"Good," Sabrino said. "If your friends- in the unlikely event you have any- speak to mine, they need not inquire as to weapons. I shall choose knives."

Sticks were common in duels. They got things over with quickly and decisively. Swords were also common, especially among those with an antiquarian bent. Knives… A man who chose knives didn't just want to kill his opponent. He wanted to make sure the foe suffered before dying.

Ambaldo licked his lips. He wasn't a coward; no Algarvian colonel of dragonfliers was likely to be a coward. But he saw that Sabrino meant what he said and, at the moment, didn't much care whether he lived or died. With such dignity as he could muster, Ambaldo said, "I hope to speak to you again someday, sir, when you are more nearly yourself." He turned and left.

With a last soft curse, Sabrino sat down again. He re-inked his pen, hoping the fury that had coursed through him would make the words come easier. But it didn't. He'd had to write far too many of these letters, and they never came easy. And, as he wrote, he couldn't help wondering who would write a letter for him one day, and what the man would say.


Sidroc took off his fur hat and stowed it in his pack. "Not so cold these days," he remarked.

Sergeant Werferth made silent clapping motions. "You're a sly one, you are, to notice that. I bet it was all the stinking snow melting that gave you the clue."

"Heh," Sidroc said; Werferth being a sergeant, he couldn't say any more than that without landing in trouble. He could and did turn away from the sergeant and walk off down one of the lengths of trench north of Durrwangen Plegmund's Brigade was holding. His boots made squelching, sucking noises at every step. Werferth had been rude, but he hadn't been wrong. The snow was melting- indeed, had all but melted. When it melted, it didn't just disappear, either. Things would have been simpler and more convenient if it had. But it didn't: it soaked into the ground and turned everything to a dreadful morass of mud.

A couple of eggs came whizzing out from Durrwangen to burst close by, throwing up fountains of muck. It splatted down with a noise that reminded Sidroc of a latrine, only louder. He threw his hands in the air, as if that would do any good. "How are we supposed to go forward in this?" he demanded, and then answered his own question: "We can't. Nobody could."

"Doesn't mean we won't," Ceorl said. The ruffian spat; his spittle was but one more bit of moisture in the mire. "Haven't you noticed? -the redheads would sooner spend our lives than theirs."

"That's so." Sidroc didn't think anyone in Plegmund's Brigade hadn't noticed it. "But they spend plenty of their own men, too."

Ceorl spat again. "Aye, they do, and for what? This lousy stretch of Unkerlant isn't worth shitting in, let alone anything else."

Sidroc would have argued with that if only he could. Since he agreed with it, he just grunted and squelched along the trench till he came to a brass pot bubbling over a little fire. The stew was oats and rhubarb and something that had been dead long enough to get gamy but not long enough to become altogether inedible. He filled his mess tin and ate with good appetite. Only after he was done, while he was rinsing the mess tin with water from his canteen, did he pause to wonder what he would have thought of the meal were he still living soft back in Gromheort. He laughed. He would have thrown the mess tin at anyone who tried to give it to him. Here and now, with a full belly, he was happy enough.

He was also happy that none of the Brigade's Algarvian officers looked to be around. As long as they weren't there, nothing much would happen. He'd seen that they didn't trust the Forthwegian sergeants to do anything much. Forthwegians were good enough to fight for Algarve, but not to think or to lead.

The Unkerlanters launched more eggs from the outskirts of Durrwangen. These burst closer than the others had, one of them close enough to make Sidroc throw himself down in the cold, clammy mud. "Powers below eat them," he muttered as bits of the thin metal shell that had housed the egg's sorcerous energy hissed through the air. "Why don't they just run off and make things easy on us for once?"

But, despite the pounding the Algarvians had given Durrwangen, Swemmel's men showed no inclination whatever to run off. If the Algarvians wanted them gone, they would have to drive them out. After the eggs stopped falling, Sidroc stuck his head up over the parapet and peered south. "Get down, you fool!" somebody called to him. "You want a beam in the face?"

He got down, unblazed. The outskirts of Durrwangen lay a mile or so away. The Unkerlanters held on to the city, from the outskirts to its heart, like grim death. He couldn't see all the fortifications they'd put up, but that proved nothing; he'd already discovered the gift they had for making field-works that didn't look like much- till you attacked them. Whatever they had waiting in Durrwangen, he wasn't eager to find out.

Whether he was eager or not, of course, didn't matter to the Algarvian officers commanding Plegmund's Brigade. They came back from wherever they'd been with smiles as broad as if they'd just heard King Swemmel had surrendered. Sidroc's company commander was a captain named Zerbino. He gathered his men together and declared, "Tomorrow, we shall have the high honor and privilege of being among the first to break into Durrwangen."

He spoke Algarvian, of course; the Forthwegians in the Brigade were expected to understand him rather than the other way round. But, no matter what language he used, none of his troopers was eager to go forward against the heavily defended city. Even Sergeant Werferth, who loved fighting for its own sake, said, "Why am I not surprised they chose us?"

Captain Zerbino fixed him with a malignant stare. "And what, pray tell, do you mean by this, Sergeant?" he asked in his haughtiest manner.

Werferth knew better than to be openly insubordinate. But, from behind the Algarvian officer, somebody- Sidroc thought it was Ceorl, but he wasn't sure- spoke up: "He means we aren't redheads, that's what. So who gives a fornicating futter what happens to us?"

Zerbino whirled. He drew himself up to his full height; being an Algarvian, he had several inches on most of the men in his company. After a crisp, sardonic bow, he answered, "I am a redhead, and I assure that, when the order to attack is given, I shall be at the fore. Where I go, will you dare to follow?"

Nobody had anything to say to that. Sidroc wished he could have found something, but his wits were empty, too. Like all the officers assigned to Plegmund's Brigade, Zerbino had shown himself to be recklessly brave. Where he went, the company would follow. And if that was straight into the meat grinder… then it was, and nobody could do anything about it.

Sidroc slapped his canteen. It held nothing but water. He sighed, wishing for spirits. Somebody would have some, but would anybody be willing to give him any? All he could do was try to find out.

He ended up paying some silver for a short knock. "I can't spare any more," said the soldier who let him have it. "I'm going to drink the rest myself before we go at 'em tomorrow."

Sidroc wished he could get drunk for the assault, too. He wrapped himself in his blanket and tried to sleep. Bursting eggs didn't bother him; he had their measure. But thinking about what he'd go through come morning… He tried not to think about it, which only made things worse.

Eventually, he must have slept, for Sergeant Werferth shook him awake. "Come on," Werferth said. "It's just about time."

Egg-tossers and dragons were pounding the forwardmost Unkerlanter positions. "More will come when we go forward," Captain Zerbino promised. "We are not breaking into Durrwangen alone, after all; Algarvian brigades will be moving forward, too."

Which is why they'll do something more to help us along, Sidroc thought. Before he could say it aloud- not that it needed saying, not when most of the men in the company were doubtless thinking the same thing- Zerbino raised his long, tubular brass whistle to his lips and blew a blast that pierced the din of battle like a needle piercing thin, shabby cloth. And, as Zerbino had promised, he was the first one out of the muddy holes in which the men of Plegmund's Brigade sheltered, the first one moving toward the enemy.

The ground ahead was also muddy, muddy and churned to chaos by the bursts of endless eggs. It sucked, leechlike, at Sidroc's boots, trying to pull them off his feet. The mud stank, too, stank with the odor of all the men and animals already killed in it. There would be more before the day was through. Sidroc hoped he wouldn't be part of the more.

A barrage of eggs flew through the air, arcing up from the south toward the soldiers of Plegmund's Brigade and the Algarvians who advanced on either side of them. Try as they would, the Algarvians' egg-tossers and dragons hadn't wrecked the Unkerlanters' ability to hit back.

Sidroc would have been angrier had he expected more. As things were, he threw himself down into the noisome mud and hoped no egg burst right on top of him. Captain Zerbino kept blowing his whistle for all he was worth. That pulled Sidroc up and got him squelching toward Durrwangen again.

An egg burst just in front of Zerbino. It flung him high in the air. Limp and broken, he fell to the soggy ground. No more whistles, Sidroc thought. He trudged on anyhow. Someone, he was all too certain, would blaze him if he turned back.

The ground shook under his feet. Up ahead, some of the rubble in which the Unkerlanters sheltered slid into ruin. Only when Sidroc saw purple flames shooting up from the ground among those ruins did he fully understand. Then he whooped and cheered. "Aye, kill those Kaunians!" he yelled. "They don't deserve anything better, by the powers above!" Had his superiors asked it of him, he would cheerfully have set about killing blonds himself.

As things were, he rushed toward the defenses battered by Algarvian sorcery- rushed as best he could with great globs of mud clinging to his boots and more sticking on at every stride. Even the strongest sorcery didn't take out all the defenders. Here and there amidst the wreckage ahead, beams winked to life. A Forthwegian not far from Sidroc dropped his stick, threw up his hands, and fell face forward into the muck.

But Plegmund's Brigade and the Algarvians moving forward with it pressed on toward Durrwangen. With the city battered by murderous mage-craft, Sidroc didn't see how they could fail to break in.

And then the ground shook beneath him, hard enough to knock him off his feet. As he sprawled in the mire, a great crack opened ahead. It sucked down a couple of Forthwegian troopers and slammed shut again, smashing them before they could even scream.

Sidroc felt like screaming himself. He did scream- he screamed curses at the Algarvian wizards safe behind the line: "Them, you crackbrained whoreson arseholes! Them, not us!"

"Crackbrain yourself!" Ceorl yelled. "That's not the redheads. That's Swemmel's mages killing peasants and hitting back."

"Oh." Sidroc felt like a fool, not for the first time since joining Plegmund's Brigade. That didn't even count the times he felt like a fool for joining Plegmund's Brigade. He looked to his right and left gain. The Algarvian troops to either side of the Brigade had been hit at least as hard as his Forthwegian countrymen. "How are we supposed to go forward, then?"

Ceorl didn't answer. Swarms of Unkerlanter dragons painted rock-gray flew up from the south, dropping eggs on the attackers and flaming those incautious enough to bunch together. The Algarvians' magecraft hadn't reached far enough to do anything to King Swemmel's dragon farms.

And then the ground shook and opened and closed again, almost under Sidroc's feet. More purple flames shot up from it. One incinerated an Algarvian behemoth and its crew not far away. King Swemmel didn't seem to care how many of his own folk his mages killed, so long as they halted their foes. And they'd done that. Sidroc was no general and never would be, but he could tell at a glance that the Algarvians hadn't the least chance of taking Durrwangen till after the mud of southern Unkerlant turned hard again.


Spring was coming to the Valmieran countryside. The first shoots of new green grass were springing up from the ground. Leaf buds sprouted on apple and plum and cherry trees. Early birds were returning from their winter homes in northern Jelgava and Algarve and on the tropical continent of Siaulia.

Pretty soon, Skarnu thought, it'll be time to plant the year's barley and wheat and turn the cattle and sheep out to pasture instead of feeding them on hay and silage. He laughed at himself. Before the war, he'd never thought about where food came from or how it was produced. For all he knew or cared, it might have appeared by sorcery in grocers' or butchers' shops.

He knew better now. He knew enough to make himself more than a little useful on a farm out in the country. He'd helped one farmer who hid him, and now he was doing the same for another. This fellow was as surprised as the other had been. He said, "I heard tell you were a city man. You talk like a city man, that's a fact. But you know what to do with a pitchfork, and that's a fact, too."

"I know what to do with a pitchfork," Skarnu agreed, and let it go at that. The less people knew about him, the better.

Again, he wasn't too far from Ventspils, and wanted to get farther away. The Algarvians had come too close to nabbing him- to nabbing the whole underground organization- there. Somebody'd been made to talk somewhere, or trusted someone he shouldn't have- the risks irregulars inevitably took when fighting an occupying army more powerful than they.

When fighting an occupying army and a whole great swarm of traitors, Skarnu thought sourly. As always, the first traitor whose face came to mind was his sister, Krasta. Right behind her, though, were all the Valmieran constables who served the Algarvians as steadily as they'd ever served King Gainibu. If they hadn't, he didn't see how the redheads could have held on to his kingdom and held it down.

But the fellow who came to the farm a couple of days later was neither an Algarvian nor a constable in the redheads' pay. The painter who headed up the irregulars in Ventspils found Skarnu weeding the vegetable plot by the farmhouse. Amusement in his voice, he said, "Hello, Pavilosta. Anybody would think you'd been doing that all your born days."

"Hello yourself." Skarnu got to his feet and swiped at the mud on the knees of his trousers. "Good to see Mezentio's men didn't manage to grab you, either."

"I worry more about our own," the painter said, echoing Skarnu's earlier thought. "But I came out here to talk about you, not me. What are we going to do with you, anyhow?"

"I don't know." Skarnu pointed to the plants he'd been weeding. "The scallions and leeks look to be doing nicely."

"Heh," the underground leader said: not a laugh, but the appearance of one. "You're too good a man with your hands to waste them on produce. You need to go someplace where you can give the redheads a hard time. I wish we could send you into Priekule. You'd do good things, the way you know the city."

"Trouble is, the city knows me, too," Skarnu said. "I wouldn't last long before somebody fingered me to the Algarvians." He thought of Krasta again, but she wasn't the only one- far from it. How many Valmieran nobles in the capital were in bed with the occupiers, literally or metaphorically? Too many. He sighed. "I wish I could go back to the farm by Pavilosta. I was doing fine there."

"Not safe." The painter spoke with great authority. He rubbed his chin as he thought. "I know of a couple of fellows you might want to meet. They've been away for a while- you could show 'em how things have changed."

"Why me? What in blazes do I know about anything?" Skarnu didn't try to hide his bitterness. "I couldn't even guess where the redheads were shipping those poor cursed Kaunians from Forthweg. They must have aimed their magic at Kuusamo, but it wouldn't have gone at Yliharma, or we would have heard about it." He stared down at his hands. They had mud on them, too, but in his eyes it looked like blood.

"No, not at Yliharma," the man from Ventspils agreed. "They did something nasty with the life energy they stole, something that helped them and hurt us. I don't know any more about it than that. I don't think anybody in Valmiera knows much more about it than that."

He'd succeeded in making Skarnu curious. He'd also let him know his curiosity wouldn't be satisfied. Scowling, Skarnu said, "Who are these two fellows, and how will you bring them here without bringing Mezentio's men, too?"

"I won't," the painter said. "You'll go to them. You know that little village you visited once before? Tomorrow, about noon, a wagon will stop here. The man driving it will say, 'The Column of Victory.' You answer, 'Will rise again.' He'll take you where you're going."

"What if he doesn't say that?" Skarnu asked.

"Run like blazes," the other irregular leader answered. As if he'd said everything he'd come to say, he turned on his heel and ambled back toward Ventspils.

Sure enough, the wagon turned up the next day. Skarnu warily approached. The driver said what he was supposed to say. Skarnu gave the countersign. The driver nodded. Skarnu climbed aboard. The driver flicked the reins and clucked to the horses.

They got to the village a day and a half later. By then, Skarnu thought his fundament was turning to stone. The driver seemed undisturbed. He even chuckled at the old man's hobble with which Skarnu made for the house that served as the underground's nerve center.

The woman he'd met there at his last visit let him in. She gave him bread and beer, which were both welcome, and let him sit down on a soft chair, which at the moment seemed almost as fine as falling into Merkela's arms. He let out a long sigh of pleasure before asking, "I'm to meet someone?"

"So you are," she said. "Let me go upstairs and get them. I'll be back directly." Skarnu was perfectly content for her to take as much time as she wanted. He could have sat in that chair forever without minding in the least. But she came back, far too soon to suit him fully, with a couple of men dressed in the shabby homespun of farmers- dressed much as he was, as a matter of fact.

He had to heave himself to his feet to greet them. His back groaned when he rose. But then, to his astonishment, he discovered he recognized both newcomers. "Amatu! Lauzdonu! I thought you were dead."

"No such luck," said Lauzdonu, the taller of the two. He grinned and pumped Skarnu's hand.

"We were both flying dragons down in the south when the collapse came," Amatu added.

"I knew that," Skarnu said. "That's why I thought you'd bought a plot."

"Came close a few times," Lauzdonu said in the offhand way of a man who had indeed had death brush his sleeve a time or two. "The Algarvians had too many dragons down there- nothing like a fair fight."

"They had too much of everything all over the place," Skarnu said bitterly.

"That they did," Amatu agreed. "But when the surrender order came, neither one of us could stomach it. We climbed on our dragons and flew across the Strait of Valmiera to Lagoas, and we've been in Setubal ever since." His lip curled. "They're Algarvic over there, too, but at least they're on our side."

Skarnu remembered that Amatu had always been a snob. Lauzdonu, who had somewhat more charity in him, put in, "Aye, they kept fighting even when things looked blackest."

"Well, so did you two," Skarnu said. "And so did I." And if more Valmieran nobles had, we'd have given Mezentio's men a harder time, he thought. But most of them, and a lot of the kingdom's commoners, had made their accommodations. Inevitably, his sister sprang to mind yet again. To force the thought of Krasta down, he asked, "And what are you doing here on the right side of the Strait again?"

Their faces, which had been smiling and excited, closed down again. Skarnu knew what that meant: they had orders they couldn't talk about. Lauzdonu tried to make light of it, saying, "How's that pretty sister of yours, my lord Marquis?"

"My lord Count, she's sleeping with a redhead." Skarnu's voice went flat and harsh.

Lauzdonu and Amatu both exclaimed then, the one in surprise, the other in outrage. Lauzdonu strode forward to lay a sympathetic hand on Skarnu's shoulder. Skarnu wanted to shake it off, but made himself endure it. Amatu said, "Something ought to happen to her, and to her lover, too."

"I wouldn't mind," Skarnu said. "I wouldn't mind at all." He eyed the two nobles he'd known in Priekule. "You may have to talk to me sooner or later. They brought me here to go with you, wherever it is you're going."

"Better you than that leviathan-rider who fetched us from Lagoas," Amatu said. "He told us he was a Sib, but he could have passed for an Algarvian any day."

"It'll be good to have you along," Lauzdonu said. "After all, it's been going on three years since we left. We don't know who's alive, who's dead… who chose the wrong bloody side." He patted Skarnu again.

"Where are you going?" Skarnu asked. "I won't ask what you'll do when you get there, but I do need to know that."

"Zarasai," Lauzdonu answered. Amatu's lip curled again. To him, any town that wasn't the capital really wasn't worth visiting. Lauzdonu seemed to have a clearer understanding of the way things worked: "If we go to Priekule, somebody will betray us to the Algarvians."

"That's why I haven't gone back," Skarnu agreed. He nodded to the two of them. Priekule, then Setubal- they'd been spoiled, and they didn't even know it. "You'll find the rest of the countryside isn't so bad. And" -he turned serious- "you'll find you do better if you don't let on that you've got noble blood."

"Commoners getting out of hand, are they?" Amatu said. "Well, we'll tend to that once we've beaten the Algarvians, by the powers above."

"I'm surprised you didn't take your dragons up to Jelgava," Skarnu murmured. "You'd have felt right at home there." Amatu stared at him in annoyed incomprehension. Lauzdonu snickered and then tried to pretend he hadn't. Jelgavan nobles had long since given themselves a name for reaction. That Amatu couldn't hear how he sounded warned that he would indeed have fit right in.

Lauzdonu said, "Skarnu knows how things work these days, better than we do."

"I suppose so," Amatu spoke grudgingly.

"Zarasai." Skarnu spoke in musing tones. "Well, among other things, that's a good place to monitor the ley lines coming down toward the coast from the north and west."

"What are you talking about?" Amatu sounded impatient, in a way that reminded Skarnu achingly of Krasta. Lauzdonu murmured in the other returned exile's ear. "Oh." Amatu's nod was reluctant, too, even after he got the point. Skarnu wondered what he'd done to make the irregulars hate him enough to saddle himself with these two. Maybe it's their revenge on me for being of noble blood myself. He sighed. The Algarvians were the only people on whom he wanted that much revenge.


A Valmieran waiter fawned on Colonel Lurcanio- and, incidentally, on Krasta, too. Krasta expected servile deference from commoners. So did Lurcanio: servile deference of a slightly different sort, the deference of the conquered to their conquerors. Since he got it here, he seemed happy enough. In fact, he seemed happier than he had for quite some time.

"The war news must be good," Krasta ventured.

"Better, at any rate," Lurcanio allowed. "Even if the cursed Unkerlanters did keep us from retaking Durrwangen, they won't be doing anything much for some weeks. General Mud has replaced General Winter over there, you see."

"No, I don't see." Krasta's voice had an edge in it. "What are you talking about? Why do you always talk in riddles?"

"No riddle," he said, and then paused while the waiter brought him white wine and Krasta ale. When the fellow scurried off again, Lurcanio resumed: "No riddle, I say, merely mud, a great, gluey sea of it. And when the fighting starts again, it will be on our terms, not King Swemmel's." He raised his wineglass. "To victory!"

"To victory!" Krasta sipped her ale. Part of her- she wasn't sure how much, and it varied from day to day, sometimes from minute to minute- even meant it. An Algarvian triumph in the west would justify everything she'd done here, and the Unkerlanters were surely uncultured barbarians who deserved whatever happened to them. The other things an Algarvian triumph in the west would mean…

This time, Krasta gulped at the ale. She didn't want to think about that.

She was relieved when the waiter brought the dinners they'd ordered: beef ribs in a creamy gravy with spinach in cheese sauce and boiled beans for her, a trout sautйed in wine and a green salad for Lurcanio. He stared at her plate in some bemusement, remarking, "I have never understood why Valmierans aren't round as footballs, considering what you eat."

"You complain about things like that almost every time we go out," Krasta said. "I like the way my kingdom cooks. Why aren't Algarvians all skin and bones, if they eat the way you do?"

Lurcanio laughed and mimed taking a sword in the chest. Like so many of his countrymen, he had a gift for pantomime. Even though Krasta had been feeling gloomy, his antics made her smile. He had charm when he chose to use it. And he also had frightful severity when he chose to use that. The combination kept Krasta off balance, never quite sure where she stood.

Before long, he'd reduced his trout to nothing but a skeleton with head and tail still attached. "It's looking at you," Krasta said with more than a little distaste. "Those boiled eyes staring up…"

"You, milady, have never seen combat," Lurcanio answered. "If you had, you would not let something so small as a fish head get in the way of your appetite." Under the table, his hand found her leg, well above the knee. "Of any of your appetites," he added.

Krasta sighed. She knew what that meant. Lurcanio never raised a fuss if she kept him out of her bed of an evening. But she didn't dare do it very often. If she did, he was liable to find someone else who wouldn't. That would leave her without an Algarvian protector. Spring was in the air, but the thought filled her with winter. The occupiers answered to themselves, and to themselves alone. Without an Algarvian by her side, what was she? Fair game, she thought, and shivered.

"Are you cold, milady?" Colonel Lurcanio asked. Startled, Krasta shook her head. Lurcanio's smile put her in mind of that of a beast of prey. "Good. You are well advised not to be cold." She sighed again.

After supper, Lurcanio's driver threaded his way through the dark streets of Priekule to a theater not far from the palace. The play, like so many showing these days, was a comedy of manners from a couple of centuries before: nothing in it that could offend anyone, Valmieran or Algarvian. Nothing political, at any rate; the manners it featured were mostly bad, including an inordinate number of cuckoldings. Lurcanio laughed his head off.

"Do you think infidelity is funny?" Krasta asked, not without malice aforethought, as they headed for the exit.

"That depends," Lurcanio replied with a splendid Algarvian shrug. "If it happens to someone else, most certainly. If I give the horns, all the more so. If I have to wear them- and if I have to notice I am wearing them- that is another business altogether. Do you understand me?"

