/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Aldabreshin Compass

Northern Storm

Juliet Mckenna

The Aldabreshin Archipelago has been ravaged by war, its fragile alliances sundered by new enemies, enemies wielding forbidden elemental magic and spreading terror throughout the scattered southern realm. Warlord Daish Kheda has vowed to reclaim his people's land but in the process loses his own kingdom, is exiled from his family and is forced to journey north to seek answers. The wizard Dev has pledged to assist Daish, hungry to discover the secrets of this powerful dark magic. This causes turmoil among Dev's northern countrymen, leading to a political battle where strength in magic is key to the highest rank of all.

Northern Storm

(The second book in the Aldabreshin Compass series)

Juliet E McKenna

For Ernie and Betty,

for all they do to ease my working life

and all they do to enrich our sons’ lives.

Chapter One

What does this sunrise bring, beyond another day of trying to read all the faces turned to me? What omens might there be as to whether or not I’ll meet whatever challenges are set before me before sunset? Will I fail? Who will I fail—myself or these people who never foresaw that I would become their ruler? Idly rubbing a hand over his close-trimmed beard, he glanced from side to side to see if any portent offered itself in any arc of the compass, firstly in the pale skies of the early morning, the clouds iridescent as mother-of-pearl. Dropping his gaze, he studied the indigo waters broken by ruffles of foam and mysterious swirls of lighter blue. The waters rose and fell as gently as a sleeping child’s chest. No sign of any sea serpent lurking in the channels between coral and sand. No whale rising unexpectedly from the distant deeps further out. No detritus floating in our path as portent of good or ill. There are no omens that I can see. The future is as bare of signs to guide me as the empty ocean.

A dutiful voice interrupted his fruitless survey.

‘We’re nearly there, my lord Chazen Kheda,’ the helmsman announced, sitting alert on his stool on the raised platform at the stern of the little galley. One brown hand rested on the steering oar, his dark eyes fixed on the man standing in the prow. The ship’s master kept an alert watch for reefs and skenies beneath the waves, his dun cotton tunic and trousers flattened against his muscular body by the breeze. In the belly of the ship, the rowers bent and hauled and sent the Yellow Serpent speeding through the water, three men to a bench, each with his own long oar lashed to its thole-pin. With the crew of the warlord’s vessel drawn from the most practised oarsmen, they barely needed the regular drone of the piper’s flute amidships to keep their strokes even, making light of pulling the long, lithe vessel against the wind.

‘We’re in good time, as always.’ Kheda eased his shoulders beneath the weight of his chain-mail hauberk and adjusted the silk scarf around his neck before raising his voice so that the rowers on the open deck below could hear him. ‘The Yellow Serpent has served me well throughout this voyage.’ As I have served this domain, I hope. But this voyage is all but over and I will have a whole new set of challenges to meet when I return to what I suppose I must call my home now.

‘Seen any omens for our day?’ A man whose bald head barely topped Kheda’s shoulder held out a round brass and steel helmet with a chain-mail veil hanging down to protect the wearer’s neck and shoulders. Diamonds around the gold brow band spat defiant fire back at the strengthening sun.

‘I won’t want that till we land.’ Kheda relished the breeze brushing his short-cropped, tightly curled hair as he kept his eyes on the rapidly approaching drifts of foam that ringed the few scraps of sandy land in the midst of the reefs and sandbanks. Sparkling beaches circled dense clumps of midar shrub pierced here and there with stands of nut palms. The trees waved exuberant fronds of lush new growth, still drawing on the water hoarded by the earth since the drenching of last year’s rains.

‘The final outposts of your domain, my lord Chazen Kheda, before the countless islands of the

Aldabreshin Archipelago yield to the boundless southern ocean.’ The shorter man’s tone was faintly mocking.

Not so boundless, Dev.’ Kheda shot a glare at him. We know all too well there must be land beyond the horizon to spawn our enemies.’

Dev affected not to see Kheda’s irritation as he adjusted the broad brass-studded belt around his sturdy waist, armour jingling softly as he shifted his bare feet on the smooth planking. His hauberk was plain, wholly made from polished steel rings, in contrast to Kheda’s which boasted a diamond pattern of brazen links and engraved metal plates inset to protect his vitals from piercing arrows or murderous sword-thrusts. The fine leather of the warlord’s belt was invisible beneath golden plaques embossed with intricate sprays of canthira leaves.

‘Have there been omens of battle ahead, my lord?’ the helmsman asked with alarm. Do you think some new wave of invaders will come to support those still trapped in the western isles?’

Kheda smiled easily to calm the mariner’s fears. ‘There’s been no such sign.’

Fool. Watch what you say. These men of Chazen haven’t known and trusted you since your birth or theirs. You cannot rely on them to read your words aright, or keep them to themselves as those of Daish would have done.

‘We will throw the last sorry remnants of those savages into the sea soon enough. Let the currents carry their bloated corpses back to wash up and warn their kin against quitting their own shores again.’ As he continued in the same confident tone, Kheda waved one hand airily and the uncut emerald on the heavy silver ring he wore glowed vividly in the brilliant light.

‘We’ll be getting back to clearing out the last of the invaders, will we, as soon as we’ve completed this interminable tour of every last rock and reef?’ Dev demanded abruptly.

Kheda glanced at him, face stern. ‘Dev, as a barbarian,

I’ll allow you more leeway than I would any true-born Archipelagan, but use that tone to me again and I will have you flogged. Better yet, I will do it myself.’

Do you remember what I told you? That one of my father Daish Reik’s precepts of leadership was never make a threat you’re not prepared to carry out? You can be sure that’s no idle warning, barbarian.

He looked into Dev’s dark eyes but couldn’t read anything there. No matter. The barbarian looked away first.

‘My lord, if you please, where’s the Mist DoveV The helmsman was still gazing resolutely over the heads of the rowers on their serried benches towards the Yellow Serpent’s burly shipmaster on the prow platform. A flurry of foam blew up over the prow as the knife edge of the brass-sheathed ram sliced through the waves.

‘Staying well clear.’ Kheda looked back astern to see the heavy trireme that had accompanied them slowing in the more open waters, oars idling. The weapons and armour of the fighting men aboard glinted in the sun.

And if by some mischance I have failed to note any portent of some new assault by the savages, we have steel and hatred to use against them. But let’s not tempt the future with such thoughts. There’s been no sign of any new invasion. You had better turn your attention to what awaits you here, and whatever portents for your rule of this domain that’ll be set out for all to see.

Shallow enough to negotiate the encircling corals, the light galley headed towards the largest of the scatter of low islands. The ragged fronds of the tallest trees were stirring in the rising breeze and the channels between the islands were thronged with little boats.

‘So where exactly are the pearl beds?’ Dev studied the shipmasters raising their sails, the divers busy on deck checking the weighted ropes that would take them down to the sea bed and the lifelines that should ensure they would survive to enjoy the fruits of their labours. Lookouts on each boat sharpened broad-bladed shark spears and viciously barbed gaff hooks.

‘They shift from year to year.’ Kheda watched the youths and young girls trading their sweat and muscle for the right to learn the skills of diver and sailor. Some were wading out to the skiffs carrying food and water on their hearts; others were stowing the stacks of baskets waiting to bring the year’s greatest bounty up from the deep.

And sometimes the pearl oysters vanish altogether. What manner of omen would that be?

The tremor that ran through Kheda had nothing to do with the surge beneath his feet as the Yellow Serpent’s rowers bent over their oars. Pearl skiffs scattered as the galley headed towards a wide beach where a veritable village had been thrown up. Huts built from woven panels of palm fronds were roughly thatched with bundles of coarse grass tied with tangling vines. The greenery was barely faded but Kheda knew it wouldn’t be long before the punishing sun parched roofs and walls to a yellowy brown. Then the pearl harvest will be over and the huts will be left to the sand lizards and the sooty shrews hunting sickle snakes and scorpions. The pearl gulls and coral fishers will plunder the roofs for their own nests and prey on unwary shrews to feed their young. The dry season will bleach these huts to frail straw and the rainy season’s storms will rip them apart. There’ll be barely a sign that there was anything here when the last full moons of the year ahead of us will summon the divers to search the reefs for the shifting pearl beds.

I wonder if I will be here to see next year’s harvest.

The wind shifted, bringing a startling stench. ‘Saedrin save me!’ Dev barely reached the stern before he lost his breakfast noisily over the rail.

Kheda exchanged a rueful grin with the helmsman, trying to breathe as shallowly as possible. ‘You always tell yourself it can’t be as bad as you remember.’ And perhaps that’s a sign: to concentrate on the here and now rather than indulging in idle speculations about future paths.

‘Then you realise it’s worse.’ The helmsman’s weather-beaten brown face grimaced as he hauled on the steering oar in response to a signal from the shipmaster.

The rowers pulled on their oars with a will, even those gagging on their own nausea. The Yellow Serpent accelerated past the bare sandy reef that was the source of the stink. Masked with swathes of cotton cloth, one of the few men ashore waved. Another was more concerned with throwing an old dry shell at a gull darting down from the cloud of birds wheeling above, squawking their outrage as mats of woven palm fronds frustrated their efforts to plunder the vast tubs the men were guarding. Emerald finches and dusky gnatcatchers swooped unopposed, gorging on the red-eyed flies that hung around the tubs in smoky swarms.

As the Yellow Serpent passed the reeking islet and the breeze brought clean, salt-scented air, Kheda dipped a cup of water from a lidded barrel lashed to the light galley’s rearmost signal mast. He passed it to Dev, who was still leaning over the stern, pale beneath his coppery tan.

‘You people can’t just open your oysters with a sharp knife and dig out the pearls?’ Dev swilled water around his mouth and spat sourly over the rail.

Not when we want every pearl, right down to the seed and dust pearls.’ Kheda watched the water turning from mysterious green to crystal clarity over the brilliant sands as the shipmaster skilfully guided the vessel into the shallows. ‘The only way to get those is to let maggots strip the oysters clean.’

‘We’re sailing west again after this?’ the barbarian growled beneath his breath.

No, back to the residence. I told you.’ Kheda shot the scowling Dev a warning look, his voice low and rapid. ‘After all they’ve suffered in the last year, these people need the reassurance of correct observance of every ritual. As warlord, I have to be there when the new-year stars come into alignment. It’s my duty to read the skies for the domain and give judgement on any other portent.’

‘What portents do you think they will bring you? Lizards caught in bizarre places?’ Dev mocked. ‘Or patterns imagined in a pot of beans?’

‘Just keep your mouth shut on your ignorance.’ Kheda didn’t hide his contempt.

‘Some new year it’ll be, without so much as a sniff of liquor,’ Dev muttered, sipping at his water with distaste. ‘What then?’

‘We’ll see.’ Kheda smiled thinly. ‘In the omens of the heavenly and the earthly compasses.’

He left Dev and went to stand beside the helmsman’s chair. The rowers had slowed, listening for the shipmaster’s shouts of command and the piper’s signals. Some glanced up at the stern platform with discreet curiosity. Kheda kept his face impassive as he made a covert survey of the crew’s bearded faces.

They’re as curious as everyone else to see what kind of pearl harvest will mark the turn of my first year as unexpected lord of this Chazen domain. And I can see a measure of private anticipation, naturally, in their hopes that serving the warlord in person will win them some share in the bounty.

What can they see in you? Very little, hopefully. ‘Show no more emotion than a statue of the finest marble’ that’s what your father used to say. Because people looking at a statue see in it what they want to see more often than not.

to see my rule sanctioned by the best possible omens?

‘I’ve brought swords and archers to keep your harvest safe,’ Kheda called out to the pearl skiffs. ‘Carry water to my ships to refill their barrels, if you please.’

Leaving behind a robust chorus of earnest assurances, the rowing boat soon reached the shallows. The boatman shipped his oars and jumped lithely over the side, grabbing for the bow rope to begin hauling the boat up on to the drier sand.

‘This will do.’ Kheda raised a hand, inclining his head courteously to the boatman as he got out. ‘Make yourself known to my slave before we leave.’ The cool ruffles of surf around his shins were refreshing after the sun-baked wood of the galley’s deck beneath his bare feet. ‘Remember that boatman and give him a few pearls,’ he said quietly to Dev as they walked up the beach.

Naturally, my lord,’ murmured Dev with a touch of sarcasm. ‘A memory for faces is essential in my proper trade.’

Kheda’s spine stiffened despite himself. Before he could find a reprimand for the barbarian„ a handful of men advanced down the beach towards them, leaving more waiting in a respectful half-circle where the white coral sands gave way to dusty soil and sparse coils of parched, grey midar stems. Dev had been walking a pace behind Kheda on his open side, one hand resting lightly on the twin hilts thrust through his double-looped sword belt. As the islanders approached, the barbarian moved swiftly to stand between the warlord and these newcomers, stony faced, until Kheda gave him the nod to stand aside, his smile one of nicely calculated superiority.

You can feign this much of a true body slave’s duties at least.

The leader of the delegation bowed low. The bold yellow cloth of his simply cut cotton tunic and trousers was rich with embroidery mimicking turtleshell. He had a darker complexion than his companions and the more tightly curled hair of a hill-dweller, showing that blood from some larger domain had mingled with his more local ancestry. ‘My lord Chazen Kheda.’

‘Borha.’ Kheda smiled widely to conceal how much that new title still grated on his ears. Get used to it, fool. You’re not Daish Kheda, nor ever will be again.

‘I see you’ve brought plenty of strong arms to reap the pearl harvest,’ Kheda continued smoothly.

‘We left plenty of men to continue our rebuilding.’ The man beamed with pleasure at being recognised but fingered a white crab-shell talisman on a cord around his neck, betraying an unconscious anxiety. ‘I know—we’ve just come from Salgaru. Your village is certainly prospering, and all the others besides.’ Kheda widened his smile and looked beyond Borha to include all the waiting men in his approval. One of the others spoke up. ‘Will you take some refreshment while we wait for our fishermen to return, my lord?’

‘Thank you.’ Kheda walked on up the beach and the islanders moved to either side, giving Dev a respectful distance. A few had darker skin and curly hair like Borha. More had the rich brown complexion and straighter hair prevalent in these southerly reaches. All wore crisp new cottons in reds, blues and yellows decorated with skilful embroidery. Some bore vivid butterflies across their shoulders or patterns echoing any one of the myriad bright birds that graced the bigger islands. Other decorations recalled the intricate traceries of thorn coral or the spirals of seashells. A couple wore bracelets of twisted silver wire and one boasted a chain of gold lozenge links around his neck. Most wore more simple talismans—a plaited wristband of the silky fibres from a tandra seed pod or a string of polished ironwood beams. All the men wore daggers at their hips, but Kheda and Dev were the only ones with swords.

They’re all so careful to match my pace exactly, with the same diffidence I’ve seen throughout this voyage around the domain. They bow and simper and answer all my questions, barely asking any of their own.

This is obviously how they treated Chazen Saril. But Saril’s dead and gone. These people must learn how different a ruler I am.

Kheda headed for a temporary pavilion set up among the palm huts. Polished berale wood supported azure cotton embroidered with fan-shaped midar leaves shading a bank of plump indigo cushions. Hopeful maidens in simple silk dresses of yellow and white that flattered the warm bronze of their bare arms and faces stood holding beaten brass plates laden with dainties. Idling uncon-vincingly among the crude huts, men and women clad in sober unbleached cotton eyed the spectacle.

‘Please, join me.’ Kheda swept a hand around to include all the spokesmen in his invitation.

Dev was already moving to take a tray of goblets from a girl who had found time to weave crimson striol-vine flowers into her glossy black curls. He surprised her into a giggle with a mischievous wink before offering the salver deftly to Kheda, eyes dutifully downcast.

‘Admire if you want but lay a finger on any of them ‘ Kheda raised the goblet to hide his lips ‘—and I’ll cut it off.’

Naturally, my lord.’ Dev’s answering murmur dripped with sarcasm.

Kheda sipped velvety sard-ben-y juice, its richness quenching his thirst as the heady scent cleansed the lurking memory of the rotting oysters.

‘My lord Chazen Kheda.’ Another of the islanders’ spokesmen addressed him, stumbling over his words. Kheda searched his memory for the stained yellow talisman the man wore on a leather thong: a tooth from some piebald whale either taken by a valiant ancestor or washed up on these shores as a sign to bemuse anyone other than a seer or a warlord. ‘Isei, isn’t it?’

Tell me, why is your fist so tight around the stem of that goblet that your knuckles are white?

‘You come dressed for war, my lord.’ Isei cleared his throat. ‘I was wondering how the western isles fare. Are the invaders finally defeated?’

Some of the other spokesmen edged away to dissociate themselves from such boldness and a few closed their eyes, helplessly struggling to hide their expressions of pain.

Do you think I would disapprove of such a question? That I don’t have my own unwelcome memories of the destruction that swept across your islands not even a year ago?

‘I was taught to always travel armoured.’ Kheda shrugged.

Taught by my father, Daish Reik, warlord of the stronger, richer Daish domain to your north, a man to be treated with all due respect lest he make your lives intolerable by closing the seaways to you. Who would ever have foreseen that his son would become your warlord? Not Daish Reik. Not me, that’s for sure, when I was Daish Kheda. Not Chazen Saril. But then none of us foresaw the invasion of Chazen by brutal savages from some unknown land beyond the southern horizon.

He looked slowly around the circle of intent faces. ‘As for the invaders, we wrought your vengeance with the death of nearly all of them in that first sustained assault, with Daish lending their swordsmen and ships and warriors from Ritsem and Redigal domains coming to our aid as well. The last sony remnant disappeared into the thickets of our most remote southern and western islets. We continue to hunt them down, making sure we have cleared each island entirely before we move on to the next. But we are being cautious, yes. I don’t intend to spend a single Chazen life for the sake of a hundred savages, not if I can help it.’

Kheda paused and drank from his goblet, noting one of the spokesmen pressing the back of a burn-scarred hand to his tight-shut eyes.

He hardened his voice. ‘Their savage wizards are all dead, so they cannot visit the foul evils of their magic on us ever again. They have no ships, so they cannot escape. Our triremes keep vigil along the seaways and crush any of their log boats trying to put to sea. Few of the islands they hold have water year round. They’ll be as thirsty as these reefs before much longer into the dry season.’

He gestured at the temporarily flourishing greenery beyond the pavilion before startling the assembled spokesmen with sudden entreaty. ‘Leave me and the warriors of Chazen to serve the domain in fighting these vermin. Let us take your vengeance on a people so debased they brought magic to fight their battles for them. Your strong arms and backs are better used in rebuilding your homes and your boats, in restoring your vegetable gardens and grain plots, in recapturing your house fowls. Then, when we have put the last invader to his richly deserved death, you will be ready to help restore those islands in their turn:

‘You don’t fear that the presence of such vile savages will have corrupted those islands beyond cleansing?’ Isei’s free hand strayed to the hilt of the dagger at his plaited-leather belt.

Crescent-moon Chazen dagger like the one I wear now, not the smoother curve of a Daish blade like the one my father gave me.

Kheda looked him straight in the eye. Not after every trace of their foul presence has been burned to ash and scattered to the seas and the winds.’

For retribution as well as purification, for the sake of all those innocents they slaughtered and all the villages they burned in their accursed rampage.

‘My lord, something to eat?’ Borha broke the tense silence with a snap of his fingers at the waiting maidens. One immediately proffered candied lilla fruit slices set on cakes of steamed sailer grain glistening with honey.

‘Thank you, no.’ Kheda smiled to mitigate the rebuff ‘Passing by the oyster vats has left me without an appetite. Tell me, are the divers convect? Are we going to see a good harvest of pearls for the Chazen domain?’

‘It’s early days yet, my lord, but yes, I think it will be a truly splendid year.’ Borha’s smile was wide and ingratiating.

‘Let’s go and see for ourselves.’ Kheda abandoned the pavilion and strode towards the crude awnings sheltering those sifting through the pearls already won from the close-mouthed oysters. The assembled spokesmen hurried after him, other islanders trailing after.

Let’s keep you all looking to the future and let’s hope it’s a favourable one. Let’s not remember the invaders who brought chaos and death last year. Let’s not recall the calamity or your erstwhile lord Chazen Saril dead in exile from his birthright. Let’s not wonder how rumours of my own death turned out to be falsehood or contemplate those events that set me over you as your new ruler. Let’s not ponder just why it proved impossible for me to return to my home and my family and the Daish domain I was born to rule.

Borha drew level with Kheda’s elbow. ‘We filled the vats within a few days of starting to dive. They were already rotted down enough to be emptied yesterday. We’ve had a fine haul of pearls and there are plenty of shells warranting a closer look’ He gestured to the baskets of dark mottled ovals in the midst of a gang of old men sitting cross-legged on a stretch of faded, sandy carpet.

‘My lord.’ One acknowledged Kheda with easy self-assurance. His hair and beard were white in stark contrast to skin as wrinkled and dark as a sun-dried bevy. Unhurried, he studied the empty oyster shell, fine-bladed knife hovering around a sizeable blister marring the iridescent nacre that so closely mimicked the pearls it bore.

Kheda found he was holding his breath as the old man scored a fine line around the bulbous swelling. A trivial omen, but an omen nevertheless. Will he find a pearl? Or will this be one of those pockets of stinking black slime?

The old man eased the sharp steel into the nacre and the swelling burst to leave a perfect milky sphere rolling in the hollow of the shell. ‘Should clean up well enough.’ Putting the pearl carefully in a cotton-lined box, he took another shell from the basket and contemplated a cyst of three half-moon pearls clinging stubbornly to one edge.

‘You’re polishing them here?’ Kheda moved on towards an awning shading men and women gently scouring impurities from gleaming pearls held in scraps of soft deer hide, their forearms shimmering with pearl dust.

‘And drilling them, my lord.’ Borha bowed obsequiously, simultaneously indicating a tent some way beyond where the most skilled craftsmen were studying pearls through handheld lenses or marking them precisely with calipers tipped with lampblack.

As Kheda approached, he observed that one man had already drilled a large silvery pearl from one side and was plucking it from the moist scrap of leather holding it in a notch in the wooden block gripped between his knees. Deftly reversing it, he set the needle-fine tip of his drill on the sooty pinpoint he had made earlier and cupped the upper end of his drill rod in a discarded oyster shell. As he worked the bow back and forth, slowly at first and then more swiftly, the string whirled the steel-tipped drill around.

‘Ever seen this done, Dev?’ Kheda asked.

No.’ The barbarian grinned with open appreciation. ‘It’s quite some trick.’

Using his little finger on every other stroke, the craftsman was deftly flicking water from a larger hollow in the block on to the pearl. His apprentice watched attentively, pausing in his own duty of sharpening drill points on a broad whetstone. As the driller pulled rod and bow away, the lad instantly picked the pearl out of the hollow and washed it carefully in a little pot of fresh seawater.

‘Are you having many pearls break?’ Kheda asked casually.

‘Very few, my lord,’ the craftsman assured him with a half-smile.

‘They’re still getting their eye in on the biggest pearls.’ Unbidden, Isei spoke up. ‘There’ll be more losses with the smaller ones.’

‘True enough,’ said Kheda mildly.

But the fewer losses the better, both as portent for my rule and for the sake of the domain’s trade, when we need every resource to make good all the losses of this last year.

‘Please take these to our lady Itrac Chazen, my lord.’ Borha had stepped away for a moment, returning with a box of berale-tree wood still pale and fresh from the joiner’s hands. Dev stepped up smartly to claim it.

‘We’ll be hard pressed to have all the pearls polished and drilled by the time our lady Itrac wishes to sail north.’ Isei’s beard jutted defiantly. ‘So many of our craftsmen were murdered by the invaders. And there are those who would say those of us that remain would be better spending our energies elsewhere.’ I’d wager that whale-tooth talisman wasn’t won by some ancestor who found the beast dead on the shore. He was probably master of the ship risking life and limb to drive it into the shallows and the waiting spears.

‘I take it you’re one of them?’ Kheda looked straight at Isei once again. ‘Then make your case. What concerns do you have? Speak freely,’ he commanded.

I’m not some lord like Ulla Safar who can kill a messenger for bringing undesirable news. Nor, to his credit, was Chazen Saril.

Isei hesitated before drawing a deep breath and plunging on. ‘We’ll run short of food before the end of the dry season, my lord. The rains were more than half-gone before we could get our sailer seedlings in the ground. We have fewer men to work the land, with so many dead or fled, and fewer still to tend what we could salvage from the fruit and vegetable plantations. Even with all the women and children lending their strength to bring in the harvest, we nowhere near filled the granaries.’

Kheda raised a hand to quell the voices of the other spokesmen suddenly emboldened by Isei’s words. ‘I’m hardly ignorant of such vital matters but you’re right to make certain that I appreciate your situation.’

‘What do you propose to do about it?’ Isei looked straight back at him, unabashed.

‘I propose to discuss all the domain’s necessities with my lady Itrac Chazen,’ replied Kheda with a hint of reproof, ‘so that she may trade these pearls with the ladies of Redigal and Daish and the domains beyond, to Chazen’s best advantage.’

‘We have concerns there as well, my lord,’ asserted Isei boldly.

‘Explain yourself,’ Kheda prompted tersely, noting Borha wincing out of the corner of his eye.

‘My lady Itrac will doubtless feel that Chazen is under obligation to Daish, Redigal and other domains for their help in driving out the invaders.’ Isei folded his arms across his chest. Which is certainly true. But I believe Daish owes Chazen some debt that should be weighed in the scales before any price in pearls is agreed for sailer grain or dried meats. Many Chazen who had no choice but to flee before the invaders were given sanctuary among the Daish islands. The Chazen repaid this generosity with their labour in the Daish sailer fields and vegetable plots.’ Isei hastily qualified his words. ‘And such labour was gladly given, don’t mistake me. Daish harvests have been plentiful and we’re glad of it, and to see Daish Sirket’s rule begun under such good auspices. But it’s a fact that Daish Sirket’s decree that all those of Chazen quit his domain before the stars of the new year has left his islands with fewer mouths to feed while we have more come home with every tide and little enough to share as it is.’

‘You think Chazen might rightfully claim some share from the Daish granaries and storehouses?’ Kheda hazarded.

Is this some test, honest Isei? Do you think I should prove my fitness to wear a Chazen dagger by challenging my own son, who was forced to declare himself Daish warlord because I was believed dead? Don’t think I haven’t heard the murmuring, honest Isei, the whispers of those who say I should have raised my sword against Sirket instead of turning to claim this leaderless domain. Do you think I should have brought internal warfare on the people of Daish, with untamed savages massing on their southern border? Who would have driven the invaders out of your islands then, after Chazen Saril had fled in abject terror?

Isei made no reply, staring at the ground in front of him. The uncomfortable silence lengthened.

‘I will discuss all the domain’s concerns with my lady Itrac Chazen.’ Kheda turned from Isei to address Borha with a friendly smile. ‘I know it’s early days but are there many pearls of unusual colour or shape?’

‘This way, my lord.’ Borha eagerly ushered Kheda towards an open-sided tent sun: ounded by shallow baskets redolent of decayed shellfish. Women sat at trestle tables, sorting through layers of salt-stained cotton to retrieve smooth orbs, tear drops, angular hound’s teeth, flattened petals and half-moons.

Kheda paused by a plump matron comfortable in a shapeless gown of orange patterned with yellow vizail blossoms, a turtleshell comb in her grizzled curly hair. Her deft brown fingers were quick as a silver crane plucking shrimp from the shallows as she dropped each style of pearl into separate silk-lined boxes. ‘How are the pickings?’ Kheda enquired genially.

She didn’t look up, intent on her task. ‘Far better than last year.’

‘Here, my lord.’ The woman on his other side surprised Kheda by taking his hand and dropping two coloured pearls into his palm. One was a deep vibrant gold, the other a mysterious cloudy blue. Both were as big as the nail on Kheda’s smallest finger.

‘Isei.’ He held them up. ‘Your village chose you to speak for them so you must read the day-to-day omens. What do these signify to you?’

‘Yellow for wealth, my lord.’ Isei’s eyes brightened with faint hope. ‘Blue for good fortune.’

‘A fine portent to greet your visit, my lord,’ said Borha obsequiously.

A fine portent and, better yet, one that I had no hand in seeking out. An interpretation that we’ve all known since childhood, plain enough for even the disaffected to read. A sign I can trust! That the fortunes of this hapless domain are finally turning to good after the ills that have plagued it? Reassurance that my actions haven’t irrevocably blighted my future or theirs?

‘I’m interrupting you, forgive me.’ Kheda smiled at the women whose fingers hadn’t stopped working. He walked on, beyond the shade of the tents where bolts of closely woven black material were stretched along the dry sand. Buckets were being emptied out on to the cloth and the scent of decay was inescapable.

‘What’s going on here?’ Dev wrinkled his nose.

‘After fifteen days the vats are filled with seawater, to float out the maggots and slime and leave the pearls and the shells.’ Kheda nodded towards the detritus on the cloth: tiny scraps of shell, a few dead and broken maggots, nameless sparkling fragments and sand of every colour the reefs offered. ‘The slurry from the bottom is sieved for seed pearls. Then it’s dried and picked over for dust pearls.’

‘I didn’t think Daish went to so much bother,’ commented a man searching the debris in front of them. He only had one hand, and was propping himself on the stump of his other wrist. His leg on that same side ended abruptly at mid-thigh.

‘Daish doesn’t. This is Chazen.’ Kheda looked out towards the reefs where the pearl skiffs were now anchored for their day’s work, distant bobbing specks. ‘Tell me, has there been much sight of sharks? Any word of sea serpents?’

Not so far.’ The man looked up with frank thankfulness.

‘You’ve got funny eyes.’ A little boy squatting beside the crippled diver to search the dark cloth for minuscule treasures stood up. His curly black head barely reached Kheda’s sword belt as he peered up with open curiosity. ‘They’re green.’

‘Su, that’s your lord Chazen Kheda,’ a slim girl said in strangled embarrassment, scrambling to her feet and dusting her hands against well-worn cotton trousers.

‘He’s still got green eyes,’ said the lad forcefully.

‘You’re plainly your father’s son.’ Kheda hunkered down to meet the child on his own level. ‘My forefathers and foremothers made alliances that brought barbarian blood into my line. See, my hair’s more brown than black, isn’t it?’ He took off his helmet and relished the breeze on his sweating forehead. “He’s a barbarian.’ Su’s glance flickered dubiously to Dev. ‘But he’s got brown eyes.’

‘So he’s not that different from you.’ Kheda ruffled the lad’s tousled black hair. ‘And now he lives among civilized folk, so that makes him an Archipelagan.’

Su looked wide-eyed at Kheda. ‘Is is true the northern lands run unbroken all the way across the horizon?’

‘I’ve never seen that myself,’ Kheda answered apologetically. Dev?’

‘It’s true enough,’ the barbarian confirmed with a grin.

‘I’m going to take ship to the north and see for myself when I’m grown,’ the little boy said robustly. ‘I’ll take an oar on a galley and work my way up to helmsman and then shipmaster.’

‘When will the merchant galleys be coming, my lord, from the other domains?’ The girl bit her lip at her own daring. ‘It’s just that we’ll need silk, for stringing the pearls.’ Someone behind Kheda caught her eye and she fell silent, dropping her gaze to the ground.

‘I shall remind my lady Itrac Chazen,’ Kheda assured her, just as soon as may be.’ He stood and thrust his helmet back on his head to hide a furtive sting of tears in his eyes.

Sirket was like that as a child, always ready to speak his mind and full of questions. Mesil was more of a thinker, doubtless still is, certainly not one to play a wager against unless you’ve all your wits about you. Which will my third son grow to be—eager seeker or careful observer? How will I ever know, separated from him and all my other children, my beautiful, beloved daughters?

He cleared his throat and nodded to the crippled diver. You are certainly blessed in your children, my friend’

The importunate Isei was at Kheda’s shoulder as he turned to walk away. ‘Children are indeed a man’s greatest good fortune. And the domain’s.’

That’s another of your concerns, is it? You and everyone else speculating around the evening cookfires. What would you have me say to my lady Itrac Chazen on that score?

Kheda found his patience abruptly exhausted. ‘Thank you, Borha, this has all been most interesting. I shall take some refreshment now, until you have need of me to read the omens.’

With his sudden about-face leaving them wrong-footed, he strode past the startled spokesmen. The islanders who had trailed around after their progress hurriedly got out of his way. With Dev at his shoulder, Kheda headed for the little blue pavilion and dropped on to the down-filled cushions, ignoring the girls.

‘Some privacy for my lord. No, leave that.’ Dev nodded at a girl carrying a ewer of juice. She put it on a small table wedged firmly into the sandy ground where Dev set the berale-wood box of pearls before shooing the patiently waiting maidens away, taking a tray of little cakes from one and a goblet of sard-beny juice from another.

Kheda reached up to take the drink the barbarian offered him. ‘That should be “our lord”.’

‘Who expects an ignorant barbarian to get it right every time?’ Dev said, sardonic.

‘Too many lapses and they’ll expect me to beat it into you if necessary,’ warned Kheda, ‘and they may start wondering why I don’t. We can’t either of us afford that.’

‘You’ve got them wondering about more than your unusual body slave.’ Dev glanced idly around at the village spokesmen who were engaging in desultory conversations with various islanders. ‘I think they’re trying to guess if you’ll turn out to be some vicious tyrant like Ulla Safar or the enlightened ruler they were so used to hearing Daish traders boast of.’

‘They should be used to uncertainty. Chazen Saril’s moods were apt to change as quick as a weather vane in the rainy season.’ Kheda took one of the little sweetmeats Dev was offering and bit into it. Taken unawares by the glutinous sweetness of the filling, he grimaced before forcing himself to swallow it. ‘And as my dutiful body slave, can you please spread the word as tactfully as you can that I have nothing like Saril’s sweet tooth.’

‘Anything else?’ asked Dev, amused.

‘Yes.’ Kheda looked up, tone forthright. ‘You can find out just what history there might be between Borha and Isei. If there are any tensions between the two of them or their villages, I want to know every detail. Everyone’s all co-operation now, with the first excitement of a rich pearl harvest in view. That might last or it might not, once all the late nights and early mornings take their toll. And this cheerfulness will float away on the tide if sharks or sea serpents start taking divers on the reefs, or if too many of them find their eyesight fails this season.’

Healer I may be, but there’s nothing I can do for eyes grown clouded, silvered as the pearls they’ve sought for so many years. Nor for those who find blurring in their vision means they can only see what they’re not actually looking at. I may be their augur but I’ve no explanation for that paradox. But the divers are always remarkably sanguine; they know some will pay that price for the oceans bounty. Everything has its price.

‘Leave it to me,’ Dev said confidently. ‘I can be your eyes and ears, just like a proper body slave.’

‘I don’t have a lot of choice, do I?’ retorted Kheda, waving away the sweetmeats and taking another drink to try to rid his mouth of the cloying taste.

But you’re right. You are an accomplished spy and one who spent enough years sailing the length and breadth of the Archipelago’s domains to know all the ins and outs of masquerading as a body slave. Everything except the sword skills.

But are you still spying for those mysterious barbarian powers that first sent you into Aldabreshin waters? And how will you seek to profit on your own account with whatever you learn, with your northern greed and utter lack of scruple? What will these people of Chazen think of me, if you ‘re caught out in some despicable connivance?

What wouldn’t I give to have Telouet back as my body slave, strong sword arm and faithful friend besides? The only consolation for his loss is that he serves Sirket now. There’s no one I would rather have trusted my son to.

Dev grinned as Kheda handed him the empty goblet. ‘I can tell you one thing none of you Archipelagans seem to know: you can do better than silk for stringing pearls. Horsehair, that’s what you want, white horsehair. That’s what all the gem traders on the mainland use. It’s the first thing they do when they get their hands on Aldabreshin pearls—resting them.’

Taken aback despite himself, Kheda rallied. ‘Just how am I supposed to get such stuff when we’re as far from the unbroken lands as it’s possible to get? And every northern domain that’s been tempted to trade for horses from you barbarians has seen their investment sicken and die before the year’s out. No, I’ll settle for safer trades and more immediately useful ones, food most of all. Isei may be overbold but he’s not wrong to worry about a hungry end to the dry season.’

‘Well, you’d better not go hungry here or you’ll be insulting all these fine people.’ Dev searched through the sweetmeats with careful fingers. ‘I think that’s a plainer one. If you’re worried about them running short of food hereabouts, can’t they just eat the pearl oysters instead of fattening up maggots for the fish and the seabirds and raising a stink to curdle the clouds?’

‘Have you ever tried eating a pearl oyster, you ignorant barbarian?’ Kheda was surprised into laughing and nearly choked on the little cake. ‘I’d eat the coral gulls first and they taste disgusting.’ He paused to catch his breath before continuing, face serious. No, I don’t want anyone in the domain reduced to such straits; they’d give up on my rule for good if they were. Besides, it’s an ill omen to cook any kind of shellfish and find you’ve ruined a pearl with the heat of a fire. Haven’t you seen how thoroughly the divers cut up purple conch flesh, to make sure there’s nothing hidden in the folds?’

‘If you’re not hungry, can I eat something?’ Dev asked as he handed Kheda the refilled goblet. ‘I lost my breakfast, if you recall.’ He barely waited for Kheda’s nod of permission before cramming a couple of sticky morsels into his mouth, speaking through the food. ‘It doesn’t look as if you’ve much to worry about. If this year’s harvest is as good as everyone’s saying it will be, you’ll have enough pearls to buy each islander their own sack of sailer grain.’

Kheda shook his head as he sipped sard-ben-y juice. ‘It’s a good start but it’s only pearls. You might only get a handful out of every thousand oysters. The shells in these reaches are too small and too thin to provide much nacre. That’s the foundation of Daish prosperity, the inner face of the oyster shells. That’s why they don’t have to trouble themselves salvaging every last dust pearl from the slurry in the vats.’

‘You should let me take a boat back to the northern lands and do some trading for you there.’ Dev looked out towards the ocean, face unreadable. ‘That little box they gave you just now would fetch a king’s ransom on its own.’

‘All the trading and bargaining done in Chazen’s name is my lady Itrac’s responsibility,’ Kheda said repressively. ‘I won’t encroach on her prerogatives nor yet insult her with such a proposal.’

And I wouldn’t wager an empty oyster shell on my chances of ever seeing you again. You may be as much of a liability as you are an asset as a body slave but I want you where I can see you.

‘Your loss.’ Dev shrugged and sighed as he looked over towards the reefs. ‘Remind me, what are we doing now?’

‘We’re waiting until one of the fishermen Borha sent out comes back with something by which I can read the omens for the rest of the pearl harvest.’

‘How long’s that going to be?’ Dev looked askance at the warlord.

‘Who knows?’ Kheda shrugged. Which is all part of the omen in itself

And who else will be here to read the omens and cast their own interpretations around once the Yellow Serpent has carried me away?

As he drank his juice, the warlord glanced idly around the crude huts, eyes alert for any man with the long, untrimmed hair and beard of a soothsayer. There was none to be seen, wherever he looked. Does that mean there are no seers here? Or are they just staying out of sight till I’m gone? Kheda tried to put such thoughts out of his mind and enjoy the shade beneath the pavilion. They had waited there long enough for Dev to discreetly eat most of the sweet cakes before a cry of anticipation went up along the waterline. A sturdy skiff was approaching the beach, the two men crewing it shouting and waving urgent hands. Chazen islanders abandoned their toils over baskets and tubs to splash into the shallows and help drag the craft on to drier, firmer ground. Pearl drillers and pickers alike stood up, their tasks forgotten as they strained to see what was being brought ashore. The spokesmen forgot their dignity as they hurried down to the shore with everyone else, Borha and Isei shoving their way to the fore.

‘There’s a favourable portent in itself, that they’ve found something so soon.’ Kheda got to his feet, feeling a welcome lightening of his mood.

‘Here you go again,’ Dev said under his breath, ‘getting up to your elbows in something’s innards. Have you any idea how the laundry maids complain when I take them a tunic with blood up to the armpits?’ Kheda laid a hand in the middle of the sarcastic barbarian’s mailed chest. ‘I’ve told you before: curb your tongue. For a man so keen to boast of his cleverness, you can be remarkably stupid.’ Not waiting for the barbarian to find a reply, he strode out from the shade of the little pavilion, the sunlight striking down hard on his unprotected head.

Which is pretty stupid of you, oh wise and powerful warlord, and you can hardly min the moment for all these onlookers by going back for your helmet, you fool. You need to curb your temper or you’ll both end up dead, your blood spilled along with Dev’s. There are some things no domain’s people will forgive. ‘It’s a flail-tailed shark, my lord!’ The press of people around the pearl skiff parted to reveal Borha. ‘Have you seen many of them this harvest?’ Kheda looked around for some diver or boatmaster among the anxious, anticipatory faces clustering close.

‘This is the first sign of any shark, my lord.’ A thickset man spoke up, bare-chested in coarse cotton trousers faded to colourlessness. ‘And we’ve manned a ring of watch boats at first light every day, well before the divers take to the water.’

‘Then it’s a good omen when the very first shark to come sniffing around ends up on a spear.’ Kheda nodded his approval. ‘What else can we read into this? A flail-tail is a dangerous shark but nowhere near as deadly as a ragged-tooth. A ragged-tooth will eat a flail-tail, so the very fact that a flail-tail is in these waters should mean the bigger sharks are elsewhere.’

‘Very true, my lord,’ agreed the confident diver and the crowd’s smiles broadened perceptibly at this happy thought.

Though it’s no meagre specimen, at least as long as I am tall and doubtless as heavy as any three men here.

‘Let’s see what else we can learn from this fish.’ Kheda stepped back to let the crowd press forward, eager hands grabbing at the harsh-skinned bluish-grey fins and tail. There didn’t seem to be any life left in the creature but he kept a prudent distance from the vicious maw all the same. The skiffs master and his helmsman lifted the shark’s head between them, using the broad-bladed spears that had slain it and which were still embedded deep in its gills and through its snout. The islanders wrestled the inert mass over the side of the boat and dumped it on the ground. Dark blood oozed from its mouth, staining the sand. ‘Show me its belly.’ Kheda held out a hand and Dev provided him with a heavy barbed spear acquired from someone. The skiffs crew rolled the unwieldy creature over to lie half on its back, half on its side, glaucous underside pallid in the sun, the long pennant of its tail trailing lifeless across the sand. Kheda lifted the spear high above his head with both hands and with a grunt of effort thrust it clean through the shark just below the vicious curve of its jaw, pinning the creature to the ground. There was a murmur of uncertainty from a few directions.

Not what Chazen Saril used to do, then? Perhaps his father never told him of warlords who’d been surprised by a moribund shark and bitten even after they’d cut the beast’s head off. That’s not the kind of omen we want today.

‘A knife.’ Kheda reached behind him.

‘Here.’ Dev slapped a long, brutally serrated blade into his palm.

‘My lord?’ Isei was looking expectantly at him.

Kheda took a deep breath and pinioned the fish’s tail firmly with one foot. He dug the point of the blade into the fish’s cloaca and ripped a jagged slit up its length, fighting against the tough, clinging skin, harsh as a carpenter’s rasp against his knuckles.

Not too deep. Don’t pierce the intestines or mar the liver, blighting the interpretation before it’s even begun. Stars above, this is easier with a deer or a hog.

Wiping sweat from his forehead, he persisted until he had laid the shark’s entrails bare for all to see. A powerful smell rose from the dead fish, not yet edged with the sickly stench of decay, though that wouldn’t take long in this strong sun.

‘The beast is certainly healthy, nothing ill-omened among its entrails, no marks, no deformities.’ Kheda waited to be quite sure that the shark was motionless, then stuck the knife into the sand by his foot. He reached both hands into the cavity to lift out the dark liver, searching for stains or blemishes. What’s the first thing I will see mirrored in its sheen? That’s always the crucial portent. As he sought to get a grip on the solid, slippery mass, something squirmed among the coiled lengths of the shark’s guts. Kheda abandoned all thoughts of securing the liver and snatched up the knife instead. ‘Has it eaten something alive?’ Dev peered into the beast with lively curiosity.

‘Or someone?’ quavered Borha. ‘It’s a flail-tail, not a ragged-tooth.’ Kheda took a firm grip on the salt-roughened handle of the knife.

Which is fortunate because we’ve all heard the tales of ragged-toothed sharks cut open to reveal whole skeletons inside them or at very least fateful collections of skulls and bones. Flail-tails can only take an arm or a leg at worst and one of those could hardly be still fighting or kicking. Besides, the divers said there ‘d been no mishaps on the reefs.

Dismissing his incoherent thoughts, Kheda used the point of the blade to push aside the pallid loops of the shark’s gut, less concerned with piercing them now than with revealing this mystery. He exposed a swollen sac, feebly contorted by whatever lay within in. ‘Whatever this is, it isn’t in the creature’s belly,’ he said, bemused. Setting his jaw, he seized one end of the sac where it was anchored within the fish and sliced it open with a deft stroke of the knife.

A miniature shark twisted out of the wound, as long as a man’s arm and about as thick, perfect in every detail. Black eyes bright, its snapping white teeth missed Kheda’s hand by a hair’s breadth. A frisson ran through the mesmerised islanders.

Teeth more than big enough to do damage. How would that have been for an omen?

He skewered the wriggling infant through its flapping gills and hoisted it out of the dead shark’s belly on the knife blade. It was surprisingly heavy.

‘Has anyone ever seen such a thing?’ he enquired, letting a hint of amusement colour his query. Hearts shook all around, some faces awestruck, others apprehensive.

‘Then we certainly have a mighty portent to read.’ Kheda smiled and threw the baby shark down on the sand, sending the nearest islanders stumbling backwards into those pressing close behind them. ‘But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What has the liver to tell us?’ As he bent to tug at the uncooperative mass, using the knife to cut it free, he thought furiously. What might be read into such a thing? A shark with a live baby in its belly? What is that an omen for? Who is such a portent meant for?

The dark, unwieldy mass of the adult shark’s liver came free with a suddenness that surprised him and Kheda felt Dev’s steadying hand in the small of his back. The ground was treacherous now, slick with the shark’s blood, and the stench was growing heady, red-eyed flies gathering to defy the islanders’ swatting hands.

‘My lord?’ It was the bare-chested diver, the confident one.

Kheda saw the man’s face reflected in the last gloss on the rapidly drying surface of the shark’s liver and let the weighty organ fall back into the gutted hollow of the great fish with a soggy thud. He smiled at Borha, hovering anxiously on the other side of the shark. ‘We’ve seen all we need to, so I’ll wash now, if I may.’

‘Here, girl!’ The spokesman beckoned to the maidens who had been serving by the pavilion. One hurried forward cradling a broad silver bowl of scented water and, tense beside her, a younger girl clutched a sizeable sponge.

‘In the water with it,’ Dev prompted briskly, taking the bowl. ‘The sponge, girl, the sponge!’

‘I see most favourable omens in this shark’s death,’ Kheda announced as he squeezed water over his arms to wash the worst of the blood and slime off on to the sand. To his relief, besa oil’s astringency cut through the fishy stench hanging all around. ‘To add to all the other positive portents favouring this pearl harvest and this domain at present.’ He submerged one forearm in the bowl and scrubbed with the sponge.

‘This shark came to feed at dawn, as is their habit. But it came alone, so we need not fear a season of losses among the divers, not to the sea’s predators. That’s how I read the matter, anyway. Mind you, I believe it came to lay claim to the reefs and whatever prey it might find there. To give birth in a place is to tie your future to it.’ He looked around to see rapt agreement on every face. ‘It didn’t succeed, did it? Your watch boats spotted the creature and your fishermen speared it before it had a chance to flee or to hide. It had no chance to make its bid for a stake in these waters.’ He gestured to the dead infant shark before beginning to wash his other arm.

‘The mother was a healthy beast which indicates that the omens overall are to be read in a positive light and everything that I saw in the mirror of its liver was a favourable indicator for the success of our pearl harvest. The spawn did its best to bite me. It failed and, more significantly, it died at the hands of your warlord, which suggests that Chazen interests will be safe for some while, wouldn’t you say? Dev, we’ll take that with us.’ He nodded at the infant shark. ‘Borha, have the jaw cut out of the adult’s head and share out the teeth among the divers for talismans. Take the carcass well out to sea before you dump it, where the currents will take it away from the reefs. We don’t want its kin coming to see where it got to.’ The burly diver was the first to raise a cheer. Loud approbation spread among the islanders, even those faces that had been uneasy before soon clearing. Kheda waited, smiling, as he dried his arms on a white cotton cloth offered by yet another maiden, this one all coquettish smiles that faded a little as he waved her away. At the first hint of an ebb in the surge of fervour, he turned to walk unhurriedly back up the slope towards the pavilion and the crowd drifted apart.

Dev walked at his shoulder, studying the infant shark as he carried it skewered on a spear he had pulled from the larger fish. ‘So all the omens are good.’ His face was studiedly neutral. ‘Does that mean we can get back to hunting down those invaders? There’s no telling what might have happened out to the west while we’ve been trailing around the rest of the domain,’ he concluded with ill-concealed frustration. ‘For the pearl harvest, the portents are certainly most favourable. As for that shark spawn, I’m not sure what such a thing might mean,’ Kheda admitted in a low voice as they returned to the shade of the pavilion and its illusion of privacy.

‘Does it really matter?’ Dev was unexpectedly curious.

‘It almost got its teeth into me,’ Kheda said soberly. ‘That has to mean it’s a personal portent. I’ll have to consult Chazen Saril’s library when we rejoin Itrac at the residence. I’m really not clear on the lore of sharks.’

And I had better be before I have to counter whatever verdict any other soothsayer sets running around as rumour, out of honest belief or treacherous intent.

He tossed Dev the cloth he’d been wiping his arms with. ‘Wrap it in that. I don’t want to be mobbed by gulls all the way back.’

‘What now?’ Dev took the cloth and swaddled the infant shark securely.

‘Favourable portents are all well and good but once word sprearls, that’ll encourage any hovering sea hawks to prey on such a plentiful pearl harvest.’ Kheda shaded his eyes with a hand as he stared out to the strait where the Yellow Serpent waited; light skiffs were busy ferrying food and water to the rowers. ‘There are still too many opportunists sneaking about Chazen waters for my peace of mind. Itrac won’t do much trade for sailer grain or horsehair or anything else if some enterprising pirate plunders the galleys she sends to collect the pearl chests.’

‘Which would be an unfortunate omen,’ Dev commented sarcastically.

‘Quite,’ said Kheda shortly. ‘So when you’ve dropped a pearl or two into every hand that’s done us a service here, we need to get back to the Yellow Serpent and tell Hesi to set a course to check up on that motley flotilla of boats we left to guard the seaways. Share out the rest of that box between Hesi and the trireme’s shipmaster.’

‘Which means yet more delay before we sail back to the western isles,’ muttered Dev with stifled anger. ‘We will still be back at the residence for the night of the new year.’ Kheda looked at the barbarian, his green eyes cold as jade. ‘Though if I deem it necessary after that, we’ll repeat this entire voyage around the domain, just to be sure all is well.’

‘Why?’ demanded Dev. ‘When I can tell you precisely where every boat might be—every islander if you give me time—be they friendly or unfriendly, without you having to move a muscle.’

‘And how do we explain how we came by such knowledge? What will you do when we’re discovered?’ Kheda looked at him with ill-concealed anger. You using magic and me condoning it? You think I’d escape having my throat cut so that my blood might dilute the stain of wizardry in yours, as it soaks into the ground while you’re skinned alive and your hide turned inside out to expiate your every touch on Aldabreshin soil?’ His voice thickened. Do you think Itrac would lift a finger to save either of us? Do you think she could? These people of Chazen don’t just detest wizardry like the other domains of the Archipelago, for all its foul assault on the natural order of things. They truly fear and loathe it after all the misery and death those invaders and their brutal enchanters brought with them. The day your secret is out is the day you die.’

‘Fools, the lot of them.’ Dev gritted his teeth. When it was my magic saved them from those savage mages. Just so long as we head west as soon as we can after you’ve played your new-year games.’ The barbarian wizard bent to retrieve Kheda’s helmet. As Kheda reached out to take it, Dev’s fingers closed over the warlord’s, pressing them painfully against the hard metal and unyielding facets of the diamonds on the brow band.

‘You promised me I’d be there to see the last nests of those savages rooted out. I killed their wizards for you but the survivors may be hoarding something that could give me a hint of how they worked their magic. You really don’t want to break your word to me, Kheda. You shouldn’t need any portents to warn you just what a bad idea that would be.’

Chapter Two

Just where have our supposed guardians of these seaways got to?’ Kheda scowled past the upswept stern posts of the Mist Dove as the trireme pulled away from yet another landing empty of Chazen ships. ‘At least no one’s offered tales of trouble washing up on their beaches.’ Dev waved as the trireme eased along the shore watched by a party of huntsmen clutching the heavy square-ended blades they used for hacking paths through the dense forest.

‘And at least they look ready to drive it off, if trouble turns up.’ Kheda raised a hand to acknowledge two fishermen pausing to raise their long spears in salute on their hunt for the ugly bristle-mouthed fish that lurked among the roots of the coppery reed beds.

‘There should be more boats on the waters, shouldn’t there?’ Dev queried idly. ‘Trade’s in the Aldabreshin blood around here as much as in the central domains.’

Where you hid so effectively under the mask of a thoroughly amoral merchant for so many years.

‘Village spokesmen should be keeping in touch with one another, at the very least.’ Kheda’s irritation was unabated. ‘I want to know where Nyral is.’

The trireme continued to pick a cautious path between low, muddy islets, slowing almost to walking pace to navigate the turbid channel between the encroaching groves of knot trees. The breezes off the open seas were baffled by the smothering vegetation and the sun beat down ever hotter from above. The still air smelled more of silt than of salt and the raucous cries of crookbeaks crashed through the taller lilla trees set back from the shore.

Kheda wiped sweat from his face and accepted a cup of water from Dev. ‘Shaiam? Any suggestions where we might look for Nyral next?’

A tall, wiry man with plaited black hair and beard climbed up the ladderlike stair from the rowing deck. Nothing we haven’t already thought of, my lord.’ The trireme’s shipmaster clutched a battered and salt-stained black book in a hand almost the same hue as the leather cover. His naturally dark complexion had been deepened by years in the strong southern sun, striking against the vivid red of the long sleeveless mantle he wore over his bare chest. His russet trousers were cut short just below the knee, revealing sturdy calves and long splayed toes that gripped the smooth wood of the deck ‘So we’re still heading for Kalan?’ Alert in his seat just in front of the shipmaster’s lofty chair, the helmsman Yere gripped the twin stern oars that governed the mighty trireme’s movements. He spared a glance for the book open on his knees, bound in unfaded indigo leather.

Kheda noted that the helmsman’s painstakingly compiled record of Chazen’s sea lanes was nowhere near as thick as Shaiam’s mute testament to the older man’s years of experience.

A book holding so many of the secrets that the shipmasters barter between themselves. How many of Chazen’s hapless mariners were forced to trade away such precious knowledge as they fled the invaders? What else could they offer in return for water or food or a secure anchorage? Who has such knowledge now?

He stared out over the clouded waters as the narrow channel opened up and the rowing master down below signalled for the piper to pick up the pace.

‘We’d best not make a long stop at Kalan, my lord, not if we want to be back at the dry-season residence for the new-year rites.’ Yere’s serious expression sat oddly on his cheerful brown face, exuberant black hair curling untamed to his shoulders.

‘Let’s hope we find Shipmaster Nyral quickly, then,’ Kheda said curtly. ‘I’ll be interested to hear just how he and his crew plan on keeping bilge rats out of our waters when he’s nowhere to be found in the reach he was set to guard.’

‘We can make up some time here, my lord.’ Shaiam lifted callused fingers to his mouth to whistle down to the rowing master, who looked up from the sunlit aisle between the rowers on their staggered seats. Nodding, he clapped his hands briskly to encourage the oarsmen, indistinct on each side in the shade cast by the split upper deck of the trireme. The shrill note of the flute gathered speed, the piper sitting on the wooden block half-way down the aisle where the mast would be stepped, should Shaiam decide that the wind was favourable enough to call for the sail.

Kheda looked down at the shadowy oarsmen as the trireme shivered beneath his feet.

What would you rowers think if you knew I’d taken an oar in a merchant galley, pulling my weight all the way to the northernmost domains in search of lore to drive the invaders and their magic out of these southern waters? Would it strengthen your loyalty to know that I understand how the world shrinks to the oar in your hands and the pipe note in your ears after a long day’s haul? Would you be impressed that I know all the tricks of tying a rope grommet to secure an oar and how best to repair an oar port’s leather sleeve?

Or would you just want to know exactly what it was that I found in the far north? Would you guess it was Dev? Would you start speculating on just how it was that he could help me kill the savages’ wizards?

The oarsmen murmured a count among themselves to measure their increasing pace. The ship gathered speed, driven on by the rushing oars. The rowers fell silent as they settled into a regular rhythm, the only sounds from the lower deck the pipe, the creak of rope, leather and wood and, lower still, the susurration of water beneath the trireme’s long, lithe hull.

‘Of course, Nyral could have found someone making free with Chazen resources,’ remarked Dev thoughtfully, ‘and come to grief himself.’

Kheda shot a glance at the barbarian before nodding slowly. ‘It’s possible. Let’s be certain we’re ready for a fight.’

He walked swiftly forward along one half of the uppermost deck as the Mist Dove ploughed through a broad, shallow channel thick with mats of floating lily leaves. The small detachment of armoured men on the trireme’s bow platform rose dutifully to their feet at his approach and bowed low.

Ten swordsmen and four archers is the complement for a fast trireme sailing as advance scout or messenger. A heavy trireme like this should have fifty men ready to put paid to any mischief. And loyal as they are, these hopeful warriors are the remnants of those too old and too young to fight the savages last year. All Chazen’s best swordsmen died in defence of their women and children as they fled the murderous magic.

‘My lord.’ The senior warrior stepped forward and bowed low. In a plain chain-mail hauberk like the rest, helm of dull steel unadorned, he was sweating profusely in the breathless heat.

‘Aysi.’ Kheda inclined his head by way of acknowledgement. ‘I was wondering if Shipmaster Nyral might have run into trouble. Will you be ready to meet any challenge that comes our way?’

‘Ready and willing to serve, my lord.’ The grizzled swordsman stroked his close-cropped beard thoughtfully. ‘Ridu will probably be safest in a fight. His strokes are still so wild no one will dare come near him, for fear of losing their head by accident.’ He spared a glance for the youngest of his ill-assorted detachment, a lad with a beard barely a hopeful shadow on his round jaw. The lad ducked his head in discomfiture as the others studiously avoided catching each other’s gaze.

Atoun would never have embarrassed a lad like that. He had the knack of welding the most ill-matched men into a fighting force that won respect for Daish from all our neighbours. There’s no one in Chazen to equal him, to take his place as commander of the warlord’s warriors. Any man who could is probably dead like Atoun, at the claws of the monsters the invaders wrought with their magic.

Kheda turned to the archers. ‘Will we have fresh meat to feed these brave warriors this evening, Tawai?’

‘Give us half a day and we could feed a fleet, my lord.’ The oldest of the archers grinned, then his lined, leathery face turned serious as he patted the quiver at his hip, bristling with red and brown goose feathers. But we can’t bring down armoured men with blunt fowling arrows. We need chisel-heads to get through armour and broad-heads with barbs to be sure of a crippling wound, and we’ve few enough of those.’

‘I’ll be happy to let Tawai and his lads drop any scoundrels from a distance. It’s too hot for close-quarters fighting.’ Aysi didn’t quite succeed in making a joke of his interjection.

‘I’m sure you’ll make every shot count, if we do run into trouble,’ Kheda assured the archers with an encouraging smile.

Because I can hardly give Dev your fowling blunts and watch while he melts the very metal of the arrowheads in the palm of his hand, then reshapes it with his sorcery to suit your needs.

Out of the corner of his eye, Kheda saw the wizard intent on something ahead of the Mist Dove, the creases around his eyes deepening as he squinted against the brilliance of sea and sky. His already thin lips narrowed further. ‘There’s the Yellow SerpentV

As Dev pointed, Kheda saw the light galley emerge from a distant channel. A brassy flourish from the Mist Dove’s signal horn rang out and the Yellow Serpent altered her course with a crash of oars stirring dirty foam from the sluggish waters.

‘Still on her own, I see.’ Forcing his face into a polished mask of serenity, Kheda left the Mist Dove’s bow to her paltry fighting force and returned to the stern platform.

No sign of Nyral, it seems.’ Shaiam sat in the shipmaster’s chair, signal horn loose in his lap as he looked over Yere’s head to gauge the distant galley’s speed.

‘My lord, let’s have both of our ships draw into that bay.’ Dev pointed abruptly to one of the few lumps of land where tandra trees reinforced by the lofty grey trunks of ironwoods defied the all-pervasive knot trees.

‘Why?’ Kheda looked at the wizard, bemused.

‘You could go ashore and see if there’s any bird pepper growing thereabouts,’ said Dev with heavy emphasis. ‘You were saying you would be needing some if the turn of the year brought any cases of worm fever. It’ll only take the two of us and we’ll barely be delayed.’

‘What?’ Kheda stared for a moment before realisation dawned. ‘Yes, that’s very true. Good thinking, Dev.’ He glanced at the shipmaster with an apologetic smile. ‘If you would, Shaiam. I imagine there will be a shortage of healers this year.’

‘My lord.’ At Shaiam’s nod, Yere leaned against his steering oar to turn the ship towards the shore. Kheda jerked his head at Dev and the two men passed behind the shipmaster’s chair to lean against the solid baulk of timber made by the curved stern planking rising up above their heads.

Good thinking, Dev, if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, but you could have been more tactful. Telouet would have made some joke about making landfall to look for plants at every opportunity, to disguise any true intention.

He studied the uncommunicative back of Shaiam’s head.

And Jatta would have had something to say about it, as shipmaster of my personal trireme for six years and more. Smooth as the seas he sailed, he’d still have reminded me of all the reasons why I was needed back at the residence sooner rather than later and that any delay should be avoided. Let’s hope he still serves Daish as loyally.

Kheda glanced at Dev but the wizard was intent on the Yellow Serpent, which had noted the Mist Dove’s change of course and was following suit. The gap between the two ships was narrowing rapidly and every eye on the trireme was on the light galley.

You people are always so hesitant about speaking your mind, on this ship, at the residence, in any village I visit. Why so diffident? Chazen Saril was no brute. Though his father had a harsh reputation and his grandfather was a byword for ruthlessness according to Daish Reik. I don’t suppose anyone taught Saril that encouraging friendship and even honest disagreement would strengthen his people’s loyalty, not weaken his authority.

But how do I encourage openness and honesty when I have so much to hide, such deceits burdening me? The Mist Dove slowed and the rowers deftly turned the vessel before backing the trireme into a shelving landing. Gritty mud grated beneath the shallow hull and anchors splashed into the water at Shaiam’s command, an answering shout coming from the sailmaster up on the prow platform.

Dev threw a rope ladder down beside the stern posts, the perfect attentive slave. ‘Let’s be quick, my lord, then we can be back aboard before the Yellow Serpent reaches us with her news.’

‘Indeed.’ Kheda climbed down the ladder to discover that the water at the trireme’s stern was waist deep. Pausing to thread one arm through the rope rungs, he unbuckled his sword belt and held his blades shoulder high as he waded ashore, bare toes feeling more mud than sand underfoot. At least the cool seawater was refreshing in the heat of the day. Reaching the water’s edge, he paused to don his twin-looped sword belt and secure his weapons again, watching Dev stride through the sea towards him. ‘Finally, some privacy.’ The wizard grinned with satisfaction as he paused on the water’s edge. ‘Though there’s not much point having a password for our excursions if you can’t remember it. I thought it’d take you till sunset to catch my meaning.’

‘You’ll be spending the rest of the day polishing our chain mail after this wetting,’ Kheda pointed out with faint malice.

‘What are you going to wear in the meantime, my lord?’ Sarcasm sharpened Dev’s voice. ‘The threadbare blue silk or the yellow with the mould stain on the back?’

Kheda grimaced. ‘Let’s hope Itrac has managed to replenish my wardrobe with the necessary elegance by the time we get back. Now, what have you got to say that you don’t want Shaiam hearing?’

‘Let’s find some still water.’ Dev walked into the green gloom beneath the tandra trees. The air was still, perfumed by the yellow flowers of cat’s-claw creepers.

‘We can find Nyral without resorting to magic,’ Kheda said curtly, not moving.

Not and be sure of getting back to the residence for your new year. Isn’t that your overriding priority?’ Dev looked back over his shoulder. ‘Come on. And keep your eyes open for bird pepper,’ he added as an amused afterthought.

Kheda followed the barbarian reluctantly away from the shore and in among the taller trees where green pods were swelling in the forks of the tandra tree branches. Emerald and sapphire glory-birds were picking their way carefully around a striol vine’s vicious spines to reach a sard-beny bush’s bounty. Avid ruby butterflies flitted between the scarlet blooms while glittering beetles feasted on the fallen fruit. Beyond the dense shade cast by the mighty ironwoods, the orange-gold trefoils of fire-daggers carpeted the ground.