"Aye," Krasta said coldly. He'd made her very unhappy when he caught her kissing Viscount Valnu. She didn't want that to happen again. If she decided to stray once more, she knew she dared not get caught.

She was moodily silent on the ride back to the mansion on the edge of town. Lurcanio affected not to notice. That, Krasta knew, was an act. It was a good act, and would have been better had he not been so conscious of how good it was.

When they got there, Lurcanio went up the stairs to Krasta's bedchamber with the easy familiarity of a man who had visited it many times before. His manner in the bedchamber sometimes struck her as a good act, too, again slightly marred by his being aware of how good it was. But he succeeded in giving her pleasure as well as taking his own. Things could have been worse. Lurcanio occasionally made it plain that they could have been worse. What he'd done with her, to her, after catching her with Valnu… Such things had been against the law in Valmiera, and still were, she'd heard, in Jelgava.

Afterwards, Lurcanio dressed quickly. "Sleep well, my sweet," he said. "I know I shall." Even his yawn was as calculated, as theatrical, as anything she'd seen on the stage earlier in the evening.

But Krasta, full and sated, did sleep well- until, some time after midnight, a noisy commotion at the front entrance woke her. Someone was pounding on the door and shouting, "Let me in! By the powers above, let me in!" at the same time as the Algarvian sentries out there yelled, "Silence! Stopping! Stopping or blazing!"

Krasta threw open her window and cried, "No! No blazing! I know this man." Then, in a lower voice, she went on, "This is most unseemly, Viscount Valnu. What in blazes are you doing here at whatever hour this is?"

"Marchioness, I am here to save my life, if I can," Valnu answered. "If I don't do it here, I won't do it anywhere."

"I can't imagine what you're talking about," Krasta said.

"Let me in and I'll tell you." Valnu's voice rose with urgency once more: "Oh, by the powers above, let me in!"

"Shutting up, noisy maniac," one of the sentries said. "Waking everyone inside, making everyone to hating you."

"I don't hate him," Krasta said sharply, which was, most of the time, true. As if to prove it, she added, "I'll be right down."

Her night tunic and trousers were thin and filmy; she threw on a cloak over them. By the time she got downstairs, several servants had gathered in the front hall. Krasta sent them back to bed with angry gestures and opened the front door herself. Valnu darted in and fell at her feet, as if prostrating himself before the king of Unkerlant. "Save me!" he cried, as melodramatically as an Algarvian.

"Oh, get up." Krasta's voice turned irritable. "I let you into my house. If this is some mad scheme to get me to let you into my bed, you're wasting your time." Anything she said here would get back to Lurcanio, as she was uneasily aware. She hated having to be uneasy about anything.

But Valnu answered, "I did not come here for that. I did not come here to see you at all, milady, though I bless you for letting me in. I came here to see your protector, the eminent Count and Colonel Lurcanio. He can truly save me, where you cannot."

"And why should I save you, Viscount Valnu?" Lurcanio strode into the front hall from the west wing. "Why should I not order you blazed for disturbing my rest, if not for any of a large number of other good reasons?"

"Because, except in this particular instance, perhaps, you would be blazing an innocent man," Valnu said.

"My dear fellow, you have not been an innocent for a great many years," Lurcanio said with sardonic glee. "Not even in your left ear."

Valnu bowed very low. "That you pick the left rather than the right proves how closely you listen to your fellow officers who know me well- know me intimately, one might even say. But I am an innocent in matters concerning your bold Algarvian hounds. By the powers above, your Excellency, I am!"

"And what matters are those?" Sure enough, Lurcanio had a purr in his voice, almost as if he were talking to Krasta after bedding her.

"They think I am playing some sort of stupid- some sort of idiotic- double game, looking to tear down everything Algarve's done," Valnu answered. "It's a lie! By the powers above, a lie!" He did not draw attention to the kilt he was wearing. At first, Krasta thought that might be a mistake. Then she decided Valnu was making Lurcanio notice it for himself- not a bad ploy.

She saw the Algarvian eyeing Valnu's bare, knobby knees. But her lover was first and foremost an officer of his kingdom. "You've called on the powers above twice now, Viscount," he said. "By the powers above, sir, why should I believe you and not my kingdom's hounds? Their task, after all, is to sniff out treason and rebellion wherever they find them. If they turn their noses your way…"

"If they turn them my way, they turn them in the wrong direction," Valnu insisted. "Ask your lady, if you doubt me."

That made Colonel Lurcanio laugh out loud. "Considering the embrace the two of you were enjoying when I was so inconsiderate as to interrupt you, I might be inclined to doubt her objectivity." But his eyes swung toward Krasta nonetheless. "Well, milady? What say you?"

Krasta could have said a good deal. Valnu must have known she could have said a good deal. He was betting his life that she didn't want him dead, no matter how much he'd irked her in days gone by- and he'd irked her a great deal indeed.

If she spoke against him, he was dead. If she spoke for him too fulsomely, Lurcanio wouldn't believe her. What she did say was, "Whatever his problem may be, I wish he wouldn't bring it here at this ridiculous hour of the morning. And that, Colonel, is nothing but the truth."

"I wish the same thing." Lurcanio fixed Valnu with a hard stare. "To a certain degree, I admire your nerve- but only to a certain degree. Go back to your home. If the hounds come for you, then they come- but I will have them explain themselves to me before they do anything too drastic. That is the most I intend to give you."

Valnu bowed low again. "I thank you, your Excellency. It is more than I deserve."

"I am afraid you may be right," Lurcanio answered. "Now get out."

"Aye, get out," Krasta said. "Let decent people sleep, if you'd be so kind." For reasons she absolutely could not fathom, both Valnu and Lurcanio started laughing at her.


Pekka wished things were as they had been before the Algarvians struck at her comrades and her. Without Siuntio, though, they would never be the same. First and foremost, she missed the master mage more with every passing day. She hadn't realized how much she'd relied on his good sense, his resolute optimism, and his capacity for moral outrage till they were gone.

Second, and as important in a less personal, less intimate way, Siuntio had been the one mage who could keep Ilmarinen under something vaguely resembling control. Ilmarinen was wild for revenge against Algarve, aye, but he was also wild for experimenting with the nature of time and wild for one of the serving women at the hostel (a passion apparently not returned, which somehow didn't seem to bother him in the least) and wild for the birds flocking into the area with the return of spring and wild for…

"Anything! Everything!" Pekka complained to Fernao in the dining room one morning. "He is supposed to be in charge. He is supposed to be leading us in our work against Mezentio's men. And what is he doing? Running around in all directions at once, like a puppy in a park full of interesting smells."

The Lagoan mage quirked up a gingery eyebrow. "If you can make similes like that in classical Kaunian, maybe you ought to try writing along with magecraft."

"I do not want to try writing," Pekka said. "I want to get on with the work we are supposed to be doing. Have we done that under Ilmarinen? He is not the leader I hoped he would be. I hate to say that, but it is the truth."

"Some people are not made to be either leaders or followers," Fernao observed. "Some people listen only to themselves."

"That may be so," Pekka replied, reflecting that with Ilmarinen it certainly seemed so. "But leading is the job he has been given."

Fernao sipped from his mug of tea and looked at her over the top of it with his disconcertingly Kuusaman eyes. "If he is not doing it, maybe you should have it instead."

"Me?" Pekka's voice rose to a startled squeak, one that made Raahe and Alkio, sitting a couple of tables away, turn and stare at her. She fought for quiet, fought and won it. "How could I take it? By what right? Without Siuntio and Ilmarinen, this project would not exist. The Seven Princes would not have supported it."

"As may be." Fernao shrugged. "But now that they are supporting it, do you not think they expect success to follow from that support?"

"I couldn't," Pekka muttered in Kuusaman, more to herself than to him. "It would be like throwing my father out onto the street."

But the Lagoan mage's grasp of her language got better day by day. "Not to do with family," he said in Kuusaman, and then returned to classical Kaunian: "This is not even the business of the kingdom. This is the business of the world."

"I couldn't," Pekka repeated.

Now Fernao eyed her with the first open disapproval she'd seen from him. "Why not?" he asked pointedly. "If not you, who? I am an ignorant foreigner. The newcomers?" He lowered his voice a little further. "They are all a step below you and two steps behind you. If it is not to be Ilmarinen…"

He had confidence in her where she had none in herself. Pekka had never known that from anyone but her husband before. She wished Leino were here now. He would know how to gauge things. In the aftermath of the Algarvians' sorcerous assault, she'd lost her feel.

And then, when she was hoping Fernao would leave her alone, he found one more question: "How long do you suppose it will be before Mezentio's mages strike us again? If they do, can we withstand them?"

"Why should they strike us again?" Pekka asked. "Since they hit us the last time, what have we done that would draw their notice?" She rose from the table and left in a hurry. If she hadn't just made Fernao's point for him, what had she done? He called after her, but she kept walking.

Going up to her room didn't help. She looked out and saw mud and rock where snow had lain, mud and rock with grass and bushes growing furiously. Here, almost as in the land of the Ice People, everything had to grow furiously, for winter came early and left late, giving life little time to burgeon.

Buntings and pipits chirped. Insects buzzed. Before long, Pekka knew, there was liable to be a plague of gnats and mosquitoes, again as happened on the austral continent. The bog the countryside became after the snow melted made a perfect breeding ground for all sorts of bugs.

But the signs of spring did nothing to cheer Pekka. Instead, they reminded her how time was running out, slipping away through her fingers. Experiments should have resumed. They should have been strengthened. They hadn't. The landscape by the blockhouse should have had new craters. It didn't.

"Curse me if Fernao isn't right," Pekka exclaimed, though no one was there to hear her. "If I don't do something, who will?"

She left her room and walked down the hall to Ilmarinen's. Her knock was sharp and peremptory. Ilmarinen opened the door. When he saw her, he smiled in something that looked like relief and said, "Oh, good. I thought you were Linna." That was the serving woman with whom he was infatuated. "If she knocked like that, she'd want to knock my block off next thing."

"I want to knock your block off," Pekka said. "Why aren't we working more? When Mezentio's mages attacked us, you promised vengeance for Siuntio. Where is it? How far away is it? How long does his shade have to wait?"

"Well, well," Ilmarinen said, and then again: "Well, well. Who's been feeding you raw meat, my dear?"

"I am not your dear," Pekka snapped, "not when you sit there and twiddle your thumbs instead of doing what needs doing. If you don't move this project forward, Master Ilmarinen, who will?"

"I am moving it forward," Ilmarinen answered, a little uneasily, "and we will get back in the field very soon."

"When is soon?" Pekka asked. "We should have been back weeks ago, and you know it as well as I do. What are the Algarvians doing while we do nothing? How are we remembering Master Siuntio?"

Ilmarinen fell back a step in the face of that barrage of questions. Uneasiness gave way to anger on his face. "If you think going forward is so very easy, Mistress, if you think it can be done just like that" -he snapped his fingers- "maybe you ought to try running this mess yourself."

Fernao had told Pekka that. She'd told herself that. Now Ilmarinen was telling her that, too? With a crisp nod, she said, "Aye, I think you're right. I ought to. Let's go to the crystallomancer so we can let Prince Juhainen know we're making the change. Come on."

"You're serious." Ilmarinen spoke in tones of wonder.

"By the powers above, I am," Pekka said. "We've been frozen while the ground was melting. Time to let Juhainen know we're going to thaw out." She sighed. Juhainen wasn't quite so solidly behind the research project as his predecessor and uncle, Prince Joroinen, had been. But Joroinen was dead, buried in the rubble of the princely palace when Algarvian magic smote Yliharma. Still, since Juhainen's princely domain included her home town of Kajaani, she expected he would take her more seriously than any of the other Seven.

Ilmarinen followed her down the hall. "If you're trying to cast me out like an Algarvian bandit overthrowing his chieftain, why do you suppose I'd want to work with you- work under you- afterwards?"

"Why?" Pekka spun on her heel and glared at the older mage. "I'll tell you why, Master Ilmarinen: because I will break you in half with my own hands if you try to leave. Now, have you got that? At the moment, it would be a pleasure."

Pekka waited. If Ilmarinen's temper, always uncertain, did burst like an egg, what could she do about it? Nothing that she could see. And if the senior theoretical sorcerer did decide to abandon the project, could she really stop him? She feared she couldn't.

Sometimes, though, just showing you were ready to face a question meant you didn't have to. As her son Uto usually did when she took a firm stand, Ilmarinen yielded. "Take it, then, and welcome," he growled. "May you have more joy of it than I did when it landed in my lap."

"Joy?" Pekka shook her head. "Not likely. But, by the powers above, I am going to have my revenge if it's there to have. Now let's get along to the crystallomancer and let Prince Juhainen know." She didn't intend to give Ilmarinen any chance to change his mind once the shock of being confronted wore off.

And he not only came with her, he spoke in favor of the change when Juhainen's image appeared in the crystal. "For some reason or other- probably doing as I please all these years- I appear to make a better sorcerer than administrator," he told the prince. "Putting Mistress Pekka in charge of things here will move us ahead faster than we could go if I tried to steer us down the ley line."

Juhainen said, "If you both think this is for the best, I will not quarrel with it. Moving down the ley line is what matters. I don't care how you do it, and I don't think any of my colleagues will, either."

"Thank you, your Highness," Pekka said with considerable relief. Juhainen was a young man, hardly more than a youth, but he looked to be showing the common sense that had marked his uncle, Prince Joroinen.

His answer displayed more of that common sense: "I don't know why you are thanking me. You've just had a lot more hard work land on your head."

"It needs doing," Pekka said. "With the help of everyone here" -she let her eyes flick toward Ilmarinen- "I think I can get it done."

"Let it be so, then," Prince Juhainen said, and turned back to whatever he'd been doing when the call came in. The crystal into which Pekka had been speaking flared briefly before returning to quiescence.

Ilmarinen gave Pekka a bow half mocking, half respectful. "Let it be so, then," he echoed. "But you can't just let it be so, you know. You have to make it be so. Lucky you."

"For now, what I have to do is let the others know it is so," Pekka said. "Will you come down with me, or would you rather I did that myself?"

"Oh, I'll come," Ilmarinen said. "Some of them may care to see that you haven't murdered me. Of course, some of them may not, too."

When Pekka got down to the dining hall, she was surprised to find Fernao and Raahe and Alkio still there. Piilis had come down to eat, too. Her rebellion- my successful rebellion, she thought dizzily- hadn't taken long. Fernao's eyes widened when he saw Ilmarinen behind her. Pekka said, "Ah, good. Now I can tell everyone at once. With the agreement of Prince Juhainen, I am now responsible for taking our work forward. If the weather lets us do it, I want us experimenting again within three days."

She'd spoken Kuusaman. She started to turn her words into classical Kaunian for Fernao, but the Lagoan mage waved to show her she needn't bother. Her eyes darted to the other theoretical sorcerers. No one burst into applause- that would have been cruel to Ilmarinen- but everyone looked pleased. It's mine now, Pekka thought, and responsibility, heavy as the weight of the world, came pressing down on her shoulders.


Qutuz came into Hajjaj's office. "Your Excellency, the Marquis Balastro is here to see you," the Zuwayzi foreign minister's secretary said.

"I thank you," Hajjaj answered. "Show him in- as you see, I am ready to receive him." He wore an Algarvian-style tunic and pleated kilt. With every day that spring advanced, clothes grew less comfortable for him, but discomfort was part of the price he paid for diplomacy.

Qutuz, being a mere secretary, did not have to drape himself in cloth that clung and held the heat. After bowing to Hajjaj, he went out to the antechamber and returned with Algarve's minister to Zuwayza. Balastro wore tunic and kilt, too, and was sweating in them even more than Hajjaj.

The Algarvian minister offered his hand. Hajjaj clasped it. Balastro said, "You look very well, your Excellency. And you are the picture of sartorial splendor- for the year after the end of the Six Years' War."

Hajjaj laughed. "What I usually wear never goes out of style- another advantage to skin, if you care what I think."

"As much as I ever do." Balastro's grin showed teeth white but slightly crooked. He was a bluff, blocky, middle-aged man with sandy-red hair streaked with gray. He wasn't subtle, but he wasn't stupid, either. On the whole, Hajjaj liked him- not that he let that get in the way of doing what he needed to do for his kingdom.

"And how can I help you today, your Excellency?" Hajjaj inquired. "Besides amusing you with my wardrobe, I mean. Would you care for some refreshments?"

Before answering, Balastro lowered himself to the carpeted floor and piled up cushions till he'd made a comfortable nest. More than most foreign envoys who came to Zuwayza, he imitated local customs. Once he was reclining, he grinned at Hajjaj and shook his head. "Since you give me the choice, I'll decline. How many hours over the years have you kept me simmering while we sip and nibble?"

"As many as I thought were needed," Hajjaj answered imperturbably, which made Balastro laugh out loud. Hajjaj piled up pillows, too, by his low desk. "If, today, I claim I am simply aiming to get out of these unpleasantly warm garments before too long, I doubt you will be able to contradict me."

"If you like, I'll take off my clothes so you can shed yours," Balastro said. He'd done that a few times, which made him unique in the annals of diplomacy in Zuwayza. With his pale body and his circumcision, though, he did not make an inconspicuous nude in this kingdom- on the contrary.

And so Hajjaj said, "Never mind. By all means do say on, though. I listen with great attention." He had to listen with great attention, Algarve being Zuwayza's cobelligerent against King Swemmel of Unkerlant and much the bigger power of the two.

"Things are looking up," Balastro said. "It's been a hard winter, aye, but things are looking up. I can, I think, say that truthfully now, looking at the way things down in the south have gone."

"Considering how things were there a few weeks ago, Algarve does seem to have managed a revival," Hajjaj agreed. "After Sulingen fell, there was some small concern lest your entire position in the south unravel." A lifetime of diplomacy had taught him to minimize things. Zuwayza and Yanina and even neutral, landlocked Ortah had all been terrified of the prospect of swarms of Unkerlanters rolling down on their kingdoms without any Algarvian armies left to throw them back.

"Well, it didn't. It didn't, and it won't." Balastro always spoke confidently. Here, his confidence seemed justified. He went on, "We've stabilized the battle line, and we're deeper into Algarve than we were a year ago." That was all true, even if mildly obscene. Of course, it said nothing of the debacle at Sulingen. But then, Balastro did not pretend to be objective.

"I am pleased to hear it," Hajjaj said. "General Ikhshid has been full of admiration for the way you let the Unkerlanters overextended themselves and then struck them in the flanks and rear."

"For which I think him," Balastro, as if the generalship were his. He continued, "Pity we couldn't drive them out of Durrwangen again, too, but the mud got too thick too fast. When it dries out again, we'll deal with them there."

"May it be so," Hajjaj said, on the whole sincerely. He knew of Unkerlanter mud, of course, but it didn't seem quite real to him, any more than the savage summer heat of Bishah would seem real to a man from Durrwangen hearing about it without having experienced it.

"Oh, it will." Balastro might have been talking about tomorrow's sunrise. "We've pushed well past the place to both east and west, even if we couldn't quite break in. A couple of attacks to pinch off the neck of the salient" -he gestured- "and the head falls into the basket."

"A vivid image." Deadpan, Hajjaj asked, "Are you sure you will have enough Kaunians to make it real?"

"You need have no fear on that score," the Algarvian minister replied. He impaled Hajjaj with a cold green stare. "We would have even more if you weren't harboring those cursed refugees."

"Since they are here in my kingdom, King Shazli's kingdom, they are no concern of yours," Hajjaj said: the position Zuwayza had held ever since Kaunians from Forthweg began sailing to her eastern shore. "And I have repeatedly ordered them to stay here in Zuwayza and under no circumstances to return to Forthweg."

"You are the soul of virtue," Balastro said sourly. "You know as well as I, your Excellency, that any order you have to give repeatedly is an order that is not working."

"Would you rather I gave no such order at all?" Hajjaj returned.

"I would rather that you put some teeth in the order you have given," Balastro said. "String up a few blonds and the rest will get the point."

"I shall consider it." Hajjaj wondered if he would have to do more than consider it. If the Algarvian minister insisted boisterously enough, he might have to follow through.

Balastro grunted. "That's more than I thought I'd get out of you. You're a stubborn old crow, Hajjaj- you know that?"

"Why, no, your Excellency." Hajjaj's eyes widened in almost convincing surprise. "I had no idea."

"Prevaricating old porcupine, too," Balastro said. "Your father was a tortoise and your mother was a thornbush."

"Have you got any more compliments to pay me, or are we through till the next session of teeth-pulling?" Hajjaj asked, but less gruffly than he would have liked- on the whole, he took Balastro's words for compliment rather than insult.

"Not quite through," the Algarvian minister answered. "My military attachй has asked me to ask you if Zuwayza can do without a good many of the behemoths and dragons we've sent you over the past couple of years."

"I am not the one to respond to questions on matters military," Hajjaj said, trying to hide the alarm he couldn't help feeling. "If your attachй does not care to do so himself, I shall raise the issue with General Ikhshid and pass on to you his reply." Assuming he doesn't have an apoplexy and fall down frothing on the floor. "May I tell him why you would consider withdrawing this aid?" You can't be that angry about our harboring the Kaunians… can you?

"I'm no soldier, either," Balastro said, "but what it amounts to is this: we aim to force a decision in Unkerlant, and we'll need everything we can scrape together when we do it. We don't aim to lose a fight because we didn't strike a blow with all our strength."

"I… see," said Hajjaj, who was not altogether sure he did. "Well, would you have me inquire of Ikhshid, or would your attachй sooner do it directly?"

"If you'd be so kind, I'd be grateful," Balastro answered, suave and smooth as if he'd never called Hajjaj a porcupine in all his born days.

"As you wish, of course," the Zuwayzi foreign minister said.

"Good." Balastro heaved himself to his feet, which meant Hajjaj had to rise, too. The Algarvian made his farewells and departed with the air of a man well pleased with himself.

Hajjaj was pleased to be able to shed the clothes he despised. He was much less pleased when he called Qutuz and said, "Would you be so kind as to inquire of General Ikhshid if he would give me the pleasure of his company for a few minutes as soon as he conveniently can?"

What that meant in plain language was, Get Ikhshid here this instant. Qutuz, a good secretary, recognized as much. "Of course, your Excellency," he said, and hurried away.

As Hajjaj had hoped he would, he had General Ikhshid with him when he returned. Ikhshid was not far from Hajjaj's age: a stocky, white-haired soldier who'd served in the Unkerlanter army during the Six Years' War and, rare for a Zuwayzi, had gained captain's rank there. After bows and hand-clasps, Ikhshid spoke with almost Unkerlanter bluntness: "All right, what's gone and got buggered up now?"

"Nothing yet," Hajjaj said. "Marquis Balastro asked me to inquire of you how the buggering might go forward at some future date." He relayed the Algarvian minister's remarks to the general.

Ikhshid's shining eyebrows were like signal flags, astonishingly visible against his dark skin. They twitched now, twitched and then descended and came together. "Sounds like they're thinking of staking everything on one throw of the dice. You don't really want to do that, not if you're fighting a war."

"I wouldn't want to do it no matter what I'm doing," Hajjaj said. "Why would King Mezentio?"

"Algarvians are better soldiers than Unkerlanters," Ikhshid remarked, not quite responsively. "Put a company of redheads up against a company of Swemmel's men and the Algarvians will come out on top. Put a company of Algarvians against two companies of Unkerlanters and they still might come out on top. Put them up against three…" He shook his head.

"Ah." Hajjaj inclined his head. "There's always the third Unkerlanter."

"Aye, there is. There is indeed," Ikhshid agreed. "The Algarvians didn't take Cottbus. They didn't take Sulingen. They don't have that many more chances left. It's not just men, either, your Excellency. It's horses and unicorns and behemoths and dragons, too. Skill counts, or the redheads wouldn't have got as far as they did. But weight counts, too, or they'd've got farther."