‘This’ll do.’ Dev halted by a hollow where some storm had scoured the soil away from the buttress roots of an ironwood tree to leave a little pool as nursery for some blithely paddling froglets, their brown and yellow mottling a perfect match for the forest floor. Would this be a sign for you?’ the wizard asked with mild derision. ‘Or shall I just get on and find some certainty for us?’

‘You may be a man without convictions, Dev, but don’t scoff at those of us who see more than the here and now.’ Kheda studied the leaf-stained water. ‘As it happens, frogs can be a sign of many things. It’s certainly a good omen to find them thriving in a pond this long after the rains, especially since the last rains were so short’ He grimaced. ‘Though a frog’s croaking can signify someone talking nonsense. They can be a symbol of foolish aspiration or a reminder to stay close to one’s home and birthplace.’ Do you talk nonsense, wizard, when you try to convince me to meet your demands? Am I deluding myself if I think

/ can make a success of ruling a domain I wasn’t born to? Would our lives have been better if we had both stayed close to home and never become entangled like this?

Dev chuckled as emerald light dripped from his fingers into the water and the frogs hopped frantically in all directions. ‘They don’t want to hang around. Make of that what you will, Kheda, while I do something useful.’ The wizard crouched by the pool, which was now suffused with a mossy light.

‘Just be quick about it.’ Kheda turned his back, trying to ascertain if anyone else had come ashore from the Mist Dove. ‘If you can see Nyral, try to find some excuse for whatever detour we’ll need to take to happen to encounter him. I want to see what he’s got to say for himself before I quit these waters.’ There was no sign of any movement by the shoreline, so Kheda searched the undergrowth for bird pepper or any other medicinal plant.

Better find something to justify this trip ashore. And curse him, Dev’s right. Horn else am I going to find out what’s afoot in these islands? But we’re not going to be doing this for much longer. Not once I’ve woven a proper net of eyes and ears to sustain my rule. Not once I’ve reinstated the beacon chains and we’ve bred enough courier doves to send the length and breadth of the domain.

Chazen will recover, surely? These people are strong and they are bound together in so many ways. They’ve known each other, traded with each other’s villages, since they were old enough to sail the waters in between. More than that, they’ve been through the sorest of trials this last year and survived, not least because every one of them lent a helping hand to anyone who needed it, in the face of the invaders’ malevolence.

Let’s hope such ties are strong enough to hold the domain together until they accept me as reader of portents, giver of their laws and healer of their sick. Let’s hope they are strong enough to defy any menace I’ve inadvertently brought into these waters through my compromises with magic.

‘I can’t find Nyral,’ Dev said slowly, but you should have a look at this. You’ve got vermin in your waters.’

‘What?’ Kheda threw aside a handful of feathery raposa stems.

‘See for yourself,’ Dev invited, hands spread palms down over the water.

Reluctantly, Kheda looked into the ensorcelled pool. An image floated on the iridescent magic. Several sailing boats scarcely bigger than pearl skiffs were drawn up on a muddy landing.

Not such unusual boats for fishermen.’ Kheda scowled dubiously all the same.

‘With enough men to crew them five times over and no sign of nets?’ scoffed Dev. ‘Granted, they’ve got women with them, but no children, no elders. And if they are honest islanders come back to Chazen, why are they hiding their boats?’

Kheda watched the minuscule figures hastily concealing the vessels under green branches hacked and ripped from the knot trees. ‘Show me those huts.’

Dev swept his hands over the pool and the image shivered, clearing to reveal the battered remnants of a village set just out of reach of tide and storm where ironwood trees offered shade.

‘There’s not a sailer seedling planted and no one’s tended those vegetable plots this side of the rains,’ Kheda said more to himself than to Dev. ‘What do you suppose they’re here for?’

‘It’s half a year since you drove out the invaders.’ Dev shrugged, unconcerned. ‘It’s a fair bet some island or other will have something worth stealing by now.’

Not in that village.’ Kheda studied the crude repairs made to those few houses still standing after the torrential rains of the wet season had added to the depredations of the invaders. Holes and burned patches in thatch and walls had simply been roughly patched with woven panels torn from the remnants of wrecked huts. Where exactly are they? They’re not staying anywhere in Chazen without explaining themselves to me.

‘Which will just mean more delay,’ said Dev with distaste. ‘You can see as well as I can that they’re no loyal Chazen folk come home to rebuild their lives.’ He grinned wickedly. ‘I can chase them off for you from here. They won’t stop rowing till they run aground on the northern mainland.’

‘You use no magic without my sanction,’ snapped Kheda. ‘And remember what I said If anyone sees you using any enchantment, I’ll behead you myself.’

The mage gazed at him, untroubled. ‘Do you think they’ll believe you when you swear you’d no idea that I could be such a foul thing as a wizard? Who knows, they might. Stranger things have happened,’ he taunted, ‘like wild men coming out of the empty ocean, following wizards who clear their path with torrents of murderous fire. And stranger still, those same wizards suddenly all starting a fight to the death among themselves, presumably to be cock of the dunghill they’ve made of the Chazen domain. And strangest of all, Daish Kheda, who everyone would swear was dead, just happens to be there to see it and to spearhead an Archipelagan riposte. Which does at least entitle him to lay claim to the domain when Chazen Sail, coward though he was, happens to die in most peculiar circumstances.’ Kheda gritted his teeth. ‘We can deal with this without your enchantments. Just show me where they are.’ Dev concentrated on the shimmering pool. ‘We can accidentally run across these people if you can talk Shaiam into cutting across to the more northerly sea lane that runs back to the residence.’ He looked up at Kheda, dark eyes unfathomable. ‘Then we set sail for the western isles as soon as you’ve seen your new year in. I don’t want to lose my chance of finding some clue as to where those invaders came from before your swordsmen slaughter the last of them. And I’ll be going looking in my own way and be cursed to your Aldabreshin ignorance and fear of magic. You owe me, Kheda, and don’t think you can settle our account with a knife in my ribs.’

‘First things first. Let’s see who these beggars washed up on Chazen shores might be.’ Kheda looked down to find he was gripping one of his sword hilts and thrust it back into its scabbard with a muted click ‘And let’s get back to the ships before someone comes looking for us.’

Clearing out such parasites is something honest I can do for Chazen s good at least. Will they prove to be thieves, though, or truly paupers in need of our care?

Do you want to make any wager against the future here? If Dev is proved right, does that mean your best course will be to take him to the western isles in the hope of unravelling the mysteries of those savages? The warlord turned his back on the wizard, heading for the shore with rapid strides. He barely slowed as he entered the water, wading out to the ladders hanging from the Mist Dove.

‘Hesi hasn’t seen any sign of Nyral,’ Shaiam announced without preamble.

‘Why doesn’t that surprise me?’ Kheda glanced over at the Yellow Serpent waiting patiently out in deeper water. ‘But he had better keep looking. As for ourselves, we had best set a course to the residence if we’re to be sure of arriving for the turn of the year. Won’t we make a quicker passage if we cut across towards the main sea lane coming down from the north?’ He looked at Shaiam, brows raised in query.

I hope that makes sense. I could almost wish for one of Dev’s treacherous barbarian maps of these waters. I don’t think I will ever understand Chazen’s isles and backwaters the way I did those of Daish. You have to be born to a domain to truly know it.

Shaiam nodded slowly, a little perplexed. ‘I don’t see it making much difference but we might pick up some wind to win us a few ship lengths.’

Kheda hid his relief as he feigned a new thought. ‘It’s always possible Nyral has sailed that way. Signal Hesi to follow us and the Yellow Serpent can search those reaches.’

As Dev climbed over the rail on to the stern platform, Shaiam moved to shout this new plan across to Hesi. Yere glanced curiously at Dev, to be met with a blank look that the barbarian edged with just a hint of challenge. The youthful helmsman turned his attention to calling down to the rowing master and settling himself at his steering oars.

As Shaiam set his crew hauling on their oars with a shout of encouragement, Kheda moved to sit cross-legged at the rear of the stern platform. He took off his helm and stared ahead, unseeing. Muddy seawater from his trousers spread across the deck, glistening briefly before the breeze brushed it away. Dev sat silently beside him, the barbarian fingering the links of his chain-mail hauberk as he dried in the sun.

Have there truly been such positive omens and so many favourable portents on this voyage? Can I be sure I’m not misreading them? Could the con-uption of the savages’ enchantments still be perverting the natural order in Chazen? Could my ties to past and present have been severed by the touch of Dev’s magic?

I’m sick of such uncertainty. My commitment to this domain must surely link me to its future. I must start looking to the heavens again. The stars ride far above any earthly taint. And I must be sure I am committed to Chazen. I must turn my back on Daish once and for all if I’m to be any kind of warlord to these people, or any kind of husband to Itrac Chazen.

As Kheda looked up, resolutely banishing recollections of clearer seas, the trireme broke free of the clinging islands to reach a broad channel opening still wider to the south. Kheda took an appreciative breath of the fresher air but noted the empty vista with displeasure.

Dev’s right to wonder at the lack of trade. There should be merchant galleys sailing north and south at this season—Chazen’s own and visitors from all the local domains proud to fly the pennants that give them the right of passage in our waters.

‘My lord!’ A shout from the prow was half-surprised, half-alarmed, and one of the youthful swordsmen came running back along the side deck. ‘There’s a boat in the water, my lord, overturned.’ His voice turned to outrage. ‘It’s been holed, my lord, deliberately. Looks like an axe did it.’

Is this a sign that we need not resort to any more lies to find these people?

Kheda forced himself not to look at Dev. Where has it come from? Shaiam, can you tell? Yere?’

‘On that side of the channel?’ The helmsman searched the murky water for the wreckage before leafing through his route record to confirm exactly where the navigable backwaters ran hereabouts. ‘It’ll have washed out of that inlet, I think?’ He pointed, looking to Shaiam for support.

The shipmaster nodded, tugging at his braided beard. ‘Or the one to the north.’

Kheda got to his feet. ‘Raise signal flags for the Yellow Serpent. We’ll take the northern channel, they can take the southern. Let’s see who thinks Chazen can afford to lose a serviceable boat for firewood.’ He stifled a qualm of apprehension as the vessel shot towards a gap in the chain of islands on the far side of the channel. At first glance, the narrow entrance offered no more than a stagnant dead end for the unwary, or worse, a deathtrap for the uninvited. The shore was thick with grey-brown knot-tree roots clawing at tangles of lily leaves. As the Yellow Serpent vanished down a similarly uninviting watercourse, the air grew thick and stifling once again. Kheda felt sweat trickle down his spine.

In contrast to his apprehension, this unexpected turn of events prompted a surge of enthusiasm from the rowing deck. The Mist Dove forced a path through the dense vegetation, branches yielding in a flurry of snapping noises.

‘My lord!’ Another of Aysi’s hopeful swordsmen was perched precariously out on the timbers that projected from the trireme’s bow to protect the foremost oars when ramming an enemy. He clung to the upswept prow with one hand. ‘A trading boat but flying no pennant!’

‘Follow it!’ Kheda shouted back.

Shaiam caught up his coiled brass horn and blew a terse demand that the smaller vessel stop to identify itself. Its master plainly had no such intention, hastily canting his sail to catch the wind and speed away. ‘Sound a signal for the Yellow Serpent,” Kheda ordered Shaiam, keeping his eyes on the fugitive.

As the horn’s cry echoed back from the green-cloaked isles all around, the Mist Dove’s piper picked up his pace and the trireme’s rowers followed suit. They were nearly on top of the trading boat as it rounded a shallow headland foul with muck and flotsam and fled headlong for a muddy cove. With a shock of relief, Kheda recognised the landing that Dev’s spell had shown him. Small figures on the shore froze in startled confusion as they saw the trireme bearing down on them.

‘We’re going ashore,’ said Kheda tersely.

‘My lord?’ Shaiam looked at him with surprise.

Kheda could see the unspoken words in the shipmaster’s dark eyes.

It’s not the place of warlords to get themselves killed in skirmishes like common swordsmen. That’s all very well, as long as a warlord has plenty of common swordsmen to do his bidding. ‘I’m going ashore,’ he reiterated, ‘and I want every oarsman trained with a sword to follow.’

At least they have proper swords, even if each lesson Dev gives them is the one I’ve just finished drilling into him.

‘Hold on to something,’ Shaiam advised before shouting down to the rowing master, ‘Turn and beach us!’ The piper sounded a shrill note and every blade rose clear of the water. Kheda held tightly on to the back of the shipmaster’s chair as Yere hauled on his steering oars to twist the Mist Dove’s stern to the land. Below, the rowers lifted their feet and spun around on their seats, each man now facing the prow. Turning almost inside its own length, the Mist Dove wallowed for a moment before the rowers dug their first stroke deep with a guttural shout. The oars crashed into the water and the galley surged stern-first for the shore.

Dev threw the ladders down over the stern while the timbers were still reverberating with the impact. Aysi and his men came running along the side decks, the archers scanning the shore, arrows nocked and ready. Below, the innermost ranks of rowers abandoned their sweeps to their neighbours as the sail crew handed out the weapons the ship carried in lieu of a full contingent of warriors. Kheda pulled on mail-backed gloves and steadied his swords as he made ready to drop over the stern.

‘Running like rats.’ Dev observed the commotion ashore with contempt.

‘A cornered rat can still take your finger off’ Kheda watched the men and women on the beach scattering. A few were running to the huts just visible in the trees. More were retreating towards the three ships they had beached, drawing swords of their own. Some had clambered aboard the vessels, throwing aside the concealing knot-tree branches with frantic haste.

‘They won’t get them afloat, not with the tide as it is,’ Dev said with cruel amusement before sliding lithely down a rope ladder.

‘If they do, Hesi will catch them.’ Kheda glanced over his shoulder to see the distinctive silhouette of the

Yellow Serpent approaching. He settled his helm firmly on his head and drew the chain-mail veil around his neck and throat, snapping the clasp below his chin. Sliding the ornate face plate down the nasal bar, he locked it in place. But as he climbed down the ladder, he realised he was lacking the metal-plated leggings that should complete his armour.

You still have a lot to learn about being a decent body slave, Dev. Telouet would never have let me on to a hostile shore with bare knees.

He had no chance to do anything about it. The trireme’s swordsmen were pressing close behind him, drawing their blades in a flurry of flashing sunlight as they splashed through the shallows. ‘If they yield, take them prisoner.’ Kheda’s words rang out across the beach for the benefit of these unknown newcomers as well as Aysi’s warriors. ‘If they fight, kill them. This is Chazen land and my writ runs here.’ His voice was harsh behind the steely lattice of his visor.

At the centre of the ragged line of armoured men, Kheda led a slow advance across the damp, muddy ground. The youth Ridu raised a cry of ‘Chazen!’ and the oarsmen backing the swordsmen picked it up, every repetition gathering menace.

The unknown men and women drew back till they had their boats at their backs, swords thrust forward. All Kheda could see was ugly defiance. Men and women alike, all were young, their feet planted firmly on this ground they had claimed and brandishing swords with more ferocity than skill. A couple wore chain mail and a handful more had somehow scrounged the coats of nail-studded leather that were customarily a village spokesman’s privilege. The rest were relying on hastily sewn jerkins of turtle hide or sharkskin.

The Chazen line advanced to within twenty paces of the beached boats. With an inarticulate roar the enemy rushed forward, wild strokes cleaving the air until Chazen blades met them with a grating clash of steel.

Kheda’s vision shrank to the foe before him, anything to either side a blur. His opponent thrust desperately, a last instant of hesitation robbing his sword of any real strength. Kheda parried easily before turning his stroke into a backhanded slash to bite deep into the man’s upper ann. With skills honed since his earliest youth, he swept up his off-hand sword to run the man clean through just below his ribcage.

Not so low as to strike a hip. Not so deep into the body as to risk binding on the backbone.

Kheda ripped his sword free of the dying man and took an instant to assess the combat on either side. Dev was more than holding his own, even if his strokes owed more to natural viciousness than real skill. A rower to Kheda’s open side was not doing so well, already bleeding from a ragged slash to his thigh. Kheda moved to shield the man with his armoured body and a killing stroke came down to rasp impotently along the warlord’s mail-clad arm as Kheda forced the rusty sword aside.

Kheda brought his second blade round at waist height to disembowel this new adversary but the man leapt backwards in the nick of time. Even as he shied away, the man twisted his own sword into a brutal thrust at Kheda’s face. The warlord couldn’t help but flinch, knocking the blade away with an instinctive blow. The nameless adversary followed up his advantage, sword spiralling down to hack at Kheda’s unprotected legs. Kheda dropped instantly to one knee, awns rising as he did so. The solid steel side plate of his hauberk met the enemy’s notched blade as Kheda’s leading sword swept up and across to cut the man’s hand off at the wrist. The spray of blood had barely reached the warlord before his second blade bit deep into the man’s thigh. Springing to his feet, Kheda ripped the blade backwards and bright heart’s blood soaked the man’s grubby cotton trews. As he cried out, he locked gazes with Kheda for a timeless instant.

You’ve been in battle before. You’ve a deftness in your swordplay that speaks of decent training. And you ‘ve seen enough blood to know that you ‘re dying.

As the man let his sword ann fall, unprotesting, Kheda put all his strength into a backhanded scything stroke. The man’s severed head flew a few paces sideways to startle another foe rushing in to attack Dev. The man stumbled and Dev was on him, running him through the breast. The wizard’s enthusiasm betrayed him and he found himself struggling to extricate his sword from the clinging embrace of the dead man’s ribs.

Kheda saw a youth lift his sword in a shaking hand to thrust at Dev’s face. The warlord shoved Dev aside and stepped forward to sweep the stained and notched blade away before bringing the youth down with a sharp slice to the side of his leg. The lad fell to the trampled and bloodied ground, clutching the crippling wound to his knee, his shrieks lost in the all-encircling clamour.

As Dev finally ripped his sword free, Kheda heard a new sound shoot across the tumult. Getting Dev’s atten—

tion with an emphatic elbow, he jerked his head backwards and the two of them retreated from the thick of the fight, the Mist Dove’s eager rowers closing up the gap they had left.

A second hiss of arrows flew across the beach and Kheda looked to see Tawai and his archers up on the Mist Dove’s side decks sending a rain of arrows soaring towards the village. Aysi and a handful of his swordsmen were advancing towards the huts. As the cascade of shafts ceased, Aysi broke into a run, the others hard on his heels.

‘After them!’ Kheda ran inland, Dev at his side, his breath rasping within the confines of his helmet. Sweat soaked the padded cotton beneath his armour, hot between his shoulder blades and trickling down the hollow of his spine to disappear into the cleft of his buttocks. His shoulders protested at the unrelenting weight of his armour and his thighs burned with the effort of running up the incline towards the sorry huts. When they arrived, no enemy was still standing. Several were dead with arrows ripped through their bodies or dying of mortal sword wounds. Two were face down in the dirt with a Chazen foot on their necks to make sure they stayed that way.

‘My lord!’ Ridu appeared from behind one of the tumbledown huts, gore clotting on both of his swords. ‘Here, quickly!’

Kheda sheathed one sword and raised the face plate of his helmet. ‘What is it?’

‘Aysi,’ Ridu gasped, face ashen.

Kheda rounded the but to find the old warrior flat on his back, his helmet cast aside. One side of his face had been laid open by an axe blow, the weapon lying beside him. Its owner was sprawled some distance away with enough gaping wounds to kill him three times over.

Aysi’s nose and cheekbone were smashed, white splinters sinking beneath the welling blood that had already drowned his mined eye. It pooled in his ear, soaking through his grizzled hair to puddle on the ground beneath his head. The warrior’s jaw worked desperately as he choked on blood and spittle.

‘Don’t try to talk’ Kheda knelt and gripped Aysi’s hands as the old man feebly sought to clutch at his pain. As the blood trickled away from the hideous wound, Kheda saw just how deep it had gone.

‘Get the warlord’s physic chest!’ Dev bellowed and other voices carried the order down to the beached trireme.

There’s no staunching this, no salve that can do anything, not even dull the pain before he dies.

Kheda held both of Aysi’s hands firmly in his mail gauntlets. You proved yourself a mighty warrior today. You have won a warlord’s consideration for your family and your whole village.’

Aysi’s unwounded eye looked up past Kheda, uncomprehending, as his lips moved soundlessly. He coughed up more blood and froze in a rigid spasm of agony before going limp.

Kheda heaved a sigh and laid the old man’s lifeless hands gently on his breast. ‘Is anyone else hurt? Ridu!’ He raised his voice to get the youth’s attention.

No more than scratches.’ The youth looked down at his dead mentor, distraught. ‘Apart from Aysi.’

‘Let’s make sure his death hasn’t been in vain.’ Kheda rose to his feet and gripped the lad’s shoulder hard with one mailed hand. ‘Did you catch them all?’

Dev glowered at his side. ‘Are you sure none of them fled into the trees?’

No, that is, we got them all.’ Ridu scrubbed tears from his cheeks, his hazel eyes still white-rimmed with shock.

‘Bring your captives down to join their friends.’

Kheda waited a moment to be sure the youthful warriors had themselves in hand before striding back down to the shore. ‘Let’s see what these scum have to say for themselves.’

Now what?’ Dev’s brown eyes were avid.

Now you’ll see what it means to have me as your warlord,’ said Kheda shortly. ‘You and everyone else.’ I didn’t look for an opportunity to send this kind of message, but I can’t afford to pass it up. Down by the sea, the dead had already been dragged aside into a loose-limbed heap, the dying left to whimper out their last moments. Those who had thrown down their weapons were circled by oarsmen holding ready blades. The prisoners knelt with their forehearls pressed to the damp earth. Kheda saw that the trireme’s archers had come ashore and were gathering up the abandoned blades. He summoned Tawai with a snap of his fingers. ‘Did they carry daggers?’

None, my lord, just rough knives.’ The archer came over with an armful of swords, some scabbarded, most not.

‘They had some warrior’s weapons.’ Kheda carefully extricated one naked blade from the pile. The steel was stained with rust as well as blood and the filthy silken cord braiding the handle was inexpertly wound. ‘But scarcely cared for and clumsily sharpened.’

‘Salvaged from some isle where the invaders slaughtered Chazen warriors?’ Tawai hazarded. ‘The savages never bothered picking up fallen blades.’

‘Didn’t know how to use them,’ remarked Dev derisively.

‘They killed enough of our people with their stone clubs and wooden spears.’ Tawai looked at the barbarian with as much distaste as he dared.

‘We are hardly likely to forget that,’ said Kheda with mild reproof. ‘No, nothing about this sword tells me where it came from, or whose armoury it was made for.’

Telouet might have seen similar somewhere, might have known enough to hazard a guess. No one here is going to be able to.

He tossed the mined blade aside. ‘Let’s see if one of these vermin can tell us where they got their blades.’ The circle of rowers parted obediently to give him access to the cowering captives, who raised hopeless eyes to the armoured warlord.

‘Who led you here?’ barked Kheda.

Most immediately dropped their gaze to the patch of ground in front of their knees. A few were startled into betraying the same man with an unguarded glance.

‘Bring him here.’ Kheda pointed a merciless finger.

Dev promptly stepped forward and wound one hand in the loose cloth of the man’s tunic, throwing him down in front of Kheda, who studied him dispassionately.

‘One of our warriors died today, reclaiming this land for Chazen. You owe the domain a death.’ Kheda nodded at Dev, who looked back at him with faint confusion.

Much as I like to see you disconcerted, wizard, this is hardly the time.

Kheda held his breath as understanding dawned in Dev’s eyes and the barbarian drew his sword with slow deliberation.

‘My lord, please . . .’ The prisoner shrank into himself, shoulders hunched.

His plea was silenced as Dev’s blade flashed in the sunlight. The captive’s head leapt from his shoulders, the cut clean and barely bleeding.

Hopefully no one else will have seen enough beheadings to know what an impossible stroke that was. Hopefully I was the only one who saw that shimmer of fire edging Dev’s blade.

His face a mask of implacable severity, Kheda looked around the cove to see the Mist Dove’s oarsmen wide-eyed with awe at their warlord’s decisive action. The swordsmen and archers were more open in their vengeful appreciation of such immediate retribution. Kheda addressed himself to the rest of the quaking prisoners with cold condemnation.

‘You came unbidden into Chazen waters. Far from seeking my permission to stay and promising your duty to me, to this domain and its blood, you have plundered this island and who knows what else besides. Shall we see what we find in your ships and your huts to answer that question?’ he wondered ominously. He paused for a moment and was relieved to see guilty glances passing between some of the captives, condemning them as thieves as well as interlopers.

None of you carries any dagger to acknowledge the domain that bore you, so you’ve plainly abandoned such allegiances,’ he continued with scorn. ‘At least that spares me the tiresome chore of seeking recompense for your malfeasance from any other warlord. You can all pay for your offences with your bodies, as slaves. My lady Itrac Chazen will be opening her dealings with the domains to the north shortly. I’m sure she can find some value in your worthless carcasses.’

Kheda turned his back on a despairing wail of protest stifled by a heavy blow behind him. He summoned Tawai with a curt gesture. ‘Call the Mist Dove’s sail crew ashore. They can flog these wretches into submission and stow them aboard the Yellow Serpent. I’m not carrying that amount of dead weight on the voyage back to the residence. Light a fire and burn those bodies, they deserve no better. Set Ridu and his boys to burying Aysi fittingly. His body in the soil of this place will assuredly confer strength and courage on those who may dwell here in the future.’

‘As you wish, my lord.’ Tawai bowed low.

‘And tell your men I am most impressed with their skills. You are obviously an excellent teacher. I’d be grateful if you’d share your talents with the residence garrison.’ Surprising the archer with a smile of warm approbation, Kheda walked away along the shore towards the beached trireme.

Dev drew level with him. You don’t want to spring surprises like that on me,’ the mage said frankly. Kheda glanced around to make sure there was no one close enough to overhear them. ‘At least you rose to the occasion.’

‘I always do that.’ Dev chuckled.

‘I think I saw how,’ said Kheda, unsmiling. ‘Just be thankful no one else did.’

‘So what do we do now? My lord,’ Dev added for the benefit of Shaiam, who was climbing down from the trireme’s stern.

Kheda addressed himself to the shipmaster. ‘The Yellow Serpent can stay to patrol these waters as we decided earlier, even with captives in her hold. We don’t need them weighing us down       ‘

‘My lord.’ Excessively apologetic, Shaiam inten-upted and gestured out to sea. ‘The Thorn Circle has appeared.’

Nyral’s ship?’ Kheda moved to get a clear view and found that he recognised the fast trireme. Well, well. I wonder what he will have to say for himself

‘Was it just his laziness that let these scavengers get a foothold here?’ Shaiam looked dubiously at the slowly approaching vessel. ‘Or could he be in league with them?’

‘Either way I’ll be stripping him of his command for failing the domain so grievously,’ Kheda said severely. ‘The only question is should he just be flogged bloody or until we see the bones of his ribs.’

‘Care for a wager on that?’ Dev cocked a sardonic brow at the shipmaster.

Kheda continued as if the barbarian hadn’t spoken. ‘The Thorn Circle can follow the Yellow Serpent under a new master. You and Hesi decide between you if it’s Yere or the Yellow Serpent’s helmsman who’s earned the promotion.’

‘The Thorn Circle’s crew have sailed with Nyral a long time, my lord,’ said Shaiam doubtfully. ‘I don’t know how they’ll take to a new shipmaster.’

‘Then tell Hesi to remove any who look as if they might be trouble and to mix plenty of the Yellow Serpent’s oarsmen in with the rest.’ Kheda looked steadily at the tall mariner. ‘And let the Thorn Circle’s men know that Hesi has order to ram them at the first sign of mutiny. A light galley won’t sink a fast trireme but the Yellow Serpent could certainly spring enough planks to cripple it. Tell Hesi to drive it into shallow water first, though, if it comes to it,’ he added wryly. ‘Truth be told, we can’t afford to lose any vessels and I don’t want to lose any men if we can help it. I just want Nyral and the rest of his crew to know that I am master here.’

‘There’ll be fewer doubters when word of this day’s work sprearls.’ A broad grin cracked Shaiam’s dark face.

‘I certainly hope so.’ Kheda smiled conspiratorially before nodding towards the captured boats now stripped of their ineffectual cloak of knot-tree branches. ‘Pick the best men you can spare to crew those and to spread that word a little wider. Have them tell Hesi if there are any honest folk living in these backwaters. I’d like to have someone ready to send word if they see any unknown ships that might be considering a sniff down towards the pearl reefs. Tell Hesi I’ll send him out a cage of courier doves when I get back to the residence so that he can report to me directly.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ said Shaiam with satisfaction. ‘And now let’s deal with Nyral,’ concluded Kheda softly. The Thorn Circle was drawing cautiously alongside the Mist Dove. The three men stood silently as the fast trireme grounded softly and her stern ladders promptly lowered. Dev turned and whistled and the Mist Dove’s swordsmen quickly drew up behind Kheda in a guard that made up in grimness for what it lacked in polish. Tawai and the archers moved casually to one side, making sure they all had a clear shot at whoever disembarked from the newly arrived ship. There’s nothing like the unity that comes from having been in a battle together. I’ll settle for that, even if it isn’t inborn loyalty to me as their warlord. Kheda nodded to acknowledge the fast trireme’s shipmaster as the man splashed through the shallows to bow before him. Nyral.’

‘My lord.’ There was no hint of obsequiousness in the heavy-set mariner’s voice or in his brown face, with his long black beard plaited to a sharp point. He wore a Redigal dagger on his scarlet leather belt, just like the helmsman standing at his shoulder, one massive hand dwarfing the thin and tattered route record that he clutched. There was a strong resemblance between the two men: both had deep-set, circumspect eyes and tip-tilted noses, though something forceful had sent the helmsman’s all lopsided a few years ago.

‘What traffic have you seen since we left you to watch these sea lanes?’ Kheda demanded.

‘A Daish flotilla, my lord.’ The man’s confident answer was entirely unexpected. ‘A great galley escorted by two fast triremes and two heavy.’ Nyral shrugged, curly head canted arrogantly. ‘They flew the old pennants from Chazen Sari’s day but we didn’t feel inclined to try stopping them, did we, Banse?’ The helmsman cleared his throat. ‘I recognised the steersman of the galley and the shipmaster of one of the light triremes.’

‘I knew several of the swordsmen on the heavy triremes’ upper decks.’ Unbidden, the Thorn Circle’s rowing master joined them. Like the other men, he wore a sleeveless tunic and loose trousers of dirty white cotton. He wore the narrow double-edged dagger of the Aedis domain on his belt of plaited rainbow cords.

Aedis and Redigal rowers make up more than half the Thorn Circle’s crew. Even their carpenter’s from Ritsem Caid’s domain. What choice did I have? Chazen has few enough triremes left after all the invaders’ destruction and less than half the mariners needed to man them. And why shouldn’t I believe men seeking to better themselves by helping to rebuild Chazen when opportunities prove limited in the domains that bore them?

Kheda gestured towards Nyral’s dagger. ‘When you come back to the residence anchorage we should have Chazen knives for you all.’

‘Thank you, my lord.’ There was a marked lack of enthusiasm in the mariner’s voice.

‘It has always been my practice to reward loyalty.’ Kheda kept his face impassive despite noting a scowl fleet across the helmsman’s face. ‘As well as punishing laxity, naturally.’

‘My lord?’ Nyral looked puzzled but his henchmen’s expressions verged on insolent.

‘You have been lax, haven’t you, to allow these vermin to dig in like sand lice on a lizard too sluggish to move?’ Kheda gestured at the wretched captives now firmly bound hand and foot. ‘I don’t want to contemplate any alternative explanation.’

‘I’m not quite sure what you mean, my lord.’ Nyral’s words were polite but uncertainty hooded his eyes as he tried to work out his safest course here.

‘You’ve either been lax in your watch on these reaches or you’ve allowed these people to make landfall.’ Kheda shrugged. ‘What next? Will we find pirates preying on this pitiful domain, once you’ve let them spy out Chazen’s seaways?’

‘We’ve been patrolling the lesser channels, my lord,’ Nyral insisted with a hint of defiance.

Not very effectively, if this is any example of your diligence,’ countered Kheda calmly. ‘Have you built a full chain of beacons yet?’

‘We’ve done all we can but we need metal fire baskets, my lord,’ Nyral protested with every appearance of sincerity. ‘We daren’t set a blaze without one and the season grows drier every day.’

Which is one honest answer, at least. Itrac Chazen hai better add iron to the list of things she needs to trade for. The pearl harvest is going to have to be truly spectacular if she’s to secure half the things we need.

‘So if you haven’t been busy setting beacons, how do you explain your laxity in letting these vermin sneak past and make themselves at home?’ Kheda gestured towards the captives once again.

The Thorn Circle’s rowing master and helmsman slid each other dubious looks behind their shipmaster’s back.

‘We can’t be everywhere at once, my lord.’ Nyral shrugged broad shoulders with scant contrition. Kheda took a moment to pretend to consider this defence, looking past Nyral and his henchmen to the Thorn Circle’s side decks. The fast trireme’s rowers were surveying the carnage on shore, hearts close together in discreet deliberation.

Counting heads and realising that they’re outnumbered, as well as seeing that these men have had a taste of blood today. Besides, I am the warlord here. I’ve proved it in this fight

Does anyone really want to raise his sword against me and find no one follows his lead? ‘So you simply didn’t know these vermin were here?’ Kheda shook his head.

No, my lord,’ said Nyral with belated regret.

‘Yet you were close enough to hear our horns and come to see what was amiss?’ Kheda wondered, apparently puzzled.

‘A stroke of fortune, my lord.’ The boldness in Nyral’s voice ebbed away. ‘We came as fast as we could, to lend our strength to yours.’

The Thorn Circle’s rowing master and helmsman were looking past Kheda to the belligerent half-circle of the Mist Dove’s swordsmen with growing apprehension.

‘I’m glad of it.’ Kheda nodded. ‘And since you admit your dereliction, I am inclined to be merciful. You will merely be flogged and chained to an oar in the lowest bank of the Mist Dove until Shipmaster Shaiam is inclined to release you.’

Nyral’s face turned ugly and he took a pace forward before abruptly freezing.

Kheda took a step forward to match the shipmaster’s, gripping the man’s forearm so he couldn’t go for his knife and leaning close. ‘Do you want me to ask those new slaves if anyone recognises you and your ship? If they’ve paid for your blindness with loot or their women’s favours? I’ll get whatever answer I want and you can settle your account with your head. No one will lift a finger to save you.’ As he spoke, Kheda felt an unnatural tension in Nyral, the muscles cording his arm shuddering as if the man strained against invisible bonds. He looked the shipmaster in the eye and saw panic there instead of rebellion. Nyral’s jaw worked beneath his beard, the man struggling to speak even as his own mouth refused to obey him.

Dev, you disobedient, bloody-minded, lizard-eating barbarian.

As quick as that thought came to him, Kheda drew his own dagger and sunk it to the hilt into Nyral’s unprotected midriff. Pulling the mariner towards him, he drove the blade deeper and twisted it up behind the man’s ribs. Dev already had a drawn sword at the throat of the Thorn Circle’s helmsman and Shaiam had his own dagger levelled at the fast trireme’s rowing master. As Kheda stepped back, heartsick and withdrawing his dagger with remarkably little blood, Nyral collapsed dead to the damp ground. The other two men from the Thorn Circle dropped to their knees, arms outstretched, hands nowhere near their belt weapons.

‘You two can pay his penalty, for standing with him,’ snarled Shaiam. The Mist Dove’s swordsmen seized them, four or five to each unresisting man, and dragged them away. Bring me a lash!’ Shaiam bellowed as he stalked after them.

Everyone else retreated to leave Kheda and Dev isolated on the water’s edge.

‘I thought flogging was the sailmaster’s job, what with all that hauling on ropes to build the shoulders,’ Dev commented lightly. ‘Though I suppose Shaiam’s got the muscles to make a decent enough job of it.’

‘Why did you do that?’ Kheda glared at the wizard with discreet fury. ‘How could I let Nyral let live after you had wrapped him in the toils of some cursed enchantment?’

‘What was I supposed to do? Let that bastard cut your throat for you while the rest of us stood there with our hands down our trousers?’ Dev was unmoved. ‘Maybe you could have taken him in a fight. I’m no augur but I could see that turning into a battle that would leave this bead knee-deep in blood if the Thorn Circle’s men decided to make a fight of it. As long as I’m playing your body slave it’s my duty to keep you alive, and you know I’m no swordsman.’ Dev looked down at NyraPs lifeless body and poked it with one foot. ‘Anyway, what have you lost besides one half-competent and likely corrupt shipmaster? All these men have just seen you act with the resolution of an awesome warlord. That’s no bad trade for one life.’ The wizard turned from the corpse at his feet to speak softly into Kheda’s ear. ‘Besides, what are you going to do about it?’

‘I do not wish to rule these people through fear,’ said Kheda through gritted teeth.

‘And you can be as generous and kindly as you like when your rule is truly secure,’ Dev retorted. ‘In the meantime, settle for knowing that everyone hereabouts is cowed by your ruthlessness. Now we can sail back to the residence without worrying what’s going on behind our backs. After you’ve done whatever you people do to celebrate your new year, we can sail west.’

‘We’ll certainly sail west as soon as possible,’ Kheda assured him grimly. ‘I’ve decided I want every last mud-painted, feather-wearing savage dead. If you can learn anything that serves your purpose while we do it, that’s your affair.’

‘You’re finally talking about a proper campaign to hunt them out?’ Dev was openly surprised. No more of this slowly drawing a noose around them to see if thirst and heat can do the job for you?’

‘I can’t afford to keep those triremes in the west if we need our trade routes hereabouts guarded. We plainly can’t trust Nyral and his like and word of the pearl harvest will soon spread, especially if Daish galleys are finally risking these waters again. Come to that, I want to show Daish all the triremes we can muster until I know how the wind blows in that quarter.’

Kheda looked at the wizard, unsmiling. ‘So yes, it’s time to put an end to those last skulking invaders, even I if it does cost us Chazen blood. I’ll find another body slave from somewhere and you can go looking for whatever it is you think you’ll find among them. That should settle all accounts between us. As soon as they are all dead, you can sail north and lose yourself wherever you see fit. Then I can concentrate on looking to this domain’s future without the dubious benefit of your particular services.’

Chapter Three

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the notion of a warlord’s residence without walls. It was strange enough visiting this place when it was Chazen Sari’s. Now that it’s mine, this openness feels more wrong than ever.

‘Well done, Shaiam, we’re here in good time to celebrate the new-year stars.’ Kheda made sure warm approval rang through his words as he called out to the shipmaster. ‘You’ve all earned a consideration when the pearl harvest is gathered in.’

That declaration garnered Kheda loud cheers from rowers bone weary from nine days’ hard labour. He was more concerned with searching the seas ahead for any sign of visiting ships.

What interest does Daish have in the Chazen pearl harvest? What prompted a trading flotilla to sail south when no other domain feels inclined to risk these waters just yet? How long have they been here and what have they done? Who is leading their delegation?

The sun was low in the west and Kheda shaded his eyes with one hand to try to see what vessels might be at anchor within the lagoon surrounding the chain of islets long favoured by Chazen’s warlords as their dry-season home. The ships remained stubbornly anonymous, mere black silhouettes against the vivid orange of the evening sky.

The Mist Dove slowed. Shaiam showed no sign of having heard Kheda’s words of praise, intent as he was on negotiating the maze of reefs that served as the first line of defence for the residence. Yere gripped his steering oars, sitting with back straight and alert for any word from the shipmaster or any signal from the lookouts perched on the projecting bow timbers. Kheda moved to look down over the trireme’s side, Reddish coral crags appeared impossibly close as the galley’s hull slid through the crystal-clear water.; Brilliant fish darted in and out of the crevices with a twitch of their tails. Jaunty painted fools with wide white masks stayed close to the deceptive tentacles of sea flowers vivid as living ruby or golden quartz. Steel and sapphire shoals of blade fish cut circles around the duller humpbacked drift fish idling along. Down in the deeps, cobalt sea stars and giant green-lipped clams sat placidly in patches of rippled whiteness among mossy green fernlike fronds.

Dev came to stand beside Kheda. ‘What by all that’s holy is he doing?’ the barbarian demanded, gazing down incredulously at a figure beneath the water.

‘Fishing.’ Kheda smiled despite himself. ‘He’s a pearl diver in from the outer reefs.’

An islander sat quite motionless on the sandy sea floor near a round bulge of mottled brown coral. A shoal of sunset fish nosed along the contorted grooves incised in the outcrop, turning from orange to yellow as the light struck them. Then everything vanished in a flurry of sand and shimmering scales.

‘See.’ Kheda pointed as the islander emerged from the cloud of sand, kicking urgently for the surface. He had a fish in each hand, his thumbs hooked through their gills, The man surfaced with an explosive gasp for air, treading water for a moment before swimming towards a basket he had left floating between two empty wax-sealed gourds. A rope with a stone on the end was anchoring it against the ebb and flow of the curious tide.

‘You don’t think he’d find it easier to use a net?’ Dev wondered sarcastically.

‘Easier but less impressive where the residence girls are concerned.’ Kheda smiled.

‘I should try that.’ There was a lascivious edge to Dev’s chuckle. ‘If that’s what it takes to get a girl to spread her legs.’

‘You don’t think you might get invited into some maid’s quilts if you just let your hair and beard grow in?’ Kheda queried. ‘Half the girls think you must be a man’s man and the rest keep trying to find a discreet way of confirming you’re zamorin.’

‘Ah, but looking so different—that’s all part of my intriguing barbarian mystery, isn’t it?’ Dev ran a hand over his bald head and clean-shaven chin. But maybe I should let some lass into my secret. That would get me half-way to a decent new-year celebration at the very least.’ He glanced over his shoulder to be sure Yere and Shaiam were still intent on their tasks and lowered his voice still further. ‘How long do you think I could get away with staying down for? A count of a hundred? You could win all the wagers you wanted on me—if you shared the take.’

Kheda quelled the barbarian with a warning glare and the heavy trireme went on to pass through the main channel between the outer reefs without incident. Warlord and wizard gazed at the islands lying within the thorny palisade of corals. Men and women were busy around fire pits dug into the white beaches, others hurrying in and out of the long huts set among the nut palms and neat gardens that patterned each scrap of land. Savoury smoke floating across the evening stillness promised feasting and the rowers below stirred and murmured among themselves.

At the centre of the broad lagoon a string of islets lay like gems in a necklace separated by golden links. With no more than a few buildings on each one, these islands I were linked by chains of bridges.

Which can be cut if needs must, to defend one avenue of attack while Chazen swordsmen take other paths over bridges, ropes and boats to strike back at an enemy from side and rear. Defence doesn’t always mean ramparts. With few enough walk to hide behind, any attackers would always be open to arrows from some direction. And if they did take the buildings, what then? The rulers of Chazen would be long gone. No enemy could hope to maintain a blockade around such an expanse of reef. And what enemy could arrive unexpected, with the bulwark of the entire domain between this warlord’s residence and any peril sailing south from the wider Archipelago?

Kheda looked at the well-tended gardens set here and . there along the innermost islands. Trees and underbrush had been long since cleared to leave only the most carefully selected specimens. The beds around them weren’t planted with sailer grain or kitchen vegetables like the outer islands devoted to the prosaic business of growing food and necessities to keep the warlord’s residence supplied. A wide variety of shrubs and plants was care-, fully tended, some vivid with flowers or brightly coloured leaves, others mere creeping mats of dullness but cherished all the same.

‘I imagine there’ll be a fair few healers come to ask my advice and beg for seedlings,’ Kheda said to Dev.

‘Let them know I’ll make myself available tomorrow afternoon.’ I’ll have more than enough to occupy me till then, even if that will give you all the more time to line your pockets will whatever the most desperate will offer you for a chance to reach my presence ahead of the others.

‘You’ll be letting them take away some of your distilled liquor, I take it?’ Dev shot a sideways glance at Kheda. Because they will use it in tinctures and lotions for healing the sick, not for addling their wits,’ retorted the warlord. ‘And you’ll have no credibility as my slave if anyone sees you drunk, even if you are a barbarian.’

‘So much for the comforts of home.’ Dev glowered. We’ll be toasting the new year with your piss-poor excuse for wine, then, will we?’

Kheda was unmoved. ‘And no one will start a fight like some drunken barbarian or fall down dead tomorrow morning with the blood too thick to flow in their veins.’

‘That’s just a myth to keep your swordsmen clearheaded and you know it.’ Dev stared moodily out over the anchorage. ‘I’d have found plenty of people here willing to trade something shiny for northern liquor or leaf if I still had my own boat.’

‘Then I’d definitely have had you flogged.’ Kheda gave a noncommittal shrug. ‘And I’ve seen more than one man who dropped dead for no more reason than an uncommonly hot day following a drunken night.’ The trireme picked its way carefully towards the innermost islands. The buildings were markedly different from the huts of polished wood and tidy palm thatch elsewhere—here they were stone-built pavilions, some long and low, some hollow squares, all roofed with gleaming turquoise tiles. Broad eaves shaded wide steps on all sides where benches were set for those summoned to their lord or lady’s presence but not yet admitted to the inner courts. Generous windows stood open to the breezes; pale yellow muslin drapes within teased out over the sills here and there. Sturdy hakali-wood shutters were pinned back against the white walls, ready to be closed with the fall of rapidly approaching dusk

‘It’ll be some job packing all this up when the rains come.’ Dev shook his head at the flurry of activity along the shore as servants and slaves hurried to make ready for the trireme’s arrival.

‘It’s that or spend the wet season up to our ankles in water,’ Kheda pointed out. ‘And we’d get blown clear across the domain by the storms in any case.’ Then these luxurious dwellings will be stripped bare of everything up to and including those shutters. House lizards and palm finches can come and go as they wish and the fiercest winds can rush through the buildings unhindered. We will all have sailed north to bigger islands less vulnerable to the whirlwinds, trading the safety of this openness for a very different fortress and relying on the rains to close the waterways to all but Chazen vessels. If I feel an interloper here, how much more will I seem a trespasser there?

The Mist Dove approached her customary berth, careful not to hinder the six-oared supply boats toiling across the lapis lazuli water, weighed down with baskets and bundles for the warlord’s household. Kheda noted the bare patches still scarring the physic gardens and black charring on the trunks of the larger trees.

Should we be risking ourselves by staying? Building hen with the rest of the domain between them and the wider Archipelago had been a sound enough strategy for the rulers of Chazen until invaders appeared out of the southern ocean that everyone believed was an empty waste of water. What use wen all these carefully planned networks of bridges and channels when the savages’ wizards could send fire leaping across the empty air and throw paths of solid cloud across the seas?

Visceral loathing of magic curdled Kheda’s belly.

But you were the one who brought Dev here, as the only hope you could find to battle the savages’ wizards. And you still owe him a mighty debt, after he nearly lost his life n doing so.

Oblivious, the barbarian mage was gazing at the beautiful pavilions. ‘Itrac Chazen has worked wonders, hasn’t she?’

‘Indeed,’ Kheda agreed, his face a neutral mask.

Because what little wealth this devastated domain could salvage has been traded for pretty tiles, costly marbles and whitewash to cover the smoke stains. And men and women have been taken from trying to rebuild their pitiful homes to bring shiploads of clean sand to cover the blood on the beaches.

But how could they believe themselves secure or have any confidence in their future if they did not have their warlord and his lady displaying the pride and honour of the domain in their luxurious home and their lavish household? What other domains would deign to trade with Chazen if all we had to offer was a pauper’s hovel?

He glanced across to one of the anchorages cut into the reef to accommodate any deep-keeled ship visiting this restored seat of Chazen power. A great galley wallowed between sturdy hawsers secured to wooden piles driven deep into the coral. Oars were shipped in their ports on the middle of the three roomy decks, rowers doubtless now resting in the vast cargo holds beneath. Varka gulls wheeled around the tops of the three permanent masts that were always ready to take advantage of any wind that might aid the toiling oarsmen in their voyages between the domains.

My shoulders ache just at the recollection of taking an oar on such a vessel.

‘One of yours?’ Dev asked Kheda as he studied the galley with interest. ‘Daish’s, I mean.’ Kheda chewed his lip. ‘It’s the Sun Bird. Rekha Daish’s favourite ship.’

Her favourite sun birds are the roseate kind barely bigger than the thumb-sized myrtali flowers they feed from. That’s the only gardening Rekha does, cultivating the bushes to attract them. Tiny birds, so dainty and quick, and she names a lumbering hulk for them. Why did she do that?

‘So every man aboard will be loyal to her, with all their hopes of profit tight in her manicured hand.’ Dev regarded the deserted deck of the galley with something perilously close to a scowl.

No Daish islander ever lost out following Rekha’s lead on what to trade and where,’ commented Kheda. ‘And plenty of warlords’ wives reckon they’ve done well if their ledgers come out even when they’ve concluded a deal with her. You can count the number of those coming out ahead of her over the course of a year on the fingers of one hand.’

‘I don’t see Itrac being one of them,’ Dev murmured under his breath.

No, nor do I, but I don’t see Rekha coming here just for trade, not at the very start of the year when everyone should be close to home and family, to share in the celebrations and debate the auguries of such an auspicious day.

Sirket mill be taking the auguries alone this year. I hope they are favourable for you, my son.

‘She’s brought her own triremes, I see.’ Dev squinted at the lithe vessels with their upcurved sterns and prows anchored in the open water of the lagoon.

‘We can hardly take offence at that,’ said Kheda reluctantly. ‘Chazen waters haven’t been overly safe of late.’

Is that why Rekha’s here, rather than Janne Daish? Second wife rather than first wouldn’t be quite suck an ominous loss, Though the loss of Rekha’s acumen would be a grievous blow to Daish. What is she seeking that she reckons worth the risk of this voyage? What has she brought here in those capacious holds and what might she be looking to take away in them’!

The Mist Dove lurched gently as the trireme eased into her berth and those rowers taking a rest from their oars to act as the sail crew hurried to secure the mooring ropes.

‘So what’s the plan when we’re ashore?’ Dev watched islanders ashore throw ropes to enable the trireme’s crew to haul a floating walkway alongside.

‘I’ll go and read the immediate auguries from the obser—

vatory while you see what Itrac’s come up with by way of suitable finery for me.’ Kheda nodded at the modest tower rising three storeys high beyond a low pavilion set alone on the most easterly islet. He grimaced. ‘Then I will greet my present lady wife and we’ll discuss how best to deal with my former spouse.’

‘Do you think there’ll be a cat-fight for your favours?’ Dev chuckled unsympathetically. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t rather sail straight for the western isles and some open, honest warfare?’

‘Just keep your mouth shut and your eyes open,’ said Kheda brusquely.

I’d gag you if I thought I could get away with it. You may make a convincing enough show as a body slave when it comes to fetching and carrying and exploiting all the feuds and affiances of a household but you’re not going to be much use in these skirmishes, barbarian. I can’t send you to practise your sword skills with Rekha’s slave; Andit would know you for a fraud before you’d even drawn your blades. So there’s no chance of discreet backhand communications to temper what might be said in public for reasons of dignity or deception.

Will Itrac be inclined to share whatever she might learn through her Jevin’s not-so-casual conversations? Though he’s as green as she is, both of them out of their depth when it comes to dealing with a seasoned traveller like Rekha. What wouldn’t I give for just one slave as astute and experienced as Telouet? ‘My thanks once again, Shipmaster Shaiam, to you and all your crew. Now, my final order is that you celebrate your new year with all the feasting and merriment that this place can offer you!’ Kheda waved towards a long sand bar in the midst of the anchorage where bonfires and torches were being lit. The pipers from a handful of ships were already playing for a circle of girls dancing between trestle tables being stacked high with platters of meat and steaming cook pots. As the Mist Dove’s crew turned to the prospect with an approving cheer, the warlord vaulted over the trireme’s stern rail without further ceremony.

Dev hit the planks behind him with a solid thump and a jingle of chain mail. ‘I don’t know about you, my lord,’ he said fervently, but I will be truly glad to get out of this armour.’

‘Indeed.’ Kheda strode on ahead to solid ground, taking a fork in the path of raked sand that led towards the observatory tower. Maidservants were coming the other way, all clothed in simple white dresses with embroidery echoing the patterns of the reef fish or the brilliant birds twittering in the trees and shrubs. One carried a basket laden with green leaves wrapped around tiny blue flower spikes, the next a bushel of yellow zera shoots, black earth still clinging to their red roots.

As the girls bowed and withdrew to the sides of the path, Kheda smiled at them. ‘We’ll be greeting the year’s new stars with a fine feast, I see.’

‘Absolutely, my lord,’ one replied, the girls dipping in demure obeisance.

Two men behind hesitated. They carried a turtle between them in a plaited rope sling, its scaled flippers tied tight to the brown and grey shell as long as a man’s leg.

‘We’ll go around you.’ Kheda raised a hand and suited his actions to his words before the turtle hunters could demur. Off the path the ground was sandy, sparse grass soft beneath his feet.

‘Turtle meat’s such a rare luxury in the north,’ Dev observed wryly. ‘I never thought to tire of it, but if you could find a sack of pearls for a side of beef, I’d be truly grateful.’

Kheda spared him a glance as they crossed the swaying walkway to the next small island. ‘I wouldn’t mind a decent-sized deer to roast.’

But I’ll look ver carefully for the snare that comes with it if Rekha offers me one.

Clusters of palm saplings surrounded the pavilion on the furthest island, each one sheltering carefully tended seedlings of red cane and vizail. Servants and slaves hovered on the steps, smiles ingratiating, all dressed alike in cerulean blue, trousers and tunics spotless. Gold and silver clasps shone brightly at wrists and ankles and the men all had hair and beards neatly trimmed and dressed with oil. The women wore fresh flowers woven into their braids or tucked behind turtleshell combs holding flowing black locks away from their round, smiling faces.

Itrac’s doing her best to show Rekha Daish that we of Chazen are no paupers.

Kheda smiled in return and paused to hand Dev his helmet, then unbuckled his swords. ‘Take this inside, all of it.’ He unlaced the neck of his hauberk and, ducking his head with practised suddenness, shook the chain mail down over his body and outstretched arms. As the weight of the metal pulled the armour to the ground with a rattling thump, Kheda stood upright with a heartfelt sigh of relief and ripped off the sweat-stained padded tunic that had protected him from the bruising rings. He relished the touch of the evening breeze on his sweaty skin, then wrinkled his nose at his own odour.

‘Get a bath ready, Dev, while I look for any immediate auguries relating to our return. Send a message to my lady Itrac to say I’ll call on her shortly. Find out if we’re dining with Rekha Daish. Oh, and put the talismans we collected on the voyage in the observatory.’

Ignoring the uncertain glances the resident slaves were exchanging among themselves, he headed for the observatory clad only in his worn and crumpled trousers.

Of course I could just strip off and swim in the sea. No, better not set everyone fretting about how I fail to conduct myself with all the decorum of a warlord. There are always so many eyes on me here. And Daish eyes, too, today. What do they see, now I’m no longer their lord?

Because I am Chazen’s warlord. I chose to seize this domain rather than fight Sirket for the one I was born to. Let’s start this new year remembering that, as I read the skies when the stars align to mark the return of the heavenly compass. But what are the immediate portents for our return? The lowest level of the observatory was a broad circular building roofed with the same turquoise tiles as the pavilion. The tower rose in the centre, a white pillar with its uppermost level open to the sky. Kheda pushed open the door and, ignoring the arches opening to wide half-circular halls on either side, he took the spiral stairs up the core of the tower. The upper floor of glazed black tiles was marked with curling ochre patterns within each quarter of the compass. The carvings on the waist-high balustrade divided each quarter into three. Kheda had no need to read the lyrical script scrolling along the wooden rail, detailing the wisdom of generations in divining the omens that would arise in each arc of the heavenly and earthly compasses. He turned to the east, his expression hard.

Is it significant that it’s customary to look first to the arc of marriage, when I’m about to dine with one former, doubtless angry wife and one quite likely still resentful at being forced into wedding me?

The eastern sky was unhelpfully blank. Kheda dropped his gaze to the lavender-tinted sea below. There was nothing to see; no birds in flight, no ripple running against the flow of the waters. There was nothing cast up on the white sand of a distant barren reef or on the narrow shore below him.

But there is always a portent. Daish Reik told you that. You just need the wit to see it and the skill to read it. Are you still stained by magic, unable to read the signs that tie you to past and future?

He swung around in an impatient arc, scanning the horizon. The setting sun dazzled him. Kheda raised an involuntary hand to shield his eyes.

This is where I should be reading the sky, where the new-year stars, brightest in the sky, rise in direct opposition to the coming dawn. This is where our futures will be seen, my own and the domain’s together. For our futures are as one from now on, aren’t they?

Well, you can’t do that till the sun has set, so what else can you learn from the skies?

Slowly, he turned back to look at the darkening east. Even with the augural constellations barely visible, Kheda knew exactly where they lay. It took him but a moment to calculate where the vibrant jewels that traversed the heavens would appear as the night deepened.

There’s nothing to see in the arc that governs marriage beyond the stars of the Yora Hawk that signify adversaries to hand. I hardly need the skies to tell me that. What I don’t see is any clue as to what lies ahead for me in my dealings with Itrac and Rekha both.

No such confusion clouds the arc of death, next around the compass. The Lesser Moon, the Pearl of the heavens, is a mere nail-paring. With the Pearl the most potent talisman for the Daish domain, is that the final sign for me at the close of the year, that I am truly dead to Daish? The Amethyst shines there, too, gem to counsel reflection and humility in accepting one’s fate.

But even in the arc of death omens, the Sailfish swims through the deep distances of the sky. That’s a symbol of good fortune when it coincides with either moon, and of life, like the sailfish in the sea rising to spawn in the moonlight.

Kheda turned abruptly to look to the arc of the compass opposite the faint sickle of the Lesser Moon and the dimly seen Amethyst.

I should have sought guidance from the heavens before now. There are potent conjunctions in this sky for all who rule. The Diamond will shine there before much longer, gem of clarity of mind, of warding against corruption, talisman for all warlords. It rises in the arc of wealth, both material possessions and those intangible things that a wise man values: peace, health and goodwill. That’s where the Sapphire rides, too, slowest of the heavenly gems tracing through the sky, patient counsellor reminding us to trust our intuition. What do those jewels signify in collaboration with the Sea Serpent’s writhing stars? That’s a sign of mysteries, of hidden forces and conundrums that will be resolved in time. Is that what I must do, bide my time and value what I have, trusting that all will be well?

The hairs on Kheda’s neck bristled as a cool breeze brushed across his back.

But there are calls to action elsewhere in the sky. The Greater Moon, Opal talisman for harmony and truth, shines beside the Hoe that reminds us how a man must toil in nurturing the land that supports us all. Constellation and gem are both in the arc of travel. Is this where my journey has brought me, to a future working for Chazen?

What of the arc of duty? The Ruby calls for courage and shines among the stars of the Spear that reminds all men, rulers most of all, of the need for determination in meeting any challenge. And the Ruby is talisman against fire. With the Emerald there as talisman of valour for all those taking up arms to secure peace. The Topaz that takes a full year to traverse each separate arc of the sky will move into the arc of foes directly opposite, tomorrow when the stars are aligned. Topaz, talisman gem for all who seek wisdom. My path is clear, surely? Let’s start the new year sailing west to put an end to these invaders once and for all.

Kheda looked across the observatory. A line drawn between the Emerald and Ruby and the Diamond and Sapphire cut across one-third of the circle.

The last corner of that triangle should offer a potent sign in the arc of the compass governing honour and ambition. What stars are there? The Canthira Tree, symbol of death and rebirth, whose seeds need the fire that consumes the parent before they can sprout anew.

Can you doubt it any longer, that Chazen is where your future lies, where you must make your mark as man and warlord alike?

Why does such incontrovertible testimony bring no relief but rather an ever heavier sense of burden? Footsteps in the halls below caught Kheda’s ear. He turned his back on the sky and hurried down the stairs. ‘Dev? Is my bath ready? Oh, Rekha—’

His erstwhile wife was standing in the archway that led to the west-facing hall on the ground floor of the observatory. Leaning casually against the plastered stone painted with flowering vines, Rekha Daish was long-limbed and effortlessly elegant. The merest sheen of silver highlighted her dark eyes and a gloss of red softened her tempting lips. Her sleeveless travelling gown was a simple affair of fine rose silk, the lustrous colour flattering the warm brown of her flawless skin. The dress was fastened on each shoulder with a pair of simple silver brooches, her long earrings fashioned to match. A necklace in the same design nestled at the base of her throat and Kheda noted how the low-cut neck of the gown exposed the firm swell of her breasts. A belt of broad silver links emphasised her slender waist and as she took a step forward, he glimpsed the smoothness of her thigh through the side-slit skirt.

‘Kheda.’ Half-smiling, she brushed back a lock of her lustrous black hair that had escaped the confines of an array of silver combs. Silver bangles whispered musically down her arm.

‘Rekha Daish.’ Kheda made a formal bow and laid just the faintest emphasis on her domain name. ‘I didn’t expect to see you at this residence at such a time, never mind in my personal halls. Where’s Andit?’ he asked with scant ; courtesy.

‘Seeing to my unpacking in the guest pavilion on the central isle. I never knew that Chazen Saril collected star circles,’ Rekha mused, with an inconsequential wave towards the westerly hall where lamplight shone on an array of bronze and copper discs hanging on the walls. Then she took a pace forward and laid one slender hand on his bare chest. ‘You look well, Kheda, for a man we all thought dead and lost to us.

Forgive my lack of etiquette, but I had to see you for myself, just the two of us.

His skin tensed at her touch. Her perfume was attar of roses, subtle and intoxicating and powerfully reminiscent of the pale golden blooms, ruby-hearted, that grew only in the compound of the Daish rainy season residence, nowhere else in the entire domain. Kheda looked down at Rekha’s hand, her long fingers tipped with silver-varnished almond-shaped nails.

Beautifully manicured. Just as Dev predicted.

‘It can never just be the two of us.’ Kheda took Rekha’s hand off his chest and stepped away. ‘It never was.’

No,’ she agreed warmly, moving closer once more. We shared our children—’

‘You misunderstand me, my lady of Daish,’ Kheda said sharply. ‘Far more things divide us now, you and me, than ever tied us together. That was your choice, yours and my lady Janne’s.’

‘What of your choice, Kheda, to leave us all mourning you as dead?’ Rekha’s fine features hardened slightly, the tip of her aquiline nose thinning. ‘To set Sirket the challenge of establishing himself as warlord, with him barely grown and in a time of unprecedented upheaval?’

‘Unprecedented upheaval and attack from beyond the Archipelago, with magic no less, something not seen in these southerly reaches for time out of mind.’ Kheda spoke with biting precision. ‘When far from uniting against this appalling threat, our neighbouring domains could only bicker among themselves. Ulla Safar even tried to kill me for his own selfish purposes, you know that.’ He paused to swallow his rising ire.

‘I read the omens and saw the signs telling me I had to go in search of some means to counter these savage sorceries. I couldn’t do that with every eye following me, with the pomp of a warlord weighing me down and hindering my progress through every domain. And I didn’t feign my own death; I merely let people believe that Ulla Safar had finally succeeded in murdering me. Desperate times call for desperate courses, Rekha. I wish I hadn’t had to do it, but isn’t our victory over the savages proof that I was following the right path?’

Though I still have to extricate myself from the mire I’ve landed myself in as a consequence. Where are the signs to show me a way out of this?

‘But what of us—your wives, your heartbroken, grieving sons and daughters?’ Rekha’s dark eyes searched Kheda’s face.

‘I would have come back to you and made all amends I could,’ Kheda said with low fury. ‘It was Janne Daish who made that impossible for me. Go and seek answers from her.’

Neither of them spoke for a long, still moment, then Rekha shifted her gaze to the archway behind Kheda with a shake of her head that sent her long black hair rippling to her waist. The familiar gesture teased Kheda’s memory.

She shakes her head like that when she’s unsure of herself, not that that happens much more often than a moonless night. Or unsure of me—she did that a lot when we were first married.

‘You assuredly saved the Chazen domain from calamity.’ Rekha’s tone was more conciliatory. ‘And it was only right that you should claim these isles with Chazen Saril dead. You certainly earned such a reward with your sacrifices. And don’t blame Janne for doing all she could be sure Daish Sirket was able to continue his rule unchallenged as his reward for securing the domain in such a time of fear and peril. You could only have returned by taking up arms against your own son and none of us would have wanted that.’

‘I’m sure Sirket and I could have settled matters between us, if Janne Daish hadn’t set herself so implacably against my return,’ Kheda said coldly.

And fed Chazen Saril a meal of poisoned shellfish to leave him dead at my feet, to force me into a choice between fighting with my own son to reclaim my birthright or turning to secure this masterless domain before some other of my rivals or enemies did so. Where would Daish have been then? ‘You would never guess what devastation had been done \nere.’ Rekha was looking all around the hallway, her face admiring. She smiled, this time conspiratorial. ‘I would dearly love to know just how you defeated those wild mages, my husband.’

‘That is a Chazen secret, my lady of Daish,’ Kheda replied, unmoved. ‘And I am most assuredly no longer your husband, nor you my wife.’