"And so the Algarvians are aiming to put all their weight into whatever blow they choose to strike next," Hajjaj said slowly. "Balastro said as much."

Ikhshid nodded. "That's how it looks to me, and it'd look that way even if Balastro hadn't said so."

"Can we afford to let them take dragons and behemoths out of Zuwayza to strike this blow?" the foreign minister asked.

"That comes down to two questions," Ikhshid answered. "First, can we stop 'em if they choose to do it? I doubt it. And second, of course- when they strike this blow, will it finally go to the heart?"

"Aye." Hajjaj let out a long, slow sigh. "We have to hope for the best, then." He wondered what the best was, and if, in this cursed war, it even existed.


Fernao found his Kuusaman getting better day by day. More Kuusaman mages had come to the hostel: not just Piilis and Raahe and Alkio, all of whom spoke excellent classical Kaunian, but several others who didn't know so much. Those less fluent newcomers weren't directly involved in the experiments the theoretical sorcerers were making, but were important even so. Their duty was to repel, or at least to weaken, any new assaults Algarvian mages might launch against the experiments.

"Can you do it?" Fernao asked one of them, a woman named Vihti. "Much force. Many killings."

"We can try," Vihti answered. "We can fight hard. They are not close. Distance-" She used a word Fernao didn't know.

"Distance does what?" he asked.

"At-ten-u-ates," Vihti repeated, as to a child, and then used a synonym: "Weakens. If you had been working in the north of Kuusamo and not down here in the south, the last attack would have done you all in."

"You need not sound so happy," Fernao said.

"I am not happy," Vihti said. "I am telling you what is." That was something Kuusamans were in the habit of doing. Vihti went off muttering under her breath, probably about flighty, overimaginative Lagoans.

When Fernao went out to the blockhouse with Pekka and Ilmarinen and the three newly arrived theoretical sorcerers, he didn't think he was the overimaginative one. The Kuusamans had done things that no one else would have dreamt of for years.

The blockhouse was new, and stronger than the one the Algarvians had wrecked. But a few of the timbers were charred ones salvaged from the old blockhouse. Pointing to them, Pekka spoke in classical Kaunian: "They help remind us why we continue our work."

Where nothing else lately seemed to have, that got Ilmarinen's notice. "Aye," he growled with something of the fire he'd had before the Algarvian attack. "Every one of those boards has Siuntio's blood on it."

"We shall have our revenge." Piilis was a careful man who spoke careful Kaunian. "That is what Siuntio would have wanted."

Pekka shook her head. "I doubt it. He saw what needed doing against Algarve, but vengeance was never any great part of his style." Her eyes flashed. "I do not care. Regardless of whether he would have wanted me to take revenge, I want it for my own sake. I do not think he would have approved. Again, I do not care."

"Aye." Hot eagerness filled Fernao's voice. He believed in vengeance, too, probably more so than any of the Kuusamans. Elaborate revenge was part of the Algarvic tradition Lagoas shared with Sibiu and Algarve herself. Kuusamans were generally calmer and more restrained. Siuntio had been. But calm and restraint, however valuable in peacetime, grew less so after war began.

Fewer secondary sorcerers had accompanied Fernao and his colleagues to the blockhouse this time. With the coming of spring, the experimental animals shouldn't freeze unless magecraft kept them warm. But the secondary sorcerers still did have to transfer the spell Pekka would recite to the racks of cages that held the rats and rabbits.

"Remember, we are trying something new this time," Pekka said. "If all goes as planned, most of the sorcerous energy we unleash today will strike at a point well removed from the animals. We have to learn to do this if we are to turn our magecraft into a proper weapon. The Algarvians can do it with their murderous magic. We must be able to match them."

"And if things don't go quite right, we'll bring it down on our own heads, and that will put paid to this project once for all," Ilmarinen said.

Oddly, his gloom didn't bother Fernao so much. The master mage had been making cracks like that for as long as Fernao had been in Kuusamo… and undoubtedly for a lot of decades before that. Getting him back to sounding like his sardonic self was if anything an improvement.

"Are we ready?" Pekka's voice had steel in it, warning that anyone who wasn't ready would face her wrath. She didn't even come up to the top of Fernao's shoulder, but he wouldn't have wanted to have to do that. No one admitted he wasn't ready. Pekka's gaze flicked around the blockhouse. After a sharp, abrupt nod, she quietly recited the ritual sentences with which Kuusamans began any sorcerous operation.

Raahe and Alkio and Piilis spoke the words with her. So did the secondary sorcerers and Vihti and the other protective mages. And so did Ilmarinen, who had about as little concern for most forms of ritual correctness as any wizard Fernao had ever known. Fernao himself stood mute. Pretending he shared the Kuusamans' belief would have been useless, perhaps even dangerous, hypocrisy.

No one insisted that he join the recitation. But when it was through, Pekka glanced toward him. "In my class at Kajaani City College, you would have had to say the words," she remarked.

"We are all learning here," Fernao answered.

That seemed to please her. She nodded again, more relaxed, less jerky, than she had been. Then, after a couple of deep breaths, she turned to the secondary sorcerers and asked again in Kuusaman if they were ready. Fernao knew a certain amount of pride at understanding the question. He understood the answer, too- they confirmed they were. Pekka inhaled once more, then spoke first in her language and afterwards in classical Kaunian: "I begin."

And begin she did, with the same quiet authority Fernao had seen again and again in her incanting. She was rougher at her work than a mage who spent day after day refurbishing rest crates would have been at his, but such a mage barely touched the surface of sorcery, while Pekka understood it down to the very roots, down deeper, in fact, than anyone before her had imagined those roots ran. Watching her, listening to her attack the spell, Fernao could have loved her not for who she was but for what she knew, a distinction of a sort he'd never imagined making.

He felt rather less proud of the spell she was using. All the Kuusamans had joined together in crafting it, and it had the smoothed corners and shapelessness characteristic of a work formed by committee. Even with his imperfect grasp of Kuusaman, he could tell as much from the feel of the air in the blockhouse as she worked. He did not doubt the spell would do what it was designed to do. But it had no elegance to it. Had Siuntio drafted it, it would have been half as long and twice as strong; Fernao was sure of it. He had no proof, though. He would never have proof, not anymore, not with Siuntio dead.

Force built- not the blood-tasting force the Algarvians had brought down on their heads, but potent nonetheless. Potent enough to confront Mezentio's murder-powered magic? Fernao wouldn't have thought so, not from what was in the air, but he'd seen what this energy release could do. Transferring it from one site to another seemed far easier than finding out how to elicit it had been.

And then, as matter approached a climax, Pekka made the sort of mistake that could befall any mage working through a long, complex, difficult spell: she dropped a line. Ilmarinen jumped. Piilis exclaimed in horror. Raahe and Alkio seized each other's hands as if they never expected to touch anything else again.

Fernao knew a certain amount of pride at recognizing the problem as fast as any of the Kuusamans. He also knew the same fear that gripped them: Ilmarinen's joke about bringing the sorcerous energy down on their own heads wasn't funny anymore. When things went wrong at this stage…

"Counterspells!" Ilmarinen rapped out, and began to chant with sudden harsh urgency. So did Raahe and Alkio, their two voices merging into one. So did Pekka, trying to reverse what she'd unleashed. Dismay still seemed to freeze Piilis.

Not so Fernao. For a long time, he'd had nothing to do but draft and refine counterspells. Because he wasn't fluent in Kuusaman, he'd been only an emergency backstop, a firewall. The spell he raced through now wasn't in Kuusaman, or even classical Kaunian. It was in Lagoan: his birthspeech, he'd long since decided, would be best for such magic, for he could use it faster and more accurately than any other.

And he, like the rest of the mages, was incanting for his life now. He knew as much. The sorcerous energies that would have torn a new hole in the landscape were poised now to do the same to the mages who had unleashed them. If the mages couldn't divert those energies, weaken them, spread them fast enough, they wouldn't get a second chance.

Past, present, and future seemed to stretch very thin- all too fitting for the sort of sorcery they'd been using. Fernao felt an odd rush of memories: from his youth, from his childhood, from what he would have taken oath were his father's and grandfather's childhoods as well- but all recalled or perhaps relived with as much immediacy, as much reality, as his own. And, at the same time (if time had any meaning here), he knew also memories from years he hadn't yet experienced: from himself as an old man; from one of the children he did not at this moment have, also old; and from that child's child.

He wished he could have held those memories instead of just being aware that he'd had them. All the Kuusaman mages around him were exclaiming in awe and dread as they used their counterspells, so he supposed they were going through the same thing he was. And then, at last, when he thought the chaos in the timestream would cast them adrift in duration- or perhaps cast them out of it altogether- the counterspells began to bite.

Now suddenly took on meaning again. His consciousness, which had been spread over what felt like a century or more, contracted back to a single sharp point that advanced heartbeat by heartbeat. He remembered things that had happened to him before that point, but nothing more. No, not quite nothing more: he remembered remembering other things, but he could not have said what they were.

"Well, well," Ilmarinen said. Sweat beaded his face and soaked the armpits of his tunic. Even so, he didn't forget to use classical Kaunian: "Wasn't that interesting, my friends?" He didn't forget his ironic tone, either.

Pekka, who had been standing while she cast the spell that went awry, slumped down onto a stool and began to weep, her face hidden in her hands. "I could have… us all," she said in a broken voice. Fernao didn't know the Kuusaman verb, but he would have been astonished if it didn't mean killed.

He limped over to her and put a hand on her shoulder. "It is all right," he said, cursing the classical tongue for not letting him sound colloquial. "We are safe. We can try again. We shall try again."

"Aye, no harm done," Ilmarinen agreed. "Any spell you live through is a spell you learn something from."

"Learn what?" Pekka said with a laugh that sounded more like hysterics than mirth. "Not to miss a line at the key moment of the incantation? I was already supposed to know that, Master Ilmarinen, thank you very kindly."

Fernao said, "No, I think there is more to learn here than that. Now we know from the inside out what our spell does, or some of what it does. If our next version is not better on account of that, I shall be surprised. The method was drastic, but the lesson is worthwhile."

"Aye," Ilmarinen repeated. "The Lagoan mage has the right of it." He glanced over at Fernao. "Accidents will happen." Fernao smiled and nodded, as if at a compliment. Ilmarinen glared at him, which was exactly what he wanted.


Every time a peasant sneaked into the woods and sought out the battered band of irregulars Garivald was leading these days, he almost wished the newcomer would go away. He'd heard a great many tales of woe, some of them horrible enough to move him close to tears. How could he resist bringing such people into the band? He couldn't. But what if one of them was lying?

"What do I do?" he asked Obilot. "Let in the wrong man- or woman- and the Grelzers will know everything about us a day later."

"If we don't get new blood, they won't care about us one way or the other," she answered. "If we didn't take chances, none of us would be irregulars in the first place."

Garivald grunted. That held an unpleasant amount of truth. But he said, "It's not on your shoulders. It's on my shoulders. And you're one of the people who helped dump it there." He glowered at her with none of the interest, none of the liking- why lie? none of the desire- he usually felt.

Obilot met the glare with a shrug. "Munderic got killed. Somebody had to lead us. Why not you? Thanks to your songs, people have heard your name. They want to join Garivald the Songmaker's band."

"But I don't want to lead them!" Garivald said in a sort of whispered scream. "I never wanted to lead anybody. All I ever wanted to do was raise a decent crop and stay drunk through the winter and- lately- make songs. That's all, curse it!"

"I wanted this and that, too," Obilot said. "The Algarvians made sure I wouldn't have any of that." She'd never said just why she'd joined the irregulars, but she hated the redheads with a passion that made what her male comrades felt toward them seem mere mild distaste by comparison. "And now you can't have the things you always wanted, either. Isn't that one more reason to want to do everything you can to make them suffer?"

"I suppose so," he admitted. "But it doesn't mean I want to lead. Besides, we aren't strong enough to do anything much right now."

"We will be." Obilot sounded more confident than Garivald felt.

He didn't have to answer. Rain had been falling steadily for a while. Now lightning flashed and thunder bellowed, drowning out anything he might have said. Nobody could do anything much in such weather: the Grelzers couldn't push into the woods, as they had when snow lay on the ground, but the band of irregulars couldn't very well sally forth by squelching through the mud.

After another peal of thunder rumbled and subsided, Obilot said, "Would you rather be taking orders from Sadoc?"

"That's not fair," Garivald answered, though he couldn't have said why it wasn't. As a matter of fact, he had no desire whatever to take orders from Sadoc; the idea scared him worse than going up against the Algarvians in battle. But no one had proposed the inept would-be mage to succeed Munderic. No one had proposed Garivald, either, or not exactly. People had just looked at him. They hadn't looked at anyone else, and so the job ended up his.

But the irregulars couldn't very well stay holed up in the woods forever, either. A fellow named Razalic came up to Garivald while the rain was still falling and said, "You know, boss, we're almost out of food."

"Aye," Garivald agreed, not altogether happily. "We'd better pay a call on one of those villages outside the forest- maybe on more than one of them." Some of the peasant villages in these parts collaborated with the irregulars and gave them grain and meat. Others had firstmen who worked hand in glove with the Grelzer authorities and with their Algarvian puppet masters.

But when Garivald led a couple of dozen men out of the woods, he found the peasants from even the friendliest villages imperfectly delighted to see him. He'd expected nothing better. Early spring was the hungry time of year for everybody. Living on the end of the supplies that had brought them through the winter, the peasants had little left over to share with anyone.

"What do you want us to do?" he asked the firstman of a hamlet named Dargun. "Dry up and blow away and leave you at the mercy of the redheads and the Grelzer dogs who sniff their arses?"

"Well, no," the firstman answered, but he didn't sound pleased. "Don't want the brats here to starve, either, though."

Garivald set his hands on his hips. He knew a trimmer when he heard one. "You can't have it both ways," he said. "We can't farm and fight the Algarvians at the same time. That means we've got to get food from somewhere. This is somewhere." Even to him, though, it looked like nowhere. Next to Dargun, Zossen- nothing out of the ordinary as villages went- looked like a metropolis.

The firstman's sigh was close to a wail. "What I really wish is, things were back the way they were before the war started. Then I wouldn't have to… worry all the time."

Then I wouldn't have to make hard choices. That, or something close to it, had to be what he meant. And what hard choices was he contemplating? Feeding the irregulars or betraying them to the soldiers who followed false King Raniero? That was one obvious possibility.

"Everything gets remembered," Garivald remarked, keeping his tone casual. "Aye, that's so- everything gets remembered. When King Swemmel's inspectors come back to this part of the realm, they'll know who did what, even if something goes wrong with us. Somebody will tell them. Or do you think I'm wrong?"

By the look the firstman gave him, he was certainly loathsome, regardless of whether he was right or wrong. "If the inspectors ever get this far again," the fellow said.

Munderic would have blustered and bellowed. Garivald pulled a knife from his belt and started cleaning dirt from under his fingernails with the point. "Chance you take," he agreed, doing his best to stay mild. "But if you think the inspectors aren't ever coming back, you never should have started feeding us in the first place."

The firstman bit his lip. "Curse you!" he muttered. "You don't make things easy, do you? Aye, I want the Algarvians out, but-"

"But you don't want to do anything to make that happen," Garivald finished, and the firstman bit his lip again. Garivald went on, "You're not fighting. Fair enough- not everybody can fight. But if you won't fight and you won't help the folk who are fighting, what good are you?"

"Curse you," the firstman repeated, his voice weary, hopeless. "It almost doesn't matter who wins the stinking war. Whoever it is, we lose. Take what you need. You would anyhow." Back before the Algarvians had hauled him out of Zossen, Garivald hadn't felt much different. He'd just wished the war would go away and leave him and his alone. But it hadn't worked like that. It wouldn't work like that here in Dargun, either.

Along with his irregulars and several pack mules borrowed from the village, he trudged toward the woods. One peasant from Dargun came along, too, to lead the mules back after they weren't needed anymore. The mules were heavily laden with sacks of beans and barley and rye. So were the men- as heavily laden as they could manage and still walk through the mud. Garivald, his back bent and creaking, didn't want to think about what would happen if a Grelzer patrol came across them. Because he didn't want to think about it, he had trouble thinking about anything else.

More irregulars met them at the edge of the woods and took the sacks the mules carried. The peasant headed off to Dargun. Garivald wondered if he should have kept him behind. Munderic might have. But Garivald didn't see much point to it. Everybody knew the irregulars denned somewhere in this forest. The peasant wouldn't find out where. As far as Garivald could see, that meant he was no great risk.

When he got back to the clearing the irregulars had reclaimed after the Grelzer raiders left the wood, he expected applause from the men and women who hadn't gone along to bring in the supplies. After all, he'd done what he set out to do. If anything, he'd done better than he expected. They wouldn't have to worry about food again for two or three weeks, maybe even a month.

And, indeed, people were staring at him and the men he led as they came into the clearing. Among the people staring were a couple of men Garivald had never seen before. He wondered if he ought to shrug the beans off his back and grab for his stick. But the irregulars who hadn't gone out to Dargun seemed to take the newcomers for granted. They wouldn't have if they'd thought the strangers meant trouble.

Obilot came up to one of those strangers and pointed toward Garivald. "That's our leader," she said, her voice not loud but very clear. A couple of the other irregulars nodded. Garivald straightened with pride despite the weight he carried.

Both newcomers strode toward him. They had on rock-gray tunics. At first, that meant little to him; a lot of the men in his band still wore the ever more threadbare clothes they'd used while serving in King Swemmel's army. But these tunics weren't threadbare. They weren't particularly clean, but they were new. Garivald didn't need long to realize what that meant. He let the sacks of beans down to the ground and stuck out his hand. "You must be real soldiers!" he exclaimed.

The two men looked at each other. "He's quick," one of them said.

"Aye, he is," the other agreed. "That's efficient." But, by the way one of his thick eyebrows rose, he might have thought Garivald too quick for his own good.

"Wonderful to see real soldiers here," Garivald said. He knew the real fighting still lay far to the west, which led to an obvious question: "What are you doing here?"

"Being efficient." The Unkerlanter soldiers spoke together. The one who might have thought Garivald too efficient continued, "We've brought you a crystal."

"Have you, now?" Garivald wondered how efficient that was. "Can I keep it activated without have to sacrifice somebody every month or two, the way a mage had to do back in my home village?"

Before the soldiers could answer, Sadoc's big head bobbed up and down. "Aye, you can," he said. "There's a power point in these woods- not a very big one, but it's there. If it wasn't, I couldn't work any magecraft at all."

In Garivald's view, that would have been an improvement, but he didn't say so. Instead, he gave a sharp, quick nod and turned back to the soldiers. "All right. I guess I can run a crystal. Now what will I do with it?"

"Whatever his Majesty's officers tell you to do, by the powers above," answered the one who'd mentioned the crystal. "We're getting these things out to as many bands behind the Algarvian line as we can. The more you people work with the regular army, the more efficient the fight against the redheads becomes."

That made a certain amount of sense. It also fit in with everything Garivald knew about King Swemmel: he wanted control as firmly in his fists as he could make it. The other Unkerlanter soldier said, "We'll also bring you weapons and medicines whenever we can."

"Good. I'm glad to hear it. We can use them." Garivald eyed the two regulars. "And you'll tell us what to do whenever you can."

They looked at each other for a moment. Then they both nodded. "Well, of course," they said together.


Bembo walked up to Sergeant Pesaro in the constabulary barracks and said, "Sergeant, I want some leave time."

Pesaro looked him up and down. "I want all sorts of things I'm not going to get," the fat sergeant said. "After a while, I get over it and go about my business. You'd better do the same, or you'll be sorry."

"Have a heart!" Bembo exclaimed- not a plea likely to win success when aimed at a superior. "I haven't been back to Tricarico in forever. Nobody's got out of Forthweg in a demon of a long time. It's not fair. It's not right."

Pesaro opened a drawer of the desk behind which he sat. "Here." He handed Bembo a form- a form for requesting leave, Bembo saw. "Fill this out, give it back to me, and I'll pass it on up the line… and it'll bloody well get ignored, the way every other leave-request form gets ignored."

"It's not fair!" Bembo repeated.

"Life's not fair," Pesaro answered. "If you don't believe me, go dye your hair blond and see what looking like a Kaunian gets you. They aren't taking many leave requests from soldiers, and they aren't taking any from constables. But if you want to volunteer to go fight in Unkerlant so you have a little chance of getting leave, I've got a form for that, too." He made as if to reach into the desk drawer again.

"Never mind," Bembo said hastily. "I feel better about things already." Compared to leave in Tricarico, patrolling the streets of Gromheort wasn't so good. Compared to fighting bloodthirsty Unkerlanter maniacs, it wasn't so bad.

"There, you see?" Pesaro's round, jowly face radiated as much goodwill as a sergeant's face was ever likely to show. But he didn't keep on beaming for long. The scowl that spread over his countenance was much more in character. "What in blazes are you doing now?"

"Filling out the leave form," Bembo answered, doing just that. "You never can tell. Lightning might strike."

"Lightning'll strike you," Pesaro rumbled. But he waited till Bembo finished checking boxes, and he didn't throw the form in the wastebasket by the desk. In fact, he read through it. "What's this?" His coppery eyebrows leaped up. " 'I want to start a family'? You son of a whore, you're not married!"

"Sergeant, you don't have to be married to do what it takes to start a family." Bembo was the picture- the implausible picture, but the picture nonetheless- of innocence.

Pesaro snorted. "If you think his Majesty is going to ship you back to Tricarico so you can get your ashes hauled, you've been chewing on Zuwayzi hashish. You know where the brothels are in town."

"It's not the same in a brothel," Bembo complained.

"No- you have to pay for it." Pesaro looked down at the form again. His shoulders shook with silent laughter. "Beside, how do you know you'd get laid if you did go back to Tricarico? It's not like you even had a girlfriend there or anything."

That really hurt, not least because it was true. "Sergeant!" Bembo said reproachfully.

But Sergeant Pesaro lost patience- not something of which he'd ever had any great supply. "Enough!" he growled. "Too fornicating much! Get your arse out on the street. I'll send the stinking form up the line. Just don't hold your breath waiting for a ley-line caravan ticket back to Tricarico, that's all." To add insult to injury, he started eating one of the flaky, many-layered pastries full of honey and nuts in which Forthweg specialized. He didn't offer Bembo any.

Stomach gurgling, head full of a sense of injustice that would have been worse still if he hadn't paused to contemplate the idea of going to Unkerlant, Bembo stomped out of the barracks. He couldn't even complain to Oraste; his partner was nursing a sprained ankle, and couldn't walk his beat for a few days. On reflection, Bembo decided that wasn't so bad. He'd met a lot of people more sympathetic than Oraste. Had he met anybody less sympathetic? He wasn't so sure about that.

Even early in the morning, the day was fine and mild. He didn't mind Gromheort's weather, which wasn't much different from Tricarico's. Now that winter had given way to spring, the rain had pretty much stopped. Before long, he would be sweating and glad of his broad-brimmed hat to keep his face from burning.

Forthwegians on their way to work and to Gromheort's market square crowded the streets. Men wore knee-length tunics, women garments that reached almost to their ankles. Bembo wondered how many of them were Kaunians in sorcerous disguise. He couldn't do anything about that, not by himself, not unless somebody's features changed right before his eyes.

Just before he rounded a corner, he heard raucous hoots and jeers. When he did round it, he spied a bright blond head coming his way. As the woman drew closer, he realized the Forthwegians weren't raising an uproar only because she was a Kaunian. Seeing her made him want to raise an uproar himself. She was young and pretty, and wore a tunic of transparent green silk, while her trousers might have been painted onto her hips and haunches, display all the more startling in a land where most- almost all- women didn't try to show off their shapes.