‘From all I hear, Itrac Chazen is a wife in name only and you’ve taken no concubines or slaves to your bed.’ As she spoke, Rekha’s swift steps closed the gap between them. She laid her elegant hand on Kheda’s chest again, fingertips caressing. ‘You must be having a long, dry season.’ She raised her eyes to his, running the tip of her tongue along her luscious lips. ‘As, of course, am I. We can none of us marry again, me or Janne or Sain, without being forced to choose between abandoning the children we’ve borne to Daish or running the risk of bringing a man to the domain who might rise to challenge Sirket.’

Kheda laughed out loud in sheer surprise. You’re inviting me to your bed, Rekha? Or what, to lay you down on these bare tiles and quench my thirst between your thighs?’ He shook his head, pretending more amusement than he felt. ‘Forgive me, but of all we shared when we were married, lusts of the flesh came a long way down the list. Be honest, Rekha, you only invited me to your bed under the stars you favoured for getting pregnant and you were always swift to call a halt to such pleasures once you had quickened.’

‘You don’t think I might regret such hardhearted practicality?’ She raised one perfectly shaped brow. ‘Or desire what I have lost?’

She pressed against him, so close that he could feel her warmth through the fine silk of her dress, her soft breasts against his bare chest. Perfidious memory reminded him of her nakedness, clad only in the unbound midnight of her hair scented with roses.

Her voice trembled. ‘I wept for you, Kheda, until I had no more tears to shed.’

‘I never thought you hardhearted, Rekha.’ Kheda fought a rising desire to take her in his arms and kiss her. That wasn’t the only thing rising and he backed away, hoping she had not felt his body’s treacherous urgency. ‘I thought you the most clear-headed woman born to any domain I knew and that’s what I prized in you above all else. No warlord’s lady ever served her domain better in her trading. I take it that’s what’s brought you here? But surely you could have waited to see in the new year back in Daish before bringing your proposals for Itrac’s consideration?’

Rekha was making a considerable business of taking out and replacing one of her silver combs. When she looked at Kheda again, her face was calm, her voice composed. ‘Itrac is a dear girl and we are very fond of her, Janne and me, having sheltered her through the crisis that overwhelmed her domain last year. We wouldn’t dream of seeking to take advantage of her in trade, any more than we would one of our own daughters. Ask her yourself.’ Rekha gestured vaguely at the ceiling of the entrance hall with its ornate paintwork. ‘Min-el Ulla would never have let the tiles to reroof these buildings leave her craftsmen if she had known where they would end up. It was Janne and me who persuaded Taisia Ritsem to act as go-between. Now Itrac has her home restored, as was her heart’s desire.’ She sounded genuinely pleased.

‘I’m sure she will be properly grateful for a long time to come,’ agreed Kheda. ‘But I’m still curious to know what brings you here at the turn of the year.’

Rekha folded her arms and looked frankly at him. ‘Every warlord will be reading the omens for trade in the new-year stars and the wives of every domain will be sending the order to ready their fleets. No one will sail with the Greater Moon waning but by the time it’s back to the full, the sea lanes will be thronged with galleys.’

‘So you’re looking to get ahead of the tide?’ Kheda queried sceptically.

‘Precious few will be Voming here,’ said Rekha bluntly. Not to islands stormed by savage magic, where the seas ran red with the blood of slaughtered islanders.’

‘A stain cleansed by the blood of those invaders as soon as I made it safe for Daish and Ritsem to attack without fear,’ Kheda retorted.

Rekha nodded with a regretful moue. ‘Most domains honour you for that, but they still won’t risk their ships and goods in these waters. Not when we are all still unsure how deep the taint of magic runs in Chazen. Not when there are still the remnants of those unspeakable savages lurking in your westernmost isles.’

‘Then I’ll offer you valuable news to take north with you,’ Kheda said curtly. ‘I will be sailing to put the last of them to sword and cleansing fire just as soon as the new-year festivities are done.’

‘How long will that take, Kheda? Even one fugitive can lead a hunting party a merry chase and you dare not leave the smallest of islands until you are sure beyond doubt that not a single savage remains.’ Rekha shook her head. ‘Merchants won’t be sailing this far south, not till word sprearls that it’s truly safe and that won’t be soon enough to save your trade this year. And you need trade to restore this domain. You need tools and seasoned wood to rebuild, pots and cloth and so much else to refurnish your people’s homes. But merchants need not risk your waters. They have plenty of other places to trade their wares. And none of the neighbouring domains’ ladies will risk their standing with their people by ordering reluctant vessels south.’

Her tone became ominous. ‘You need ships and swords in case these invaders return. You need food to see you all through the end of the dry season, until the rains bring your next round of crops to harvest. You need full storehouses so your young men can be spared to train with those swords, rather than spending all their time with their hoes and their hunting dogs just to keep everyone fed.’

Chazen is fully mindful of her responsibilities and I of mine,’ interrupted Kheda.

‘We don’t want to see Itrac fail, Janne and I.’ Rekha moved to stand silhouetted against the evening light falling through the doorway. The silk of her dress was sheer enough that her slender nakedness beneath was clearly outlined. ‘We don’t want to see her rebuffed and humiliated if she tries dealing with the other domains herself. We want to help. We can make the trades for her. We can pass off Chazen pearls as our own.’

Did you think I would miss that calculating glint in your eye, Rekha, if I was satiated with the pleasures of your flesh! Do you think I have forgotten that your body has always been a commodity you trade when it suits you? No harm in that and you’ve often done well by Daish as a consequence. Not this time, though, and I am no longer Daish to admire you for trying.

‘All such matters are Itrac Chazen’s concern.’ Kheda skirted around Rekha to reach the door. ‘She is this domain’s first wife.’

‘First wife?’ Rekha called after him. When she had been third wife and barely wed a year to Chazen Saril, who chose her for her charms far more than her brains, Why shouldn’t he, when there was no reason to expect she’d have such burdens thrust upon her?’

She shook her head, so vehemently that her earrings jingled. ‘Which was all very well, Kheda, but now she has burdens beyond her strength to shoulder. How is she to fulfil all the duties of a warlord’s wives on her own;

Shouldn’t you be looking to your posterity by now!

There’s no sign of her being with child and there’s no chance she will quicken any time soon with you spending all your time apart, each busy about your own duties round the domain and seldom in the same residence inside the same phase of either moon.’

‘Is this why you’re here?’ Kheda rounded angrily on Rekha. ‘What are you hoping for? That I’d plough your furrow for old times’ sake and if you should prove fertile ground, I’d invite you to quit Daish for Chazen? Of course, as mother of this domain’s only child, you would naturally become first wife. Is that it? Are you finally tired of standing in Janne’s shadow?’

Or is Janne’s shadow falling between us here? This smells far more of her perfume than yours, Rekha. Andjanne would know what I have been missing through this long, solitary season. She was the one who first taught me the delights of the marriage bed, when I was just a callow youth and she the sophisticated beauty in her glorious prime.

Rekha’s stinging slap rocked Kheda’s head sideways and scattered his wrathful thoughts. ‘How dare you think I am anything but loyal to Daish,’ she hissed furiously.

‘Excuse me, Rekha Daish.’ He managed to turn his heated thoughts into icy formality. ‘As I’ll forgive you for presuming on our previous acquaintance to risk such a remarkable breach of etiquette in speaking to me like this. I will see you at dinner. I certainly don’t want to see you again before.’

Without a backward glance, he turned and walked swiftly out of the building. Two men pushed themselves away from the outer wall where they had been leaning. Both wore the same vivid blue silk that now clad all the household.

‘Dev.’ Kheda gave a curt nod to either side as they flanked him. ‘Jevin. How long were you there?’

‘Long enough,’ Dev replied smugly. ‘Do you want a poultice for that cheek?’ he asked with unctuous solicitude.

Kheda ignored the barbarian, fixing his attention on the Archipelago-born slave. ‘My lady Itrac will be most interested to learn what Rekha Daish had to say to me.’

‘Yes, my lord.’ There was a certain wariness in the youthful Jevin’s words.

‘Go and tell her everything, you understand me?’ Kheda paused on the steps of his personal pavilion. ‘I’ll bathe and come to her as quickly as I can. I want to know her thoughts on this before we dine with my lady of

Daish.’

‘Very good, my lord.’ Jevin loped off with alacrity. ‘Everything’s ready.’ Dev jerked his head towards the warlord’s personal pavilion. The slaves on the broad steps bowed low. With a grunt of acknowledgement for the hovering steward, Kheda went inside and crossed the cool cream-tiled hall to the bathroom door. ‘Out, all of you.’ His scowl cleared the room of a trio of anxious servants in an instant. Not, not you, Dev. Keep an eye on the path.’

‘There she goes,’ Dev observed, peering through the slatted shutters. ‘At quite a pace for such an elegant piece.’ The drawstring of his trousers was knotted stubbornly tight. Too irritated to try unpicking it, Kheda snapped the cord and kicked the garment aside. Stepping into the deep bath set in the floor, he emptied a ewer of standing water over his head. It was colder, than he had expected on his sun-warmed skin and he gasped. ‘Where’s she heading?’

‘That must be her slave waiting for her at the next bridge.’ Dev moved a little for a better view. ‘Yes, he’s tagging after her like a well-trained hound. She’s going back to the guest pavilion.’

‘To gather her wits in privacy.’ Kheda dipped a handful of aromatic liquid soap from a bowl and lathered his hair and beard briskly.

‘I reckon she might try for some privacy with you again before she goes back home,’ said Dev with lewd emphasis.

‘Then you will play the proper slave for a change and sleep across my threshold to keep her out.’ Kheda washed himself vigorously with a soapy cloth.

‘I don’t think so,’ said Dev with distaste. ‘I’ll find some little maid girl to keep watch on the footbridge and come and warn me if her ladyship goes for a midnight stroll.’

‘Find someone to keep an eye on that galley of hers.’ Kheda began rinsing away the suds that covered him. ‘I want to know exactly when she lets a message bird fly.’

‘Do you want it brought down?’ Dev suggested. ‘I could do that without anyone noticing and you can always blame one of the gull hawks.’

No.’ Kheda ran firm hands over his head and face to force water out of his hair and beard.

‘There have been plenty of Chazen courier doves winging their way home over the last ten days or so, from what Jevin tells me. I’ll go and check if any of them are bringing news from the west. You’ll want to know exactly where the remaining wild men are to be found, so you can plan your new campaign against them properly’ Dev threw Kheda a towel as he climbed out of the bath. ‘And whatever her haughtiness Rekha Daish might say, Itrac is managing to trade with other domains. At least, she’s found someone to give her enough silk to cover your arse in suitable style. Come and see.’

Drying himself, Kheda followed the barbarian through the door that led straight from the bathroom into his spacious bedchamber. Dev lifted two full-sleeved tunics from the broad, low bed. ‘The grey or the tan, my lord?’ he asked with mock obsequiousness.

‘I don’t suppose you thought to ask what Itrac will be wearing?’ Kheda considered the skilfully cut and sewn garments. The grey was a dark hue shot through with blue like a rainy-season cloud. The tan was a warmer colour with a vibrant golden gloss. There hadn’t been time for any embroidery on either, however.

‘As it happens, I did,’ retorted Dev. ‘Yellow, so the lad said.’

‘The tan then.’ Kheda reached for the trousers. ‘What gems do we have to dress it up?’

‘Precious few.’ Dev tossed the tunic across and Kheda pulled it over his head.

‘I suppose it’s too much to hope that any more of the domain’s heirlooms have come to light while we’ve been away?’ The cloth muffled his words.

No such luck,’ the barbarian confirmed as he unlocked a coffer set on a stand beside the bed. ‘I’ll bet Daish and Ritsem skippers are trading them even as we speak.’

‘Keep that opinion to yourself, barbarian,’ Kheda warned, ‘unless you want me to read your fate in your entrails when some mariner guts you. Archipelagans aren’t thieves like you northerners. We’ll find most of the loot with those last savages penned up in the west.’

‘Which is another good reason to finally see them all dead,’ said Dev with happy anticipation.

‘So you can try your hand at plundering the wealth they stole?’ Kheda challenged. Not when Itrac needs those talismans and heirlooms to trade for everything this domain so desperately lacks.’

‘You don’t think she’ll have enough pearls?’ Dev stirred the paltry selection of ornaments in the upper tray of the chest with a disdainful finger. What do you want out of here?’

Not pearls, with this colour silk,’ Kheda commented as he came to pull a fine gold chain out of a tangle of links. He took off his silver ring with its uncut talisman emerald and threaded the chain through it. ‘If you say so.’ Dev shrugged. ‘I never had to play the lady’s maid back home.’

‘Just be thankful I didn’t end up saving your skin by making you a slave to my lady wife,’ Kheda taunted as he slipped the chain over his neck and tucked the ring beneath the neck of his tunic. Do you think you would have liked learning how to paint Itrac’s face and nails? What else have we got?’

‘Turtleshell and that’s about it.’ Dev lifted out the padded silk tray to reveal variegated bracelets polished to a mirror finish.

‘Those will do.’ Kheda pushed a matched pair over his knuckles and thrust heavy gold rings on all his fingers. ‘And that belt.’

‘This one?’ Dev picked out the piece Kheda had indicated with his nod. It was made of plaques of turtleshell joined by chased gold links.

And carefully adjusted to fit me, not Chazen Saril’s greater girth.

‘And anklets to finish the set?’ Dev held out two more pieces with faint derision.

Kheda settled the belt on his hips and secured the clasp before taking the anklets and snapping them around the hems of his trousers, drawing in the loose cloth. ‘You don’t reckon much to turtleshell, do you? Nor pearls, if you’re honest, not for more than they can buy you. Why is that?’

‘Probably because I’m an ignorant barbarian with no understanding of their talismanic value,’ said Dev smoothly,

Or is it because you are a wizard? The savage mages that came with the invaders, they spurned pearls and turtleshell alike, seeking only to loot our gemstones. You claim to have no idea why. Is that the truth? Kheda let that question pass unspoken and unanswered. ‘Whatever Rekha’s plotting, I don’t think we’ll need armoured guards at dinner but you should wear your swords if not your hauberk. Go and get them.’

‘Yes, my lord.’ Sarcasm and relief weighted Dev’s words in equal measure.

‘And now I had best go to see Itrac’ Kheda smoothed his hair and beard, already as good as dry with the heat of the day slow to fade till the sun was utterly set. So we can decide our strategy before we go to dine with Rekha.

Chapter Four

Kheda headed for the door leading from the bedchamber into the hall. Dev followed and slid away towards the rear of the building.

The stocky steward who had been waiting outside the pavilion stepped up smartly and bowed low. ‘It’s good to see you back, my lord.’

‘I’m happy to be back, Beyau,’ Kheda replied courteously. ‘Is everything in good order here? Please, walk with me to my lady Itrac’s pavilion.’

Would you tell me if things weren’t going smoothly or try to fix any problem before I discovered it, rather than come and seek my counsel? How am I ever going to be wholly at ease with this household or they with me? Daish slaves knew they were free to speak their minds at all times, but we’d known each other since I was a child, for the most part. I don’t feel I know anyone here. But never take your servants for granted, that’s what Daish Reik always said, or one day you ‘ll stretch out your hand for something and it’ll stay empty.

‘We’re managing well enough now we’ve a full complement of servants,’ the steward said slowly as they walked across the island into the fast-fading evening light. ‘Hopefuls wash up with every tide but I’m not letting them stay unless they were part of the household before—or unless they look as if they’d be handy with a sword.’ He hesitated, muscular hands clasped behind his stiff back as he walked. ‘I’ve nearly doubled the warriors in your retinue.’

‘Those you’re sending away, are they returning to their homes?’ Kheda glanced at the man as they reached the first bridge over the shimmering water. Beyau’s burly build was ill-suited to the elegantly cut silk of a household slave’s formal tunic and Kheda noted that he still affected the close-cropped hair and beard of a fighting man. ‘Are you giving them all you can to help them rebuild what they have lost?’

‘All we can spare, my lord,’ Beyau assured him fervently before hesitating again. ‘Touai, who is first among my lady Itrac’s attendants, she thinks we could spare more if we weren’t maintaining so many warriors in the residence.’

‘Do we have the same numbers of swords as in Chazen Saril’s day yet?’

Kheda nodded as Beyau shook his head. ‘Then you can take on every likely swordsman until we do. The domain must present a decent Show of force to our neighbours.’

Not that all the swords of the Archipelago could turn aside the magic of the savages, if they invade again. ‘And you’re right to encourage those who are coming back to return to their homes, to rebuild their villages,’ the warlord continued. We need all hands working the land, not outstretched for unearned food.’ Then Kheda hesitated in his turn. ‘All able hands, that is. Are there many coming back unable to make shift for themselves, out of injury to mind or body?’

Is that one of the mysteries we might solve in hunting down the last of the savages? Why did they imprison so many of our people and treat them so abominably?

Beyau looked grim, dark scowl gilded by the sun on the far horizon. ‘Those who were held captive by the savages mostly just come back to die, my lord, if they come back at all.’

Dying of despair as much as the injuries they suffered being starved and beaten and worked till they dropped.

‘Whereas you came back to take up your father’s role.’

Kheda paused to look the thickset man in the eye. ‘Don’t think I don’t appreciate that.’

‘We’ll be ready for them if they ever come again.’ Beyau looked away, out over the southern waters, sword hand straying to the crescent dagger at his belt.

‘We will,’ Kheda assured him.

As long as you keep Dev happy, and keep his true nature a secret, so you can meet sorcerous fire with sorcerous fire. Can you really afford to send him away once he’s satisfied his curiosity about the savages? But what will these people think if they ever uncover such a deception?

Kheda gestured towards one of the islands on the outer edge of the reef where long huts surrounded a pounded expanse of sandy soil. ‘I take it you’re drilling the swordsmen yourself?’

Beyau looked uncertain. ‘I know it’s not my place—’

‘We’re none of us in the places we held before the invaders came,’ Kheda said unguardedly. ‘Your father may have been the residence steward but you were rising fast in the ranks of the guard—Itrac told me as much. There’s no one better to train them, is there? Tell me honestly,’ he commanded, seeing the man’s reluctance.

The steward squared his impressively muscled shoulders. ‘Jevin just isn’t used to assuming command, my lord, and some of the older ones aren’t inclined to take orders from a lad as young as him. I thought it best to step in till you returned.’

‘Good. Then you can continue taking charge until you find someone fit to be raised to captain. Dev’s less experience of command than Jevin,’ Kheda said bluntly, ‘and there’s nothing a barbarian can teach an Archipelagan about swordplay’

No, my lord.’ Beyau’s voice was neutral but a grin plucked at the corners of his generous mouth. ‘Mind you,’ Kheda said thoughtfully, Rekha Daish’s body slave, Andit, he’s both experienced and old enough to command respect among your would-be warriors. Your younger boys could learn some useful tricks from him, if you invite him to share in the daily training sessions while he’s here. I take it Jevin has extended the usual courtesies to him?’

‘I wouldn’t know, my lord,’ said Beyau stolidly, but I was thinking I might breakfast with him and Andit tomorrow.’

So Jevin still needs a hint or two. Let’s hope Andit will know how to give a few tactful suggestions to a lad thrust into precedence over a residence guard with no elder body slave’s example to follow. That wouldn’t compromise his loyalty to Rekha Daish.

They walked across the islet to the next bridge in thoughtful silence.

‘Where are we dining tonight?’ Kheda asked as they crossed the gently flexing planks. ‘And who is dining with us, besides Rekha Daish?’

‘A banquet is to be served in my lady Itrac Chazen’s great hall.’ Beyau didn’t hide his unease. ‘With all the shipmasters invited.’ He waved a hand at the various galleys and triremes safely anchored around the reefs.

‘Whose idea was that?’ Kheda frowned as they reached a sandy nub of reef where walkways branched off in several directions across the corals.

‘I believe it was Rekha Daish’s suggestion,’ Beyau answered neutrally. ‘My lady Itrac agreed it would be a splendid way to celebrate the turn of the year.’

‘Then you must have a great deal to organise. Don’t let me keep you. Unless there’s anything else?’ No, my lord.’ Beyau bowed low.

Kheda dismissed him with a nod and walked on alone.

So Rekha has some plan to show all the shipmasters—

what? That she and I still share the familiarity of husband and wife? That I still find her desirable? That Itrac has none of Rekha’s poise or her daunting experience in the complexities of trade? Itrac must want to make a fight of it, though, otherwise she’d have come up with some reason for the three of us to dine alone. Or would she have thought of that in time? I don’t think I need any omens to tell me this isn’t going to be a relaxing meal.

Seeing Chazen islanders on all sides as well as servants and slaves, Kheda went on his way with a calculatedly carefree expression, acknowledging dutiful obeisance with a smile. By the time he reached the wide island where the first wife of Chazen always dwelt, his face felt tense and his shoulders stiff under the heavy weight of the unspoken expectation he saw on every face.

The central pavilion was huge, a hollow square offering luxurious accommodation for the extended household customary for every noblewoman of an Archipelagan domain. Wings on either side would house her faithful retainers and those craftsmen she summoned from time to time to consult on the domain’s wealth and prospects. Lesser quarters for her countless servants and slaves were tucked discreetly away at the rear.

Kheda went up the broad, shallow steps and pushed open the wide double doors to enter the spacious hall that occupied one whole side of the building. The floor was tiled in soft green and the lofty walls were decorated with hangings of translucent silk painted with seascapes in countless shades of blue. There was room for Itrac to meet with every diver and polisher whose pearls and turtleshell she would trade for the good of the domain.

Two servants were unrolling a thick carpet of mottled-blue silk with white and silver fish darting through a pattern of green seaweed and a border of multicoloured squid. They froze at Kheda’s entrance, along with a waiting crowd of household slaves, their aims full of sapphire cushions. Outdoor servants in undyed cotton appeared at a side door carrying long, low tables and an indignant exclamation died away to nothing as whoever had uttered it realised that the warlord was among them.

‘Don’t let me inten-upt you.’ Waving away dutiful bows, Kheda walked across the hall and out through the tall doors on the far side into the enclosed garden beyond. It was hot and still, the mingled perfumes of vizail, jessamine and white basket flowers heavy in the air. Grey and scarlet shadow-finches were clustered in a corner of their aviary at the heart of the garden and barely chirruped as Kheda passed. Three different gaudy glory-birds in a spinefruit tree watched him without stining a feather.

Kheda walked slowly towards the steps leading to the central entrance to the fourth side of the pavilion’s hollow heart. Doors on either side stood closed and barred. The apartments for those children of the domain grown to an age of discretion and ready to learn all their complex duties from their first mother stood in echoing emptiness.

Even if Itrac invited me to her bed tonight and my seed took root, it would be many years before I had a son grown into his strength or a daughter grown to the wisdom needed to rule in her own right. I had sons and daughters in Daish and I loved them more than I thought possible. Could I ever love children born here in the same way?

Would Rekha come here as a Chazen wife? Janne would have no right to stop her bringing her younger children, the ones below the age of reason—Vida, little Mie and Noi.

You could see your daughters taught all they would need to know to rule Chazen. Vida could be promised to some lesser son of Ritsem or Redigal and the other two married to the heirs of those domains. Ritsem Caid and Redigal Coron were always your friends. Chazen would be more secure in its alliances than it has been for generations. Wouldn’t that be doing your duty by these people?

‘My lord Chazen Kheda.’ Jevin’s precipitate arrival beside him interrupted the perfidious notions that Kheda found so hard to shake off. The youthful slave opened the door with a smile of relief. ‘Your lady wife is pleased to see you.’

‘And Ito see her.’ Kheda recovered himself and went inside.

Itrac Chazen’s personal audience chamber was an airy room floored with the Ulla domain’s most prized lustre tiles. The sunrise-pink walls were hung with draperies of white silk painted with a riot of colourful birds flitting among nut palms and lilla trees. A low table of creamy marbled halda wood in the middle of the floor was surrounded by plum-coloured cushions. Kheda noted a litter of the thin silver cylinders that courier doves carried clasped to their scaly legs and slips of coiled paper fine as onion skin. Reed pens lay across an open inkwell in the midst of them.

‘I was glad to hear you’d returned safely. How fares our domain, my husband?’ Standing by the table, Itrac Chazen wore a gown of sunshine silk shot with a blush of pink, the whispering pleats of the full skirt belted close to her slim waist with a heavy golden chain. The modest bodice rose to a high neck, leaving her slender arms and shoulders bare. She wore a triple-stranded collar of lustrous pink conch pearls and bracelets of the same sea gems. More gleamed in the net of fine braids woven from her own long hair, holding the wealth of midnight locks off her face to cascade down her back to her waist. Subtle paints of gold and shell-pink made an exquisite mask of her eyes and mouth.

Well enough, my lady wife. I visited every major island and every group of lesser ones and the spokesmen brought me word of each village. There were few enough healers bringing illnesses or injuries for my advice and I didn’t need to sit in judgement on any disputes. Our people are busy rebuilding their homes and their lives and looking forward to a better future.’

Whereas you’re looking thinner than is good for you and even Jevin’s skilled hand with a cosmetic brush can’t hide your weariness and apprehension. Though I see determination in your eyes. That’s better than the grief and confusion when we first came here.

Kheda took her hands in his and kissed her chastely on one cheek. His skin was lighter than most in these southern reaches but Itrac’s was paler still, the colour of honey. With the much-mingled blood of the central domains, she was taller than most women hereabouts, with a sparer build. ‘I gather we’re to enjoy a dinner that will be a credit to the domain.’

‘As long as there are fish in the sea and fruit on the trees we won’t go hungry.’ Itrac’s taut smile faded a little. ‘Though I see us tightening our belts before the rains, even with us drying and pickling all the excess.

‘Daish must have some surplus, after Chazen labour helped to plant their sailer and reap their harvest last year,’ Kheda remarked with studied casualness. ‘You might like to propose some mutually beneficial exchange with Rekha.’

‘I gather she had hopes of some more personal exchange with you.’ Itrac’s hazel eyes searched Kheda’s green ones.

Now dashed, sadly for her.’ Kheda surprised Itrac with a grin and a nod at Jevin who was filling two crystal goblets with the pale wine of the Archipelago from a long-spouted ewer of gold embossed with silver sea birds. ‘As I hope Jevin told you. She seems very eager for me to interfere with your trading of the pearl harvest,’ he added sceptically.

‘I’ll bet she is.’ A smile lightened Itrac’s face, her teeth white and even.

Kheda narrowed his eyes as he accepted a goblet from Jevin. ‘That doesn’t sound like a wager I want to take.’ He sipped at the wine: refreshing without being intoxicating.

Because we want all our wits about us for dealings with Rekha. How can barbarians conduct their commerce or their warfare when they are so fuddled with alcohol?

‘I’ve been picking up the threads of the network that brought news to Olkai.’ Itrac’s voice wavered a little at the mention of the domain’s former first wife. ‘Some of her favoured craftsmen have only recently returned from Daish waters and they bring interesting news.’

‘Do they?’ Kheda couldn’t restrain a qualm at the notion of Daish concerns so blithely carried south. Itrac’s eyes shone with glee. ‘The pearl oysters have deserted the Daish reefs.’

‘A barren year?’ The shock left Kheda hollow.

What an appalling omen for Sirket’s first full year as warlord.

‘Which is why Rekha’s come looking for Chazen pearls to help them weather this calamity.’ Itrac’s tone didn’t bode well for the Daish woman.

‘Janne and Rekha are always prepared for a lean year,’ Kheda said slowly. ‘They will have pearls and nacre stockpiled, doubtless enough to settle trades already agreed with the Ritsem and Aedis domains.’

‘Then why is Rekha so desperate to get her hands on our harvest?’ Itrac challenged him. ‘And she is desperate, believe me.’

‘I know,’ Kheda assured her. He closed his eyes, the better to scour his memory as recollection teased him. ‘I think I have it. Rekha made a deal with Moni Redigal towards the end of the last dry season for a shipload of brassware. Redigal is owed a full eighth share in this oyster harvest as it leaves the sea.’

Itrac clicked her tongue. ‘Moth Redigal is always too ready to gamble. So Daish has its brassware in return for a cupful of pearls, if Moni’s lucky.’

‘Daish won’t relish such a bargain.’ Kheda drained his goblet. ‘How can they conceal this disaster, if Redigal boats are out on their reefs waiting for their share of the unopened oysters?’

‘Mori would want pearls equal to an eighth share of a fair harvest, at the very least, as the price of her silence.’ Itrac pursed her lips.

‘Which would seriously deplete Daish reserves.’ Kheda did his best to hide his concern. ‘And they would hardly want to trade the rest in case the reefs prove barren again next year.’

It happened in my grandsire ‘s time: a full seven years when the best reefs were bare and the lesser oyster beds offered only the poorest nacre.

What does this portend, when Chazen has the richest pearl harvest within living memory?

‘So Daish has a grave problem.’ Itrac looked closely at him. ‘And we have an interesting opportunity.’ And I am now of Chazen, not of Daish.

Kheda hid his misgivings in his empty goblet, pretending to drink. ‘How do you propose to make the best of it?’

‘What do you make of the omen in this?’ Itrac’s gaze still held his. ‘That Daish suffers such an ill-fated start to their year? Do we want dealings with a domain facing such misfortune? We have reason enough to shun their waters, after Chazen Saril died while enjoying their hospitality.’

Kheda’s mind’s eye showed him Chazen Saril’s agonised death once again.

Am I billy innocent because I had no notion that Janne was feeding all three of us mussels gathered after a red tide, potentially lethal? The wife of my youth and I had no idea she could be so ruthless, wagering all our lives against her judgement that Chazen Saril’s cowardice forfeited his right to rule and to life, and that my choice to cloak myself in a deceit of death and search out lore to counter the invaders’ magic forfeited any right of return to my own domain.

‘Chazen Kheda?’ Itrac’s pointed prompting struck him harder than Rekha’s slap to his face.

He blinked and chose his words carefully. ‘Whatever this portent means for Daish, we must consider Chazen’s situation. The safest seaways to the rest of the Archipelago run through Daish waters. Crossing open water to Redigal is far more dangerous for our galleys. If we don’t give Rekha something of what she wants, we risk her closing Daish waters to anyone wanting to trade with us. That’s if they have overcome their doubts about our domain’s recovery from the magic that swept over us last year.’

‘Word will have spread fast enough that the wild wizards spurned any wealth born of the seas and only sought gemstones.’ Itrac was scornful. ‘And I want the entire Archipelago to know that our new year is blessed with such a potent omen. I am not about to let Rekha pass off our pearls or our good fortune as her own.’

‘And Chazen needs so many things that you can buy with those pearls.’ Kheda inclined his head slowly. ‘Of course, drilled pearls are more valuable, as are finished ornaments made from the petals and dog’s teeth. But I do have some unwelcome news from my voyage around the domain, Itrac. Many of our best craftsmen fled the invaders to Daish waters and they’re slow to return, whatever Daish Sirket might decree. You might allow Rekha some limited share in our pearl harvest on the strict understanding that such valuable men and women of Chazen be sent home.’

‘Possibly.’ Itrac looked a little mutinous before smiling with new boldness. ‘You’re right to say it would be better to keep our access to their sea lanes. Trade with Ritsem is certainly easier with passage through Daish waters and I’ve a proposal for Taisia. Ulla Safar’s wives are doing all they can to deny Ritsem the limestone they need to smelt the iron ore they discovered last year. Given how little nacre our harvest yields, I propose to burn the oyster shells for lime. We can trade that with Taisia Ritsem for swords and armour.

‘An excellent opportunity for Chazen to help Ritsem and to snub Ulla,’ observed Kheda. ‘And no one will weep to see Ulla Safar’s power as the only purveyor of iron in these reaches undermined.’ / owe Ulla Safar and his pack of bitches every ill turn I can contrive. He would have killed me for pure malice before lifting a finger to help Daish against the invaders. But would all the warriors from the Ulla domain have been any use against magic?

Though without his attempts on your life, you ‘d never have been able to play dead and go in search of lore to combat the invaders’ sorceries.

But the price of that was being landed with Chazen and with Dev. And where is he?

‘Taisia Ritsem sends me plenty of news.’ Itrac didn’t notice his preoccupation, looking down at the message slips brought by the courier doves. Her voice shook a little. ‘For the sake of Olkai Chazen, who was her sister before she was mine.’

‘You could make it a condition of trading pearls with Rekha,’ Kheda said without thinking, ‘that Olkai’s bones are returned from the Daish tower of silence where we laid her.’

He looked through the far window over towards the only other tower on these islands. Out on the most distant islet at the far end of the reef, a tall wall with a single gate ringed a solid pillar. Unrailed stairs spiralled up the outside to the open platform where the most honoured dead of the domain were laid. There were no carrion birds wheeling around in the fading sky. There was nothing to bring them to play their part in returning all that the dead had been to the islands they had lived in, to bind them to the future of the whole domain.

Forgive me, Sekni Chazen, on your own behalf and for the three little children of the domain who died with you. There was simply no way of telling your charred bones from all those others killed here. At least you are buried with your people and your virtues will bless this residence at least.

‘I miss her so much.’ Itrac choked on an abrupt sob and tears spilled from her long painted lashes. ‘Olkai and Sekni.’

‘You did all you could.’ Kheda laid gentle hands on her bare shoulders and felt her trembling with the effort of holding back hysterical weeping. You brought Olkai out of the fires of the wild men’s attack. I used all the healing lore I had. There was just no saving her from such burns.’

Not with more than half her body blistered and blackened by magical fires. One of the kindest and most amiable women I have ever known, from her earliest girlhood as Olkai Ritsem. She was far more wife than Chazen Saril deserved, the best first wife this domain had had in a long while.

‘Perhaps—’ Itrac took a deep breath and wiped the tears from her decorated eyes with careful fingers ‘­it might have been better for the domain if I had died and she had lived.’

Never think that.’ Kheda tightened his grip on her shoulders. ‘When someone dies despite all we can do, we must accept that fate. All we can do is seek to understand the omens in that death.’

‘I’ll never understand why Olkai had to die like that. Omens are your business and trade is mine.’ Itrac twisted free of Kheda’s hands, her chin trembling. But perhaps I’ll make a deal with Rekha for Olkai’s bones. Then I might at least feel her presence in my dreams here.’

‘You will prove as fine a first wife for this domain as she was,’ Kheda said warmly.

‘You’ve seen that in the portents, have you?’ Itrac demanded with sudden brittle anger. ‘When I’m so terrified of dying like Olkai that I spend half my days staring out over the southern ocean, wondering when those savages will return? When every day I spend here reminds me of Sekni and the children she and Olkai bore to Saril, all dead at the invaders’ hands? I wake expecting their laughter and hear only the endless silence in their empty rooms.’

She pressed her hands to her flat stomach. ‘Don’t say it, Kheda. I hear it whispered in corners day after day. I see the way everyone looks at my belly before they look me in the eye, as if all I need is to get with child to make me forget the babies I took in my arms when they were still wet with their birth blood.’ Her voice rose in wild accusation. ‘And don’t tell me all the village spokesmen and half the shipmasters weren’t making tactful enquires after my health on your voyage. Or were they offering up travelling seers to predict an auspicious future for our children, as soon as I care to supply them? Well, I don’t care to, Kheda, not until you can show me a future beyond doubt where I’ll never see those I love murdered by wild men and their vicious magics. And I don’t care if that does send you to Rekha’s bed!’ Is this why Rekha came instead of Janne? Itrac would always have the advantage of youth over Janne’s grey hair and thickened waist. But she’s a bud blighted by drought and uncertainty compared to Rekha in the full bloom of her womanhood. And I see some things remain consistent in my marriages. Such as impossible conversations where I’ll be in the wrong whatever I say. But if I don’t at least try, I’m definitely condemned.

‘Itrac, listen to me.’ Kheda seized her shoulders again and this time he shook her, sending Jevin backwards with a fierce glare when the slave would have intervened. ‘Yes, I’ve had all the veiled hints you can imagine, and some not so veiled. True, the islanders would be greatly reassured if you bore a baby to the domain as token of your confidence in Chazen’s future. If you chose me to father your child, many would feel more certain of my commitment to them and their domain, given that I was not born here.’

He waved a hand at the darkening skies beyond the window where stars were now visible. ‘The Winged Serpent rides in the arc of the heavens where we could seek signs concerning children and serpents of any kind are a reminder of male and female intertwined. None of this gives me any rights over your choices. It is ever a wife’s prerogative to decide when and if to give her husband a child, from the least to the highest born in any domain.’

Itrac stood frozen between his hands. Kheda leaned forward to kiss her cheek once again before speaking more softly. ‘If you invite me to your bed, when you judge that the time is right, I will be honoured. You’re a beautiful and desirable woman. Forgive me if I haven’t made myself clear on that; I wanted to leave you to grieve for Chazen Saril in peace. I know you married him for love more than any affiance. I can wait, and if I find myself in need of companionship in the meantime, Pll find some bedmate who won’t exact the kind of price Rekha Daish would be seeking for her favours,’ he concluded frankly.

‘I’m sorry . Itrac stammered. ‘I shouldn’t have said—’

Kheda shook his head. Don’t apologise. We should have had this conversation long since but that’s as much my fault as yours. And since the subject of children has come up, you should think very carefully whether or not you want to me to father any child of yours. For every learned sage who declares an innocent touched by magic is not stained with it, there’s another who says merely being in the presence of magic taints us. I was in the presence of magic time and again, Itrac, however honest my motives. If you don’t want to risk blighting your baby’s future with such a father, I couldn’t blame you. There’s always Jevin.’ He was careful not to look at the youthful slave. ‘He was a gift from Taisia Ritsem and that domain’s certainly untouched by magic’

Are you untouched by him or have you already turned to him for consolation? Does it matter? I’ve no right to dictate who you may or may not take to your bed and Dev’s presence in my life doesn’t exactly leave me feeling very wholesome.

Itrac surprised the warlord with a tremulous smile. ‘I never thought of that—not Jevin, I mean, but the whole business of the taint of magic’ She shrugged. ‘If just encountering magic contaminates us with its evil, I’ve been touched along with everyone else who survived the savages.’ She shivered despite the warmth. ‘Have you had any news from the triremes to the west? I dream about those wild men out there over the horizon, and all they did to us.’

If a warlord’s prerogative is the reading of omens written in the world around us, it’s women whose dreams link their inner lives to past and future through the unbroken thread of blood.

‘The time has come to make an end of them,’ Kheda said firmly. ‘The portents are clear about that. As soon as we’ve celebrated the alignment of the new year, I’ll summon every swordsman and ship we can call on and cleanse every last isle of the domain. I’ll burn their bolt-holes to black ash and throw their splintered bones into the sea.’

Itrac’s eyes widened at his vehemence. ‘Be careful.’

‘I will be,’ Kheda assured her.

A peremptory knock on the door leading to the garden startled them both and Jevin hastily gathered his wits to hurry over to open it.

Dev stood there, scanning the room with amused curiosity. ‘Are we ready to dine with Rekha Daish in sufficient state to convince her that Chazen is set fair for a successful year?’ The barbarian mage was wearing a plain tunic and trousers of rich brown silk, his paired swords thrust through a wide sash. His coppery skin gleamed with oil and he wore a single earring, a ruby faceted in the fashion of the unbroken lands of his birth.

Not till I’ve seen to your cosmetics, my lady.’ Jevin spoke up apologetically. ‘You’re a bit smudged.’

‘Then there’s a messenger you might like to see, my lord,’ said Dev briskly. ‘If we’ve a bit of time in hand.’

‘I think we can feel free to keep Rekha waiting.’ Kheda kissed Itrac’s mouth firmly now that he didn’t need to be so careful not to mar her face paint. ‘Any lesser wife must expect to serve a first wife’s convenience.’

He followed Dev across the dusky garden and out through the reception hall where everything was nearly ready for the celebratory feast. They skirted servants carefully bringing in tall lamp stands and a slave boy waiting with a pitcher of oil.

‘Green oil, my lord,’ Dev observed with a grin, just to show anyone who might be wondering that Chazen trade-links still reach all the way to the unbroken lands of the barbarous north.’

Kheda glanced around the room. ‘We’re not exactly dressed to match the furnishings, though. That will give Rekha something to gloat over.’

‘Which will doubtless spur Itrac on to make the most profitable trades she can,’ said Dev comfortably, ‘so that she can invite all the neighbouring domain’s women here along with the Daish wives next year, to see hangings, carpets, cushions and everyone’s clothes matched to a shade. Care to make a wager on it?’

‘Was that the first Archipelagan habit you acquired?’ Kheda wondered. ‘Laying bets whenever you get the chance?’

Not that you have any true understanding of testing your perception of the present against the chances of the future. You just seize any opportunity to enrich yourself like the barbarian you were born.

Kheda paused on the outer steps and surveyed the wide expanse of the reef and lagoon. Triremes and galleys had their stern lanterns lit, rocking peaceably at anchor. A woman’s song swelled above the shimmering music of a round harp and laughter rang across the water as the resident islanders welcomed Chazen mariners and Daish newcomers alike to their celebrations. The pungent scents of finger-fish fried in peppery oil and spit-roasted ducks stuffed with herbs made Kheda’s stomach rumble. ‘There’s your messenger, my lord.’ Dev pointed to a drifting lantern and Kheda peered through the half-light to see a small boat picking its cautious way towards the far isle where his pavilion and the observatory stood.

It was a sturdy little vessel of the kind that travelled unremarked between the islands of a domain, with a capacious hold full of useful items. A boat easily handled by two crew and manageable enough for a solitary mariner who knew the ropes of its triangular rigged sail. A boat big enough for someone bold enough to sail across the more open seas to another warlord’s waters and negotiate for the pennants granting safe passage to go and see what was on offer at the beaches where islanders and traders swapped their wares. Kheda felt the first uncalculated smile of the day widen on his face.

Better not run, however much you want to. That would attract attention and someone would jump to a wrong conclusion or start some panic.

He began walking more briskly and, schooling his face into placid affability for the servants and islanders he passed, always kept the little boat in view as it nosed into a modest berth close by the observatory. Leaving the busier pavilions behind, Kheda made his way across the walkways to the far island as rapidly as possible.

Just as eager at his shoulder, Dev was concentrating on watching the little ship easing up to the unforgiving coral. You watch what you’re doing, girlie. That’s still my ship.’

Nice to see you, too, Dev,’ called the female mariner wielding a single weighty oar at the stern. Shipping her sweep, she threw out a heavy anchor that landed on the reef with a crunch. ‘You could come and lend a hand, you idle barbarian.’ She hauled on the rope to make sure all was secure.

Dev spread mock-apologetic hands. ‘My lord would hardly approve of me getting all dirty before such an important evening.’

‘The first thing I want is a decent bath.’ The girl wiped her forehead with the back of one hand before deftly throwing a loop of rope over a mooring post. ‘I’m sick of being all sticky with salt.’

‘Have you brought my Amigal back in one piece?’ Dev laid a proprietorial hand on the rail. ‘You can go aboard and satisfy yourself while Risala tells me her news.’ Kheda held out a hand to the girl. ‘Or at least the most important details. We don’t have long before we have to go and play our parts at Itrac’s dinner table.’

The girl jumped deftly over the little ship’s stern, ragged grey trousers hanging loose on her skinny frame, her overlarge red tunic patterned with faded black canthira leaves. She brushed tousled black hair out of her vivid blue eyes. Where can we talk without some maid bobbing up?’ She cocked her head at Kheda, thin face alert.

‘In there.’ Kheda nodded towards the observatory tower. ‘Dev, stay on deck and keep an eye out. Don’t let anyone interrupt us.’

Naturally, my lord.’ Dev’s face was intent as he climbed aboard the Amigal, keen eyes searching the mast, sail and boom.

No chance of you getting your dinner till he’s satisfied I’ve kept his precious ship safe.’ Risala chuckled as she followed Kheda to the round building at the base of the tower. With only the sun’s afterglow fading fast on the horizon it was dark inside.

‘Wait a moment.’ Kheda felt for the lamp set in a niche in the wall and found the spark-maker beside it. A few snaps and the toothed steel stuck a spark from the glaucous firestone to catch in the tandra-tree fluff. Kheda lit the lamp’s wick and crushed the flame from the tinder with licked fingers.

‘You haven’t forgotten how to do things for yourself, then?’ Risala was amused. ‘With all these slaves and lackeys running around after you again? I take it they’re all still as desperate to serve your every whim?’

‘Desperate to prove to themselves that things are back to normal. I do wonder if Chazen Saril ever lifted a finger for himself,’ said Kheda wryly as he led the way through the open archway to the half-moon hall beyond. ‘We of

Daish used to do the little things for ourselves when it was just us, when there was no one else to be impressed by the devotion of our servants keeping us in indolence. My father wouldn’t have it any other way.

He set the shell-shaped lamp on one of the several tables lining the long room. The warm golden glow reflected back from brass discs of all sizes hung on the walls, each engraved with curving lines like the patterns of tiles on the observatory floor and overlaid with a second disc pierced to the likeness of a net of burnished metal.

‘The ordinary islanders of Chazen were impressed to see you making shift for yourself when need be on your voyage,’ Risala said without preamble. ‘They like that idea much better than having you take them away from rebuilding their homes and re-establishing their vegetable gardens and sailer plots just to dance attendance on you when you visit their villages.’

Kheda was relieved. ‘How many days behind us were you?’

Risala swatted with a bony hand at an importunate insect humming around her head. ‘Five or six, depending on the winds and tides.’

‘Your arrival didn’t cause comment?’ Kheda moved to the unshuttered window and looked out towards the north, now hidden in the night. He pulled the fine cotton curtains closed to baffle the winged night-biters. ‘I didn’t see many boats on the waters as we travelled.’

‘There still aren’t that many people moving around the domain.’ Risala shrugged. ‘But most villages were happy enough to see a poet as they turned their thoughts to the new-year stars.’ She twisted a heavy silver ring set with an uncut emerald around on one finger. ‘And everyone knows poets are mad, so no one really asked why I was sailing alone.’

‘What did you say to those who did?’ Kheda asked.

‘That my brother who had shared the boat with me had drowned when we fled the wild men through a rainy season storm,’ Risala explained, ‘which generally set people off on their own tales of last year’s deaths and disasters.’

‘Are they still burdened by the past?’ Kheda lifted a hand to one of the larger star circles hanging on the wall by the window. The paths of every constellation were incised on the brass plate, heavenly jewels inlaid on the net, measuring bar precisely aligned across it. ‘I read the local omens for the new year wherever we stopped. The portents were positive as far as they went. Were the islanders inclined to take my word on that?’

‘I came across quite a few who’d won wagers with their neighbours over signs that said you were right. There were a few muttering about you not being born to the domain.’ Risala perched on the table by the lamp, bare feet swinging idly. ‘They wondered how you could hope to draw together the threads of the past hereabouts and see how the future would be woven. Don’t let that keep you awake at night. They were generally the ones complaining that you weren’t travelling in the style befitting a warlord and they mostly got short shrift from everyone else.’

She rubbed a hand through her tousled hair and yawned. ‘You wouldn’t have made any friends parading around in silks and jewels. Seeing the domain’s prosperity reflected in their warlord’s finery is all very well in times of peace and plenty, but not when half the islanders have to go naked if they want to launder their one pair of trousers. Most are quite content that you showed your commitment to the domain by driving out the invaders and then by claiming the lordship and manying Itrac when Chazen Saril died. They know full well they’d have been meat for the bone hawks if the domain had ended up without a warlord and Ritsem, Redigal and Ulla had joined battle over it.’

‘If they hadn’t been too afraid of the magic loose down here.’ Kheda moved closer. ‘They’re content not knowing exactly how I drove out the invaders?’ he asked with low intensity. ‘There aren’t too many wondering just how I managed to defeat the wild magic?’

‘There are enough survivors who were held captive in that final encampment and saw the savage mages fighting among themselves.’ Risala glanced involuntarily towards the archway and the darkness outside the hall. ‘Everyone I spoke to is happy enough to believe that a battle for overall power broke out among the strongest invaders and their wizards. No one but the three of us need ever know that it was Dev who started the slaughter with his enchanter’s illusions.’ She managed a crooked smile. ‘I found Bukai’s song cycle very popular, especially when I gave them the poet’s vision of the Winged Snake and the Sea Serpent eating each other’s tails. Everyone agreed the moral of that was more than proven: magic twists men’s natures and sweeps them to disaster like serpents mad with heat frenzy.’

‘Just as long as it doesn’t sweep Dev to disaster while he’s still masquerading as my body slave.’ Kheda pulled a stool out from beneath the table and sat down with a sigh.

‘Indeed,’ Risala agreed dryly, looking down at him. ‘I take it he’s still itching to go and see if there are any wizardly secrets to be learned from the last remnants hiding out in the western isles? The anchorage is full of the news that you’re going to lead a campaign against them instead of waiting for thirst and disease to make an end of them.’

‘It’s time to do it, now that I’ve acquitted my responsibilities in surveying the domain before the new year. There are portents saying as much wherever I look’ Kheda nodded, fingering a crystal inkwell with a silver lid. ‘What were the augurs around the islands saying? Do I need to fear travelling soothsayers muttering dire predictions of disaster under my rule?’

No,’ said Risala slowly. Not that they’re seeing a bright new future of peace and plenty, either. Most are talking about uncertainty, in the future and in the omens, and are sticking to strictly limited and local forecasts.’

‘Which is as good as I can hope for.’ Kheda nodded. ‘What else did you manage to do for me? We really need some means of getting reliable news from the domain, and fast, without having to rely on Dev snooping with his bowls of scrying spells.’

‘I’ve found us eyes and ears on all the big islands and in nearly all the coastal villages, and most are well placed to hear news from inland and from the lesser isles.’ Risala swung her legs, leaning forward with her hands on the edge of the table. ‘We’ve agreed a few basic ciphers and there should be enough boats doing the rounds to carry routine reports soon enough. Though the key men and women need courier doves, for the news we need fast.’ She looked at Kheda, black brows rising to be lost in her ragged hair. ‘I’ll ask Itrac for all she can spare.’ Kheda pushed the inkwell away. ‘I’m grateful for your help, as always. Now you’ve done this . . .’ He hesitated. ‘Don’t forget you’re free to sail north, to go back home, whenever you like. You were Shek Kul’s poet and emissary before you were mine. If you want to return to your own domain to make a new start with the new year, to tell Shek Kul how he helped me find the means to save Chazen—’

‘I think the last thing he’ll want to hear is that his suspicions were right and Dev did prove to be a spying barbarian mage,’ said Risala with a shudder. No, I’ll wait.

When Shek Kul sent me his token, he ordered me to do all I could to make these southern islands safe from the evils of magic. I don’t think we’ve achieved that yet.’ She twisted her heavy silver ring with its uncut emerald.

‘Do you think your lord would understand that we had no choice but to use Dev’s powers as the lesser evil?’ Kheda rubbed a hand over his beard, staring unseeing at the far wall with its array of star circles. ‘He gave us the blend of herbs to dull a mage’s powers.’ Risala laid a hand over Kheda’s where it rested on the table.

‘Don’t you think he intended we should use it to cripple the savage wizards so that we could kill them by less dubious means?’ Kheda looked up at the girl.

‘Which is what we did,’ she pointed out firmly, ‘as far as your friends among the neighbouring warlords and their wives are concerned. You needn’t favour the rest with any explanation.’

‘I don’t think Rekha believes that fireside tale of me as the bold hero, risking my own life to sneak in among the invaders to poison their mages’ cook pots, however far and wide you’ve got village versifiers proclaiming it.’ There was little humour in Kheda’s words. ‘I can’t see her and Janne letting their curiosity lie any time soon.’

‘You still have some of Shek Kul’s powder, don’t you? Couldn’t you show it to Rekha?’ wondered Risala.

‘And feed some to Dev to show her how it works?’ Kheda smiled to take the sting out of his words. ‘Then tell how we half-poisoned, half-blackmailed this mage from the north into using his own enchantments to defeat the sorcerous southerners? Then explain how we didn’t let him die of the wounds he suffered from their spells but patched him up and gave him the protection of being my body slave?’

‘When you put it like that, no, let’s not.’ Risala grinned back but Kheda could see the shadow in her eyes.

The same shadow that lies over me.

‘I don’t imagine Itrac would be any too pleased to learn just what her new lord and master is capable of,’ he said wearily. ‘And you could be certain Rekha would tell her. I don’t think the ladies of Daish want to see me making a success of this marriage they wished on us.’

‘You couldn’t very well do anything but many Itrac.’ Risala sounded indignant, folding her arms across her meagre chest. ‘When Janne Daish refused her further shelter and the domain she was born to spurned her as irrevocably tainted with magic. What were you supposed to do? Let some brute like Ulla Safar catch her, call her rape a man-iage and try claiming the Chazen domain for himself on the strength of wedding the last living survivor of the true warlord’s family?’

‘Since you put it like that, no, not really.’ Kheda shared another brief smile with Risala.

‘Speaking of Itrac, she’s making a fair job of patching up Olkai Chazen’s web of informers,’ Risala said briskly. ‘I found myself nearly tripping over their snares more than once.’

‘What are the islanders saying about Itrac?’ Kheda asked, diverted.

‘Half want to see her waddling around like a broody duck’ Risala was scornful. ‘The other half see that she has far too many tasks as it is to add the trials of pregnancy and childbed.’

‘Let’s hope Olkai’s informers pass on that message loud and clear,’ said Kheda with feeling. ‘And there’s no likelihood of Itrac inviting me to give her a baby any time soon—though Dev has his own explanation for that,’ he added sardonically. ‘Given that no domain would actively seek an alliance with such an insignificant warlord, he says that Saril plainly must have had something else to recom—

mend him to his wives. He reckons Itrac doesn’t want to risk taking me to her bed and finding I don’t measure up.’

‘That sounds like Dev,’ said Risala with contempt. ‘He should let his hair and beard grow in rather than shaving to look like a man’s man or a zamorin, even if he is a barbarian. Then some girl might take him to her bed just for the novelty of it and he’d be a lot easier to live with.’

‘Or even more intolerable,’ countered Kheda.

‘Mind you, there’s no end of speculation around the cookfires as to where you might find a nicely fertile second wife,’ continued Risala, blue eyes bright with mischief. ‘Or even a second and a third, to sit and nurse their swelling bellies while you and Itrac restore Chazen’s fortunes. You fathered enough children for Daish, so there’s no doubt as to your virility.’

‘That’s just what I need.’ Exasperated as he was, Kheda couldn’t help grinning. ‘Some lesser daughter prepared to risk the miasma of magic hereabouts in return for such a rise in her status. Have there been any rumours about who might put themselves forward? Perhaps that explains Rekha’s boldness.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Risala was puzzled.

‘Rekha Daish did her best to seduce me earlier.’ Kheda shook his head with mingled amusement and disbelief.

‘What did you do?’ Risala demanded with unexpected sharpness.

‘What do you think?’ Kheda raised his eyebrows. ‘I made my excuses and left as fast as I could, to try to work out what she was cursed well after.’

Risala cleared her throat.

‘Do you think I was tempted?’ On an impulse he didn’t stop to examine, Kheda reached out and took Risala’s hand.

‘Were you?’ She looked down at him, eyes shadowed beneath her raggedly cut hair.

‘A little.’ Kheda stood up and brushed the black locks away from her face with gentle fingers. ‘That bothers you, doesn’t it?’

‘Yes.’ She didn’t blink, sapphire gaze fixed steadily on him.

‘I missed you so much while we were on that interminable voyage.’ Kheda caressed her pointed chin. ‘More than I realised I would. More than anyone else. I missed having someone I can talk to without weighing every word. I missed having someone I could trust not to judge me. I missed having someone who knows the worst of me and is still my friend.’

‘I just missed you.’ Risala pressed her face against his hand.

‘As for Rekha Kheda shrugged. ‘I’m far more tempted right now.’

‘Good,’ she breathed. ‘It’s taken you long enough to get around to it.’

He bent and kissed her. Her lips yielded, roughened by wind and sun. He could taste the salt on her. Risala reached a hand up to the back of his neck to kiss him harder, demanding more. Kheda broke free to catch his breath. ‘I’ll never hear the last of it from Dev if I get my elegant new clothes all creased.’

‘That’s something else the islanders like about you.’ Risala kissed him again. ‘You’re not some Redigal Coron, to be ruled by your body slave.’ She lifted her other arm up to encircle his neck.

Kheda set his hands on either side of her waist and drew her close, feeling his own passion rising as he kissed her long and urgently. Risala closed her eyes with a sigh of fervent pleasure.

Kheda paused in his kisses, though he still held her tight. ‘Itrac doesn’t need her life complicated by me taking a concubine.’ As he spoke, he slid one hand beneath Risala’s loose tunic, feeling her warm skin, her firm ribs.

She lifted his hand to cup one of her modest breasts. ‘And I can hardly be your eyes and ears if every eye is on me.’

Not if people think you’re anything more to me than my poet.’ Kheda felt her enticing softness harden beneath his palm.

‘Because the servants and slaves will soon spread the gossip.’ She pressed herself against him, claiming his lips with her own.

‘So we really shouldn’t be doing this.’ He kissed her again. Not where anyone might see us.’ No,’ she agreed before kissing the corner of his mouth. ‘It’s foolishness.’

‘I could get used to this kind of folly.’ Kheda shivered involuntarily. ‘But they would call you an old man’s folly.’

‘I’m old enough to know my own mind.’ Risala’s words were muffled by his kisses. ‘And you’re in your prime, not your dotage.’

‘Jevin, is that you? Are we wanted?’ Dev’s voice, artificially loud, rang out in the night beyond the archway.

Risala released him from her embrace and Kheda reluctantly wrenched himself away. ‘And speaking of folly, I have to go and spend a charming evening trying to stop Rekha and Itrac scratching each other’s eyes out before we’ve seen the new-year stars align themselves.’ Despite the heavy footfalls on the steps outside, Kheda kissed her one last time, swift and thorough.

‘I don’t think I have a poem suitable for that.’ Risala slid down from the table and tugged her tunic straight. ‘So I’ll go and get that bath I was talking about.’

Kheda took a deep breath to try to calm his racing blood at the notion of her wet nakedness. ‘Are we going to continue this conversation?’

‘What conversation?’ Dev appeared in the archway.

‘When we can find the time, and the privacy.’ Risala looked at Kheda, her expression eloquent. ‘What’s going on?’ Dev demanded with scant courtesy. ‘Any news I should know about?’

Not as such.’ Kheda walked swiftly past Dev and out into the velvet night where the lamps along the walkways glowed like amber. ‘Just an unexpected turn of events.’ He smiled into the darkness. ‘And a reminder that the unexpected need not always turn out badly.’ He took another long, deep breath and strode towards Itrac’s distant pavilion, leaving Dev hurrying to match his pace.

Though best not get there too soon or Rekha will certainly see that you welcomed another woman’s embraces after you spurned her. This evening’s going to be fraught enough without adding that complication

But what will tomorrow bring, if you and Risala can find somewhere away from the ever-present eyes?

Chapter Five

Well, we won’t be overheard, but I wouldn’t call this private, Kheda.’ Risala looked around the deck of the Amigal and then up at the Gossamer Shark towering above the little ship. Dev looked down on them both, stony-faced, from the rail above. ‘What made you change your mind about continuing what we began in the observatory?’ she asked bluntly.

‘I was hardly in the mood for dalliance after an evening sitting between Rekha and Itrac,’ Kheda said ruefully. ‘And besides, as I saw all the shipmasters watching our every move, weighing our every word . . .’ He sighed. ‘I really cannot complicate Itrac’s life by being seen to take another woman. And you were right: you can hardly be my chief spy with everyone knowing you’re my lover.’

‘And if they don’t know?’ Risala looked steadily at him. ‘What then?’

Kheda hesitated.

‘What then?’ the girl asked again. ‘Come on, Kheda, there are no secrets between us. I want to know where I stand. I’ve been waiting for eight days. You didn’t even come to tell me you were launching this expedition the very next morning. I had to hear it from Dev.’ Her tone was reasonable but firm. There was a sign when we read the stars: silverlight shimmering all around the Ruby and the Spear,’ Kheda began slowly, ‘which were opposite the arc of foes, which is where the new-year stars aligned.’

‘I didn’t ask why you decided to launch this expedition so quickly,’ Risala began. ‘Never mind.’ She turned away from Kheda, reaching a hand out towards the little ship’s mast.

‘And there’s this,’ Kheda said abruptly. As Risala turned back, he dug into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a string of tiny shark’s teeth pierced and threaded on a narrow leather thong. ‘When I was taking the omens at the pearl reefs, they caught a shark for me. There was an infant shark inside it. It nearly bit me as I read the entrails.’ He tossed the shark’s teeth necklace over and Risala caught it reflexively. ‘An infant shark alive inside its mother? I’ve never heard of such a thing.’ Risala looked wide-eyed at the talisman for a long, tense moment. ‘The last wild wizard, the one that we had to hunt down, he wore a necklace of shark’s teeth. Is that what you’re thinking of? What do you think such a sign could mean?’

‘I don’t know what I’m thinking,’ Kheda said rather wearily. But yes, I remembered that savage wizard.’ The warmth of his blood on my skin when I caught him and cut his throat from ear to ear. The weight of him in my arms and the stench of his death. Dev tells me to souse such memories in liquor. Is that why the barbarians drink so much, to make killing easier? Don’t they see how that devalues their deeds?

‘After I left Itrac and Rekha, I spent most of that night seeing if Chazen’s forefathers recorded any lore on sharks that might explain such a portent.’ Kheda shook his head. ‘I found nothing to make sense of it. But after what you said about not having fulfilled Shek Kul’s commission, it set me thinking how we need to be free of all these invaders and all their mysteries.’ He looked at her. ‘That applies to you and me as much as to the Chazen domain. We can’t look to our future until we’re free of the past.’ Risala made a noncommittal noise. ‘Then let’s get rid of these last savages as soon as we can. What exactly do you want me to do?’

Kheda looked out across the broad blue channel where the fleet of boats was riding a substantial swell. ‘We know they are still infesting the Snake Bird Islands.’ He gestured towards green tufts of islands barely visible on the horizon. ‘And I very much doubt any would manage to escape the Gossamer Shark’s patrols, even if they didn’t simply drown in these waters. All the same, I want to be certain there is still no sign of any of the vermin lurking in Balaia or Dalao.’ He turned to look at a scatter of long, low islands on the far side of a vast reach of shallows where sea grasses grew thick, placid brown and grey turtles grazing on them. ‘Can you sail around the villages and make doubly sure for me?’ Because I can’t spare any swordsmen for such a duty. Because even if I can’t take you to my bed, I’m torn between wanting you close to me but wanting to keep you out of danger.

Risala looked around the small fleet idling on the waters. ‘I take it there’ll be someone keeping station hereabouts, for me to report to and who will send you a courier?’

Kheda nodded. ‘The Yellow Serpent has earned that privilege.’

‘Then let’s be about it.’ Risala looked up at Dev’s impatient face and smiled sunnily before offering the string of tiny shark’s teeth back to Kheda.

He waved it away. No, you keep it. The one piece of shark lore everyone agrees on is that their teeth are a talisman against drowning or their attack. I want you kept as safe as possible.’ He looked at her and hoped she could see the longing in his eyes.

‘You keep yourself safe, too,’ she said huskily before lifting her fingers to whistle shrilly to the trireme. Now go on and do what you have to do.’ She turned her back on him and went to unlash the little ship’s tiller, to guide the Amigal close to the looming trireme’s stern.

Kheda watched the dangling rope ladder carefully and caught it deftly. He climbed, resolutely not looking behind him.

There should be no secrets between us. Every time I say there aren’t, I wait for the thunderclap or some other sign in a clear sky to set everyone wondering who the liar is and what falsehood has been spoken. Though I haven’t lied. I just haven’t told you all I might. When we have time to ourselves, there’s more I will tell you. Will you be able to explain it to me? In all Rekha’s endless chatter about the Daish domain, how they are thriving, all the children and Sirket most of all, as she gave me message after message from Janne, she made no mention at all of Sain, beyond assuring us in passing that Daish’s erstwhile third wife is prospering in her trades for the domain.

Did Sain truly send no message? Am I dead to her? Or is she so full of hate or sorrow that there was no expressing it? How well did I serve her, in offering her Daish wealth and status in return for alliance with her brother’s domain of Toe, with its sheltered sea lanes to the eastern reaches, beyond Ulla Safar’s fat and grasping hand?

None of the women who’ve shared my bed seem to relish the memory or to have profited by it. Itrac Chazen doesn’t even want to take the chance. Hadn’t I better wait for some more hopeful portent before embarking on any new liaison?

Especially with Risala. I never felt such longing for a woman before, such fear that I might lose such a jewel.

‘Are we ready to go, my lord?’ Dev reached out a hand and helped Kheda over the Gossamer Shark’s stern rail.

‘We are.’ Kheda nodded to the shipmaster, resolutely ignoring the dull ache of desire for Risala that perversely was slower to fade every time he thought of her. ‘Let’s make for the Snake Bird Islands, Master Mezai.’

‘As you wish, my lord.’ The mariner waved a signal to the rowing master on the oar deck below and folded muscular arms across his sleeveless mantle, a short garment of pale blue patterned with waving sea grasses. The rowers bent over their oars and the sail crew hurried to spread the great expanse of billowing canvas hanging from the square-rigged mast to take advantage of the wind at their stern. Even with this bonus, the rowers still toiled long and hard to cross the dark-blue waters where the shallows fell away into mysterious darkness. His record of these reaches tucked in his lizardskin belt, Shipmaster Mezai stood close to his helmsman, lending his strength to the steering oars as the fierce current sought to drag the heavy vessel off course. Kheda watched astern as the little fleet slewed across the waters, fighting the insistent tug of the seas that would so easily sweep them out to battle the dangers of the open ocean.

We have different battles to fight and I have calculated our voyage carefully to arrive on this day of such ill omen for our enemies. The Greater Moon is dark and rides unseen in the arc of the heavens where our foes might look for signs in their favour, while the Lesser Moon has moved to the arc of alliance where the Mirror Bird spreads its wings in defiance of magic, to reflect the future from the heavens to the earth beneath.

He felt the solid weight of one of Chazen Saril’s star circles in a pocket of his trousers. It was one of the smallest ones, barely the size of his palm, as well as one of the oldest, the engraving on the brass plates worn faint and the metal dull with use.

A good choice for a talisman as I seek to protect this domain, surely? This isn’t a good time for delay, though. A few days and we’ll see one of those curious cascades around the compass that realigns the heavens completely.

‘Time to get your armour on, my lord.’ Dev’s impatient voice brought him promptly back to the prospect of a fight.

If I can’t enjoy the release I long to share with Risala, I can at least work out some of my frustrations with a sword.

By the time Kheda had donned his padded under-tunic and gleaming hauberk, this time remembering his hated plated leggings, the Gossamer Shark was entering the placid turquoise waters between a small reef and an even smaller island. Two fast triremes followed her, with the three additional heavy vessels that made up this armoured flotilla bringing up the rear. A white beach lay like a crescent moon against a thin strip of meagre forest sheltered by the central rise of the island. The long grassy hillock reached from one end to the other, falling away on the far side to a ragged shoreline of broken rocks offering no haven for any vessel.

‘There was only the one village here?’ Kheda surveyed the wretched remnants, now silent and empty among the nut palms and berry bushes. The little settlement still showed all the devastation the invaders had wrought. All but the largest huts had been torn apart by unnatural winds summoned to some savage mage’s service. Unquenchable fire called out of the empty air had burned the sailer granary to ash, now washed by the rains into a black stain between the charred stilts that had held the precious store aloft. Paradoxically among all this destruction, the invaders had built a crude stockade from rough-hewn forest wood. One side of this had been broken down where Daish or Redigal swordsmen had rescued those hapless Chazen islanders who had been thrown inside. The half-hearted attempt at a ditch dug across the open beach was already filling with windblown sand and the sharpened stakes that had been cut to give it teeth were tossed haphazardly at the bottom.

By the time the rains come again, I don’t want to see any such signs of ruined lives and hopes left standing to blight our future. Let that be a test of my leadership, that I did right in taking on this troubled domain. That I did right in bringing barbarian magic to deprive those savages of the magic they relied on, so that we could finally put them to the sword.

‘Do we know for certain there are still savages hiding out here?’ Dev demanded, leaning over the side rail to peer intently into the tangle of vegetation.

‘We hear them in the night, if we anchor off the reef Mezai nodded dourly. ‘Shouting their gibberish. There are screams, sometimes.’

‘You’re sure there are no Chazen islanders left here?’ Kheda demanded.

‘Sure as we can be.’ A frown creased Mezai’s broad face as he rubbed a hand over his sweating head. Some ancestor from the far western reaches had bequeathed him sparse, tight curls that dotted his head like peppercorns.

‘Let’s make quite certain, shall we?’ Dev grinned viciously at the Gossamer Shark’s fighting force now lining the side rails. A full complement for the heavy trireme, drawn from the Beyau’s hopeful warriors, was and eagerly seeking out any sign of their elusive foe. The archers in particular were keen to find a target for their newly forged battle arrows. ‘I don’t imagine they’ll last long against Aldabreshin steel with their fire-hardened pointy sticks,’ the mage continued confidently.

Just how do you expect to learn anything from these savages, even supposing we can capture one alive for you to interrogate? Just how does a wizard go about seeking such answers, anyway? Some torment of sorcery? How do you expect to do that undetected?

Kheda glanced at the barbarian before turning to acknowledge the swordsmen’s commander as he approached the stern platform. ‘Are all your men ready, Arao?’

‘They are,’ the tall warrior confirmed, his face the colour of old bronze in the bright sun. His armour was mismatched and well worn and he moved in it with the ease of long familiarity. His swords were some of the finest Kheda had ever seen.

‘Remind them that these savages might still be rousing themselves with that root pulp they chew,’ Kheda said tersely. ‘If they are, they’ll fight through pain that would ordinarily drop the bravest Archipelagan.’

‘I remember.’ The warrior cracked the knuckles on his dark-brown hands. ‘I told the lads.’ Kheda saw the swordsmen looking his way and favoured them with a confident, approving smile. He looked for Ridu but couldn’t pick the youth out of the armoured mass.

‘Do we know if there’s water here year round?’ Arao looked to Mezai. ‘If so, we can look for them at the springs.’

‘There’ll still be water here for at least another turn of the Greater Moon,’ Mezai confirmed. They drew closer to the shore and a shiver of anticipation among the Gossamer Shark’s swordsmen sent a rattle of chain mail the length of the boat.

‘We’re not going to learn anything paddling around out here,’ said Dev abruptly. ‘Let’s get ashore and start turning over rocks to see what crawls out.’

‘I’d say they’re hiding in those scrubby trees.’ Arao peered at the meagre forest running around the margin of the little island.

‘Then let’s reclaim this land for Chazen.’ Kheda looked from Arao to Mezai. ‘Signal the Dancing Snake, the Shearsword and the Brittle Crab to land their forces with us. I want the Green Turtle and the Lilla Bat to circle around to the far side and come in as close as the coral allows. We’ll beat our way across the island, dig out any burrows and kill whoever we find. They can fill anyone running out of the trees with arrows, and any of them trying to swim for it on a nut log or some such. They may have made rafts.’

Arao nodded. We don’t want the vermin on the other islands knowing we’re here to put paid to their wickedness any sooner than need be.’

‘My lord.’ Mezai blew lustily on his curled signal horn. The light Green Turtle and the heavy trireme the Lilla Bat immediately wheeled about, each ship showing a curl of white foam like bared teeth along its brass-sheathed ram.

There was absolutely no movement among the ruined dwellings as all four remaining triremes deftly turned stem-on to ground on the shelving white sand. Stern ladders were thrown down from the Dancing Snake and the Shearsword and the warriors slid into the shallow water, swords drawn and fearsome challenge in their shouts. They raced ashore, the twin columns from the two heavy triremes spreading out to line the beach with steel, sunlight bright on their armour. Earl boat’s swordsmen looked to their captain. The captains shared a nod and all began a slow advance up the white sand. They reached the village unchallenged and then stopped.

As the Gossamer Shark’s warriors disembarked to wait in reserve on the water line, Kheda saw a few men prod with their swords at ragged panels of woven palm ripped from huts. Others gathered together in uncertain knots, glancing at their captains for guidance.

Every man as tense as a jungle matia out to kill a cornered snake, confident in its sharp white teeth and thick brindled fur but with no wish to risk a bite all the same. And if you had a matia’s striped tail, you’d be lashing it, wizard.

‘There’s no one to fight,’ said Dev with disgust.

‘There’s something amiss.’ Kheda moved to the ladder, his feet feeling sweaty, cramped and clumsy in his armoured leggings. ‘I’m going ashore. Tell them to shoot anything that looks like a threat.’ Kheda gestured to the archers now clustered along the Brittle Crab’s decks and on the fast trireme’s stern platform, searching the threadbare cover of the trees and bushes in vain for any target.

‘My lord.’ Mezai didn’t dare openly disapprove of Kheda’s decision but his feelings were obvious. ‘There doesn’t seem to be any immediate danger.’ Dev was peering intently at the scene on shore.

As he spoke, one of the Gossamer Shark’s sword captains moved up the beach to a heap of debris and levered a fallen palm panel aside. He recoiled sharply and swords rose on either side of him in a snarl of bright steel.

‘Let’s see what’s what, my lord.’ Dev’s voice was tight with frustration.

Kheda nodded, seeing faces turning towards the poised ships, a few of the swordsmen pushing up the visor plates of their helmets, visibly bemused. ‘Whatever it is looks to be more of a puzzle than a threat.’ Dev was already sliding down the heavy trireme’s stern ladder with alacrity. Kheda hurried after him, the crystal water of the shallows dragging at his thighs. An unmistakable, loathsome scent tainted the lazy breeze as they reached the shore. Sickly sweetness with an underlying rankness twisted Kheda’s stomach and he saw dark smears in the furrowed sand half-concealed by the trampling feet of the swordsmen. So it’s not such a hardship after all to have some leather between your feet and whatever slaughter went on here.

The armoured men parted to let the warlord and his supposed slave pass, seriousness on every face, coloured by confusion.

‘What have you found?’ Kheda demanded of the battle captains.

‘Dead meat,’ said the senior man from the Dancing Snake helplessly.

Kheda frowned. ‘Let me see.’

‘And keep a watch while we do,’ snapped Dev, shooting sharp glances in all directions.

The other captains shouted orders, sending their men to line the forest edge and bar any attack from the paltry trees. The Dancing Snake’s man led Kheda to the pile of rotting palm panels and the scent of decay strengthened.

‘There’s a body?’ Kheda looked from the Dancing Snake’s sword captain to the Gossamer Shark’s Arao, demanding an explanation. ‘Ours or theirs?’

‘Hard to say.’ Arao hooked the corner of the topmost panel with his sword and hauled it aside. Blue-backed flies buzzed with displeasure, scattering to circle around the men’s heads before returning to their enticing discovery. It wasn’t a body—at least, not all of one. There was just a foot, not even with the stump of its ankle attached. Half-buried in the dark, stained sand beside it was most of an aim, raggedly severed half-way between shoulder and elbow.

Kheda sank to his knees to study the remains more closely, trying not to breathe in the putrid smell. In death the skin was a greyish muddy colour, bruised and swollen. In life, it could have been any of the vibrant brown hues that characterised the Chazen people.

Or the dark skin that the invaders hide beneath their paint and mud.

‘I’ve seen shark kills washed up in pieces like that,’ Arao said dubiously.

‘I’ve heard tell of fishermen losing feet to beaked turtles. Could it have just washed up here?’ The Dancing Snake’s man looked at Kheda with more hope than conviction.

‘This hasn’t been in the water,’ Kheda said firmly.

‘How long’s it been here?’ asked Dev.

‘A couple of days.’ Kheda noted the tiny yellowish maggots clustered along the raw surface of the severed foot, fighting blindly to squirm beneath the skin and gorge on the bounty beneath. Flies aren’t fussy feeders. Pearl oysters, human flesh, it’s all the same to them.

Arao swallowed hard and looked down the beach. ‘We’d better find out what else is here.’

‘Yes,’ said Dev absently. He was staring across the beach towards the trees, his eyes distant.

You’re fidgeting as if you’ve got maggots under your toenails. And from the look in your eyes, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you ‘d been pickling your wits with your cursed barbarian liquor.

‘Dev, come with me,’ Kheda said sharply.

‘What?’ Dev looked at the warlord, slow to collect himself.

‘Arao, I want every piece of wreckage or driftwood turned over. I want every stain on this beach dug up. I want every one of those torn apart and anything inside laid bare!’ Kheda was already walking across the sand, pointing this way and that at the derelict huts. Arao reinforced his orders with terse shouts and the warlord turned to Dev as the barbarian caught him up. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ Nothing,’ snapped the wizard.

Almost immediately, shouts came from several directions. A man prodding a stain in the sand had found something, as had a group scattering a heap of tide-washed detritus with their swords. One held up a second severed foot on the point of his blade.

‘Do you think we’ve got a pair?’ Dev chuckled, dark eyes shining oddly.

Kheda caught a look of contempt from Arao as the other swordsman overheard.

I know just what you’re thinking: he’s still an ignorant, star-crossed barbarian, even if he does wield Aldabreshin steel in the service of your warlord.

‘What’s over there?’ Kheda looked towards two men investigating the space beneath the raised platform of the mined sailer granary. Whatever they had found was enough to drop one to his knees, vomiting noisily.

‘Let’s see.’ Dev hurried towards them. Scowling, Arao took up the body slave’s station at the warlord’s side.

Kheda had to stop and take a determined swallow to settle his own stomach when he saw that two Shearsword men had dragged the head and shoulders of a man out from beneath the splintered wood. The corpse still had both his arms but that was all. Shattered ribs were ground into a gory mess of torn flesh along with the broken remnants of his shoulder blades. All that remained below that was a short tail of vertebrae clotted with blood and sinew.

‘At least he’s not one of ours, one of Chazen,’ the swordsman who’d managed to retain his breakfast said through clenched teeth.

The dead man was unmistakably an invader. His coarse, wiry hair was caked in coloured mud with small bones and black feathers tipped with scarlet woven into it. Handprints in a thick white paint made a pattern of sorts down each arm.

‘Their leaders decorate themselves like this.’ Kheda used his own sword point to turn one of the broken corpse’s hands. The fingers were torn and scored, vicious wooden splinters sticking out of the dead flesh. ‘But no wizard, I would say.’ He risked a brief questioning glance at Dev.

The barbarian shook his head, bending to peer into the empty gloom beneath the buckled and splintered floorboards of the granary. ‘I’m more interested in what killed him. That’s cursed drastic damage to do with stone knives and wooden clubs.’

‘I can’t see anything like a clean cut.’ Kheda stood up and considered the torn margins of the severed chest. No Archipelagan blade did this.’

‘There’s one of those stone knives over there, my lord,’ the Shearsword man with the stronger stomach volunteered.

Kheda looked where the sharp-eyed warrior was pointing and saw dull black obsidian in the white sand. There was no sign of blood or tissue on the invader’s blade. ‘Why would he throw his weapons away?’

‘Surrendering?’ Dev was still studying the partial corpse, baffled. ‘And then what? There are no swords anywhere. Are we supposing whoever caught the poor bastard held him down and sawed him in half with a sharp bit of broken rock?’

That thought set the hapless Shearsword man who’d made the gruesome find spewing hopelessly again. ‘Go back to your ship.’ Kheda clapped the warrior on one mail-clad shoulder. ‘Get some clean air in your lungs and a little fresh water in your belly. Nothing else, mind, not for a while. You, go with him.’ He nodded to the other swordsman. ‘You’ve acquitted yourselves well enough for today.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ the unafflicted wanior said gratefully, bowing low before shepherding his companion down towards the sea.

‘Arao, go and see what your men are turning up.’ As the warrior walked slowly away, after a last dubious look at Dev, Kheda took a few steps to distance himself from the pungent remnants of the dead savage. He turned to Dev, his voice low and urgent. ‘You’re sure he wasn’t one of their wizards?’

‘What?’ Dev looked vacantly at Kheda for a moment.

No.’ The barbarian shook off his abstraction and laughed briefly. ‘He wouldn’t have been hiding under a granary floor if he had been.’ The barbarian wizard’s face hardened abruptly. ‘Though something very odd has gone on here.’

Before Kheda could ask what he meant, one of the Dancing Snake’s sword captains hailed them from over by the remnants of the invaders’ stockade. Kheda led the way past reluctant swordsmen uncovering more mangled remnants of flesh and bone.

‘You were right to say this is a puzzle, but I still don’t think we’ve enough bits to make more than a couple of people,’ remarked Dev.

Kheda ignored the barbarian as he looked inside the crude wooden circle, one side of it almost completely broken down, the timbers half-buried in the sand.

‘Do you want a head count?’ the Dancing Snaked wanior offered reluctantly.

‘Add up the feet and divide by two?’ Dev suggested with the hint of a grin.

The inside of the stockade was a charnel house. Blood splashed up the inner faces of the crudely split logs, dried black by the hot sun. Black flies clustered on broken limbs and half-crushed heads scattered piecemeal across the torn and sodden earth. Fat, pale maggots writhed where their feasting had been disturbed, squirming in noxious slime pooled in shaded hollows. The stench in the enclosed space was revolting and Kheda retreated hurriedly.

‘Shipmaster Mezai heard screams in the night.’ He turned his back on the carnage. ‘They must have been fighting among themselves.’

‘There can’t be much food on an island like this.’ Dev stared past Kheda at a lifeless head, as if he might read some answer in the clouded, oozing eyes rimmed with greedy flies. ‘Do you suppose they ended up eating each other?’

Kheda saw one of the warriors turn away, face anguished.

You lost someone, family or friend, to the invaders. This reminder of their suffering must be excruciating. He shot the barbarian a quelling look. ‘They may have grievously mistreated the captives they took but there was never any sign of such an obscenity.’

‘They’d have kept prisoners fed and watered if they were going to end up on a spit, even fattened them up, maybe,’ Dev persisted thoughtfully, heedless of Kheda’s glare. ‘Besides, they used to take the elders, all scrawny and tough—’

‘Enough!’ Kheda silenced Dev with a hard slap on the side of his helm with his mailed gauntlet. He didn’t allow anyone, swordsman or barbarian, time to speak before giving new orders with cold determination. ‘Arao, search this isle from end to end and side to side. If there’s anything larger than a palm rat in those trees, I want to see it running scared. If we catch a single living savage, we will find some way of getting answers out of him. In the meantime, bring some sail crew ashore to gather up this carrion. Throw it all in this stockade and pile every other bit of wood on top. I want this vileness burned to ashes!’ He had barely finished speaking before Arao’s lead had the sword captains summoning their men with curt commands, dividing the warriors into troops. As the swordsmen began disappearing into the scrubby forest, swords raised, tense and alert, sail crews from the triremes disembarked and set about the gruesome task of cleansing the beach.

‘Come on, let’s see what’s what.’ Dev headed for the fringe of nut palms, his bald, leathery face uncharacteristically eager.

‘Where do you think you’re going?’ snapped Kheda.

The barbarian turned, dark eyes momentarily confused. You want me to scry out these savages here in the open?’

‘I don’t want you doing anything just at present.’ Before Kheda could continue, a shout rang through the trees. Archers aboard the Brittle Crab swung their bows up ready, barbed broad-headed arrows nocked.

‘Shearsword! ShearswordP Two swordsmen supporting a third emerged from the trees, yelling to identify their trireme.

‘Dev, get my physic chest.’ Kheda ran across the soft sand, feet slipping and clumsy in his leggings. ‘What’s happened?’

The two men lowered their companion gently to sit on the ground. The injured man was biting his lip hard enough to draw blood. Kheda saw that something had driven clean through his foot, leather sandal and all, to leave a dark, bloody hole.

‘Deadfall, in the trees,’ the man gasped. ‘Saw that and the trip stick. Didn’t see the stake-pit under the leaves, though.’

Naturally,’ Kheda said wryly.

‘Just where you’d step to avoid the trip for the deadfall,’ spat one of his companions, rearranging the swords shoved askew in his belt by his exertions.

‘Lie flat so that the wound’s higher than your heart.’ Kheda drew his dagger and slit the lattice of laces tying the thick deerhide around the swordsman’s foot. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Pai, my lord.’ Lying back, he gritted his teeth as Kheda carefully peeled back the bloodstained leather. ‘You’ve won yourself light duties for a good few days with this.’ Kheda bent to examine the wound more closely before looking up and raising his voice. ‘Dev! Where’s my physic chest? One of you light me a fire and get some water boiling.’

One of Pai’s companions glanced towards the stockade where a small fire was now taking hold.

No,’ said Kheda sharply. ‘Don’t get an ember from there, light a fresh fire. Let’s not risk ill luck in the wound. We’ll soak the foot in an infusion of blueshadow leaves and then pack the wound with chamaz pulp. It has to heal from the inside first or it’ll fester.’ He felt carefully for the bones of the foot. ‘You’ve not done too much damage, surprisingly enough.’

‘Thank you, my lord,’ stammered Pai, sweat beading his ashen face.

Saving his foot wont do him much good if he dies from the shock of it all. Best give him a few hemp leaves to chew to take the edge off that.

Kheda looked round for Dev and saw the barbarian hurrying back across the sands as more commotion erupted from the forest further down the beach.

“Gossamer Shark! Gossamer Shark!’ Five men were carrying another out from the shadow of the trees, one to each limb and the fifth supporting his head.

‘Keep this held up.’ Kheda handed Pai’s foot to one of the men who had carried him out of the forest and hurried to see what had befallen the new casualty.

‘Spear trap, my lord,’ gasped the swordsman supporting the man’s head.

‘Four stakes to it,’ added one grasping the casualty around a thigh. ‘At belly height.’

‘Knocked him clean off his feet,’ one of the two supporting the wounded man’s shoulders explained. ‘Lay him down.’ Kheda pushed back the man’s chain veil to uncover his face and saw that his skin was grey and clammy. The heartbeat in his neck was rapid and feathery under the warlord’s fingertips. ‘What’s his name?’

Naeir,’ said the other one supporting his shoulders. ‘It was a sapling, bent back sideways, sharpened stakes on the end. We never saw it, not till it hit Naeir,’ he babbled frantically.

‘Did he hit his head as he fell?’ Kneeling, Kheda felt the unconscious man’s abdomen but the chain mail, dirty with fragments of wood and leaves, frustrated his searching hands.

/ can’t tell how badly he’s hurt without getting his armour off But getting it off could make things worse, if he’s bleeding inside. Liver or spleen could be ruptured, even his stomach. Then there ‘11 be no saving him. Dev appeared and set the warlord’s physic chest down beside him. ‘How old was the trap?’ he asked. The men looked at him, uncomprehending.

‘How old was the trap?’ Dev repeated himself with scant patience. ‘Was the wood still green, with leaves on the twigs? Did some sly bastard set it this morning to catch you lot if you came looking for him? Or was it dried out from being rigged there half a season ago?’

‘That’s a good question.’ Kheda looked up at Dev.

As the barbarian opened his mouth to say something more, a sudden storm of shouts and screams swept across the beach. Startled, Kheda was rising to his feet when a brutal buffet of sand-laden air and a deafening roar knocked him to his knees again. Before he could recover his footing or clear his stinging eyes, someone grabbed him by the arm and dragged him, stumbling, across the sands into the dubious shelter of the trap-laden forest. They dropped behind a tangle of sard-berry bushes choked with striol vines.

Kheda spat sand and fragments of things he didn’t want to think about out of his mouth. What—’

‘Look!’ It had been Dev who had dragged him off the beach. Now the barbarian was crawling and twisting through the bottoms of the bushes, his chain mail scorning the striol thorns.

Kheda wriggled after him on elbows and knees, the metal plates in his leggings digging into the backs of his legs. He swallowed hard. ‘What is that?’

Dev looked at him as if he couldn’t believe the question. ‘It’s a dragon, Kheda. You’ve heard of them, I take it, even down in these godforsaken islands?’

The warlord gaped at the wizard. ‘What’s it doing here?’

‘Whatever it chooses,’ Dev answered with strangled sarcasm.

Yes, you asked for that, didn’t you? Kheda lay as flat as he could beneath the inadequate cover of the stunted bushes and gazed at the beach with utter incredulity.

This can’t be real. This can’t be happening. No? Then what’s that? A mist-dream conjured by some barbarian smoke addling everyone’s wits?

Stars above, it’s as big as the Gossamer Shark! The dragon, wherever it had come from, had landed on the widest part of the beach, where the sea swells left the sand untouched. It stood, four massive clawed feet firmly planted and its thick, muscular tail curling around as it folded its awesome wings. A crest of thick scales running down its spine and tail glowed like living flame in the bright sun, culminating in a heavy ridged spike at the tip of its tail. The overlapping scales along its back and haunches were dark red as the bloody heart of a recalcitrant fire—and a formidable defence, that much was obvious. As the colour of its hide lightened down its flanks to an orange-tinted gold, the scales gradually grew smaller. As the creature shifted its stance, the flexible folds of skin between limbs and body stretched and bunched, pale as sunrise in the angle of its hind leg and belly.

It turned its enormous head to look at the triremes now fleeing the beach and lashed its tail, the heavy spike gouging a deep furrow in the sand. All four vessels were rowing frantically for open water, oar blades chopping the sea into a frenzy of foam. The lighter Brittle Crab was already half a length ahead. The dragon dropped its snout towards the water, fine forked tongue flickering out, never quite touching the rising and retreating surf Scales framed its head with a lethal ruff of spines that would baffle any opponent trying to seize it by the neck. Heavy crimson scales armoured its broad, blunt-nosed muzzle, softening to lighter colours in the folds beneath its long jaw. That softer skin didn’t extend far below its head, however. The underside of the long, flexible neck was armoured with more elongated scarlet scales.

After a few moments, it turned away from the water and surveyed the beach, slowly and deliberately. Its eyes glittered like liquid rubies, lit from within by a single spark of feral intelligence. It glanced over at the mined stockade now blazing fiercely. The dragon drew its coppery lips back in a snarl that revealed a single row of long, pointed, pure white teeth. It opened its mouth and hissed; a low, menacing noise, as its red tongue flickered in and out.

Abruptly, it sprang, the colossal power in its hind legs sending it across the beach with barely any need to spread its huge wings. It landed on top of the stockade, crushing the pyre beneath its great feet. Lashing head and tail from side to side, it scattered the fire, snapping at the gouts of flame with a growl deep in its throat. The blaze died instantly to leave black ash and cold cinders. The dragon snuffled at them, sending a flurry of sooty dust into the air.

Movement caught Kheda’s eye. Everyone had fled the beach in utter panic. Two swordsmen burdened with the unconscious Naeir had only managed to reach a knot of young nut palms standing some distance from the sparse margin of the forest. With the dragon apparently occupied, its back towards them, they seized their chance to try for better concealment, Naeir carried awkwardly between them.

The dragon’s head whipped around. It sprang a second time, unfolding the outermost crease of its wings to glide through the air. It landed, sending a tremor through the sand like the aftershock of a distant earthquake. With a bellow like the roaring fury of a forest fire, it swept the nut palms aside with a single sweep of a forelimb. The tree trunks landed half a ship’s length across the beach, snapped into splintered pieces.

The swordsmen dropped Naeir and fell to the sandy ground, curling up in a hopeless attempt to save themselves. The dragon crouched, belly to the sand, cocking its head. The fire in its eyes brightened as it reached out one forefoot, a single claw adroitly extended. Ignoring the other two for the moment, it prodded the unconscious Naeir. Getting no response, it bent its massive head closer while running that single vicious claw down the length of the man’s hauberk.

The grating noise sent a shiver of icy dread down Kheda’s spine. He watched, frozen with honor, as the beast drew back its head to consider the fallen warrior, long neck arcing as it looked at this mystery first from one side and then the other.

It doesn’t know what to make of the armour. It’s like that young matia you saw when you were out hunting with Sirket. It was doing well enough with the little lizards but it hadn’t a clue what to do when its mother brought back that jungle scun-ier. Even when she’d bitten between the shiny orange and black segments to break its back, the youngling hadn’t wanted to risk its pincers as it writhed in its death throes. The dragon bent its head to Naeir’s feet, mouth agape.

Then it changed its mind, twisting its maw as if to bite his head. At the last moment, it stopped, long tongue flickering out to run delicately along the brow band of the senseless swordsman’s helm.

That was too much for one of the other cowering warriors. He scrambled to his feet and ran for the forest, prompting a stifled outcry of encouragement from the swordsmen hidden among the trees and brush. This incautious outburst died on a note of despairing horror as the dragon rose and reached out one massive forefoot. The swordsman disappeared beneath it, crushed into oblivion in the sand. The dragon hauled his body back and bent to sniff at it. The ruff of scales around its head flared and its eyes burned hot scarlet as it opened its mouth to hiss on a rising note.

Abandoning the contemplative approach, it seized the armoured corpse between its teeth, head shaking from side to side. The swordsman’s arms and legs flopped loose and rattled against the creature’s scaly jaws. It spat him out with a growl of irritation and smashed its great foot down on him once again. After a moment, it repeated the blow and then stamped down a fourth time before bending to lick delicately at the oozing blood now obscuring the steel of the dead warrior’s hauberk. Lifting its head, it studied the gory mess for a moment, then carefully extended one claw and drove it through the dead man’s neck, pinning the body to the ground. Bending down, it nipped his legs between its vicious teeth with surprising precision, metallic lips drawn back. With a single tug, it ripped the broken torso out of the chain mail, the head left pinned, and devoured it in a single bite. Now that it had the trick of it, dispatching and consuming the other two men was the work of a few moments for the beast.

Bear witness, that’s one of your duties as warlord. Find some way to save the rest of your men, that’s another. What are you going to do?

Kheda wracked his brain helplessly as the dragon finished its appetiser and looked towards the island’s scrub and meagre trees, interest brightening its eyes. It began slowly pacing the length of the beach, long tongue still tasting the air, teeth and lips gruesomely bloodstained. Warlord and wizard froze, hugging the ground, as the beast drew level with them, barely breathing until it had passed, watching its great claws tearing up the indistinct footprints, long tail dragging a line in the sand behind it.

‘I reckon we know what happened to those wild men now.’ Dev’s voice was improbably distant. ‘How do we stop it happening to us?’ whispered Kheda savagely.

‘Can you feel the power that thing carries with it?’ Dev breathed, husky now, almost lustful. ‘What?’ Kheda propped himself on one elbow and stared at the wizard.

‘The magic’ Dev looked at him unseeing, his eyes dark and wandering.

As if he’d been drinking deep of his barbarian liquor and filling his head with their tainted smokes for good measure.

‘What are you talking about?’ Anger seizing him, Kheda shoved at the mage, sending him rolling sideways, unresisting. ‘And keep your voice down.’ He twisted to look hastily in all directions, though there was no one to be seen among the glossy yellowy-green of the leaves.

That doesn’t mean there’s no one else hidden within earshot.

Is this where all your connivances with magic are to be finally unmasked?

Will there be anyone left alive to carry the tale to Itrac or anyone else?

Dev rolled back on to his belly, propping himself up on his elbows and hanging his head, breathing deeply like a man who’d just slaked his passions. ‘The magic, Kheda.’ His voice was a fervent whisper. ‘A dragon is a magical creature; it’s in its very nature. No one knows how or why. I’ve heard tell of their aura, of the wild magic that hangs all around them, but nothing I’ve ever read describes just how potent it is.’ He chuckled, a low, licentious sound.

‘What is it doing here?’ Kheda demanded.

‘There have been mages in Hadrumal who could summon dragons.’ Dev’s face sharpened unpleasantly. ‘Precious few of them and they always kept the mystery mighty close. But even a fool can stumble on a wise man’s secret. Maybe these wild men have managed to find themselves a wizard again.’

‘A wizard who called this monster here?’ Kheda stared at Dev, aghast.

‘Maybe,’ the barbarian mage said slowly. ‘And maybe it got out of hand and ate him along with the rest of his cronies. I don’t see it taking much heed of anyone, do you? Or maybe some bright spark on this scrap of an island has finally had his stones drop far enough for him to feel the magic in his blood.’ Dev scrambled on to his knees, helmet knocking against the twigs of the sard-ben-y bush, dislodging fruit to stain the ground around him. ‘And when he stuck his head above the parapet, there’s some bigger, badder wizard been hiding himself who decided to cut him down to size. Maybe he has the trick of this and sent his new pet out to rid himself of a rival. Or just to fill its belly with anyone who won’t get in line behind him.’

As the wizard talked, rapid words stumbling over each other, he was digging a hollow in the dry, sandy earth with the dagger from his belt, scooping out the loose soil with the other hand. Dropping the blade, he sat back on his heels and tugged up the bottom edge of his chain mail and the thick padded tunic beneath it. Holding back cloth and armour with his forearms, he fumbled with the drawstring of his trousers.

‘What are you doing?’ asked Kheda, revolted, as the wizard exposed himself.

‘Got a water bottle on you?’ snapped Dev. No, I didn’t think so. Me neither. Now listen. That beast’s a dragon born of fire, plain enough from the colour of it, never mind the way it snuffed out that pyre you made of the stockade. Well, I was born to see the elemental fire within things. If someone’s summoned it, I should be able to follow the trail of the spell that summoned it here through a scrying, even if it is in a puddle of my own piss.’ The wizard grimaced as he relieved himself.

Kheda concentrated on watching the dragon, which was now well past them, pausing to sniff at the dead embers of the burned stockade before continuing its measured progress along the curve of the beach. ‘Then we make a run for it through the woods, flag down the Green Turtle and the Lilla Bat, taking our chances in the rocks and surf Dev didn’t sound thrilled at that prospect. His voice strengthened as he continued. ‘Then we work out how to sneak up on this clever bastard without him calling his new playmate down on us.’

‘And gut him like a fish.’ Kheda finished the sentence for the wizard.

But why would any wizard capable of summoning a dragon use it against his own people? Wouldn’t he simply set the beast about finishing the destruction these foul invaders began last year?

Dev didn’t answer. Kheda looked around to see green magic filling the puddle of urine, darkening as the liquid slowly seeped away into the dry earth. He looked about hastily for any condemning eyes before returning his gaze to the wizard. Well?’

A sheet of emerald flame erupted from the damp hollow, sending Dev recoiling backwards, hands clapped to his face, muffling a guttural cry of pain. Flames crackled in the air around him, translucent green paling to a sickly yellow before strengthening to a vivid gold and then darkening to ferocious orange.

‘Dev!’ Kheda was on his hands and knees, ready to go to the barbarian’s aid, when he realised that the flames had no source, no fuel. The mage’s clothes weren’t burning beneath his chain mail, nor were the leaves and twigs of the tangled underbrush. It was as if the very air was ablaze, wrapping the wizard in fire.

Is it illusion? Dev told me of such things. No, his hands are blistering. It has to be fire—but magical fire. How can I quench it? What will its touch do to me?

All the same, Kheda scooped a double handful of the loose sand from Dev’s digging in his cupped palms, instinct driving him to quell the fire. Then movement on the beach held the warlord motionless. The dragon had whirled around and was running back along the sand in their direction. Before it had looked almost clumsy with its heavy plodding gait. Now it was racing like a hunting hound, long body at full stretch, head outthrust on its sinuous neck, tail straight as an arrow behind it.

It’s heading this way! What is it after? The magical fire? It must be!

Kheda threw himself on the wizard, knocking Dev awkwardly on to his back, his legs twisted beneath him. Straddling the barbarian, he tore Dev’s hands apart, seeing his face beneath scorched and burned as if the mage had stood too close to a fire when a resin-filled log ignited. The blisters on Dev’s hands burst beneath Kheda’s grip, the flesh slick and raw. Kheda felt the impossible flames fasten on to his own hands, crawling up his arms, the fine black hairs curling and disappearing, the skin reddening and growing sore.

‘Dev!’ Kheda yelled. ‘Stop it!’

But the barbarian had his eyes screwed tight shut. His whole body was tense beneath Kheda, shuddering like a man in a fever. The flames burned ever brighter, ever hotter, and the roar of the dragon filled Kheda’s ears. He let go of Dev’s hands. They fell loosely on to the wizard’s chest. Kheda braced himself with one hand on the wizard’s breastbone and reached for his dagger with the other.

If the beast is seeking Dev’s fire, his death will put an end to that.

Better yet, cut his throat. You can tell anyone who saw the fire it was the dragons work. There’ll be no one to gainsay you.

Yes, but who’s going to save all of us here, never mind Risala, Itrac and all of Chazen, from this new magic if Dev’s dead?

Kheda let the weapon fall and wrapped his bare hands around the wizard’s throat. He gripped, hard, the knuckles of his forefingers digging into Dev’s lined, sun-toughened neck just behind the angle of his jaw. Dev went limp beneath him and the flames vanished in the blink of an eye. Kheda looked around—tense, poised on his knees—to see where the dragon was and what it was doing.

It had stopped dead, scouring up a rut in the sand with the violence of its halt. Head swinging from side to side, its tongue continued that ceaseless flickering in the air. Its eyes shone with a crimson fire, searching the forest’s edge. The blood hammered in Kheda’s head, inheld breath a choking fire in his chest, hands and forearms scorched and sore.

The dragon continued to look from side to side, gaze sliding over the bushes that concealed the two men. All at once it sprang upwards, vast wings unfolding and beating against the air with a deafening clap. As it soared overhead, Kheda looked up to see the dark lines of the creature’s bones through the leathery wing membrane when its flight momentarily blotted out the sun. Impossibly swift, it rose through the sky and disappeared over the hillock of the island.

Dev stirred beneath him, throwing Kheda off with a convulsive heave of his hips as he coughed. ‘Good thinking,’ he commented grudgingly as he rubbed at his neck with clumsy fingertips.

Kheda got to his feet, peering up through the sparse trees to search the fragmented clouds for any sign of the dragon. ‘Is it coming back? Where’s it gone?’

After the ships? Would it attack a trireme? What about a lesser boat? Risala, where are you? ‘I’m not inclined to try finding out,’ rasped Dev, now sitting up. Not with magic, anyway.’ A rustle in the bushes startled Kheda. It was three swordsmen, muddy-faced with tenor.

‘Go and gather everyone together,’ the warlord barked. ‘Stay under cover as best you can. As soon as we’re all together, we’ll head for the far side of the island, to see if we can signal to the Green Turtle and the Lilla Bat. Don’t forget to keep your eyes open for those cursed traps,’ he added.

The three of them just stood there, slack-jawed and uncomprehending.

‘Go on!’ Kheda urged.

His commanding tone reminding them of their duty, they turned and disappeared into the trees. Kheda heard other voices behind him, those who’d fled into the trees making themselves known now that his carrying words had put new heart into them. Twigs and leaves cracked and rustled as people began pushing their way towards him.

Kneeling to retrieve his fallen dagger, Kheda pushed his head close by Dev’s. ‘Your magic got away from you, mage. That happens again with anyone else at hand to see it and we’re both dead—and not just because it looks as if the dragon can sniff out your fires. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just kill you and have done. You said wizards can summon those beasts. What else do you know about these evils? Quickly, before anyone else might hear!’

‘I’m sonny, my lord, but I know precious little about dragons,’ said Dev sourly. He paused to blow on the backs of his raw and weeping hands to cool the pain. ‘But I do know someone who knows a cursed sight more than most.’

Chapter Six

Velindre, come in.’ The man opening the age-darkened oak door was at least half a head shorter than the tall, blonde woman he welcomed.

‘Cloud Master.’ She inclined her head, face expressionless as she swept across the threshold. Her firm chin was held high, the long plait of her golden hair falling straight as a rule down her spine.

‘Rafrid will do. This is all quite informal.’ He was quite possibly twice as broad across the shoulders as his visitor, with a barrel chest for good measure. With his long back, the way he belted his blue woollen tunic under his paunch made his grey-breeched legs seem incongruously short. The hobnails of his sturdy leather half-boots had scarred a path across the polished floorboards from the door to the table laden with books and parchments, and from the table to the tall triple-mullioned window on the far side of the room. The sky beyond the diamond-shaped panes of glass was the same soft grey as the narrow slivers of the stone walls visible between bookshelves burdened with scholarship past and present. The man’s eyes were a harder, flinty grey, age and experience lining his brow and dusting his dark hair with silver. ‘Please, have a seat. Can I get you something to take the chill off the day? A little wine or cordial? A tisane?’

His manner was brisk rather than solicitous as he gestured towards the modest hearth where a polished copper kettle hung on an iron spar ready to be swung over the self-effacing flames. An oil lamp glowed golden on the table even though it was barely midday.

‘Thank you, no.’Velindre took a ladderback chair from an irregular circle of mismatched seats. She set it between the table and the fireplace on a rug whose pattern had long faded into obscurity. Sitting with her back straight, she folded her hands in the lap of her indigo gown, its full skirt cut short enough to avoid the worst of winter’s mire. As she crossed her long legs neatly at the ankles, her black leather boots, finer sewn than Rafrid’s, showed that she’d been through a succession of puddles on her way there. ‘You know why I wanted to see you.’ Rafrid sat in his own round-framed wooden chair, shoving at the cushions behind him as he looked expectantly at Velindre.

She laced nail-bitten fingers together, knuckles whitening. Not really.’

An angled crease between Rafrid’s grizzled brows deepened. ‘If you’re as unforthcoming with the apprentices, I’m hardly surprised I’m hearing complaints.’

‘From whom?’ A faint blush highlighted Velindre’s angular cheekbones and she silently cursed her fair complexion. ‘Excuse me.’ Standing, she moved the chair a few paces from the fire and sat down again. ‘I’m a little warm.’

‘And you one of the most talented mages born to command the air here in Hadrumal?’ Rafrid wondered sardonically. ‘I find it difficult to believe that you can’t keep yourself cool.’

Velindre folded her arms tightly across her modest bosom. ‘If you won’t tell me who, you might tell me what’s being said about me.’

‘You spend very little time with the new apprentices compared to the other mages of your standing.’ Rafrid leaned back in his chair, tossing a battered patchwork cushion to the floor. ‘And I gather that any of the more experienced apprentices making a formal request to study with you as your pupil can expect refusal without explanation or apology.’

‘There are plenty of wizards keen enough to nursemaid the new anivals.’Velindre shrugged one shoulder, her face impassive. ‘I’ll take on any apprentice with two or three years’ learning to steady their affinity who comes up with a course of study I consider worth pursuing.’

‘You’re not excused from your responsibilities just because others are more mindful of all they owe to this island and these halls of learning,’ Rafrid began sternly. ‘We all have our own magical interests to pursue. It’s not the business of other wizards to give you the leisure to concentrate exclusively on your own studies.’

‘I am fully mindful of all I owe to Hadrumal and my fellow mages,’ Velindre said frostily. ‘I have lived here all my life.’

‘I’m well aware of that.’ Rafrid scowled, resting his elbows on the arms of his chair and twisting a heavy ring around the middle finger of his writing hand. A sizeable sapphire, dark and mysterious, was set deep into the silver. You’re Hadrumal born, as were your parents, both of whom have added significantly to the scholarship of wizardry. Yet your parents have always found time to nurture the lads and lasses arriving on our dockside still reeling from the shock of discovering their magebirth. As for further study, your mother in particular has an unequalled record for guiding pupils on paths that seemed entirely unpromising at first glance.’

Velindre sat in silence, her narrow lips thinned almost to invisibility. Rafrid drummed his thick fingers on the edge of his table, his square jaw hardening.

‘You used to spend more time with apprentices,’ he pointed out with a visible effort at reasonableness. ‘You’ve had past pupils who made notable progress and not just in the understanding of the element of air. Why the change of heart over this last winter?’

‘Tell me how much time I’m to set aside for apprentices.’ Velindre uncrossed her feet and stood. ‘And how many pupils I’m required to take on.’

‘Kalion did you no favours encouraging you to think that you stood a chance of being elevated to Cloud Mistress,’ said Rafrid bluntly.

Velindre lifted her chin defiantly. ‘I suggest you take that up with the Hearth Master.’

‘I have done,’ Rafrid assured her dourly, ‘with him and Troanna both. Our esteemed Flood Mistress is under no illusions about what I think of her meddling.’

‘I’m surprised you want me spending time with apprentices, since you think so little of my abilities,’ said Velindre tartly.

‘Don’t be a fool,’ he retorted, scathing. ‘I think very highly of your wizardry. Your admirable focus on our element has led you to some remarkable insights. I can’t recall seeing anyone with more feeling for the elemental air in the twenty years I’ve known you. What you’re lacking are the necessary instincts for the demands of an office such as this.’

He waved a curt hand at the parchments littering the table. ‘As Master of Hiwan’s Hall before my elevation to this office, I got used to keeping all these balls in the air, better than a festival juggler. You’ve always been able to put your own interests first, and that’s all very well, but an element master—or mistress—needs to take a wider view. He can’t stay aloof if his feelings have been hurt. He can’t turn unapproachable if he doesn’t want his studies disturbed for days at a time. He needs to keep an ear to the ground, not have his head in the clouds.’

‘And you had Planir’s ear when it was time for him to make his nominations to the Council.’ Velindre came perilously close to sneering.

Somewhat to her surprise, Rafrid laughed, a full-throated chuckle. ‘You flatter me if you think our esteemed Archmage would hand me such an honour just because I fancied wearing this pretty blue ring myself.’ He leaned forward, waving the faceted sapphire at Velindre, who flinched as if he’d offered her a blow. Rafrid scowled blackly for an instant before he continued. ‘The only opinion of mine that Planir sought was who should replace me as Master of Hiwan’s Hall. I don’t know who first suggested that I should be elevated to this rank of Cloud Master, but I do know that Planir took a long time to think it through and consulted with wizards far more eminent and experienced than you or me, here in Hadrumal and beyond.’

He paused for a moment and when he went on, his voice was level, even kindly. ‘I don’t pride myself on defeating you, Velindre. I simply want to justify the faith our fellow mages have shown in me. I’m charged with the better guidance of those born to master our element and with helping those born with an affinity to another to a fuller understanding of the interactions of air with earth, fire and water. I want your help, not your hostility. That’s what the apprentices need, and our pupils.’

Velindre said nothing, her sharp face icy calm.

Rafrid sighed with exasperation. ‘Make yourself available to any apprentice wanting your instruction from breakfast till noon. Your time’s your own after that. I’ll let it be known that you’ll be considering new pupils over the Equinox festival. There should be two or three keen enough and bold enough to put forward their ideas for your consideration. After Solstice, you can expect your contemporaries studying the other elements to recommend their most promising pupils in the normal fashion.’

‘As you wish, Cloud Master.’ Velindre turned to depart, her hazel eyes impenetrable.

As she reached for the door latch, the Cloud Master spoke again. ‘The next time a bunch of apprentices come to me, I want it to be because they can’t sing your praises loudly enough. I told this last lot that you’re one of the most skilful wizards on this isle. Don’t let me down.’

Velindre showed no response as she opened the door, about to step out on to the stairs.

‘Give some thought to what Otrick would have made of your behaviour lately,’ Rafiid called after her. Velindre slammed the door behind her so hard that the reverberations echoed all the way down to the bottom of the stairwell, pursued by the angry clatter of her booted steps on the aged treads. ‘What would Otrick have made of all this?’ she muttered, furiously scrubbing away the sting of angry tears with the back of one hand as she snatched her thick cloak from a peg. ‘What would he have made of your prosy lecturing? Do you think he’d have started apprentices on summoning showers to freshen up a turnip’s wilting leaves?’

Her stride lengthening, Velindre crossed the flagstoned courtyard walled on all four sides with ranges of accommodation. She glanced up at the garrets with their little gabled windows jutting through the stone-slated slopes of the roofs, chimney stacks spaced between them. Which of the apprentices crammed into those poky rooms had had the gall to complain about her?

Her gaze slid down to the first—and second-floor rooms, wider windows shut firmly against the bitter weather. Who were those ungrateful pupils who’d begged for her guidance and now felt entitled to whine when she’d cast them off to stand on their own two feet?

They were better off trailing around after the likes of Colna and Pemmel anyway, she thought with contempt. The uninspired deserved the insipid. Let them coddle the apprentices and the pupils; she had better things to do. She would find some insight into magic that would restore her reputation within the higher ranks of Hadrumal. She would find something to make Planir sit up and take notice, something to make the Archmage regret his mistake in passing her over.

She glanced back over her shoulder at the central tower of the wizard hall, at the triple-mullioned window of Rafrid’s eyrie at the centre of the four quadrangles. What would Otrick have made of him as Cloud Master? The old scoundrel would have laughed himself breathless and then sent everyone into hysterics with his incisive dissection of Rafrid’s inadequacies.

She raised a hand to her eyes as the pain of ()tick’s loss stabbed her anew, heading blindly for the dim passage that threaded through one corner of the courtyard.

‘Excuse me, miss.’ A laundry maid tried to step out of Velindre’s path, hampered by her wide wicker basket.

‘I beg your pardon.’ Velindre flattened herself against the plastered stone wall to let the servant pass. She felt the damp and cold on the back of her neck and pulled up the hood of her midnight-blue cloak, tying it loosely. The first impetus of her anger spent, she walked more slowly out through the gate and into the narrow lane running behind the Leeward Hall. So her mornings were to be taken up with the misapprehensions and misunderstandings new apprentices always spouted.

No, you’ve not been sent into some irreversible exile. Ships that have the Archmage’s trust come and go from Hadrumal all the time,’ she mouthed as she walked along the cobbles. ‘Yes, you’ll be able to go home to visit your families—once you’ve learned how not to set chimneys alight when you’re angry or freeze the water in the well when you’re miserable.’

Velindre felt a measure of sympathy for the magebom of the mainland, most without any wizard nearby to guard and guide them through the first manifestations of their affinity, never mind the fearful rumours still perpetuated by the ignorance of the mundane populace. Then resentment put such feelings to flight. No, the Council of Wizards isn’t a cabal of astute and powerful mages secretly directing kings and princes down the paths of wisdom. Don’t you think the mainland might be less riven by faction and self-interest if that were the case? No, it’s a circle of self-satisfied men and women who struggle to look beyond the sea mists they use to hide Hadrumal, scrying spells notwithstanding.’

She took a still narrower lane cutting across her path and leading between high stone walls towards the long, curved high road that was the backbone of the modest city of Hadrumal. Behind her lay the warren of humbler buildings housing the craftsmen and tradesmen who supported the island’s mages in their studies. Reaching the high road, Velindre looked towards the fog-shrouded hills gently rising beyond the city, where the island’s yeomen raised their stock and tended their fields, the remote towers of the wizard halls a distant curiosity.

She could go and stay with her father’s brother. Let these apprentices who were so keen to study with her prove their worth by traipsing all that way every morning. Let Rafrid make a fool of himself trying to drag her back to the city. And her aunt and cousins wouldn’t give a Lescari penny piece for the gossip around the wizard city, any more than they had in those timeless summers she had spent on their farm as a child. There wouldn’t be whispering in corners and bright-eyed, hushed speculation as to just why it was that Archmage Planir had found her lacking and why the Council had handed the prize that should have been hers to Rafrid, of all people. No. That would be running away. Neither her father nor her mother would approve of that, always supposing they looked up from their books and parchments for long enough to notice her absence. As she walked along the flagstones, she glanced at the pale tower of Wellery’s Hall, its yellow stone a contrast to the grey sky. Over to the east, the squat stump of Atten Hall’s central tower was barely visible over the intervening roofs.

They would be expecting her to still be working towards a seat on the Council in her own right. They’d set that path before her ever since they’d first encouraged her adolescent fascination with her burgeoning affinity. Hadrumal needed to be guided by wizards with a sound understanding of the full potential of magic in the wider world. Then the clear-sighted leaders of this hidden isle could instruct the blinkered rulers of the mainland along better paths than the ones they inevitably chose for themselves. Velindre’s mouth quirked wryly. That remained to be seen. No matter. Her stride lengthened again, setting her cloak flapping, its azure silk lining bright as a summer sky. She passed the dark hollows of several gateways before turning into a courtyard with a fountain at its centre. The basin was dry and the statue at its centre invisible beneath a swaddling of straw and sacking. Was there no one in this hall with the time to spare for a charm to protect the stone from the frosts?

As Velindre passed the fountain, a stairwell door in the far wall opened and a slight woman emerged. She was almost as heavily muffled as the statue, with a mossy green scarf pulled right up to her vibrant chestnut eyes.

‘Ely.’ Velindre moved to intercept her.

The woman twitched her scarf down with a gloved hand to reveal a fine-boned face with wisps of black hair just visible around the edge of her knitted cap. ‘Whatever you want, keep it short.’

‘Rafrid’s just lectured me about my responsibilities to the apprentices.’ Velindre grimaced extravagantly. ‘You must know who Troanna would like to see given a leg up, or Kalion, perhaps?’

‘You still think it’s worth keeping in with them?’ Ely cocked her head to one side, birdlike. Naturally,’ said Velindre, unperturbed. ‘And Rafridcan go jump a rope if he doesn’t like it.’

‘I’ll see what I can find out.’ Ely shivered inside her cloak and her turquoise earrings trembled. Did Rafrid say anything else?’

Velindre shrugged. ‘About what?’

‘He’s one of the few who get to see our esteemed Archmage in private.’ Ely’s elegant, finely plucked brows disappeared beneath the ribbed welt of her hat. ‘Did he let slip anything about Planir’s mood? Any clue as to what might be going on behind that granite facade?’

Velindra shrugged again.

‘Oh well.’ Ely’s carefully painted mouth tightened with irritation—‘Have you seen Galen anywhere?’

‘I came here looking for him.’Velindre raised her pale golden brows at Ely. ‘You and he are keeping company again?’

‘He has his uses,’ Ely admitted with a sideways smile. ‘Especially when it’s this cold.’

‘More fun in your bed than a warming pan?’ Velindre wondered with faint amusement.

‘Sometimes,’ Ely said a trifle sourly. ‘Still, who knows, he might make Stone Master someday.’

‘Who knows,’ echoed Velindre. ‘I won’t keep you. Just send any likely apprentices my way’ Ely pulled her scarf up over her face again. ‘Keep your eyes and ears open for news of Planir, if you’re playing the dutiful underling to Rafrid.’ She clumped away across the empty courtyard in bulky sheepskin boots and vanished beneath the arch of the gateway. Velindre looked up at Galen’s windows. He had no more chance of becoming Stone Master than he had of becoming Archmage, even if Planir consented to relinquish the lesser of the two offices he held. Ely was deceiving herself if she thought she was going to enjoy any influence as Galen’s lover. She had better stick to seeking advancement through the gossip she garnered and supplied to Flood Mistress Troanna and Hearth Master Kalion. She certainly wasn’t going to win a Council seat on her own merits. Ely’s promise as an apprentice had never really come to much.

Velindre chuckled as she made her way from the courtyard. She hoped for Ely’s sake that Galen had learned more of a lover’s skills than he’d had when they had all been pupils together, in those days when anything had seemed possible. Her smile faded.

Hadrumal’s high road was largely deserted. A few carts trundled along the cobbles to deliver faggots of firewood or anonymous sacks and chests to the closed shop fronts of the tailors and cobblers, the bookbinders and ink-sellers. One wine seller had opened his shutters and profligate candles brightened the interior, soothing chilled apprentices cradling cups of mulled wine fragrant with herbs and spices. Velindre slowed as she caught the tempting scent of new bread, warm from the oven. Then she picked up her pace. She was hardly in the mood to swap pleasantries with neophyte mages half her age. Stepping across the runnel of muck and rain in the gutter, she crossed to the opposite flagway where mismatched shop fronts yielded to the ancient stonework that bounded the paradoxically named New Hall. Passing beneath the black shadow of a gatehouse with carvings long since weathered to obscurity, Velindre crossed a courtyard where hollows in the flagstones worn by countless generations of feet were dark with moisture. Reaching beneath her cloak, she drew out a keychain and unlocked the iron-studded door at the base of the central tower. Inside, a stair spiralled tightly upwards. Snapping her fingers, Velindre summoned a pale-blue flame to light her way up the dark stone stairs. She passed the door to the rooms on the first floor without slowing. At the door to her second-floor sanctuary, she paused, keys in hand, looking up the silent stair towards the empty rooms above. What would Otrick have said to her? It was becoming difficult to recall the exact sound of his voice. There were days when memory of his face was blurred in her mind’s eye.

She unlocked the door and walked into her study, flicking the pale flame into the fireplace where kindling laid ready instantly caught fire. Dust from the coal crackled. The brass catches and polished chestnut of the tall cupboards set on either side of the fireplace glowed as the flames grew stronger. The opposite wall was shelved from floor to ceiling on either side of a narrow door, books and parchments neatly ordered. A few curios inten-upted the array: a flute made from a bird’s hollow bone and a small glass case containing a precisely labelled collection of winged seeds dried to papery fragility. Propped here and there were studies of birds and precisely detailed seascapes, some in oils, others in chalk or ink. A single high-backed, leather-covered chair stood beside the fireplace while two uninviting, unpadded chairs flanked a wide table where leatherbound books ordered by size awaited her attention, inkstand and quills precisely arranged to hand. Velindre ignored the books in favour of the fresh, floury rolls and a slab of dense yellow cheese left by one of the hall’s maidservants. A substantial chunk of sweet bread thick with preserved plums had its own plate, flanked by a small flagon of red wine and a crystal jug of well water. What would Ely do if Galen offered to marry her? Velindre wondered idly as she tore open one of the rolls. Did she know he’d once had the folly to propose to Velindre? Was he still looking for something between a wife and a mother, who’d darn his socks and sew his buttons and tempt him with dainty meals, and certainly never threaten him with wizardly talents outstripping his own? Well, that hadn’t been the first dalliance Velindre had had sour with such rivalry, nor the last.

Otrick never had felt threatened. She poured half a glass of the rich, red wine, and, lifting her eyes to the plaster cornices of the ceiling, silently toasted the old wizard’s memory. The most powerful Cloud Master Hadrumal had seen in twenty generations had never known any such insecurity.

Sipping her wine, still standing by the table, Velindre stared out of the window across the roofs of the quadrangle and beyond to the sodden meadows with their dull green tussocky grass, the salt marshes beyond sere and dun. Winter wind tossed the dead reeds this way and that and Velindre watched the eddies and flurries of the air only visible to those who shared her affinity.

Beyond the salt marshes there was the dull rolling grey of the sea that sent the ever-changing clouds and storms to break on the rocky shores of Hadrumal. Rising swells rimmed with white merged seamlessly into the leaden sky. She watched the damp air above the waves rising sluggishly, helpless to resist soaking up the seductive warmth brought up from the sun-kissed southern seas by the mysterious currents that threaded through the pathless ocean. The barely warmed air soared high into the uppermost reaches of the sky. Velindre watched the roiling mass cool and shed its load of moisture to swell the towering clouds. Perversely heavier now, the chilled air slid haphazardly down the sky, driving a rising wind to whip the waves to higher crests and steeper faces, until the swells collapsed in a crash of foam and fury. Above, the clouds darkened and the first flashes of lightning presaged the coming storm.

How often had she stood here to look out at the weather with Larissa? How long would it be before she could no longer recall Larissa’s face or voice? Velindre set down the glass of wine and bent to unlace her boots, kicking them away to land with a thud on the floorboards. Ely and Galen and Kalion and all the rest of them had better watch their step with Planir. The man was entitled to grieve, Archmage or not, and his liaison with Larissa had been no casual sport. Velindre knew that from the late-night confidences they had shared. Perhaps it wasn’t in her best interests to tie herself too closely to Kalion in particular. There had been precious little sign of Planir’s usual good humour when the Archmage had been dining in the common hall with the apprentices a few nights ago.

‘Velindre!’

The faint voice was so unexpected that she started, knocking into the table, sending wine spilling around the foot of the glass. She whirled around, long plait flying wide.

A disc of ochre light as big as the palm of her hand burned in the middle of the empty room. It grew, rimmed with searing scarlet brilliance.

‘Who’s there?’ Velindre asked calmly, collecting herself, ‘Dev.’ The voice was faint but she recognised him at once.

The circle of magic was now the size of a hand-held looking glass. Velindre stood before it. ‘Where are you?’

‘Where do you think?’ Magic flowed down the ochre disc like thick golden oil trickling down a coloured window. ‘The Archipelago and a long way south.’

‘I can see that.’ The blurred radiance cleared and Velindre could see Dev’s bald head and that familiar wicked grin. ‘What do you want with me? You’re Planir’s eyes and ears in the Archipelago, aren’t you?’ she said waspishly.

‘Still sulking?’ Dev’s grin broadened. ‘I heard he’d passed you over for Cloud Mistress. You didn’t really think you’d be raised so high, did you?’

‘Go and impress Planir with your mastery in working a bespeaking over such a distance.’ Velindre turned her back on the magic.

‘It’s you I need.’ Dev’s irritation set the spell ringing like a plucked wire.

‘Why?’Velindre turned back to study the circumscribed vision within the burning circle. Where exactly are you?’ She sat down on one of the upright chairs and picked up her wine, blotting the spillage with the muslin that had wrapped the cheese. ‘What have you got yourself mixed up in now? Is that armour you’re wearing?’

The spell flickered a little as it widened. Which was hardly surprising given the countless leagues the magic was reaching over, Velindre thought privately. She saw Dev standing on the deck of a small sailing boat on an open stretch of sparkling cobalt sea. The Aldabreshin sun was so bright in the dimness of her room that she could almost feel its heat on her face.

‘You’re never going to believe this,’ grinned Dev.          .

‘Wait,’ Velindre interrupted sharply, sitting forward to peer through the clouded magic. ‘Who in Saedrin’s name are those two?’

A dark-skinned man in richly exotic Aldabreshin armour stood some way behind the wizard. The Archipelagan was braced protectively in front of a slightly built girl wearing loose creamy trousers and tunic and a vivid red scarf over her shock of black hair.

Dev moved aside and extended a mocking arm. ‘Velindre Ychane, mage of Hadrumal, may I present Chazen Kheda, warlord of the Archipelago’s most southerly domain. Oh, and Risala, who’s probably spreading her legs for him, though that’s the least of her considerable talents.’

‘Who presumably don’t speak Tormalin,’ said Velindre caustically. Both Archipelagans were squinting suspiciously at the circle of the spell, with no sign that they had understood Dev.

‘I speak some of your northern tongue.’ The girl surprised both wizards with her retort. ‘So don’t think you can lie to us about what she’s saying, Dev.’

The bald mage recovered quickly. ‘A girl of considerable talents raised in a northern domain that evidently trades with the mainland.’

‘And she’s got your measure.’Velindre noted the female talking to the warlord. ‘Tell me, how are you expecting to escape an Aldabreshin warlord without being skinned alive now that you’ve openly worked magic in front of him?’

‘It’s a long story.’ Dev grinned.

‘One you don’t want to tell Planir?’ Velindre guessed shrewdly. ‘What makes you think I want to hear it?’ Instead of answering, Dev asked his own question. ‘What do you know about dragons?’

‘Dragons?’ she repeated with a frown.

Dragons,’ confirmed Dev with smug excitement.

‘Those dragons that survive live in the far north, beyond the far peaks of the Mountain Men’s territory.’ Velindre spread her hands, mystified. You won’t see them in the Archipelago.’

‘We’re seeing one now,’ said Dev robustly, ‘come from somewhere to the south. And there are mageborn living out somewhere beyond the southern horizon, because they turned up here last year and wreaked every kind of havoc. They’re nasty bastards, Velle.’

‘With dragons to command?’ Velindre let him see her scepticism.

,ast year it was just howling savages throwing spears and handfuls of fire.’ Dev was suddenly all seriousness. Which, as you can appreciate, was remarkably effective against these Archipelagans who pride themselves on staying free of filthy sorcery. Kheda here had the sense to find me to put paid to the wild wizards and plain steel cut their followers down nicely enough after that. We thought we’d come and mop up the stragglers and soon be on our way home for wine and cakes, but a dragon’s turned up and it’s eating anyone it reckons looks tasty. We must have let one of their mages slip through our net,’ he concluded with savage bitterness.

‘You think this wizard summoned the dragon? Why now?’ Velindre demanded. ‘Why not summon it when you attacked him and his allies with your magic? What exactly did you do?’

Never mind,’ said Dev impatiently. ‘What I need to know more about is dragons and just how they’re summoned. Maybe this mage has simply lucked into the trick of it.’

‘I don’t think it’s something you stumble on by accident,’ retorted Velindre. ‘Otrick was the only mage in Hadrumal who had the knack of summoning a dragon and he was the finest Cloud Master inside the last ten generations. And I’m sony, Dev, haven’t you heard? He’s dead.’ The usual dull grief gnawed beneath her breastbone.

‘I know that, and I know you were his longest-standing pupil and closest to him in every sense.’ Even in his intensity, Dev couldn’t restrain a lascivious smile. ‘Come on, Velle, didn’t he let something slip by way of pillow talk?’

‘Otrick didn’t need to boast about his magical prowess to convince any girl to slip between the sheets with him,’ Velindre said pointedly.

‘It was always worth your while bedding me, don’t pretend differently.’ Dev grinned, unrepentant. ‘There must be something—in Otrick’s journals, in his records. He was a secretive old bastard but he knew what he owed to wizardry as Cloud Master. There must be some clue.’ His voice gained an edge. ‘If one of these wild mages is still alive and he’s learned how to summon a dragon, there’s nothing to stop him between here and Hadrumal. I’ve seen these bastards let loose and I wouldn’t give—’

Dev clapped his hands to his ears as the girl’s piercing scream startled him. In the same instant, the Aldabreshin warlord began shouting, a torrent of words that rang with horror. The ship rocked madly from side to side, all three of them staggering. The girl would have lost her footing but for the warlord’s strong arm catching her.

‘Ah, shit!’ The bespeaking dissolved on Dev’s raw yell of fear and fury.

‘What is it?’Velindre shouted impotently at the empty air. Dev!’

The only reply was a faint ringing struck from the crystal water jug.

Velindre sprang to her feet, the chair falling away behind her. She ran to a cupboard beside the fireplace and flung it open. Pulling out a shallow silver dish, she sent pewter plates bowling noisily across the floorboards. Ignoring them, she reached up to a neatly ordered row of stoppered and sealed bottles. Her hand hesitated, then, biting her lip, she snatched at one, leaving the cupboard door swinging as she hurried back to the table by the window.