She stopped in front of Bembo, letting him look her up and down. The way she looked at him was half respectful, half as if he were something nasty she'd found on the sole of her shoe. He tried to keep his voice brisk, but couldn't help coughing a couple of times before saying, "You'll have a pass, I expect."

"Aye, Constable, of course I do," she answered in good Algarvian- he'd expected that, too. She opened out her belt pouch, took out a folded sheet of paper, and handed it to him.

"Doldasai daughter of Daukantis," he read, and the Kaunian woman nodded. The pass did indeed allow her out of the Kaunian quarter when and as she chose: for all practical purposes, it made her an honorary Forthwegian. The price she'd paid to get it was obvious enough. "Aye, I've seen you before," Bembo said, handing the paper back to her. He smiled. "I've always been glad when I have, too."

Doldasai made sure of the precious pass before answering him: "I am a woman for officers, you know." Her voice also held that mixture of respect and contempt. He was an Algarvian, so she couldn't ignore him as she had the jeering Forthwegians, but the pass proved she had powerful protectors. And, he realized a moment later, he was a man- like a lot of courtesans, she likely despised his whole sex.

He said, "I'm keeping my hands to myself." To prove as much, he clasped them behind his back. "Dressed the way you are, though, you can't expect me not to look."

"I am a Kaunian in Forthweg," Doldasai said. "How can I possibly expect anything?" She didn't even sound bitter- just very tired.

Bembo said, "Powers above, if you don't like the life you're living, why don't you get your hands on the charm that makes you people look like Forthwegians? Then you could just disappear."

Doldasai stared at him, perhaps for the first time noticing the person inside the uniform. "You say this?" she asked. "You say this, a constable of Algarve? You tell me to break the law your own people made?" She dug a finger in one ear, as if to be sure she heard correctly. Her nails were carefully trimmed and painted the color of blood.

"I did say it, didn't I?" Bembo spoke in some surprise. Maybe, by doing something like that for her, he could take a tiny step toward making up for all the Kaunians he'd forced into their tiny district or simply sent west. Maybe, too, he'd just been staring at the pink-tipped breasts so plainly visible through the thin silk of her tunic. He shrugged. Now that the words were out of his mouth, he made the best of them: "You could do it, you know. Who'd be the wiser?"

"Curse you," she muttered in classical Kaunian before going back to Bembo's language. "Every time I steel myself to see you Algarvians as nothing but pricks with legs, one of you has to go and remind me you're people, too." She set a hand on his arm, not provocatively but in a friendly way. "Kind of you to say that. Kind of you to think that. But I can't."

"Why not?" Bembo asked. "Seems like about every third Kaunian around has already done it. More, for all I know."

Doldasai nodded. "True. But your folk don't hold hostage the parents of most Kaunians in Gromheort. They have way to make sure of my… good behavior. And so, you see, I can't just disappear."

"That's…" Bembo didn't want to say what he thought it was. He could hardly denounce his own officers to a woman whose looks proclaimed her an enemy of Algarve. What he did say was, "Tell me where they're at and I'll see if I can't get 'em moved into the regular Kaunian district. After that- well, if you look like everybody else around these parts, who's going to ask any questions?"

Now the Kaunian courtesan frankly gaped. "You would do that… for a blond?" She didn't make him answer; she might have been afraid of the result. She might have been wise to be afraid, too. Instead, she hurried on, "If you do that- if you can do that- I'll give you anything you want." She shrugged. Bembo watched, entranced. She said, "What difference would one more time make, especially if it was the last?"

"If you think I'll go all noble and say, 'You don't have to do that, sweetheart,' you're daft," Bembo said. Doldasai nodded; she understood such deals. Bembo went on, "Now, where are they?"

"They're quartered in Count Brorda's castle- the place where your governor rules now," she answered. "Their names are Daukantis and Feliksai."

Bembo started to say he didn't care what their names were, but then realized knowing might be useful. Instead, he asked, "Do you know whereabouts they are in the castle?"

"Aye." Doldasai told him. He made her repeat it so he had it straight. She did, and then said, "Powers above bless you. For you to do such a thing-"

He reached out and caressed her. She let him do it. "Believe me, sweetheart, I know why," he told her. And I'm not going to risk my neck for theirs, either, he thought. If it's easy, fine. If it's not… I copped a feel, anyhow. Aloud, he went on, "There are rooms above a tavern called the Imperial Unicorn, a couple of blocks inside the Kaunian district. You know the place?" Her eyes showed she did. Bembo said, "Wait for me there. We'll see what I can do, and we'll see what you can do."

Back in Algarve, the great stone pile that lay at the center of Gromheort would have been labeled quaint. Here in Forthweg, the adjectives chilly, ugly, and gloomy more readily sprang to mind. Soldiers and bureaucrats bustled this way and that. Nobody bothered noticing a plump, redheaded constable. To Bembo's vast relief, the sentry in front of Daukantis and Feliksai's door was a soldier he'd never seen before, not a fellow constable. With a nasty smile, he said, "I've come for these Kaunian buggers. They're going straight back in with the rest of their stinking kind."

Very possibly, nobody'd told the sentry why the blonds were being held. He didn't argue. He didn't make Bembo sign anything or ask his name and authority. He just grinned wolfishly, opened the door, and said, "They're all yours. Good riddance to 'em."

No one paid any attention to a constable marching a couple of Kaunians along in front of his stick, either. Once Bembo got them out of the castle, he murmured, "Now they don't have a hold on your daughter any more." They gaped and then started to weep. That was nothing out of the ordinary, either.

At the edge of the Kaunian quarter, another constable waved to Bembo and called "Caught a couple, did you? You lucky whoreson!" Bembo waved his hat with typical Algarvian braggadocio.

Like the ancient Kaunian Empire, the tavern called the Imperial Unicorn was a sad shadow of its former self. Bembo took Doldasai's father and mother upstairs. She was pacing the narrow hallway there. She looked from Bembo to Feliksai and Daukantis and back again in astonished disbelief. "You really did it," she whispered, and then flew into her parents' arms.

"Bargain," Bembo said pointedly.

"Bargain," Doldasai agreed. She took her mother and father into one of the little rooms, then came out and took Bembo into another one. "For what you just did, you deserve the best," she said, and proceeded to give it to him. If she didn't enjoy it herself, too, she was a better actress than any courtesan he'd known. Her pleasure might have been set off more by her parents' rescue than his charms, but he thought it real even so.

And his own pleasure, as he left the Kaunian district, was more than merely physical. He hadn't quite done a good deed for the sake of doing a good deed, but he'd come a lot closer than usual, close enough to leave his conscience as happy as the rest of him, which was saying a great deal.


"Come on, boys, get yourselves ready," Major Spinello told the troopers in his regiment. "We've been kicking the Unkerlanters' arses for almost two years now. We'll go right on doing it, too, won't we?"

The Algarvian soldiers cheered. Some of them waved their sticks in the air. What a liar I'm turning into, Spinello thought. He hadn't told a lie, or not exactly. If his countrymen hadn't won victory after victory, he and the regiment wouldn't have been here deep in northern Unkerlant.

But Swemmel's men could kick, too. Every time he took off his tunic to bathe, the puckered scar on the right side of his chest reminded him of the truth there. Had that beam caught him in the left side of the chest, it wouldn't have left a scar. It would have killed him outright. And the Unkerlanter campaign against Sulingen had come too close to killing all the Algarvian armies in the southern part of King Swemmel's domain. It hadn't, though. Like Spinello, they'd been badly scarred. Like him, too, they kept battling.

"All right, then," he told his men. "We'll go forward for King Mezentio, powers above bless him. And we'll go forward because there aren't any Unkerlanters on the face of the earth who can stop us."

He got more cheers from the men. Even some of his officers applauded. Captain Turpino didn't look altogether convinced. Turpino, in fact, looked about to be ill. He didn't lead with speeches. He was always at the head of his company when an attack went in, and that seemed to be enough for him. Spinello led from the front, too, but he remained convinced that getting the most from his soldiers was also a sorcery of the sort the universities didn't teach to mages.

Just before Spinello could give the command that would send his men forward, a rider on a lathered horse came up calling his name. "I am Spinello," he said, drawing himself up to his full if not very impressive height. "What would you? Be quick- we are about to attack."

"I have orders for you, sir, and for your regiment." The messenger opened a leather tube he wore on his belt and took out a roll of paper bound with a ribbon and a wax seal. "From army headquarters."

"I see that," Spinello said. Brigade headquarters would have been much less formal. He took the orders and used his thumbnail to crack the seal, then unrolled the paper and quickly read it. Even before he'd finished, he started to curse.

"What's wrong, sir?" Turpino asked.

"We are not going to stamp the Unkerlanters into the dust today," Spinello answered.

"What?" His men howled furious protests: "Don't they think we're good enough?" "We'll lick 'em!" "A plague on the Unkerlanters, and another one on our generals!"

"You have your men very ready for action," the messenger observed.

"What's gone wrong, sir?" Captain Turpino had. He assumed something had, and Spinello could hardly blame him for that. Spinello had thought something was wrong, too, till he'd gone all the way through the orders.

As things were, he said, "Nothing, Captain. It is, if you like, even a compliment." He passed the paper to Turpino so the senior company commander could see for himself. Spinello addressed the regiment as a whole: "We are withdrawn from the line for rest, refit, and reinforcements- this because of our outstanding fighting qualities, as the general heading up the army says in so many words. They want us in very top shape before they throw us into battle again, so we can do the enemy as much harm as possible."

"Aye, that's what it says," Turpino agreed. "It also says we're going to get sent south when the refit's done."

Spinello nodded. "That looks to be where the war will be won or lost. I say that because, having fought there, I see the difference between that part of the front and this one. Here, we go forward or we go back, and not a whole lot changes either way. There… There they take whole armies off the board when things go wrong. They've gone wrong for us and the Unkerlanters both. Next time, by the powers above, I want 'em going wrong for Swemmel's men, and we can help make that happen."

His men clapped their hands. A few of them tossed their hats in the air. The messenger saluted Spinello. "Sir, you've got them eating out of the palm of his hand."

"Do I?" Spinello looked at the palm in question. Grinning, he wiped it on his kilt. "I've been wondering why it was wet." The messenger snorted. Spinello turned back to his troops. "Form up, you lugs. Some other lucky fellows get the joy of fighting Unkerlanters here. Poor us- we have to face baths and barbers and beds and brothels. I don't know how we'll be able to manage it, but for the sake of the kingdom we have to try."

"You are a mountebank," Turpino said as Spinello led his soldiers out of the line. "Sir." His voice held nothing but admiration.

A new regiment came up the dirt road to replace Spinello's. It looked to be a very new regiment, with plump, well-fed men wearing clean uniforms. "Do your mothers know you're here?" one of Spinello's scrawny veterans called. That set off an avalanche of jeering. The raw troops smiled nervously and kept marching. They didn't jeer back, which only proved they didn't know what they were getting into.

"Stay awake," Spinello told his men. "Keep an eye skinned for dragons. I think we've got enough holes in the ground to dive into if we have to." That drew more laughter from the veterans. The landscape, like most landscapes that had seen a lot of fighting, was a jumble of craters and old, half-collapsed trenches and foxholes. Spinello bunched his fingertips and kissed them. "Aye, Unkerlant is beautiful in the springtime."

He'd hoped for a ley-line caravan ride back to Goldap, the Unkerlanter town the Algarvians used for a rest center and replacement depot. But Swemmel's men had sabotaged the ley line, and the Algarvian mages were still working to repair the damage. That meant three days of marching through mud for the regiment.

Once they got into Goldap, soldiers exclaimed at how large and fine it was. Maybe they were from little farms and had no idea what a city was supposed to be like. Maybe, and more likely, they'd been out in the field too long, so that any place with several streets' worth of buildings standing seemed impressive.

Spinello got them billeted and queued up at a bathhouse next door to the barracks before seeking army headquarters to report his presence. Though normally fastidious- indeed, more than a bit of a dandy- he didn't bother cleaning up first. If he brought the smell of the front with him, then he did, that was all. And if he brought a few fleas and lice with him, too, well, the officers here had a better chance of getting rid of them than somebody who spent all his time fighting.

As Spinello had expected, the lieutenant to whom he first announced his presence wrinkled his nose and did his best not to breathe. But the colonel to whom the lieutenant conducted him only smiled and said, "Major, about every third officer who visits me tries to show me how dreadful things are up at the front. I know it for myself, believe me."

Spinello eyed the decorations the colonel wore. They included a couple of medals for gallantry, a pair of wound badges, and what the troops called the frozen-meat medal marking service in Unkerlant the first winter of the war against Swemmel. "Perhaps you do, sir," Spinello admitted. "But you might have been someone just in from Trapani, too."

"In which case, you'd've made me feel guilty for being clean and safe, eh?" the colonel said. "I'd be angrier at you if I hadn't played those games every now and again, too. As things are, I'm trying to arrange another field command for myself."

"I hope you get one, sir," Spinello said. "Anybody can be a hero back here. You've shown you can do it where it counts."

The colonel rose from his chair so he could bow. "You are too kind," he murmured. "And you have made a respectable name for yourself as a combat soldier, I might add. If you hadn't, we would have left you here in a sector where nothing much ever happens. As things are, you'll serve the kingdom where it really matters."

"Good." Hearing himself sound so fierce, Spinello started to laugh. "Can you believe, sir, that before this war started I was more interested in the archaeology and literature of the Kaunian Empire than in how to outflank a fortified position?"

"Life is to live. Life is to enjoy- till duty calls," the colonel answered. "Me, I was a beekeeper. Some of the honeys my hives turned out won prizes at agricultural shows all over Algarve. Now, though, I have to pay attention to behemoths, not bees."

"I understand," Spinello said. "If they're sending us south, does that mean we aim to have another go at Durrwangen once the ground really gets hard?"

"I can't tell you for a fact, Major, because I don't know," the colonel said. "But if you can read a map, I expect you'll draw certain conclusions. I would."

Now Major Spinello bowed. "I think you've answered me, sir. Where am I to pick up the drafts of men who will bring my regiment to full strength?"

"We've taken over a couple of what used to be hostels down the street from the caravan depot," the colonel replied. "At the moment, we've got a brigade just in from occupation duty in Jelgava. Three companies have your name on them. Speak with one of the officers there; they'll take care of you. If they don't, send them on to me and I'll take care of them." He sounded as if he relished the prospect.

Spinello laughed again. "From Jelgava, eh? Poor bastards. They'll be wondering what in blazes hit 'em. And then they go down south? Powers above, they won't enjoy that much. I hope they'll be able to fight."

"They'll manage," the other Algarvian officer said. "This past winter, we had a brigade from Valmiera get out of its caravan in a blizzard in a depot the Unkerlanters were attacking right that minute. They gave Swemmel's men a prime boot in the balls."

"Good for them!" Spinello clapped his hands together. "May we do the same."

"Aye, may you indeed," the colonel agreed. "Meanwhile, though, go collar your new men. Make sure the ones you already have are able to climb into their caravan cars day after tomorrow. We'll try not to halt 'em at a depot where they have to fight their way off."

"Generous of you, sir," Spinello said, saluting. "I'll do everything you told me, just as you said. I won't be sorry to go down south again." He reached up and touched his own wound badge. "I owe the Unkerlanters down there a little something, that I do."

"And you believe in paying your debts?" the colonel asked.

"Every one of them, sir," Spinello answered solemnly. "Every single one- with interest."


"Hello, there," Ealstan said to the doorman at Ethelhelm's block of flats. "I got a message he wanted to see me." He didn't bother hiding his distaste. He wished he hadn't come at all, but had ignored the band leader and singer who couldn't break with the Algarvians.

And then the doorman said, "You got a message from whom, sir?"

Ealstan stared. This fellow had been letting him into the building for months so he could cast the singer's accounts. Had he suddenly gone soft in the head? "Why, from Ethelhelm, of course," he answered.

"Ah." The doorman nodded and looked wise. "I thought that might be whom you meant, sir. But I must tell you, that gentleman no longer resides here."

"Oh, really?" Ealstan said, and the doorman nodded again. Ealstan asked, "Did he leave a forwarding address?"

"No, sir." Now the doorman shook his head. His cultured veneer slipped. "Why do you want to know? Did he skip out owing you money, too?"

Too? Ealstan thought. But he also shook his head. "No. As a matter of fact, we were square. But why did he ask me to come here if he knew he was going to disappear?"

"Maybe he didn't know," the doorman said. "He just up and left a couple of days ago. All kinds of people have been looking for him." He sighed. "Powers above, you should see some of the women who've been looking for him. If they were looking for me, I'd make cursed sure they found me, I would."

"I believe that." Ealstan decided to risk a somewhat more dangerous question: "Have the Algarvians come looking for him, too?"

"Haven't they just!" the doorman exclaimed. "More of those buggers than you can shake a stick at. And this one redheaded piece…" His hands described an hourglass in the air. "Her kilt was so short, I don't hardly know why she bothered wearing it at all." He made a chopping motion at his own knee-length tunic, just below crotch level, to show what he meant.

Vanai had talked about seeing Algarvian women in the baths. Ealstan had no interest in them. He wondered what Ethelhelm had wanted, and what the musician was doing now. Whatever it was, he hoped Ethelhelm would manage to do it far from the Algarvians' eyes.

Aloud, he said, "Well, the crows take him for making me come halfway across town for nothing. If he ever wants me again, I expect he knows where to find me." He turned and left the block of flats. With a little luck, I'll never see it again, he thought.

Someone had scrawled PENDA AND FREEDOM! on a wall not far from Ethelhelm's building. Ealstan nodded when he saw that. He hadn't felt particularly free when Penda still ruled Forthweg, but he hadn't had standards of comparison then, either. King Mezentio's men had given him some.

He saw the slogan again half a block later. That made him nod even more. New graffiti always pleased him; they were signs he wasn't the only one who despised the Algarvian occupiers. He hadn't seen so many since the spate of scribbles crowing about Sulingen. The redheads, curse them, had proved they weren't going to fold up and die in Unkerlant after all.

When an Algarvian constable came round the corner, Ealstan picked up his pace and walked past the new scribble without turning his head toward it. He must have succeeded in keeping his face straight, too, because the constable didn't reach for his club or growl at him.

I'm well rid of Ethelhelm anyhow, Ealstan thought. He'd found a couple of new clients who between them paid almost as much as the musician had and who didn't threaten to disappoint him with a friendship that would turn sour. His father had been friendly with his clients, but hadn't made friends with them. Now Ealstan saw the difference between those two, and the reason for it.

Not far from the ley-line caravan depot, a work gang was clearing rubble where an Unkerlanter egg had burst. Some of the laborers, the Forthwegians among them, looked like pickpockets and petty thieves let out of gaol so the Algarvians could get some work from them. The rest were trousered Kaunians taken out of their district.

Ealstan hadn't seen so many blond heads all together for a long time. He wondered why the Kaunian men hadn't dyed their hair and used Vanai's spell to help themselves disappear into the Forthwegian majority. Maybe they just hadn't got the chance. He hoped that was it. Or maybe they didn't want to believe what the Algarvians were doing with and to their people, as if not believing it made it less true.

The Forthwegians weren't working any harder than they had to. Every so often, one of the redheads overseeing the job would yell at them. Sometimes they picked up a little, sometimes they didn't. Once, an Algarvian whacked one of them in the seat of his tunic with a club. That produced a yelp, a few curses, and a little more work. The Kaunians in the gang, though, labored like men possessed. Ealstan understood that, and wished he didn't. The Forthwegians would sooner have been sitting in a cell. But if the Kaunians didn't work hard, they'd go west and never, ever come back. Their lives depended on convincing the Algarvians they were worth their keep.

A Forthwegian passing by called, "Hey, you Kaunians!" When a couple of the blonds looked up, he drew his finger across his throat and made horrible gurgling noises. Then he threw back his head and laughed. So did the Algarvian strawbosses. So did about half the Forthwegian laborers. The Kaunians, for some reason, didn't seem to find the joke so funny.

And Ealstan had to walk on by without even cursing his loutish countryman. He didn't dare do anything that would draw the occupiers' notice. His own fate was of no great concern to him. Without him, though, how would Vanai manage? He didn't want her to have to find out.

At the doorway to the flat, he gave the coded knock he always used. Vanai opened the door to let him in. After they kissed, they both said the same thing at the same time: "I've got news." Laughing, they pointed to each other and said the same thing at the same time again: "You first."

"All right," Ealstan said, and told Vanai of Ethelhelm's disappearance. He finished, "I don't know where he's gone, I don't know what he's doing, and I don't much care, not anymore. Maybe he even listened to me- maybe he's gone off to find some quiet little place in the country where nobody will care where he came from or what he used to do as long as he pulls his weight."

"Maybe," Vanai said. "That would be easier for him if he didn't look as if he had Kaunian blood, of course. Maybe someone got my spell to him."

"Maybe somebody did," Ealstan said. "For his sake, I hope somebody did. It would make things easier." He paused, then remembered he wasn't the only one with something on his mind. He pointed at Vanai and asked, "What's your news?"

"I'm going to have a baby," she answered.

Ealstan gaped. He didn't know what he'd expected her to say. Whatever it was, that wasn't it. For a couple of seconds, he couldn't think of anything to say. What did come out was a foolish question: "Are you sure?"

Vanai laughed in his face. "Of course I am," she answered. "I have a perfectly good way to tell, you know. I was pretty sure a month ago. There's no room for doubt now, not anymore."

"All right," he mumbled. His cheeks and ears heated. Talk of such intimate details embarrassed him. "You surprised me."

"Did I?" Vanai raised an eyebrow. "I'm not surprised, not really. Or rather, the only thing I am surprised about is that it took so long to happen. We've been busy."

He heard her, but he wasn't really paying much attention to what she said. "A baby. I don't know anything about taking care of babies. Do you?"

"Not really," she said. "We can learn, though. People do. If they didn't, there wouldn't be any more people."

"We'll have to think of a name," Ealstan said, and then added, "Two names," remembering it might be either boy or girl. "We'll have to do… all sorts of things." He had no idea what most of them were, but Vanai was right- he could learn. He'd have to learn. "A baby."

He walked past his wife into the kitchen, opened a jar of red wine, and poured two cups full. Then he went out to Vanai, handed her one, and raised the other in salute. They both drank. Vanai yawned. "I'm sleepy all the time. That's another thing that's supposed to be a sign."

"Is it?" Ealstan shrugged a shrug meant to show ignorance. "I'd noticed you were, but I didn't think it meant anything."

"Well, it does," she said. "You sleep as much as you can beforehand, because you won't sleep once the baby's born."

"That makes sense," Ealstan agreed. "A baby." He kept saying the words. He believed them, but in a different sense he had trouble believing them. "My mother and father will be grandparents. My sister will be an aunt." He started to mention his brother also, started and then stopped. Leofsig was dead. He still had trouble believing that, too.

Vanai's mind was going down the same ley line. "My grandfather would be a great-grandfather," she said, and sighed. "And he would grumble about miscegenation and halfbreeds as long as he lived."

Ealstan hadn't cared about that. He didn't think his family would, either. Oh, there was Uncle Hengist, Sidroc's father, but Ealstan wasn't going to waste any worry on him. "The baby will be fine," he said, "as long as-"

He didn't break off quite soon enough. Vanai thought along with him again. "As long as Algarve loses the war," she said, and Ealstan had to nod. She went on, "But what if Algarve doesn't lose? What if the baby's looks show it has Kaunian blood? Will we have to make magic over it two or three times a day till it can make magic for itself? Will it have to make magic for itself for the rest of its life?"

"Algarve can't win," Ealstan declared, though he knew no certain reason why not. The redheads seemed convinced they could.