She emptied the crystal jug of well water into the silver bowl and, hands trembling, tried to unstopper the little bottle. Her fingers slid on the wax, bitten fingernails giving no purchase. Velindre slammed the bottle down on the table before taking a deep, calming breath and then carefully working the stopper free of the neck. She let a few drops of dark-green oil fall into the water, the piercing aroma of volatile herbs stinging her eyes for an instant. Ramming the stopper home, she set the bottle aside and placed her hands on either side of the bowl.

‘If you can bespeak me over that kind of distance, Dev, you bilge rat, I can sure as curses scry back to you.’ She stared into the water with grim intensity.

The drops of oil spread into an infinitesimal rainbow lustre on the surface of the water. Emerald fire flared in the depths of the bowl, reflections striking back from the curved silver sides. The radiance shimmered against the oily sheen, fluttering, darting back to the bottom of the bowl before striking up again only to meet the same bather. The light doubled and redoubled, still confined within the bowl. Velindre stood motionless, hazel gaze fixed on her spell. Only when the captive brilliance rivalled the lightning now flickering in the clouds beyond her window did the magewoman release the magic.

In a flash, the surface of the water reflected the distant scene she sought. Velindre flinched, then froze, poised over the bowl, mouth open on an incredulous gasp. All she could see was some portion of a massive scaly back and the flexing of a great leathery wing. The scales were dark crimson, thick and uneven along the creature’s spine, the wing a lighter red, more vivid, almost waxy with the sun shining off the ridges of the bones.

A dragon born of fire, mused some dispassionate corner of her mind even as the rest of her wits went begging for some explanation.

She slid one palm around the side of the bowl. The vision shimmered for an instant and then shifted, as if Velindre was now some bird, like one of the great white wanderers that drifted on the winds of the southern oceans. She flew high above the dragon on the wings of her spell to get a better look at it. Now she could see what the beast was about. A chill went through her that had nothing to do with the wintry storm now enveloping Hadrumal.

The dragon was circling the ship she’d seen Dev on. Twisting in the sky with startling agility for such a mighty beast, it bated like some enormous hawk before darting around in the other direction. The downdraught from its wings tossed the vessel this way and that like a child’s nutshell boat on a puddle. The little ship’s sail hung in rags from its ropes. Velindre held her breath as Dev’s boat rolled over on to its beam ends, wallowing for an agonised breath before hauling itself back upright once more.

Where was Dev? Where were the other two? Velindre searched the deck. There was nowhere for them to hide and no one to be seen. Had they gone below?

The dragon obscured her view, diving closer to scour the deck with a sheet of flame from its gaping razor-toothed maw. The wood blistered and charred, remnants of canvas and rigging flaring to blow away as ash on the wind. The dragon drew a tight circle around the ship and lashed at the single mast with its sturdy tail. The pine cracked and splintered, crashing down on to the deck

Velindre’s spell brought her no noise of the distant destructioin. The only sound in her dim study was her own breathing, harsh with helpless distress. The dragon smashed its tail down on the burned decking, making surprisingly little impression. Mouth wide in a soundless snarl, it shot up into the air, wings beating strongly. Tumbling over itself, it dived straight down towards the crippled ship.

Velindre whispered, disbelieving. Surely a dragon born of fire couldn’t risk diving into the sea? At the last instant, the dragon pulled out of the stoop, swinging its hind legs forward to pound the scorched deck into broken splinters even as it clawed at the sky with its forelegs. Wings beating, it dragged itself away from the murderous embrace of the ocean, climbing back into the sky.

There was no escape for the boat. The weight of the dragon, even for that fleeting moment, had pushed the shattered deck below the surface of the ocean. White seas roiling with the downdraught of the dragon’s passing flooded across bow and stern and poured through the cracked and broken planks. The ship floundered helplessly as more and more water cascaded into the hold, relentlessly forcing the hull beneath the waves. In a final convulsion, the vessel’s bow came up, stern disappearing into the blue depths. The sharp prow slid down, vanishing in a flurry of foam. The dragon swooped low one last time, circling the hidden grave of the little ship. It flapped its wings and flared a crest of scales around its head in what looked uncomfortably like triumph.

Velindre searched the bland face of the ocean. Had Dev died in the ship’s hold, dragged down into the drowning depths? A fire mage, even one of his talents, would be hard pressed to work any magic to save himself, engulfed by the very antithesis of his element. Had he swum for it before the beast made its final attack? What about the other two. All she could see was nameless detritus floating up from the wreck, nothing big enough to be a man’s or a woman’s body.

The inconvenient beast was filling her view once more. She could see its head clearly for the first time, as if it were coming straight towards her. Ruby eyes glittered above its broad, blunt muzzle, heavy crimson scales fringing its jowls and bristling in a mane of spines around the back of its head. It opened its mouth and she saw its brilliant daggerlike teeth.

Longer than daggers, that same dispassionate voice within her mind commented silently. The dragon’s red tongue flickered in and out and she noted a searing red illuminating its eyes from within. The light playing on her face turned from blue-green to greenish gold.

Velindre cursed the beast absently under her breath and drew back from the bowl, waving a hand across the water to lift the spell’s vision still higher above the sea, to give her a wider view of the immediate area Was there an island close enough for Dev to have swum to?

Nothing happened. The dragon still filled the spell. Now its wings were lost beyond the edges of the magic, just its head and body visible. With every beat of its wings, it grew bigger within the silver confines of the bowl. Now all she could see was its head. It opened its mouth and a coil of flame burst out towards her, white hot with unstoppable magic.

Velindre recoiled as the water within the bowl boiled, steaming and spitting, sending splashes leaping over the rim to mar the polished table top. She thrust her hands out before her, repudiating the magic she had worked. The water calmed but the scrying held, vivid emerald light shining up from the bowl with a halo of sunset gold. The magewoman moved slowly forward, irresistibly drawn by intolerable curiosity. The breath catching in her throat, she looked warily down into the water.

The dragon looked back at her. There could be no question of it. Against all she had ever been taught. Contrary to all she had ever read or surmised of this scrying spell. In defiance of everything Hadrumal’s wisest men and women had told her about remote magics. The dragon could see back through the spell as clearly as if it were looking through a pane of clear glass. More than that, the beast was looking straight at her, wild curiosity lighting its fiery eyes. The water began boiling again, and with some sense that she could not explain, Velindre could feel the dragon’s intent. It wanted to find her. It wanted to destroy her with the same savagery it had loosed to annihilate Dev, his companions and the very boat they had been standing on.

Velindre knocked the bowl off the table with a wild sweep of her ann. It went flying, water splashing to stain the plaster below the window with oily streaks. Irrational fear seized her and the crystal jug followed, shattering into countless fragments. Upturning the table completely, Velindre stumbled backwards, tripped over the chair she’d discarded earlier and fell heavily to the floor.

The room remained gloomy and grey, the sun far distant behind the clouds now wrapped around Hadrumal. The only sound was the distant crack and rumble of the storm. None of the drops and puddles of spilled water glowed with any hint of magic. Velindre lay motionless for a few moments, skirts in disarray around her stockinged legs, waiting for her pounding heart to slow.

Sitting up slowly, she rubbed her bruised elbow thoughtfully. She smoothed down her gown and stood, absently rubbing her hip, still stinging from the impact of her fall. Leaving the calamitous scene of by the window, she went to recover her boots and pulled them on, face pensive. A pang of hunger surprised her and she spared a glance for the bread and cheese and plum bread that had bounced across the floor. Shards of glass and earthenware now rendered it all wholly inedible.

No matter. She had better things to do than eat. Moving briefly to the mantel, she tugged the bell pull to summon some nameless maid to deal with the mess. Leaving the door ajar behind her, she ran lightly up to the floor above, her urgent steps echoing down the stone spiral. Heart racing once again, she laid a pale hand on the latch of the study door and whispered the old mage’s name under her breath. The tumblers of the lock clicked obediently and the door swung open.

What would Otrick have said to that? To the notion that a dragon had been looking back through the magic of a scrying spell to see who was working it at the other end? He’d have been intrigued by the idea. He’d have been utterly, resolutely determined to learn how such a thing might be so, to ascertain how he might do just such a thing in turn.

The faceless maids came here, too. The table was polished and gleaming. Even the haphazard parchments on the bookshelves were somehow kept free of dust. The cushions in the corners of the tall winged chairs on either side of the fireplace were plump and neatly placed. The hearth was laid ready with kindling and coal.

A fall of soot prompted by the dampness in the air had spotted the hearthstone and the raw smell caught in the back of her throat. Velindre shivered with distaste. This ordered emptiness wasn’t Otrick’s. The sideboard had been cleared of the old pirate’s prized collection of cordials and wines summoned from merchants trading from one end of the long-lost Tormalin Empire to the other. He had always boasted that he had the finest palate on Hadrumal, even with his breath redolent of the acrid sweetness of chewing leaf.

Velindre turned her back on such bittersweet memories and studied the bookshelves with a frown. There were gaps. Too many gaps. Some of the general tomes had doubtless been returned to the archives and libraries. The old mage had been an inveterate borrower of books and remarkably negligent when it came to returning them. Where were his journals, and those carefully bound records of his own thoughts and investigations into every aspect of the elemental air he had been born to command? Otrick had been meticulous in recording his conclusions and his musings on how he might make further trial of his affinity, of his powers and how they might rival or complement those of other wizards born to different disciplines.

Of course, other wizards and their pupils had sought and gained Planir’s approval to compare their own deliberations with the dead Cloud Master’s recorded wisdom. Velindre scowled as she tried to put names to the faces who had trooped up and down past her door. She was paying the price for ignoring them now. No matter; she’d just have to make a list. Sitting at the empty table, she opened a drawer to find parchment inside and one of the steel-tipped reed pens Otrick had favoured, but when she flipped the brass top of the inkwell open, she found that the crystal vial offered only a stain of dried darkness. Lightning flashed and thunder followed, a crack as if the sky itself had split. Rain lashed the lofty tower, a buffeting wind howling at the tall windows where she had stood with Otrick, listening rapt as he revealed so many mysteries of the magic that they shared. The rascally old wizard’s reputation as the finest Cloud Master Hadrumal had seen in an age was no idle boast. Velindre gazed out of the window, lost in memory as the storm raged unheeded.

Though there was the one crucial mystery he had never shared with her. Otrick had been able to summon dragons. Well, one dragon, at least—a creature of cloud and fury only loosely under his command. That much he had admitted to her in the warm intimacy of one chilly midnight, moonlight lancing through the snow falling slowly outside the narrow window to spill on the coverlet like the fall of her long golden hair on the pillow. She’d never seen it herself, but mages who had no reason to lie swore to it. Besides, Otrick had never lied to her. Now Dev had seen a dragon. Dev, who would lie black was white and fire was water if it would serve his purposes, which were rarely honourable and always self-interested. But she had seen it for herself, so that was hardly an issue. And this wasn’t one of those rare beasts glimpsed above the most distant northern peaks where not even the hardiest Mountain Men could claw out a living. This was a dragon born of fire threatening to set the Aldabreshin Archipelago ablaze.

And Dev had been fighting mysterious wild mages down in the uncharted southern reaches of the Aldabreshin Archipelago. Did Planir know about this? Surely such news should have been brought before the Council of Hadrumal? Untamed magic was a threat to every mage, those in Hadrumal and those living less exalted lives among the mundane populace of the mainland. What would Kalion make of such news? What use would he make of such news, and the realisation that Planir had kept such a secret from the Council?

The memory of the dragon’s burning eyes drove such thoughts of petty alliance and connivance out of her head. Had the dragon been summoned by some wild wizard, using whatever lore Otrick had kept such a close secret? How else could it have come there?

Dev wanted to know how such a thing could be done.

Why? To confront this mysterious mage with a dragon under his own command? Could he do it, if he had the lore? Was he strong enough in his wizardry to make such a challenge? Dev had certainly been talented, and supremely arrogant besides, when they’d both been apprentices in Hadrumal. What had he learned during his years of snooping around the Archipelago? What could he have discovered in realms where death was the penalty for using magic?

Otrick had been able to summon dragons but he was dead and ashes in a funerary urn. Dev wanted to know how to summon dragons but he might very well be dead and food for the fishes of the southern seas. Who else was thinking about dragons, across the whole of wizardry? No one, not as far as Velindre knew.

What if she rediscovered this lore? What if she learned how to summon a dragon and bend it to her will? More than that, what if she was the one who put paid to this wild magic coming up from the south, saving Hadrumal from a threat more destructive than any whirlwind? Wouldn’t that earn her a place on the Council as of right? Wouldn’t that make Planir choke on his choice of Rafrid for Cloud Master? Wouldn’t that silence the whispers behind hands raised in the libraries and the sniggers behind her back as she passed through the halls?

So where was the lore? Velindre’s gaze slid to the door leading to Otrick’s spartan sleeping chamber. It wasn’t a memory of that winter night that spurred her to her feet but recollection of a distant summer. She had been revelling in the first maturity of her magic and in the flattering attention of Otrick, then in his prime and so different from the callow youths who were her fellow pupils. Walking slowly across the study, she pushed at the bedroom door.

She had been asleep under a thin linen sheet, no coverlet necessary in the still heat that was slow to fade even in the late watches of the night. Something had woken her and she had found herself alone in the bed. Otrick had been sitting in the window seat, relaxed in his nakedness and absorbed in his writing. She had watched him for a few moments before falling asleep again. His hair had still been dark then, not yet faded to the icy grey of his latter years. Not that white hair had made him look any less piratical or diminished any of his appetites.

Cross with herself, Velindre brushed aside such reminiscences and walked quickly to the window seat. She threw aside the long, flat cushion and tried to lift the planking beneath. After a sharp tug, the wood came free and she summoned a tongue of magelight to illuminate the hollow beneath. Small books bound in brown leather were stacked in piles ten deep. She reached for the topmost, then, changing her mind, delved deeper, down to the bottom of the hidey-hole.

She stood up with her prize and crossed over to sit on the bare mattress of the bed, flicking through the pages to see Otrick’s familiar irrepressible scrawl, now sorely faded. The magelight blinked out at the snap of her fingers and reappeared to hang by her head, shining a fierce light on the open book. Returning to the beginning of the journal, Velindre began reading with steady concentration. Some considerable number of pages later, a note caught her eye.

Dragons would appear from time to time among the crags of the Cape of Winds that is the last reach of southernmost Tormalin. No one knew where they came from. Few knew the secret of killing them. Those that did could live like kings for a year on the proceeds, if they ever brought the spoils back to a safe harbour. That’s what Azazir has been saying, anyway.

Velindre turned the page and read on, oblivious to the storm tearing the clouds to rags and drenching the city beyond the windows with rain.

Chapter Seven

Is this my death? Burned to oblivion with magical fire? No one foresaw that for me.

What does it mean for Chazen, for Daish, for all those of my blood? Will this portent be robbed of its force if no one knows the manner of my death?

White light blinded him, searing through eyes screwed tight shut. Heat enveloped him, hotter than the murderous noon of the dry season’s height, menacing and oppressive. It was pressing in from all sides, through his armour, through the padded tunic beneath, to scald his skin with his own sweat. This can only be the start of the pain. How bad will it get before I am truly dead?

He felt as light as ash blown on the wind. There was no hard deck beneath his feet, nor cold sea drowning him even as it quenched the all-consuming fire. Then Kheda found one sensation to puzzle him as he waited for the final agony. Whoever is holding my hand is going to break my fingers if they’re not careful.

The light went out like a snuffed candle. Kheda’s legs buckled and he fell to his hands and knees, feeling soft leaf mould instead of deck planking. The smell of hot metal prompted confused recollection of a visit to Ulla Safar’s famous foundries. Raising a shaking hand to scrub the dizziness from his eyes, he burned his forearm on the breast of his hauberk, the sweat coating him hissing against the hot steel. ‘Shit, shit, shit, shit.’ Dev’s profanity slowly penetrated Kheda’s bemusement.

The warlord opened his eyes to see the wizard frantically unbuckling his sword belt. The steel of Dev’s hauberk was blued all across the front, like one Kheda recalled a novice warrior leaving incautiously close to a hot fire.

He couldn’t help himself. Kheda laughed, but as he sat back on his heels, his own chain mail seared the back of his knees even through his trousers. He scrambled to his feet with a curse of his own as Dev began struggling out of his hauberk, doubled over and shaking himself like a wet hound. ‘Let me help.’ Risala stretched out trembling hands towards Kheda, the blue of her eyes rimmed with white and her jaw clenched tight.

No, it’s too hot.’ Kheda used the tail of his belt to push the leather back through the buckle, dark curves scored on the leather by the hot brass. Bending over, he shed the hauberk in one swift movement. It hit the ground with a rushing rattle and a faint charred smell. Kheda straightened up, panting, and ripped off his steaming under-tunic, the cotton blackened. The touch of the gentle breeze on his bare skin was both welcome and painful.

How did we get here? Magic—it must have been. One more debt you owe Dev. One more taint to foul you.

They were in a small clearing in the middle of a dense tangle of forest.

No, don’t.’ He caught Risala’s hands as she moved to embrace him. ‘I’m burned. Are you?’ he asked urgently.

No,’ she said with belated realisation.

‘You can thank your lucky stars you weren’t wearing any armour.’ Dev stood bare-chested like Kheda, holding well-muscled arms away from his sturdy body. ‘Curse it, this smarts.’

Keeping hold of the hand that wore Shek Kul’s ring,

Kheda kissed Risala’s fingers fervently. Better burned than dead.’

‘You’re the healer. Can you see any plant that will take the sting out of this?’ The wizard’s barbarian skin was distinctly paler where his clothes habitually protected him from the sun. His back and chest were an angry red just short of blistering.

‘Leatherspear, that’s what we need.’ Kheda looked around for pale-green spikes tipped with black among the clustering rustlenut saplings. He swallowed, his throat dry and rough. ‘And water.’

‘Where is it?’ Risala looked up, squinting through the tattered canopy of a spinefruit tree for a glimpse of the dragon. She was shaking faintly, her fingers still entwined with Kheda’s. ‘And where are we?’ Dev didn’t seem to hear them, eyes distant, face twisted with fury. ‘The bloody thing sank my boat, my AmigaV A furred vine coiling up the spinefmit tree burst into crimson flame.

‘Dev!’ Kheda said sharply.

‘I traded the length of the Archipelago in that boat for ten years and more,’ the wizard growled, looking up at the obstinately empty sky.

The vine disintegrated in a flare of scarlet fire, leaving a black score wrapped around the tree.

Kheda crossed the glade in a few rapid steps. ‘Dev!’

‘Cursed bloody worm!’ The black furrow in the grey bark began to smoulder, edges glowing golden.

‘Dev!’ Kheda slapped the wizard hard across the face, his hand ready to add a back-handed blow. ‘Get a grip on yourself!’

‘Before you set this place alight,’ Risala added harshly Dev blinked and the unreasoning rage faded from his eyes. ‘You obviously don’t know how dangerous it is to hit a wizard in a temper.’

‘I’m surprised you lasted ten years in these islands if that’s what happens when you lose your temper.’ Kheda nodded at the charred spinefruit tree.

‘A lot you know.’ Dev rubbed a hand over his bald head and winced.

‘Where are we?’ Risala moved to the edge of the clearing.

‘On the island where we first saw the dragon,’ Dev said heavily. ‘A wizard can only use magecraft to go somewhere he’s already been. I didn’t think there’d be anyone to see us here.’ His expression challenged them both.

‘You could hardly take us back to the residence, I suppose,’ Kheda acknowledged tersely. Appearing out of thin air in a blaze of magic would take some explaining. Would Itrac believe some obliging eccentricity of the dragon had thrown us home? Or would she just have you killed, for the sake of the domain, since you were so plainly suffused with sorcery, warlord or not, willing or not? ‘Someone will send a ship from the fleet to look for us, once we’re overdue . . Risala broke off, biting her lip. ‘But they’ll be looking for us in the wrong stretch of the sea.’

‘Which at least is a problem we can do something about,’ countered Dev, his anger still simmering. ‘Or would you rather have been burned to cinders by the dragon?’

Kheda looked to the north, the sea hidden by the scrubby forest. ‘The fleet will have seen the dragon, I suppose, even though we were out of sight.’

‘Do you think they believed all that goose grease about you needing to take the omens around an empty horizon?’ wondered Dev.

‘It was the truth,’ retorted Kheda. ‘And I’ll continue to seek all the guidance I can in the earthly and heavenly compasses until you come up with something better with your magics and your barbarian friends.’ Though I saw no omen to give me any clue we were about to be attacked. Was the dragon already bearing down on us, corrupting the patterns of nature?

‘Well, I can get us back to the residence now.’ Dev rubbed his hands together and grinned. ‘If you can think of a likely spot where we can arrive unseen.’ He shifted his gaze to Risala. ‘And if you can come up with some tale to explain how we got there, mistress poet.’

‘This carrying us away with magic, that’s what you did before.’ The girl looked at the barbarian mage, frowning. When that wild mage found you and me spying on him?’

‘Yes.’ Dev shrugged.

‘That was just you and me and not nearly so far as this,’ Risala said slowly. You couldn’t have kindled a candle after that. You were exhausted.’

‘But this time your magic’s getting away from you, Dev.’ Kheda gestured at the scarred spinefruit tree. ‘Here and before, when you tried scrying on the beach. What’s going on?’

‘We may not know much about wizards but we know you.’ Risala fixed the barbarian with a piercing stare.

Dev opened his mouth and then shut it, as if he had changed his mind about what to say.

We tell Aldabreshin children that someone who opens their mouth and then forgets what they were going to say was about to tell a lie. Does the same hold true for barbarians?

Kheda pressed Risala’s hand against his thigh.

‘It’s the dragon,’ the wizard said finally. ‘It’s a magical creature. It has a magical aura. I drew on the beast’s own magic to get us here. I don’t think it even noticed.’ He grimaced, rubbing the back of one hand across his forehead. ‘I’ve got a heartache, but nothing worse than I’d deserve after a late night drinking white brandy. I’ve enough magic within me to cany us somewhere closer to the ships. How about that for an idea?’

Kheda looked at Risala. ‘When he did this to you before, did you end up parboiled in your own sweat?’ She shook her head and he looked back at Dev. ‘Then why did it happen this time?’

Dev looked at him for a long moment. Sable finches chattered insouciantly in the trees. ‘It’s like I said: the dragon has an aura. My magic got away from me with that much raw elemental fire filling the air. That’s the element I have an affinity with.’ He sounded more resigned than angry, then his voice strengthened with his usual cockiness. ‘And now, forewarned is forearmed. Believe me, keeping my hide whole as a wizard in the Archipelago has taught me more fine control of discreet magic than any mage of Hadrumal possesses. It won’t happen again.’

‘It had better not,’ Kheda said stiffly. ‘If it does and you’re seen, you’ll be hunted till some mob has skinned you alive and nailed your hide to a pole. And I won’t be able to lift a finger to save you.’

‘Can’t we get off this island without magic?’ Risala walked a few paces away and looked from one side of the clearing to the other. ‘And come up with a story to explain where we went? The sooner the better.’ She glanced at Kheda. ‘Word of this dragon will fly around the islands faster than the beast itself. If rumour that you’re dead follows, your whole rule could be fatally undermined.’

Kheda nodded grimly. ‘And if some courier dove takes that rumour beyond the domain, who knows who will chance the danger of these waters for the sake of claiming our pearl harvest..’

Could Janne talk Sirket into sending Daish warriors?

He resolutely set aside such worries. ‘We have to get back to the fleet. If they’ve seen the dragon, they’ll have fallen back to the rendezvous point on the far side of Dalao.’

‘Unless the dragon sank them, too,’ Dev inten-upted with a scowl.

‘We just have to hope the beast didn’t.’ Kheda sighed heavily.

‘That’s a wager we’ve no choice but to take,’ agreed Risala.

‘We can build a raft, but we’ve the current to cross.’ Kheda looked reluctantly at Dev. ‘Could you use your magic to save us from being swept away?’

Never mind that,’ said Dev brutally. ‘We need to go hunting whatever wild mage summoned this dragon. You’ve no notion what a wizard could do with that amount of power to call on. He’ll take this domain away from you in a matter of days and there’ll be nothing you can do about it.’

‘But we killed all the wild mages,’ protested Risala with a touch of despair.

‘What if we only killed those who were strong enough to make a fight of it?’ countered Dev. ‘You saw how they fought among themselves, to the death. I reckon there was someone with the sense to keep his head down.’

‘Are you about to tell me you told me so?’ asked Kheda savagely. ‘That we should have killed all who were left and sooner than this?’

Is this my fault, for turning my attention to rebuilding Chazen before we had fully reclaimed it?

‘A magebom with even the slightest power could have hidden himself from all your hunting parties.’ Dev waved the irrelevance away. ‘He probably hasn’t much power of his own, or we’d have seen him lead some fightback before now. But if he’s mastered this trick of summoning a dragon, that’s all he needs to change that. Drawing on the elements around them, that’s the basis of this wild wizardry, that’s why it’s so crude,’ he commented with contempt. ‘With a dragon’s aura at hand, he’s got all the power he could ever use. He can do pretty much anything he fancies.’

‘Only as long as he’s got some way to stop the dragon eating him,’ said Risala with faint hope. ‘How does he do that?’ Kheda looked warily at the barbarian mage.

‘Who knows? I’m making up theories as I go along,’ Dev said bitterly. ‘I have to bespeak Velindre as soon as we can find some suitable metal.’ Petulantly, he kicked a scrap of weathered bark at the flaccid lump of his chain mail. ‘I could have used a helmet but they’re both at the bottom of the sea.’ Because he can see in any pool of liquid but he needs a magical reflection in metal to speak to this confederate of his. Is it significant, that when I’m willing to countenance his magic, circumstances make it impossible for him to use it?

‘Better them than us.’ It took Kheda some effort to sound positive. ‘Let’s build a raft and work our way north through the Snake Bird Islands. If we go well past Dalao before we attempt the crossing, we can ride the current south as we cross it. If we judge it right, we shouldn’t get swept too far past our target, not beyond Balaia at the very worst. We’ll say I saw some omen that drew us to the far side of the current before the dragon attacked.’ The thought of the lie soured his stomach.

No one will challenge my word; I’m the warlord. The people of the domain trust me to seek out and interpret the portents for them, not to lie and feint and deceive. Perhaps that’s all part of the curse of magic staining these islands. How much more evil an omen is this dragons arrival?

‘And another thing,’ he added vehemently. ‘I want no word spoken of any wild mages out there when we get back. We keep that between ourselves. As far as anyone is concerned, the dragon is just a beast like any other.’

‘Hardly,’ Dev objected. Not with magical fire at its command.’

‘Then it’s a magical beast, but it’s still a beast,’ Kheda said resolutely. ‘Bad as that is, it’ll be worse if those who survived the savages and their wizards last year think such catastrophe is coming down on them again:

‘And what will you do when someone stumbles across this wild mage?’ asked Dev sarcastically. ‘I imagine I’ll be as surprised as anyone else,’ Kheda said stolidly.

‘We need to get down to the sea.’ Risala peered through the trees, one hand drifting to the half-moon dagger at her belt. ‘Do you suppose the dragon ate all the savages Shipmaster Mezai said were hiding here?’

‘If it didn’t, I can burn them to charred bones and no one need be any the wiser. We should worry more about those traps the bastards built.’ Dev scooped up his fallen swords. ‘Watch your step, and leave that,’ he said sharply, seeing Kheda bend down to pick up his armour. ‘You can’t wear that on a raft. If we go over, you’ll sink straight to the bottom and be drowned for certain.’

‘True.’ Kheda grimaced. He caught up his own weapons and followed the others down a narrow path between the battered and drought-stunted spinefruit and rustlenut trees.

Though a warlord losing his armour isn’t going to be seen as the best of portents. That’ll have to be another wager against the future. If we can get back to the fleet, if I can send someone to reclaim such a potent symbol of my authority, then won’t that be proof I’m acting in the best interests of the domain, whatever my compromises with the vice of magic?

And what if you don’t get your armour back? Will that mean you were wrong to turn your back on your father’s wisdom, on the precepts that guided the forefathers of Chazen and Daish and every other domain? Is it your deeds to this point that have brought the unfettered evil of a dragon upon everyone?

Apprehension thick in his throat, Kheda followed Dev down the steep slope of the far side of the little island, leaving sufficient wary distance so that any trap catching the mage would miss him. Risala came after the warlord, careful to match her steps precisely to his. The spinefruit trees were more sparsely scattered on this side of the island, which meant that rustlenuts had seized the rains’ recent largesse and were sprouting in all directions. Vicious tangles of strangling vines fought over the open spaces and the ground was riddled with burrows easily as treacherous as any traps.

At least there are no signs of any but animal footprints.

‘Do you suppose the savages ate all the matias?’ Kheda wondered as he jumped to save himself from a twisted ankle when a hollow collapsed beneath his foot. Brindled fur and shreds of dry leaves blew away on the breeze.

‘They’ll be deep underground.’ Sweat darkened the spine of Risala’s ochre tunic. ‘They’ve too much sense to be out in the heat of the day.’

‘Watch your step.’ Dev wiped his forehead with the back of one hand. ‘It’s a sheer drop to those reefs.’ They went on, cautiously, as the trees thinned to reveal crumbling black and grey rock above seas foaming around exposed corals.

‘How do we get a raft down there?’ Risala asked dubiously.

Kheda looked along the shore in both directions. ‘That might be easier.’ He pointed to a dip in the cliff. ‘I think we can get safely into the sea down there.’

Dev was looking inland. ‘I can see a spring.’

Better yet, the damp gully offered a modest sprouting of leatherspear where the twists in the underlying rock forced out the precious water. Kheda drew his belt knife and cut a handful of fleshy spikes. Splitting them lengthways, he slapped them deftly on Dev’s back as the wizard bent to cup his hands under the dripping water. ‘Hold still.’

Dev reared up. ‘Shit, that stings!’

‘Only for a moment.’ Kheda moved to let Risala get to the spring, squeezing juice from the swollen base of a leaf and anointing his own tender skin.

‘Let me help.’ Risala shook water from her hands and took a leatherspear leaf, smearing the viscous sap over Kheda’s back.

Kheda shivered as she pressed her thumbs into the knotted muscles on either side of his spine.

Just the touch of your hands stops my heart. What have I done to deserve such a woman devoted to me, even when I dare not act on my own desire? Will that be my reward, proof that I am doing right, if I can finally see a way to take you for my own that dishonours no one? If you still want me.

‘You sounded very confident about making a raft,’ Dev challenged Kheda as he sliced more strips of leatherspear to soothe his reddened chest. ‘I’ll tell you for nothing that I’m no boat builder.’

‘All we need is the right wood and lashing,’ Kheda told him firmly before quenching his own thirst from the meagre trickle. ‘Risala, you cut vines and we’ll look for some likely trees. And we should all look for gourds. We’ll need something for carrying water.’

‘Let’s get busy.’ She picked her way carefully along the cliff and began unravelling a skein of strangling vine from an outcrop of rock.

‘Dev, we’ll use your swords for the tree-felling.’ Kheda turned to scan the scrubby forest for tandra saplings. ‘I’ll keep mine in case we meet some savage who needs cutting down to size.’

‘Of course, my lord,’ Dev agreed sarcastically as he followed Kheda up to a more level patch on the slope where a few tandra trees were holding their own. ‘So how do you know how to build a raft?’

‘My father, Daish Reik, took me and my brothers out into the domain on hunting trips.’ Kheda pushed a tandra sapling about as thick as his forearm, testing the tenacity of its roots. ‘We spent as much time learning the nature of the seas and forests as we did hunting. He said we needed to know how our people fed and clothed themselves.’ Despite himself, Kheda smiled with wry humour. ‘And he insisted we learn how to feed and clothe ourselves with nothing more than a dagger to hand. He said even the most skilful augur can’t always foretell what’ll happen. Let’s start with this one.’ He stepped back to give Dev room.

‘He wasn’t wrong.’ The mage unsheathed his swords, passing his second blade to Kheda.

Daish Reik often said there’s vital truth in chance-heard words. Could he have foreseen something in my future to make him suspect that I might need such skills?

Dev began hacking at the tree. Light as it was, the sappy, fibrous wood caught at the steel. ‘Careful,’ warned Kheda. ‘You don’t want to break the sword.’

Dev freed the blade, considered his next move and then renewed his assault. ‘So he had you making rafts?’

‘More than once.’ Kheda used Dev’s second blade to cut down wrist-thick rustlenut shoots.

‘Mind your back.’ Dev pushed at the tandra sapling and it toppled over, the last fingers of wood linking the trunk to the ragged stump snapping with a sharp crack.

‘Another handful of those and we’ll have enough for a raft.’ Kheda stuck Dev’s sword in the ground and drew his dagger to strip the bark from the rustlenut wand.

‘What happened to your brothers?’ Dev asked bluntly as he threw down a second sapling to crush more burgeoning tandra shoots.

‘I thought you knew enough Aldabreshin etiquette to avoid such questions.’ Kheda concentrated on carving a deep notch into both ends of the rustlenut wood.

‘It’s just you and me here now.’ Dev was unrepentant. ‘So were you Daish Reik’s firstborn or just the eldest left alive because you were chosen to become the acknowledged heir? I know you people beat the odds by manying off inconvenient elder daughters barely out of their leading strings to change their names, and sons that don’t measure up vanish, never to be mentioned again.’

‘I was Daish Reik’s eldest child.’ Kheda slowly peeled a second length of rustlenut with his dagger tip. ‘Thus his heir without any need for such subterfuge.’

Dev paused to wipe sweat from his forehead and cocked an inquisitive brow. ‘But you said you had brothers. Most warlords make sure they have a few spares, in case one of your noxious Aldabreshin fevers gets the first one. What happened to them?’

‘That’s none of your concern.’ Kheda stripped bark with a rasp of his blade.

Daish Reik taught us all to meet every challenge one step at a time as well. Right from the days when he had us building rafts to see if any of us were fated to drown, relieving him of the decisions that are a warlord’s heaviest burden and gravest responsibility.

‘And you call us barbarians.’ Dev grunted as he chopped at the next tree, ripping out chunks of fibrous wood. ‘What are you going to do with any surplus sons Itrac presents you with?’

Kheda finished notching the second rustlenut wand and tossed it aside. ‘That’s between me and her.’

‘What is?’ Risala asked, her scratched hands full of coiled vine, her face curious.

Dev chuckled and concentrated on bringing the next tandra sapling down.

‘Something that doesn’t concern Dev,’ Kheda said shortly. He took up the mage’s second sword again and began slashing the twigs and leaves from the tandra logs.

Risala studied him for a moment before sitting to twist deft double cords from the wiry vine.

‘I wouldn’t be doing my duty as your faithful slave if I didn’t remind you of your duty to get a son or two on Itrac,’ Dev said piously as he joined Kheda in crudely shaping the logs. ‘I’ve heard at least one lot of gossip saying you went looking for a zamorin slave so as not to be outclassed, since Janne Daish plainly cut off your stones and locked them in her jewel case before sending you into exile in Chazen.’

‘And you didn’t care to give them the lie by letting them know you’re no such thing?’ demanded Kheda, stung.

‘I couldn’t find any gourds that weren’t worn-eaten,’ Risala announced into the tense silence, winding her vine cord into hanks. ‘We’ll have to land as we go to find water.’

‘So where are we building this raft? Here or closer to the water?’ Kheda gathered up the sticks he’d been working on.

‘Here’s as good as anywhere.’ Risala stood up and looked at him expectantly.

Kheda searched her face.

No sign of your true feelings. Is that for my benefit or Dev’s?

‘Let’s get the base lined up.’ He bent to drag the tandra logs close together. ‘Dev, you take that side.’ Once the tandra logs were pressed close together, Kheda slid a rustlenut wand under one mismatched end of the putative raft and laid a second across the top. He pressed the notched, springy wood together and nodded at Dev. ‘Keep those ends together. Risala, lash them as best you can.’

The tandra logs shifted and squeaked as Risala secured the rustlenut struts mercilessly tight with the vine cord.

‘I can’t hold it much longer,’ Dev warned, his bare shoulders bulging with effort as he pressed down on the wood.

Risala didn’t waste any time winding cord around the notches Kheda had cut to secure the lashing on the other side of the raft. Now for the other end,’ she nodded.

Not bad,’ Dev allowed grudgingly a few moments later as they all straightened up. ‘How do we steer it? And we’ll need paddles.’

‘Pass me that cord.’ Kheda stretched out a hand to Risala. ‘Dev, cut a notch in between the first two logs on either side, at this end.’ As the wizard set to with his dagger, Kheda lashed a pair of rustlenut stakes into a sturdy cross. ‘We tie this fore and aft to keep it upright and make a sweep to go in the crook,’ he explained as he fixed its two feet at the end of the raft. ‘And yes, Dev, we need a couple of paddles.’

‘I’m getting some water before I do anything else.’ Dev stumped off along the cliff edge towards the meagre spring, peeling the remaining shreds of leatherspear from his chest and tossing them aside. ‘What were you talking about?’ Risala asked quietly, coming to stand close to Kheda.

He caught her around the waist, bending to kiss her swiftly. Her lips were dry, the skin around them paradoxically damp. She smelled of fresh sweat and old leaves. ‘He wanted to know what became of my younger brothers when my father died and I declared myself warlord in his place.’

‘Do you want to tell me?’ Risala asked with studied neutrality.

‘I want no secrets between us.’ Kheda held her close and looked into her eyes. ‘Daish Reik’s deathbed decree offered them the choice of a quick, painless death or castration and passing into my hands as zamorin slaves. All but two chose the latter and went to serve Daish unnoticed as spies in other warlord’s households.’

‘A better Fate than living zamorin, blinded and imprisoned like Chazen Saril’s brothers.’ Risala shivered despite the heat. ‘Does Itrac know this?’

No,’ said Kheda with belated realisation. ‘We’ve never discussed it. But she must know I agreed with Janne, Rekha and Sain that they could all keep one son, and send any others to be raised far away. I wanted Sirket to have brothers to stand at his back but not close enough in age to sharpen their daggers to stick in it.’

‘You should talk to Itrac about it,’ Risala said, blue eyes serious.

Dev was coming back and she made to move away, but Kheda held on to her. ‘If we come through this to a future where you might give me children, their lives will be wholly in your hands,’ he assured her. She twisted free of his embrace. ‘Let’s get a drink and make those paddles.’

After Kheda had taken his turn at the trickle of tepid water, they fashioned three crude oars in stolid silence.

Kheda picked up one end of the raft. ‘We should be able to get into the sea down there without breaking our necks.’

Dev lifted the other end and Risala followed with an ungainly armful of paddles and swords. They moved carefully to the dip in the cliff where a dark pool of clear water was sheltered by a greenish-brown outcrop of coral battered by surging waves.

Kheda looked at Dev. The wizard nodded and they threw the raft into the water. Kheda jumped after it, kicking out as the water closed over him, shaking his head to clear his eyes as he broached the surface. The raft bobbed placidly and he pulled himself aboard, lying flat so as not to overturn it. Catching his breath, he rose carefully to his knees.

‘Here!’ Dev tossed the crude paddles down to Kheda.

The startled warlord caught the first two but the third skittered off the knobbly planks into the water. ‘Don’t throw the swords!’ He laid a sweep in the crock of the cross-frame and forced the ungainly craft closer to the cliffs to retrieve the errant oar.

‘I’m a barbarian, not a complete fool,’ said Dev scornfully.

Risala made a neat dive into the sea, swimming around the raft to climb on to the opposite side from

Kheda.

‘Get in as close as you can.’ Dev was lying on the cliff, reaching down at full stretch to offer the swords. Kheda used the stern oar to drive the raft closer to the rocks. Risala reached up and took the swords as an opportune swell lifted them.

Dev jumped into the sea feet first, sending spray in all directions. He bobbed there for a moment, scouring dirt and dust from his reddened chest. ‘Shit, this stings.’

‘Salt water will do a scalding like that no harm.’ Kheda lashed the stern sweep securely into its frame. ‘But the sun will leave me dried out like trail meat without a shirt to cover my back.’ Dev eased himself warily aboard the raft. ‘Let’s have a paddle.’

With Risala and Dev kneeling, fending off gently before paddling furiously against the implacable thrust of the waves, Kheda wrestled the clumsy vessel through the tortuous maze of corals using the stern sweep. There was no respite out in the open water. Some stray thread of the southern current seized the little raft, threatening to sweep them into the wider waters beyond the island. ‘You steer.’ Kheda shook Risala by the shoulder. He kept firm hold of the stern oar as she clung to him, manoeuvring gingerly around the tiny craft. She took the steering oar and passed him her paddle with a resolute nod.

Kheda let go of the steering sweep and knelt to join Dev in driving the raft beyond the merciless current’s reach. The knots and lumps of the tandra wood dug painfully into his shins and the searing sun hammered down on his head and back. He was sweating freely, though the breeze snatched away the beams of perspiration on his forehead and chest. It seemed an eternity before he realised that the pull of the water below the raft had slackened. Kheda felt breathless with relief as much as from the exertion They were within bowshot of the next scrap of island.

‘Do we want to land for a rest?’ Risala was clinging resolutely to the stern oar, feet planted wide on the rough-hewn logs, her bare brown toes gripping the wood. She nodded at a break in the reef that offered access to the beach.

‘Let’s get around this island and see how we’re faring.’ Kheda looked at Dev, who was resting his improvised oar across his thighs, bald head thrown back, his eyes closed. The wizard jerked a single nod of consent.

They made better speed now, beyond the grip of the current, but the new danger was drifting too close to the mottled, foam-wreathed reef running parallel with the shore. They crawled along the shoreline. Kheda stopped looking at it. It seemed that every time he glanced up, the same stubborn cluster of nut palms had barely shifted to mark their painful progress.

‘Let’s land when we’re past the next strait,’ Risala said tightly.

‘And find a spring,’ rasped Dev. ‘We’ll have to wait till it’s cooler before we go on.’ Kheda found he was nearly mute with cloying spittle and swallowed painfully. ‘Or we’ll all end up dead of heat prostration.’ We’ll just have to take our chances with the fleet still being at the rendezvous point.

They toiled on until the raft slipped sideways into the mouth of a channel running between the little islet and a lump of thickly wooded land that tantalised with a moist green scent.

Dev looked down the channel. ‘Shit!’

‘Savages!’ The raft dipped as Risala’s shudder ran down the steering oar.

Kheda dug his paddle deep into the water, fear lending energy that put his weariness to flight. ‘They’re not looking this way.’

Not yet.’ Dev matched him stroke for stroke. ‘It looks like a whole horde of those hollow log boats of theirs.’ Risala kept watch as she wrenched their course around towards the far shore.

The rocky ledge ahead was steeply undercut by the ceaseless waves. Kheda looked desperately for some place to land as wild wordless cries echoed down the strait. ‘What are they doing?’

‘They’re not after us,’ Risala said with breathless relief. ‘They’re attacking some of their own.’

‘Mezai said the trireme crews heard screams in the night,’ Dev puffed.

Kheda pointed urgently with his dripping paddle. ‘There, behind that boulder.’

They pushed the raft through an awkward eddy and on to a narrow shelf of sand behind a tumble of broken rocks.

‘You’d think they’d be too busy running from Chazen swords to bother slaughtering each other,’ Dev observed as they hauled the raft out of the water. Kheda peered out over the water but the trees hid the battle from view. We’d better hide until they’ve gone away. We’ll never outrun them on open water—those log boats of theirs are cursed fast.’

‘We can look for a spring, can’t we?’ Risala set a hand on the hilt of her dagger.

Dev settled his swords in his belt. ‘I don’t suggest we stand and fight if we bump into anyone.’

No, we cut and run,’ Kheda agreed. ‘Let’s try to see what’s happening. Best we know what’s behind us before we go any further.’

He led the way cautiously through the welcome shade of the forest. Defiant yells crushed inarticulate cries of pain that were pierced in turn by desperate screams. Rage and agony struggled for supremacy in the bitter cacophony.

‘This way.’ Dev pushed past Kheda towards the water, where reflected light rippled through the thinner trees.

Risala halted. ‘I’m going to find a spring or some fruit or something. I’m parched.’

Kheda stopped, torn. ‘Shout if you see anything dangerous.’

‘More dangerous than Dev?’ Risala’s half-smile lifted Kheda’s spirits just a little.

Kheda pushed cautiously through a dense screen of tassel-bevy bushes to find a finger of pocked and pitted rock thrust out into the strait. Dev was already lying flat on the rough sandy ground, chin resting on his interlaced hands, intent on the scene before him. Careful of his swords, Kheda lowered himself to join the wizard. The rock was hard and gritty under his bare stomach.

‘It’s the usual mayhem,’ Dev said thoughtfully. ‘The attackers from over yonder are getting the worst of it.’ Some way off, though still too close for comfort, the flotilla Kheda had seen as they rounded the point was attacking an invader’s encampment on this larger island. Not built in the ruins of a Chazen village, that’s something to be thankful for.’ He spoke the thought aloud.

The invaders had merely cleared a wide swathe of trees and brush, using the lumber and leafy branches to fashion crude shelters. There were a few blackened scars where cookfires had burned and some heaps of unidentifiable detritus.

Dev’s dark eyes were fixed on the fighting. The shallow boats that had come over from the outlying island had almost reached this near shore when savages lying in wait had launched their own hollow log boats from the cover of bushes running down to the water. They hadn’t gone straight for their foes but had paddled out to the middle of the channel to cut off their retreat before driving them on to the hostile shore. The wild men fought out on the water, riding their perilous vessels as they stabbed and smashed at each other with wooden spears and stone-studded clubs. The dull thud of bludgeoning and the sharp crack of bone was a counterpoint to aggressive yells and pain-filled screams.

The two mobs of savages were indistinguishable from each other. Their brief leather loincloths were virtually the same colour as their skin and all were impartially plastered with crude designs in pale paint, swirls and spirals and palm prints. All had their hair caked in mud, some decorated with feathers or leaves. None boasted the gaudy cloaks or brightly coloured garlands that the savages’ mages usually affected.

Is it just the knowledge that their enemy’s wizard can rust the very weapons in their hands that keeps these people from using metal to offer and receive a cleaner death? Or do these wild mages choose to keep them in such barbarism, all the better to rule them?

Sickened, Kheda watched an uneven fight turn into a massacre. The rough and ready weapons were brutally effective. Men disappeared into the sea, some with screams cut short by the smothering water, others stunned and silent, not a hand outstretched to save themselves. Bodies washed up against those who had nearly reached the shore. There was fighting on the waterline now, desperate attackers swinging murderous clubs against new foes racing out of the forest with blood-curdling cries.

No sign of magic,’ Kheda said with hollow relief. Precious little sign of tactics, either.’

‘Why do you suppose they’re gathering up the bodies?’ Dev squinted across the bright water.

A noise behind them sent both men reaching for a sword, hearts whipping round, ready to spring to their feet.

‘I found some setil melons by a little stream.’ Risala had halted a prudent distance back. She displayed the warty green globes in the lap of her tunic. What’s going on?”‘

‘They’re killing each other.’ Kheda took a melon and, slicing off the top, scooped yellow seeds out of the vivid red flesh with his knife.

‘This lot’s doing most of the killing.’ The wizard also took a melon and cut himself a hunk, spitting the seeds out as he chewed.

‘Are they killing them or taking them prisoner?’ Risala sat in the cover of the scrubby shoreline trees. ‘Is there a stockade for captives?’

‘Hard to say’ The melon’s aromatic tartness quenched Kheda’s thirst astonishingly fast. He waved away tiny black flies that had appeared from nowhere.

‘They didn’t dig any ditch or plant a palisade.’ Dev bared his teeth to scrape the last flesh from the melon skin.

Kheda sucked on another piece of melon as he watched the triumphant savages sweep the debris of the battle back towards their own shore, bodies and log boats alike mere bobbing brown shapes. A few of the defeated wild men staggered to their feet in the shallows, only to be felled with lethal thrusts of wooden spears.

‘They don’t seem overly concerned with keeping them alive,’ Risala observed with distaste. Dev snapped his fingers at her. ‘Give me a melon, a whole one.’

Risala tossed him a knobbly green fruit without comment.

‘What are you doing?’ Kheda watched the wizard slice off the top and scoop out the seeds, staring intently into the hollow.

‘If there’s no wizard, then there’s no one to tell them they’re being scried on.’ He shrugged. ‘If there is, then that’s one question answered at least and we can make a run for it.’ He broke off as he saw something in the juice.

‘What is it?’ Kheda pressed close to the mage to get a look at the spell.

‘See for yourself.’ Dev swatted at the greedy flies obscuring his view.

Kheda peered into the melon to see the victorious savages piling bodies in a crude heap. Some were plainly dead, hearts distorted with wounds, shattered bone and grey ooze pale against their dark, matted hair. Others still struggled feebly, gasping for air that shattered chests could no longer supply, spitting bloody foam as broken ribs tore their innards. Wooden spears jutted from pierced bellies and limbs, welling dark blood against pale timber barely dried.

‘Dev!’ Risala darted forward to snatch the melon and hurl it out into the water.

‘What the—?’ Dev gaped at the girl.

Kheda froze, looking to see if any distant savage had heard the sudden splash.

A flap of great leathery wings reverberated along the strait. Kheda grabbed for Risala and pulled her down beside him, sheltering her body with his own. The noise of wings came again, rending the air with a sound like tearing calico. The savages raised an exultant ululation.

‘What’s going on, Dev?’ Kheda demanded in a harsh whisper.

Dev’s eyes were wide and wondering. ‘Cursed if I know,’ he hissed, frustrated. ‘And I won’t be scrying to find out.’

Frantic drumming of spears and clubs on the hollow log boats echoed along the strait, volume swelling, pace increasing. It stopped, cut off by the thunderous crash of the dragon’s landing.

Did it really make the earth shake or is that just my imagination running riot?

Kheda moved as far forward as he dared, to the edge of the rocky promontory where the three of them lay.

The dragon had landed and was crouching in the middle of the area the savages had cleared. Its lashing tail smashed a scatter of crude shelters. The wild men were all prostrate on the ground, not moving even when the beast’s mighty tail sent broken timbers thumping down on their unprotected bodies. The dragon threw back its head and roared, an ear-splitting, unearthly sound penetrating flesh and bone. Flocks of panic-stricken birds surged up from the forest all around. Even the pied forest eagles that had few foes to fear burst screeching from the trees and fled.

Kheda reached for Risala and she held his hand tight. The warlord spared Dev a glance. ‘Are you all right?’

‘It’s the magic. I can feel it.’ Dev’s eyes were wide and bright and the breath was shaking in his chest, as if he had a fever. ‘I’ll be all right,’ the mage said through clenched teeth, ‘as long as it doesn’t come any nearer.’

Kheda shared a glance with Risala that told him they were in unspoken agreement.

If it does, that’s when we start running. And don’t you dare follow us, you star-crossed barbarian. The dragon roared again, not so loudly this time, more intimidation than challenge. Rising to its feet, it stalked towards the tangled heap of dead and dying savages. It snapped at the helpless victims and severed limbs fell from its mighty jaws as it tossed its head back to swallow.

‘Stars above.’ Kheda watched, aghast, unable to look away.

‘So that’s how you stop a dragon eating you,’ Dev said with a strained attempt at sarcasm. ‘Make sure you’ve taken enough prisoners to fill its belly.’

‘Is that why the invaders didn’t care that their captives were too old to be useful slaves?’ Risala wrinkled her nose. ‘They just wanted meat on hand in case a dragon arrived?’

‘But none of their wizards summoned a dragon last year.’ Kheda looked at Dev. ‘Why not?’

Dev glared back. ‘I’ll weave a quick net of elemental air to grab one of those shoving his face in the dirt, shall I? We’ll hope he’s managed to learn enough Aldabreshin to explain, shall we?’

‘Look.’ Kheda extracted his aching fingers from Risala’s fierce grip with some difficulty and laid his hand on top of hers. Down on the shoreline, a single figure rose slowly to his feet from among the huddled mass of savages. ‘Is that their wizard?’

‘The one bastard astute enough to discard anything that would single him out for death at our hands?’ Dev narrowed his dark eyes, sweat beading his forehead.

There was nothing to distinguish this wild man from the rest. The beast paused in its grisly feast and regarded him, cocking its massive head quizzically. It opened its mouth, rags of flesh dark on its white teeth, and hissed, low and menacingly.

The man kept his eyes lowered, not meeting the creature’s burning gaze. Head bowed, he reached into some recess of his scant loin cloth and threw something in the dust before the dragon. Its head darted down and the scales fringing the back of its neck fanned out. Tongue flickering, the beast rumbled deep in its throat, making the air throb. Losing interest in the meat scattered around it, the dragon crouched, hind legs coiled beneath it, front legs bent, claws digging into the sand. The light at the centre of its lurid red eyes shone fiery gold.

The solitary bold savage walked slowly to one of the remaining shelters. The dragon’s brilliant gaze tracked his every step. The great beast froze, motionless, as the man ducked inside. He reappeared almost immediately with a wooden chest. Still with that same measured pace, he approached the dragon and set the brass-bound box down just within striking distance of its long neck. Then his nerve broke and he scrambled backwards, tripping over one of his companions to go sprawling in the dust. He cowered, drawing up his legs like a terrified child, one arm impotently lifted to ward off the dragon’s murderous bite.

The creature ignored him, stretching out its head to sniff at the coffer. Dusty earth stirred around its forefeet as it dug its claws deeper into the ground. Its forked tongue flickered out, tasting the dark ironwood and the tarnished bindings. Then, with the same delicacy it had shown when extricating the hapless Chazen warriors from their armour, it extended one forepaw and drove a claw into the top of the chest. One powerful twist broke the coffer into kindling and the dragon sniffed at the contents. What is he giving it?’ Risala asked, baffled.

‘Is that the mage we must kill?’ demanded Kheda.

‘I don’t sense any hint of magic in the man,’ Dev said slowly. ‘It’s hard to be sure, though, with the dragon filling the whole island with its aura. Only . . .’ His voice trailed of

Kheda couldn’t recall when he had last seen uncertainty in the barbarian’s eyes. ‘What?’

‘To be a wizard, you must be mageborn and have an innate affinity with one or more of the essential elements of nature,’ Dev said slowly.

Born to twist and corrupt nature.

‘I know that.’ Kheda bit down on his distaste.

‘It’s like any skill—there are some with more aptitude than others. There are some with so little capacity that all the training in the world won’t make them useful.’ Dev nodded towards the dragon still intent on nosing at the fragments of the little chest, ignoring the wild men prone all around. ‘I think we did kill all the wizards. If that man is magebom, I don’t reckon he’s got anything more than negligible ability in the ordinary way of things. But he can draw enough strength to work plenty of mischief if he can keep the dragon close at hand—if he can keep it from eating him.’

‘How can we kill him?’ demanded Kheda.

‘With that thing playing watchdog?’ Dev chewed his lip. ‘I can’t see us doing that. Still, it should take him a few days to work out what to do with his new power. And just having the dragon around might promote a few other new wizards from the spear-carriers. Maybe they’ll start fighting each other. Maybe we’ll get lucky.’

‘What will the dragon do then?’ Kheda wondered with a hollow feeling of dread.

Not a lot, I would hope,’ said Dev. ‘As long as there are plenty of dead for it to eat.’

‘He knows what else to give it to keep it happy,’ added

Kheda thoughtfully. ‘What do you suppose that is?’

The dragon was lying down now, tail curled around its haunches, forefeet cradling whatever the wild man had given it. Stretching out its long neck, it plucked another lifeless body from the heap of dead and slowly ate it with an audible crunching. Sliding backwards on their bellies and elbows, the surviving savages retreated into the forest.

‘It’s gems. It has to be,’ Risala said suddenly. ‘The invaders were never interested in other loot. They’d barely take more food beyond what would fill their bellies after a fight.’

‘Why give gems to a dragon?’ Kheda looked at Dev.

‘I don’t know.’ Vindictively the wizard crushed a fly crawling on a scrap of melon rind. ‘Velindre might, but I’m not bespeaking her within fifty leagues of that thing, even if I had the means to do it.’

‘We need to get away from here.’ Kheda tried to see where the savages had gone but the all-concealing foliage made that impossible.

‘We’ll take some melons with us.’ Risala crawled backwards to j nut palm and, cutting a few fronds, began plaiting them rapidly. ‘And we need hats in this sun.’

‘You were quick off the mark back there,’ Dev said grudgingly as he glowered at the contented dragon. Nothing like the thought of being eaten alive to sharpen the ears.’ She shuddered.

Kheda waited impatiently until she had finished the basket. He shovelled melons into the lopsided container and gathered it up. Hot and sticky with juice and sweat, dust and grit coating his arms and chest, the weight of the basket ground painfully against his skin. The discomfort was nothing compared to the torment of this new threat to Chazen.

A dragon. Which looks quite happy to stay as long as these savages keep feeding it their can-ion. Whose very presence may be enough to give these wild men new mages. We barely survived their last assaults backed by their murderous sorceries.

‘There you go, my lord.’ Dev tossed a crudely woven hat to Kheda. ‘Sony if it’s not quite suitable for your dignity.’

‘I’ll let it pass, just this once,’ Kheda said dryly as he clapped the hat on his head.

They reached the shallow shelf in the rock where they had left their raft.

‘Would these new wizards lose their magic if we could drive the dragon off or lure it away?’ Kheda asked suddenly.

‘Probably,’ Dev said slowly.

‘Would the dragon kill them if they lost their magic?’ Kheda shot back. Would they lose their hold over it?’

‘If you managed to feed them some of Shek Kul’s cursed herbs?’ Dev was quick to see where Kheda’s thoughts were leading and scowled beneath his own palm-fringed hat. ‘Making them no more than zamorin as far as magic goes? Perhaps. I don’t know.’

Kheda set his jaw resolutely. ‘Then let’s think how we might do one or the other.’

‘I’d rather see. if Velindre’s got some lore to help us,’ objected Dev disagreeably.

Wouldn’t it be better if we could rid ourselves of this new danger without resorting to magic? Using Dev last year was the lesser of two evils but you are still cursed with that evil, if this dragons appearance is anything to go by.

‘We’ll have to see.’ Kheda glanced over his shoulder. There was neither sign nor sound of the dragon moving from its resting place and he breathed a little easier.

‘The trip won’t get any shorter for us hanging around.’ Risala gathered up the paddles as Dev shoved the raft into the sea.

‘We’ll each take a turn steering.’ Kheda passed the basket of melons to Dev as the wizard balanced gingerly on the raft. ‘You first, Risala.’ He handed her on to the raft and she took firm hold of the steering oar. ‘Then me.’ Dev was threading a spare length of cord through the spars holding the logs together, lashing the basket down. ‘I’m not paddling you two all the way home and I’m not risking magic that could draw some wild wizard after us.’

‘Ready?’ asked Risala, shoving her own hat backwards on her head.

‘Ready’ At Kheda’s nod, the two men began paddling.

No one wasted breath in talking as they worked their way along the coral-crusted shore and into more open water. Kheda spared half an eye for any sign of wild men among the trees as he pondered their predicament.

Could we find some means of killing the dragon or driving it away? Will this woman of Dev’s find some lore to help us? Will there be any sign presaging such good fortune when there’s a wizard involved? Will there be any sign showing me which is the better choice for Chazen?

First things first: we have to keep this dragon from laying waste to the domain while we wait for some salvation from these northern wizards or for inspiration as to how we might save ourselves.

Let’s take a leaf out of that bold savage’s book. It wants meat first and foremost. Very well. We send every trireme and warrior Chazen has to call on to round up every last one of these savages. We hold them captive on the islands closest to the beast. If the dragon comes, it can feast on them. The rocky end of the island sank beneath the turquoise waters, reaching out long fingers of many-coloured coral. In the open waters beyond, an undulating russet reef guided them into a calmer channel between two barren islets rising barely a handspan above the rippling waters.

Though there’s no telling where the dragon might go. Best make ready for its arrival anywhere in the domain. Tell the islanders to surrender their ducks and hens. Hunters will have to snare as many deer and forest hogs as they can. Will that sate its appetites? Or has it only got a taste for human flesh? Crude as they were, their palm-frond hats helped to baffle the punishing sun and the calm waters in the sheltered channel made for easier paddling. Kheda slowed and scooped up water to rinse his sticky hands and face and to wash some of the dust from his chest. Dev, take a turn steering.’

What of its other appetites? Risala must be right. It must be gems that savage gave it. Why does it want gems? Does that matter? Stick to the question at hand. How do we stop it devastating the domain? The gift seemed to placate it. Is that what we must do? Pour out what little wealth Chazen has just to keep the beast from causing mayhem?

He paddled on, curbing his longer stroke to match Risala’s determined efforts.

It has to be worth a try. Isn’t one life worth more than even the finest talisman gem? Then that’s another reason to take the battle to the remaining savages, to take back the jewels they have stolen. But can we do it without being eaten by the dragon ourselves?

Dev used the stern sweep to help drive the raft on and Kheda recalled the barbarian’s expertise in managing the ill-fated Amigal single-handed.

A scatter of irregular reefs demanded all their attention. Wider isles further off baffled the prevailing wind and the sun struck up a dazzling sheen from the water. They left the treacherous uncertainty of the corals and found themselves crossing a shallow stretch of sea rippling crystal clear over white sands. Invisible currents sent the carpets of sea grasses below swaying around the grazing turtles. The raft’s shadow crossed the path of a smaller turtle. It shied away, rolling over to show the pale under—

side of its mottled grey and brown shell as it flailed its scaly flippers.

The invaders scorned turtleshell and pearls when they looted. I suppose that means the dragon has no interest in such things. Is that ill fortune for Chazen or good luck? Do we lament that our own resources cannot save us or rejoice that we don’t have to squander the pearl harvest to buy off this monster? ‘There’s good eating on one of those,’ Dev remarked.

‘Got anything to catch it with besides magic?’ Risala looked at Kheda. ‘You’ve been rowing longer than anyone. You should take a turn at steering.’

‘How long have we been at this? How far have we come?’ Kheda tried to stand and discovered how cramped and stiff his legs were. His stumble almost overset the raft before he caught the stern oar and managed to recover his balance.

Dev muttered something derogatory under his breath as he settled himself to another stint of paddling. Risala shot the wizard a filthy look.

Kheda scanned the seas and islands ahead and a flash of white caught his eye. ‘What’s that?’ Dev and Risala both looked up.

‘Where?’ she queried.

‘What?’ he demanded.

‘Over there, past that easterly island.’ Kheda watched the wing of pale canvas disappear behind a clump of nut palms.

‘I see it.’ Dev let his paddle trail in the water. The boat reappeared on the other side of the islet. ‘Do you think it’s one of ours?’ Risala looked back at Kheda for reassurance. ‘We’ve never seen the invaders using sails.’

‘If it isn’t one of ours, it soon will be.’ Dev made sure his swords were secure in his belt before setting to with his paddle once again.

‘I don’t want any bloodshed,’ Kheda warned sharply. Not unless there’s nothing else for it.’

With a dragon in the islands, we don’t need the ill omen of Chazen blood spilled in Chazen waters by Chazen steel.

Chapter Eight

Kheda woke from a dream of sweating bodies entwined in velvet darkness to hear sunbirds singing cheerily outside his shuttered windows. Strong sun striped the wide bed. He threw off the embrace of the light quilt that had rebuffed the night’s breezes and pushed himself upright, stifling a rueful groan. It was barely sunrise when I first woke. I never meant to go back to sleep. Where’s Devi A soft footfall sounded in the bathing room beyond the door in the opposite wall.

‘Dev? Is that you?’ Kheda swung his feet to the floor.

‘It’s me.’ Risala appeared in the archway with an armful of towels. She was dressed in a modest cotton dress neither crisply new nor overly worn.

Unobtrusive, all the better for finding out just what the people here are making of the web of lies the three of us have spun for them, her own mouth shut, eyes and ears open.

His blood pulsed at an unbidden memory of her soft skin beneath his hand.

Was it you I was dreaming of? That dress is almost the same colour as your eyes.

‘Good morning.’ He managed a casual greeting as he eased past her to the bathing room. ‘You look rested.’ She surveyed his nakedness with the faintest of teasing smiles.

‘Why didn’t Dev wake me?’ Kheda took a moment for the urgency in his loins to fade before he relieved himself, returning, rather more composed, to the bedchamber.

‘I don’t know.’ Risala opened the shutters and Kheda crossed to the window.

He turned the ivory column on the sill so that the vane faced the sun and read the shadow’s mark across the swooping lines carved into the cylinder. ‘The morning’s half gone.’ He turned to shout peremptorily at the heavy outer door. ‘Dev! Breakfast and plenty of it!’

Risala perched on the edge of the bed as Kheda threw open a clothes chest and looked for trousers. Your lady wife is wearing green this morning.’

‘We need to show a united front, do we?’ Kheda glanced at her before pulling out an emerald pair of trews.

Risala nodded. ‘The Yellow Serpent’s rowers have been talking.’

‘We can hardly blame them for that. Anyway, a creature that size was hardly going to stay a secret for long.’ Kheda stepped into the trousers and pulled the drawstring tight. ‘They must have left a groove in the sea, they got us back here so fast. That deserves some praise.’ He leaned against the wall, arms folded across his bare chest. ‘At least we got back here quickly enough to prove that the hasty rumours of my death were exaggerated. What are people making of Itrac’s reactions to the Mist Dove’s first report?’