But Vanai didn't contradict him. She wanted to believe that as much as he did- more than he did. "Let me get supper ready," she said. "It won't be anything fancy- just bread and cheese and olives."

"That will be fine," Ealstan said. "The way the redheads are stealing from us, we're lucky to have that. We're lucky we can afford it."

"That's not luck," Vanai answered. "That's because you do good work."

"You're sweet." Ealstan hurried over to her and gave her another kiss.

"I love you," she said. They'd both been speaking Forthwegian; they almost always did these days. Suddenly, though, she switched to Kaunian: "I want the child to learn this language, too, to know both sides of its family."

"All right," Ealstan replied, also in Kaunian. "I think that would be very good." He was pleased he could bring the words out quickly. He pulled out a chair for Vanai. "If it is cheese and olives and bread, you sit down. I can fix that for us."

More often than not, she didn't want him messing about in the kitchen. Now, with a yawn, she said, "Thank you." After a moment, she added, "You speak Kaunian well. I'm glad."

Ealstan, of course, hadn't learned it as his birthspeech. He'd acquired it from schoolmasters who'd stimulated his memory with a switch. Even so, he told the truth when he answered, "I am glad, too."


Cornelu's leviathan heartily approved of swimming south and west toward the outlet of the Narrow Sea, to the waters just off the coast of the land of the Ice People. He'd expected nothing different; Eforiel, the leviathan he'd ridden for King Burebistu of Sibiu, had also liked to make this journey. The tiny plants and animals that fed bigger ones flourished in the cold water off the austral continent.

The leviathan cared nothing for tiny plants and animals. Whales fed on those, sieving them up with baleen. But the squid and mackerel and tunny that swarmed where food was so thick delighted the leviathan, delighted it so much that Cornelu sometimes had trouble persuading it to go where he wanted.

"Come on, you stubborn thing!" he exclaimed in exasperation more affectionate than otherwise. "Plenty of nice fish for you to eat over here, too." Despite taps and prods, the beast didn't want to obey him. If it decided to go off on its own and eat itself fat, what could he do? Every so often, a leviathan-rider went out on a mission that looked easy and was never seen again…

Eventually- and, in fact, well before he could go from exasperated to alarmed- the leviathan decided there might be good eating in the direction he chose, too. That didn't mean Cornelu could take it easy and not worry on the ride. Algarvian warships prowled the ley lines that ran south from occupied Sibiu. Algarvian leviathans swam in these seas, too. And Algarvian dragons flew overhead.

Every day was longer than the one that had gone before. And, the farther south the leviathan swam, the longer the sun stayed in the heavens. At high summer, daylight never ceased on the austral continent. The season hadn't come to that yet, but it wasn't far away.

Ice floating in the sea foretold the presence of the austral continent: first relatively small, relatively scattered chunks, then bergs that loomed up out of the water like sculpted mountains of blue and green and white and bulked ever so much larger below the surface of the ocean. Somehow, leviathans could sense those great masses of underwater ice without seeing them, and never collided with them. Cornelu wished he knew how his beast managed that, but the finest veterinary mages were as baffled as he.

In winter, the sea itself froze solid for miles out from the shore of the land of the Ice People. The icebergs Cornelu passed broke off from the main mass as sea and air warmed when the sun swung south in the sky once more.

He and his leviathan had to thread their way through channels in the ice to the little settlement Kuusaman and Lagoan sorcerers had established east of Mizpah, on the long headland that jutted out toward the island the two kingdoms shared. A Kuusaman mage in a rowboat came out to bring Cornelu the last couple of hundred yards to shore.

"Very good to see you," the Kuusaman said in classical Kaunian, the only language they proved to have in common. He introduced himself as Leino. "Very good to see anyone who is not a familiar face, as a matter of fact. All the familiar faces have become much too familiar, if you know what I mean."

"I think I do," Cornelu answered. "I suspect you would be even happier to see me if I were a good-looking woman."

"Especially if you were my wife," the Kuusaman said. "But Pekka has her own sorcerous work, and I know as little about what she is doing as she knows about what goes on here."

"What does go on here?" Cornelu looked at the miserable collection of huts and camel-hide tents on the mainland. "Why would anyone in his right mind want to come here?"

Leino grinned at him. "You make assumptions that may not be justified, you know." The mage might smile and joke, but didn't answer the question.

Cornelu knew he wasn't going to get much of an answer, but he did want some. "Why on earth did they have my leviathan bring you two large egg casings filled with sawdust?"

"No trees around these parts," Leino replied as the rowboat ran aground on a pebbly beach. "Hard to get a ship through all these icebergs. A leviathan can carry more than a dragon. And so- here you are."

"Here I am," Cornelu agreed in hollow tones. "Here I may stay, too, unless you get me back to my leviathan before it swims off after food."

"No worry there." Leino scrambled out of the boat. "We have a good binding spell on the sea hereabouts. You are not the first leviathan-rider to come here, but not a one of them has been stranded."

"Fair enough." Cornelu got out of the boat, too. With rubber flippers still on his feet, he was as awkward as a duck on land. He persisted: "Why sawdust?"

"Why, to mix with the ice, of course," Leino replied, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world. "We have plenty of ice here."

Cornelu gave up. He might hope for a straight answer, but he could tell he wasn't going to get one. He asked a different sort of question: "How do you keep yourselves fed?"

Leino seemed willing enough to answer that. "We buy reindeer and camel meat from the Ice People." His flat, swarthy features twisted into a horrible grimace. "Camel meat is pretty bad, but at least the camel it comes from is dead. Live camels- believe me, Commander, you do not want to know about live camels. And we blaze seals and sea birds every now and then. They are not very good, either. To keep us from dying of scurvy, the Lagoans are generous enough to send us plenty of pickled cabbage." By his expression, he also didn't care for that.

"Cranberries fight scurvy, too," Cornelu said. "Do cranberries grow on this part of the austral continent?"

"Nothing has grown on this part of the austral continent since I got here," Leino replied. He looked around at the green sprouting up here and there. "I must admit, I cannot be quite so sure about what will grow now. See? Even these sorry things yield up a crop."

He pointed to the shelters, from which emerged a couple of dozen other mages. Most were easy to type as either Kuusamans or Lagoans, but six or eight could have been either and were in fact partly both. Such untidiness bothered Cornelu. In Sibiu, everyone was recognizably Sibian. He shrugged. He couldn't do anything about it here.

Whatever their blood, the mages were friendly. They gave Cornelu smoked meat and sour cabbage and potent spirits Leino hadn't mentioned. Some of them spoke Algarvian, in which he was more fluent than classical Kaunian. Waving a slice of meat, he said, "This stuff isn't so bad. It's got a flavor all its own."

"That's one way to put it," said a mage who looked like a Kuusaman but spoke Lagoan when he wasn't using Algarvian or classical Kaunian. "And do you know why it's got that flavor? Because it was smoked over burning camel dung, that's why."

"You're joking." But Cornelu saw that the wizard wasn't. He set down the meat and took a big swig of spirits. Once he had the spirits in his mouth, he swished them around before swallowing, as if cleaning his teeth. In fact, that was exactly what he was doing.

The mage laughed. "You've got to get used to eating things cooked with it if you're going to try and live in the land of the Ice People. There isn't much in the way of wood here. If there were, would you be bringing sawdust from Lagoas?"

"You never can tell," Cornelu answered, which made the mage laugh again.

"Well, maybe not," the fellow said. "Some of those blockheads in Setubal ought to be ground up for sawdust themselves, if anybody wants to know what I think."

Cornelu tried again: "Now that you have all this sawdust, what will you do with it?"

"Mix it with ice," the Lagoan mage answered, as Leino had. "We're trying to make cold drinks for termites, you see."

"Thank you so very much," the Sibian exile said. All that got him was still more laughter from the wizard.

"Are you feeling refreshed after your long journey here?" Leino asked in classical Kaunian. When Cornelu admitted he was, the Kuusaman mage asked, "Then you will not mind if I row you out to sea again so you can summon your leviathan and so we can bring these casings full of sawdust to the shore?"

Whatever the mages wanted to do with the sawdust, they were eager to get at it. With a sigh, Cornelu got to his feet again. "After tasting the delicacies of the countryside here, I suppose I can," he answered. The sooner he left the land of the Ice People and its delicacies, the happier he would be. He didn't say anything about that. The mages who were stuck down here at the bottom of the world couldn't leave no matter how much they wanted to.

Leino handled the oars with ease a fisherman might have envied. As he rowed, he asked, "When you go back to Setubal, Commander, you will take letters with you?"

"Aye, if you and your comrades give them to me," Cornelu answered.

"We will." The Kuusaman sighed. "The cursed censors will probably have to use their black ink and knives on them. They have taken too many bites out of the letters my wife sends to me."

"I can do nothing about that." Cornelu's wife didn't write him letters. The most he could say about her was that she hadn't betrayed him to the Algarvians even after she started giving herself to them. It wasn't enough. It wasn't nearly enough.

Leino let the rowboat drift to a stop. "This was about where I picked you up, was it not?"

"I think so, aye." Cornelu leaned out over the gunwale and slapped the water in the pattern that would summon his leviathan if it was anywhere close by. He waited a couple of minutes, then slapped again.

He got only a brief glimpse of the leviathan's sinuously muscled shape before its snout broke the surface by the boat and sent water splashing up onto the two men in it. Still in his rubber suit, Cornelu didn't mind. Leino spluttered and said something in Kuusaman that sounded pungent before returning to classical Kaunian: "I think the beast did that on purpose."

"I would not be a bit surprised if you were right," Cornelu answered. "Leviathans seem to think people were made for their amusement." He slid down into the sea and swam over to the leviathan. After patting it and praising it for coming, he undid the egg casings it carried under its belly and brought the two ropes over to Leino. "The cases are of neutral buoyancy," he said as he got back into the boat. "They will not pull you under." Leino made the ropes fast to the stern of the boat.

When the Kuusaman mage started to row again, he grunted. "They may not sink me, but they are not light. The shore looks a good deal farther away than it did when you were here before."

"I gather you and your colleagues wanted a good deal of sawdust," Cornelu replied. "I still do not understand why you wanted it, but you did, and now you have it. I hope you use it to confound Algarve."

"With the help of the powers above, I think we may be able to oblige you." Leino took another stroke and grunted again. "Assuming my arms do not fall out of their sockets between here and the beach, that is."

"Would the work not go on either way?" Cornelu asked, as innocently as he could.

Leino started to say something- perhaps something sharp- then checked himself and chuckled. "Commander, you are more dangerous than you look."

Cornelu courteously inclined his head. "I hope so."


Tears ran down Vanai's face. She'd just finished chopping up a particularly potent onion when someone knocked on the door to the flat. As she hurried out of the kitchen, whoever it was knocked again, louder and more insistently. Fear blazed through her. This wasn't just a knock. This was liable to be the knock, the one she'd dreaded ever since coming to Eoforwic.

"Opening up!" The call came in Algarvian-accented Forthwegian. "Opening up or breaking down, by powers above!"

Vanai wondered if she ought to leap out the window and hope she could end everything quickly. The redheads wouldn't get the use of her life energy that way, anyhow. But she'd just renewed the spell that disguised her Kaunianity- and she was carrying a child. If that wasn't an expression of hope, what was?

She unbarred the door and worked the latch. The kilted Algarvian in the hall had his fist upraised to knock again. A couple of burly Forthwegian constables flanked him like bookends. He looked Vanai up and down, then said, "You are being Thelberge, wife to Ealstan?"

"Aye. That's right." More hope flowered in Vanai. If the Algarvian called her by her Forthwegian name, he probably wasn't going to seize her for being a Kaunian. Gathering courage, she asked, "What do you want?"

"Your husband is keeping books for Ethelhelm, the singing and drumming man?"

Ah. Vanai wouldn't let her knees shake with relief. If that was why the redhead was here, she could even tell the truth. "Ealstan did keep books for Ethelhelm, aye. But Ethelhelm hasn't been his client since late winter."

"But Ealstan is going- was going- to seeing Ethelhelm only a few days ago."

It wasn't a question. Maybe the Algarvian had talked to the doorman at Ethelhelm's block of flats. Again, Vanai could tell the truth, and did: "Ethelhelm did send Ealstan a note asking him to visit. But when he went to Ethelhelm's block of flats, he found Ethelhelm had left the building."

"He is knowing where the singing and drumming man is going- has going?"

"No," Vanai said. "He was surprised when he found Ethelhelm had gone. From what he told me, everyone was surprised when Ethelhelm left."

"That's the truth," one of the Forthwegian constables muttered.

"You husband Ealstan not hearing from Ethelhelm since?" the Algarvian asked.

"No," Vanai repeated. "He doesn't want to hear from him, either. They'd fallen out. I don't know what Ethelhelm wanted with him, and I don't want to find out, either." That was also true. She recognized how craven it was, but she didn't care. She only wanted that Algarvian to go away, and to take his Forthwegian henchmen with him.

And she got what she wanted. The redhead swept off his hat and bowed to her. "All right, pretty lady. We going. You seeing this Ethelhelm item, you hearing him, you telling us. We wanting him. Oh, aye. We wanting him. You telling?"

"Of course," Vanai answered: a lie, this time. The Algarvian and the two Forthwegians tramped down the hall to the odorous stairwell. Vanai stood in the doorway and watched till they disappeared. Then she shut the door, leaned against it, and slid halfway to the ground as her knees did weaken with relief.

As she put the bar back on the door, she realized what a narrow escape that had been. Ealstan and Ethelhelm might have fallen out at any time. If they had, and if Ethelhelm had disappeared not long afterwards, Mezentio's men would have come around asking questions. If they'd done it while she still looked like the Kaunian she was…

She went back to the onion and threw it in the stew pot. It still stung her eyes, but she didn't feel like crying anymore, not after she'd had her disguise tested and she'd won through to safety.

When Ealstan got back that evening, she told him about her adventure. He held her and squeezed her and didn't say anything for a long time. Then he set the palm of his hand on her belly and murmured, "You are all right. You are both all right."

Vanai needed a moment to realize he'd spoken Kaunian. She smiled and snuggled against him. Speaking Forthwegian had always seemed safer, and more and more lately. It wasn't that Ealstan was more at home in it than in Kaunian; that had always been true. But when Vanai wore Thelberge's seeming, she put on all the trappings that went with being Thelberge, including her language.

As he had when she told him she would have a baby, he went into the kitchen and came back with two cups of wine. "To freedom!" he said, also in classical Kaunian, and she happily drank to that.

He probably assumed they would make love after supper. Vanai assumed the same thing; they'd spent a lot of evenings doing that, both back in the days before she could leave the flat and afterwards. Her own left hand went to her belly as she spooned up more bean-and-barley soup with grated cheese and a couple of marrow bones. If they hadn't, she wouldn't have had a baby growing in there. She yawned. She wouldn't have been so tired all the time, either.

When they were done eating, she went out to the sofa and lay down. The next thing she knew, Ealstan was shaking her awake. "Come on," he said. "Time and past time to go on into the bedchamber. I've washed the dishes and put them away."

"You have?" Vanai said, astonished. "Why? What time is it?"

By way of answer, Ealstan pointed to their windows, which faced toward the southwest. They framed the first-quarter moon, now sinking down toward the horizon. He spelled out what that meant: "Getting on toward midnight."

"But it can't be!" Vanai exclaimed, as if he'd somehow tricked her, cheated her. "I just came out here to rest for a few minutes, and-"

"And you started to snore," Ealstan said. "I wasn't going to bother you, but I didn't think you'd want to spend the whole night here."

"Oh." Now Vanai sounded sheepish. "It caught me again." She yawned again, too. "Am I going to stay asleep till the baby's born?"

Ealstan grinned at her. "Maybe you ought to hope you will. I don't know much about what women do while they're expecting, but you were the one who said you wouldn't get much sleep after the baby's here."

That was indeed all too likely to be true. Vanai got up, cleaned her teeth, changed into a light linen tunic, and lay down in bed beside Ealstan. He went to sleep right away. She tossed and turned for a while. She was used to sleeping on her belly, but her breasts were too tender for that to be comfortable. She curled up on her side and…

It was morning. She rolled over. Ealstan wasn't there. Noise from the kitchen told where he'd gone. She went out there herself. He was dipping bread into olive oil and sipping from a cup of wine. "Hello, there," he said cheerfully, and got up and gave her a quick kiss. "Shall I fix you some?"

"Would you, please?" Vanai laughed a small, nervous laugh. "I didn't have any trouble keeping supper down. Let's hope I do all right with this, too."

"You haven't been too bad that way," Ealstan said, cutting her a chunk of bread, adding oil to the dipping bowl, and pouring wine.

"That's easy for you to say," Vanai answered. Some women, she'd heard, got morning sickness right away and kept on having it till their babies were born. She didn't know how long she'd keep having hers, of course, but she didn't have it all the time. Ealstan was right about that. Even a couple of meals disastrously lost, though, were plenty to make her wary about food.

This morning, everything seemed willing to stay down. She'd almost finished when Ealstan said, "Your spell just slipped."

"Did it?" Vanai raised a hand to her face. That was foolish; she couldn't feel any change in her looks, any more than she could see one.

Ealstan reached across the table and stroked her cheek, too. "Aye, it did," he answered, eyeing her. "That's the face I fell in love with, you know."

"You're sweet," Vanai said. "It's also the face that could ruin everything if anybody but you saw it." She got the yellow and dark brown lengths of yarn out of her handbag, twisted them together, and chanted in classical Kaunian: one use for her own first language that would not go away. When she finished, she looked a question to Ealstan.

He nodded. "Now you look like my sister again."

"I wish you'd stop saying that," Vanai told him. It was the wrong sort of family connection to have, especially now that she was pregnant.

"I'm sorry." Ealstan finished his wine. "If this cursed war ever ends, if you and Conberge ever get the chance to meet, I think you'll like each other."

"I hope so," Vanai said. She hoped with all her heart that his family would like her; so far as she knew, none of her own family was left alive. After a moment, she went on, "The one I truly want to meet is your father. He made you what you are. That first time we met in the woods, you said, 'Kaunians are people, too,' and that he'd taught you that. If more Forthwegians thought that way, I wouldn't have to worry about my magecraft."

"I know he'll like you," Ealstan told her. "He's bound to like you. You're difficult."

"Am I?" Vanai wasn't sure how to take that. It sounded as if it wanted to be a compliment.

Ealstan nodded. "Don't you suppose the Algarvians think you're difficult?"

"I never even learned that apothecary's name," Vanai said. It didn't sound like a responsive answer, but it was. Mezentio's hounds had been one man away from learning who'd devised the magic that let Kaunians look like their Forthwegian neighbors. If the apothecary hadn't had a lethal dose ready to hand, they might have torn the knowledge out of him. She wondered what they would do to someone who'd caused them so much trouble. She shivered. She was glad she didn't have to find out.

Ealstan poured his cup half full of wine once more, gulped it down, and said, "I'm off. I've got a couple of people whose accounts need casting, and another fellow, a friend of one of theirs, might want to take me on, at least to give his regular bookkeeper a hand. Pybba heads up one of the biggest pottery outfits in town, which means one of the biggest ones in the kingdom. He'd pay well. He'd better, or I won't work for him."

"Good," Vanai said. "I approve of money."

"Aye, my father would like you- will like you- just fine," Ealstan said. "That you're mother to his grandchild won't hurt, either." He got up and brushed her lips with his. She tasted the wine on them.

She stood, too, to give him a quick hug. "I'll do what I can around the house," she said. "And what I can't…" She shrugged and yawned. "I'll curl up like a dormouse and sleep the day away."

"Why not?" Ealstan said. "If Ethelhelm comes knocking, don't let him in."

"You don't need to worry about that," Vanai said. One of the reasons she approved of money was that it would let her bribe Algarvians at need. She never wanted to have to bribe them about her Kaunianity; that would leave her enslaved to them. But some silver might make them stop asking her questions about the singer. She hoped she wouldn't have to find out, but she could try it if she had to.


Through the winter, the woods in the west of Unkerlant had been quiet save for the sounds of men and men's magic. With the coming of spring, bird-songs burst out everywhere. The very air took on a fresh, green smell as the sap rose in untold millions of trees. Even some of the logs in front of the Gyongyosian army's redoubts sprouted little leafy shoots. But the Gyongyosians stayed on the defensive.

One day, Szonyi came up to Istvan and said, "Sergeant, the stars only know what kind of horrible scheme the Unkerlanters are hatching over there." He pointed east. "We ought to give 'em a good prod, knock 'em back on their heels."

Istvan shrugged. "We haven't got any orders." He shook his head. "No, I take that back. We have got orders- to sit tight."

"It's foolishness," Szonyi insisted. "It's worse than foolishness. It's going to get a lot of us killed." He waved his arms in disgust.

The motion drew Corporal Kun's notice. "What's eating him?" he asked Istvan, as if Szonyi weren't there.

"He wants to go out and kill things again," Istvan answered.

"Ah." Spectacles glinting in a shaft of sunlight, Kun turned to Szonyi. "When was the last time we saw anything that looked like reinforcements?"

"I don't know," Szonyi said impatiently. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"If we attack and use up our men and don't get any new ones, how long will it be before we haven't got any men left at all?" Kun asked, as if to an idiot child.

"I don't know that, either," Szonyi said. "But if we sit here and don't do anything and let the Unkerlanters build up and roll over us, how long will it be before we haven't got any men left that way?"

"He has a point," Istvan said.

"He should wear a hat on it," Kun said. Istvan laughed at the former mage's apprentice. Kun hated admitting that Szonyi could score off him.

Lajos, who was on sentry duty, called, "Who comes?" That sent Istvan and Kun and Szonyi and everybody else in the squad grabbing for sticks.

But the answer was immediate: "I- Captain Tivadar."

"Come ahead, sir!" Lajos said, and the men in the redoubt relaxed.

Tivadar did, sliding down into the trench behind the log barricade. Istvan hurried over to salute him. "What can we do for you today, sir?" he asked.

"Not a thing. Carry on as you were," his company commander replied. "I just came up to see how things were going."

"We're all right, sir," Istvan said. "Nothing much going on in front of us right now." Szonyi stirred, but didn't say anything. Seeing him stir made Istvan remark, "Been a while since we've seen any new men up here, sir. We could use some."

"This whole line could use some," Tivadar agreed. "Don't hold your breath till we get them, though, or we'll have one more casualty to replace."

"Something's gone wrong somewhere," Istvan spoke with the assurance of a man who had seen a great many things go wrong. "Up till not very long ago, we got- well, not everything we needed, but enough to keep us going from day to day. Now… Stars above know I mean no disrespect to Ekrekek Arpad or anybody else, but it's like people have forgotten we're here."

"You're not far wrong," Tivadar answered. "Things aren't going so well out in the islands in the Bothnian Ocean. I'm not giving away any great secrets when I tell you that. The Kuusamans keep biting them off one after another, and we're putting more and more soldiers into the ones we still hold. We don't really have enough men to fight that campaign to the fullest and this one to the fullest at the same time."

"By the stars, a couple of years ago the Kuusamans couldn't even throw us off Obuda," Istvan exclaimed. "What have they done since, and why haven't we done anything about it?"

Kun asked a different but related question: "Kuusamo is fighting us and Algarve, the same as we're fighting them and Unkerlant. How is it that they can divide up their forces but we can't?"

"Because, Corporal, their fight with Algarve is only a sham." Tivadar chose to answer Kun. "They face our allies with ships and dragons, but not with many men. What soldiers they have in the fight, they throw at us. Both our fronts are real."

"That's true," Kun said. "And if the Unkerlanters hit us hard here, we'll fall down like a stone-block house in an earthquake."

"Unkerlant's got two fronts, too," Istvan said, "and this is the one that's their sham."