‘Hardly anyone knew what was going on.’ Risala wasn’t unsympathetic. ‘Just that she’d shut herself in her pavilion, barring her doors against all-comers. Thanks to Beyau and Jevin, her hysterics stayed safely behind those locked doors, and all her servants are loyal, they won’t betray her with gossip. As for the rumours . Risala shrugged. ‘There’s some speculation that she might have lost an early pregnancy.’ Let’s hope those loyal servants keep that from her ears.

‘There was no word of a dragon around the anchorage?’ Kheda persisted.

Risala took a moment to consider her reply. ‘There was rumour but it just wrong-footed everyone, especially when there was no word from Itrac. It’s incredible, after all. Who’d imagine we’d see a dragon in these reaches? Who’s heard of one outside a poet’s verses?’

She smiled faintly before continuing, wholly serious. ‘You’ve reappeared, which is good news even if the Yellow Serpent’s men have confirmed that the beast is real. That’s hardly good news, but at least your presence gives the people some reassurance and for the moment the dragon is still well over the horizon. Everyone’s waiting to see what you do, what orders you give. They’re all telling each other long and loud that there’s no point making any decisions until they know what’s afoot. Better to know where the dragon is, rather than head off blindly and run straight into its jaws. I don’t think they’re too keen to throw themselves on Daish mercy again.’

Kheda rubbed at the back of his neck. ‘So it’s not as bad as it could be. The domain’s not in an uproar.’

‘It would have been a cursed sight worse if we hadn’t got back when we did,’ Risala countered. ‘And the people need your leadership. Otherwise dread will spread like mildew.’

‘Slow but insidious.’ Kheda looked at her, his voice low. ‘Do they believe what we said happened to us and the Amigair

‘I think so.’ Risala wrinkled her nose with a suggestion of doubt. ‘They want to believe that it’s possible to escape a dragon, especially those who have friends or family on the triremes you’ve left out there to continue the hunt for the savages. And they’ve no reason to think their warlord wouldn’t tell them the truth,’ she concluded wryly.

‘I’d better get to the courier-dove lofts.’ Kheda pushed himself away from the wall. ‘And see what news there is from the Mist Dove and the others. Do you know if there have been any whispers on the wind from any other domains? Is Janne Daish inviting people to wonder why a magic so evil touches this domain, even if it chooses not to touch me?’ A knock sounded on the brass-bound door giving on to the hallway. ‘Dev? Have you been grinding the sailer to make that bread?’ The door opened to reveal Itrac. ‘Good morning, Kheda.’ Waving Jevin back, she pushed the door closed on his anxious face. She turned to face Kheda, her expression unreadable behind a mask of cosmetics. Risala slid off the bed to vanish swiftly away through the bathing room.

‘Itrac, good morning.’ Kheda brushed a chaste kiss on her cheek and then waited, uncertain what to do or say for the best.

How can I tell you I don’t blame you for panicking at the news that you might have been widowed a second time in strange and ominous circumstances? How can I do that without shaming you by letting you know I heard about your hysterics’!

‘Jevin is bringing your breakfast.’ The first wife of Chazen was wearing a long, wide-sleeved tunic over close-fitted trousers all in leaf-green silk shot with silver lights. Ropes of pearls bound the shimmering cloth at ankle, wrist, waist and neck and a crescent of silver-mounted nacre held back her long black hair, which was plaited into a torrent of narrow braids. ‘Dev was as weary as you. I told Beyau to leave him in his cubby hole.’ Itrac shrugged her disdain for a body slave who insisted on a permanent sleeping place of his own, rather than at the foot of his master’s bed. ‘He’ll hardly be fit to serve you if he doesn’t sleep himself out.’

‘We had a tiring voyage back here,’ Kheda said carefully.

‘And suffered in the sun when you had to make your own way back to the Yellow Serpent.’ Avoiding Kheda’s eyes, Itrac went to a tall coffer and took out a stubby jar with a rag-swathed stopper. ‘Let me oil your back before you finish dressing.’

‘Thank you.’ Kheda took the jar from her and poured a little of the emollient into his own palm before returning it. He rubbed the lotion into his hands.

Back to navigating the intricate complexities of the married life. You’re offering an intimacy but one that means you don’t have to face me. What does that tell me?

Now we have a dragon to plague us.’ Behind him, Itrac’s voice was as firm as her fingers rubbing balm into his muscles. ‘After all the trials of invasion last year.’

‘There is indeed a dragon.’ Kheda concentrated on relaxing his shoulders. ‘Though I’m not sure it’s here to plague us. For the moment, it seems most interested in devouring those remaining invaders. It’s entirely possible that their wickedness has brought this evil down upon them.’

‘Truly?’ Itrac’s hands stopped circling. ‘That’s how you read this?’

‘It’s certainly more than possible,’ Kheda said steadily. ‘I shall need to read the omens with considerable care, to see if things become any clearer.’

In the meantime, that’s the word we’ll start spreading as far and as fast as courier doves and dispatch galleys can carry it. And I’m sure the portents can be suitably ambiguous, in case the beast makes a liar out of me.

‘Hesi, on the Yellow Serpent, he said the dragon overflew them.’ Itrac resumed her rubbing and Kheda could feel a faint scoring from her silver-varnished nails. ‘It drove that boat your slave insists is his on to a reef?’

‘Some whirlwind was following in its wake.’ Kheda tried to strike an appropriate balance between awe and ease of mind. ‘It seems the poets were right: such creatures stir up chaos wherever they go.’ Thank you, Risala, for recalling that nugget from some endless epic or other. I imagine poets on every island will be unrolling those song cycles now. What will that do for morale]

‘So we will see the whole domain riven by this chaos?’ Itrac’s hands and voice both trembled.

Not if I have any say in it.’ Kheda turned to take her hands in his, looking deep into her brown eyes. ‘As I said, for now the beast seems content to eat those foul savages and I’m content to let it. I’ve ordered our triremes and warriors to drive the wild men into its very jaws, if they can do so without risking themselves.’

‘But you said we needed all our boats guarding the main sea lanes . Itrac faltered.

‘Which is why I decided to clear the western isles of the last invaders,’ Kheda reminded her. ‘That’s what our warriors need to be doing, isn’t it, dragon or no dragon? Besides, I’ll wager word of this beast clears Chazen waters of every parasite and pirate. They’ll be splashing their way north as fast as they can row. There can be a pearl in the least promising oyster, can’t there?’

He gripped her fingers tighter to stifle the next question on Itrac’s lips. ‘And we saw something very strange when we washed up close by the beast, something so strange no poet would dare imagine it. The creature covets gems, Itrac. Don’t ask me why, but it does. Dev and I saw a wild man buy his life with a handful of them. That’s how we managed to escape its notice, while it was besotted with its prize. We must send jewels to the triremes, so that they can buy their lives by distracting the beast with them, if need be.’

‘Jewels?’ Itrac’s eyes widened with pure astonishment.

Kheda nodded. ‘We keep this to ourselves, naturally, but don’t you see, this knowledge can buy us more time as and when the beast has eaten its fill of those invaders. I’ll stuff its mouth with every jewel Chazen can lay hands on before I let it devour a single one of our people.’

‘And when it’s eaten every gem we can lay our hands on?’ There was desperation in Itrac’s eyes.

‘All the while we’re keeping it sated, with carrion or whatever else it wants, we’ll be looking for the means to kill it,’ Kheda told her purposefully. ‘I will not give over this domain to that creature, Itrac. I refuse to believe we cannot kill this dragon. Those invaders came backed by magic and terror and we killed their wizards. I found the means to defeat their sorcerors in Shek Kul’s archive. I’ve already sent dispatch galleys to every warlord we’re allied with who has a library worth having between here and the northernmost reaches. There must be lore about such beasts somewhere.’

‘You’ve seen some portent telling you this is the best thing to do?’ Itrac’s face shone with frantic hope. ‘I have,’ Kheda lied doggedly. ‘And I shall go on using every divination known to me to see us through this peril.’

That much is no He. I’ll use every means I have of battling such evil. Every means, even if that requires consorting with wizards again.

Tears filled Itrac’s eyes. ‘Chazen Saril never showed such courage. He wouldn’t have gone looking for answers, for ways to fight back, not like you did. He’d have run from a dragon, just like before when the invaders came. He wouldn’t have come back for me.’

‘Let’s look to the future, not to the past.’ Kheda led Itrac towards the bathing room. ‘And let’s not mark that tunic, or your head maid will scold me till the rains have come and gone again.’ Taking up a cotton cloth, he dipped one end in a ewer of fresh water and gently scrubbed her hands clean of the oily lotion. He refused to catch his own eye in the mirror above the washstand. ‘Now, which tunic do you think I should wear?’

Itrac dabbed the cloth at the corners of her eyes before following him back into the bedroom, her face a mask of hard-won calm once more. ‘The emerald with the golden embroidery.’ She opened Kheda’s jewel coffer. ‘That will go well enough with turtleshell.’

‘We can take it as an omen in our favour that this dragon doesn’t seek to plunder this domain’s riches.’ Kheda donned the tunic and accepted the bracelets she offered him.

‘We could.’ Itrac sounded doubtful. ‘Though I doubt that’s what Rekha Daish will be saying.’ Kheda settled a chain of carved turtleshell links on his hips. When did she sail north?’

‘Four days since. I got word of the dragon, that you were lost. I’m son-y, I shouldn’t have let her know but I was so shocked by the news.’ Hurt and chagrin coloured Itrac’s words equally. ‘She left straight away and took all her triremes with her.’

‘Rushing off like a startled fowl? And four days ago?’ Kheda shrugged. When I was already safely aboard the Yellow Serpent and on my way back here. That galley will take eight days to make the voyage back to the Daish residence. So let’s make sure Rekha arrives home to find a courier dove waiting for her, assuring her that I am alive and well and inviting thoughts on what this new puzzle might mean for Chazen and Daish alike. Do you suppose she’ll have made herself very foolish telling everyone I’m already dead?’

Do you understand my meaning? That as far as I am concerned, you stayed here level-headed and prudently waiting to learn the truth of the matter? That it was Rekha who took fright and fled?

Do we have Rekha to thank for the rumour that you were secluded because you’d lost a child? Doubtless she’d argue that was all she could think of to plausibly hide the truth. ‘I hope not, for her sake.’ Despite her words, the prospect evidently amused Itrac as she handed Kheda a collar of turtleshell plaques. ‘Perhaps she won’t be so hasty. You’ve been thought dead and confounded everyone before.’

‘She should know that, better than most,’ agreed Kheda lightly.

‘I don’t see why we want to invite Daish opinions on this matter.’ Itrac frowned as she studied Kheda’s appearance.

‘It’s only courteous; Daish will need to prepare if there’s any chance of Chazen boats fetching up on their shores again.’ Kheda grinned maliciously. ‘Besides, don’t forget how desperate Rekha is for pearls. I said I’d spread every jewel in Chazen in front of this dragon to keep it quiet. And I will, but only after I’ve drained Daish dry of all the stones it can spare and more besides. If Rekha Daish wants Chazen pearls to hide the disaster of their reefs’ harvest, she can trade weight for weight in gems.’

If that doesn’t convince everyone that my allegiance is now truly to Chazen, nothing will. What choice do I have? If this dragon isn’t dealt with, it’ll ravage Chazen and then move north. I have to do all I can to prevent that for Sirket’s sake, even if I have to plunder his domain to do it.

‘I was looking to trade the pearls for the means to rebuild. Stars above, we need so much.’ Itrac fell silent, her painted face contemplative. ‘But perhaps that’s why the harvest has been so abundant, to give us the means to evade this evil.’ She paused, eyes distant. ‘We don’t want Rekha to know why we need the gems. I don’t quite know what she would do with such news, but better to keep her ignorant if we can. She’ll do her best to find out what we do with the stones, though. Misdirecting her will take some cunning.’

‘Trade and all its intricacies are your prerogative, my lady of Chazen.’ Kheda took a pace towards the door. ‘And while you’re about your duties, I had better be about mine. I’ve been idle too long this morning.’

‘You were tired.’ Itrac took a sideways step to surprise him with a quick, hesitant kiss on his lips. ‘What will you be doing?’

‘Taking the omens first and foremost.’ Kheda jerked his head in the direction of the unseen observatory tower.

‘Then learning what news has come in from the Mist Dove and the rest of the triremes. I want to see the bird master as well, to find out what courier doves we’re holding from

Ritsem and Redigal. I’d better make sure all our allies know I am alive and well, never mind whatever hysterical news Rekha has spread. And I’ll see if there’s any useful lore in the Chazen library. We may know how to contain this menace, but the sooner this dragon is dead, the better.’

So I need Dev to bespeak that wizard woman of his as soon as possible. Everything else is just so much treading mater.

‘But your breakfast.. .’ Itrac looked towards the door.

‘Send Jevin to wake up Dev and have him bring food and drink to the observatory.’ Kheda grinned. ‘I must put my duty to the domain before my belly.’

Naturally, my husband,’ replied Itrac with amusement. Will you eat with me this evening?’ she asked hopefully. ‘I will, with pleasure.’ Kheda went into the hallway, ignoring the servants who froze as he appeared.

You’ll need to make time to bolster her nerve. Besides, Risala will be occupied elsewhere. Though we should discuss what verses she thinks would spread a little calm and stiffen resolve around the islands, and how we might get her discreet allies to prompt poets to recall them.

Other residence slaves were working in the shade of the pavilion’s northern face. Maidservants paused in their sewing and polishing, apprehensive faces turning to Kheda. A sturdy youth pulling a handcart stacked with bright brass water jars stopped by the steps, open—

mouthed but fearful to ask what might be about to befall them. Kheda nodded acknowledgements, his confident smile resolutely fixed, and strode out into the bright sun. As he took the path towards the observatory, he forced himself to slow his pace.

If I’m seen rushing about, these people will mistake purposeful haste for open alarm and we’ll have half of them fleeing before the day is out.

A white-haired islander was sweeping windblown sand and grass from the hard, trampled path.

Too old to be hauling sacks and barrels but too hale to accept an idle seat in the shade. There’s mettle in Chazen. A warlord should be proud to lead such people.

‘Glad to see you safely home, my lord.’ The old man stepped aside, leaning on his broom of palm fronds, the well-muscled arms of his youth wasted to wrinkled slackness. For all his courtesy, his leathery face was anxious as he gripped his broom with gnarled hands.

‘I’m glad to be here,’ said Kheda breezily.

‘My lord . . .’ There was pleading in the old servant’s voice.

‘Yes?’ The question died on Kheda’s tongue as he saw faces turned towards him all across the anchorage.

Have they all been waiting for sight of me? What are they looking for? Confirmation that there’s someone here to lead them to safety this time? Itrac can’t be the only one remembering how Chazen Saril fled those invaders to wash up in Daish waters, broken by his fears, unmanned.

Can’t they think back to their own tenor? Do they realise how much they were asking of him, that he fight magic with bare-handed ignorance?

Do they realise just what they’re asking of me? Would they ever truly want to know what answers I’m seeking?

The rowing boats ferrying the residence’s food and fuel from the isles edging the lagoon slowed as the islanders trailed their oars in the water, mouths open as they registered Kheda’s presence. The purposeful activity aboard the closest light trireme halted as bare-chested oarsmen hurried up from the rowing deck to line the unrailed sides and join the archers on the bow platform. The shipmaster and his steersman bowed low beneath the upswept arc of the stern as they saw Kheda look in their direction. Hails sounded further out across the water as the crews of great galleys anchored in deeper waters acknowledged their warlord.

Kheda turned his attention to the sweeper. ‘You wanted to ask me something?’

‘I hear tell there’s an ill wind blowing in the western isles.’ The old man swallowed, unwilling to tempt the future by mentioning the dragon.

Past the old man, Kheda saw Itrac appear on the steps of Kheda’s own pavilion, her garments vivid despite the shade, the pearls adorning her all the whiter for it. He saw her look in his direction, hesitant. ‘I’m seeking lore from every library I have access to and every ally who might know something of such beasts.’ Kheda stretched one hand out towards Itrac. ‘I’ll be looking to the heavens, to the earthly compass, to every divination tested by time and use to guide me to the means to turn this ill fortune aside. We will be rid of this evil, my friend.’

And it’ll all be for nothing if we can’t hold these people together. They thought you might be dead. They think that Itrac might have lost the hope of a child for the domain, and that’s assuredly an evil omen. They had better see us happy and united. It’s not just what you do that builds loyalty, it’s what you ‘re seen to do. Daish Reik taught you that.

Kheda strode purposefully back down the path towards Itrac, hands outstretched. She saw him and hurried to meet him. He took her hands and drew her to him, folding her in a close embrace. Somewhere distant, unseen, a cheer was raised. Other voices took it up, swelling the sound to a defiant roar. Stamping feet and the drumming of spars and ropes on deck planking ran beneath it. The swordsmen and archers of the heavy triremes raised their weapons, scabbarded swords clashing together, daggers making drums of wood and leather quivers to add a hard edge to the rousing sound. Itrac slid her arms around his chest, pulling Kheda to her. She kissed him hard, her mouth opening beneath his, moulding her body to him. Her breath trembled on Kheda’s cheek and he felt a disquieting shiver of lust beneath his cold calculation.

This is lust, not love. It’s the thought of Risala that warms me with real passion. Have you seen that, my wife? Which was it that you felt for Saril, if truth were told? Are your kisses as calculated as mine?

As Itrac refused to release him, the ovation from the closest boats took on a distinctly ribald note. Kheda used laughter as an excuse to break away. After a moment’s uncertainty, Itrac joined in. They moved apart, still hand-fasted. The applause was finally subsiding into individual shouts that Kheda was quite glad he couldn’t make out.

‘We have work to do, my lady.’ He bowed to Itrac.

‘We do, my lord.’ Her smile was wide with new confidence, her eyes bright. ‘Till this evening.’

He watched for a moment as she walked briskly back towards the heart of the residence. Servants and slaves returned to their tasks again amid a buzz of conversation. The figures aboard the ships in the anchorage set about their chores with renewed energy. One piper sent a swirl of melody up to challenge the raucous wheeling gulls, then a second joined in with a swooping counterpoint. Soon a murmur of disjointed song rumbled along beneath the jaunty flutes. The old sweeper chuckled, brushed some nonexistent debris from Kheda’s path and bowed low as the warlord passed.

Let’s hope that little display keeps curious eyes away from those things you must never be seen doing, lest the shock and horror of discovery rip this domain apart.

Kheda walked rapidly across the island to the clean-swept expanse in front of the observatory. Risala was waiting in the hall at the bottom of the stairs.

‘That was a convincing show of joint resolve.’ She sounded amused.

You don’t sound jealous. Are you? You’ve kept your distance these past days, or was that because we couldn’t escape Dev? What does it mean if you’re not jealous of any woman who thinks she has a claim on me any more? Well, there’s nothing I can do about it for the present, so I don’t think I want to know either way. But you’re wearing that string of shark’s teeth around your sleeve. Isn’t that token of something?

‘We need to find some reason for Itrac’s seclusion that nails the lie about her losing a baby,’ Kheda said without preamble. ‘And where has Dev got to, curse him!’ He led the way into the westernmost of the semicircular halls at the base of the observatory. ‘Are we alone? Are you certain?’

‘There’s no one here but me,’ Risala assured him. ‘I

checked.’

‘We need mirrors.’ Kheda looked around the room with its filigree-fronted bookcases and shelves full of candles, pendants, metal tablets and dried herbs, the paraphernalia for every manner of divination. ‘Dev must work the magic to speak to that woman again. We have to find out everything she knows about dragons as soon as possible.’

Risala unhooked a highly polished circle of steel from the wall, its rim chased with bronze sailfish. Where are we doing this?’

‘Up aloft.’ Dev appeared in the doorway carrying a laden tray and scowling blackly. ‘And with that door locked behind us. We definitely don’t want anyone walking in on us here.’ He dumped the brass tray on a polished berale-wood table and spooned poached sard-berries into a bowl of steamed golden sailer grain. ‘Do you have an excuse for shutting everyone out that won’t raise more questions than it answers?’ Kheda’s stomach rumbled as hunger surprised him. ‘We’ll say I was reading mirror omens.’ He scooped up rustlenuts crushed with oil and herbs with some bread. ‘You said you needed a mirror. Choose one,’ he ordered indistinctly through a mouthful of sweet green arith.

Wordlessly, Risala set the mirror she was holding on the table and went to fetch a second, this one square and framed with a lattice of tiny lustre tiles in red and gold.

Dev shovelled berries and sailer grain into his mouth, purple juice staining his lips. ‘Does it matter which one I use?’

‘Yes,’ Kheda retorted, tearing another round of bread apart. ‘Risala, are you hungry?’ He gestured towards the food.

‘I ate earlier.’ She laid a third mirror carefully on the table, an oval of brightly polished copper whose reverse bore a silver mirror bird spreading the shimmering fan of its tail.

‘Is any one more valuable than the others?’ Dev set down his empty bowl and grinned. ‘Any of them a gift from someone you particularly dislike?’

‘Just choose one,’ Kheda ordered, chewing rapidly.

Dev shrugged and picked up the mirror bordered by lustre tiles. ‘This is as good as any.’

Hardly an omen, but that’s Ulla-domain workmanship and I can’t think of anyone I detest more than Vila Safar.

‘Upstairs then.’ Kheda nodded in the direction of the stairs and picked up the other two mirrors. ‘I only need one,’ said Dev, irritated.

‘I’ll be telling everyone I was looking for mirror omens.’ Kheda picked a weighty key from a brass bowl on a shelf. ‘I’m not going to risk making our plight even a little worse by lying about that.’

‘Suit yourself,’ said Dev with faint derision. ‘Risala, make yourself useful and find me a candle.’

‘You’re his slave, Dev, I’m not yours.’ All the same, she found a taper in a metal box beside an oil lamp and held it up for the wizard’s approval.

‘That’ll do.’ Dev nodded.

Kheda paused to lock the outer door as Risala followed the mage up to the observation platform. He climbed slowly up the stairs. The sunlight was fierce after the coolness within the building.

Is that why you ‘re sweating? Or is it your guilt at suborning magic yet again? And this time you’re doing it in the very heart of this domain that’s already suffered so much sorcery.

From the vantage point, Kheda glanced around the skein of islands to see purposeful activity in all directions, residence workers and mariners alike oblivious to their warlord’s duplicity. ‘Let’s get this done. Do you have everything you need?’

‘Some shade wouldn’t go amiss,’ Dev said sourly. He dropped gracelessly to sit cross-legged in the middle of the roof, holding the mirror in one hand and the taper in the other. The virgin wick flared with scarlet sorcerous flame.

Kheda found he couldn’t keep looking out over the unsuspecting anchorage and turned to stare at the empty seas to the south. Behind him, Dev spoke in some hurried incomprehensible tongue, his forceful scorn needing no translation.

‘She says she hasn’t found anything yet.’ Risala came to stand by Kheda, her back to the sea, all her attention on the mirror that Dev was holding. ‘She’s talking about searching in some library.’

‘We have libraries,’ Kheda muttered.

‘She’s been looking for some journals,’ Risala said slowly. ‘She hasn’t found them.’

From the tone of the barbarian’s brusque interruption, Kheda concluded that Dev wasn’t impressed by that news.

‘She’s asking him about the dragon,’ Risala continued in an undertone. ‘She wants to know if he’s seen it again and what it’s been doing. She wants to know all about it.’

‘What is he telling her?’ Kheda asked, curious. ‘Has he said anything about the gems? What has he said about his own magic going awry?’

No, he’s saying nothing about that,’ Risala said thoughtfully. ‘He just wants to know about her researches.’

Dev’s voice was harsh as he demanded answers. The unseen woman sounded to be giving as good as she got. Kheda could just hear her scathing replies, faint and tinny, like someone whispering paradoxically loudly into a copper goblet.

‘She’s saying he’s welcome to try for himself if he thinks he can do better,’ Risala commented with amusement

Kheda slid Risala a sideways grin. ‘I’m glad you’re here to keep him honest.’

She didn’t see his smile, intent on Dev’s rapid exchanges with the distant wizard woman. ‘They’re disputing who might have these journals and who she should ask next.’ Risala shook her head slowly, eyes still fixed on the mirror, her voice running low beneath the arguing mages. ‘She’s insisting she knows what she’s looking for. She’s sure these journals will hold all the lore we need. It’s just finding out who has them. I don’t think Dev’s convinced.’

Kheda could hear that for himself, along with the rising note of defiant argument in the woman’s words. Now she’s talking about having to go on some journey to find out what we need to know,’ Risala continued hurriedly. ‘She says that’s the best way to be certain, something about going to the source. I

think there’s a joke there but I don’t follow. Dev’s not amused. He seems to think there are people who’ll know what we need closer to hand. He doesn’t see why she can’t do whatever it takes to win them over.’ She broke off, frowning as the conversation flowing back and forth through the enchanted mirror threatened to degenerate into a shouting match.

‘Dev.’ Kheda yielded to his frustration and turned around.

‘What?’ snapped the wizard before silencing the distant woman with a curt word.

‘Is she truly on the scent of some lore that can help us? Do you believe that much?’ Kheda demanded. ‘Do you trust her?’

‘She wants this lore worse than you do.’ Dev laughed unpleasantly. ‘It’s just a question of the quickest way to find it. I’d stick to searching the archives at hand if it was me but she wants to make a trip—’

‘Whatever she chooses to do, how soon does she think she might have some lore we can use against the dragon?’ Kheda interrupted. ‘Honestly? We need to know how long we have to hold the beast off for.’

‘And what’s the longest it might take her,’ added Risala. ‘If things don’t go as well as she seems to expect,’ Kheda agreed.

‘Hope for the best but plan for the worst.’ Risala quoted one of Kheda’s precepts back at him with a grin. Dev posed the question in his rapid barbarian tongue. Kheda listened with frustration to the uncanny, unintel—

ligible conversation between the mages. The mirror burned with a red-gold radiance vivid even in the bright sunlight. The magewoman was a distant image, featureless as she gesticulated.

Hope for the best but plan for the worst. You cannot wait till you have all possible information before making plans. You will never have all the facts. Make your best plan based on knowledge, experience and instinct, and act upon it. Believe you are right. If it turns out you were wrong, deal with the consequences as and when they arise, and never admit to self-doubt. You did not make an error, because that was the best plan of action at the time. You cannot change the past, only the future, so make a new plan, the best you can in the here and now.

That’s what your father told you and that’s what you taught Sirket. It sounds so simple to be a warlord. But won’t relying on some accursed wizard’s best guess inevitably lead me into error?

What else can I do? Isn’t this woman’s guess better than nothing? I have to base my actions on something. The people of Chazen must believe I have a plan or we’ll lose them to their fears. Lose your people and you’ve lost your domain. First and last, that’s the ultimate reality of being a warlord. The wizard woman’s distant reply had been going on for far too long to be a simple answer. Tension crawled between Kheda’s shoulder blades along with sweat prompted by the punishing sun. Dev responded with some lengthy, forceful protest, his tone ugly.

‘What is she saying?’ Kheda asked with growing concern.

‘That she won’t just tell Dev what she learns regardless,’ Risala answered, her voice tense with anger. ‘She’s saying she wants to come here, to see the dragon for herself. Then she’ll share what she finds out. Unless we agree, she won’t tell us a thing.’

‘How does she propose to do that?’ Kheda saw that Dev was crushing the end of the taper in his hand, knuckles white around the beeswax. His scorn sprayed the mirror with spittle that vanished as soon as it touched the radiant metal.

The distant wizard woman’s face filled the magical void burning in the surface of the mirror. The contrast with Dev was startling. This wizard woman was all barbarian with blonde hair drawn back off a curiously ageless face, though she was plainly no longer in the first flush of youth. There was no softness in those angular bones, no yielding in the thin-lipped mouth speaking with clipped precision. Her eyes were a surprise,—brown where Kheda would have expected blue, though paler than any he’d ever seen on an Archipelagan. They were also wholly resolute.

‘She isn’t going to back down over this,’ he said quietly to Risala.

‘She certainly looks determined,’ the girl agreed. Kheda spoke up. ‘How does she propose to come here?’ he asked Dev. ‘I thought you said a wizard couldn’t go somewhere they’d never been.’ Dev ignored him, still arguing furiously with the woman. Her replies by contrast were icily calm.

‘She can’t ever have travelled in the Archipelago,’ commented Risala. ‘She’d have been enslaved before she got further than the northernmost reaches looking like that, never mind getting skinned for being a wizard.’

‘She knows she’s got the whip hand over us all, though,’ Kheda said with reluctant resignation.

‘She knows she needs an escort. She just said so.’ Risala rubbed a hand through her black hair, frowning. ‘She wants a ship sent to Relshaz to fetch her.’

‘That’s madness.’ Kheda stared at her. ‘There’s the entire length of the Archipelago between us. We haven’t that time to waste.’

‘She’s adamant.’ Risala looked at him. ‘She’s not going to give way on it.’

‘How soon?’ Kheda took a step forward and shook Dev’s shoulder roughly. ‘How soon can she get to Relshaz with this dragon lore? If she can bring us what we need to be rid of the beast, I will send a ship. If she can’t guarantee to help us, tell her I won’t waste any more time on this and I certainly won’t send her men or a vessel we need in Chazen.’

The woman abandoned her dispute with Dev, her eyes shifting to look straight at Kheda. He stifled a shudder of revulsion.

Scrying is one thing. The intimacy of this communication is quite another.

Dev asked the questions, challenge in his voice coloured with insulting disbelief. The woman replied with cold precision in her incomprehensible tongue, strange eyes fixed on Kheda all the while. She finished speaking and silence rang loudly across the open observatory. The only movement was the ceaseless whirling of the circle of brilliant magic on the mirror.

Dev let out a slow, contemplative breath. ‘She’s talking about a long trip but as luck would have it, she can make most of that journey by magic. The last bit will be the trial and then, assuming she can find the man she’s looking for ...’ He shook his head reluctantly. ‘If she can find him, yes, he should have the lore we need. Whether he’ll share it is another question altogether.’

‘Promise him gems, pearls, whatever it takes,’ Kheda ordered tersely. ‘Your barbarian coin, if need be.’

‘He won’t be interested.’ Dev laughed derisively. ‘He’s long past interest in such trifles. If Velindre can’t convince him to share what he knows, no promises of riches will shift him.’

‘And if she can?’ Kheda asked.

‘Then we should certainly have something to make any dragon think twice about plundering Chazen,’ said Dev softly.

‘Do you think she can achieve this?’ Kheda demanded. ‘Do you trust her? Is pursuing this worth our while? Tell me honestly, Dev.’

‘If anyone can convince the wizard she’s talking about to share his lore, she’s the woman to do it. And it’s not as if we have any other bright ideas, is it?’ He looked up at Kheda. ‘I’d say the odds are better than even money. I’d take that bet.’

The woman said something, shifting her gaze to Dev who nodded reluctantly.

‘If she can persuade him to talk, she’ll be at Relshaz barely a day later. What will take the time will be getting her down here, which is plain stupidity—we don’t have time to sit here with our thumbs up our arses while she takes a pleasure cruise.’ Turning back to the woman he began talking again, objections rapid and angry. She shook her head, mouth stubborn.

‘Dev, shut up for a moment.’ Kheda closed his eyes, the better to think. ‘Can she undertake to be in Relshaz in forty-five days, near enough?’

‘You’re planning on flogging a trireme crew half to death?’ Dev looked up at him, incredulous. ‘When did a Chazen trireme last make that voyage so fast?’

‘Can we survive this dragon’s presence that long?’ Risala asked tersely.

‘What other choice do we have?’ Kheda waved her question away. ‘Just ask her,’ he snapped at Dev. Shaking his head in disbelief, the mage obliged. The wizard woman’s emphatic nod needed no translation. ‘Will she be able to recognise a Chazen trireme in the docks of Relshaz?’ Kheda continued. ‘Kheda,’ Risala warned. She pointed and he saw the residence steward Beyau heading purposefully for the footbridge leading to the observatory isle. Waiting impatiently through a rapid exchange between the mages, Kheda handed Risala the key to the door at the bottom of the stairs. ‘Get down there and tell Beyau to come back later. Tell him I’m still reading omens.’

Risala nodded and ran lightly down the stairs.

‘Dev,’ Kheda said, calculating quickly, ‘the Greater Moon is waxing. Tell the woman to be in Relshaz at the end of its next complete cycle, the one after this when it’ll just about coincide with the Lesser Moon’s darkness. Do you understand? I don’t know what that would be in your barbarian calendar.’

‘Sometime around the thirtieth of Aft-Spring, my lord, depending on which almanac we’re using,’ Dev said with heavy sarcasm. He said something brief to the woman in the spell, with a note of warning. Then he blew out the taper and the magic vanished to leave the polished metal shining vacant and uninformative in the sun.

‘I need a drink before my brain boils.’ Dev abandoned the mirror on the observatory’s tiles and headed for the stairs.

‘Wait. We’re taking omens, remember?’ Kheda heard Risala talking to Beyau below. He nudged the lustre-trimmed square of the mirror with his foot. ‘Does this have to be intact for your magics? The frame, I mean, not the metal.’

Dev halted at the top of the steps, puzzled.

‘Take this and keep it with your own gear.’ Kheda drew his dagger and bent to pick up the mirror. He reversed the blade and carefully stabbed at the delicate glass tiles with the brass hilt. The glaze splintered and crackled under his assault. ‘You don’t use any other mirror for that bespeaking enchantment, do you understand me? Now sit down. I said I was going to read mirror omens for the domain and I intend to.’

Dev didn’t reply, simply snorting as he went to sit in what little shade was offered by the waist-high wall encircling the observation platform.

Kheda picked up the undamaged mirrors he had brought up with him and left on the wall’s broad rail.

In times of confusion, hidden truths can often be seen more clearly in reflections. Isn’t that what you were always taught! Perhaps, but do you honestly think you’ll see any omens with the memory of that magic clouding your mind?

He studied the mirror bird on the back of the copper mirror for a moment before flipping it around. Lifting the mirror so that he could see the open horizon and the empty sea behind him, he moved slowly, shifting his feet little by little until he had surveyed the entire circle of the compass as it was reflected in the shining metal. The vista remained entirely, unhelpfully blank.

He heaved a sigh and began again. This time Risala appeared at the top of the stairs. ‘I told Beyau you were busy. He asked for you to send word as soon as you’re free to see him.’

‘There’s not a lot to keep me here,’ Kheda said heavily.

‘Wait till moonrise, that’s a more auspicious time for mirror omens,’ she suggested softly.

Dev spoke up from the far side of the observatory. ‘You were talking about looking in Chazen’s library for any useful lore. We could do that and be in the cool. You Archipelagans might know something that would wipe that smirk off Velindre’s face. Stronger things have happened. I wouldn’t mind seeing that,’ he concluded, a trifle vindictively. ‘Even through a bespeaking.’

Risala dismissed the wizard with a wave of her hand, her eyes on Kheda. ‘Let’s get out of the sun.’ The warlord nodded and headed for the stairs. They were wide enough for Risala to tuck herself beside him and slide her hand into his.

‘That’s enough of that.’ Dev pushed past into the library. ‘Where are the keys to the bookcases?’ Next to the ceromancy bowl.’ Kheda laid the mirrors he had carried down on the table.

Risala stood by Dev’s shoulder, surveying the books, and pulled out a thin tome bound in stained scarlet leather, age darkening the edges of the pages. ‘It would be no bad thing if we could keep the domain safe without magic,’ she said in a low voice as she laid the book flat and opened it carefully.

‘I think that’s rather less likely than this woman of Dev’s finding what we need.’ Kheda scanned the crabbed, faded writing where some long-dead scribe had dutifully recorded the omens and predictions of some Chazen forelord, along with verdicts on the accuracy or otherwise of his interpretations. ‘I only hope we don’t end up paying too high a price. She looks the type to drive a hard bargain.’ Risala glanced at Dev, who had moved to examine a second bookcase. ‘How are you planning to get her here from Relshaz? You can’t leave the domain. You can’t abandon Itrac to cope with all this alone.’

‘Which is why you’re going to be my envoy.’ Kheda laid a hand on hers.

‘What?’ Risala stared at him, open-mouthed.

‘You’re the obvious person to send. You’re my poet, so that’s your excuse for searching out lore. You’re from the northern reaches and we’re telling the other warlords hereabouts we’re looking for lore from the north, something like those herbs that helped us to bring down the wild wizards.’

‘Since you put it like that,’ Risala acknowledged reluctantly.

‘You can take a message to Shek Kul while you’re about it. We owe him that much and who knows, he might even have some ancient learning about dragons to share with us.’ Kheda stroked Risala’s hand absently. ‘Have you ever been to this place, this Relshaz?’

‘Yes, once,’ Risala said slowly. ‘And Shek galleys trade there regularly. I can find out what I need to know.’

‘The Green Turtle was our escort back here and that’s the fastest trireme in Chazen. The shipmaster can have my authority to claim any man he wants from any other crew in the anchorage.’ Kheda looked towards the securely locked door, the seas invisible beyond. We’ll promise each man all the pearls he can hold in his cupped hands on his return. That will do more than whips to make them row faster. The shipmaster will get a sack of them when he arrives back, as long as you can tell me that no gossip about your destination ended up floating around the trading beaches.’

‘But what if something happens while we’re away?’ Risala laid her own hand over Kheda’s.

‘Then we will have to cope with it as best we can.’ Kheda looked into Risala’s eyes. ‘And I will at least know you are safe.’

Can you see everything that you mean to me? Do you know all that I would my to you, if we were alone and free of this?

‘I don’t want to be safe if you’re not,’ she said, meeting his gaze levelly. ‘But all right, yes, I’ll do this, so we can be safe together.’

‘How are you planning on explaining Velindre away?’ Dev asked suddenly, turning from a bookcase further down the room, a heavy volume bound with lacquered wood resting open on his forearms. You saw her face; she couldn’t be anything but a barbarian. What possible business could she have to be travelling the whole length of the Archipelago? Curious eyes will follow you all the way back, my girl, and Velindre hasn’t got my experience of keeping her magecraft hidden,’ he concluded with frank concern.

‘She’ll just have to play the slave.’ Kheda smiled despite himself. ‘Picture that face of hers through Aldabreshin eyes. What would you think if you’d never seen her before, if you didn’t know who or what she was?’

Dev’s eyes narrowed. ‘I don’t follow you.’

‘Oh,’ said Risala with sudden comprehension. ‘I do. Of course. Yes, that should work, with a bit of planning.’ She broke off, eyes distant.

Kheda looked at Dev, deadly serious. ‘Assuming this magewoman is as good as her word, we still have to hold this dragon at bay, or keep running from it, from now till the Summer Solstice or later, unless we’re uncommonly lucky with the winds and the tides. If you’ve any ideas        ‘

‘I think you’d better see this,’ Dev interrupted.

‘You’ve found something?’ Kheda took a step and then realised the mage was looking out of the window over the southern ocean. ‘What is it?’

‘The dragon,’ said Dev simply.

‘Where?’ Kheda ran to the window, Risala at his heels.

The dragon was a dark shape, far away, high in the cloudless sky.

‘Is it coming this way?’ Kheda tried to swallow the apprehension choking him.

‘I’m not sure.’ Dev frowned.

Risala watched the distant creature. ‘Do you suppose anyone else has spotted it?’ she asked with hollow hope.

Shouts of alarm ringing across the lagoon answered her barely a breath later.

‘Outside,’ Kheda ordered. As he unlocked the door and stepped out, he looked towards Itrac’s pavilion. A flurry of maidservants was hurrying her towards him, clustering close as if her presence would somehow protect them from the beast.

‘We may not need to disguise the magewoman after all.’ Risala shrank back into the shadow of the doorway.

Kheda flinched as a couple of arrows loosed by over-ambitious archers clattered uselessly on the wooden walkways.

‘Don’t wet yourself just yet, girlie,’ Dev said slowly, eyes fixed on the distant dragon, face thoughtful. ‘I don’t think it’s coming this way.’

‘Are you sure?’ Kheda watched, breath catching in his chest at the beast cut lazy arcs across the sky. They stood in a tense silence broken only by Itrac’s arrival.

‘Kheda.’ She managed to walk across the bridge to the observatory isle with commendable poise, leaving the gaggle of terrified maids behind. ‘What does it mean?’ Her voice rose to a perilous pitch. ‘It’s heading back west,’ murmured Dev. ‘Are you sure?’ Kheda hissed.

Dev nodded, turning the gesture into a florid bow that Itrac didn’t even notice, all her attention on Kheda. ‘It means we’re removing ourselves to the rainy season residence just as soon as our household can make ready to leave,’ Kheda said firmly, calmly, as he walked towards her. ‘In case it gets curious and comes for a closer look.’ He took her hands as Itrac shivered with revulsion. ‘See, my lady, it’s going away. We’re safe enough for the moment. All the same, I want you and all those beholden to us well out of its way. I don’t want even the shadow of its wings falling on you.’

And I want Dev as far away from the beast as possible, in case he betrays us all with some slip of magic. I might just save myself by cutting his throat, but I can’t afford to do that until this woman of his has brought us some way to defeat the dragon.

‘You have killed beasts bigger than this creature.’ He raised his voice to address the gathering crowd. ‘Chazen boats have fought and conquered whales out on the ocean deep year after year. Chazen is the only domain to go hunting whales, instead of waiting for them to strand themselves on the shore. You have chased and defeated sea serpents that no other domain’s men dared to pursue, even when their nets and fish traps were being ripped to pieces. This dragon can summon up fire by some unnatural magic polluting its blood, so we had better not underestimate it, but we faced men with magic and the wit to work malice with it besides last year. We defeated them.

‘We’ll fight this dragon, once we learn its weaknesses, and we’ll fight it on ground of our own choosing,’ he continued, putting an arm around Itrac. ‘In the meantime, a planned retreat is no rout and no mischief-making by anyone who wishes Chazen ill can make it one. It’s no great challenge. You’ve a practised routine, even if we weren’t expecting to make this move for a few more turns of the Greater Moon.’

Confusion stirred among the slaves and servants, surprise at seeing their lord so composed outweighing their incipient fear.

‘You’ll need to keep a firm hold on everything,’ Kheda warned Itrac in a low voice, ‘or we’ll find ourselves caught up in a panic regardless.’

‘Familiar tasks should calm everyone’s nerves.’ She was still trembling but she set her jaw.

‘I still have to check with the courier-dove loft,’ Kheda realised suddenly. ‘In case there’s news from the Mist Dove:

Which would be worse: bad news or no news at all?

‘Come and tell me anything you find out.’ Itrac stepped forward, quelling her women’s questions with a flurry of rapid instructions. ‘Pack your lord’s clothes and his jewels. Start stripping the beds and the furniture. Send for Beyau. He needs to see to it that the observatory is cleared. We’re sailing for Esabir.’

Kheda watched her go.

Chazen’s people have mettle and so does their lady.

‘Looks like an ant heap someone’s stirred with a stick.’ Dev stared out over the lagoon where the galleys and triremes seethed with activity to match that on the land.

‘I’d better find the Green Turtle? Risala scanned the bustling scene.

‘Dev, go and play the proper slave for once and see that my rooms are packed up properly.’ Kheda jerked his head towards his personal pavilion. ‘Risala, wait, come with me for a moment.’

‘If it’s quick enough for him it’ll be no good for you, my girl,’ Dev said over his shoulder as he strolled away.

‘What is it?’ Risala followed Kheda into the hallway.

‘This.’ He opened a tall black cabinet inlaid with nacre and countless coloured woods. It was full of small, closely fitted drawers. Kheda pulled them open, searching, heedless as he pulled too hard and several clattered to the floor. ‘This.’ He turned to Risala holding a twist of carved ivory pierced and threaded on a leather thong.

I found this, raw and unearned, on that voyage to the north, that led me to you, as well as to Dev and the means to defeat the wild mages. I saw it as a sign I was on the right path, as I carved it into something I thought only existed in myth. I was certainly blind to that portent.

‘The dragon’s tail.’ There was a strange edge to Risala’s unexpected laugh. ‘It doesn’t look much like the real thing, does it?’ She pressed her hands to her face. ‘We never saw this in it, did we?’

‘I don’t suppose the poet whose descriptions I had in mind when I carved it had ever seen the real thing. There’s probably some significance in that but I haven’t got time to worry about it.’ Kheda hurried forward and hung the talisman around her neck. ‘We can’t second-guess the past and I’m more concerned with the future. It may just be a way of reading the stars but all the forefathers in every domain say the opposite arc of the sky to a moon is where the dragon’s tail lies.’ He stumbled over his words. ‘And that’s where the unseen portents lie, because the dragon never looks behind it. I don’t want it looking at you.’

Risala seized his face and drew him to her, kissing him with desperate passion. Then with a suddenness that left him standing there, shocked, she tore herself away and ran out of the building.

Chapter Nine

With the brightness of magic snuffed, the room felt smaller, darker, colder. Velindre felt as if the leaden grey of the sky above Hadrumal was seeping through the tall lancets of her window to dull the white plaster of the wall, dimming the parchments on the table before her. She shivered and waved a hand at the coal scuttle beside her hearth, sending a flurry of nuggets on to the glowing embers. She abandoned the table and sat on a footstool set before the fire, hugging her blue-gowned knees as she looked unseeing at the golden tongues of licking flame.

So Dev was still enjoying cloudless blue skies and brilliant sun. He hadn’t drowned or burned in that dragon’s fires. There had to be plenty he could tell her, not least how he was managing to work magic as an Aldabreshin warlord’s trusted servant. Velindre shivered again, this time with revulsion. Tales of Aldabreshin savagery were no idle invention to frighten apprentices into caution. She’d learned that much from days and nights reading ceaselessly in the empty silence of Otrick’s study. The old wizard had been intrigued with the Archipelago, not least with the Archipelagan obsession with omens and portents. Velindre chewed at a thumbnail already bitten to the quick. The firelight struck threads of bright gold in her hair which was drawn back from her angular face in a thick, sleek plait, as usual. Dev reckoned the lore he needed so fast was to be found in the endless shelves of Hadrumal’s hushed libraries. No. Velindre had long since tired of reading reams of speculation and half-understood observations in the hope of satisfying any gnawing magical curiosity. Otrick had cured her of that.

But what if she delivered such lore? Could she trust Dev’s promise of safe passage through the Archipelago? Could she trust him not to just take whatever she showed him and twist it to his own advantage? Could she afford to delay and debate such questions? If she was going to do all she’d boasted, she had precious little time to spare. And if she couldn’t, sure as curses no one else in Hadrumal would be able to. If she could, no one else in Hadrumal would ever doubt her abilities again. She sprang to her feet and crossed to the door in lithe strides, catching her dark cloak from its hook, swathing the cornflower blue of her high-necked gown as she hurried down the echoing stone stairs. The raw wet wind buffeted her as she emerged from the base of the tower. She waved an irritated hand and the wind swirled away, forbidden to stir even one pale hair escaping from her hood.

‘I want a fire for my feet and warm ale for my belly’

‘Let’s see what Brab and Derey think about the ocean’s currents.’

A pair of apprentices threatened to cross her path. Youth and maiden both had wet hair plastered to their heads, faces tight with cold and their brown cloaks bulked out with books cradled safely in their arms. ‘Excuse me.’ Velindre swept past them with a shrug of indifference.

Out beyond the ancient stone arch and the weathered oak gate the high road was busy, foul weather notwithstanding. Velindre threaded between men and women of different ranks and ages, master mage and raw apprentice all equal beneath heavy cloaks, hoods and hats worn against the drenching rain. Intent on their own occupations, the commonalty of Hadrumal hurried this way and that, their conversations focused on lives that owed little to wizard halls or affinities.

‘I said, I told him, you want to think who’ll be mending your stockings in ten years’ time before you go playing fast and loose with every girl who catches your eye.’

‘May I get past?’ Frustration building, Velindre found her progress curbed by a pair of slow-footed matrons with a handful of brats in tow. She reached a narrow side lane with relief and hurried between lofty stone walls stained dark with rain, her boots clacking on the slippery, sloping cobbles either side of a rain-filled gully. She cut across to take a back alley where the sodden, hard-trampled earth muffled her steps.

Reaching the back gate of Atten Hall, she paused to catch her breath and compose her thoughts. The five chimes of midday sounded around her, the echoes of different timepieces tangled among Hadrumal’s towers. Good; her father would be rid of his pupils, or if not, her arrival would prompt their departure. He’d have half his mind on what the maid was bringing for his lunch, so he might just let slip what she needed to know.

Pushing open the black iron gate, she walked up the flagstones running through the physic garden. The beds of rich soil were black and empty, neatly dug over and marked out with stones. Here and there, pale scraps of straw bore testament to the stable muck brought to nourish the sleeping herbs and seeds. Hardier shrubs were set back against the walls of the court, dark green and brown against the weathered stone. Withered creepers clutched at skeins of trellis, waiting for spring.

This hall was centred on the broad, squat tower standing alone in the middle of the garden, a style Archmage Atten had brought from his mainland home long ago, along with the coterie of wizards who had chosen to follow his teachings. That tradition had long since outgrown the tower and now its topmost windows could barely see over the ranges of accommodation built inside the walls that enclosed it. Three had serried ranks of casements while the fourth had the long tripartite windows of a large hall where those hopeful mageborn invited by Atten’s successors sat at long tables to listen to instruction, to debate lofty concerns or, more prosaically, to eat their meals. Velindre advanced on the central tower, the door’s brass fittings gleaming in defiance of the weather. Inside, harsh matting was finally losing the battle with the mud of the winter. Velindre paused to wipe her boots and heard her own breath echoing in the hush. The stairs were a square spiral on the southern side of the tower. Subdued light filtered through broad mullioned windows on the landings leading to the apartments on every level. Some doors stood hospitably open, faint sounds of movement within. Others were closed on intense discussions just on the edge of hearing. Velindre ignored them all, heading for the topmost floor.

Her father’s voice rang through the emptiness as his door opened, encouragement mingled with warning. ‘First thing in the morning, the day after tomorrow. I want arguments on both sides from all of you.’ A trio of apprentice mages appeared on the landing, two girls and a rangy youth not yet grown into his height. ‘There can’t be an alchemist from Selerima to Toremal who still believes in phlogiston,’ he protested under his breath, all the arrogance of the Imperial city in his accent. His linen shirt was snowy white, breeches and tunic impeccably tailored in sober grey broadcloth, only a trimming of scarlet buttons marking his affinity.

‘The Duke of Triolle, he’s been paying out gold for years to all manner of charlatans promising him the secret.’ The shorter of the girls shrugged; Lescari intonation as robust as her figure and the vivid red dress that flattered her pale skin and dark hair.

‘What would he do with it?’ wondered a willowy Caladhrian girl who’d opted for a pale-rose gown. ‘If it really existed’

‘I hate to think,’ muttered her female companion dandy. ‘Madam.’ The Tormalin youth caught sight of Velindre on the stairs and swept a creditable bow given the armful of books encumbering him. ‘Apprentice.’ Velindre inclined her head tautly as the trio hurried past her. Sudden laughter floated back up the stairs to be cut short by the slam of the door below. Velindre took a deep breath and knocked briefly on the open door. ‘Father?’

‘Come in,’ barked the stern voice. Velindre entered and blinked, frowning. ‘Do you have something against daylight, father?’

‘I’ve nothing against it.’ The old wizard sat shrouded in darkness by a hearth whose fire was no more than a feeble glow. ‘Nor yet any great interest in it, either. I’ll leave the skies to you cloud mages.’ His tone was uninterested.

Velindre crossed the room with some difficulty, given the plethora of small tables laden with books and the countless volumes stacked on the floors. She reached the windows and tugged at heavy red velvet curtains, an exact match for the distempered walls.

‘You’ll get precious little light at this time of year,’ observed her father. ‘All you’ll do is let in draughts.’ You still think any apprentice who can’t illuminate his own reading isn’t worth teaching.’ Velindre managed to shed a thin shaft of light on the leather-backed chairs that ringed her father. For all the clutter, the room showed no speck of dust. No smudge marred the gleaming brass of the fender or the white marble of the fire mantel.

‘As rules of thumb go, I’ve always found it sound.’ The white-haired man said. He was sparely built, the height he’d boasted in his prime now bent into a stoop and the flesh fallen away from his aged bones. His face was gaunt, wrinkles carved deep on either side of his beak of a nose, eyes deep set above hollow cheeks. Eyes the same colour as Velindre’s burned with the same intensity, undimmed by the burden of his years. Straight and swept back with pomade, his hair was cut precisely at jaw length, his wrinkled chin clean-shaven above a knotted silk scarf. He wore an old-fashioned gown of maroon velvet over layered jerkins, one long-sleeved, one sleeveless, and knee-breeches the colour of old wine. Thick woollen stockings warmed his shrunken calves, his feet in soft leather shoes that gleamed with polish. Velindre approached and submitted to her father’s dry kiss on her forehead.

‘What do you want?’ prompted the old man briskly. ‘Spit it out, girl.’

‘Do you remember Dew’ Velindre sat on a chair and looked at the fire rather than her father.

‘Of course,’ the aged wizard answered with a hint of scorn. ‘I remember all my students. A great deal of talent that I rapidly realised would go to waste. Far too ready to take issue with the supposed injustices of life. Always harking back to whatever ne’er-do-well village he stumbled away from. He was never going to make anything of his abilities unless he turned his back on such distractions and applied his intellect to his affinity.’ The old wizard’s voice was censorious as he folded his age-spotted hands on his chest.

‘Did you know he’d gone to be Planir’s eyes and ears in the Archipelago?’ Velindre glanced at her father. The old man shook his head, indifferent. ‘Planir’s another one who should concentrate a little less on the wider world and a little more on the proper business of wizardry.’

‘Dev’s found a dragon in the Aldabreshin south,’ said Velindre carefully. ‘One attuned to elemental fire, from what I saw.’

‘You scried it?’ Curiosity sparked in her father’s eyes. ‘What’s your interest in this?’

‘Dev wants to know more about dragons.’ Velindre shrugged with unconcern. ‘He bespoke me, as

()tick’s former pupil, since I’m carrying on his work’

‘Otrick?’ The ancient mage’s laugh was a dry creak. ‘I thought you were finally over that old pirate’s foolishness of sailing hither and yon and whistling up winds to see where they lead you.’ His disdain was withering. ‘Cloud Master or not, Otrick led you astray from your studies. You might have stood a chance of the Council approving you as Cloud Mistress in your own right if you’d stayed here, applied yourself and shown them what you have to offer. You’ve a good mind. You just need to use it.’

He tapped one bone-white finger to his snowy temple before withdrawing into his high-backed, deep-winged chair. ‘Your mother was a fool for encouraging you. She’s another one with her head in the clouds. Well, Rafrid’s no fool, even if he is one of Planir’s cronies. And a mastery isn’t what it used to be. I could have been Hearth Master, but nowadays, well, Kalion’s welcome to people hanging on his cloak day in and day out, knocking on his door with their whines and complaints. I don’t see him adding anything to the sum of wizardry, and that is a waste of a fine mind,’ he concluded sourly. ‘Dev wants to study the dragon’s innate magics’ Velindre returned to studying the fire. ‘He needs to get closer to it without ending up burned to a crisp. Otrick knew how to summon a dragon and how to control it but I can’t find any record of exactly how he did it.’

‘A charlatan’s festival trick writ large,’ the old wizard scoffed. ‘Otrick was always a mountebank at heart. Among his many other vices.’ Dislike sharpened his tone. Not that such dalliances were any of my business. You were a grown woman.’

Velindre kept her gaze on the flames and held her voice level and emotionless. ‘Otrick is dead, so we can’t ask him about such lore. The only other mage I can find recorded as having this trick of summoning dragons is Azazir.’

Her father threw up his hands in exasperation. ‘If Otrick was a disgrace to wizardry, Azazir was a blight. What that fool cost Hadrumal in lost trust, in sowing fear and ignorance among the mundane of the mainland—there’s no measuring it! We’re still paying the price to this day,’ he growled, fleshless fists clenched. ‘With our Archmage bowing and scraping to every petty prince, just to make sure the magebom can travel unhindered to Hadrumal before their emergent affinity is the death of them.’

‘You knew Azazir.’ Velindre looked up at her father, challenge in her eyes.

‘I did,’ he retorted, ‘and if I’d been on the Council back then I’d have voted for his death, not just his banishment. Do those dolts who laugh over his exploits tell you how many drowned thanks to his fooling with the rivers or how many starved when his meddling caused famine?’

‘I’ve heard all the tales. What they don’t say is when Azazir died,’ Velindre persisted. ‘Rumour has it he’s still alive, somewhere in the wilds.’

‘Does it?’ the old wizard growled with disgust.

In that instant, Velindre saw in his eyes that that much was true. Well?’ she managed to ask, keeping all exultation out of her voice.

‘He used to talk about embracing one’s affinity, about immersing oneself in it.’ The aged mage looked past her towards the slim shard of sky visible through the window. Which is all very well for a water mage, but I told him, just try that with fire. He didn’t care. He was the most irresponsible, most dangerous wizard I ever encountered. He was all for seeking sensation, ever more sensational and never mind making sense of it, never mind understanding the interplay of element and reason and cause and effect. If he thought there was a chance he could do something, work some wonder with his magic, he’d try, never mind stopping to think if he should. He had a higher duty to his affinity, that’s what he would say, to find out where its limits might lie. Never mind his duty to wizardry. Never mind wiser mages than him warning that there might be no limits to some sorceries. Never mind when more than one of his apprentices died a foul and lingering death,’ the old man concluded with cold anger.

‘Do you know where he is?’ Velindre asked in measured tones.

Her father’s eyes snapped back to her. No one will take your scholarship seriously if you associate yourself with a madman.’

Velindre met his gaze. ‘There’s precious little true scholarship about dragons, Father. It’s one of the few areas of study where there’s real work to be done. I want to know more and if Azazir is my only source, that’s where

I’ll have to start.’

‘Stubborn as your mother,’ the old mage muttered. ‘You haven’t told her about this, have you? No, I’d have heard the two of you arguing from here if you had. And I suppose I’ve no small reputation for strong will.’ A reluctant smile cracked his aged face.

The silence in the room was tense and brittle.

‘I’ll find him one way or the other,’Velindre said calmly, ‘I’m going to do this, Father.’

‘Perhaps you should see what it means to go chasing some madman’s idle fancies.’ The old mage pointed to a distant table where flat leather folders lay precisely piled. ‘Fetch me that third folio of maps.’

Velindre retrieved it and he untied the rubbed-silk cord to open the tooled green leather.

‘You’ve been to Inglis, haven’t you, on one of ()tick’s foolish voyages? Do you feel inclined to take the road north at the tail end of winter? That journey’s not for the fainthearted.’ He pulled out a half-sheet and stabbed at the parchment with a chalky nail.

‘So the Council’s banishment doesn’t just mean quitting Hadrumal.’ Velindre’s brow wrinkled as she studied the point he’d indicated on the map.

‘Azazir was told to lose himself. He was told if he injured anyone, ever again, that would be the death of him. You don’t believe the Council would do such a thing?’ The old man mocked Velindre’s startled disbelief. Believe it, and there’s more than me who will call for that madman’s death if he ever shows his face in the lowliest village. And we’ll know if he does. Planir knows what’s due to his office of Archmage. He keeps a weather eye on a menace like Azazir,’ he said with grim satisfaction.

‘So Planir will know if I visit Azazir?’ Velindre asked warily.

‘Would that stop you?’ He thrust the parchment at Velindre. ‘You were easily his equal, even if you were apprentice when he was a pupil, and you’ve twenty years’ standing since then. Besides, he’s another one full of ()nick’s high-flown nonsense about experimentation and observation. You might both learn something from a little closer acquaintance with Azazir, even if it’s not what you’re expecting.’ The hairs on the back of Velindre’s neck prickled at his ominous tone. ‘Something valuable, I take it, if you’re prepared to help me with this.’

‘More valuable than some foolery with dragons.’ The old wizard handed her the green leather folio and leaned back in his chair, gathering his mantle around him. ‘Put those back where you got them. And don’t say I didn’t warn you, if you decide to pursue this folly.’

‘Thank you for the map.’ Velindre rose and left, not looking back.

Outside, the rain had stopped and the clouds had lifted. A breeze was rolling down from the hills to scour the heavy dampness out of the air. Velindre relished the freshness as she walked rapidly through the empty back alleys. There wasn’t time to waste, not given the urgency in Dev’s voice. Whatever his many and varied faults, he didn’t indulge himself in foolish alarm, like some dog barking vacantly at every footfall.

She pictured a very different city in her mind’s eye. So Inglis was the closest place worth marking to this mysterious lake where the equally mysterious Azazir was lurking. A city of white stone, well planned and well built, entirely unlike the haphazard accumulation of Hadruraal. A peaceable city, thanks to the powerful Guilds who paid a well-muscled and well-drilled Watch, which incidentally ensured that they had loyal men to hand to deter any challenge to their hegemony. A city built on the endless resources of timber, fur and metal-bearing ores of the empty northern wastes.

Velindre smiled thinly as she arrived back at the New Hall’s ancient gate, blunted carvings unlike the sharp elegance of Inglis’s cornices. Her father might believe that the city was all respectability and serious trade. Otrick had known better and, thanks to him, so did she. Otrict had known the dockside taverns where those mariners who risked voyages out to the ocean deep could be found. Mariners who should more properly be called pirates, never mind their brandishing of some parchment from the Inglis harbour guild, licensing them to pursue some vessel condemned for not paying the requisite tariffs.

A translocation spell would take her there in short order. Velindre climbed the stairs to her study. Arriving somewhere discreet would be best, to avoid one of the wizards in Inglis reporting her arrival to Planir. Earth mages always found plenty of work and plenty to interest them among the mining concerns around Inglis. Planir had been Stone Master before he’d been Archmage and indeed still was, despite the displeasure of some on the Council. Well, Velindre had no interest in explaining herself to Planir until she had something to show for this boldness, something to give the Council pause for thought over their choice of Cloud Master.

She locked her study door. One of the better inns would suffice, where gold would shut the mouths of any chambermaid or potboy who happened to see her. Tossing her damp cloak over a chair, she went through the inner door to her bedchamber. Throwing open a tall cupboard, she surveyed the gowns lying on wide shelves, linen and stockings in cubbyholes beneath, boots and shoes thrown into the hollow bottom. She’d need heavy clothing as well as some furs and a sturdy saddle-horse when she got to Inglis. Dev’s timing was lousy as always. Velindre grimaced at the thought of the pristine white winter that would still be gripping those mountains. Even half a season later, she might have approached some privateer for passage north, but not now. No sailor would risk his ship among the inlets and coves still choked with floating ice.

Furs and horses would cost money. She found a soft leather bag among her neatly darned stockings and weighed it in her hand for a moment before setting it down again. That should suffice. Planir had been unwont-edly generous when she’d asked for coin to hire ships these past summers to continue Otrick’s studies of Toremal’s ocean winds. More to the point, the Archmage never asked for an accounting and she’d never felt the need to give him one.

She pulled a leather bag with stout handles and brass buckles down from the topmost shelf and threw in a handful of sturdy stockings and smallclothes, woollen chemises and flannel petticoats.

What would her mother do? As soon as word reached her that Velindre had left Hadrumal, her father’s eyrie wouldn’t save him from interrogation. Would he tell her mother where she had gone or keep it to himself, out of simple malice? Perhaps, perhaps not, if he decided he had erred in helping her. Would her mother set Planir on her heels? Possibly. It would be an excuse to remind the Archmage of Hadrumal’s concerns. Her mother was a voluble critic of all the time he lavished on dealings with mainland princes. Velindre rapidly sorted through her gowns for those of the heaviest wool and moved to her washstand to gather up soap and toothpowder and her silver-backed hairbrushes.

Would she come looking for her daughter herself? One of her father’s cruelly apposite jokes prompted a thin smile. It must be her mother’s affinity for air that gave her moods that veered as rapidly as the grasshopper weathervane on the tower of Wellery’s Hall. Velindre knelt to pull the straps of her bag tight with vicious jerks. More to the point, her mother’s rivalry with ()tick hadn’t died with the old wizard. She would dearly love to learn the trick of summoning dragons.

Twisting to reach the laces tied at the small of her back, Velindre shed her gown and petticoats for a close-fitted bodice and divided riding skirt. Picking up her purse she thrust it deep in a secure pocket. She drew on a second pair of thick stockings before finding heavy buckled boots in the bottom of the cupboard. With the laden bag dragging at her arm, Velindre returned to her study and shrugged a thick cloak around her shoulders from a hook behind the door. She closed her eyes and finally allowed herself to feel the currents of air stirring in the room.

There was the dry draught coming under the door, heavy with the tang of stone in the dust it carried Tight-fitted as the windows were, faint breaths of the rain-rich air outside eased through the casements and swirled around the room. The draught from the stairwell curled around the furniture as the air from outside brushed along walls and ceiling. Both currents were inexorably drawn to the fireplace as the heat from the coals sucked at the air in the room. The fire drove away the volatile moisture but had less success banishing the implacable touch of stone. It lost interest, settling for driving the warm air up the chimney, throwing it to the mercies of wind and weather above. Released, the air rushed away, exulting, mocking the fire, revelling in its return to the endless dance that encircled the world.