Tivadar nodded. "That's about the size of it, Sergeant. We can grab chunks of their land here, but that's the most we can do. We can't take Cottbus away from them, and the Algarvians might."

Cottbus was only a name to Istvan, and not a name that seemed particularly real. Once, when the fight in western Unkerlant was new, Kun had calculated how long the Gyongyosians would need to get to Cottbus at the rate of advance they'd had then. It had been years; Istvan remembered that. How many? Three? Five? He couldn't recall. One thing seemed certain: if his countrymen weren't advancing toward Cottbus at all, they'd never get there.

That led to the next interesting question: "Sir, do you think we'll be able to hold what we've already taken from Unkerlant? The way things are now, I mean."

"Well, we're still going to try, Sergeant, sure as blazes," Tivadar replied. "The last time we talked about this, I was pretty sure we could do it. Now… It'll be harder. I'd be a liar if I said otherwise. It'll get harder still if we have to pull men out of the woods here so we can send them to fight on the islands. But the Unkerlanters have their troubles, too. We'll do our best."

"The stars favor us," Szonyi said. "With the heavens smiling, how can we lose?"

Tivadar walked over and slapped him on the back. "You're a good man. With men like you in our army, how can we lose?" Just for a moment, Szonyi held out his left hand, palm up, and looked at the scar on it. Tivadar thumped him on the back again. "You heard what I said, soldier. I meant it." Szonyi stood straight and looked proud.

Kun said, "How can we lose? That's why people fight wars- to find out how one side can lose."

Szonyi started to get angry. Istvan took a deep breath, casting about for the words that would put Kun in his place. But Captain Tivadar just laughed and said, "We need a few city men in the ranks, too. Otherwise, the rest of us would take too much for granted."

"He can't take it for granted that his-" Szonyi started.

"Enough!" Now Istvan's voice cracked sharp as a whip.

"Aye, enough." Tivadar looked from Kun to Szonyi and back again. His eye fell on Istvan, too, as his gaze passed from one soldiers to the other. "You are brothers, blooded together… in battle." The slight pause reminded them how they'd been blooded together for a different reason, too. But no one who didn't know about that other, darker, reason could have guessed it from the company commander's words. Tivadar continued, "Let no quarrel come between you now."

Kun nodded at once. City men didn't cling to feuds the way folk from the mountain valleys did. Szonyi took longer. Tivadar and Istvan both glared at him. At last, reluctantly, his big, shaggy head bobbed up and down, too.

"That's a strong fellow," Tivadar said. He turned and started to climb out of the redoubt.

"Sir? One more question?" Istvan asked. Tivadar paused, then nodded. Istvan asked, "Have we got enough mages forward to warn us if Swemmel's whoresons are going to turn that horrible magic loose on us again? You know the one I mean."

"I know the one you mean," the company commander agreed grimly. "What I don't know is the answer to your question. I'm not even sure mages can detect that spell before the Unkerlanters start slaughtering people to power it. We might do better to slide forward to find out if they're bringing peasants up toward the front."

"That's not a bad notion, sir," Kun said. "I don't mean just for us. I mean all along the line of these cursed woods."

"I'm no general. I can't give an order for the whole line. I can't even give an order for the whole regiment," Tivadar said. "But if you boys want to poke men out to the east to see what's going on, you won't make me unhappy. And now I will be on my way." He climbed the sandbagged steps at the rear of the redoubt and hurried off through the forest.

"He had a good idea there, Sergeant," Kun said. "If we could get some warning before the Unkerlanters started slaying…" He shuddered. "When they loosed that magic the last time, it was so vile I thought my head would burst like an egg. By the stars, I hoped my head would burst like an egg."

"All right, we'll do it," Istvan said, "though it'd only be luck if Swemmel's buggers had their victims in our sector. We ought to have scouts pushing forward all along the line. The Unkerlanters do, may the stars go black for them."

Before he could order anyone to go out and scout around in the woods to the east, an egg burst about fifty yards in front of the redoubt. A moment later, another burst less than half as far away. Before the third egg could land, Istvan was flat on his belly, his face pressed against the black earth. He breathed in a moist lungful of air smelling of mold and old leaves.

That third egg burst behind the redoubt, close enough that the blast of sorcerous energy made the ground shudder beneath Istvan's prostrate form. A couple of trees crashed in noisy ruin. Earth and twigs rained down on Istvan. He'd been through such pummelings before. Unless an egg burst right on top of the redoubt, he knew he was safe enough.

He was. His squad was. As more eggs burst all around, he exclaimed in dismay: "Captain Tivadar!" He didn't dare raise his head very far, no matter how dismayed he was.

"He has a good chance," Kun said, his head not an inch farther from the ground than Istvan's was. "He'd have gone flat when the first egg flew, and started digging himself a hole before the second one burst. You would. I would. The captain, too. He's no fool." From Kun, that was highest praise.

"We ought to go out after him," Szonyi said. "If it was one of us stuck in a storm like that, he'd go out and bring us back."

"We don't even know which way he went," Istvan said. But that sounded hollow even to him. Szonyi didn't answer. His silence sounded more reproachful than shouted curses would have.

Cursing on his own, Istvan heaved himself to his feet and left the redoubt. As soon as he was out in the woods, he went down on his belly again; eggs were still bursting all around. "Captain Tivadar!" he shouted, though his voice seemed tiny and lost through those shattering roars of suddenly released sorcerous energy. "Captain Tivadar, sir!"

Even if Tivadar did answer, how was Istvan supposed to hear him? His ears were bruised, overwhelmed, battered. An egg burst nearby, very close. A pine that might have stood for a hundred years swayed, toppled, and crashed down. Had it fallen at a slightly different, an ever so slightly different, angle, it would have crushed the life out of him.

Was that someone's tawny hair or a bit of dead, yellowed fern? Istvan crawled toward it, then wished he hadn't. There lay Tivadar, broken like a jointed doll some thoughtless child had stepped on. But dolls didn't bleed. A bursting egg must have flung him full force into a tree trunk.

At least he can't have known what hit him, Istvan thought. "Stars above preserve and guide his spirit," he murmured, and hurried back to the redoubt. He hoped his own end, if it came, when it came, would be as quick.


As winter gave way to spring, so Talsu accommodated himself to life in prison. He hadn't intended to do any such thing. But, as he'd found in the Jelgavan army, routine had a force of its own. Even when the routine was horrid, as it was here, he got used to it. His belly anticipated almost to the minute the times the guards fed him his nasty, sadly inadequate bowls of gruel. Afterwards, for half an hour, sometimes even for an hour, he felt as nearly content as he could in a small, stinking, vermin-infested cell.

Nearly. His best time in the prison was the exercise period, when, along with other captives from his hall, he got to tramp back and forth in the yard. Even whispers among them could bring the wrath of the guards down on their heads. The gray stone of the prison was as unlovely in the yard as anywhere else. But Talsu saw it by sunlight, a light that grew brighter almost ever day. He saw blue sky. He breathed fresh air. He began to hear birds sing. He wasn't free. He knew that all too well. But the exercise period let him remember freedom.

And then, like a drowning man sinking beneath the surface of the sea, he would have to go back into the gloom and the reek. Even that came to be part of the routine. He would put a lot of himself away, deaden himself, till the next time he got to go out and see the sun once more.

Whenever routine broke, he dreaded it. He had reason to dread it: routine never broke for anything good. The Jelgavan constabulary captain hadn't summoned him for several weeks now. Talsu hoped that meant the fellow had given up. He didn't believe it, though. If the authorities decided he was innocent- or at least harmless- wouldn't they let him go?

One morning, not long after what passed for his breakfast, the door to his cell came open at an unaccustomed time. "What is it?" Talsu demanded, alarm in his an voice. Any change in routine meant something that could- that was about to- go wrong.

"Shut up," the lead guard said. "Stand up." Talsu sprang off his cot to his feet. He said not another word. The guards punished without mercy anything that smacked of disobedience or insubordination. "Come along," the man at their head commanded, and Talsu came.

To his relief, he discovered he was not going down the corridors that led to the constabulary captain's lair. Instead, he was installed in another cell, even smaller and darker than the one from which he'd been taken. Light from the corridor leaked in only through a couple of tiny peepholes.

The guards stayed in there with him, which convinced him this change wasn't permanent. Their leader said, "All right, boys- gag him." With rough efficiency, the other guards did. Talsu wanted to struggle, but the sticks they aimed at him persuaded him not to. He wanted to protest, too, but the gag kept him from doing that.

"Here," said one of the men who'd bound the leather-and-cloth contraption over his mouth. "Now you get to look out." The guards shoved him up to one of the peepholes.

Doing his best to be contrary, Talsu closed his eyes tight. Whatever they wanted him to see, he would do his best not to see it. Then he felt the business end of a stick pressed against the back of his head. "If you make even the smallest sound now, I will blaze you," the lead guard whispered. "And that will not be the worst thing that happens- not even close to the worst. I almost hope you do sing out."

They were playing games with him. Talsu knew they were playing games with him. But that didn't mean he could keep from opening his eyes. What was so important that he had to see it but also had to keep silent about it?

There was the corridor, as uninteresting as the stretch of hallway in front of his own cell. What sort of foolish game were the gaolers making him join? A guard walked along the hall, into and out of Talsu's limited field of vision. Even if he'd looked full at Talsu, all he could have seen of him through the peephole were a couple of staring eyes. But he walked past the closed door as if it didn't exist.

"Not a word," the lead guard whispered again. Talsu nodded, but only a little. He kept his eyes to the peephole, he surely did. The guards had him going. Aye, he knew it, but he couldn't do anything about it.

Here came another guard, this one as indifferent to the door to Talsu's new cell as the first fellow had been. Behind him walked a woman. She wasn't a prisoner- her person and clothes were clean. At first, that was all Talsu noticed. Then he recognized his wife. He started to scream, "Gailisa!" in spite of the guard's warning. But he almost blessed the gag, which reminded him he must not make a sound.

Another guard followed Gailisa, but Talsu hardly saw him. His eyes were only on his wife, and he couldn't have seen her for more than two heartbeats, three at the outside. Then she was gone. The corridor was just a corridor again.

"You see?" the lead guard said with complacency that was almost obscene. "We have her, too. It won't get any better for you, and oh, how easy it can get worse."

He didn't bother ordering his henchmen to ungag Talsu before they took him back to his own cell. If any other captives were looking out and saw a gagged man marched down a corridor, what would that do except make them more likely to submit to escape a similar fate?

After they took Talsu back, after they released him from the gag, they let him stew in his own juice for a couple of days. Only then did they haul him out again and bring him before the constabulary captain who served King Mainardo as ready as he had served King Donalitu.

"Talsu son of Traku." The captain sounded reproachful. "Do you see what your stubbornness has got you? We had no choice but to bring in your wife for interrogation, too. And what she told us… I wouldn't say it looks good. No, by the powers above, I wouldn't say that at all."

I don't believe you, Talsu started to say. But he bit that back almost in the same way he'd bitten back Gailisa's name there in the cell with the peephole. Anything he said gave them a greater hold on him. He stood there and waited.

"Aye, she's turned on you," the constabulary captain said. "And she's given us enough denunciations to keep us busy for quite a while, that she has." He eyed Talsu. "What have you got to say about that?"

"Nothing, sir," Talsu answered. Eventually, this would end.

"Nothing?" Now disbelief filled the officer's voice. "Nothing? I can't believe my ears. Well, that's not what your pretty little Gailisa had to say. She sang like a redbreast- and she sang about you." He pointed a forefinger at Talsu as if it were a stick.

That bit of overacting convinced Talsu of what he'd only hoped before: that the captain was lying. He was sure Gailisa would never betray him, not like that, not for anything. He said, "Well, sir, you've already got me."

"And we'll have all the rebels in Skrunda before long," the constabulary captain said. "Make it easy on yourself like your wife did. Help us."

"But I have no names to give you," Talsu said, more than a little desperation in his voice. "We've cut these trousers before." He knew what would come at the end of such protestations, too: another beating. If that was the routine for interrogations, he wouldn't be sorry to disrupt it.

Sure enough, the guards behind him growled in eager anticipation. They knew what would come, too, and they looked forward to it. So much in life depended on whether one did or was done to.

"Here." The captain picked up a sheet of paper with writing on it and waved it in Talsu's face. "Your wife has given us a list of names. You see? She's not so shy, not so shy at all. And now, for both your sakes, I'd better have a list of names from you. And a good many of the names on it had better match the ones on this list here, or you'll be even sorrier than you are already. You may take that to the bank, Talsu son of Traku."

Seeing the list did rock Talsu. Was the constable lying? Or had Gailisa given him names? Would she do that, in the hope of freeing Talsu? She might. Talsu knew only too well that she might. She'd never betray him, but she might betray others to save him. He might have done the same for her.

What names would she give, though? She wouldn't know anyone who really was involved in fighting the Algarvian occupiers. Such people did not advertise. Talsu had gone looking for them when he started learning classical Kaunian, and whom had he found? Kugu the silversmith, Kugu the traitor. Which meant…

"Curse you," Talsu said, and the guards behind him growled again. But, before they could do anything more than growl, he went on, "Let me have some paper and a pen. I'll give you what you want. Just leave my wife alone."

"I knew we would find a key to pick your lock." The constabulary captain smiled broadly. With an almost Algarvian flourish, he passed Talsu the writing tools. "Remember what I told you."

"I'm not likely to forget," Talsu mumbled as he started to write.

He still didn't know for a fact that Gailisa had given the constabulary captain any names at all. The fellow hadn't let him get a good enough look at the list to recognize her writing. But if she had written down names, whose names would they be?

Most likely, Talsu judged, the names of people who liked the Algarvians well enough but weren't out-and-out lickspittles- using those would have made what she was up to only too clear. Talsu knew a good many people of that sort. And the redheads and their Jelgavan hounds wouldn't be able to trust people like that: after all, such folk might just be putting up a good front.

And so, wishing the worst to those who seemed happy under an Algarvian puppet king, Talsu set down a dozen names and then, after a little thought, three or four more. He passed his list back to the constabulary captain. "These are the ones I can think of."

"Let's see what we've got." The captain compared the sheet he'd got from Talsu to the one he'd waved. Maybe Gailisa really had given him a list. Maybe he wasn't such a dreadful actor after all. He clicked his tongue between his teeth. "Isn't that interesting?" he murmured. "There are some matches. I must admit I'm a little surprised. You took a long time coming to your senses, Talsu son of Traku, but I'm glad you've finally seen who has the strength in this new and greater Jelgava."

"That's pretty plain," Talsu said, which wasn't altogether untrue: had things been the other way round, men who served redheaded King Mainardo could never had laid hands on Gailisa.

"We shall have to do some more investigating- aye, indeed we shall," the captain said, at least half to himself. "Powers above only know what may have been going on right under our noses. Well, if it was, we'll put a stop to it. Aye, we will."

"What about me?" Talsu demanded. "I've given you what you wanted." He sounded like a girl who'd just let a seducer have his way with her. He felt like that, too. He'd yielded, but the constabulary captain wasn't doing anything for him.

The captain tapped the list with a fingernail. "What about you? I don't know yet. We'll find out. If you've done us some good, we'll do you some good. If you haven't…" He tapped it again. "If you haven't, you'll be sorry you tried to get clever with us." He nodded to the guards. "Take him back to his cell."

Back Talsu went. The guards didn't work him over. That was something. He returned to his place in time for supper. That was something, too. Routine returned. He wondered when it would end again… when, and how.


Pybba the pottery magnate was about fifty, with energy enough to wear down any three men half his age. He certainly left Ealstan panting. "Don't complain," he boomed. "Don't carp. Just do the work, young fellow. As long as you do the work, everything will be fine. That's why I sacked the bookkeeper I had before you: he couldn't keep up. Couldn't come close to keeping up. I need someone who will attend. If you will, I'll pay you. If you won't, I'll boot you out on your arse. Is that plain enough?"

He'd been standing much too close to Ealstan, and all but bellowing in his ear. With his most innocent expression, Ealstan looked up from the accounts he'd been casting and said, "No, sir. I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're talking about."

Pybba stared. "Wha-at?" he rumbled. Then he realized Ealstan was pulling his leg. He rumbled again, this time with laughter. "You've got spunk, young fellow, I'll say that for you. But have you got staying power? -and I don't want to hear what your wife thinks."

That made Ealstan laugh, too, if a little uncomfortably. "I'm managing so far. And you pay well enough."

"Do the work and you earn the money. That's only fair," Pybba said. "Do the work. If you don't do the work, the powers below are welcome to you- and I'll give 'em horseradish and capers to eat you with."

Ealstan could have done the work better and faster if Pybba hadn't hovered there haranguing him. But Pybba, as best he could see, harangued everybody about everything. He also worked harder than any of his employees. As far as Ealstan was concerned, his example was a lot more persuasive than his lectures.

Eventually, Pybba went off to yell at someone else: the kilnmaster, as Ealstan- and everyone else within earshot- soon realized. Not paying attention to Pybba when he wasn't talking to them was a skill a lot of people who worked for him had acquired. Ealstan hadn't, not yet, but he was learning.

He was also learning a demon of a lot about bookkeeping. Nobody back in Gromheort ran a business a quarter the size of Pybba's. Ethelhelm had made almost as much money, but his accounts were straightforward by comparison. With Pybba, it wasn't just the right hand not knowing what the left was doing. A lot of his fingers hadn't been introduced to one another.

"Well, what do you think this is?" he demanded when Ealstan asked him about an incidental expense.

"It looks like a bribe to keep the Algarvians sweet," Ealstan answered.

Pybba beamed at him. "Ah, good. You're not a blind man. Have to stay in business, you know."

"Aye," Ealstan said. Pybba was a full-blooded Forthwegian; he had to pay out less than Ethelhelm had to stay in business. The Algarvians couldn't seize him merely for existing, as they could with the half-breed band leader. After some thought, Ealstan shook his head. The Algarvians could do that if they wanted to badly enough; they could do anything if they wanted to badly enough. But they had far less reason to want to than they did with Ethelhelm.

Because the Algarvians didn't force his bribes to rise out of the range of ordinary thievery, Pybba was making money almost faster than he knew what to do with it. "And he should be making even more than he is," Ealstan said to Vanai one evening over supper. "I don't quite know where some of it's going."

"Well, you said he pays his people well," she answered around one of a long series of yawns. "He's paying you well, that's certain. And he hired you just about full-time soon enough."

"Oh, he does," Ealstan agreed. "And he is, and he did. But that's all in the open- all in the books. Somewhere, money's leaking out of things. Not a whole lot, mind you, but it is."

"Is somebody stealing from Pybba?" Vanai asked. "Or is that what he's paying Mezentio's men so they won't bother him?" She knew how the redheads operated.

"It's not bribes," Ealstan said. "Those are on the books, too, though that's not what they're called. Someone stealing? I don't know. It wouldn't be easy, and you're right- he pays well enough, you'd have to be a greedy fool to want more."

"Plenty of people are greedy fools," Vanai pointed out. Ealstan couldn't disagree with that.

He still had clients other than Pybba, though the pottery magnate swallowed more and more of his hours. He kept trying to find out how and why Pybba wasn't making quite so much money as he should have. He kept trying, and kept failing. He imagined his father looking over his shoulder and making disapproving noises. As far as Hestan was concerned, numbers were as transparent as glass. Ealstan had thought they were, too, but all he found here was opacity.

At last, baffled, he brought the matter to Pybba's notice, saying, "I think you have a thief, but I'm cursed if I can see where. Whoever's doing this is more clever than I am. Maybe you ought to have him casting your accounts instead of me."

"A thief?" Pybba's hard face darkened with anger. "You'd better show me what you've found, lad. If I can figure out who the son of a whore is, I'll break him in half." He didn't sound as if he were joking.

"I hope you can figure it out, because I can't," Ealstan answered. "And I have to tell you, I haven't really found anything. All I've noticed is that something is lost, and I'm not even sure where."

"Let me have a look," Pybba said.

Ealstan guided him through it, showing how things didn't quite add up. He said, "I've been looking back through the books, too, trying to find out how long this has been going on. I'm sure it was happening while your last bookkeeper before me was here. The other thing I'm sure of is that he didn't even notice."

"Him? He wouldn't have noticed a naked woman if she got into bed with him, he wouldn't." Pybba snorted in fine contempt. The finger he used to mark his place darted now here, now there, as he followed the track Ealstan set out for him. He clicked his tongue between his teeth. "Well, well, young fellow. Isn't that interesting?"

"That's not the word I'd use," Ealstan answered. "The word I'd use is larcenous." He hated cooked books. They offended his sense of order. In that as in so many things, he was very much his father's son.

Then Pybba astonished him. Instead of furiously bursting like an egg and blasting his bookkeeper- and maybe the office, too- to smithereens, he set a hand on Ealstan's shoulder and said, "I'm going to pay you a bonus for finding this. You've earned it; I don't think one man in ten would have noticed any of it, let alone all of it. But it's not so much of a much. You don't need to fret yourself over it, the way you've been doing."

"Are you sure?" Ealstan asked, in lieu of, Are you out of your mind? "Somebody's stealing from you. If he's stealing not so much from you now, he's liable to steal a lot more later. And even a little hurts. And it's wrong." He spoke that last with great conviction.

Pybba said, "All sorts of things are wrong. You can start with the redheads and go on from there. I'm not going to get excited about this. It's not big enough to get excited about. And if you've got any sense, you won't get excited about it, either."

He phrased that as a request but plainly meant it as an order. Ealstan didn't see how he could disobey it, however much he might want to. But he did speak up, in plaintive tones: "I don't understand."

"I know that. I noticed." Pybba let out a gruff chuckle. "But you don't get silver for understanding. You get silver for keeping my books. You're good at that. You've proved it. You'll get your bonus, too, like I said. But if I'm not worried about this, nobody else needs to be."

That made the third time he'd said pretty much the same thing. Ealstan was- had to be- convinced he meant it, which brought him no closer to following Pybba's mind. He slammed the ledgers shut one after another, to show without words what he thought. Pybba only chuckled again, which irked him further.

But the pottery magnate, though he could be as sharp-tongued as the sherds that sprang from his trade, was a man of his word. When he gave Ealstan his next week's pay, he included the promised bonus. The size of it made Ealstan's eyes go big. "This is too much," he blurted.

Pybba threw back his head and roared laughter. "By the powers above, I've heard plenty whine that they got too little, but never till now the other way round. Go on, go home; spend it. You've said your wife is big with child, haven't you? Aye, I know you have. With a brat on the way, there's no such thing as too much money."

Coins heavy and jingling in his belt pouch, Ealstan went back to his flat in something of a daze. Vanai clapped her hands together in delight when she saw how much Pybba had given him. "He knows you're good," she said proudly.

Ealstan shook his head. He separated the silver into two gleaming piles. Pointing to the smaller one, he said, "This is what he pays me for being good." Then he pointed to the bigger one. "And this is what he paid me for… powers above only know what."

"For being good at what you do," Vanai repeated, showing more faith in him than he had in himself. "If you weren't good, you wouldn't have seen what you saw, and you wouldn't have got this."

Her logic was as good as a geometry master's- up to a point. Ealstan said, "I still don't know what in blazes I saw. And he's not paying me because I saw it. He'd be pushing hard after whoever was stealing from him if that were so. No. He's paying me-" He broke off. When he spoke again, it was with sudden new certainty: "He's paying me to keep my mouth shut, that's what he's doing. It can't be anything else."

"Keep your mouth shut about what?" Vanai asked.

"About seeing this- whatever it is," Ealstan answered. "He was surprised when I did. His last bookkeeper hadn't. I'm sure of that. He's bribing me, the same way he's bribing the Algarvians."

Vanai found the next question: "Are you going to let him bribe you?"