The air around Velindre crackled with eagerness. She felt its desire to be gone, to join that dance. Pure sapphire light surrounded her, bright even through her closed eyes. Brighter than the crisp chill over Inglis. Pale as icy dawn over snow-capped peaks on that far horizon, where the blue-white of the glaciers melted imperceptibly into the sky. As she drew ever more air to her, pressing it to the service of her spell, Velindre remembered the room where she had stood to see that view. Not the most prized room the Flower of Gold could boast, but luxurious enough for her and Otrick. She pictured the frame of the window, the wide-eaved roofs beyond, every detail of the distant mountains.

Now the elemental air was shaking her to her very bones, desperate to do her bidding, to carry her wherever she wanted. Velindre gripped the handles of her bag, the ridges of the stitching digging into her palms. Blue light blinded her. Its touch was a shiver on her skin. It rang in her ears on the very edge of hearing. Cold breath filled her lungs, invigorating, cleansing. Eyes snapping open, she gave the magic its freedom and the room vanished in a burst of sapphire fire.

A woman screamed. Velindre raised a hand and scrubbed at her eyes to drive away the disorientation of working the spell over such a long distance. The woman paused to refill her lungs with a shuddering gasp and screamed again.

Still dazzled, Velindre saw that she had arrived in the bedchamber she’d envisaged to find a balding, middle-aged man and a matronly woman staring at her, mouths open. What they were doing abed in the middle of the afternoon was immediately apparent from the clothes strewn haphazardly around the floor. The woman was too astounded to think of covering her pendulous breasts but the man was clutching the brightly embroidered counterpane to his nether regions, a furious blush staining his jowls. He glanced with wrathful frustration at a sword belt hanging from a chair by the merrily crackling fireplace and Velindre realised that the overriding urge for modesty was all that was keeping him from the weapon. ‘I apologise for the intrusion. Forgive me. I’ll leave you to your . . .’ Gritting her teeth against the belated realisation that scrying ahead might have been advisable, she unlocked the door with a snap of magic and slid through it. As she secured it behind her with another instant spell, she heard the frantic jangling of a bell down below.

Curse the aging lecher and his fat, foolish paramour. Didn’t they have better things to do with their time? She certainly did. Velindre managed to get half-way down the hall before a wave of exhaustion overwhelmed her. She leaned against the polished wooden panelling of the corridor and fought the dizziness shivering down from her head to her toes.

‘Madam?’ The blurred figure of a chambermaid appeared. ‘Are you all right?’

‘I am, thank you.’ Velindre forced her leaden feet down the stairs as the maid hurried onwards to answer the insistent bell’s summons. Her knees felt weak and treacherous and the bag she carried seemed twice as heavy as it had in Hadrumal. Stiffening her spine with sheer determination, Velindre reached the inn’s spacious hallway before shouts up above turned curious faces to the painted ceiling. She slipped out of the main door and hurried away down the sloping street. No one raised any hue and cry before she vanished from sight

The cold outside was biting. Velindre’s fingers ached with it and she realised her gloves were buried deep in her luggage.

‘Carry your bag for you, lady?’ A hopeful youth hopped over a trampled gap in the thigh-high ridge of grubby snow swept into the gutter between the high road and the flagway. Bright as the sun was, the winter’s chill was far too well established for the heaps to melt. Lines of soot marked successive snowfalls. ‘Where are you headed?’ He wore fur-trimmed hide boots and thick chequered wool breeches beneath a sheepskin jerkin with long sleeves and a high upturned collar that almost reached the knitted cap pulled low over his ears.

‘Can you recommend a quiet inn?’ Velindre tried to curb her shivering as she surveyed the boy. Blond brows hinted at the Mountain blood that so many shared hereabouts. He had a round, honest face and an engaging smile, which probably meant he was a complete rogue. Honest and dishonest alike made a living serving the traders who were always coming and going in a city like Inglis.

‘Don’t even think of running away with that.’ Proffering her bag, Velindre surprised the boy by winding bonds of clinging air around his feet and knees. ‘I’m a mage of Hadrumal and if you rob me, you’ll regret it to the end of your unfortunately curtailed days.’

He looked down, wide-eyed. Velindre curled a single tendril around his waist and pulled it tight to cut short his startled gasp. She smiled and let the magic go with a momentary flare of magelight. ‘On the other hand, if you help me with intelligence and discretion, I’ll reward you handsomely. Do we understand one another?’

‘Yes, my lady,’ the lad said with a rush of apprehension and excitement.

Seeing honest greed outweighing the guile in his eyes, Velindre let him take the bag. ‘Take me to the closest inn that caters to guests of reasonable quality.’

‘There’s the Rowan Tree, my lady. Will that do?’ he offered hesitantly. ‘I’m Kenin, my lady.’

‘Are you?’ she replied with little interest. ‘If that’s the closest suitable inn, it will do.’

Abashed, the youth didn’t say anything else, simply ushering Velindre towards a wide crossroads where trampled snow gleamed, treacherous as ice, in the interstices of the cobbles. She followed him towards a prosperous-looking building fronted by dark marble steps. It took all her resolution to climb the short flight of stairs, her hand shaking as she gripped the cold iron balustrade.

‘A private parlour.’ Velindre fixed a supercilious hall lackey with a piercing glare. ‘Hot water and herbs. Quick as you like.’

The lackey stood his ground. ‘I’m not sure we can accommodate you, my lady.’

Velindre reached inside her cloak and fumbled with the strings of her purse with numb fingers. She tossed a couple of coins on the polished stone floor. ‘I think you’ll find you can.’

The lackey wasn’t proof against Tormalin gold crowns. ‘Of course, my lady. Forgive me. Ametine!’ He scrabbled for the coins, trying to bow and to indicate the door of a private parlour at the same time. ‘Hot water, if you please,’ Velindre repeated to the startled maid shooting out of the kitchen. ‘And herbs for a tisane. Now, if you please.’ She handed the girl her cloak.

The boy Kerrin shoved open the parlour door and Velindre went in. Her eyes fastened on a lavishly cushioned day bed beneath a window opening on to a quiet, snow-covered yard.

‘What now, my lady?’ The boy dropped her bag on the neat carpet with a dull thud.

‘There are things I need you to buy for me.’ Velindre sank on to the green velvet cushions and fought to stop her eyes from closing. ‘A heavy fur cloak, hat and gloves. Don’t think to fob me off with rubbish or to make me pay Toremal prices. Inglis is awash with fine furs at this season, with the trappers coming back from a winter in the mountains. I want a well-mannered saddle-horse hardy enough to take me up into the hills. It’ll need grain and I want food for a journey of ten days or so. The minimum, mind you; I don’t want the bother of a pack animal. Find me a warm blanket and an oilskin for good measure.’ She broke off as the hall lackey appeared with an obsequious smile and a brass oil lamp with a frosted glass chimney. The golden light warmed the chestnut wainscoting.

‘We’re nowhere near a thaw, my lady,’ objected Ken-in, shifting from foot to foot.

‘Did I ask for your opinion?’Velindre raised her brows at him in spurious enquiry. No, I thought not. Can you do what I want or does this lackey earn the commission I’m prepared to pay?’

The lackey’s eyes brightened.

‘I can do it for you,’ Ken-in assured her hurriedly.

‘Leave me your belt.’ She pointed at the tooled leather strap cinching his sheepskin tight to his waist. ‘My lady?’ He was confused.

‘Leave it or just leave,’ she said coldly. ‘As long as I have something of yours, I can find you with my magic. In that case, I’ll trust you with my gold. If not, you can be on your way and this lackey can see to my needs.’

The lackey suddenly looked rather less than eager.

The boy chewed lips chapped from the long winter cold. ‘All right.’ He slowly unbuckled the belt and laid it on the round table in the middle of the room.

‘What’s your business here, my lady mage?’ asked the lackey fawningly as he stirred the banked fire and added fresh logs from the basket.

None of your concern,’ she told him crisply, fighting the weariness threatening to tighten across her brow into a headache. ‘I shall be on my way before nightfall as long as this boy can find me a horse and provisions. Until then I want some peace and privacy. Provide it and you’ll be handsomely paid.’ She turned her attention to Ken-in and held out a handful of weighty gold coins. ‘Waste your time and mine idling with your cronies and you’ll regret it.’ She glanced at the lackey. ‘I shall want a shallow bowl of cold water and some ink for scrying after the boy.’

‘Yes, mistress.’ The lackey took his opportunity to depart.

‘I’ll be quick as I can, my lady.’ Kenin ran a finger around the inside of his collar, sweat beading his forehead.

‘Your tisane, madam.’ The maid Ametine nudged the door open with an elbow, a heavy wooden tray balanced on her other hip. She set it on the table and the tall silver jug breathed a puff of steam. Her eyes widened at the sight of the gold Kenin was tucking inside his glove. ‘Can I blend you a tisane, my lady?’ She smiled eagerly, brushing her hands on her skirts. ‘We have borage and chamomile, linden, dog rose, valerian—’

‘A scant spoonful of dog rose,’ Velindre inten-upted, ‘with just a touch of chamomile and the same of valerian.’ She snapped her fingers to regain Ken-in’s wandering attention. ‘When you’ve found a suitable horse, bring it here. I’m not paying up till I’ve seen it for myself.’

The maid spooned dried herbs into a hinged ball of pierced silver, setting it in a tall glass with a silver holder and pouring in hot water. ‘Honey, my lady?’

‘Thank you.’ Velindre nodded before fixing Kerrin with a penetrating stare. Well, what are you waiting for?’

Ametine brought the tisane over, ducking a curtsey. Will that be all, my lady?’

‘A bowl of plain water,’ Velindre said again, ‘and some ink.’

Kerrin’s shoulders flinched as he left the room.

‘At once, my lady.’ Ametine bobbed her way backwards to the door and disappeared.

Velindre blew the steam from her drink and sipped it carefully. Grimacing at the heat, she cooled it with a breath of enchanted air. That was better. Now she had better get some rest, if she was to be out of the city by nightfall. There might not be many mages who could travel such a distance with a single translocation spell but she was no more immune to the draining effects of working such magic than any other wizard. Careful to keep her boots off the cushions, she drank down the tisane and set the glass cup on the floor. Lying back against the padded headrest of the day bed, she let her eyes drift closed as she waved a hand at the door. The lock snicked and vivid blue light ran around the frame before vanishing into the wall. Velindre was already asleep. A tentative knock at the door stirred her.

‘My lady?’ It was the maid Ametine.

Velindre woke at once and was pleased to find that she was well refreshed. She was less well pleased to see that the winter sun had already quit the sky outside, leaving only its golden afterglow on high, pale clouds. ‘Come in.’ She waved a hand and the door unlocked itself, swinging open.

Watching it with some misgiving, Ametine hovered on the threshold with a tray holding ewer, bowl and snowy towel.

Velindre realised belatedly that no one had brought her water and ink for scrying. Was she going to need it?

‘He’s back, the boy,’ the maid stammered. ‘With two horses.’

‘Is he? Come in, girl.’ Velindre swung her feet to the floor and stood up, shrugging discreetly to ease uncomfortable rucks in the chemise beneath her bodice and skirt. ‘I wonder, is there a man born who can do exactly what he’s asked, no more and no less?’

‘Sure I don’t know, my lady.’ Ametine offered a hesitant smile, setting the tray down on the table. Velindre carefully washed the sleep from her eyes and dried her face. ‘I wonder what he’s brought for my gold. Where is he?’

‘Out the back, my lady.’ The maid bobbed an uncertain curtsey.

‘Let’s go and see.’ Velindre found her gloves and rebuckled her bag. ‘My cloak, if you please.’ She left the boy’s belt on the table. Let him ask for it back, if he had the nerve.

‘This way, my lady.’ The maid led the way through the kitchen passages to the Rowan Tree’s extensive stable yard, collecting Velindre’s brushed cloak from a peg as they went. The lackey she’d encountered earlier was nowhere to be seen but Ken-in was waiting on the swept cobbles, a horse’s reins in each fist. He grinned widely as Velindre appeared in the doorway. ‘Here we are, madam mage.’

‘Good evening to you.’ A dour-faced man was standing nearby, muffled up against the cold. ‘These are your beasts?’ At the man’s nod, Velindre set down her bag and pulled on her cloak, considering the animals in the light of the lamps already lit around the stable yard. Both were unrelieved brown with black manes, their forelocks falling over blunt, undistinguished faces. Heavy-set beasts, they were none too tall in the shoulder but deep in the body and thick in the leg. Their rugged coats ran down to feathery wisps falling over wide, black hooves shod with sturdy steel.

Velindre walked forward and held out a hand for the first to sniff It shied away from her, a rim of white around its dark, liquid eyes. Velindre turned to the other horse, which sniffed the fur-lined kidskin without reaction, shifting its hooves with a grating noise. Velindre rubbed her hand down the horse’s thick neck and felt it quiver beneath her as the animal nosed forward, ears pricking.

‘Good lad,’ she soothed as she pulled off a glove, bending to run her hand down the front of his foreleg. With wizard senses to augment her touch, she could be certain there was no heat or swelling in the leg. At her prompt, the horse lifted his sturdy hoof for her inspection. After checking all four legs and feet, Velindre stood upright and rubbed the animal’s velvety muzzle with a smile for the obliging animal. ‘I’ll try this one,’ she said to the horses’ owner.

‘As you like,’ said Ken-in readily. ‘This one’s a bit flighty, I’ll grant you, but he won’t give me bother.’ Velindre looked quizzically at him. ‘I don’t recall offering to buy you a horse.’

Ken-in chewed his lip. You’re not going up into the hills alone, my lady, surely?’

‘I certainly am,’ she assured him, moving to check the girth on the saddle of her chosen horse. She pulled it tight and poked the animal in the ribs just for good measure in case it was inclined to hold its breath. ‘Where’s the mounting block?’

‘You’re not setting off now?’ Ametine gasped, wringing her hands in confusion. ‘It’s nigh on dark.’

‘What has that to do with anything?’ asked Velindre with ominous calm. ‘Or with you, for that matter?’ She settled herself in the saddle and, walking the horse carefully around the yard, she nodded with satisfaction at the animal’s well-schooled responsiveness. ‘You’ll do, won’t you?’ She patted his shoulder and turned her attention back to the disgruntled youth now leaning against the wall by the back door of the inn. ‘Did you get the provisions I asked for? And everything else?’

The boy rubbed a hand over his head, knocking his knitted cap awry. ‘Well, yes, but—’

‘Go and get them,’ Velindre invited with a hint of irritation. Now, Ametine, isn’t it? My luggage, if you please?’ Ametine brought the heavy leather bag over and Velindre secured it to the metal rings attached to the front of the saddle.

Ken-in appeared from a tack room by the outer arch of the yard carrying an oilskin bundle bound with leather straps in his hands, bulky furs slung over one shoulder and a small sack hanging from the other arm. ‘I did what you bid, but you can’t be thinking—’

‘The cloak, if you please.’ Velindre held out a commanding hand. ‘Tie everything else to the back of the saddle.’

‘But madam          ‘

She cut off his protest by pulling the cloak off his shoulder. Standing in her stirrups, she settled the heavy fur around herself. She found a round hat in one deep pocket and gauntlets in another, beaver pelt, wonderfully warm and silky. She pulled them over her kidskin gloves, ignoring Karin who was muttering under his breath as he secured the food and grain on the horse’s rump. She wouldn’t go hungry, Velindre noted. In fact, she’d best discard what she could as soon as she was outside the city, lest the horse prove overburdened.

‘You can’t set off now. You’ll be dead and froze by dawn.’ Ametine’s breath smoked in the lamplight and she was shivering in her indoor maid’s livery. Now that the sun was down, the temperature was falling like a stone.

The bells of the city proclaimed the end of the day with ten brisk chimes as Velindre offered the silent horse-trader a double handful of white-gold crowns. ‘That should pay for the horse. What’s his name?’

‘Oakey.’ The horse-trader tipped his hat briefly to her and clicked his tongue to get the unwanted horse walking out of the stable yard. Oakey whickered briefly after his stable mate and Velindre soothed him with a pat beneath his mane before fishing in her purse again. ‘Ametine, here’s payment for your time and trouble. You can share it with your absent friend or not, as you see fit.’

She tossed a couple more Tormalin crowns to Ken-in, who looked up at her sullenly. ‘I appreciate your offer of an escort and I’m sorry if you’ve made a fool of yourself telling your friends you’re heading into the wilds on some adventure.’ It was too dark to see if the boy was blushing but his ducked head suggested to Velindre that she’d guessed right. ‘Believe me, boy, you don’t want to go where I’m heading,’ she said sternly. ‘And any mage worth the name doesn’t need an escort, whatever the weather, so don’t think of following me in some misguided hope of riding to my rescue in case of marauding trappers. I shall see any such trouble long before it finds me. I’ll also see you if you’re fool enough to try coming after me, and I will be seriously displeased.’

Satisfied to see apprehension replace the mulishness in Kerrin’s face, she carefully gathered up her reins in her double-gloved hands and drew the horse’s head around towards the open archway. The inn’s ostlers watched her ride out, shaking their heads in bafflement. Several turned questioning faces to Ametine but she had already disappeared inside the warm inn.

Out on the road, Velindre turned the horse’s head up the hill. ‘Come on, Oakey.’ The reluctant animal was evidently none too pleased to be heading away from a companionable stable yard with a bitterly cold night coming rapidly on. She used her heels to convince him otherwise, urging him to his fastest walk, wary of the cobbles in sheltered corners already slick with frost. Best to be out of the city gates before dusk, when some watchman was bound to take it into his head to ask where she was going, laden for travel at such a time. Not that any watchman could stop her. All the same, any gate-ward mentioning such a meeting to some superior among the Guilds would increase the chances of her visit being reported back to curious ears in Hadrumal.

The inns of Inglis were doing a roaring trade satisfying fur trappers eager for light, warmth and companionship. Velindre soothed Oakey with a firm hand as a riot of song spilled out of one tavern door along with golden candlelight and a man who’d tripped over his own feet. A linkboy with his lantern swaying on a pole stared open-mouthed at her. Velindre ignored him, forcing her recalcitrant steed on..

She soon reached the long bridge that snaked across the wide expanse of the River Dalas on a succession of tall, solidly built pillars. Ice gathered in the narrow arches shone pale against the black water in the fading light. What would a water mage be doing in the far north in winter? she wondered idly. Was Azazir curious as to the nature of freezing?

The bridge was strewn with sand though there were few enough carts or carriages out to take advantage of the Guilds’ forethought. Most people were content to stay by their own firesides, counting the days till the festivities of the Spring Equinox. Did the Aldabreshin celebrate the Equinoxes? Velindre realised she didn’t know. No matter. Dev would know all the local customs and playing the guide was the least he could do in return for the lore she’d be bringing him. She only hoped Azazir would be able to explain his secrets without too much of the rambling and digression that so many of the oldest wizards seemed prone to indulge in. She didn’t have time to waste and she certainly hadn’t come this far to fail.

Oakey slowed as the animal sensed that her thoughts were elsewhere. Velindre prompted him back to a faster walk with hands and heels. With a shake of his head, the horse pressed on through the empty streets of close-shuttered, primly respectable houses. Velindre paid closer attention to their route. She’d only had a few occasions to come this way on previous visits to Inglis and had never had cause to go far inland before.

A gate-ward was warming himself by a brazier beneath the towering gatehouse astride the highroad. ‘We lock up at second chime of the night,’ he warned as Velindre passed by him. You’ll have to find another way in if you’re late back.’

‘I’ll remember.’ She nodded perfunctorily.

There were plenty of houses beyond the pool of light cast by the torches smouldering above the archway.

Inglis had gates for the better collecting of tariffs and dues, their tall towers serving as lookout posts, but there were no walls warranting serious defence. Who was there in these northern wilds to attack the city?

Is that what Azazir is seeking? Velindre wondered. She found herself increasingly curious about meeting this notorious wizard. Solitude and freedom to explore all aspects of his affinity, away from the noise and nosiness of Hadrumal. Otrick had always said he learned more from a day out on the storm-tossed headlands of this ocean coast than he did from half a season in Hadrumal’s libraries. She had certainly outstripped every other apprentice of her affinity among her contemporaries once Otrick had accepted her as his pupil and taken her away on those voyages of startling discovery.

Though there had been the few times when she had wondered if their wild trials of wind and wave were going to end in disaster. Best not forget also that Azazir’s experiments had resulted in his banishment from Hadrumal. Her father would be content to see the mage dead and it must have taken something considerable to stir him to that degree. She shivered, not cold inside her cocoon of fur and wool but just a little apprehensive. Oakey slowed again with a whicker of protest and she felt his muscles tensing obstinately beneath her legs. As she let the animal come to a complete halt, he laid his ears back irritably. ‘We’re going to make a good start on this trip tonight, whatever you might think, my friend.’ As she spoke, Velindre leaned forward to stroke the horse’s coarse, bristly mane. Magelight glimmered between her fingers and spread to wrap horse and rider in a shimmering aura, no brighter than the moonlight now shining from above. Velindre glanced upwards. The sky was clear, pricked with bright stars, and the Greater Moon was rising in a golden half-circle above the dark, featureless mass of the forested hills before her. ‘Come on, Oakey,’ she encouraged.

Insulated from the deepening cold by the subtle magic now enveloping them, the horse gave a grumbling snort and plodded obligingly on.

Chapter Ten

Concentrate on the omens. This is your first arrival here as warlord of this domain. Will there be portents to offer some clue as to Chazen’s future? As to your future?

Kheda stood on the bow platform of the Gossamer Shark and surveyed the bustle in the anchorage sheltered by the great green bulk of the island of Esabir. The vessel stood out from the shore, flanked by the Dancing Snake and the Brittle Crab, all on guard as the three great galleys that had brought the warlord’s household north were unloaded. Small boats ferried coffers, bundles and crates ashore or brought food and water to the grateful crews of the heavy triremes. Low conversations in the belly of the boat behind Kheda were punctuated by the rattle of bowls as freshly steamed sailer grain mixed with shreds of meat and green herbs was dished out to the oarsmen.

He resolutely ignored the disturbances, concentrating on the vista before him. The little boats filled the bay so densely that the dark-blue waters were barely visible.

Itrac could almost walk ashore dry-shod over their decks. Could an enemy make an assault so easily? The steeply shelving beach allowed ships to anchor close in to this shore, a boon to the domain’s galleys when the rainy season storms wracked the seas. Under other stars, an enemy might exploit such a vulnerability, so a formidable embankment had been built along the edge of the beach, topped with a thick wall of pale-grey stone. The wall zigged and zagged so that arrows from every bastion could defend its neighbours. Massive catapults squatted on the forward-thrusting platforms to secure a commanding view of any approaching ships.

This residence had never fallen to attack. That was your boast, Chazen Saril. Much good it did you. The wild men’s wizards reduced your mighty catapults to burned wood and melted metal. Redigal Coron’s warriors found the fortress empty, doors standing wide for anyone to walk through.

Well, you abandoned your people, Saril. They were hardly going to make a stand and die for your sake. A steady stream of laden servants and slaves trudged through the black wooden gate set into a deep recess flanked by angular towers striped with arrow slits. Warriors patrolled the wall, swordsmen and archers, the sun bright on their mail and helmets as they kept watch not only north out to sea but also to east and west where the encroaching forest was kept ruthlessly in check with shears and scythes.

A fortress to defy any assault, never mind it’s a rainy season residence and we all agree that no wise lord makes war when swords rust in their scabbards and armour rusts on a warrior’s back, when bows break in an archer’s hands, glue and sinew fatally dampened. We all agree, but the histories tell of warlords now and again who have defied such wisdom. Some lost but some won, so we build our towers and ramparts.

What hindrance will they be to a dragon? Have we gained anything by this unseasonal move, trading the cooling breezes of the south to spend the worst of the dry season heat so hemmed in by trees and hills? Will we end up at each other’s throats as tempers fray when the temperature rises?

The still air already hung around as hot and heavy as a smothering blanket. He looked about for water and was startled to find Dev at his elbow, proffering a silver cup with a slice of black fig floating in it. ‘You’re right, my lord,’ the barbarian commented, studiedly casual. We can keep a far better guard on the sea lanes from here, just in case any greedy eyes are turned to our pearl harvest.’

Nice by, Dev, reminding all the listening ears that we’ve had good fortune to balance the unprecedented evil of the dragon’s arrival. But there’s nothing to be gained by running from an unpalatable truth.

‘And we can escape the beast in the forests and hills if it dares to come here,’ Kheda added. ‘If it comes before we have the trick of defeating it, my lord,’ Dev countered dutifully.

Kheda looked up beyond the towers of the residence to the steep mountains running east to west and dividing this third largest of the domain’s islands. With the morning mist long since burned off by the fierce sun, the ragged uplands were a daunting prospect, sheer heights thrust through the trees shrouded by an all-concealing cloak of vines. Here and there pale rock clawed through to the open air, pitted and stained and sheltering hollows of black mystery. At the water’s edge, the high ground broke apart in two distinct ridges falling into sluggish seas sheltered from the southern winds by the bulk of the island. The residence was set in the fan of flat land between them, the beach defences running the full length of the shore between the shattered headlands. There were no paths, no tracks over the heights to give any aid to an enemy trying to attack from the landward side of the island.

The warlord sniffed as the fickle breeze brought a faint reminder of the fetid, humid, swamp-choked islands spreading to the north and east.

That must be where the people hereabouts fled from the wild men’s invasion. There must be provision for keeping a hidden boat somewhere, a fast galley for the warlord and his family.

‘The people of this island and the residence saved themselves and much of Chazen’s wealth from the trials of last year,’ he observed to Dev and for the benefit of the listening oarsmen. ‘Make sure you bring me the names of all those who deserve rewarding.’ Do you understand me? Firstly, let’s remind these people that they lived through such terrifying trials once. Secondly, let’s find out exactly how they did it, in case we need to flee a worse foe. ‘Indeed, my lord.’ Dev bowed smoothly. ‘Are you ready to go ashore?’

Kheda nodded and they walked back towards the stern platform, past the heavy trireme’s warriors sitting cross-legged on the side decks. Kheda noted the resolution on their faces as they scoured imperfections from swords and daggers with oil and whetstone or buffed mail to brilliant silver with dampened cloths dipped in harsh sand. He beckoned to Shipmaster Mezai as they reached the helmsman, who was sitting with hands resting lightly on his twin steering oars.

‘As soon as you’re resupplied, patrol the waters hereabouts. Tell the local villages’ fishermen to keep a good watch on the lesser sea lanes as well, just in case someone thinks all our attention will be on the south and west and they can sneak through while our backs are turned.’

‘Yes, my lord.’ Mezai nodded, then hesitated. ‘And what—’

Kheda snapped his fingers and Dev knelt to open a sturdy coffer waiting to go ashore along with the warlord’s physic chest. ‘The dragon’s shown no inclination to attack any sizeable vessels, but if it shows any undue interest in you, see if you can distract it with these.’ Dev handed Kheda a soft leather pouch, which he passed straight to Mezai. ‘The beast seems to crave gems. I doubt you’d get it to quench its own fires by diving for them, so have your best archers shoot them on to some shore, then make a run for it.’ Kheda shrugged. Not that I imagine it will show itself this far north. It still seems more interested in pursuing the last of the savages in the west.’

‘Evil bringing its own fate down on itself, my lord.’ Dev secured the jewel chest and stood up. ‘We’ll hope that holds true, my lord.’ Mezai sounded more hopeful than certain, though.

‘There’s no disgrace in running from a dragon.’ Dev grinned. Do you think there’s any ship in any domain that wouldn’t do the same?’

Kheda gripped Mezai’s shoulder, looking him in the eye. ‘I’ll want you and your ship ready when the Green Turtle gets back. Then we’ll pursue the beast with whatever lore they might have in the north for driving such predators away.’

‘Can’t be that difficult, if barbarians can do it.’ Mezai made a valiant attempt at a joke but there was suspicion in his eyes as he glanced at Dev.

‘Let’s be thankful we had a barbarian to hand to remind us they’re plagued with dragons in the north, along with their wizards,’ said Kheda with casual indifference. ‘And since there are still barbarian kings and princes uneaten to trade with the northern Archipelago, they must have some means to stop the beasts laying waste to their lands.’

‘There haven’t been dragons around the Cape of Winds in three generations, my lord,’ Dev assured him obsequiously. Not since the last of them was hunted down and killed.’

‘And since barbarians can never resist bragging, doubtless there’ll be some record of such events in one or other of the domains that touch on the barbarian waters.’ Mezai looked around to make sure his crew weren’t forgetting that.

‘Indeed.’ Kheda paused, as if a thought had just occurred to him. ‘Of course, we’ll keep the beast’s lust for gems to ourselves. If it chases any other domain’s ships and they don’t know how to distract it, that will serve them right for encroaching on our waters, won’t it?’

‘Yes, my lord.’ There was some distaste in Mezai’s assent.

Kheda took one last discreet look at the trireme’s crew as he turned to climb down the ladder to a waiting rowing boat. There were some unfriendly eyes following Dev as the supposed slave waited near the stern ladder.

Are you all reassured by my apparent confidence or wondering if I am an utter fool to rely on a barbarian slave’s word? I certainly don’t know what we’ll do if the dragon turns up to prey on Chazen’s more densely populated islands. How many jewels does it take to buy a life from the beast? Will pandering to it just encourage it to stay where there are such easy pickings?

‘We’ll go to the courier-dove lofts as soon as we’re ashore,’ he said briefly to Dev as the barbarian climbed carefully into the boat. ‘I want to know exactly what’s happening in the west. There should be dispatches from the Mist Dove by now.’

‘Indeed, my lord.’ Dev waited as the jewel coffer and physic chest were lowered from the trireme and stowed them safely beneath the little boat’s stern thwart. Kheda shifted his feet and glanced at the two youths side by side on the central thwart.

Are you reassured to see me in silks, apparently confident that I don t need armour here in the heart of my domain? Or have you heard that I lost my hauberk thanks to the dragon?

Kheda carefully drew the fronts of his sleeveless mantle of midnight-blue gossamer across the knees of his emerald silk trousers. The overgarment was sewn with pale-green feathers around the shoulders and hem, matching the panels of embroidery on the front and back of his round-necked tunic, where azure roundels of feathers each framed a hawk’s head.

I remember this mantle. So now I’ve taken Saril’s clothes as well as his domain, his residences and his remaining wife. And my erstwhile wife took his life. Are the people here going to look me in the eye or spit in it?

‘Let’s get your lord ashore,’ Dev said breezily to the rowers.

The two youths shared a dubious glance before leaning into their oars, keeping their eyes on their own feet as they rowed.

Kheda felt Dev stir beside him and saw the barbarian open his mouth, a glower cutting a deep line between his angular black brows. Kheda silenced him with an unceremonious elbow to the ribs. One of the rowers looked up only to drop his gaze immediately as he caught the warlord’s mildly questioning gaze.

Noise all around pressed in on their tense silence.

Crewmen from the great galleys shouted instructions to the islanders down in their little boats. Warning calls rang out as unwieldy loads were manhandled down the steep stairs fixed on either side of the massive ships’ sterns.

Muffled hammering floated out of the oar ports as the ever-toiling carpenters laboured in the hidden holds.

Above decks, rowers were making good wear and tear sustained by rowlocks and oar sleeves.

There were small open galleys with just a single bank of oars and fishing skiffs everywhere. More had followed in their wake from every village the warlord’s fleet had passed on the voyage to Esabir.

Are you hoping my presence will somehow protect you from the dragon? I’ll do all I can, but are there enough jewels in the domain to turn its attention from so much easy meat?

‘Looks like life got back to normal hereabouts pretty swiftly’ Dev was watching the local fishermen vying for space on the beach, eager to sell their loads of crab and lobster to Itrac’s household cooks. ‘This was one of the last islands taken by the savages,’ Kheda said neutrally. ‘And one of the first to be relieved by Redigal Coron’s ships.’

‘We’re not going to go hungry, are we?’ Dev watched flat-bottomed boats rowed by local women in gaily patterned gowns bringing baskets piled high with all manner of leafy greens or succulent roots brushed carefully free of soil. Other boats carried crates of ducks or village fowl blinking balefully at trussed braces of silver jungle birds, their heads hanging limply from deftly wrung necks. ‘Look, my lord,’ he said fervently. ‘Red meat.’ He pointed to the motionless dappled flank of a hill deer still tied to the pole some hunting party had used to carry it out of the forest.

‘It was an honour to serve you, my lord.’ As the rowing boat grounded on the steep beach, the two boys hastily drew their oars inboard and leapt out to drag the unwieldy vessel ashore as far as they could. ‘Thank you.’ Kheda walked carefully up the boat to climb over the prow. Dev.’

Hearls turned on all sides, conversations fading away. Kheda nodded and smiled to islanders and residence servants who stopped in their tracks to bow low. He glanced back to see Dev loftily rewarding the two boys with a few tokens from the pearl harvest before recovering the warlord’s jewel and physic chests.

‘What now?’ Dev hurried to catch up, the twin coffers balanced on his muscular shoulders.

‘We accept our welcome with all the pleasure we can muster.’ Kheda continued smiling to all sides as they gathered an eager train of islanders and children wide-eyed with excitement. We want these people as pleased to see us as we are to see them.’

These people who served Chazen Saril long and loyally, who haven’t seen me for more than a day at a time because

/ still feel such an interloper here. Am Ito try buying their loyalty with pearls just as I try to buy that dragon s forbearance with gems?

They passed beneath the vicious maw of the sea gate where three separate portcullises hung ready to slice down through the arching vault pierced with holes promising a rain of death by spears, boiling water or worse for any enemy caught between them. The compound beyond the beach wall was thronged with activity as newly arrived servants and those who remained here year round scurried to make everything fit for the warlord and his lady. Bows were rapid, even perfunctory, and no one paused to trail after Kheda. Goats tethered here and there to keep the grass cropped short watched all the activity with slant-eyed indifference.

‘Is there a back way out of this rat trap?’ Dev glanced uneasily at the fortifications ahead and behind. ‘There must be. Chazen Saril may have sought peace but his forefathers didn’t overmuch.’ Kheda looked ahead to the residence. ‘That’s something you need to find out. And you had better make sure you know your way around by nightfall, for both our sakes. I won’t inspire much confidence if I get lost in my own residence.’

‘You’ve been here before, haven’t you?’ Dev objected.

Not recently and never for very long,’ Kheda admitted ruefully. ‘And then I always had Telouet to show me where to go.’

‘Yes, he was everyone’s friend, was Telouet,’ said Dev, a trifle sourly. ‘Let’s hope they’re willing to let me in on their secrets.’

‘You’re my personal slave, whatever else you may be,’ Kheda said crisply. ‘Remind them of that, if need be, but keep yourself in check.’

It’s bad enough that preparing the ground for Risak’s return with tales of banishing dragons from the wizard—

plagued north has reminded everyone that you’re a barbarian in their midst. We cannot have anyone suspecting that you’re anything more.

Are we far enough away from the fire mountains in the centre of Esabir, in case the dragon does appear and you lose control of your magic again? If it does, and you do, you’ll lose your head and hide for it, do you realise that?

‘Maybe I should grow a beard,’ Dev muttered. ‘Show them all I’m properly tamed.’

‘It’s probably better if they carry on thinking you’re zamorin,” Kheda said frankly.

‘You don’t think they’ll wonder why you trust your safety to some castrated lapdog?’ the barbarian said softly, mocking. ‘Maybe there’ll be a maidservant here who I can bed to put paid to that worry—with your permission, naturally, my lord. Saedrin knows, I wouldn’t mind easing the ache in my stones.’

Not unless you can swear to me you don’t talk in your sleep,’ Kheda shot back as they strode across the greensward.

‘It’s all right for you; you can take that prize piece to bed any time you choose.’ Dev slid the chests he was carrying down to the ground with a sigh of relief and bowed low. Kheda ignored the barbarian’s insolence as Itrac emerged from the main gate of the residence. Servants scattered in all directions as she hurried towards them, something white clutched in one hand.

‘My lady.’ Kheda hurried to meet her, a chill running through him despite the heat of the day. ‘Is there some news from the west? From the Mist Dove?’

‘What? Oh, no.’ Itrac was dressed in all the elegance befitting a domain’s first wife. Her trousers of green silk were patterned with intricate flowers of blue and gold, a tunic of the same cloth fitted close to her body, emphasising her slenderness. The neckline plunged to her breastbone, cloth caught with golden clasps, emphasising the swell of her modest breasts. Strings of sapphires and emeralds swathed her elegant neck, her eyes vivid with sapphire and emerald cosmetics.

The sun struck blue and green fire from her rings as she brushed at her intricately braided hair.

For all her finery, she looks no more than a child, and a child caught in some mischief not of her making. ‘What is it?’ Kheda held out his hands. ‘My beloved wife,’ he added for the benefit of slaves and servants frozen in their bustle on all sides.

‘I find an unlooked-for letter from Daish awaiting us.’ Itrac crushed the reed paper with an audible crackle. At her heels, Jevin was scowling openly.

‘Concerning our invitation?’ Kheda raised his voice a little. ‘That Rekha Daish join us at the Equinox, so she might take word of the auguries in this domain back to her lord, that he might compare them with the fortunes written in Daish skies?’

‘When I would have the household prepared to welcome her properly.’ Itrac’s hand trembled and Kheda saw a torrid confusion of emotion in her eyes. When I would have refreshed my memory as to Chazen’s various trading accounts with Daish. But it seems we are to expect their beloved lady tonight.’

‘Are we?’ Kheda managed to keep his tone light. ‘What an unexpected pleasure.’ He didn’t mind anyone hearing the cynicism in his voice.

‘More unexpected than you know, my lord.’ Emboldened by Kheda’s reaction, Itrac let slip a hint of irritation. ‘We are to entertain that domain’s first lady, Janne Daish, not Rekha. We had better make haste to make ready.’

No, we’ll make ready as and when we see fit.’ Kheda resolutely avoided looking at the household servants and slaves as Itrac’s mouth opened with surprise. ‘Our household has worked hard with this unexpected move from the south. I’m not inclined to repay their efforts with yet more demands. He shrugged with unconcern. ‘If we’re not ready to receive Janne Daish when she arrives, she can stay aboard her galley. It’s her choice to arrive earlier than invited.’

A deliberate choice, I’ve no doubt, to throw Itrac off balance, on to the back foot with mortified apologies for shortcomings in her hospitality.

‘You’re right, my husband.’ Itrac lifted her chin, face serene. ‘Our people serve us well and deserve our consideration. Chazen concerns outweigh those of Daish.’ Behind her, Jevin was now grinning widely.

Kheda hid his qualms as Itrac’s bold statement prompted whispers all across the open ground. ‘It’s a hot day, my wife. Let’s take some refreshment before we continue about our own duties. It’s time everyone had a break.’

As he gave a lordly wave of his hand, maids and men-servants alike promptly set down their loads and abandoned their errands. Some dropped to the grass; others headed for a stone spring house where water barrels were being filled. Those carrying provisions up from the shore “shared out fruit and cloud bread.

Kheda drew Itrac to him, tucking her hand through his arm as they walked towards the main gate of the residence. The outer wall constructed of Esabir’s pale, gritty rock towered over them. It was set with angular towers banded with different stone, dark as shadow. Here and there, dark smudges were mute testament to the magical fires of the invaders. Kheda acknowledged the salutes of the warriors standing on the wall-walk

‘Each contingent has its own tower, my lord,’ Jevin explained from the rear, ‘where they eat and sleep and keep their armoury.’

‘Most impressive,’ Kheda said approvingly. Do they keep as alert a watch on what goes on inside the walls? Where will their loyalties lie if Dev and I need to get in and out without arousing suspicion when Risala returns? Kheda led the way into the inner compound through a gatehouse easily the equal of the one in the beach defences. Here springs bubbled up from fissures in the riven grey rocks and had been channelled into a lattice of rivulets enclosing delightful arbours, songbirds busy among the bright blossoms. Miniature waterfalls tumbled into pools with splashes of glee. As they passed, white and silver dart fish hid among swollen green spears soon to bear scarlet flagflowers or the sprawling, rumpled leaves of azure lilies now fading from their first magnificence. ‘I wouldn’t fancy trying to mount an attack along these dainty little paths,’ Dev observed to Jevin.

‘Try running through the water and you’ll find pits and beds of spikes.’ The younger slave pointed to shadows beneath the ruffled surface of a pool.

Not that anything stopped the wild men, by all accounts,’ Itrac said tightly.

I’m not the only one who hasn’t wanted to come here. You’ve made restoring the southern dry season residence your excuse for avoiding all the memories lying in wait for you here, haven t you?

Not here, perhaps, but we stopped them eventually,’ Kheda reminded her. ‘Chazen and our allies.’ Will leading that rescue be enough to see me accepted here’/ He looked up at the heart of the complex. A solid fortification of banded stone barred their way, outer wall pierced only by small windows at the very top. The single access was through a substantial forebuilding boasting octagonal towers at each corner. Colonnades ringed the walls at ground level, providing shade and benches for those who had come to call on their lord. The benches were full of men and women scrambling to their feet, faces hopeful as they bowed low. Warriors looked down from the heights of the battlements above.

‘My lord!’ Beyau, the steward, hurried out of the shadows of the colonnade. ‘Please forgive the disorder.’

‘We’ve barely unloaded the galleys,’ Kheda said mildly. ‘I’ll give you till sunset before I have you flogged for an incompetent.’

After an instant of wide-eyed startlement, Beyau guffawed. Kheda grinned and squeezed Itrac’s arm. ‘We’ll look at the gardens. Come and find us when there’s some lunch ready.’

Beyau fell into step beside Dev and Jevin as Kheda led the way through the bowing throng to an archway leading into a garden. The forebuilding was a hollow square, its inner face similarly ringed with colonnades. As yet no suppliants had been admitted and the benches stood empty on the intricate lattices of blue and brown tile underfoot, still gleaming here and there with the fast-fading dampness of a mop. One stretch was bright with new tile.

Kheda nodded towards it. ‘What happened there?’

‘The savages made a fire with the roses.’ Beyau scowled. ‘They’re recovering, I see.’ Kheda glanced at Itrac with a smile.

The rosebushes no longer filled the garden at the centre of the courtyard but those that had survived were making a valiant effort, just coming into bud, their flourishing leaves glossy and green.

‘Let’s take that as an omen,’ she said with brittle brightness. ‘Did you see any other portents as you landed, my lord?’

Kheda realised belatedly. A flash of sunlight caught his eye and he looked up to see that the topmost level of the rear tower to the east of the forebuilding was enclosed with glass panes whose angles did not match those of the octagonal walls.

Twelve facets. Chazen Saril’s observatory. My observatory now that this is my domain. What will I see there?

Gates opened from this outer courtyard into the main residence, paired guards ready at each one. Itrac unobtrusively steered Kheda towards the eastern entrance, through the anteroom beyond and out into another, considerably larger, secluded garden.

‘If you’ll excuse me, my lord.’ Beyau slid past as Kheda halted beneath the shade of another colonnade. ‘I’ll see to your refreshments.’ He hurried away towards the doors on the eastern edge of the garden. The inner face of the fortification’s boundary wall was lined with sleeping quarters and workrooms for servants and slaves, resident or visiting. The warlord’s accommodations were a complex of courtyards framed by single-storey buildings of the local grey stone, topped with ochre-tiled roofs with skylights here and there catching the sun.

‘Is that upper servants’ accommodation?’ Kheda hazarded, glancing at Itrac. ‘Or the kitchens?’

Itrac didn’t hear him. Her eyes glistened with tears as she looked at the garden in the heart of this first courtyard. ‘Chazen Saril’s .’ She corrected herself hurriedly. ‘The Chazen warlord’s physic garden.’

‘And his audience halls beyond,’ Kheda said thoughtfully.

Where I will be expected to sit in judgement as lawgiver for the domain when I’m not out here doing my duty as healer and teacher of healers. Which I must do, if I’m to reassure these people. They have to believe all is well, or at least as well as can be expected. But how can all be well if I can’t find a way to slip out of here unnoticed to save them all with whatever abhorrent magic Risala brings back from the north?

How can all be well if I’m only making a sham of being this domain’s warlord?

A faint sound turned Kheda’s head. He saw Dev idly tracing the intricate tiles with a dusty toe, his expression bored. Jevin was watching him, indignation and something colder shading his face. The younger slave realised that Kheda was looking at him and his face darkened with a blush of embarrassment as he dropped his gaze.

‘The audience halls are through there, Dev.’ Kheda pointed abruptly to the wide arch at the southern end of the garden leading into a formidably large building. ‘Three of them in succession. Just keep going till you hit the great reception room and turn west. The warlord’s apartments run all along the back wall of this fortress. Go and make sure everything is as it should be.’

Dev shifted the coffers he was canying on his shoulders and sauntered away. ‘As you wish, my lord.’ Kheda released Itrac’s silk-draped arm from the crook of his own and took her hand. ‘I remember when this was Chazen Saril’s garden,’ he said softly. Gentle yet insistent, he left the colonnade for the white sand paths threaded through the carefully chosen arrangements of herbs. Jevin hesitated before staying leaning on a pillar, following Itrac with his gaze.

Purple poppy to dull pain mingled with red lance to cleanse the blood, bringing the bees to both. Firefew to ease the chest planted with mossy pepper, so effective against parasites of all kinds and incidentally keeping yellow mites away from the firefew. All shaded by carefully trained wax-flower trees offering up their leaves for wound washes and their trunks to support white vines, so insignificant in themselves yet valuable with such potent roots. Potent yet perilous, so barberry bushes keep anyone from incautiously digging those up.

‘I’m glad to see the household here still honouring Chazen Saril with their care of this place.’ Kheda surveyed the herb beds. No impertinent weeds marred the rich, black soil raked smooth between the myriad plants. The only sign that unfriendly hands had ever been at work here were scorch marks on the papery bark of the wax-flower trees.

‘He loved this place.’ A single tear trickled slowly down Itrac’s cheek, leaving a faint trail of golden face paint. ‘That’s where we met, in my father’s physic garden. We all liked flowers, me and Olkai and Sekni . .’ Distress choked her and she looked away, stricken.

‘I know.’ Kheda squeezed her hand with sympathy. ‘For every book of herb lore I studied out of duty, Saril must have read ten or more, for sheer love of plants and their properties.’

He wasn’t brave or overly astute, but he was content in his modest domain, with his wives drawn from lesser daughters, all charmed by his amiable adoration for them. Will I ever be so content here, without bonds of blood or affection to tie me to Chazen?

Other warlords may have mocked Chazen Saril as one who was ruled with a silken whip, but there were plenty who envied him his quiet life. How I miss the sound of the gates shutting on the Daish residences, knowing Janne would unbend from her wifely dignity within those walls and Rekha might even set aside her intricate tally of trades.

But my man-iages as Daish Kheda are as dead as Chazen Saril. And how much more Itrac has lost, barely older than my own eldest daughter. At least my children know I am still alive, even if I am lost to them in all other ways.

‘It’s so strange to be here without them.’ The desolation in Itrac’s voice cut Kheda more deeply than her tears. ‘Saril and your sisters in marriage still share in this domain, as long as the gardens you planted still flourish.’ Kheda put his arm around Itrac’s shoulders and drew her close. ‘Sekni’s benevolence will lend virtue to the tinc—

tures made with these herbs. Olkai’s goodness will sweeten the perfumes made from her flowers.’

I had better take care that these gardens do flourish. Their failure to thrive would be an omen everyone in Esabir could

‘You’re right.’ Itrac wriggled free of his embrace and wiped a tear from her eye with a careful fingertip. ‘What’s done cannot be undone. The chances that led us both here have been stranger and harder than we could ever have imagined but we must believe they are for the best. What’s happened just proves that you were right to claim this domain,’ she pressed on resolutely. ‘There’s the omen of the pearl harvest, and what hope would we have of driving out this dragon without your slave’s recollections of such beasts in the north being defeated? Chazen Saril was a good man in times of peace but he could not meet such trials.’ Her voice wobbled despite her determination.

‘We none of us know what we can bear till we’re tested,’ Kheda said distantly.

If Chazen Saril failed the trials of magic and invasion, that still didn’t entitle Janne Daish to put him to a trial of his life, not on her judgement alone. I lived with her half my life, shared my bed and my blood with her in our children, and I never knew she could be so ruthless. Now she comes here, doubtless with the same unshakeable confidence in her own interpretation of what must be done.

‘Where are you going to accommodate Janne Daish?’ he asked briskly.

‘The guest apartments are between the other gardens.’ Itrac turned towards an arched passageway ending in a gate leading towards another green oasis. She looked uncertainly at Kheda. ‘Olkai Chazen always invited the wives of the domain’s allies to share her own apartments but I don’t think I want to do that.’

‘I think that’s probably wise,’ he agreed with a twinge of shame that Daish was no longer trusted. He followed Itrac, Jevin falling in step behind them. This next garden was flanked to the north by accommodation for lesser guests. To the south, doors opened on to a labyrinth of playrooms and nurseries that had been the riotous province of the domain’s children. ‘This was Sekni’s garden.’ Itrac pointed at dark-green glossy fans of leaves sprouting from low woody trunks. ‘See, she planted pitral to catch the rains. She loved the sound.’

Kheda glanced at her.

You’re hearing the lost voices of Sekni and Olkai’s children, just as I hear the echo of the sons and daughters Janne and Rekha have taken from me.

‘Olkai’s garden was through here.’ Itrac led the way through another shady passage separating more luxurious guest suites. ‘Where we grew the perfume flowers and kept the aviaries.’

White augury doves looked out of their intricate cages, cooing softly amid the irresistibly soothing fragrances of the brightly coloured garden. Dun quail bathed in the dust or preened themselves, oblivious to the presence of warlord or lady.

‘So those are now your quarters as first wife of the domain and you’re entitled to your privacy.’ Kheda looked to the south where wide doors opened on to an audience room, the faintest of breezes stirring the light drapes within. ‘I’m sure Janne and her entourage will be entirely comfortable in any of these other apartments.’

Sounds of activity within prompted Jevin towards the first wife’s suite. ‘With your permission, my lady?’ Itrac nodded and crushed Janne’s letter, still in her hand, still further. ‘Tell the maids to make the ash-flower suite ready for my lady of Daish.’

‘Only once they’ve seen to my lady of Chazen’s comforts,’ Kheda said pointedly. ‘You should take your time to bathe and eat and satisfy yourself as to the standing of our trade with Daish. It’s been a long voyage and a busy day and it’s barely half-over.’ Itrac glanced around to be sure they weren’t being observed. ‘And when Janne Daish arrives?’ She looked at him, beseeching.

‘If-’ Kheda emphasised the word ‘-you’re ready to receive her, do so. If not?’ He shrugged. ‘Don’t. I think it entirely possible that I will be occupied until at least the early evening,’ he mused. ‘So Jevin can take word to Birut that we’re both occupied with affairs of our domain and that Janne Daish can take her time to recover from the rigours of her journey. She’s not so young as she was, after all.’

‘I don’t think Jevin had better take that message to Birut,’ Itrac said with a faint smile.

‘We don’t want to make an enemy of her,’ Kheda agreed frankly, but it won’t hurt to remind her that you’re first wife of Chazen, with all the status that entails and the respect it requires.’

Itrac’s smile widened. ‘All the same, we won’t keep her waiting too long.’

No, but just long enough.’ Kheda looked around the garden. ‘If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and see if Dev’s got himself lost or found his way to my apartments.’

Itrac laid a hand on his arm after another furtive glance around. When we’ve put all this upheaval behind us,’ she said hesitantly, ‘might you look for a personal slave with blood ties to the Archipelago? Let him go back to his northern barbarian lands?’

‘That’s something I shall be happy to do,’ Kheda promised fervently. He hesitated. ‘I can get to the central corridor through your audience hall, can’t I?’

‘Yes, my lord.’ Itrac very nearly laughed.

Jevin appeared at the doorway to her personal apartments. ‘My lady, are you ready to eat?’

‘I should check the omens from the observatory first.’

Kheda kissed Itrac lightly on the forehead. ‘You go ahead.’

The audience hall opening off the garden was cool with lengths of muslin shading the arched windows. Blue and golden flowers painted into posies on the white-tiled floor surrounded a fountain whispering in a central marble basin. Carpets at either end of the room drew the eye with their vivid pattern of white and blue vine flowers worked on a golden ground. The patterns were echoed in the painted walls where climbing roses coiled elegantly around fretwork trellises. Banks of yellow cushions were piled ready for those invited to sit with the domain’s lady; silver trays on side tables were set ready with ewers and goblets.

The household slaves certainly managed to hide a good deal from the wild men. I wonder how. I wonder if they managed to save Chazen Saril’s store of talisman gems as well as the fabrics and furniture.

Kheda went through a central arch to a smaller square reception room with doors on either side leading to the private apartments that Chazen Saril’s other wives had shared. An arch opposite opened on to the broad corridor that he recognised as separating the women’s quarters from the warlord’s preserve. He strode down the long passage past paired ironwood doors opening on to identical suites ready to welcome visiting warlords invited to some council or other.

Not that the other warlords of these southern domains ever came to sit at Saril’s feet and receive his wisdom. Am I the one to raise Chazen to such status? If I get rid of this dragon, they’ll sit up and take notice, that much is certain. Even Vila Safar. Janne Daish can chew on that till it chokes her.

He passed through a reception room luxurious with furnishings of brocaded silks, soft carpet beneath his feet and the wall hangings painted with hunting scenes suitable for a warlord’s dignity.

‘There you are,’ said Dev with relief, appearing through a door leading to some indeterminate hallway. ‘Are you eating your lunch with Itrac or should I try to find a maid to send to the kitchens?’

‘I want to visit the observatory,’ Kheda said briefly. He paused. ‘I think it’s this way.’

He opened another door to find a lesser reception room furnished with carpets whose bold scarlet pattern of interlocking canthira leaves on a rich brown ground was relieved with a white lattice of sashflowers. Low tables of rich russet fora wood bore broad brass bowls of scented petals. There wasn’t a speck of dust to be seen anywhere; two maids clutching polishing rags bowed as they disappeared through a far door.

Kheda waited until the door was closed. ‘You’re going to have to play a much more convincing slave here than you did in the southern residence,’ he warned Dev in a low tone. ‘A lot more of these people lived here before. They had time and warning to flee the invaders, not to get caught and killed.’

‘I’ll bow and scrape like a good lackey,’ promised Dev with an unpleasant curl to his lip.

‘There’s a lot more to it than that,’ Kheda told him as they passed swiftly through another hall. ‘I need you to find out as many of these servants’ names as you can. I need to know slaves from free islanders. If they’re slaves, I need to know where they came from and how they came to be bonded. I need to know who can be trusted, who can be bribed, who will do their duty and no more and who would take a knife in the chest for their lord. Not that I suppose there are many that loyal to me. I also need to know who’s particularly loyal to Itrac.’

/ need Telouet, not you, you blunt-witted barbarian.

‘If I can win them over, especially the older retainers, that’ll colour the attitude of the whole household,’ Kheda continued. ‘It wouldn’t hurt to know exactly how they saved themselves from the invaders, either, where they fled to and how many were lost. And you’ll sleep on a slave’s pallet at my door,’ he added. No arguments, Dev, otherwise the whole household will be wondering about you.’

‘We barbarians always say that you Aldabreshi treat your slaves like dogs,’ Dev muttered with contempt. ‘Are you going to put a collar and leash on me?’

‘Don’t tempt me,’ Kheda said tartly. ‘There are warlords who would, and have you eat from a plate on the floor till you learned some proper humility.’

The warlord halted as he found himself on the threshold of Chazen’s great audience chamber. Its simplicity came as a stark contrast to the rest of the residence’s luxuries. Here the floor was plain white tile, the walls unadorned plaster. The centre of the roof had been raised with a clerestory whose windows were a marvel of the glazier’s art. Glass in jewel colours wove intricate designs that captured the sunlight to spill it to the floor below in dazzling patterns.

Patterns that change with every cloud crossing the sky, different with the suns rising and setting every day. Did Chazen Saril see omens in those colours? I know nothing of such lore.

There were no carpets, no cushions: those coming before their lord would stand and be grateful for the privilege. A beam carved and sheathed in bronze like the prow of a trireme projected from the far wall, drapes of white silk making a canopy. A backless, cross-framed chair of gilded wood stood there. ‘So you get to sit in judgement but you don’t get to slouch.’ Dev grinned.

Kheda made a sudden decision. ‘There’ll be time enough to sit in judgement over this domain when I’ve secured it. I need guidance from the omens and I need news from the outlying isles if I’m not going to lose it to this ravaging dragon. I’ll be getting dispatches from the Mist Dove, but you need to make friends with the mariners down in the anchorage, especially those from the dispatch galleys who’ll be taking the courier doves here and there. You’ll be surprised what they pick up.’

‘I’m supposed to do this while keeping my head down and not reminding anyone that I’m some god-cursed barbarian from the magic-plagued north?’ Dev asked quizzically. ‘And hoping they won’t ask awkward questions about just how you and I managed to kill off the invaders’ wizards with just Risala along to give us an uplifting poem or two?’

‘You keep telling me how clever you are.’ Turning his back on the canopied chair, Kheda left the audience chamber and walked through three successive reception rooms with luxurious furnishings and vigorous wall paintings in bold colours until he reached the physic garden.

Dev grinned. ‘I’ve already found out something useful. Beyau showed me the back way out of this warren, on account of me being your trusted slave, even if I am a strange barbarian. A tunnel runs right along the foundations of the back wall and there are several ways in from your apartments and from one of the lesser reception rooms. It goes all the way out past the eastern headland and into some caves. There’s caves all under that high ground, apparently. That’s where the household stashed all the loot before taking to the boats and running away from the wild men.’ Dev’s grin turned into a chuckle. ‘Beyau’s looking forward to showing Janne that the residence is quite restored to its former glory, thank you very much. He took exception to a few things Rekha had to say, apparently.’

‘Keep well clear of Birut, Janne’s body slave,’ Kheda warned sharply. ‘He’ll suspect you on principle and he’s shrewd enough to notice things Jevin doesn’t. And tenacious, if he gets a scent of something awry. Walk carefully round him; I don’t want Janne contriving anything she might use against us.’

‘I don’t imagine she’ll surpass her last exploit,’ Dev said, more thoughtful than mocking. ‘So where is this, observatory? And the courier-dove loft?’

‘The courier doves are housed in the forebuilding.’ Kheda gestured towards its towers rising high in defence of the residence where swordsmen and archers maintained their unceasing watch.

‘All the warriors in the domain will be cursed small use if that dragon turns up,’ Dev said with faint malice. Since there was nothing to say to that, Kheda led the way across the physic garden to a flight of stairs leading up to the fourth, glass-crowned tower of the forebuilding. ‘The observatory’s up here.’ Opening the door, he was startled to find a grey-haired servant looking back at him, equally surprised. ‘My lord.’ The man bowed, clutching a sizeable tome bound in brown leather to his dun tunic. ‘Who might you be?’ Kheda asked, once his heart had slowed a little.

‘Tasu, my lord.’ The man stayed bent low. ‘The keeper of the books here.’

‘Then show us what you’ve kept safe for Chazen,’ Kheda invited briskly.

The two of them followed the old man up more stairs to a room taking up the whole width of the tower below the glass-walled observatory. It was shelved from floor to ceiling with books packed tight on all sides. A broad table of black wood polished by years of use stood in the middle of the room, reading slopes scattered haphazardly across it, stools pushed tidily beneath.

Kheda surveyed the shelves with pleasure. ‘I’m delighted to see so much of the Chazen library intact. I was afraid the invaders would have burned the books to warm their naked arses.’

‘They did, my lord, those that they found.’ Tasu hid a smile with a wrinkled hand, ostensibly smoothing his grizzled beard. ‘Which were copies or books of little value. When the beacons told us we were invaded, we had sufficient time to get the important books to the caves along with the bulk of the residence’s treasures. We left some furnishings, mostly worn or discarded. We hoped they’d think they had taken a domain of little substance. We left enough food to see them on their way, not sufficient to encourage them to stay.’ His smile faded. ‘Then we sealed the caves with the bravest of the swordsmen inside, in case they should need to fight in last defence of Chazen’s learning and wealth. We lost ourselves in the depths of the forest, those of us who were able to flee. The warriors and the slaves drew lots to see who should stay to hold the forebuilding to give us time to escape, so that whoever was attacking wouldn’t just come hunting the rest of us.’ He looked at Kheda, dark-brown eyes beseeching. ‘We didn’t know we were facing magic, not then. They died, my lord, at wizards’ hands.’

No one knew, not then,’ Kheda told him firmly. ‘And if you stayed, you risked a foul death or a worse captivity.’

‘We thought we were safe when Redigal ships arrived with word that Daish Kheda was not dead as we’d heard but alive, and bringing the means to foil the wild magics. We were most relieved to hear you were claiming the domain since it was Chazen Saril who had died.’ His voice faltered. Now a dragon has come. I’ll tell you honestly, my lord, and you can have me flogged if you wish, but there are some asking if all our efforts have been worth the pains.’

‘I’d never flog an honest man for asking a fair question,’ Kheda assured him.

‘How do we foil a dragon?’ Tasu looked helplessly around at the bookshelves rather than risk Kheda’s gaze.

‘It seems the barbarians of the far north know how,’

Kheda said carefully. ‘I’ve sent Chazen’s fastest trireme to see if any northerly Aldabreshin domain holds some clue as to how we might kill the foul beast or at very least drive it out. While we wait, since it seems happy to devour the remaining invaders, I’m inclined to let it. If it moves against

Chazen people, we’ll do all we can to contain it while we wait for the means to defeat it more permanently.’ He looked up at the plaster ceiling, which was studded with facsimiles of the shells of curious sea creatures for no readily apparent reason. While we wait, I’ll study the earthly and the heavenly compasses and all the lore you can offer me, so we’ll be able to pick the best of all possible times to attack it. I don’t know if all that effort will be worth my pains or yours, but if I’m warlord of this domain,

I must do all I can to save it or die in the attempt.’

Which will show me, one way or the other, whether I’ve been right to associate myself with magic to fight magic.

Kheda changed the subject briskly. ‘Are you known to the courier-dove keepers?’

‘Yes, my lord.’ Tasu was too bemused to bow. ‘I shall want all messages from the fleet keeping watch on the western isles brought up to the observatory.’ Kheda crossed the room to a far stair leading up to the topmost level. ‘Could you do that for me?’

‘Yes, my lord.’ The old man nodded obediently. ‘Could you go and see if any news has arrived since this morning?’ Kheda asked courteously.

‘Of course, my lord.’ Tasu made his way to the stairs and began a cautious descent.

Dev followed Kheda up to the glass-walled observatory. ‘You’re not needing those messages before sunset, then?’

‘He won’t take that long.’ Kheda blinked in the sunlight pouring painfully bright through the twelve panes of glass. Earl was engraved with a reminder of the nature of portents to be found in that reach of the earth and sky. The black wooden pillars separating each window bore carvings of the augury stars that progressed around the compass, inlaid with white ivory and bright gold. Vivid enamel depicted the heavenly jewels here and there; Sapphire, Emerald, Topaz, Ruby, Amethyst, Diamond, Pearl and Opal. With the sun beating down on the black wooden roof above, it was stiflingly hot.

Dev went to look at the enamelled jewels. ‘These positions must mark when this observatory was built. We could work out when that was with a bit of thought and one of Sari’s star circles.’

‘I thought you said all Aldabreshih stargazing was just so much nonsense.’ Kheda tried to shake off the oppressive sensation of the still, stuffy air. ‘Open a window.’

Dev studied the catches for a moment, then threw open the little casements at the top of each window. ‘All your guessing and gazing after portents is nonsense,’ he convected. ‘Your measuring of the passing years is second to none for accuracy. So, are we hiding up here to avoid Janne Daish and, if so, for how long, because we still haven’t had anything to eat and it’s past noon.’

‘You can eat after you’ve found something to use for your speaking spell and discovered how your friend’s search for lore we can use against the dragon is going,’ Kheda ordered. ‘And quickly, before Tasu gets back.’

‘What will you be doing when he gets back?’ Dev started opening drawers in the twelve-sided table engraved to match the rest of the room.

‘As I told Tasu, finding the best days for attacking the beast.’ Kheda pulled up a stool and reached for one of the star circles in the centre. ‘Casting the heavens for all the possible days when Risala could arrive. Calculating how long it’ll take to reach the westernmost islands after that. Factoring in possible delay in finding the beast, and on account of the weather. The rains will be all but on us, if they haven’t actually started’

‘A fat lot of use that will all be,’ commented Dev as he took a brass base plate from a dismantled star circle out of a drawer and set a reed pen alight with a casual brush of a finger.

‘Only if you can’t come up with the means to defeat the dragon,’ challenged Kheda as he concentrated on aligning the star circle. ‘Where’s this woman of yours now?”She’ll blister your ears if you call her that when she gets here,’ Dev said absently. ‘And I don’t just mean she’s got a sharp tongue on her. Ah, there she is, asleep, isn’t that sweet?’ He chuckled.

‘Wake her.’ Kheda looked up, hearing the door at the bottom of the stairs opening. ‘As quick as you can.