"I don't know." Ealstan scratched his head. "If he's hiring robbers or murderers with that missing money, then I don't want anything to do with him, either. If he's got a lady friend somewhere, that's his wife's worry. But if he's doing something to the redheads with the money… If he's doing something like that, by the powers above, the only thing I'd want to do was join him."

He wondered how he could tell Pybba that. He wondered if he ought to tell Pybba that. He couldn't prove the pottery magnate wasn't working for the Algarvians. Plenty of Forthwegians were. And Ealstan, with a Kaunian wife- and with a baby on the way- had even more to lose from a wrong guess than most of his countrymen would have.

With a regretful sigh, he said, "I don't dare try to find out. Too many bad things could happen."

"You're probably right." But Vanai sighed, too. "I wish you had the chance."

"So do I." Ealstan plucked a hair from his beard, looked at it, and let it fall to the floor. "If I ever find out where that money's going- find out for sure, I mean, not just that it's going missing somewhere- then I'll know what to do."

But Pybba had no intention of making that easy for him. When Ealstan came into the office the next day, his employer said, "Remember why you got your extra silver. No more snooping around, or you'll be sorry."

"I remember," Ealstan assured him.

That wasn't the same as promising he wouldn't snoop anymore. Most people wouldn't have noticed. Pybba did. "No getting cute with me, either, or your arse'll be out on the sidewalk before you've got time to fart. Do you understand me? Do you believe me? I won't just give you the boot, either. I'll blacken your name all over town. Don't you even think about doubting me."

"I wouldn't," Ealstan answered, thinking of nothing else.


Like most educated folk in the eastern regions of Derlavai and the islands lying near the mainland, the Kuusaman physician spoke classical Kaunian along with her own language. Nodding to Fernao, she said, "You will have to strengthen that leg a good deal more, you know."

The Lagoan mage looked down at the limb in question. It was only about half as thick as its mate. "Really?" he said in pretty convincing astonishment. "And here I was planning a fifty-mile hike tomorrow morning. What shall I do now?"

For a moment, the physician took him seriously. Then she exhaled in loud exasperation. "People who cannot take even their own health seriously do not deserve to keep it," she said.

Fernao said, "I'm sorry," in Kuusaman. That mollified the physician, who smiled at him instead of wearing that severe frown. He went on his way with nothing but a cane to help him walk. I'll probably limp all my days, he thought as he walked toward the dining room of the isolated hostel in the Naantali district. I'll probably limp, but I'll be able to walk.

Pekka was already in there, sitting alone at a table drinking a mug of ale. A couple of secondary sorcerers sat at another table, arguing about the best way to focus a spell at a distance from where it was cast. Not so long before, Fernao wouldn't have known what they were talking about. His Kuusaman got a little better every day.

Seeing him, Pekka set down the mug and clapped her hands together. "You really are making progress," she said in her own language. And, because he was making progress in that, too, he understood her.

With a nod, he said, "Aye, a bit," also in her tongue. He lifted the cane into the air and stood on his own two feet and nothing else for a few heartbeats. Pekka clapped again. Reveling in his Kuusaman, Fernao asked, "May I join you?"

That was what he thought he asked, anyhow. Pekka giggled. Switching to classical Kaunian, she said, "Several words in Kuusaman may be translated as to join. You might be wiser not to use that one to a woman married to another man."

"Oh." Fernao's cheeks got hot. "I'm sorry," he said, as he had to the physician.

Pekka returned to Kuusaman. "I'm not angry. And aye, you may join me." She used a verb different from the one he'd tried.

"Thank you," Fernao said, and asked a server for a mug of ale of his own. He had that request quite well memorized.

When his mug came, Pekka raised hers in salute. "To your full recovery," she said, and drank.

Fernao drank to that toast, too- who wouldn't? If he doubted the wish would be fully granted… then he did, that was all. And he enjoyed what he drank; the Kuusamans were good brewers. Then he said, "I hope you are well."

"Well enough, anyhow." Pekka said something in Kuusaman he didn't catch. Seeing as much, she translated it: "Overworked." She hesitated a moment, then asked, "Does the name Habakkuk mean anything to you?"

"It sounds as if it ought to come from the land of the Ice People," he replied in the classical tongue. "Other than that, no. Why? What is it?"

"Something I heard somewhere," Pekka answered, and Fernao hardly needed to be a mage to realize she wasn't telling him everything she knew. But when she went on, "I do not know what it is, either," he thought she might be telling the truth.

"Habakkuk." He tasted the word again. Sure enough, it put him in mind of a caravanmaster hairy all over and stinking because he'd never had a bath in all the days of his life. Fernao's opinion of the nomadic natives of the austral continent was not high. He'd seen enough of them for familiarity to breed contempt.

He wasn't altogether surprised when Pekka changed the subject. "In a few days, I will be going away for a week or two," she said. "I have got leave."

"You will put Ilmarinen in charge again?" Fernao asked.

"For a little while," she answered. "Only for a little while. I have got leave to see my husband and my son. And I have got leave to see my sister, too. Elimaki is expecting her first child. Her husband got leave not so long ago, you see."

Fernao smiled. "So I do. Or maybe I do." He wondered if Pekka would come back from leave expecting her second child. If she didn't, it probably wouldn't be from lack of effort. He said, "I wonder whom I would have to kill to get leave for myself."

As the physician had before, Pekka took him literally. "You would not have to kill anyone," she said. "You would have to ask me. You would ask, and I would say aye. How could I refuse you leave? How could I refuse you anything, after you have saved the project- saved me?"

Be careful, he thought. You don't know what I might ask for, and it wouldn't be leave. He rather suspected she did know. He hadn't tried to push things. He hadn't used the wrong verb on purpose. He saw no point to pushing, not when she was so obviously eager to go home to her husband. But the notion wouldn't leave his mind.

He said, "Whatever we do, the project needs to go forward. After you come back here, I can think about leave. I wonder if I speak Lagoan anymore, or if I will go through the streets of Setubal trying to use classical Kaunian with everyone I meet."

"Many people would understand you," Pekka said, "though you might surprise them- or, with your eyes, they might take you for a Kuusaman with a lot of Lagoan blood. When I return, you tell me what you want, and I shall give it to you."

To keep from saying anything he would regret later, Fernao took a long pull at his ale. Having the mug in front of his face also kept Pekka from seeing him go red again. Maybe a few passages with a friendly woman, or even a mercenary one, would let him keep his mind on business when he got back.

Ilmarinen came into the dining hall and walked over to the table where Fernao and Pekka were sitting. Nodding to Pekka, he said, "Do I hear right? I'm going to be in charge again?" He spoke Kuusaman, but Fernao followed well enough.

Pekka nodded. "Aye, for a little while," she answered in courteous classical Kaunian. "Try not to destroy the place while I am gone."

"I thought destroying as much of Naantali as we could was the reason we came here," Ilmarinen said, also in the classical language. Then he switched back to Kuusaman and called to the serving woman: "Another mug of ale over here, Linna!"

"Aye, Master Ilmarinen," Linna said. "You can have anything you want from me, as long as you just want ale."

Ilmarinen winced. "Heartless bitch," he muttered in Kaunian. His pursuit of the serving girl had gone exactly nowhere. Fernao winced, too, in sympathy. He was glad- he supposed he was glad- he hadn't tried pursuing Pekka anywhere except inside his mind.

As Linna brought the mug, Pekka told Ilmarinen, "If you want to carry out the experiments while I am away, please do. The more we get done, the sooner we can take it into battle."

"We have a ways to go before we manage that." Ilmarinen swigged at the ale, then wiped his wispy mustache on his sleeve. "And we've been hitting the Gongs pretty hard just in the ordinary way of doing things."

"Gyongyos is one kind of fight," Pekka said. "When we go onto the Derlavaian mainland against Algarve, that will be another kind. Tell me I am wrong, Master." She stuck out her chin and looked a challenge at Ilmarinen.

He only grunted and drank more ale by way of reply. Gyongyos was far away, and her soldiers being driven back one island at a time. Algarve had already proved she could strike across the Strait of Valmiera. All the mages who'd been in the blockhouse were lucky to be alive.

Fernao said, "Unkerlant will be glad to have more company in the fight on the ground when we do cross to the mainland."

"Unkerlant." Ilmarinen spoke the name of the kingdom as if it were the name of a loathsome disease. "The measure of Unkerlant's accursedness is that King Swemmel's subjects fight by the tens of thousands for murderous Mezentio against their own sovereign." He held up a hand before either Fernao or Pekka could speak. "And the measure of Algarve's accursedness is that practically every other kingdom in the world has lined up with Swemmel and against Mezentio."

"That is not a very happy way of looking at the world," Fernao said: as much protest as he was prepared to make.

"The world is not a happy place to look at nowadays," Pekka said.

"Too right it's not," Ilmarinen said. "Do you know the state we're reduced to? We're reduced to hoping the Algarvians and the Unkerlanters do a right and proper job of slaughtering each other so we can pick up the pieces without getting too badly mauled ourselves. Aren't you glad to be living in a great kingdom?" He drained his ale and shouted for a refill.

Fernao said, "I would rather live in a kingdom still fighting the Algarvians than in one that had yielded to them."

"And so would I," Ilmarinen agreed. "What we have here isn't the best of things, but it's a long way from the worst of things."

"Oh, indeed," Pekka said. "We could be Kaunians in Forthweg. That's one of the reasons we're fighting, of course: to keep Mezentio's men from having the chance to use us as they use those Kaunians, I mean."

Ilmarinen shook his head. "No. That's not right. Or it's not quite right, anyhow. We're fighting to keep anybody from using anybody else the way the Algarvians are using those poor cursed Kaunians." He held up his hand again. "Aye, I see the irony of our being allied to Unkerlant in that fight."

Linna brought him a full mug and took away the empty. "You people would be happier if you stuck to Kuusaman all the time," she declared. "All this chatter in foreign languages never did anybody any good."

With almost clinical curiosity, Pekka asked Ilmarinen, "What on earth do you see in her?" She made a point of using classical Kaunian.

After coughing a couple of times, the master mage answered, "Well, she is a pretty little thing." He glanced toward Fernao, perhaps hoping for support. Fernao only shrugged; the serving girl wasn't ugly, but she didn't do anything for him. With a sigh, Ilmarinen went on, "And besides, there's something cursed attractive about such invincible stupidity."

"I do not understand that at all," Pekka said.

"I do not, either," Fernao knew he would have been much less interested in Pekka if he hadn't thought at least as much of her mind as he did of her body.

"Sometimes things should be simple," Ilmarinen insisted. "No competition, no quarrels, no-"

"No interest in you whatever," Pekka put in.

"Besides which," Fernao said, "while you would not quarrel about your work with an invincibly stupid woman" -he used Ilmarinen's words even though he was far from sure Linna deserved them- "you would be likely to quarrel with her over everything else. Or do you think I am wrong?"

Ilmarinen gulped down his ale, sprang up from his seat, and hurried away without answering. "You frightened him off," Pekka said.

"Only from us. Not from Linna," Fernao predicted.

"Unless he decides he would rather go after some other girl," Pekka said. "As for me, I am glad my heart points in only one direction." Because of his cane, Fernao couldn't spring up and hurry away. He didn't shout for more ale- or, better, spirits- to make him forget he'd heard that, either. He hoped Pekka never realized how close he came to doing both.


When Krasta went into the west wing of her mansion to ask something of Colonel Lurcanio, she noticed more empty desks there than she'd ever seen before. It didn't take much to knock a thought right out of her head, and that was plenty. Among the empty desks was that of Captain Gradasso, Lurcanio's adjutant. Captain Mosco, Gradasso's predecessor, had already been sent off to fight in Unkerlant. Krasta wouldn't have been brokenhearted to see the same fate befall Gradasso, who embarrassed her by speaking far better classical Kaunian than she did.

But, with Gradasso's desk empty, there was no one to keep her from barging right into Lurcanio's office. Rather to her disappointment, she found Gradasso in there. He and her Algarvian lover were standing in front of a large map of eastern Derlavai tacked to the wall, and were arguing volubly in their own language.

They both jumped a little when Krasta came in. Lurcanio recovered first. "Later, Captain," he told Gradasso, switching to Valmieran so Krasta could follow.

"Aye, later, an it be your pleasure," Gradasso replied in what he thought was Valmieran. He hadn't known the modern language till being assigned to Priekule, and mixed in a lot of classical constructions and vocabulary when he spoke it. With a bow to Lurcanio, he strode past Krasta to his usual station as the colonel's watchdog.

"What was that all about?" Krasta asked.

"We don't see eye to eye about what Algarve ought to do in Unkerlant once the mud dries up," Lurcanio answered.

"Whatever it is, does it account for all those desks with no people sitting at them?" Krasta asked.

"As a matter of fact, it does," Lurcanio said. "When we strike Swemmel's soldiers this year, we shall strike them with all our strength. On that Gradasso and I agree- we can do nothing less, not if we intend to win the war, and we do. But on what to do with our strength once mustered…" He shook his head. "There we differ."

Interested in spite of herself, Krasta asked, "What does he want? And why do you think he's wrong?"

Lurcanio didn't answer directly. Krasta often thought Lurcanio incapable of answering directly. Instead, the Algarvian colonel said, "Here, come look at the way things are for yourself." Not without trepidation, Krasta walked to the map. Geography had never been a strong subject for her, not that many subjects in her brief and checkered academic career had been strong ones. Lurcanio pointed. "Here is Durrwangen, in southern Unkerlant. The Unkerlanters took it away from us this winter, and we could not quite get it back before the spring thaw down there turned the landscape to soup and stopped both sides from doing much."

Krasta nodded. "Aye, I remember you complaining about that."

"Do you?" Lurcanio bowed. "Will marvels never cease?" Before Krasta could even wonder if that was sardonic, he pointed to the map again. "You see, though, that to both the east and west of Durrwangen, we have pushed some distance south of the city."

He waited. Krasta realized she was supposed to say something. She nodded again. "That's plain from where the green pins are, and the gray ones." Her tone sharpened. "It's also plain this wall will need replastering when your precious map comes down."

Lurcanio ignored that. He was good at ignoring things he didn't want to hear. In that, he resembled Krasta herself, though she didn't realize it. He waved at the map. "You are quite the most charming military cadet I have ever seen. If Algarve's fate lay in your pretty hands, how would you take Durrwangen when the fighting starts anew?"

The day was mild and cool, but sweat burst out on Krasta's forehead. She hated questions. She always had. And she particularly hated questions from Lurcanio. He could be- he delighted in being- rude when her answers didn't satisfy him. But she saw she had to answer. After examining the map, she drew two hesitant lines with her forefinger. "If you move your armies here so they meet behind this Durrwangen place- it doesn't look like you'd have to move them very far- you could come at it from every which way at once. I don't see how the Unkerlanters could keep you out of it then."

To her astonishment, Lurcanio took her in his arms and did a good, thorough job of kissing her. "Nicely reasoned, my sweet," he said, and pinched her on the backside. She squeaked and leaped into the air. "You have reached exactly the same solution as Captain Gradasso, exactly the same solution as King Mezentio himself."

"You're teasing me!" Krasta said, wondering what kind of foolish, obvious blunder she'd made. Whatever it was, Lurcanio would enjoy pointing it out. He always did.

But he solemnly shook his head. "By the powers above, milady, I am not. You have seen the very thing that caught the eye of some of the ablest officers in the kingdom."

Krasta studied him. He remained solemn. When he felt like slapping her down, he didn't usually wait so long. But his voice had had an edge to it, even if not one aimed at her. "You were arguing with Gradasso," she said slowly. "Does that mean you didn't see this move? If I saw it, couldn't anyone- any soldier, I mean- see it?"

Lurcanio kissed her again, which left her more confused than ever. "Oh, I saw it," he said. "I would have to be far gone in my second childhood not to have seen it." Sure enough, the sarcastic sparkle was back in his voice. "But if the king saw it, if I saw it, if Captain Gradasso saw it, if even you saw it, would you not suspect the Unkerlanters might see it, too?"

"I wouldn't know." Krasta tossed her head. "I've never had anything to do with Unkerlanter barbarians, nor wanted to, either. Who can say what they'd see and what they wouldn't?"

"There is something to that," Colonel Lurcanio admitted. "Something- but how much? When we went into Unkerlant, we did not think Swemmel's men could see the sun when it was shining in their eyes. We have discovered, to our sorrow, that we were mistaken."

Which is why you started killing Kaunians from Forthweg, Krasta thought. She almost blurted that aloud. But Lurcanio would be on her like a hawk if she did. The Kaunians of Valmiera weren't supposed to know anything about that. Discretion didn't come easy, but she managed it. She asked, "What will happen if the Unkerlanters do see this?"

"What looks easy on the map will get much harder," Lurcanio replied. "That is why I wish we were doing something else, anything else."

"Have you told anybody?" Krasta asked. "You are an important man. What you think carries weight."

"I am an important man in Priekule," Lurcanio said. "In Trapani, where these decisions are made, I am nothing in particular. Only a colonel. Only a military bureaucrat. What could I know about actual fighting? I have sent my superiors a memorial, aye. Much good it will do me. Either they will read it and ignore it or they will not bother reading it before they ignore it."

Krasta gaped. Lurcanio often mocked her. He mocked other Valmierans, too. She'd even heard him mock his countrymen here in Priekule. But never till now had she known him to sound so bitter about his superiors. Slowly, she asked, "What will you do if they turn out to be right?"

"Take off my hat and bow to them." Lurcanio suited action to word, which made Krasta laugh.

But then she asked, "And what will you do if you turn out to be right and the generals back in Trapani are wrong? They won't take off their hats and bow to you."

"Of course they won't." With a lifted eyebrow, Colonel Lurcanio cast scorn on the idea. "What will I do if things come to such a pass? Most likely, my dear, I will get my marching orders, I will pick up a stick, and I will go where my colleagues have gone before me: off to the west, to do my best to throw back the Unkerlanter hordes with my body." He looked Krasta up and down, undressing her with his eyes. "There are, I confess, other things I would sooner do with my body."

"Right here? With Gradasso outside?" Krasta giggled. Being outrageous, being risky, often excited her. She'd flipped up Lurcanio's kilt in here before. "Do you want to?"

Rather to her disappointment, her Algarvian lover shook his head. "No, not now. Tonight, perhaps, but I have not the time now." He sighed. "I really have not the time to argue with my adjutant, either. With more and more of the men who have been aiding me gone, more and more of the work falls on my shoulders. For the work must be done, regardless of who does it."

To Krasta, those who occupied Valmiera had always seemed to have it easy. They lived well when even Valmieran nobles often had trouble making ends meet. They had their choice of bed partners- she knew that all too well. That they, or some of them, also worked themselves to exhaustion hadn't crossed her mind.

Lurcanio asked, "Did you come down here to pick my brains over strategy or to molest me? The one was interesting, the other would be enjoyable, but I really am too busy for either."

Being twitted worked a minor miracle: it made Krasta remember why she had come down to see Lurcanio, something that had gone clean out of her mind even before she got to his office. She said, "What did your hounds end up deciding about Viscount Valnu? He made more entertaining company at most festivities than almost anyone else who was likely to come."

"Oh, aye, indeed- Valnu has charmed any number of people, of all genders and preferences." Lurcanio didn't bother hiding his contempt. "He does very little for me, in which I seem to be almost unique in the city. But you asked about the hounds. They must not have found anything worth mentioning, for I am given to understand he is at liberty once more."

"Is he?" Krasta breathed.

She must have sounded more excited than she'd intended to, for Lurcanio laughed at her. "Aye, he is. Why? Does it mean so much to you? Will you rush right out and make him the same offer you just made me? I would advise against that; I suspect he owes his freedom not least to the, ah, enthusiasm of certain handsome Algarvian officers."

That wouldn't have particularly surprised Krasta. Valnu did what he felt like, with whomever he felt like. But she heard the edge in Lurcanio's voice, and knew she would have to soften him. "Oh, no," she said, making her eyes go wide with little-girl innocence. "I wouldn't think of doing such a thing, not after the lesson you taught me the last time."

To her chagrin, that only made Lurcanio laugh again. "You wouldn't think of doing such a thing if you might get caught. Isn't that what you mean?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Krasta said with such dignity as she could muster. Lurcanio laughed harder than ever. She stuck out her tongue at him. She hated being transparent, and disliked the Algarvian for showing her she was. When he wouldn't stop laughing, she flounced out of his office, slamming the door behind her. But she knew that, when he came to her bedchamber that evening, she wouldn't slam the door in his face.


Sergeant Pesaro glared at the Algarvian constables drawn up at attention in front of the barracks in Gromheort. "Listen up, you lugs," he growled. "You'd better listen up, on account of this is important."

As imperceptibly as he could, Bembo shifted from foot to foot. "How many times have we heard speeches like this?" he whispered to Oraste, who stood next to him.

Oraste might have been carved from stone. Even his lips hardly stirred as he answered, "Too cursed many."

"Shut up, the lot of you!" Pesaro roared. His jowls wobbled when he opened his mouth very wide. "You'd better shut up, or you'll bloody well be sorry. Have you got that?" He looked so fierce, even Bembo, who'd known him since dirt, decided he had to take him seriously. After one more glare, Pesaro went on, "All right. That's better. Our kingdom needs us, by the powers above, and we're going to come through."

Alarm blazed up Bembo's back. One of the things he'd always feared was that the meat grinder of war might decide to take constables and turn them into soldiers. By the horrified expressions some of his comrades were wearing, the same thing had occurred to them, too.

Pesaro's chuckle was anything but pleasant. "There. Have I got your attention? I cursed well better have. What we're going to do is, we're going to go into the Kaunian quarter here, we're going to grab as many blonds as we can, and we're going to ship 'em west. The men in the trenches there'll need all the sorcerous help they can get. We're the boys who can give 'em what they need."

"As long as we're not going into the trenches ourselves," somebody behind Bembo muttered. Bembo had all he could do to keep from nodding like a fool, because that was exactly how he felt himself.

A constable in front of him stuck up a hand. When Pesaro nodded, the fellow asked, "What do we do if we run into people who look like Forthwegians?"

"Grab 'em anyhow," Pesaro answered promptly. "We'll throw the buggers into holding cells. If they still look like Forthwegians a day later, we'll turn 'em loose. And if they don't- which, you ask me, is a lot more likely- then off they go. If they're in the Kaunian quarter, we figure they're blonds till they show us different."

Another constable, a young fellow named Almonio, raised his hand. "Permission to fall out, Sergeant?" He never had had the stomach for seizing Kaunians who would be doomed to massacre.

But Pesaro shook his head, which made his jowls wobble again, this time from side to side. "No." His voice was flat and hard. "You can come along, or you can go to the guardhouse. Those are your choices."

"I'll come," Almonio said miserably. "It's not right, but I'll come." Bembo knew the youngster would drink himself into a stupor the first chance he got.

"You bet your arse you'll come." Pesaro wasn't just going to have his way; he was going to rub the other constable's nose in it, so that Almonio wouldn't pester him again with second thoughts. "This war we're fighting with Unkerlant touches everybody now. We're all fighting it, irregardless of whether we're in the front line or not." A smile spread over his broad, fleshy face- he plainly thought that rather fine.

Elsewhere on the parade ground in front of the barracks, other sergeants were haranguing other squads of constables. That fit in with what Bembo knew, or thought he knew, of how soldiers and their leaders behaved before a battle. All the sergeants finished at about the same time. That, Bembo suspected, was no accident.

The captain who'd led the raid on the block of flats where the Kaunian robber Gippias' pals had been hiding out was in charge of this assault on the Kaunian quarter. Bembo still didn't know his name. He did know the fellow was from Trapani, and had a vast contempt not only for Kaunians but also for Forthwegians and for his own countrymen who had the misfortune to come from provincial towns.

"We'll get them," the captain declared as the constables marched toward the little district into which the blonds had been shoehorned. "We'll get them, and we'll teach them what it means to be Algarve's enemies."

"He sees what needs doing, anyhow," Oraste said. But then the captain repeated himself, and then he said the same thing over again for a third and soon for a fourth time. Oraste rolled his eyes. "All right. We've got the fornicating idea."

Forthwegians who saw a company's worth of constables bearing down on them sensibly got out of the way as fast as they could. Pride made Bembo suck in his belly, throw back his shoulders, and march as if marching really mattered. Like any Algarvian, he reckoned being part of a parade the only thing better than watching one.

But that thought had hardly crossed his mind before the constables had to halt. It wasn't Forthwegians or Kaunians who stopped them, either: it was their own countrymen. A couple of regiments of soldiers were marching through the city toward the ley-line caravan depot. They didn't swagger, as the constables did; they just tramped along, intent on getting where they were going- probably back to the front in Unkerlant. The ones who weren't lean were downright skinny. Their tunics and kilts were faded and patched. And they all had a knowing look in their eyes, a look that said they'd been places and done things the constables couldn't- and wouldn't want to- imagine.

"Aren't they cute?" one soldier said to another, pointing at the constables. "Aren't they sweet?"

"Oh, aye, they're just the most precious dears I ever saw," his friend answered. Both men guffawed. Bembo's ears heated in dull embarrassment.

Another Algarvian trooper was blunter. "Slackers!" he yelled. "Whose prong did you suck to stay out of the real fight?" His pals growled and shook their fists at the constables. One of them flipped up his kilt and showed his bare buttocks- he wasn't wearing drawers.

"Get that man's name! Discipline him!" the constabulary captain shouted to the sergeants and lieutenants and captains marching past. But, in spite of his fury, the military officers paid him no attention. The more they ignored him, the angrier and louder he got. It did him no good at all.

He was still steaming when the last footsoldier finally walked past. Some of the other constables had got angry, too. More, like Bembo, were just resigned. "Soldiers never have any use for us," he said. "They're jealous that they have to go forward and we get to stay back here."

"Wouldn't you be?" Oraste returned.

"Of course I would. You think I'm daft?" Bembo said. "But I don't have to be jealous of me, on account of I'm a constable, not a soldier."

Oraste might have had further opinion on just what Bembo was. If he did, he kept his mouth shut about them. The two constables were partners, after all. They marched on till they came to the edge of the Kaunian quarter. There the captain divided them into two groups: a larger one that would go into houses and shops and bring out the blonds, and a smaller one that would guard them and keep them from slipping away in the confusion. Bembo and Oraste were both in the first group.

"This is for Algarve!" the captain declared. "This is for victory! Go in there and do your duty."

Had the constables been rookies, they might have charged into the Kaunian district with cheers ringing from their lips. But almost all of them had been through roundups before, both in Gromheort and in the surrounding villages. They had a hard time getting excited about another one.

Oraste might not have been excited, but he enjoyed kicking in a door when no one responded after he yelled, "Kaunians, come forth!" He liked breaking things and knocking things down. Roundups gave him the chance to have fun.

But he went from gloating to cursing when he and Bembo found nobody in the flat once he had kicked in the door. They went next door. This time, Bembo shouted, "Kaunians, come forth!" Again, no one came forth. No one responded at all. With a snarl, Oraste put a boot to the door near the latch. It flew open. The constables swarmed in, sticks in hand and ready to blaze. Once more, though, they found only a deserted flat.

"Powers above!" Oraste exclaimed. "Did all the stinking blonds magic themselves dark and sneak out when nobody was looking?"

"They couldn't have," Bembo said, though without much conviction. "Somebody would have noticed."

"Then where are they?" Oraste asked, and Bembo had no good answer for him. He did hope Doldasai and her family had managed to get out of the Kaunian quarter. If they hadn't, he wouldn't be able to do a thing about it if they got seized again.

They both shouted, "Kaunians, come forth!" in front of the doorway to the next flat. Once more, no one inside came out or said a word. Yet again, Oraste kicked in the door- not only was he better at it than Bembo, he enjoyed it more. This time, though, they found a man and a woman hiding in a closet under some cloaks. Both of them might have been Forthwegian by their looks.

"We were just visiting," the man quavered in Algarvian, "and your shout frightened us, so-"

"Shut up!" Oraste said, and hit him in the head with his bludgeon. The woman screamed. He hit her, too. "For one thing, I know you're lying. For another thing, I don't give a fart. Orders are to grab everybody, and I don't care what you look like. Get moving, or else I'll wallop you again."

As the unhappy couple stumbled toward the door, blood ran down their faces and dripped on the shabby carpeting. Desperation in his voice, the man said, "I'll give you anything you want to pretend you never saw us."

"Forget it," Oraste said. Bembo couldn't do anything but nod. Oraste continued. "Go on, curse you. It's not like anybody'll miss you once you're gone."

The man said something in classical Kaunian. Oraste didn't know a word of the language. Bembo knew just enough to recognize a curse when he heard one. He hit the man again, on the off chance that the fellow was mage enough to make the curse stick if he got to finish it. "None of that," he snapped. "We're warded against wizardry anyhow." He hoped the wards worked well.

He and Oraste led the couple they'd captured back to the constables in charge of holding Kaunians once caught. Other constables were leading more Kaunians and presumed Kaunians out of the cramped district. "Powers above, a lot of these buggers look like Forthwegians and wear tunics," Oraste said.

Bembo could only nod. Close to half the captives looked swarthy and dressed like their Forthwegian countrymen. Genuine blonds wearing genuine trousers had become scarce even in the Kaunian quarter. "I do wonder how many have slipped away to someplace where nobody knows what in blazes they are," Bembo said.

"Too cursed many, I'll tell you that," Oraste said.

The captain in charge of the operation plainly agreed with him. "You'll have to do better than this," he shouted to his men. "Algarve's going to need bodies for the fight ahead. You've got to go in there and get 'em."

"There aren't that many bodies to get, not anymore," Bembo said. "We've already nabbed a good many, and likely even more have slipped through our fingers with their sorcerous disguises." Again, he hoped Doldasai had. He wouldn't have wanted to put his neck on the block like that for nothing.

"Too right they have," Oraste agreed. "But the ones that are left, we've bloody well got to dig out. Come on." Back into the Kaunian quarter he went, intent on doing all he could. Bembo couldn't come close to matching such zeal, and didn't much want to, but he followed nonetheless. What choice have I got? he wondered. He knew the answer all too well: none whatever.


Smooth as velvet, the ley-line caravan glided to a stop at the depot. "Skrunda!" the conductor yelled, going from car to car. "All out for Skrunda!"

"Your pardon," Talsu said as he got to his feet. The man sitting next to him swung his legs into the aisle so Talsu, who'd been by the window, could get past and walk to the doorway that would let him return to his own town.

He had to snatch at his trousers as he went up the aisle. They'd fit fine when the Algarvians first captured him. After months in prison, though, they threatened to fall down with every stride he took. He was willing to hang on to them. When he got home, he or his father could alter his clothes so they'd fit his present scrawny state. And he could start eating properly again, to start making himself fit the clothes.

"Watch your step, sir," the conductor said as Talsu got down from the caravan car by way of the little set of stairs that led to the platform. His voice was an emotionless drone. How many thousands of times, how many tens of thousands of times, had he said exactly the same thing? Enough to drive a man easily bored mad, surely. But he said, "Watch your step, sir," to the man behind Talsu, too, in just the same way.

Talsu had no baggage to reclaim. He counted himself lucky that his captors had given him back the clothes he was wearing when they'd seized him. He hurried out of the depot and onto the streets of the town where he'd lived all his life till conscripted into King Donalitu's army. That hadn't turned out well, not for him and not for Jelgava, either. Next to months in a dungeon, though…

He went through the market square at close to a trot. Part of him said the bread and onions and olives and almonds and olive oil on display there were shadows of what had been for sale before the war. The rest, the part that had thought hard about eating cockroaches, wanted to stop right there and stuff himself till he couldn't walk anymore.

He did stop when someone called his name. "Talsu!" his friend repeated, coming up to pump his hand. "I thought you were… you know."

"Hello, Stikliu," Talsu said. "I was, as a matter of fact. But they finally let me go."

"Did they?" Something in Stikliu's face changed. It wasn't a pleasant sort of change, either. "How… lucky for you. I'll see you later. I have some other things to do. So long." He left as fast as he'd come forward.

What was that all about? Talsu wondered. But he didn't need to wonder for long. Stikliu thought he'd sold his soul to the Algarvians. Talsu scowled. A lot of people were liable to think that. For what other reason would he have come out of the dungeon? What would he have thought if someone imprisoned were suddenly freed? Nothing good. Stikliu hadn't thought anything good, either.

A couple of other people who knew Talsu saw him on the way to the tailor's shop and the dwelling over it. They didn't come rushing over to find out how he was. They did their best to pretend they'd never set eyes on him. His scowl got deeper. Maybe the gaolers hadn't done him such an enormous favor by turning him loose.

He walked into the tailor's shop. There behind the counter sat his father, doing the necessary hand stitching on an Algarvian kilt before chanting the spell that would use the laws of similarity and contagion to bind the whole garment together. Traku looked up from his work. "Good morn-" he began, and then threw down the kilt and ran out to take Talsu in his arms. "Talsu!" he said, and his voice broke. He rumpled his son's hair, as he had when Talsu was a little boy. "Powers above be praised, you've come home!" He didn't care how that might have happened; he just rejoiced that it had.

"Aye, Father." Tears ran down Talsu's face, too. "I'm home."

Traku all but squeezed the breath out of Talsu. Then Talsu's father hurried to the stairway and called, "Laitsina! Ausra! Come quick!"

"What on earth?" Talsu's mother said. But she and his sister Ausra both hurried downstairs. They both squealed- shrieked, actually- when they saw Talsu standing there, and then smothered him in hugs and kisses. After a couple of minutes, coherent speech and coherent thought returned. Laitsina asked, "Does Gailisa know you're free?"

"No, Mother." Talsu shook his head. "I came here first."

"All right." Laitsina took charge, as she had a way of doing. "Ausra, go to the grocer's and bring her back. Don't name any names, not out loud." She rounded on her husband. "Don't just stand there, Traku. Run upstairs and bring down the wine."

"Aye." Ausra and Traku said the same thing at the same time, as if to their commander. Ausra dashed out the door. Traku dashed up the stairs. In his army days, Talsu had had only one officer who'd got that instant obedience from his men. Poor Colonel Adomu hadn't lasted long; the Algarvians had killed him.

Traku came down with the wine. He poured cups for himself, his wife, and Talsu, and set the jar on the counter to wait for Ausra and Gailisa. Then he raised his own cup high. "To freedom!" he said, and drank.

"To freedom!" Talsu echoed. But when he sipped, the red wine- made tangy in the usual Jelgavan style with the juices of limes and oranges and lemons- put him in mind of the prison and of the Jelgavan constabulary captain who'd given him all the wine he wanted to get him to denounce his friends and neighbors.

"What finally made them let you go, son?" Traku asked.

"You must know how they took Gailisa away," Talsu said, and his father and mother both nodded. He went on, "They brought her to my prison and made her write out a list of names. Then they told me she'd done it, and that my names had better match hers. I knew she'd never denounce anyone who really hated Algarvians, so I wrote down people who liked them but weren't real showy about it- you know the kind I mean. And I must have been thinking along with her, because they turned me loose."

"Clever lad!" Traku burst out, and hit him in the shoulder. "You can say a lot of things about my line, but we don't raise fools." Laitsina contented herself with kissing Talsu, which probably amounted to the same thing.

His parents were pleased with him. They thought him a clever fellow. But what would other people in Skrunda think of him? He'd already had a taste of the answer: they'd think he'd sold himself to the redheads. Would they have anything to do with him now that he'd been released? The only ones likely to were men and women of the sort he'd named as anti-Algarvian activists. That was funny, if you looked at it the right way. It would have been even funnier if he'd wanted to have anything to do with those people.

The problem seemed urgent… for a moment. Then the bell rang as the door opened again. There was Ausra, with Gailisa right behind her. Talsu's wife gaped at him, then let out exactly the squeal a seven-year-old might have used at getting a new doll. She threw herself into Traku's arms. "I don't believe it," she said, over and over again. "I can't believe it."

Talsu had trouble believing the feel of a woman pressed against him. He'd thought his imagination and memory had held onto what that feeling was like, but he'd been wrong, wrong. "I saw you once," he said, in between kisses.

"Did you?" Gailisa answered. "When they took me to that horrible prison? I wondered if you would, if that was why. I didn't see you."

"No, they wouldn't let you," Talsu said. "But I was looking out through a peephole when they took you down the hallway. And when they told me you'd written a denunciation, I had to figure out what kind of names you'd put in it so mine would match. I guess I did it right, on account of they let me go."

"I named all the fat, smug whoresons I could think of, is what I did," Gailisa said.

"Me, too," Talsu said. "And it worked."

Somebody- he didn't notice who- had brought down and filled another pair of cups. His mother gave one to Ausra; his father gave the other to Gailisa. They both drank. Gailisa turned an accusing stare on his sister. "You didn't tell me why I had to come back here," she said. "You just told me it was important."

"Well, was I right or was I wrong?" Ausra asked.

"You were wrong, because you didn't come close to saying enough," Gailisa answered. "You didn't come close." She seized Talsu's arm and stared up into his face in such a marked manner that at any other time he would have been embarrassed. Not now. Now he drank in the warmth of her affection like a plant long in darkness drinking in the sun.

Not very much later, still holding him by the arm, she took him upstairs. Ausra started to follow them. Traku contrived to get in her way. In a low voice- but not quite low enough to keep Talsu from overhearing- he said, "No. Wait. Whatever you want up there, it will keep for a while."

Talsu's ears got hot. His parents and his sister had to know what he and Gailisa would be doing in the little bedchamber that had been his alone before he got married. Then he shrugged. If it didn't bother them- and it didn't seem to- he wasn't about to let it bother him, either.

Gailisa closed and barred the door to the bedchamber. Then she undid the toggles on Talsu's tunic. "How skinny you've got!" she said, running the palm of her hand along his ribs. "Didn't they feed you anything?"

"Not much," Talsu answered. The ease with which his trousers came down proved that.

"Don't you worry," Gailisa said. "I'll take care of things. Aye, I will." She let her hand linger for a moment, then planted it in the middle of his chest. He went over on his back onto the bed. "Stay there," she told him, busy with the fastenings of her own clothes. Once she was out of them, Talsu stared and stared. No, memory and imagination were only shadows when set beside reality.

She lay down beside him. Their lips met. Their hands wandered. Before long, Gailisa straddled him and impaled herself upon him. "Ohhh," he said- one long exhalation. How could he have misremembered so much?

"You hush," Gailisa said. "Just let me…" And she did, slowly, carefully, lovingly. Having gone without so long, Talsu didn't think he'd be able to last now, but she took care of that, too. When he finally did groan and shudder, it was as if he were making up for all the lost time at once. Gailisa leaned forward and brushed his lips with hers. "There," she murmured, almost as if to a child. "Is that better?"

"Better, aye," he said. But he was still a young man, even if poorly fed, and his spear retained its temper. This time, he began to move, slowly at first but then with more insistence. Gailisa threw her head back. Her breath came short. So did his. She clenched him, as with a hand. He groaned again. This time, so did she.

Sweat made their skins slide against each other as they separated. Talsu hoped for a third round, but not urgently. He caressed Gailisa, marveling all over again at how soft she was.

A heavily laden wagon rattled by outside, turning his mind away from lovemaking and toward less delightful things. "People are going to think I sold out to the redheads," he said.

"They already think I did," Gailisa answered. "Powers below eat them."

"Aye." Talsu's hand closed on her bare left breast. Somehow, talking of such things while they sprawled naked and sated was an exorcism of sorts, even if modern thaumaturgy had proved precious few demons really existed. He went on, "Do you know who betrayed me?" He waited for her to shake her head, then spoke three more words: "Kugu the silversmith."

"The classical Kaunian master?" Gailisa exclaimed in horror.

"The very same fellow," Talsu said.

"Something ought to happen to him." His wife spoke with great conviction.

"Maybe something will," Talsu said. "But if anything does, it won't be something anybody can blame me for." Gailisa accepted that as naturally as if he'd said the sun rose in the east.


Pekka lay beside Leino in the big bed where they'd spent so much happy time together. He'd be ready again pretty soon, she judged, and then they would start another round of what they'd both been too long without. "So good to be here," her husband murmured.

"So good to be here with you," Pekka said.

Leino laughed. "So good to be here at all. Compared to the land of the Ice People…" His voice trailed off. "I've said too much."

"Habakkuk," Pekka said.

Her husband nodded. "Aye, Habakkuk. I never should have said anything about that, either. And if I did say something about it, the censor never should have passed it. But I did and he did, and now we've got to live with it."

"Fer… one of the other mages who's working with me said the name sounded as if it came from the land of the Ice People." Pekka didn't want to- very strongly didn't want to- mention Fernao's name while she was in bed with her husband. She'd worry about what that meant, and if it meant anything, another time.

"He was right." If Leino noticed her hesitation, he didn't make a big thing of it. Forbearance was one of the reasons she loved him. He sighed and went on, "I think you've got the more interesting job, working with people like Ilmarinen and Siuntio… What's the matter now?"

"Siuntio's dead." Pekka knew she shouldn't have been so startled, but she couldn't help it. Her husband couldn't have known. She hadn't written about it to him; even if she had, one of the censors probably would have kept the news from getting out. The harder the time Mezentio's men had of learning what they'd done, the better.

"Is he?" Leino clicked his tongue between his teeth. "That's a pity, but he wasn't a young man to begin with."

"No, not dead like that." Pekka would have staked her life that the redheads couldn't possibly be listening to what went on in her bedchamber. "Dead in an Algarvian attack. If he hadn't fought it off, or at least fought part of it off, the whole team might have died with him."

"By the powers above," Leino said. "You never told me anything about this before. You couldn't, could you?" Pekka shook her head. With a sigh, Leino went on, "I think I'm working on a sideshow. You're doing what really matters."

"Am I? I hope so." Pekka clung to him. She didn't want to have to think about the work she'd finally escaped. She was more interested in thinking about the two of them, what they had been doing, and what they'd soon do again.

But Leino couldn't do it again quite yet. Had he been able to, he would have been stirring against her thigh. Because he couldn't quite yet, he was interested in what Pekka had been up to. "The Algarvians must think so," he said. "If they didn't, they wouldn't have bothered attacking you. How did they do it? Dragons?"

Pekka shook her head. She didn't want to think about that, either, but the question gave her no choice. "No. Another Kaunian sacrifice. I don't know whether they just grabbed the first however many Valmierans they saw, or if they brought Kaunians east out of Forthweg. Whichever, it was very bad." She shuddered, recalling just how bad it had been.

Leino held her and stroked her. She could tell he was bursting with curiosity. She'd known him a good many years now; if she couldn't tell such things, who could? But he did his best not to let any of it show, because he knew that would bother her. And if a mage's suppressing his curiosity wasn't love, what was it? As much in gratitude as for any other reason, she slid down and took him in her mouth, trying to hurry things along. That wasn't magic, but it worked as if it were. Before long, they both stopped worrying about what Habakkuk was or why Mezentio's mages chose to assail Pekka and her colleagues.

But lovemaking never resolved things; it only put them off for a while. After they'd gasped their way to completion, Pekka knew Leino wouldn't be trying yet another round any time soon. That meant his thought would turn elsewhere. And sure enough, he said, "You must be working on something truly big, if the Algarvians used that spell against you."

"Something, aye." Pekka still didn't want to talk about it.

Leino said, "They tried to use that same spell to drive us off the austral continent, you know." Pekka nodded; she'd heard something about that. Her husband continued, "It went wrong. It went horribly wrong, and came down on their heads instead of ours and the Lagoans'. Magecraft that works fine here or on the mainland of Derlavai has a way of going wrong down in the land of the Ice People."

"That's what they say." Pekka nodded again, then laughed. "Whoever they are." Because she found worrying about her husband's problems easier than worrying about her own, she quickly found another question to ask: "Will that cause trouble for Habakkuk?"

"It shouldn't." Leino used an extravagant gesture. "Habakkuk is… something else." He chuckled ruefully. "I can't talk about it, any more than you can say much about whatever it is you're working on."

"I know. I understand." Pekka wanted to tell him everything. Just for a moment, she wished Fernao were there so she could talk shop. Then she shook her hair, and had to brush hair out of her eyes. He was part of what she'd come here, come away from the project, to escape.

"I love you," Leino said, and Pekka reminded herself he'd come a long way to escape hard, dangerous work, too. She clung to him as he clung to her. They didn't make love again; Leino wasn't so young that he could do it whenever he wanted. But the feel of him pressed against her was about as good as the real thing for Pekka, especially when they'd been apart so long. She hoped holding her was as good for him, but had her doubts. Men were different that way.

The next morning, Uto woke both of them at an improbably early hour. With Kajaani so far south, spring days lengthened quickly: the sun rose early and set late. Even so, Pekka's sleep-gummed eyelids told just how beastly early it was. "You don't treat Aunt Elimaki this way, do you?" she asked, wishing either for tea, which she could get, or another couple of hours' sleep, which she wouldn't.

"Of course not," her son said virtuously.

That, as Pekka knew, might mean anything or nothing. "You'd better not," she warned. "Aunt Elimaki is going to have a baby of her own, and she needs all the sleep she can get."

"She won't get it later, that's for sure." Leino sounded as sandbagged as Pekka.

"All right, Mother. All right, Father." Uto, by contrast, might have been the soul of virtue. He patted Pekka on the arm. "Are you going to have another baby, too, Mother?"

"I don't think so," Pekka answered. She and Leino smiled at each other; if she wasn't, it was in spite of last night's exertions. She yawned and sat up in bed, somewhat resigned to being awake. "What would the two of you like for breakfast?"

"Anything," Leino said before his son could speak. "Almost anything at all. Down in the land of the Ice People, I counted for a good cook, if you can believe it."

"I'm so sorry for you," Pekka exclaimed. The horror of that idea was plenty to rout her out of bed and into the kitchen. She got the teakettle going, then folded fat, fresh shrimp into an omelette. Along with fried mashed turnips and bread and butter (olive oil was an imported luxury in Kuusamo, not a staple), it made a fine breakfast.

Uto inhaled everything. He wasn't picky in what he ate; he chose other ways to make himself difficult. Leino ate hugely, too, and put down cup after cup of tea. "That's so much better," he said.

"Will you be able to sleep at all tonight?" Pekka asked him.

He nodded and opened his eyes very wide, which made Uto laugh. "Oh, aye," he said. "I won't have any trouble. I may have to eat seal every now and again down in the land of the Ice People, but there's plenty of tea. The Lagoans drink even more of it than we do. They say it lubricates the brain, and I can't argue with them."

"Seal?" Uto sounded horrified, but looked interested. "What does it taste like?"

"Greasy. Fishy," his father answered. "We eat camel, too, sometimes. That's better, at least for a while. It sort of tastes like beef, but it's fatter meat. The Ice People live on camel and reindeer almost all the time."

"Are they as ugly as everybody says?" Uto asked.

"No," Leino said, which obviously disappointed his son. Then he added, "They're uglier," and everything was right with the world as far as Uto was concerned.

"Hurry up and get ready for school," Pekka told him. He greeted that with moans and groans. Now that his parents were back in Kajaani, he wanted to spend as much time as he could with them. Pekka was inflexible. "You'll be back this afternoon, and you need to learn things. Besides, you're the one who got us up early." That produced as many more groans as she'd thought it would, but Uto, wearing a martyred expression, eventually went out the door and headed for school.