Crossing the intricate floor carvings, he hurried down the stairs to find Tasu standing with one hand pressed to his bony chest, catching his breath. Kheda forced approval rather than irritation into his voice. ‘That was quick.’

‘Yes, my lord.’ Tasu took a deep breath and held out a handful of small silver cylinders. ‘One of the lads ran up to the lofts for me, my lord.’

‘Make sure he makes himself known to me.’ Kheda unscrewed the tops of the message cylinders with deft fingers and pulled out the frail slips of paper. ‘Let’s read these in here.’ He ushered the old man inexorably into the book-lined lower room.

‘May I ask what news, my lord?’ Tasu looked drawn and anxious.

‘Good news,’ Kheda said slowly, holding up the fine paper to read the tiny writing, ‘from the Mist Dove, at least. They’ve only seen the dragon once in the last ten days and it was killing the invaders. Since then our warriors have been clearing the westernmost isles of the vermin without its interference.’

‘Good news indeed, my lord,’ the old man echoed.

Kheda looked around the book-lined walls. ‘I want to be ready to deal with this beast if it shows its face around here, and when we can make a plan to kill it. Can you find me all the most recent records of portents that proved particularly significant for the domain? And anything from longer ago that you think might have some relevance to the days ahead. And there was a curious omen when we were out at the pearl reefs, an infant shark found alive inside its mother. Do you have any lore on sharks here?’

‘I can look, my lord.’ Tasu’s eyes brightened.

‘And could you do me one more service?’ Kheda smiled. ‘Could you go and find someone to take a message to Beyau, and to my lady Itrac. I’ve decided I’ll take my lunch up here.’

‘Very good, my lord,’ said Tasu dutifully, turning to go back down the stairs.

Kheda reached out and took a book from a shelf, apparently absorbed in it as the old man departed. As soon as he heard the door at the bottom of the stairs close, he ran up to the observatory, taking two steps at a time.

I should just have time to find out what news Dev’s got from this woman of his.

Chapter Eleven

Are you sure you won’t stay the night?’ The woman stood in the doorway, wringing work-hardened hands.

Velindre made sure her rope-tied bundle of blanket and food was comfortable on her shoulder. ‘Thank you all the same,’ she added as a stiff afterthought.

‘There’s scant daylight left and what with the promise of rain yonder, this is no time to be setting out,’ the woman persisted. ‘You could wait till tomorrow, go out with a full day ahead of you. I’m sure some of the men would go with you.’ She waved vaguely down the hill.

‘Thank you, but I don’t need your solicitude or their help.’ Velindre curbed her irritation. ‘Didn’t you understand what I meant when I said I was a mage of Hadrumal?’ The woman stood reluctantly aside and Velindre stepped out on to the muddy track that cut through a scatter of skulking huts. The village had been built from the mismatched plunder of rockfalls judging by the irregularity of the walls beneath the snow-caked wooden-shingled roofs. Most were single—or double-roomed dwellings, few boasting even an attempt at a garden or yard. The only sizeable building was down where the track widened to a trampled expanse that even the most optimistic would hesitaie to call a village square. It was twice the width of any other building and steam rose from a wing extending behind it to shelter a brew house. Velindre realised too late that looking at the rough-hewn tavern had been a mistake. The handful of dour-faced men lounging against the wall had been covertly watching the women emerge from the hut. Two pushed themselves upright with alacrity and began walking up the lane, the rest trailing behind, faces alight with curiosity.

‘Thank you for your hospitality.’ Velindre nodded to the woman. She turned to go, gathering her heavy fur cloak around her. ‘I think the horse is more than adequate recompense.’

‘Are you sure you don’t need him?’ The woman struggled with her unwillingness to reject such a gift. ‘This is hard country for travelling on foot and with you a lady from the south—’

‘A mage from the south,’ Velindre corrected her. No, take the horse and welcome. I’d be casting him loose otherwise. All I ask is that you look after him; he’s been a good beast to me.’

The woman detained her with an insistent hand. ‘Shouldn’t I keep him till you come back this way? I’ll give you a bed again and welcome.’

‘I shan’t be coming back this way,’ Velindre assured her brusquely. ‘Good day to you.’

‘I wouldn’t want you to come back and not find us,’ the woman continued, as if Velindre hadn’t spoken. ‘See, with a horse, me and the children, we’ll make for the lowlands when the thaw comes, go back to my own family’ The children in question, three of them and none taller than their mother’s apron strings, peered around the doorframe, blue eyes wide.

‘The animal is yours. Make whatever use of him you want.’ Pulling her arm away, Velindre began walking up the track, cursing under her breath as she stumbled on frozen ruts. Solid boots thudded on the ice-hardened earth behind her and she tensed, clasping her double-gloved hands together beneath the all-concealing fur cloak.

‘Taking a walk, mistress mage?’ One of the village men hurried to draw level with her. He had the short, stocky build and fair complexion of the mountains, with a heavy leather coat further padding his bulk. Velindre ignored him, increasing her pace.

‘What was your business with the Widow Pinder?’ A second man came up on her other side. He was taller than the first, with the dark, curly hair and olive skin of southern Tormalin blood incongruous with the snow and ice all around.

Velindre kept walking, face expressionless. She fixed her eyes on the fir forest ahead, dark above the leafless skeletons of the lower slopes.

‘Widow Pinder’s eldest, she was telling my Sonille that you’re some wizard woman,’ a voice from behind taunted.

Sniggers told Velindre that the remaining three idlers from the tavern were trailing a handful of paces behind her unwanted escort.

‘Go on, then, show us some magic,’ mocked the man with the Tormalin blood.

‘Magic’s not welcome round here.’ The stocky man scowled at her. ‘Is that where you’re headed?’ He pointed up past the ridge of hills sheltering the little village, towards a forbidding range of high peaks. Clouds were gathered just beyond, dark grey and ominous in an otherwise clear blue sky. Higher up, white clouds were spread by the winds into feathery streaks. The grey clouds weren’t moving.

‘He asked you a question, lady!’ The Tormalin man darted forward to plant himself solidly in Velindre’s path, hands on his hips.

Velindre made to step round him. A second stocky man with muddy brown hair appeared from behind to block her way. With the fair-haired man on her other side and the two remaining loafers behind her, she was effectively surrounded.

‘Haven’t you got anything better to do with your time?’ she asked with faint derision. ‘Let me pass. My business is none of yours.’

‘You tell us what it is and we’ll decide that,’ the fair-haired man said boldly.

‘We don’t want no more wizards setting up home hereabouts,’ growled one of the pair behind her. ‘You’ve seen a wizard hereabouts?’ Velindre turned around, surprising a flare of panic in the thin-faced speaker’s eyes.

‘That’s a wizard’s work, isn’t it?’ He waved a shaky hand at the distant leaden cloudscape before hastily snatching it back. ‘There’s valleys up there no one’s got near in years.’

‘Everyone knows it’s magic keeping us out.’ The Tormalin man scowled. ‘Even if the wizard hides himself away up there.’

‘Find themselves caught up in tangles of plants knotting themselves, people do,’ the brown-haired man insisted, ‘or get turned around so often they find themselves back where they started.’

‘Life’s hard up here.’ The thin man’s companion added his voice to the debate. The scars on his face attested to “his words. ‘We work hard for our furs and our tin and it’s share and share alike. We don’t close off the land with magic and hoard it all for ourselves.’

With the slope of the track added to her already greater height, Velindre looked down on him with undisguised disdain. ‘I assure you, I have no interest in furs or tin.’

‘What’s in those valleys?’ The fair-haired man stepped closer, his shoulder nudging her arm, belligerence curdling his face. ‘Come to share the spoils with that wizard, have you?’

‘Is it gold?’ the brown-haired man asked hopefully.

‘Magic or not, you must need some help. We could lend a hand.’

‘As long as we’re fairly paid,’ warned the fair-haired man.

an.

‘Let’s say whoever’s up in those hills wants your help.’ The Tormalin man laid a heavy hand on Velindre’s shoulder. ‘Then he can pay us for your passage through our territory, can’t he?’

‘You’ve never actually seen a wizard, have you?’ Velindre looked the Tormalin man in the eye before glancing at his hand, amused. Not this mysterious mage you say lives beneath those clouds nor any real wizard.’

‘What’s that to you?’ The brown-haired man looked uncertainly at the man with the scars, who glanced uneasily at his hatchet-faced friend.

‘Seen plenty of fools up from the south who think it’s easy pickings up here.’ The fair-haired man tried to seize her other arm through the thick fur of her cloak.

Velindre flung her hands wide. A burst of blue light blew the five men away with a brutal gust of magical wind. The fair-haired man fell backwards, landing hard to sprawl gasping, arms waving feebly as the breath was knocked clean out of him. The Tormalin man tumbled sideways, ending up in a crouch like a whipped cur, clutching at a tuft of frosted grass, his jaw slack with inarticulate astonishment. Taken entirely by surprise and with the downward slope treacherous behind him, the brown-haired man fell in a tangled heap with the one with the scars. Only the hatchet-faced man kept his feet. He stumbled backwards down the track, hands raised in feeble denial, his head turned aside and eyes screwed tight shut, too scared to want to see what might be coming next.

‘I told you my business was none of yours.’ Entirely composed, Velindre stood, her hands held wide, dark fur cloak and golden hair streaming behind her as if she stood in the teeth of a winter gale. Not a twig stirred on the winter-stricken trees on either side of the track. ‘I take it you’ll believe me now when I tell you plainly that you have no hope of detaining me.’

She thrust a hand forward and a ribbon of sapphire light hobbled the hatchet-faced man. ‘Whereas I can make your lives very unpleasant if you have any notion of following me.’ With a snap of her fingers, she called down a bolt of lightning from the clear blue sky. It struck the rowan she pointed to with one long, pale finger and the tree burst into crackling white flames.

Movement down the hill caught her eye and Velindre realised that almost the entire meagre population of the village was watching from doorways or around the corners of their ragged-edged huts. T will know if you try following me,’ she continued with precise menace, ‘just as I will know if anyone decides to offer the Widow Pinder any trouble for giving me a bed for the night. I recommend you bold heroes make that plain to your neighbours.’

With a wave of her hand, she snuffed the flames consuming the rowan. The only sound was the faint patter of the tree’s few remaining leaves and berries falling to the ground. Velindre gestured discreetly towards the tree and a charred branch broke away with a tearing crash. As the shaken men all jumped, startled, and looked at it, Velindre wrapped herself in a swathe of dazzling cerulean light and vanished. The cowering men rubbed their eyes, blinking painfully as they stared gaping at the place where she’d been. Smiling unseen, the magewoman retreated slowly up the hill. It had been some while since she had worked invisibility around herself, she realised with faint amusement. Who would have thought an apprentice’s trick like blinding someone with magelight would prove so useful? Drawing the air close in around her, she deftly bound water and fire into the spell to cloak herself entirely from view.

But enough of this foolishness, she decided. She had no time to waste. The trip had already taken longer than she had expected. Not that Dev had had any cause to complain that she was idling, she thought with irritation. And she wouldn’t be dealing with this nonsense if he hadn’t startled the widow and her children by bespeaking her like that. It was hardly surprising that the eldest girl hadn’t been able to keep something like that to herself.

Velindre walked away up the track, first looking ahead at her path and then back down the hill, to be sure those bold heroes were returning to their startled village.

The fallen men were picking themselves up. The scarred man took a cautious pace towards the charred skeleton of the rowan tree, his fair-haired companion following, careful all the while to keep the first man between himself and the uncanny spectacle. The Tormalin man and the one with brown hair were edging towards their hatchet-faced friend, who was still rooted to the spot with terror even though the skeins of azure light around his legs were fading. The Tormalin man gave him a sudden shove. The sharp-faced man cried out before taking a step to save himself as he found he was no longer bound by the spell. He took to his heels, slipping and sliding as he fled for the solace of the tavern. The hatchet-faced dun-haired man and the one with the scars followed him, barely slowly enough to preserve their dignity in front of the wide-eyed villagers.

The Tormalin man and his Mountain-bred friend stayed where they were, looking suspiciously up the track. Velindre hurried for the shelter of a starveling hazel thicket. These fools weren’t deaf, she reminded herself, or blind to any other trace she could leave. They might be miners in the summer; in the winter seasons they trailed game far smaller than an adult mage. She looked at the ground, shaking her head at the momentary disori-entation of not being able to see her own feet. She could see the ridges of the hard ground unyielding beneath her clumsy boot soles; no tracks there. But her weight had crushed blades of sere grass poking up through the sodden black leaves where the vagaries of the wind had left the ground clear of snow.

It had been a while since she had had to work two, no, three such spells in harness. Velindre summoned a second layer of dense air to cocoon her invisibility spell, baffling and muffling any crunch of her footfalls on the icy ground, any swish or snap as she brushed past the clawing hazel twigs. She lifted one foot and stepped up on to a soft cushion of magic. Pausing to be sure of her balance, she stepped forward, summoning a second squashy pillow of air to raise her a hand’s width above the ground.

Not that this was quite the sophisticated working with elemental air that Hadrumal would expect from a Cloud Mistress, she thought with distant amusement. And Planir’s rebukes for apprentices who felt entitled to cow mundane fools with gaudy trickery were legendary. Which was all well and good, but life was certainly different out here where the Archmage’s writ didn’t run.

She stumbled as the chancy air drifted beneath her feet and abandoned such idle thoughts in favour of concentration. Walking further into the trees at a painfully slow pace, she looked over her shoulder for any sign of pursuit after every few steps. If those fools from the village couldn’t hear her, she wouldn’t hear them approaching either, thanks to that same magical spell.

By the time she crested the ridge behind the village, her neck was stiff, her legs ached as if she had been walking all day through soft sand and a faint queasiness threatened to turn into a nauseous headache. Setting her jaw, she forced her way through a copse of shivering aspens and cast away the magic surrounding her. Her booted feet hit the ground with a jolt and she drew a welcome breath of fresh, cold air. Hastily she gathered up the magic dissipating around her and cast out a web of unseen magical threads, drawn taut to tremble with the noises of the forest and bring every sound magnified for her ears alone. Meltwater dripped from trees welcoming the optimistic sun that was strengthening with each new day. In the dark hollows of the forest, though, the chill of night was already returning, prompting protesting creaks from the icy streams frozen solid in their stony beds. Untrammelled breezes ran ahead of the shadows, trailing casual fingers through tangles of ivy clinging to the mossy larches. A faint scuttle of tiny paws whispered through the frostbitten undergrowth. Velindre breathed more easily. There was no sound of footsteps or the harsh breathing of men intent on a hunt.

Velindre looked across the wide expanse of snow pierced with scattered trees that separated her from the next rise in the rumpled land. Then she settled the rope of her bundle more securely on her shoulder beneath her cloak and began walking. The track from the village soon petered out, disappearing beneath the drifts of snow and the black swathes of leaf litter.

Would any of those oafs tell their tale the next time they made the wearisome journey to Inglis? And show themselves for the fools they had been? That was hardly likely, she concluded. What about the widow woman? Would she tattle to all and sundry about how she had given unknowing shelter to a mage unafraid to use her magic to teach ignorant buffoons a much-needed lesson? Velindre shrugged. What of it? If the woman did tell her tale, who could carry it to Hadrumal? She was well beyond Rafrid’s reach already and it was hardly likely that Plank would rebuke her if she returned with untried lore from both Azazir and this dragon loose in the Archipelago.

She studied the distant coil of grey clouds with growing interest. Even with long leagues still to go, she could feel a faint resonance of magic as the storm defied the natural currents coursing through the air. She found herself intrigued. Never mind Dev’s distractions with this dragon; just what would this Azazir have to teach her about the elemental air? If she was going to find out, she had to get to the valley beneath that unmoving, unbreaking storm. She considered the wide expanse ahead of her, deep snow reaching half-way up the dark stands of firs.

This looked like a good time to try another prentice mage’s trick: the impudent connivance that allowed the bold and reckless to dart between the highest points of Hadrumal’s roofs and towers when festival cheer overcame caution. Rafrid would doubtless be spending his Equinox issuing the usual reprimands and curtailing offenders’ privileges. Velindre smiled with vindictive amusement as she fixed her gaze on a patch of open ground beneath a stained outcrop of rock away on the far side of the woods. A rush of air carried her across the intervening half-league with a single stride. Another step took her to the top of the ridge and a third made light of a sprawling glassy expanse of frozen marsh.

From the bottom of the next ridge, she searched for a suitable foothold among the trees lining the heights above her. Seeing bare earth and stones where a storm had felled some mighty fir, she threw a coil of magic towards the open space. The ensorcelled air writhed, spiralling away up to be lost in the uncaring blue sky. Velindre was taken aback. It was several moments before she recovered her authority over the fickle winds. She cast her spell again. Once more, the magic recoiled from the patch of empty ground where she wanted to go. This time the spell curfcd back around her, threatening to carry her backwards and dump her unceremoniously among the sodden tussocks of the valley. She barely disentangled herself from the magic before she lost her footing, startled into cursing under her breath.

Face wary in the dark fur framing it, she made a third attempt, this time abandoning the spell as soon as she felt the first tremor of failure. She smiled thinly with slow realisation. The magic frustrating her own was being worked through the water suffusing the air. Only a very powerful mage could manifest his intent through the infinitesimal amounts of vapour in this cold, dry emptiness. Azazir evidently knew how to use his own element to dominate the air. Would she learn how to rule water with air so effectively? All the inconveniences of crossing these last interminable leagues on foot would be well worth it if she could, never mind what Dev and this warlord of his might owe her for any lore about dragons.

She had better learn something worth the tedious toil ahead, since further magical travel was plainly out of the question. Velindre sighed and searched for any semblance of a track leading up through the trees. Intellectual curiosity about what Azazir might or might not know had faded in the face of grim determination by the time Velindre was half-way up the steep slope. The hem of her fur cloak was caked with snow and her boots dragged leaden at her feet. Legs aching fiercely, she pressed on, the icy ground slick and unforgiving. She caught at saplings with her gloved hands to pull herself up awkward stretches and silently cursed the bleak rocks breaking through the soil and forcing her sideways to find a clear way forward once more.

As she worked her way down the north face of that ridge and across the valley beyond, Azazir’s dampening magic weighed more and more heavily on the blasts of air she was summoning to clear snow out of her path. She was reduced to fighting her way through waist-deep drifts with no more than the unaugmented strength in her arms and legs. By the time she was at long, long last approaching the foot of the first true scion of the mountain range, the sun was sinking, turning the rocks breaking through the threadbare ground to a cold, steely grey.

Velindre clenched her fists inside her gloves to quell the trembling of fatigue. At least she wasn’t cold. Azazir might have the reach to stifle magic beyond her arms’ length but he couldn’t overcome her innate abilities, whatever his unlooked-for talents. She sighed and pressed on up the punishing slope, the heavy fur cloak dragging at her shoulders.

Half-way up, she lost her footing and fell to her knees. As she did so, her hand landed on a fold of the beaver fur. It squelched beneath her weight. Velindre frowned and stood up carefully. She stripped off her doubled gloves, her suspicions growing hand in hand with hot anger. Taking a double handful of the cloak, she squeezed the fur tight. Water oozed over her fingers. There was a curious glitter to it, almost like quicksilver. She looked for a moment at the bright drops, then shook them off Rather than falling to the ground, the moisture flew back to the fur, vanishing in an instant—all but one bulbous drop which sat on the surface of the dark fur until a blackness winked across it, like the blink of an eye. Velindre tore at the clinging ties of the heavy cloak and dropped its sodden weight to the ground. It was saturated with water, she realised with sudden fury, but not through any normal turn of events. She rubbed a hand over the shoulders of the woollen cloak she was wearing underneath. The cloth was dry and faintly warm with the heat of her body. None of the wet from the fur had penetrated it, nor the thick flannel shirt and sturdy woollen gown beneath. Sitting on a bare patch of cold, dry earth, she fought to pull off the clumsy gaiters she was wearing to keep the mud and damp from her boots and stockings. The leather was grotesquely swollen with moisture, but the boots beneath were still dry, their polish unmarred. She reached for her thick outer gloves and found that they, too, were weighed down with more water than the fur could ever hope to hold without magical deceit. She wrung one out and the water gathered itself on the moss in oval drops, again with an uncanny semblance of watching eyes.

‘That’s a subtle working, Master Azazir,’ she remarked, partly to the motionless drops of water and partly to the empty air. ‘Do you discourage all your visitors like this?’

She stood up, shaking out her thick skirts and drawing her woollen cloak close. ‘Or is this a test for mages, to see if they can do without the conveniences of winter clothing? Believe me, I am more than equal to keeping myself warm without furs.’ As she spoke, the drops of water abruptly ran away to be lost in the frosty ground.

Never mind Dev and his distant difficulties. Velindre gritted her teeth. This contest was becoming one she wasn’t prepared to yield, however good this unseen Azazir might think he was. Drawing on her kidskin gloves with hard-faced resolve, the magewoman enveloped herself in still air warmed with a hint of fire. Abandoning fur cloak, gloves and gaiters, she began climbing again.

Determination drove her on and her spirits rose as she realised she was actually making better progress without the hampering bulk of those outer garments. Then the fire in her spell was abruptly snuffed and the gathering chill of the frozen forest dusk bit through the air surrounding her. Gritting her teeth, she pressed on until a small saddle between two jagged spurs of rock offered a place to catch her breath.

She couldn’t snare any spark of fire. The element was fleeing in all directions from the cold damp now suffusing the air. Frost was already glazing the rocks, visibly thickening even as she looked at it. Dev would have been no use here, she thought inconsequentially. He wouldn’t even have got close enough to learn anything of dragons. In the gathering dusk and chill, that notion wasn’t as comforting as it might have been.

‘My compliments, Azazir. I see you have a considerable mastery of fire, which is all the more impressive given that it’s the element antithetical to your own.’ She stood, listening, but heard nothing. Closing her eyes the better to concentrate for a moment, she wove a denser cloak of air around herself. If she couldn’t warm herself from without, at least she wouldn’t lose any more of the precious heat from within her body. The ground was less steep now and she could walk without using her hands. That was fortunate as she found her cocoon of air under insidious assault, the threads of air weighed down with more and more moisture until they snapped, tearing shreds of the protective magic away. Velindre found herself reaching further and further afield for untainted air to draw into her magic, the effort exhausting her more effectively than the weight of the sodden fur cloak

‘I only want to talk to you,’ she snapped with weary irritation. ‘I don’t see why you should freeze me out like this. Don’t the customary courtesies between mages apply in this forsaken place?’

A sound suspiciously like laughter brushed past her ear. She snatched at a breath of fleeting fire to cast light into the shadows of the trees. She just had time to see that there was no one there before the fire slid out of her grasp with ominous finality. The noise had come from a chuckling brook splashing over a rock-strewn stream bed.

She tried to find the fire again but her search was fruitless. Unease gathered chill beneath her breastbone. Without at least a modicum of fire, the other three elements were cursed to lie inert and useless. That was one of the first things any prentice wizard learned and a circumstance that frequently gave those with an affinity for fire an unwarranted sense of superiority—especially given that fire could be snuffed, which surely made it the most vulnerable of the elements when all was said and done. Velindre gathered her wits, realising that cold and fatigue were making her foolish. She had to concentrate on the here and now, where Azazir certainly gave the lie to any claim of fire’s pre-eminence, in this remote fastness where he’d honed his magic.

Magic that was unlike anything she’d encountered in Hadrumal. That’s what she was seeking. Velindre took two more determined strides onward before she turned back to look at the stream. With winter still ruling these northern lands, it was the first open, running water she had seen there. How much higher was she than those uppermost villages where the miners and trappers were still smashing the ice in their wells of a morning and the brooks were frozen solid?

Then she saw the direction this implausible unfettered water was taking. The stream was flowing uphill to vanish over the lip of the valley ahead. Her mouth fell open, astonished as any ignorant villager. Recollecting herself and narrowing her eyes, she dropped to one knee, stripping off a glove. She pressed her palm to the spongy, mossy turf and concentrated with every mageborn sense within her.

The ground should have been frozen, moisture locked within the soil, earth and water alike waiting lifeless for the sun’s warmth to drive out winter’s cold. Never mind Dev; let Hearth Master Kalion come here, Velindre thought with mingled awe and apprehension. Let him make his pompous arguments for fire’s precedence in the face of Azazir’s dominance. This ground wasn’t frozen, but neither was it warmed by any discernible heat. It was simply saturated with water quite untroubled by the plunging temperatures. And the water was moving oddly, flowing uphill unhampered through the solid rock and cloying clay. The earth lay passive, submissive, its elemental resonance entirely subdued. Velindre looked up. The grey clouds were directly overhead, in coils of air held captive by the all-commanding water, meekly doing its bidding. Green radiance crackled in the clouds like uncanny lightning

She walked on slowly, increasingly reluctant yet irresistibly intrigued. Her wizard senses were soon shaking under the assault of the water’s ascendancy, just as her ears were ringing with the sound of a thousand streams rushing towards the valley ahead. She left the larches and spruces behind and soon the brambles gave up the unequal struggle to maintain a foothold in this unnatural land. The mosses persisted furthest of all, a mottled green carpet reaching almost to the crest before her. Almost but not quite. The valley was rimmed with bare earth. Not mud, she noted with faint apprehension.

The ground was dry and easy enough to walk on. She paused, sensing the water surging just below the surface. Without the magic holding it back, it would turn the solid ground into a morass of clinging clay. She took another step. No, it would become bog, a sucking mire to drown her, filling her ears and eyes and mouth with deafening, blinding, stifling muck. She could feel the lethal potential just waiting beneath her feet.

Squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin, Velindre walked up the slope, which ended in a knife edge against the empty sky. She looked down into the valley. ‘My compliments, Azazir .’ The words died on her lips as she saw the vista before her.

There was nothing growing in the valley. Trees, shrubs, grass and mosses, all had been washed to oblivion by the countless streams cascading down the steep sides. Here and there a stretch of soil remained, some curious patch of gravel bright with minerals untouched by the water gliding across it. Mostly the ground had been stripped back to rock, the bones of the earth laid mercilessly bare. The soil hadn’t been permitted any revenge on the streams, however. The lake filling the bottom of the valley was unclouded, no dirt sullying the crystal expanse. Pure power alone suffused the waters, filling the lake and the air above it with an emerald radiance.

The rocks around the shore glistened in the low light. Some of the outcrops were sharp, angles unblunted by the scouring floods. Others had been polished smooth, veins of ores and crystals exposed. Some protrusions had been carved into fanciful shapes. There was a horse with flippers instead of hooves, a fish with a mouth of distorted snaggle teeth, a lizard-tailed goat. Exaggerated faces peered up at her or out over the lake, some laughing insanely, others fixed in grimaces of terror or pain. One image caught her eye time and again: a coil mimicking the cloud held in that endless, unmoving turmoil above. Velindre looked more closely at the nearest such spiral carved into the rock just below the valley’s rim. From this angle it looked like a serpent consuming its own tail.

Velindre began a cautious descent of the treacherous slope. The ground abruptly gave way beneath her. Her flailing feet could find no purchase, nothing to stand on. She sank waist deep into water rushing to fill the newly opened gully, her hands caught in the floating folds of her skirts. Icy currents soaked her to the skin, the chill prying between her legs, sliding beneath her clothes to crush her chest in a freezing embrace. The weight of her woollen cloak choked her, pulling her backwards till her yellow plait of hair floated on the surface of the water. She gasped and struggled as the waters closed over her head in an emerald flash. The torrent carried her over the rocks, sweeping her into the lake in a cascade of jade foam.

Eyes and mouth closed tight shut, she fought with the brooch securing her cloak. A prick of pain as she ripped it free was instantly numbed by the cold. The heavy cloth sank away and she fought with the buckles on her boots with nerveless fingers. Kicking them off, she tried to swim to the surface, the breath burning in her chest. Her legs were hampered by her skirts, dragging her down. She fumbled with the buttons at her waist, tearing herself loose. She struggled free of her sodden, constricting bodice, fighting the panic rising in her throat.

Free at last, she kicked for the surface, opening her eyes only to find an impenetrable barrier of emerald light denying her. The lake had her in its grasp. She couldn’t reach the air above or the earth below the deeps. There was only water. It surrounded her, it suffused her, the cold magic willing the very blood in her veins to stop, to become one with the still peace of the pure, unclouded lake.

Velindre forced herself to go limp, arms and legs floating wide. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the air within her lungs. Meagre it might be, but it was air and it was hers. It was some tiny fraction of the emptiness beyond the water’s barrier. It had circled the seas in the great storm systems where water did the air’s bidding. It had crossed the lands where fire made a plaything of moisture in the heat of summer. The air alone knew the infinitesimal voids in the earth where water could not pass.

The green radiance wavered above her, stained with an aquamarine smear. Sapphire light splintered the waters, thrusting Velindre upwards to lie gasping, shivering on the surface of the lake. She pushed a hand into the water and a sheet of ice formed beneath her, edged with vivid blue light. Emerald fire crackled angrily around it, but the sapphire boundary stayed unbroken. She dragged herself up to half-sit, half-kneel, leaning heavily on her hands. Her skin was as white as her clinging shift and stockings and she shivered uncontrollably. Laughter echoed around the lake, sly amusement striking back at her from every rock face.

Velindre waited until she had some semblance of control over her voice. ‘My compliments again, Master Azazir. I have never seen such mastery over an element.’ She forced her head up, throwing aside her sodden plait and wiping freezing trickles from her forehead.

Green light swirled around the fragment of ice she rode on. She watched warily, stealthily seeking whatever air she could find. The eddy spun faster, mossy radiance darkening as a vortex formed, reaching down into the depths of the lake. Spiralling walls of water rose up all around the magewoman. Now the surface of the lake was level with her elbows, now her shoulders, now her head. Velindre thrust out a hand, turquoise light spreading from her outstretched palm. Her magic held back the lake as it fought to close over her head once again. She knelt upright and brought her hands up, the light strengthening to bathe her in a piercing azure. Her magic spread, forcing the emerald-laced waters back. The vortex swirled beneath her and for the barest moment, a ripple opened a gap between the ice she rode and the hollow beneath. Velindre thrust one hand down, blue fire plunging through the gap to rip the green spiral apart, scattering it to the depths of the lake. The waters rocked violently and she let her magic go to cling to the ice, fingers burning with the cold. That same laughter echoed around, now coloured with a buoyant excitement.

‘I would much prefer to talk to you face to face,’ Velindre called out with all the dignity she could muster. She scanned the water and the valley in the fast-fading dusk. How far was it to the edge of the lake? Could she rely on the air to cany her over such an expanse of magically malevolent water? There was no point in even thinking of working a water magic through her own sympathy with that element. She could never hope to wrest any control from Azazir.

‘How would you recognise my face?’ Cruel laughter rippled through the words.

‘I wouldn’t, obviously.’ Velindre looked around in vain to see where the voice was coming from. ‘The Council of Hadrumal hasn’t seen fit to hang your portrait in any of the halls,’ she added tartly.

‘The Council of Hadrumal doubtless thinks I’m dead, if they think of me at all.’ There was an undercurrent of menace in the breathless words. ‘And I don’t imagine you’re here with their blessing. What’s to stop me killing you?’

‘I’ll do my level best, for a start.’ Velindre seized her chance and wrapped herself in a web of bright-blue magic. It wasn’t warmth but it was better than nothing. She had to ward off the cold somehow or that would be the death of her, never mind this mysterious wizard. ‘Besides, kill me and you’ll never know what brought me here.’

‘What makes you think I would care?’ the voice queried.

‘Otrick’s diaries,’ she shot back. ‘His writings say you were a mage who never let a question go unanswered.’

‘Why are you reading Otrick’s diaries? Did he send you here?’ The voice was right behind her.

Velindre skidded around on her knees and gasped. A man was standing on the surface of the lake. Or at least, the translucent form of a thin, wiry man had risen out of the water, entirely naked, with a semblance of a long beard and straggly hair flowing back into the effigy. Currents of green magic fleeted within the shape, momentarily mimicking blood and bone before disappearing. The apparition opened its mouth.

‘Did Otrick send you?’ Azazir repeated, with an emerald flash in his colourless eyes.

‘Otrick is dead.’ The admission was startled out of Velindre. She bit her cold, wet lip and found her face was too numb for her to feel it.

‘Is he?’ Azazir didn’t sound overly concerned. ‘He taught you, didn’t he? I can see his quirks in your magic’

‘Yes, he taught me.’ Velindre nodded jerkily. But not everything he knew. Not everything the two of you knew.

There’s more I want to learn.’

‘You have a powerful affinity,’ Azazir remarked, coming close to the sapphire magic that surrounded her. Green radiance pulsed and faded within his watery body. ‘Like Otrick. But do you understand, like he did?’

‘Understand what?’ asked Velindre warily, struggling to stop her teeth from chattering. ‘And I won’t understand anything if I freeze to death. I have to get ashore and dry off

Azazir ignored her, stretching out a colourless hand. Do you understand the limits of magic? Do you understand that the only limits are those we impose on ourselves?’ He touched the a2ure magic and the ensor-celled air sank into the waters of the lake. Velindre gasped as the fierce cold bit deeper than ever into her drenched, inadequate clothing.

‘Hush,’ whispered Azazir, eyes glowing phosphorescent.

The air that Velindre had bound with her sapphire magic rose up from the lake once more. It brought a mist of fine droplets with it, suffused with emerald magelight. The blended magic shimmered turquoise. ‘Did Otrick see it in you?’ Azazir continued, drifting around behind Velindre to reappear on her other side.

‘See what?’ she snapped, doing her best to keep him in sight. It wasn’t easy. Azazir began circling her, his insubstantial feet drifting through the surface of the lake, leaving a trail of emerald radiance sinking away into the depths.

‘Is that why he sent you to me?’ the water wizard mused. ‘To do what he couldn’t? Is that what he sees in you? The courage he never had, to yield, to become one with his element? Is that what you want to learn?’

Velindre felt herself growing dizzy as the aquamarine magic blurred her vision.

‘Because there are marvellous magics to be made when you truly blend the elements, you know,’ he whispered seductively.

‘I want to learn what you know of dragons,’ she said resolutely, trying not to look at him, fumbling for some control over her own element.

‘Of course you do.’ Azazir nodded with a happy smile. ‘Which is why you’ll do what I want. Whatever I want.’

Inside a heartbeat, three things happened. Velindre realised that Azazir was quite insane. She realised that his magic had entirely suffused her own and that she had no idea how to disentangle herself. Then he stepped through the turquoise radiance and seized her, his translucent hands digging into her arms. She gasped with pain and opened her mouth to protest but it was too late. Azazir pressed himself against her and the shape he had adopted was already losing its form as his very substance flowed inexorably into her own.

Chapter Twelve

It’s no good.’ Dev’s voice thickened with frustration. ‘I can’t find her.’ He hunched over the water as he fought with the scrying spell. ‘I can’t even get the spell to hold

Finding his teeth aching, Kheda forced himself to unclench his jaw. He drummed his fingers on the far side of the vast grey marble bath raised in the middle of the floor. The swirls of the polished stone were copied in the smoky tiles of the floor. ‘Try the mirror again.’ He gestured towards the square of steel with its cracked lustre border, half-hidden behind a row of unguent jars painted with the same patterns of reef and sea that decorated the bath chamber’s walls.

‘There’s no hope of fire magic finding her inside Azazir’s influence,’ muttered Dev bitterly, his attention still fixed on the obstinately magic-free water. ‘And if we beat our heads against that truth much longer, we’ll be late for that banquet of yours. Do you want to be discovered at this because some lackey comes to find us?’

‘Would fresh water help?’ Kheda searched his wits for some constructive suggestion.

If we’ve lost this magewoman, where do we look for any help against this dragon?

‘Fresh water?’ Dev looked up with an ill-tempered scowl. ‘It’s not the water and it’s not me. I found Risala for you, didn’t I? You saw her enjoying her pleasure cruise. I told you, it’s Azazir’s—’

‘Hush.’ Kheda was certain he’d heard a footfall. ‘Someone’s coming.’

‘Announce yourself to your lord!’ Dev’s hand went to the scabbarded sword thrust through the sash of his black tunic and he slipped past Kheda to open the door with a jerk.

‘Do we need to be so formal, Kheda?’ A woman stood there looking at Dev, faint curiosity raising her brows.

‘Janne Daish.’ Kheda drew a short, sharp breath before waving her backwards and stalking through the door to the warlord’s private sitting room.

Janne retreated, stopped and wiggled her toes. ‘I do like these floors of wooden blocks,’ she remarked. ‘So much warmer and easier on the feet than tiles.’ She moved towards a thick silk carpet of palest blue piled high with soft sea-green cushions embroidered with clams and sea stars bordered by swaying sea grasses.

‘Through here, if you please, Janne Daish.’ Kheda waited in the arch between this inner chamber and the warlord’s anteroom where chests of ebony and ironwood stood in the corners between low tables set with alabaster vases bright with fresh flowers. There was a vivid white and gold carpet but no cushions for waiting visitors. He inclined his head, stopping well short of a bow. ‘To what do I owe this unexpected visit?’

Unexpected and unwelcome. What do you want?

She smiled with amiable tolerance for the edge in his voice as she strolled into the anteroom. ‘After everything Rekha said about how splendidly Itrac has restored these residences, I had to come and see for myself.’

‘Forgive me.’ Kheda smiled thinly. ‘I didn’t mean your visit to the domain. I meant your appearing here, in my apartments. You and Rekha seem to have become very casual about etiquette of late.’ Janne looked sharply at Dev, who was waiting in the archway to the inner chamber, head bowed, every measure the attentive slave. ‘You may leave us.’

‘My lord?’ Dev looked at Kheda, his Aldabreshin accent note perfect.

‘Wait outside.’ Kheda nodded. ‘You’re looking well,’ he continued neutrally as Dev obediently closed the outer door behind him. ‘And wholly first lady of Daish by virtue of being the warlord’s mother rather than his wife. You look ten years older than you did as my consort.’

‘It’s such a relief, for me and Birut.’ Janne smiled, untroubled. ‘You never did appreciate how much work it took to make you the envy of every other warlord, and me the despair of their wives.’ The grey in Janne Daish’s hair was no longer concealed by the crimson and indigo dyes she had been wont to use. Her long tresses were coiled into a crystal-studded net of plaited white silk held back behind her ears by a silver crescent headdress. The effect was subtly unflattering, revealing the years bluning her jawline and the wrinkled skin of her neck. No effort had been made to hide her years with cosmetics; she wore the minimum of frosted silver around her eyes, lips merely glossed with a purple the same shade as her gown. The high-necked dress of red-shot silk was cut to conceal, not to enhance, the charms of her voluptuous bosom. The wide white sash embroidered with red and purple flowers emphasised that her waist was thickened with child-bearing, while the full skirts hid her elegant legs. All the same, I would still embrace you, draw your head upon my shoulder. You were all the wife I ever wanted. And you know it.

‘I see you’re weary.’ Kheda regarded her with a hint of pity. ‘The voyage must have been tiring for a woman of your years.’

If you want to play the matriarch, let’s see how you like being treated as if you were twenty years my senior instead of merely nine.

‘I’m curious about your new body slave.’ Janne looked after Dev. ‘A barbarian, isn’t he? Were none of our neighbours willing to trade you a better trained slave after all you’d done for Chazen?’

What are you expecting me to tell you? That I dared not approach Redigal or Ritsem, Aedis or Sarem, for fear of them refusing to send a slave to a domain stained with magic? If only it were that simple.

‘He’s of barbarian stock.’ Kheda shrugged at the irrelevance. ‘I found him when I was searching for lore in the north.’

‘Is he zamorin or beardless by choice?’ Janne’s long sleeve fell back as she adjusted her headdress with fingers heavy with silver rings set with amethyst. ‘A lover of men?’ she elaborated unnecessarily. More violet stones circled her wrist.

‘That’s a remarkably impertinent question, even for one who was once my wife.’ There was no warmth in Kheda’s voice. ‘And I owe you no answers, since you decided I was no longer wanted as your husband. I’ve questions of my own, mind you. What brings you here fnstead of Rekha? What are you looking for, besides pearls to conceal how scant the Daish harvest has been?’

You wear amethysts to calm anger and promote humility, so you’re serious about whatever negotiations brought you here. The heavenly Amethyst rides in the arc of honour and status, along with the Hoe that is the symbol of a man’s hard work in service of the domain, whatever his rank. Do you expect me to keep calm, to put my duty as Chazen warlord above my own feelings?

Now it was Janne who shrugged. ‘You can’t blame me for being curious about that voyage, not when it brought such changes to all of our lives.’

Kheda ignored the barb. ‘He belonged to a trader in the central domains. I needed someone to help me sail a boat south. Dev was willing to trade his service for a place in my household.’

‘When he didn’t even know you had a household to return to, much less a domain,’ Janne observed, sceptical. ‘What did this trader want in return?’

‘That’s between me and him.’ Kheda realised that Janne’s own faithful shadow was nowhere to be seen. ‘Where’s Birut?’

You don’t want him privy to this conversation. Why might that be?

‘He’s spending some time with Itrac’s Jevin,’ Janne replied easily. ‘I don’t want to see her embarrassed when more demanding guests visit—the Aedis wives, for instance. The boy’s willing but Rekha said he lacks the experience to be serving a first wife. Birut will show him a few things.’

‘You chose Jevin for Itrac,’ Kheda recalled, ‘when we already knew she was the only Chazen wife still living.’

‘We suspected,’ Janne corrected him. ‘We didn’t know for certain that Sekni was dead.’ She held his gaze, eyes dark and impenetrable, her face expressionless even without the concealment of cosmetics. ‘One acts differently when one only suspects, rather than knowing something beyond all doubt. The most important thing was having her guarded, so that no one like Ulla Safar could force her into marriage and claim this domain along with her body’ She paused. ‘So much has happened since then, and so much that was unforeseen.’

‘Foretelling is a warlord’s prerogative,’ said Kheda sharply. ‘You’d better not be interfering with Sirket’s interpretations of the omens.’

‘I do not interfere,’ retorted Janne, piqued. ‘I offer support. I strive for the domain’s good above all else, in the light of whatever Sirket reacts in the earthly or heavenly compasses.’

‘As I strive to see the best path for Chazen, since Daish is closed to me now.’ Kheda pictured the charts of the shifting constellations and heavenly jewels that he’d been drawing all afternoon.

The Spear’s in the arc of marriage now, token of male potency and call to arms, along with the Ruby, talisman for courage. Is that a warning for me, when the heavenly Pearl that is a symbol of Daish rides with the Winged Snake that is symbol of male and female intertwined? They are in the arc where the Emerald talisman of peace and growth presides over omens of good health and a peaceful future. What am Ito make of that?

‘I had so hoped to see Chazen prosper.’ Janne sounded deeply regretful, tracing the silver-edged flowers embroidered on her sleeve with one long-nailed finger. But ill luck seems to stalk this domain.’

‘I take it you’re referring to this dragon?’ challenged Kheda.

Janne took a sudden pace closer, lifting her face towards him, eyes hard, her voice low. ‘Such a portent of evil and coming less than a year after those wild men wrought havoc with their savage sorcery. See what you started, when you brought whatever magic it was you found in the north to defeat the invaders. Did your father teach you nothing? Did you think your actions, alone of all men, wouldn’t have consequences to echo through the days and years to come? You were never so foolish as ruler of Daish, not until you were touched by the corruption of magic. I wish you’d never sailed to Chazen’s aid when the beacons first told of his misfortunes. I hate to think what calamity will befall you next, or these hapless people, all on your account.’

‘At least you made sure none of this misfortune can fall on Daish,’ interrupted Kheda sarcastically, ‘refusing to let Sirket relinquish rule to me, driving me out as you did. You were never a fool, Janne, so why are you talking like one now? What would have become of Daish if I hadn’t found such lore and sailed south with it? Do you think Chazen Saril would have halted the wild men? Don’t you see they’d have swept north to plunder Daish as well?’ He shook his head vehemently. No, Janne, I don’t regret anything I have done. Can you say the same? You saw that Chazen Saril was destroyed by grief and fear but you didn’t help him. You decided to put his life to trial instead. Do you wonder if it was his death in Daish waters that’s blighted your pearl harvest?’

‘I have no doubts that I was right to put Chazen Saril to the ultimate trial,’ Janne said resolutely, folding her arms. ‘I wagered my own life as well as his and yours.’

‘And we’re still standing, so you must have been right?’ Kheda waved an airy hand. ‘I wouldn’t be so confident in your interpretations, Janne. This dragon is an evil, granted, but for the present it’s eating as many of those savages still hiding out in the western isles as it can find. That’s doing Chazen no harm. Would you like to see the dispatches from our triremes confirming that? As for Chazen’s better fortunes,

I think it’s all to their good that I’ve mastered my unreasoning fear of magic and sent an envoy to the north to find out all about this new foe. That barbarian slave of mine recalls tales of such beasts being defeated in the far north. That’s another stroke of luck, isn’t it? You can take some comfort in the fact that my rule will protect Chazen better than Saril’s would have done in the present circumstances.’

‘What have you learned about this dragon?’ Janne demanded.

‘That’s Chazen business and none of Daish’s concern.’ Kheda smiled.

‘You don’t think we’re entitled to worry that the beast will come north?’ queried Janne with mock surprise. ‘When you tell me these wild men would have done just that without your boldness in suborning whatever magic brought them down? Don’t lecture me about shameful deeds, Kheda.’ She turned away to walk slowly around the anteroom, ostensibly studying the ebony and iron-wood corner chests. You could always tell when I was shading the truth, but that was when I seldom lied to you and trusted you with my life. Let’s see how much that has changed along with everything else.

Kheda deliberately smiled more broadly when Janne’s path brought her around to face him once more. ‘I’ll tell you this much: we already know how to contain it, once it has rid us of the savages. We’re seeking a way to kill it. I imagine that’ll be expiation enough to satisfy all our neighbours that the wild men’s magic has been cleansed from Chazen. Blood has always been the ultimate purification for such evil. Who’s to say this dragon isn’t to lead to better things for Chazen in the long run?’

‘You think you can kill it?’ Janne asked, honestly incredulous.

“ You certainly didn’t expect to hear this, did you? What were you expecting?

‘As I said, unforeseen good still follows on from my voyage to the northern domains.’ Kheda leaned back against the wall, hands folded behind him. ‘That slave, Dev, tells of barbarians killing dragons in the unbroken lands. You must have heard that a poet came south with me last year? She’s seeking out such lore.’ He gestured towards the unseen north. ‘We expect her back around the breaking of the rains. The storms can wash the beast’s blood into the seas and Chazen will be set fair for a new beginning.’

‘Yes, I’d heard some poet girl was deep in your confidences. What does Itrac make of that?’ Janne asked with sweet spitefulness. She took a moment, pretending to consider the silver cranes engraved on an alabaster vase. ‘I imagine your poet will find that word of this dragon has gone before her, though. Ill news flies faster than the fleetest courier dove.’

‘And so?’ Kheda prompted coolly. Janne raised her finely shaped eyebrows, disingenuous. Whoever has that lore will look to trade it to best advantage. We both know that.’

‘Then you will be pleased to hear that Chazen is celebrating an abundant pearl harvest,’ Kheda responded blithely. ‘Which is more than merely fortunate—it’s a significant omen; a positive token that we will restore this domain to its former peace and happiness.’

‘And you’re seeking to trade pearls for gems.’ Janne nodded approval. ‘A wise precaution, when you don’t know who you’ll be trading with for this lore. There are always some who prefer jewels. Pearls have their vulnerabilities, not least their finite life.’

/ know that serene smile of old, Janne. You think you’ve got the upper hand here.

‘We’re looking to trade for many things.’ Kheda fashioned a puzzled look. ‘Metals, finished wares of all kinds            ‘

‘But you need gems most of all, for some overriding necessity.’ Janne laced her hands together, studying her scarlet nail polish. ‘I paid my compliments to Itrac Chazen before I came looking for you, naturally. The girl seemed very anxious to set out her negotiating position.’

Leaving you confident that you’ll get everything you want from such an inexperienced girl. A confidence that’s hardly misplaced, let’s be honest.

‘It’s hardly polite for us to discuss your trades with

Chazen in Itrac’s absence. In fact,’ Kheda continued, harsher, ‘it’s hardly appropriate for you to be visiting me in my private chambers before my lady wife and I have welcomed you to our domain with fitting ceremony. You make us look ill-mannered, Janne Daish.’

‘Shall we stop these games?’ Janne folded her arms again, amethyst bracelets rattling. ‘Itrac isn’t up to playing against me—or Rekha, come to that—and well you know it. This isn’t about pots and pans and cloth to cover your people’s nakedness. You need gems, presumably to pay off whatever barbarian has this lore you seek to kill this dragon. I don’t suppose those northerners have the wit to appreciate the true value of pearls.’

She looked at him, face unforgiving. ‘You’re playing the same dangerous game as before, aren’t you? You’ve done it once and you seem to have got away with it. All the same, you don’t want anyone enquiring too closely into just where you might be getting this lore, or whatever it might be that you’re contemplating using against the beast. You certainly don’t want anyone suspecting that you might suborn sorcery against it, not when there are still questions whispered about your unexpected victory against those invaders last year. Not everyone’s convinced by your tale of secret herbs and spices stupefying the savages’ wizards so that you, your slave and your poet could bring them down with poisoned arrows. Don’t worry,’ she assured him pleasantly, ‘I keep my own counsel on all that happened, on all that you admitted to me.’

‘Because all that I did, I did as Daish and you’d be condemned along with me if the truth were known,’ Kheda inten-upted. You’ll continue to keep silent, will you? Just as long as we hand over an abundance of pearls in exchange for some meagre gleanings from the Daish treasury? If you don’t want to play games, Janne, don’t try threatening me.’

‘You misunderstand me, Kheda.’ She looked hurt. Don’t blame me if your guilt pricks you.’

‘What guilt?’ he retorted. ‘I showed Ritsem Caid and Aedis Harl the concoction that we used against the savage mages. I still keep the remains of it in my physic chest. I explained how I learned the secret from Shek Kul in the north, under his seal of secrecy. No one can deny that the northernmost domains have been plagued by wizards from the unbroken lands in the past. It’s not so difficult to believe that they would have found some way to defend themselves. The wild wizards’ bodies were found pierced with arrows and they were most assuredly poisoned.’

‘What set them all fighting among themselves so conveniently?’ countered Janne angrily. ‘So that you and these unattested northerners could pick them off?’

No one knows,’ Kheda shot back at her. ‘And who’s to tell, since they’re all dead? You could spread your suspicions that I somehow inveigled a barbarian mage into their midst, Janne, but you’ve no hope of prooving it since his body was burned to ash with the rest of them. The only way you can condemn me is by admitting your own foreknowledge, with all the grief that would bring down on Daish. No, Janne, your threats are empty and you know it.’

Just as long as you don’t get suspicious about Dev. I really must keep him away from you and Birut. ‘What about this poet of yours?’ Janne challenged. ‘What does she know?’

Nothing, and if she comes to any harm at Daish hands, you’ll regret it for as long as you live.’ Kheda took a pace towards Janne and she saw something in his face that made her shrink back, coming up hard against an ironwood chest. ‘You’re right. Let’s stop these games. What brings you here, so anxious to trade for our pearls, so anxious you’re not even prepared to leave it to Rekha?’

‘I thought I’d do Itrac the honour of dealing with her, first wife to first wife,’ Janne shot back. ‘I thought I’d do this domain the favour of showing all the others that we Daish women consider that the danger of magic has faded. That has to be worth a good deal to you.’

‘That stinks worse than ten-day-old fish.’ Kheda laughed with open disbelief. ‘Rekha must be busy placating Moth Redigal. That’s it, isn’t it? Moth must be agitating for her share in your pearl harvest by now.’ He took another step and leaned over Janne. ‘Every day you delay, the greater the risk that the truth will come out, that everyone will find out that the Daish reefs are barren this year.’

‘Have you told Itrac about the deal with Moth?’ Janne thrust at his chest with a forceful hand. ‘You’ve no qualms about betraying Daish trade secrets to your new wife?’

‘I must do my best for Chazen.’ Kheda allowed himself to be pushed back. You laid that duty upon me.’

‘You seem to forget you’ve a dragon stalking your isles,’ retorted Janne. ‘What will you do for Chazen if I refuse to take your pearls for these gems you’re so anxious to have? You need gems for barbarian lore, or for some barbarian mage you’re relying on to rid you of the beast. Don’t deny it,’ she concluded with malicious satisfaction.

‘I think the dragon’s presence strengthens my hand.’ Kheda smiled cruelly. ‘I told you we can contain it. I’ll share one Chazen secret with you, Janne, for old times’ sake. We can do more than contain it. We know how to lure it from place to place. Why else do you think I’m so confident that we can kill it when we choose?’ He stepped forward to look down on Janne again, this time resisting her attempt to push him away. We could lure it to Daish waters if we felt so inclined.’

‘You wouldn’t!’ Janne stared up at him, aghast.

‘If we don’t have the gems to trade for the lore we need to kill it?’ Kheda leaned forward, his weight resting on his hands, which were set flat on the chest on either side of Janne. What would we have to lose? If I’m to see Chazen lost, after all the pains I’ve suffered for this domain, I’ll take Daish down with me.’

Can I convince you of that? Can I convince you that I hate you so much now that I’d forget my love for my children and my duty to all the innocent people of Daish?

‘Then I want a better price than a few sacks of pearls,’ Janne hissed, ‘if you’re so convinced you can cleanse yourself of all suspicion and free this domain from all taint of magic with the shedding of this dragon’s blood.’ Her breath came fast and shallow.

‘Offer me terms,’ Kheda invited with cold precision.

‘Itrac was very eager to convince me that she is happy in this marriage, that your future will soon be secured in a child.’ Janne stood up, forcing Kheda away. The vase with the silver cranes toppled over to fall and crack into pieces on the floor, the sound startlingly loud within the enclosed space. They both ignored it.

Janne took a pace forward, coming so close that her gown brushed Kheda’s tunic. ‘Too eager. You still haven’t touched her, have you, Kheda? Don’t try lying to me. I know you too well. I know the look in a woman’s eyes when she’s remembering a night in your arms. I don’t see it in Itrac’s face. And I know your taste in women and your scruples. She’s barely older than our eldest daughter and you were never some monster like Ulla Safar to violate hairless girls. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.’ She paused for a moment, eyes closed.

‘So, Kheda, that’s my price. Don’t touch Itrac. Don’t take any acknowledged concubines either. I don’t know if this gossip about you and that poet girl is true—she’s barely older than Itrac after all. I don’t care. Leave her well alone or use your physic chest to make sure she never quickens with a child. Don’t leave the responsibility to her because folly or ambition will win her over some day. If you want Daish gems to save Chazen, then you make sure there’s no child born to this domain. I want only Daish blood to have any claim on Chazen when you die.’

‘Should I beware of any food from your hands, in case you decide to see if that day’s to come sooner rather than later?’ Kheda compelled himself to hold his ground, even though he could feel the taut warmth of Janne’s breasts through the thin layers of silk separating them. Why do you want Daish to claim Chazen, when you’ve condemned us all as tainted with magic?’

‘Don’t you want to see a better future for Chazen?’ Janne’s eyes didn’t move from his face. ‘Sirket’s posterity will be untouched by magic. You’re not, of your own deliberate choice, and neither is Itrac, innocent victim though she’s been in all this. You could secure an untainted future ruler for this domain and free all the domains hereabouts from the fear that echoes of your actions may yet cause disaster in years to come. I want to see Daish free of that burden.’

‘And I would be leaving my son an inheritance to make him the equal of the most powerful lords in these reaches. You know exactly how to tempt me, Janne.’ Kheda still refused to retreat. ‘I might be more convinced if you hadn’t baulked at any action that would have tied Daish to lands so tainted with magic last year. You wouldn’t see Itrac protected by a tactical marriage to Sirket.’

He looked at her with cold contempt. ‘I see your principles aren’t so strong when your pearl harvest fails. You really are desperate to get your hands on the Chazen reefs, aren’t you? You tried to tempt me with Rekha and the children and when that failed, you’ve come to play a harder game. Can I expect to find you slipping into my apartments tonight, to offer ease for my hardness? What’s happened to the Daish reefs? A plague of black prickle-stars eating corals and oysters alike?’

‘You’re telling me that this dragon’s blood will purify this domain.’ Janne stood still, rigid, face upturned to him. ‘If I’m wagering that’s true and that you’ll do what you’re boasting and kill the beast, if I’m staking Daish gems on your word, and Daish’s safety from the creature, I want a worthwhile return.’

‘You still think you’re in a position to dictate terms?’ Kheda prodded Janne’s chest with a hard finger. ‘I’ll tell you what you’ll get and, more importantly, what you won’t get. You’ll get sufficient pearls to conceal the bareness of the Daish reefs for this year and this year alone. You won’t get me scorning Itrac for you or Rekha and having you stake a claim on Chazen through Sirket or any other of my children. On the other hand, you won’t get every boat spreading whispered speculation around every domain within reach about just what the dire omen of the pearl-harvest failure could mean for Daish Sirket’s rule.’

Because I wouldn’t do that to my son. But this is something I’m not going to forgive in a hurry, Janne; you’re fomenting such antagonism between our domains that I cannot offer him the least advice.

Kheda took a breath to cool his anger. ‘In return, I will get sufficient choice gems from the Daish treasury to suit my purposes—and don’t forget, I know exactly what’s in those treasuries, so I’ll tell you exactly which jewels I want. Then you won’t see the dragon plundering those Daish islands that lie nearest to Chazen, so that all our neighbours’ galleys start shunning your waters as well as ours, since they’re stained with magic. As for the future, we’ll let the consequences of all our actions play themselves out. We’ll see just who’s vindicated by omens and events.’

‘Yes, we will. Who knows what the stars to come will reveal.’ Janne whirled around and walked towards the door, the silk of her gown swishing angrily. ‘Are we agreed?’ Kheda demanded harshly. ‘Pearls for gems?’

Janne halted, not looking back at him. ‘And this conversation never happened.’

‘I’ll send Dev to Birut with a list of the gems I require,’ Kheda called as she wrenched the door open and stormed through it. Janne made no response.

‘She didn’t look any too pleased.’ Dev came in from the corridor wearing a crooked smile. ‘Quiet!’ As Kheda walked back into the warlord’s private sitting room, a blur of green and scarlet beyond the high windows caught his eye.

A flurry of fig-thieves erupted from a spread of rustlenut trees on the distant heights that loomed beyond the forbidding outer wall of the fortress. Kheda shaded his eyes with a hand to see a yellow-banded eagle slice through the hysterical flock. Then a second eagle appeared, sending the little birds darting this way and that in terror. The first predator swooped low, wheeling and disappearing into the topmost branches of the copper-leafed trees. Then the second reappeared seemingly out of nowhere to scatter the fig-thieves again. Each eagle flapped its mighty wings and rose high into the air with a plump corpse in its talons.

Kheda caught his breath as a third eagle darted out of a stand of ironwood trees barely visible against the shadows of the high ground. It looked as if it would fly straight into the lower of the original pair, only veering away at the very last second. The startled eagle tumbled ungainly through the air, letting go of its prize. The attacker was ready, stooping to catch the lifeless fig-thief before vanishing into the dark-green gloom. The bereft eagle flapped disconsolately after its mate, venting its rage in a harsh scream. A thread of that mournful, angry cry floated through the air to brush Kheda’s ear. ‘What is it?’ demanded Dev.

‘An omen,’ Kheda said slowly, ‘in the arc of the sky where one looks for portents for the self. What are the stars in that reach of the sky?’ he mused, speaking more to himself than to Dev. ‘It’s the Bowl, still hidden below the horizon, though. Token of shared food and drink, so of mutual support and faithfulness.’

‘Which means what?’ Dev persisted. ‘For you or for

Chazen?’

‘The eagle is a warlord’s symbol,’ Kheda said slowly.

‘So are you the one robbed or the opportunist snatching advantage?’ asked Dev, idly amused. ‘My lord?’ An apologetic knock at the outer door startled warlord and barbarian alike.

‘Tasu?’ Kheda whirled around. ‘There were three eagles, a pair and one other. Three always signifies a potent omen, that much we can be sure of—usually notice of something entirely unexpected, according to my father. What do you have to add?’

The old man advanced through the anteroom. ‘Could you see which birds were cock and which were hen, my lord?’

No,’ said Kheda slowly, ‘which could have been significant. Was that some wiser female robbing an inexperienced younger sister? Can we expect Janne’s rapaciousness to defeat Itrac?’

‘What were the little birds?’ wondered Dev mischievously. ‘Aren’t they all part of this?’

‘My father always said there’s unlooked-for wisdom in chance words.’ Kheda stared at him. ‘You may be right, for all you’re an ignorant barbarian.’

‘That’s me.’ Dev grinned.

Tasu coughed uncertainly at this exchange. ‘Fig-thieves are no innocents, my lord. They’re pests with their incessant sneaking into storehouses and granaries and they foul whatever they don’t plunder. Little short of fire scares them off,’ he concluded thoughtfully. ‘Do you suppose they signify the invaders?’ Kheda wondered. ‘Am I the yellow-banded eagle throwing them all into confusion?’

‘Or is that the dragon?’ asked Dev slyly. ‘Or if you’re the first bird, is it your present wife or your former who’s flying off with a plump dinner?’

‘You’re not really helping.’ Kheda warned Dev off with a scowl.

Or is that more unlooked-for wisdom in an ignorant mouth?

‘This might be some kind of warning.’ Tasu frowned. ‘Such noisy birds carry their alarm to the whole forest. None of those eagles will hunt successfully in these woods today.’

‘Perhaps the eagle is the dragon,’ Kheda said slowly. ‘It’s certainly spreading alarm among the wild men, according to the Mist Dove’s dispatches.’

‘Is there anything in the night skies to make sense of such an omen, my lord?’ Tasu asked humbly.

‘The Diamond, the warlord’s talisman, is sharing the sky with the Sea Serpent, token of unseen forces at work. There’s a warning there but it counsels self-sufficiency as well,’ Kheda mused. ‘And both are in the heavenly arc where one looks for omens for siblings and anyone close through friendship rather than blood.’

Itrac may not he a true wife to me but she must count as close as a sister in this so-called marriage of ours.

‘Is there anything significant in direct opposition?’ prompted Tasu.

‘The Opal,’ Kheda said briefly, ‘which unlocks emotion and rides in the arc of travel and ambition, along with the Sailfish whose self-assured boldness can so easily slip into exaggeration. Maybe that’s why Janne Daish has journeyed here so confident that she’ll secure all she wants,’ he said sourly.

‘What exactly has any of that to do with eagles?’ Dev wondered with spurious innocence. ‘And forgive me, my lord, but we’re supposed to be going to dine with my lady Itrac and our guest from Daish.’

‘Indeed,’ said Kheda heavily. ‘And what a delightful prospect that is.’ He turned to Tasu. ‘What brought you here? Have any more courier doves arrived?’

No, my lord,’ the old man said apologetically. ‘Though I did check right before I came to see you. It’s just I found something about sharks. You said you were curious about their lore, what with the omen—’

‘Yes,’ said Kheda, diverted. ‘What have you found?’

‘There’s this.’ Tasu took a heavy book bound with red-tooled black leather from under his arm and opened it. ‘In an otherwise positive context, a shark can be an encouragement to perseverance.’ He tapped smoothly flowing writing below a detailed portrayal of all manner of sharks. ‘You see, there are sharks, many of them, that must keep swimming otherwise they drown.’ He frowned. ‘Which is a curious fate for a fish. I’m sorry, my lord, it’s not much but it’s all I found. A shark can be a sign that you must just keep on going, keep doing all you can.’

‘Otherwise we’re all sunk,’ said Dev quietly. ‘There might just be something in that.’

Kheda looked at him. We’re doing all we can, aren’t we? I certainly trust Risala to keep going north at best speed.’

‘I’m sure we’re all doing everything we can,’ said Dev meaningfully, ‘whether or not we can see each other doing it.’

‘I’ll bid you good evening, my lord.’ Tasu shut his book with a brisk clap. ‘I wouldn’t want to intrude further.’

‘You’re not and thank you.’ Kheda grinned. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘Good night, my lord.’ Tasu withdrew with a low bow. What now?’ asked Dev tersely. Kheda jerked his head towards the bath chamber. ‘Try again:

The wizard groaned and turned but another knock on the outer door halted him. He went to open it instead.

‘My lord.’ Beyau was twisting his warrior’s hands together with some considerable emotion.

‘I take it we’re ready to offer Janne a dinner to equal any Daish could present?’ Kheda shot Dev a wry look ‘We’ll keep the conversation strictly limited to the food and the seasonings. Itrac will follow my lead there.’

‘It’ll be a splendid meal, my lord, but it’ll just be you and my lady Itrac who will enjoy it.’ Beyau couldn’t keep the indignation out of his voice. ‘My lady Janne Daish has just sent word that she wishes to dine alone in her suite tonight.’

‘Daish courtesy is certainly lessened of late,’ said Kheda with sudden irritation. Then he smiled with patently false sympathy. ‘The exertions of the voyage must have caught up with her. She’s neither as young as she was nor as tireless as she thinks she still is. Make sure our household offers every comfort that a woman of her years might welcome.’

‘I can think of a few suitable things, my lord.’ Beyau chuckled before school